This past fall I returned to Nepal, thirty seven years after my first visit in 1982. Much has changed over the years - thousands of trekkers today versus perhaps a few hundred back then, widespread accommodation in places that before were uninhabited, wifi, hot showers, espresso, etc - yet the majestic Himalayan landscape and the kindness of the Nepalese people were exactly as I remember them from before. Perhaps the most gratifying aspect of world travel is the people you'll meet along the way, locals and visitors alike. These human interactions are the heart and soul of adventure travel, making brief connections with those we'll likely never meet again but returning home with memories that last forever. And when you meet the children of Nepal along the trail - shy yet confident, innocent yet fiercely protective, full of joy yet already burdened by a life of hardship - they'll bring a smile to your face and restore any lost faith in humanity.
During five weeks I completed three very different itineraries totalling two hundred trekking kilometers with an overall elevation gain of 18,000 meters. My first destination, the wildly popular Annapurna Base Camp trek, is an easy to moderate trek that takes approximately one week to complete. There are comfortable accommodations offering a wide variety of amenities from the very first day all the way to base camp at 4130 meters, one reason many opt for this popular trek. Jaw-dropping scenery is your constant companion each day, with deep, steep and mysterious valleys - the pathways to the giants - that culminate below the immense, three thousand meter south face of Annapurna South and the West Face of sacred and unclimbed Machhupuchhre. These are once-in-a-lifetime views that anyone can appreciate.
My primary motivation for returning to Nepal was to follow the original approach route taken by the 1950 French Expedition that made the first ascent of an eight thousand meter peak, without supplemental oxygen or reliable maps, and on their first attempt of a mountain that had never before been explored. The subsequent account 'Annapurna: First Conquest of an 8000-meter Peak' by expedition leader Maurice Herzog is today the best selling mountaineering book of all time, an epic yet controversial account which adds further mystique to the region on both sides of the Kali Gandaki, the deepest canyon in the world.
I set out on the 16-day Dhaulagiri Circuit - considered one of the most difficult treks in Nepal due to its remoteness, altitude gain and exposed sections of trail that would likely be treacherous during bad weather or after heavy snowfall - in late November, with one guide and two porters, to explore the Dhaulagiri Region directly across the Kali Gandaki Valley from the Annapurna Massif. Compared to most treks in Nepal it's necessary to bivouac for at least five days, sometimes at high altitude where no villages exist, and to carry the necessary provisions, an anomaly when tea houses are prevalent on nearly all other itineraries.
We were extremely fortunate with the weather, but perhaps even more so for the total absence of others on the route - we had the entire valley and upper plateau on the opposite side of French Col to ourselves until the final day during the descent to the village of Marpha in the Mustang Region. I later learned that we had been given the final 2019 permit for the Dhaulagiri Circuit, which helped explain our good fortune. If you're interested in escaping to a region of the Himalaya which today remains nearly untouched by tourism en masse, I highly recommend the Dhaulagiri Circuit, particularly in late autumn between mid November and December, when climbing expeditions and other trekkers have finished for the season.
My third and final destination was the popular Poon Hill Trek, one of the best locations in Nepal to watch the sunrise on Dhaulagiri I, seventh highest mountain in the world, the Annapurna Massif and Machhupuchhre. This is a short and relatively easy itinerary, just 3-5 days with a little over 2000 meters of elevation gain, with full amenities beginning to end. Arrive well before sunrise and watch the landscape transform as stars disappear from view and alpenglow begins to paint the Himalaya.
So much attention is often dedicated to the end goal, yet from day one the approach march through lower-elevation hill country provides unique opportunities to capture village life that's seemingly timeless, where the relationship with nature, time and materials is completely different than our own. This is where the heart of the Himalaya resides, among the strong and vibrant people that are truly representative of the magnificent landscape around them, where traditions and customs have endured for centuries.