This past fall I returned to Nepal for the third time, thirty seven years after my first visit in 1982. Much had changed since my last visit in 1990, when tourism en mass was still developing - thousands of trekkers today versus perhaps a few dozen back then, widespread accommodation, wifi, hot showers, espresso, etc - yet the majestic Himalayan landscape and the kindness of the Nepalese people were exactly as I remember them from my first trip. Perhaps the most gratifying aspect of traveling is the people you'll meet along the way, locals and visitors alike. These 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.
There’s something special about experiencing the Himalaya at a leisurely pace, each day taking in new terrain with few distractions or expectations, to fully enjoy the serenity and serendipity of adventure travel. I discovered that, compared to forty years ago, this is really only possible in Nepal today as a solo traveler or with a small group of friends traveling in relatively remote, isolated areas that lack most western conveniences. In places such as these there's an opportunity to witness firsthand customs that haven’t changed for centuries, where the relationship with nature, time and materials is completely different than our own. The four women pictured below work for hours each day threshing millet by hand following the harvest, yet you’d never know their hard efforts from their friendly smiles and cheerful laughter. Watching them interact I found myself feeling envious of their relatively uncomplicated life here in the hill country below Dhaulagiri and at the same time questioning mine back home in the so-called civilised world.
So much attention is often dedicated to the end goal, yet from day one the approach march provides incredible opportunities to capture the hill country and village life that remain in some places virtually unchanged for centuries. For me personally this is where the heart of the Himalaya resides, among the strong and vibrant people that are fully representative of the landscape around them.
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 route that takes around one week to complete. There are full accommodations with a wide variety of amenities from the very first day at Nayapul (elev. 1070m) all the way to base camp, one reason many opt for this popular trek. Jaw-dropping scenery is your constant companion along the entire route, from the Himalayan valleys, profoundly deep, steep and mysterious - the pathways to the giants - culminating at base camp (4130m) located 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 motivation for returning again to Nepal was two-fold: to witness the many changes having occurred during three decades, and to also follow sections of the original approach route taken by the 1950 French Expedition that made the first ascent of an eight thousand meter peak, without supplemental oxygen 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.
For my second itinerary I set out to explore the Dhaulagiri Region directly across the Kali Gandaki Valley from the Annapurna Massif. With only a guide (required for this route) and two porters we began the 16-day Dhaulagiri Circuit, one of the most difficult treks in Nepal due to remoteness and isolation, altitude gain (4400m) and exposed sections of trail that could be treacherous during bad weather or after heavy snowfall. In 2016, a Dutch climber attempted to return alone to Italian Base Camp from Dhaulagiri Base Camp, normally a one day traverse on rock-strewn Chhonbardan Glacier followed by an exposed canyon traverse before crossing the massive debris zone below the west face of Dhaulagiri I. He hasn't been seen or heard from since.
What also distinguishes this trek from others in Nepal is the necessity to bivouac for up to a week 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. During two weeks in late November 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 to ourselves until the final day during the descent to the village of Marpha in the Mustang Region. I later learned that we had attained 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 easy itinerary, just 3-5 days with a little over 2000 meters of elevation gain. Arrive well before sunrise and watch the landscape transform as stars disappear from view and alpenglow begins to paint the Himalaya.