The Hamilton group in front of the base camp sign.

Twenty Hamilton students plus staff are spending spring break hiking to the base camp of Annapurna in Nepal’s Himalaya. It’s an optional part of Professor Maurice Isserman’s course History of the Himalayan Mountaineering. Seniors Keeley Duran and Catherine McFarland are sharing periodic updates of the experience.

Nepal guesthouse
Guest house in Tadapani. Photo: Keeley Duran '22

March 20-26 — A trek to Tadapni, banquet in Pokhara, farewell Himalaya

March 20

Waking up today was a bit more difficult. We were all tired from our push to base camp, and today we’d be retracing our steps to the village of Chhomrong so there were no new sights to excite us today. The good thing was that the whole trek day was very quick, all of us just eager to get somewhere we could rest. Sadly, for us that meant climbing over 2,000 steps up to the guest house before we could put our feet up. The group didn’t let this deter us though. Everyone pushed their way up to our destination in good spirits regardless of the hot sun and our sweaty backs. We went to bed excited for the next day.

March 21

This morning many of us awoke early due to some other guests at the hotel. Though still groggy and a bit vexed, we didn’t let it ruin our day because after two days of trekking familiar routes we were about to begin a new journey. After the first rain of our trip (which we mostly rode out eating lunch), we made our way up into another rainforest-like environment. Our destination, Tadapni, was situated at on the crest of the hill, which meant a climb.

goats nepal 22After some time walking uphill, it seemed that the soreness of our muscles would never leave our minds, but then we heard a sound. Coming up a slight incline we were met by hundreds of goats — in the middle of the woods! There were goats in bushes, goats in trees, goats everywhere we looked! The quiet forest sounds were quickly replaced by the sound of hollering goats. As we moved along the trail they moved with us, their herder taking them along a known route. Our heavy breathing quickly turned into loud laughter. This had to be one of the craziest things we’d seen all trip! After this encounter, the climb was a lot easier, and as we entered a lush rhododendron forest, we completely forgot about the number of stairs we’d been climbing. Tadapni was surrounded by the pink rhododendron trees. The group spent the end of the day playing frisbee and admiring this new environment.

March 22

Our trek to Ghorepani today was beautiful, which balanced out a third day of stair climbing. We spent the morning walking along the base of a valley next to a river, only too aware that at some point we’d have to climb. The incline was steep until lunch and leveled off at the top of a ridge, which we followed until Ghorepani came into view. At lunch we were informed that we would be entering back into the pandemic world. After so many days away from people, we had forgotten what living with COVID was like. It was agreed that the trip was a good break from school, but it was an unexpected break from the pandemic that was much appreciated.

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Dhaulagiri in the distance. Photo: Keeley Duran '22

Ghorepani was clearly a trekkers haven, with multiple guest houses that were more like hotels than any others we’d stayed in. The evening was spent playing games with a sighting of Dhaulagiri in the distance. Unlike the other Himalayan mountains we’d seen in clusters all trip, Dhaulagiri sat alone, elevating its grandeur. Yet another frozen giant catching our eyes and our minds.

March 23

At 4 a.m., we woke up and staggered downstairs for tea. The hope was that we’d climb Poon Hill for a view of the Himalaya at sunrise. Unfortunately, our efforts were in vain. The clouds had descended over the mountains, and for the first time this trip the weather deprived us of a view. We were promised a completely downhill trek today and were not disappointed as it quickly brought us down the foothills. As we went, the number of villagers and trekkers increased exponentially.

At lunch we could see the base of the valley where we were headed. But the last half of the day wouldn’t be easy. Mother Nature hounded us with a downpour and thunder and lighting. On the stone steps it got a bit treacherous, but we pushed on. By the time we got to Hile, we were all sufficiently waterlogged; even our rain jackets couldn’t keep out that much water. The warm tea we got on arrival was a welcome comfort, and our last night on the trail was spent warming up and reflecting on an incredible trip.

March 24-26

After a bumpy Jeep drive to Pokhara, we spent the afternoon shopping and eating before our flight to Kathmandu. In the city we had a group banquet. which was a great way to round off our time together after seeing the city, including the Boudha Stupa. The next day we had till 4 p.m. to shop for souvenirs and eat lunch. The rest of the day, and the day after, were spent on planes and in airports.

Leaving the Himalaya and Nepal behind, we knew the novelty of those mountains would not quickly wash away. There may be more Annapurnas in the lives of man, but it’s hard to believe that any would ever compare to the real one.

March 19-21 — Steep climb, snow fields, and Annapurna base camp

march 19

The morning of our summit was chilly, but it didn’t matter because by the end of the day we were going to be setting up our sleeping bags at Annapurna base camp. Breakfast felt quick as everyone scrambled to prepare their day packs. For the first time on the trip, we had to put on our gaiters and pack our microspikes. It was all becoming real.

The incline started right away, and we all felt the altitude weighing on our lungs. It would be slow going compared to the last few days. Our path took us up the valley next to the river. At a sign for an avalanche risk area, we had to cross over to the right side of the valley. The left wall of the valley is hit by sunlight for most of the day, so some years back the trail was moved across the river to where the ice and snow clinging to the wall wasn’t melting enough to slide.

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Students take a rest at a riverbed. Photo: Keeley Duran '22

We took a break further up the trail where we were crossing the river past the avalanche area. Staring straight up the valley, one of the Himalaya mountains stared down at us, daring us to enter its sanctuary. We pushed on.

After a steep uphill we arrived at Machapuchare base camp (MBC) where we were also greeted by snow. This was also the point where we saw a helicopter come in for landing multiple times, dropping off a group of skiers. Their guide had been skiing in the Himalaya for 20 years, and after a few of us talked with him, the group found themselves seeking out ski trails high up on the white peaks.

The trek between MBC and Annapurna base camp was a gentle slope but completely on a snow field. The usual afternoon fog had rolled in and with our microspikes on we plunged into the white abyss. It was a tough trek; by the end of it many of us had fallen hip deep in the snow and had wet shoes. However, it was all worth it when the fog started to clear and Annapurna revealed herself to us.

At the base camp we were given a panoramic view of the mountain and a warm meal. We couldn’t have been happier or more tired.

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A view of Annapurna from Annapurna base camp. Photo: Keeley Duran '22
March 20

After watching the sunrise reveal a glistening Annapurna, we prepared for our departure. After lacing up our boots we made sure to take a group picture at the Annapurna Base Camp sign to mark our successful “summit.” We then zoomed downhill to MBC, sliding on the ice and snow that we had trudged through just a day prior. After a quick tea, we marched onto Deurali for lunch. We were pleasantly surprised to learn that after the summit, we could begin eating greasy foods — a well-deserved treat.

We sped downhill again to Dovan, stopping just once to watch some monkeys, where we had the ultimate treat — the iconic summit beer. However, the iconic status of the evening only began there. After a scrumptious meal, we played salad bowl as a group (an upgraded version of charades) and laughed until night fell.

March 18 - The trek begins

Unsurprisingly, we found on our third day in Nepal that there are worse places to wake up than in the foothills of the Himalaya. Though all of us had spent a restless night listening to dogs barking, we were all energized for our first full day trek. 

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Day three of trekking. Photo: Keeley Duran '22

On the docket for the day was an ascent to the village of Chhomrong, advancing from 1940 m of elevation in Ghandruk to 2170 m. It took us all of five minutes of trekking to hear a comforting sound from home: Lose Yourself by Eminem. We soon did lose ourselves in the beauty of the valley and fell into the rhythm of trekking. A big help was the addition of two wild dogs, Bing and Bong, that joined us just outside Ghandruk. We learned that these wild dogs have territories that they patrol every day leading them to accompany many trekkers between villages. 

Leaving Ghandruk we traveled downhill, but when we reached the road that connects many of the foothill villages, that changed. As we climbed, Annapurna South, which had hidden itself as we descended, began to peek over Kimrong Hill. Atop the hill we had a quick stop for tea. This would be greatly appreciated as we made our way down the steep switchbacks into the river valley below. 

At the base of the valley, we could see our lunch destination, but in order to get there we had to cross a river. After forging our own path across the Kimrong, we enjoyed some Dhal Bat. While feasting we watched our porters ascend the steep valley wall and realized we would soon do the same. We slowly followed their lead as the sun beat down on us; our first day of trekking proved to be a challenge. However, lively conversation and the introduction of the game Contact allowed us to pass the time as we ascended hundreds of stairs. 

Our arrival at Chhomrong was blissful, as was the spectacular view from the porch. We were treated to pizza and some yoga. After a few rounds of Bananagrams, we went to bed to prepare for another big climb. 

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Views of Annapurna South and Fishtail on second day of trekking. Photo: Keeley Duran '22

Preparing to climb from 2170 m to 2605, we scarfed down our breakfast on the porch in the morning, appreciating the sunbeams splaying across the faces of Annapurna South and Fishtail. The first part of the journey saw us descend into the valley that held Chhomrong. Surrounded by a lush green valley, the snowy peaks of the Himalayas stood in stark contrast. On this day we found that the trekking, even as we began climbing out of the valley, was easier. Possibly the best part of this trek was the conversation that flowed easily among groups. As we advanced, these groups would morph and change allowing new conversations to start. Our group was really starting to get to know each other. A group of classmates was turning into an expedition team.

making bracelets in Nepal
Making bracelets at Doran. Photo: Keeley Duran '22

A break taken overlooking the valley allowed us a sweet interaction with a local boy who showed us his bicycle and loved looking at the various watches our crew possessed.

Our lunch was in Bamboo, accurately named as it was located in a bamboo forest. It was at this stop that the group decided to let those of us who desired a solo hike to finish off their day with just that. After eating, the guides separated up the trail, now entering a rainforest-like environment, to keep everyone going in the right direction. It was a peaceful end to our day as we all rolled into Dovan, where we all come back together to make bracelets, play games, and eat. We were fully into the valley now.

monkeys in Nepal
Some monkeys keep tabs on the students between Dureli and Dovan. Photo: Keeley Duran '22

The next morning, after some sweet tea, the group became entranced by some monkeys swinging among trees across the way. However, we traded our binoculars for sunglasses and set off toward Deurali, our last village before base camp. While we left some animals behind, we found another dog friend, Bamboo, who joined us on our journey through the rainforest. While most of our days have been uphill climbs, today our altitude increased substantially from 2605 m to 3250. We scaled stairs, steps, and stones as we crept up the mountain until we finally broke the tree line toward snow-covered ground. We crossed a snowfield toward a gushing snow-crested waterfall, one of many we passed. Almost as striking as the number of waterfalls was the number of fellow trekkers we saw for the first time today.

After breaking the tree line, we broke the skyline into Deurali, which is quite literally in the clouds. After another hearty lunch of Dhal Bat, which one of our guides jokingly calls “Dhal Bat Power, 24 Hour,” we got back into our competitive Bananagram games. Then we headed to bed early.

Our summit awaits tomorrow. 

March 15 - Touchdown in Nepal

On an airfield in Pokhara, Nepal, surrounded by mountains, 48 hours of travel that started a world away was about to culminate in the greatest adventure of a lifetime. The hot midday sun was so far removed from the Clinton, N.Y., snow we had left behind that it was almost a shock to the system. 

After weeks of tears and cheers, waiting to hear whether our trip would proceed [due to COVID restrictions], at last on Wednesday afternoon only cheers remained. We set off at 3 a.m., and three buses later, we arrived at JFK. Fourteen hours later, we landed in Dubai for a brief stopover.

From Dubai we flew to Nepal. This flight was the first moment that the frozen giants of the Himalaya appeared to us. For those on the northward-facing side of the plane, the icy summits appeared out of the clouds. For those facing the south, the Himalayas would remain only something we’d read about in class until the next day’s flight to Pokhara.

Kathmandu’s small airport stood in stark contrast to JFK and the Dubai airport, but in the Nepali sunset no one was thinking about scale. We were just happy to have arrived. Our ride from the airport through Kathmandu was incredible as we saw a culture so different from the one we had left behind. When we finally got to the hotel, the anticipation for the journey to come and our exhaustion got us to bed early.

The next day’s 30-minute plane ride to Pokhara finally revealed the Himalayas to the entire group, and with the reveal came the realization that we were about to embark into those mountains.

We hopped off the plane and into Jeeps toward Kimche village, speeding up and down the foothills and inching closer and closer to the looming Fishtail peak. In a valley, we paused to admire a rushing river with crystal clear mountain water before zooming up the final dusty roads to lunch. 

Following lunch with a beautiful view of Fishtail we began the first trek of the trip. After just 10 minutes of walking, we turned a bend and Annapurna South revealed itself to us. Perhaps as captivating as the mountains we saw were the animals we passed. Yaks, goats, and wild dogs were all spotted on our trip to Ghandruk. As we got closer to the village, we teetered over a suspension bridge, provided by the Gurkha army, at whose home we were about to spend the night. Our view from the Breeze guesthouse allowed us to see the Giant Fishtail, Annapurna South, and Machapuchare and a basketball court down below. After playing hoops with some locals, we headed back up the hill for bed. Going to bed that night, the desire to get closer to those distant giants pulled in our minds. The adventure had begun.

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