A thunderstorm. In February? Indeed, this is how we were welcomed to the Annapurna Sanctuary in central Nepal about a month ago: with rolling thunder, echoing off the mountains; bright lightning striking too close for comfort; and heavy rain that turned to sleet and then wet and heavy snow, as we trekked higher and higher. The beauty of such storms is the aftermath – the snow, frosting all the trees, turns the landscape into an incredible winter wonderland. The silence is deafening. And, when the sun comes out, everything begins to sparkle – as well as plop on your head from the trees above!
The variable weather definitely reminded me of home – of Colorado, where you can experience all four seasons in one day. You have to be prepared for anything. Indeed, that has been the motto for this year abroad. From a lingering monsoon in late September, to a cyclone in mid-October, to a storm on the seas near Thailand late November, and to a blizzard in December during the Glacier Olympics, nature has certainly wreaked havoc with my plans. So, I really wasn’t surprised that it happened yet again.
The weather improved over the next few days, affording us beautiful views of the Annapurna massif and the famous Fishtail (Machhapuchhre) mountain. The trails were new for me, so I had no idea how long our days would be – or how difficult (steep). This was refreshing, as, by now, my heart sinks every time I am faced with the prospect of the very steep trail from Namche Bazar (the Sherpa capital of the Khumbu) to Dole, on my way to my main research sites on the Ngozumpa glacier near Gokyo village.
The Annapurna region is different from the Khumbu in a few key ways. Given the lower altitude, there are no yaks and thus, no yak-dung burning for warmth in the evenings. Fires burn lower down but, above tree level, the only option is a portable gas heater, which is placed under the table. This costs 150 Rs. (about $1.50) per person, so everyone has to agree to have the heater. On cold nights, there is no question.
I was surprised at how much of the route is accessible via road. It is much easier for food and supplies to be transported to the villages, unlike in the Khumbu where porters carry heavy loads for days. But on the environmental side of things, vehicles kick up more dust and release black carbon (soot) into the air much closer to the glaciers, aiding in their decline. Access to new “junk food” leads to more trash – e.g., coke bottles – along trail, too.
Above a certain altitude in the Annapurna Sanctuary, bottled water is no longer allowed, given the trash generated. This is a step in the right direction, yet bottled soda and canned beer is still allowed. The Khumbu has yet to introduce any regulation. If you have ever smelled burning plastic, it is pretty terrible. I have seen the black smoke from village trash pits drifting towards the mountains high in the Khumbu, as well as yaks and horses eating discarded bottles and cardboard boxes. Surely, something should be done about this for the sake of the health of people, animals, and environment alike.
After days of walking uphill, we finally arrived to the Sanctuary, or, Annapurna base camp (ABC). It is easy to see how it got its name. The mountains are so close and they envelop you on all sides. You feel protected in this bowl. However, the steepness of the surrounding terrain does make the trails to get here more hazardous than in the Khumbu. Avalanche danger can run quite high, so it is important to travel early in the day.
At ABC, Michael Coote, an American Climber Science Program volunteer, and Nima Sherpa, a Sherpa-Scientist trainee, attempted to get down to the lower Annapurna South glacier, while I scouted from above along the lateral moraine. Progress was incredibly slow with the recent snowfall. Given this was the climbing off-season, our sampling target Tharpu Chuli was out of the question. Simply breaking trail to its base camp would be exhausting, backbreaking work. Instead, we climbed along the higher Annapurna South glacier on some pretty steep terrain, taking photos along the way and collecting snow samples and GPS points from different elevations. The point was to compare these snow samples with those collected in the Khumbu, in the search for black carbon.
We had a very short window for this work, as during the day lenticular clouds appeared over the mountains, indicating possible unsettled weather ahead. Indeed, that night clouds rolled up the valley and it did not stop snowing until late the next day. We took the opportunity to sample the fresh snow as it fell. Snow that settles on the ground for a while mixes its contaminants – that which fell with the snow from the atmosphere and any wind-blown dust. Fresh snow “sweeps” contaminants out of the atmosphere and can be used as a proxy for how “clean” the air was (or wasn’t) prior to the storm.
By lunchtime, the blizzard was not clearing but we decided we should get a move on lest we get snowed in. Walking down was a surreal experience – getting coated head to toe in snow and being able to see only about 100 feet around you. I felt as if I was in a real live snowglobe. Down and down we went, on slippery trails, wishing luck to those still attempting to get to ABC in deteriorating conditions. Lower down, the snow turned to graupel that, at high speeds, can sting when striking your head and hands. After a few hours of this, we decided to stop for the night. Everything was damp but, being at lower elevation, it was not terribly cold. That night, sitting around the table eating hot food, enjoying the heater beneath the table, and watching the clouds yet again overtake the valley, I was grateful that we got down safely.
The next morning was an early start. I had terribly cold feet as I was wearing only trailrunners. Given the steepness of the valleys, it takes quite a while for the sun to reach down to the trails. Yet these shoes were preferred to my mountaineering boots given the rocky muddy trail, a testament to multiple freeze-thaw cycles throughout the past week. About an hour into the trek down, we encountered a massive avalanche slide across the trail. Big blocks, some as big as me, of snow, ice and rock had violently swept down from above sometime in the morning as the sun rose. The storm earlier in the week, coupled with sun for a few days, and then fresh snowfall two days before with melting in between made conditions ripe for an avalanche. It was the first one I had seen up close and we did not linger, except to take a few documentation photos.
Overall, I found the trails in the Annapurna region more challenging than the Khumbu given the amount of up and down in any given day. Lower altitude, though, did make it easier on the lungs. Before heading back to the city of Pokhara, we enjoyed some hot springs along the way and learned about the Gurung people in Ghandruk village, our last stop. It was nice to see and experience a different part of Nepal. Sometimes when I work in the same place for a long time, I take for granted the beauty around me. The Annapurna Sanctuary reawakened my senses, reminding me that nature needs to be respected, as it can be unpredictable and unforgiving. This reminder I carry with me as I set off for the 4th highest peak in the world, Mt. Lhotse, later this week.