David Skipwith is the Herald's rugby league reporter

Himalaya: On top of the world

Self-confessed malingerer David Skipwith finds the fortitude to tackle the world’s biggest mountains.
The Himalayas. Photo / 123RF
The Himalayas. Photo / 123RF

Trekking through the Himalayas was never a life-long goal of mine.

Truth be told, I've never been a huge fan of the outdoors.

In my last year of high school I faked a rugby injury " strained ankle ligaments, from memory " to get out of a geography class excursion to the Tongariro Crossing.

That was 1994. Since then I've happily done little regular exercise and absolutely nothing resembling hiking and camping.

And yet 20 years after thumbing my nose at everything that one of our great national parks had to offer, when gifted the once-in-a-lifetime chance to embark on a World Expeditions media trek through the Annapurna region in the Himalayas, I felt there was no choice but to accept.

I didn't so much leap at the chance, however, and went largely in spite of myself, if I'm completely honest.

Aside from my own perceived physical limitations I'd never had a burning desire to travel to that part of the world, nor had I ever visited a developing country.

How would I cope? There would be no bullshit excuses this time.

Nine days of introductory and moderate trekking to just under 4000m had me greatly concerned.

But if I was going to get through it, staying in individual tents or cabins at permanent camp sites and environmentally friendly eco lodges, with all meals prepared by Nepalese chefs, seemed the best way to go about it.

We were accompanied by Sherpa guides and several porters who hauled our main bags, leaving each of us to carry only our day packs, which was terrific but completely emasculating.

I had only three weeks to prepare and, although I was never going to get any proper conditioning in beforehand, I began running every second day, as a token gesture.

By the time I departed I could jog non-stop for an hour, which I thought was pretty impressive, considering my history of inactivity.

Armed with this shallow base fitness and a brittle can-do attitude, I left Auckland on China Southern Air and arrived in Kathmandu via a stopover in Guangzhou, China.

The bustling Nepalese capital can easily overwhelm but its colourful cultural and religious diversity offers plenty of intrigue and provided a fun and vibrant setting in which I met my trekking companions.

Pleasantries were exchanged over an introductory beer before heading out for a traditional Nepalese meal - rice, meat and assorted vege dishes.

The following day we explored temples, starting with the Hindu Pashupatinath Temple, which dates back to 400 AD, one of the seven monument groups in Unesco's designation of Kathmandu Valley as a cultural heritage site.

There is plenty to see and take in, but the most eye-opening sights lay towards the river banks where the air became thick with smoke from two funeral pyres.

Grieving relatives surround each pyre, overseeing the traditional cremation process, with the ashes crumbling into the river below.

We continued to the Buddhist stupa of Boudhanath, another World Heritage site since 1979, and one of Kathmandu's most popular tourist areas.

The atmosphere was noticeably lighter and more optimistic than the deathly scene we'd witnessed earlier, and the contrast between Hindu and Buddhist beliefs was stark.

The following day we made the short flight to Pokhara, Nepal's second largest town, home to clear views of the Annapurna Range and the launching pad for our trek.

A bus ride takes us to a pass between two river valleys and from a nondescript rural road stop we begin our journey on foot, heading from 820m for the ridge-top village of Dhampus at 1990m.

The early afternoon sun is beating down as the fun begins with almost two hours of stone steps and steep energy-sapping trails before easing up through scenic farm land and bamboo fields.

The taxing start was an early wake-up call as I battled with the pace before our group settled into a comfortable order, relevant to experience and eagerness.

Our trail steered through small villages, past farm houses and gardens, with friendly locals and school children offering "namastes".

Reaching our eco lodge, the scale of our mountainous surrounds became vividly apparent, with Machapuchare (6993m), Hiunchuli (6441m) and Annapurna South (7219m) all prominent in our view.

I appear to be alone in feeling completely bloody exhausted, but am pleasantly surprised to find I have a large room with a comfortable double bed and adjoining bathroom and shower.

World Expeditions' network of campsites and eco lodges is managed with the involvement of local families and adheres to strict environmental standards while providing travellers with increased levels of comfort.

Popular teahouses and lodge-based treks rely on burning wood for cooking and heating, but World Expeditions sites burn eco-friendly yak dung and kerosene, in an effort to curb the disastrous effects of deforestation.

After afternoon tea and biscuits and downtime, a few of us gathered in what would become a evening ritual, sharing in the stunning views and sunsets together with some well-priced Everest beer.

Knowing things would get tougher tomorrow, I headed to bed soon after devouring our Indian-style dahl dinner and pear and rice pudding.

A beautiful mountain sunrise provided the backdrop for a hearty breakfast of porridge, fried eggs and pancakes before we headed off along a rhododendron forest trail that led through a series of Gurung villages seemingly unaffected by modern life.

The trek was evenly paced but the heat took its toll over three hours before we stretched out under shade to enjoy a relaxed lunch prepared in advance by our capable chefs.

The afternoon portions of our trek were shorter, but two more hours climbing dry and dusty trails left me wrecked before we arrived at the prosperous village of Landruk (1640m), our camp for the night.

The towering Annapurna South loomed large at the end of a long valley we would cross the next day, heading cross the valley to the Gurung village of Gandruk.

Getting there however required a difficult descent through idyllic rice terraces before crossing a steel bridge spanning the glacial river of the Modi Khola.

Going downhill was tougher than the other direction and after two hours my aching legs were crying out for relief.

But we soon turned upwards once more, via rocky staircases that led through more farmland and small villages, and past donkeys weighed down by crates of beer and other supplies, before arriving at our tent village.

Snow was never meant to feature directly in our trek but on our fourth day it did just that. The weather turned wet and the white stuff began to layer the ground half a metre deep.

Visibility beyond 5m became an issue and stress levels rose as we continued climbing, navigating icy paths 30cm wide flanked by sheer 200-300m drops.

The freezing conditions together with a steep rise in altitude can play tricks on the inexperienced climber, and after arriving at our snow-covered tent campsite at Bhaisi Kharka at just under 3500m, I collapsed, feeling the ravaging effects of dehydration.

I got through dinner but was only interested in hopping into my sleeping bag. Daunted, I hoped a night of good sleep would prepare me for another climbing trek tomorrow.

We set off at the civilised time of 8am, our snow covered landscape meaning we were plunging up to our knees or waist with every lurching step. It quickly became apparent that our most difficult trekking remained ahead of us.

Thankfully the weather took mercy and sunshine accompanied us as we climbed to the eco-lodge atop Kopra Ridge, at 3660m.

Dhaulagiri dominates the view here and towers above the world's deepest gorge, the Kali Gandakhi, yet I was more excited to have cellphone reception, which enabled me to learn the Warriors had beaten the Canberra Raiders 24 hours earlier.

Standing above the clouds, and looking down on the world below, I wondered how far my conditioned quads could launch a torpedo spiral kick, as the rugby league theme stayed with me for the afternoon.

I was privately elated that the unexpected snowfall had ruined plans for a further 11-hour hike up to the isolated Kaire Lake, and I gleefully embraced the opportunity for an afternoon nap and relaxing evening in front of the stove fire.

The following morning we began our steep descent along the ridge line towards the Kali Gandaki, passing shrines pilgrims use on their annual visit to the sacred lakes above.

A final night's camping in tents at the rural village of Swantha, back down at 2400m, brightened my physical state and the following day entailed an arduous jeep ride out of the mountains and back to the hustle and bustle of Pokhara. Only as the journey ended did I finally feel conditioned to the trekking and I must admit to being pretty pleased with myself.

Back home, I'm not bold enough to declare myself a converted fan of the great outdoors, but I feel a sense of accomplishment for what I've been able to achieve. Next year, I tell myself, I might tackle the Tongariro Crossing.

Checklist

GETTING THERE
16 Day Ultimate Annapurna Dhaulagiri from NZD $3150 per person; 15 day Trek Annapurna and Everest from NZD $3850 per person.worldexpeditions.co.nz

- NZ Herald

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