The Obstacle Is The Path

Annapurna, Nepal
November 24 – December 1

Himalayan A Team

With our suntans only just beginning to peel from our week in Thailand’s south, we arrived in Nepal, the highest country in the world, if you don’t include Tibet. Katmandu’s (or “Captain Do” as Ollie would say) dusty warrens spiraled outward from Durbar Square, and amid teak pagodas and smoking saddhus, we glimpsed the sacred Kumari, a three-year old “living goddess” who lives cloistered away in a dark courtyard. Like all other Nepalis, we quickly became accustomed to sipping tea by candlelight when at 6:30pm sharp, all the lights across the country went out in a government-backed effort to conserve the country’s feeble power grid. We stumbled around this city for a few days, slipping in and out of the small tourist enclave that is Thamel, where we dodged touts offering deals on rip-off North Face gear, until I came down with a particularly nasty bout of hemorrhagic conjunctivitis from the dust billowing up in the streets. For a little more than a pocket of loose change, I saw one of the country’s top opthamological surgeons at an NGO and was prescribed a regimen of drops and ointments. Red-eyed and resolute, we set out west for Pokhara and the gateway to the Annapurna range.

Like many travelers who aim to trek in the Himalaya, we outfitted ourselves with a guide and porter. Bhimsen (the guide) and Bharat (the porter) were both men from the hills and therefore lacking all the flash of their Kathmandu brothers. Bhimsen in particular had a gentle way with Oliver. Already a father of two, he forever scanned our perimeter and caught Ollie once when he decided to leap off a flight of granite steps.

Day 1: We departed Pokhara for Nayapul via local bus. When asked, Bhimsen confided that tourists almost never choose to travel this way and always opt instead to pay a private taxi $15 for the 1.5 hour long ride through the mountains. Indeed, nearly an hour into the trip and we were still in the outskirts of Pokhara, picking up locals bearing porter’s baskets and tump lines, barrels of fish and cardboard boxes containing everything but the kitchen sink. The seats were barely bolted to the floor and we rocked back and forth wildly as the bus swerved around hairpin turns in the mountain. Goofy Bollywood tunes trickled out of a tinny speaker bubblegum-glued over the driver’s seat. As is his custom, Oliver pooped his pants roughly four minutes into the ride and Ryan and I were buffeted by the awful-smelling breeze that blew from the bus window to Ollie‘s pants and straight up to our faces. All the while, various mountain people boarded and disembarked; Magyars, Gurungs, Tamangs, and Thakalis. The Hindus of Kathmandu gave way to the Tibetan-looking people of the hills.

Finally we arrived and set out, making our way for the village of Tikkhedhunga where we would spend our first night on trail. The path was loosely paved with large granite slabs and we brushed shoulders with errant water buffalo, goats and caravans of pack ponies. Ollie saluted approaching men and animals alike with a spirited “Namas-te!“ and the late-autumn sun was soft and warm on fields of winter barley. With the snowfields of sacred Macchapuchare before us, the path through the valley and foothills was exhilarating.

Two hours in, we encounterd a British Ghorka returning for the first time in 14 years to his home village. The Ghorkas are a famous and feared sect of highly trained Nepali soldiers who, under King Malla’s reign in the 18th century, united Nepal’s separate warring states and forced the adoption of the Newari official language. During the Indian Uprising in the 19th century, they became mercenaries of the British Army, and with their curved Kukri daggers, they silenced many a Sepoy. In recent times, the Ghorkas form an elite foreign legion of the British military, and many earn their citizenship and their fortunes abroad. In the mountains, many bridges, guesthouses and water conduits are Ghorka-financed, and it was clear that this fellow was a patron to his village. He and his family were met by group of musicians and, as we marched alongside in awe, the panche baja escorted them all the way to his homecoming.

Day 2: Full of muesli and banana pancakes, we set out for eight hours of our first day of strenuous hiking. Before the day’s end, we would climb nearly 4,264 feet for an elevation of 9,020 feet in the mountain village of Ghorepani. We began ascending the moment we stepped outside. Step by careful step, we made our way to Ulleri, where views of Annapurna South and Huinchuli stretched vertically in front of us. The snow mountains appeared so close through the hills; swirls of snow blown off of their summits formed wispy halos around their peaks.

We climbed another few hundred meters and passed through a cloud forest. Ollie maintained a sharp lookout for tigers, and I could barely keep my imagination from ricocheting off the next tree; visions of yeti and snow leopards leaping from behind the moss-dripping, mist shrouded woods occupied my every thought. We continued following the Pancha River as it ran in rivulets down the mountain and spilled over stones into cold, clear pools below. Ollie, whose energy was unflagging, was carefully monitored for signs of AMS (Acute Mountain Sickness), though he never showed signs of exhaustion or breathlessness. Those were left to us!

Nepali-style winter woolies

After nearly four grueling miles and 3,936 feet uphill, we arrived in Ghorepani, a trekkers’ outpost where five or six teahouses advertised hot showers and chicken dinners. As it was already Thanksgiving for us, we of course opted for the latter, which was served with fresh steamed mountain vegetables and mashed potatoes topped with yak cheese. Harkening back to the Thanksgiving dinners I used to share with Italian family friends in Connecticut, we ordered Ollie a plate of lasagna which he polished off like a champ. And though it could never hold a candle to my mother’s special recipe, we put away a enormous slice of apple pie in the grand spirit of the holiday. We ended the evening curled up like bears in a winter’s den, piled high with blankets, jackets, wool caps and socks against the cold. Our sore muscles would be tested again early the following morning when we rise at 4:30 AM to see the sunrise light the Annapurna range from the vantage point on Poon Hill.

Day 3: Up before dawn with Bhimsen’s 4:45am knock at our door. I made the executive decision to leave Ollie sound asleep in our room where I knew he would remain safe and warm until our return. For extra assurance, Bhimsen asked our porter if he wouldn’t mind keeping an eye and an ear open after 6:00am when Ollie is likely to stir.

5:00am, out the door. As families across the United States sat down to their Thanksgiving dinners, Ryan and I began the 1,476 foot climb up Poon Hill in complete darkness and bone-chilling cold. Twenty minutes into the ascent, I felt a blast of frigid air as we rounded the eastern side of the hill and I falsely assumed we must be nearing the summit. In actuality, we were not even at the half-way point. The approaching sunrise formed a scarlet meridian in the eastern sky towards Kathmandu and we continued ever upwards under the faint beam of my pocket flashlight. Japanese, Germans, Finns, Spaniards and all other bleary-eyed travelers from far-away lands formed a silent caravan up the hill, all making the same pilgrimage to witness the day break over the snow mountains. Near the summit, we passed a woman covered in sweat, shivering violently and slurring her speech; all symptoms of AMS. As they rushed her down to a lower elevation, her party shined a flashlight in her eyes and forced her to drink water.

Nearing 6:00am, the Annapurna range comes to life. Plumes of snow silently lift off Annapurna South and the sun’s first rays arc off its eastern face, bathing it in a rose-gold light. Behind, on the far side of the Sanctuary, Annapurna I, the goliath of the range at 26,700 feet, is already illuminated.

Machhapuchare, the "Fish Tail"

My eyes scan to the west. Tilicho, Nilgiri, and finally the great Dhaulagiri rise over the ravine of the dark and wild Kali Gandaki and lord over Nepal’s far western frontier. Broad ridges and glittering snowfields flank either side of Dhaulagiri, and the mountain ensures few travelers venture farther beyond. Returning east again, there is Nepal’s holiest mountain. The razor’s edge of Macchapuchare (the “Fishtail”) is so steep that its peak holds hardly any snow. Even with cold-numbed toes, it is nearly impossible not to be awe-struck while in the company of these giants. Across all the eastern faces, the snow mountains shift their shade of pre-dawn periwinkle blue to lavender, then to rose-pink and finally to gold. The layer of mist floating above the escarpment below appears to be made from sacred elements of ether and water, and they form an atmospheric gossamer fit to dress these high kings.

Day 4: 8,528 feet above sea level, and the cloud forest was clear in the morning light. A troop of Himalayan gray langurs stopped to watch us pass and followed us for a bit from the treetops, their silver coats and wide-eyed black and white faces melding in and out of the shadows. We picked our way gingerly down the mountain, testing for loose stones and gravel that would not hold a boot. With our calves throbbing and ACLs near their breaking point, we moved far slower and less gracefully than the 10,000 pounds of water buffalo family that preceded us. Along the path we paused to catch our breath at small Gurung-owned teahouses that perch along the mountainside where they gaze down into the Kimrong Valley. Ollie was fond of pulling the blooms off the clusters of marigolds that adorn the lodges. Following the protocol taught to him by a friendly young lama in Kathmandu’s Swayambunanth Temple, he plucked the petals from the flower and attempted to scatter them in Ryan’s hair. His mountain blessing only slightly missed home; from where he sat in the carrier on Ryan’s back, most of the petals slipped right down the back of Ryan’s shirt.

We made Chomrong by 4:00pm and unanimously decided that baths were in order. Ryan absconded to the little shower stall first, but before Ollie and I can gather up our toiletries, a fleet of grimy trekkers stepped in front of us. I was doubtful the 300liter tank would enough to spare, and therefore relieved when Ollie and I managed to capture ten minutes’ worth of hot water. We emerged into the dusk, bellies rumbling with hunger and still steaming from the heat. Once under blankets and full of a hearty dinner (among other things, we enjoyed a Snickers Roll, a fried dough pocket containing the mashed and melted candy bar; famous on the Annapurna Circuit), we soon drift off. In my dreams I returned again to the snow mountains, the fields, forests, rivers and streams.

Day 5: Up early as we planned to change the itinerary today. Per Ryan, we would roll through our designated camp site this afternoon and continue on towards Pothana, all in about a seven hour hike. But first a requisite stop at the Jinnu Hot Springs, a natural mineral bath at the banks of the Modi Khola. While our guide and porter stripped down to their skivvies, washed clothes and paddled about, Ryan and I rolled up our pant legs and soaked our tired muscles. Ollie took the experience one step further, strips naked and launches himself into the center of the action. The serenity and spiritual element of our Nepali “onsen” is shattered when, 45 minutes later, we pried a screeching Oliver out of the spring and forced him into the chilly morning air.

Back on trail and no stopping until Landruk for lunch. Tempers were a bit short, and our porter’s grumbling over the extra mileage was not lost on us. Towards the village, I stopped to take photos of the rice terraces and as a result become separated from the group. Frustrated at first, I cursed my fellow travelers (one in particular), but soon shook off my grudge and reveled in the silence. The rhythm of the mountain dwellers was hypnotic; the cool, quiet air punctuated only by the sound of elderly villagers threshing millet and the occasional child calling after a water buffalo as it wandered down the hillside.

Shortly before dusk, we reached Deurali and Bhimsen pulled the plug. Here we were only a few kilometers away from Pothana but our porter would walk no further. Just as well by me; I’d kept pace for five days straight and couldn’t force the extra 45 minutes if I tried.

Deurali is a one-goat village perched on a pass between two hills and surrounded by dense alpine forest. There hadn’t been a sign of electricity or running water since Landruk, so we finished our supper of chapati and noodles by candlelight and turned in early. While Ollie slept soundly, Ryan and I were kept awake throughout the night by eerie screams coming from the forest all around us. We were informed the following morning that the calls were made by some indigenous owl, but to this day I am convinced that no mortal creature could have made those sounds that night.

Day 6: The previous evening, Ollie befriended Kancha, the local three-year old, and I couldn’t help but notice the little boy had but three toys to his name; a 99 cent wind-up frog, a rickety three-wheeled wooden car and a baby rattle. Understandably, Kancha became immediately enamored with Ollie’s small collection of trucks, so I decided we would endeavor to leave one behind in the morning. This was no easy task. In parting with “Orange Truck”, Oliver screamed and cried as if he was losing a limb. In our travels, we can only afford to carry along the smallest collection of toys, including a couple of dog-eared soft-cover Read to Me books, some washable markers, a faded plastic zebra and (the crown jewel), a set of rubber Tonka trucks. Every so often, the toy chest shrinks in number as a result of a book left behind on a bus, a truck that fell out of a hand while we weren’t paying attention, and even a Thomas train that disappeared down a sewer drain in Bangkok. Ollie is acutely aware of this, and his anxiety over being left toy-less is high. Despite this, once back on the trail and with his tears dried, he acknowledged his sacrifice for what it was. “Kancha no have any orange trucks in the mountains. Only water buffalo”.

As we drew closer to Pokhara, the charming mountain town that serves as the base for nearly all treks into the Annapurna, we crossed paths with a number day trippers heading out of the valley in the direction we had just come. I asked Bhimsen if he was encouraged by the number of tourists so late in the season, and he reminded me of the number of trekking operators stationed in Katmandu (700!!!). His hopes of leading another group were slim.

Daybreak over the Dhaulghiri masif, looking west from Poon Hill

After skirting several of Pokhara’s surrounding foothills, we arrived in the village of Naudanda where we encountered the first paved road we’d seen in six days. The honking horns of overflowing Tata buses startled us in our tracks, and in a moment’s time we were blanketed in the insidious clouds of dust from the traffic as it passed us by. In Sarangkot where we finished our trek, we overlooked Pokhara and watched quietly as the lights across the city came on, sending their glittering reflections into Phewa Lake. From our place on the hill, the road back to Kathmandu was shimmering and serpentine as wound its way east towards the setting sun. It was beautiful, and like all night-city views, enigmatic. But to the west, the real treasure, the memory indelible in my mind.The Annapurnas (I, II, III, IV and South) all visible, stood in snowy silence as the sun drew away and dusk enveloped them in pale purple robes. I see them resplendent like this only once more as we fly from Kathmandu to Delhi. From the plane, the mountains rise up from the patchwork of the valley floor and meet me at eye level, twenty-five thousand feet in the air. They hold court over the clouds and, from where I sit, they appear inseparable from the sky itself; white and ethereal, floating over the earth.


  1. Emy – your writing has a beautiful cadence to it that – coupled with the fantastic things you are writing about – is both spiritual and calming. We miss you guys.



  2. Thank you, Jas!!! I only wish I could do justice to the amazing things we are seeing and experiencing out here. Some things are so hard to describe. Happy belated b-day, and we miss you too!

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