An incomparable Himalayan journey leads trekkers to the base camp of the world’s most demanding mountain, crowned with icy eddies of swirling clouds – and it’s not Everest
NEED TO KNOW
LOCATION The Himalaya mountain range, Nepal
VISITORS PER YEAR
Kathmandu – Jan: 50°F (10°C); Apr: 67°F (19°C); Jul: 75°F (23°C); Oct: 67°F (19°C). The air can be much cooler in the mountains
Among the world’s highest peaks – that exclusive club of 14 summits rising over 26,240 ft (8,000 m) – no mountain is more feared by climbers and as rarely climbed as Annapurna I. It is also the most deadly mountain in the world, with a horrific fatality rate of around 40 percent, so just trekking to the Annapurna Sanctuary, the lofty glacial bowl that serves as base camp for climbing expeditions, is sufficiently thrilling for most people in search of high elevations and stunning mountain views.
Pokhara, Nepal’s second-largest city, makes a great base for trekking in the surrounding area, which is easily accessible and filled with diverse scenery. The route to the Annapurna Sanctuary, 25 miles (40 km) north of the verdant Pokhara Valley, offers a more picturesque and intimate experience than the trek to Everest Base Camp.
Leaving the valley, the trail climbs steeply through forests of rhododendron laced with orchids, bamboo, terraced rice fields, and into alpine meadows. Along the way, you will pass several villages, traverse canyons, and cross streams on rickety suspension footbridges. Leaving woodlands behind and entering a rugged realm of ice and snow, a night at the first base camp gives a taste of what’s to come as you rest beneath the shimmering “fish-tail” summit of Macchapuchare, one of the most dramatically beautiful of all Himalayan peaks.
The following day, after ascending a narrow pass that was first penetrated by Westerners in 1956, you’ll arrive at the Annapurna Sanctuary, a mountain amphitheater at an elevation of 13,450 ft (4,100 m) ringed by eight peaks over 22,965 ft (7,000 m), including Annapurna I. Here the surrounding mountains rise up so sharply and so high that the Sanctuary receives only 7 hours of sunlight a day, even in midsummer. Sacred to the local villagers who consider it to be the home of the gods, the Sanctuary was off-limits to Dalits (the “untouchable” caste) and women until recently.
The Annapurna Sanctuary trek has not been affected by road-building projects that have already impacted other classic treks in the region.
However, modernization is expected to increase, so dedicated trekkers are advised to follow this incredible route sooner rather than later.
FORGET THE TREK TO EVEREST BASE CAMP?
THE BUILD-UP This is the world’s highest peak – Mount Everest, Sagarmatha, the roof of the world – where mountaineering legends are born. The base camp is the closest you can get to the summit without full mountaineering gear and there are dramatic views of the Khumbu Glacier and the treacherous icefall.
THE LETDOWN The trail from Lukla to the Everest Base Camp is one of the most crowded in Nepal and sadly littered with beer bottles and rubbish. For most, the highlight of the trek is not the base camp, but the ascent to Kala Pattar at 18,192 ft (5,545 m) for views of Everest.
GOING ANYWAY? To avoid the crowds, opt for the March–May season. Rather than starting from Lukla, consider starting from Jiri, on the old access route used by early Everest climbers on the successful first ascent. It is a longer trek, but less crowded, and the terrain abounds with colorful villages and ancient monasteries.
Getting There and Around From Kathmandu, the capital of Nepal, take a short flight to Pokhara. When the weather is clear, the flight offers stupendous views of the entire Himalaya range.
Where to Eat The lakeside Bistro Caroline in Pokhara caters to upscale tastes with an excellent menu of Indian, Nepali, and European cuisine. It’s pricey for locals, but affordable by Western standards.
Where to Stay In the area around Pokhara, guesthouses for budget-bound trekkers are plentiful. But for a post-trek splurge, consider the Fulbari Resort & Spa, a five-star hotel built in the architectural style of Nepal’s golden age, offering panoramic mountain and valley views, with doubles from US$175 per night.
When to Go March–April and October– November usually offer decent weather and avoid the June–September monsoons.
Budget per Day for Two Guided trekking with accommodations in teahouses and tents, including meals, can range from US$75 to US$150 per night per couple.