Monday 30 March 2015


Here’s how trekking works for me: I get the map out and scribble down the times it takes to get from place to place. Then I set out to smash them. A seven-day hike in four days. No guide, no porter. Ten kilos on my back. Man on a mission.

I just don’t know what the mission is.

I soak it all up on the way. I look around, take the odd picture. Pause to marvel at butterflies, stare up and around at the wonder of my surroundings. Get slapped in the face by the view when a peak appears out of nowhere. But I walk fast, climb fast.

“It’s not a race,” I keep telling myself.

But it is.

I start at Nayapul, seething with contempt for my fellow trekkers. The place is a palette of obnoxious colours, everyone bedecked in their North Farce jackets. Most are in groups, Nepali porters carrying up to 100 kilos of their baggage at a time. My blood boils.

They’re soon in my dust. I stop to drink water, chat to some Chinese guys and realise what I’m missing: the camaraderie, meeting new people, the shared adventure. But time is short and this is meditation for me. An hour later, up through the valley in glorious sunshine, I reach the small cluster of restaurants and guesthouses at Hile.

“Is this Heil?” I ask.
“No, it is Hilly,” comes the reply.

Of course it is.

I lunch with two American girls who are plodding their way up to Annapurna Base Camp. We’ve all ordered chicken noodles and they’re a long time coming. A cockerel that has been crowing for the last half an hour suddenly falls silent.

After lunch comes an assault on the stone steps up to Ulleri. This is relentless torture, no matter how fit you are. I feel a few spots of rain and a storm rumbles somewhere out over the mountains. I haven’t even thought about the weather, let alone prepared for it. I reach the top in a heart and lung busting hour, calves and quads on fire. At the first sign of shelter, it begins to piss down. I order a sweet tea, change out of my sweaty shirt and hang out with a new friend who shudders every time the sky cracks.

It clears an hour and a half later and the two American girls appear from the top of the steps, wet but smiling. I push on to Banthanti and stop at the last guesthouse in town, plans to reach Ghorepani scuppered by the weather. After a shower I warm myself by the fire as a lone Japanese man dries his socks. We don’t share any words, he and I, just smiles and a cold beer.

I’m out of the door at sunrise, and at Ghorepani for breakfast. It’s an hour's hike up stone steps to the vantage point of Poon Hill, but I go the wrong way and walk for ninety pointless minutes instead. I enjoy spectacular scenery and solitude but am angered by my mistake, and grapple with it.

When I do make it up Poon Hill, the view is completely obscured by cloud. I meet three Canadians up there who have just trekked the Annapurna Circuit. Everything happens for a reason. After lunch I press on again, and just as I am turning out of town, the two American girls home into view again.

The climb up to the Deurali pass is another toughie, through splendid rhododendron forests with just birdsong and an occasionally buzzing fly for company. At the top, the cloud is rolling in as though it is being slowly exhaled by something, and I take food and water in an empty hut.

I’m through Ban Thanti (as opposed to Banthanti, different place) at around four, ready to kick on when the rain comes. Down here in the valley, rainforest all around, moss and moisture in every breath, I decide to cash in for the night. I’m the only trekker staying in the village, and the sole entertainment comes when a buffalo is slaughtered somewhere and my hosts set about butchering their share of the meat and drying it around the fire.

I’m striding out towards my third night sleeping in my clothes on a thin foam mattress, defecating in a hole in the ground fifty yards away, and “showering” in water dripped through a plastic bag with holes in it. There is no flat ground here, just Nepali Flat: infinite ups and downs. But it is easier now and I am ready to make some serious time.

Which is when I move to overtake a group of German medical students, but end up talking to them instead. We stop to look at a monkey up a tree. Something is dripping on us. It isn’t rain. If birdshit is lucky, what’s monkey piss?

They’re getting a jeep back to Pokhara in the afternoon, while I am pressing on. Over lunch the rain comes again. At the signpost to Landruk, I have to decide between dropping down into the valley and trekking for another day on my own, or joining them in the ride back to town.

Decisions this stark are hard to make. They stand around waiting for mine. I stand around hoping for a clap of thunder to make it for me.

In the back of the jeep I am tearing myself apart trying to understand the choice I made. Have I quit on the trek, or just chosen a better path? What part of the experience led me to end it, or have I been guided by some silent epiphany?

It was the summer of 1988 and I was ten years old: our first holiday to Italy. The clearest memory of that trip is of my sister and I turning around in the back seats of the Volvo, staring through the rear window to prolong our last glimpse of the land left behind. I remember the teary-eyed look we exchanged, the sentiment we secretly shared.

Bouncing around the rear of the jeep with six enormous rucksacks, staring back up the valley at the imperious Machhapuchhre, resplendent in the fading sun, I felt the same thing. That some invisible and unbreakable thread now connected me to that place and knowing, for certain, absolutely and inevitably, that I would return.

I didn’t know it when I set out, but this wasn’t so much a trek as a sortie. Reconnaissance.

You might not get what you came for, but you always leave with something.

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