"It's just so hot and dusty up there at the moment, everyone's trekking in shorts and t-shirts"
"Yes, running shoes will be fine, there's not an inch of snow up there"
"March is the dry season, great time to visit"
"We want something easy, just a casual stroll with some good views"
Then it started snowing...
Avalanches onto the Annapurna Base Camp destroyed one tea house, killing a Chinese tourist, and shut the trail half way along. Our guide explained that we will be safe on the Mardi Himal trek, which looks down onto the ABC trail. The Mardi Himal trek is a ridge trail, and he explained as unpatronisingly as possible, that we would be at the top of the mountain at all times, and avalanches cannot go up hill. Feeling slightly reassured, we went shopping for boots and warm layers.
Day 1: Phedi (1000m) - Pothana (1900m), 5 hours, 19,000 steps
A steep 400m climb in the first hour gets us sweating and we tear off our well planned layers. Michael and I ignored all advice from blogs and guidebooks and bought trekking shoes mere days before the trek, after severe snow storms had changed the guide's advice on running shoes being suitable. Our sweaty heels suffering from our stupidity on the climbs, but we rest our feet and tuck into our first Nepali Dal Bhat (NOT SPICY, small victory) at a local farm house.
The sunny morning descends into cloud and general miserableness by mid afternoon, and we panic in the rain and fumble for our waterproofs like the novices we are. We did see the national flower of Nepal, bright red rhododendrons, shiny silver rock, and a football match at a local school which made Mike very excitable. We reach the tea house by 3 for a warm cuppa tea and suss out our first dinner of spaghetti cheese tuna pasta - we'll let you know how that works out tomorrow.
Day 2: Pothana (1900m) - Rest House (2700m), 6 hours, 21,500 steps
Spaghetti tuna worked out wonderfully - thanks for asking. So wonderfully that we also treated ourselves to apple pie, which came in the form of a cornish pasty filled with chocolate and shredded apple. Eating ourselves into a great sleep, we wake up at 7 to a perfect blue sky and great views across the Annapurna mountain range. Our slow march up the mountain grinds to a halt for 2 hours while we wait, and wait, for our hard earned lunch. "Dal Bhat power - 24 hour", as the t-shirts say, pushed us on and up to Rest Camp for a hot lemon tea and a fire before another astonishingly early bed time.
Day 3: Rest House (2700m) - Middle Camp (3250m), 3.5 hours, 8400 steps
Claudine accidentally wakes us up at 05:30am, so we get off to an early start in the morning. Trekking through thick, dense, green forest, the scenery is more reminiscent of the Amazon than the Himalayas. Tree climbing plants and bright pink rhododendrons provides the main colour contrast until we reach the snow line, which takes us by surprise to say the least. Thick jungle covered in snow is confusing but beautiful. The snow starts to fall thick and fast, so we scrap our plan and call it a day at lunch time at middle camp, stuff our faces, and sit round the fire playing cards with the other fair weather trekkers. Some nutters had decided to carry on up despite the impending storm.
The fire in the tea house is the best yet, and it gets so dangerously hot that people start to move away from it, and the windows steam up to shield us from the terrifying thunderstorm passing us. Thunder and lightning in the mountains is louder, brighter, sharper, and all round more scary. We weren't watching it, we were in it, and the whole sky lit up in flashes of purple and orange every 2 seconds. Hail battered the tea house all afternoon until sunset, when the clouds parted just enough for us to look back down the valley at the disappearing storm. We have just enough time to squeeze in dinner and our first ever deep fried Snickers before bed. We only wondered what happened to those nutters who decided to go trekking in it and continue on to high camp...
Day 4: Middle Camp (3250m) - High Camp (3550m), 2 hours, 7500 steps
The storm did its job, the thunder and lightning blew away the thick grey clouds, clearing the way for a perfect 6am sunrise. Early bed and early rise is the only way to go here. The sun hits the peaks of the mountains one at a time, illuminating their shadows and helping us to identify them, with the smaller ones still standing an impressive 6,000 metres above sea level. A full covering of fluffy snow has deleted any trace of human activity or trails from the day before. It looks as if we arrived here yesterday by magic. Between 6-7.30am we walk ten minutes to a viewpoint with stunning 360 degree views of the Himalayas, visit some yak calves, and have breakfast in the sunshine. It's the most active I've ever been at that hour.
As we make our way in the sunshine to high camp, we are so thankful for our guide. You can do the Mardi alone, but get an unexpected storm like we experienced, and the landscape changes beyond recognition. You need to know the way and feel your way. This is a ridge trail, and you really feel it here, stomping our way through the thick snow with thousands of metres of drops either side. You can look down upon the Annapurna Base Camp trail, which winds through the valley below, but had sadly been closed for the time being due to avalanches. We followed the guides footsteps as closely as we could. It was the most extreme trekking I have ever done. Step outside of the guides trail, you sink two feet or more.
It is exhilarating, breath taking, blood pumping stuff. Our porter, 21 years old, loves it. He borrowed Mike's running shoes because he'd come up in only sandals. We were honestly scared his toes would fall off. He bounds and jumps around in the snow like a puppy experiencing it for the first time, whilst Mike and I catch our breath. We walk along the very ridge of the mountain feeling on top of the world, quite literally. This was the feeling we'd been waiting for. We reached high camp at 3,500 metres by 11am. I was ravenous already and we got cosy and waited for lunch. We could not go further today. The clouds caught up with us and the snow was once again falling heavily.
We were also really pleased to see a young group of Germans who had been climbing it alone. They had walked on through last night's storm and on to high camp when we had stopped to take shelter. They'd ended up resting today and were pretty shaken from their ordeal. As the thunder rumbled and the lightening lit up the afternoon sky, they were lost and could only hide under a rock until the worst was over, before trying to make a path of their own up to high camp.
It's no joke and even at 3,000 metres the mountains are dangerous, volatile places to wander. I have a new found respect for them. We are mere guests up here and we must remember who is boss.
Day 5: High Camp (3550m) - Sidhing (1700m), 5.5 hours, 19,500 steps
At minus 10 Deg C and 3600m high, it is hard to sleep in. We wore everything in bed; thermals, shorts, two pairs of socks, tracksuit bottoms, jumpers, coats, hats, and neck warmers. Clauds even suggested the two of us sleep in one sleeping bag to warm us up, which I was having none of. I'd stuffed my camera (to maintain the batteries) and all of the following day's clothes in there to keep warm, and there certainly wasn't room for another human.
Hence, it was baltic, and we woke up at 05:30, which is luckily the best time to enjoy the clear blue skies and the Himalayan panoramas. The sun isn't yet up, but the sky starts to turn a lighter blue until it illuminates the peaks in its orange glow one by one, which is a handy way of working out which one's are the tallest. There was a pattern now; we go to sleep in a blizzard and have no idea where we are, and we wake up to clear blue skies and have several 7,000m peaks staring over us. This bliss lasts until 8 or 9am, just enough time to have our coffees and pancakes out in the sunshine and get started on the day's trekking.
The clear sky is tempting to us to carry on up to the Base Camp at 4,500m, but nobody has made it that far in the previous week due to the heavy snowfall. Two Poles made it a few hundred meters further up yesterday, but their guide turned them round soon enough. It looks a terrifying ridge, and we know the clouds are about to swallow up the sunshine, so we are all happy to turn around and head back down the ridge into more comfortable temperatures. It is a slippy, icy, but spectacular descent to Low Camp, but we powered through the falling snow back into the thick green forest and down to Sidhing, a full 2000 vertical metres below where we'd started the morning. Our first shower of the trek in a stunning tea house set above the rice terraces was followed by a beer in the sunshine and Claudine making friends with Chinese tourists. We are well out the severity of High Camp, and it is a lovely way to let our thighs recover from the drastic descent.
Day 6: Sidhing (1700m) - Lwang (1400m), 5 hours, 22,000 steps
Raining is the understatement of the century for describing how today went. We'd descended 2000 metres yesterday and we were looking forward to some well deserved sunshine. I was looking forward to taking my thermals off for the first time. To be fair, we woke up to sunshine shining through the two huge windows of our room. One looked onto the valley, green rice terraces and small village houses. The other, looked directly onto the Annapurna mountain ridge and our new favourite mountain, the Fishtail. It was so clear, we could see the ridge we had walked along two days earlier. Over a steaming bowl of porridge, we re-appreciated and re-admired where we had come from and how close we'd been to these spectacular, intriguing and dangerous mountains.
We had around two hours of luck weather wise where we walked through green rice terraces and met lots of school children before stopping for noodle soup in a charming little village. We accidentally chatted to an older couple from the UK about a local development project they were working on for an hour too long, by which time the sky had clouded over and it was all looking pretty gloomy. Ten minutes in to our three hour walk to Lwang village, where we were spending the night, it started to rain. And it didn't stop as we wound our way around the hilltops, across the suspension bridges and through the fields. We put on all our waterproof gear and soldiered on, wet but happy. By the time we reached Lwang, the narrow stone paths around the village had become small streams. When we eventually reached our homestay, we were greeted with huge smiles and two cups of sugary tea. A welcome end, to a very wet but all things considered, still a very enjoyable day
Day 7: Lwang (1400m) - Khoramukh (1000m), 1.5 hours, 7,000 steps
We desperately try to dry our shoes and jackets in the morning sunshine, which luckily affords us one last breakfast outside with views over the traditional Newari village of Lwang. The cobbled alleys and slate roof homes are largely owned by retired Gurkha army personnel who have got together to set up a Homestay initiative in the village. A short 1hr stroll down hill to the river plain where we catch a comically colourful local bus which takes us back to Pokhara via a few river crossings.
We settled back into civilisation very well indeed, and had the best massage ever. That is not an exaggeration either. We've had about 30 this trip, and the blind and deaf staff at Helping Hands in Pokhara delivered an hour of perfection. The balance between pain and relaxation was perfect, and while expensive for a massage in Asia (25 USD), it was infinitely better than any other we've had. My man was even better than the magic woman in Glastonbury's healing fields who previously held the much coveted title.
Some hummus, tandoori chicken, and red wine later, we pass out in a huge comfy double bed. Somehow, Macchapucchre (Fishtail) mountain is still looming over us, so even from our snug bed, we can still see the crazy heights we slept at just 3 days previously.
Tips for trekking in Nepal:
Do prepare for all eventualities. I usually think people panic themselves into buying a load of unnecessary things before a trek, but those fears were entirely justified here as the weather gods threw everything at us.
Buy shoes at home, or well in advance of your trek. We just about got away with buying boots last minute, but it's not recommended.
Check your porter has enough gear. Ours only had sandals, so when we started trekking through 1ft deep snow, I had to give him my running shoes to save his toes.
Do not book a trek online, and do meet your guide in person before committing. You can arrive in Nepal and organise a trek to start the following day. Online agencies quoted $1,000pp, and it ended up costing us $280pp by organising it independently.
We recommend staying at Hotel Yala Peak in Kathmandu and chatting to Durga, an incredibly friendly man who spent hours talking through trekking options with us.
Costs. Don't take the guides offer of a package either, pay for food and accommodation as you go, which saved us another $150 over the week.
- Guide: 22$ p/d
- Porter: 14$ p/d
- Permits: 35$ pp
- Transport to and from Pokhara: $20
- Accommodation, double room: 4$ p/n
- Food and drink: $10 pp/pd
- Total Mardi Himal cost 7d6n, including everything = $280pp
For more tips, read the extremely useful and extremely detailed Longest Way Home blog.
For more photos of the trek, click here.