The air was getting thinner as we slowly climbed the steep trail toward Thorong La. After 9 days of walking, the highest point on the Annapurna Circuit was within our reach.
Day 7 – Manang to Letdar
Distance – 11 ½ km; Elevation Gain – 660 m
We spent the first five days walking up the Marsyangdi River Valley, passing small villages and spectacular waterfalls to reach Manang (Part I). After a rest day we were ready to move. Between Manang to Muktinath there are no roads. For those trekking since the new road was built, this may be their first time walking on a trail.
It begins as a steep climb taking you quickly above the hills. At this elevation hiking is more difficult. Our breathing and heart rates were faster. We had to make sure we were drinking enough water to keep hydrated and avoid high altitude sickness. After the climb the trail flattens a bit making it easier to enjoy some of the best views of the entire trek. The impressive white peaks of Gangapurna and Annapurna III dominate the scene.
The vegetation is sparser at this elevation with mostly scrub juniper and alpine grass. As we neared the guesthouses of Yak Kharka we saw a herd of yaks grazing on the hillsides. It was if they had to prove the name to be accurate.
The trek is now at a high elevation so some people take a slower approach to the pass and stay in Yak Kharka ( 4,018 m). We wanted to get a little higher so we continued up the valley.
Above Yak Kharka the scenery continues to improve with unimpeded views of the mountains. We passed a few shy blue sheep grazing on the hills. The breathtaking views continued all the way to Letdar.
Letdar (4,200 m) is 180 m higher than Yak Kharka. At this elevation even a small increase in elevation makes a noticeable difference. The higher you get, the lower pressure of oxygen makes everything more difficult including sleeping.
Guesthouses are more expensive between Manang and Muktinath because they are only accessible by foot. There are no villages, instead there are groupings of guest houses for tourists. Meals and rooms are more basic and cleaning doesn’t seem to have a high importance.
Day 8 – Letdar to Thorong High Camp
Distance – 6 ½ km; Elevation Gain – 680 m
From Letdar the trail continues to climb along the side of the Jarang Khola Valley. The vegetation is even sparser and the land is very dry. There’s not as much rain on this side of the Annapurna Range. Heavy clouds need to dump their moisture as rain and snow on the other side in order to get over the tall mountains.
The first guesthouses are located in Thorong Phedi (4,450 m). Many stay overnight here, but we wanted to get higher so we continued on to High Camp.
The walk to High Camp is very steep ascending 430 m in one kilometer. At almost 5,000 m elevation, it’s a tough grind to reach Thorong High Camp (4,880 m). It’s a desolate place with almost no vegetation.
Staying at this high elevation is not comfortable and if your body is slow to acclimatize it’s better to stay lower down the valley. The disadvantage of staying lower in Thorong Phedi, is that you have to climb an extra 430 m in the morning on the way to the pass. Some people travel very slow, spending a night Thorong Pedi and the next night at High Camp before going up to the pass.
There’s a viewpoint not far from High Camp that looks toward the valley we had just climbed. High above are the stunning white peaks of Annapurna III and Gangapurna.
That night the guest house was completely full. Some people were turned away and had to stay at a teahouse 200 m higher. We had to share our small room with two other people. One was a female guide who snored loudly all night. Between the snoring and the usual difficulty sleeping at high altitude, we didn’t get much sleep.
Day 9 – Thorong High Camp to Muktinath via Thorong La
Distance – 4 km to pass, 10 km to Muktinath; Elevation gain – 536 m, Elevation Loss – 1,616 m
The trail to Thorong La (pass) is a grind. It’s a short distance but the constant climb up the moraine gains over 500 m in just 4 km. Local people have used this trail for hundreds of years to bring herds of sheep and yaks in and out of Manang.
There have been storms in this area and deadly accidents. The worst was in 2014 when a massive snowstorm hit the area. Many hikers were stranded at the pass in whiteout conditions. At least 43 people died. The pass is not to be taken lightly. We left early in the morning under clear skies so we were confident that it would be safe.
Most other trekkers on the route had porters to carry their packs for the entire trek, but we carried our own. When we saw porters on the trail these past few days we wondered if they were annoyed with us since we were not hiring them. Part way up to the pass, after passing several other trekkers, a porter smiled at us and said ‘I watch you, you’re strong’ and gave us the thumbs up. So, I guess they weren’t angry with us.
Roughly halfway up the trail we passed a small teahouse. Some trekkers were forced to stay here overnight because High Camp was full. At over 5,000 m, they would have had an awful night.
The trail to the pass is deceiving. There are many false summits, fooling you into thinking you’re close, only to be disappointed to see another ridge. We renamed it ‘Deception Pass’. Slowly, slowly, one foot in front of the other, we made our way up the moraine to Thorong La (5,416 m). It was windy and cold, but we still had clear skies. The pass is decorated in prayer flags which flapped vigorously in the strong wind.
On the other side of the pass we could see the mountains in the Dhaulagiri Range and the Kali Gandaki Valley far below. Joining us at the pass were dozens of other trekkers and surprisingly, a Himalayan snow partridge.
The descent from the pass is steep but with each step we inhaled more and more oxygen. We went down a lot faster than we climbed. The mighty Dhaulagiri (8,167 m) look spectacular, rising above the hills on the other side of the Kali Gandaki Valley. It’s the seventh highest mountain in the world. After not too long the important centre of Muktinath can be seen below.
Muktinath translates to Nirvana and is important for both Buddhists and Hindus. The hillside above the town is covered in Buddhist prayer flags. Just beyond them are the golden roofs of Muktinath Temple. Hindus make pilgrimages to this important temple.
It was still early in the day and we could see an interesting looking village on the other side of the river. After lunch we went for a walk to explore. The Buddhist village of Jhong has retained its authentic rustic charm. Ruins from an old fortress and a new monastery sit side by side on a hilltop in town. We walked between the flat-roofed stone homes on our way to the interesting site. A lady called out to us from her yard asking if we want apples. She picked 6 apples off her trees and sold them to us. It had been days since we had fresh fruit so this was a lovely surprise.
Day 10 – Muktinath to Marpha
Distance – 23.5 km; Elevation Loss – 1,145 m
Leaving Muktinath we had to follow the dusty road for a while. A short-cut trail allowed us to walk along the ridge above the Kali Gandaki Valley. In this section it is an arid valley dotted with villages on green oases. The trail took us above the village of Kagbeni which marks the beginning of the Upper Mustang region. During our 2018 trip to Upper Mustang we visited this fascinating old village. Today a paved road goes from Muktinath to Kagbeni.
Eventually the trail descended from the ridge to the Kali Gandaki River and led to the large centre of Jomsom (2,743 m). There’s an airport here so many people end their trek in Jomsom and fly back to Pokhara. Others will skip the next day and a half of the trek and take a bus to Tatopani.
From Jomsom we walked on the dusty road following the Kali Gandaki to Marpha (2,655 m). The village of Marpha was a welcome surprise. Even though it’s very close to the road, Marpha is a lovely village. We walked on flagstone paths, beside white buildings with red windows frames. The flat roofs were stacked with wood, an indication of wealth. For a remote village they have a modern approach to water drainage. Channels were built under the stone sidewalks that serve as pipes for rain and waste water.
Above the village the fascinating triangle shaped Rhisum Gompa (monastery) is built into the side of the mountain. Today this monastery is only used on special occasions. In the centre of town is a more typical Tibetan Buddhist gompa with white walls and colourful gables under a flat roof.
Marpha is the apple capital of the region. We had more fresh apples along with apple pie and apple danishes.
In 2018 we drove this road between Jomson and Marpha. The road was busier, but since the town is not directly on the road it doesn’t appear to have been affected. We recognized the white triangle monastery on the hill above.
Day 11 – Marpha to Kalopani
Distance – 19.7 km, Elevation Loss – 140 m
We left Marpha traveling on the road for a while until we were able to walk on the trail. The next two days would be the most we would walk on the road for the entire trek. Before the cute village of Tukuche we were able to get off the road and onto the trail. It began raining soon after we passed Tukuche and continued all the way to our next stop in Kalopani (2, 530 m). We should have had views of Annapurna I and Dhaulagiri, but the mountains were covered in clouds.
Day 12 – Kalopani to Ghara
Distance 25 km; Elevation Loss – 1,340 to Tatopani, Elevation gain – 501 m to Ghara
We woke to another cloudy day in Kalopani and had to walk along the road again for part of the day. Right beside the road Rupse Chharhara waterfall drops down from 300 m above. Cars use a wooden bridge to cross it and during rainy season, water covers the bridge and road.
We lost a lot of elevation by the time we reached Tatopani at 1,190 m. The busy tourist centre is filled with colourful, flowering trees and lush vegetation. The name means hot water and there are a few thermal baths in the area. Many take the bus from Jomsom to Tatopani, missing the last day and a half that we just walked.
In this area the Kali Gandaki is a narrow, steep valley and the road follows the deep contours of the mountain’s ridges. It is here that the Kali Gandaki is considered to be the deepest gorge in the world. It is bordered by the 8,000 m peaks of Annapurna and Dhaulagiri. When measuring from their peaks to the river far below, it becomes the deepest valley in the world. A long suspension bridge crosses this deep valley and takes us away from the road.
The usual finish for the Annapurna Circuit is Nayapul which is just beyond Tatopani. Instead though we wanted to also do the Annapurna Sanctuary Trek. We walked up the Ghar Khola Valley where we could eventually join it in Ghorepani. There are a lot of farming communities in this lush valley. The trail took us passed many terraced fields and into deep gorges. In one area the gorge was filled with boulders of marble. It was incredible. Many of the steps on the steep climb to Ghara (1,700 m) were made of marble. It would have looked great in our home, and here it was in its original environment.
Day 13 Ghara to Ghorepani
Distance – 15 ½ km; Elevation Gain – 1,644 m
The trail continued to climb, passing farms on the way to Ghorepani. It was raining, making the 1,600 m of stone stairs very slippery. We barely looked around and didn’t take many pictures. Just before Ghorepani the trail goes through a dense forest of rhododendron and magnolia trees. It was November though so unfortunately none were in bloom.
Ghorepani is a very busy village as it is the base for the popular trek to the Poon Hill lookout. Trekkers often include Poon Hill when doing either the Annapurna Circuit or Annapurna Sanctuary treks. Many come to Ghorepani just for the short trek to Poon Hill. The village has many restaurants, coffee shops and guest houses to accommodate all of the tourists.
Day 14 – Ghorepani to Poon Hill to Chhomrong
Distance – 3 ½ km to Poon Hill return, 17 ½ km to Chhomrong; Elevation Gain/Loss- 375 m to Poon Hill, Elevation Loss – 710 m to Chhomrong
We woke very early so that we could be on the top of Poon Hill (3,210 m) in time for sunrise. We planned to leave at 4:30 am, but at 3 am we were awakened by a lot of noise in the guesthouse. Other trekkers were getting ready to leave. We were worried that it would take longer than we planned so we got up and left for Poon Hill. There are over 3,000 stairs in the 1 ½ km, 376 m climb to reach the lookout. The steep trail was incredibly busy.
We shouldn’t have left so early because we were at the top of Poon Hill in the dark, long before sunrise.
Once the sun started to rise, the Annapurna Range began to show itself. Annapurna I (8,091 m), Annapurna South (7,219 m) and Machhapuchhare (6,993 m) were coming alive. It was our first glimpse of the fishtail pyramid of Machhapuchhare. It looked so small in comparison to the Annapurna giants. The beautiful alpenglow on these peaks showed us why this is such a popular hike.
After watching the sunrise, we had a quick breakfast in Ghorepani and were back on the road. We spent the next few days hiking to Annapurna Sanctuary (coming soon in Part 3).
To read about more of our adventures go to Destinations.
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