Text By Siân and Bob, Photos by Sanjib Gurung
On June 3rd, 1950 a French expedition led by Maurice Herzog climbed the first 8000m peak – the mountain was Annapurna I. Herzog and Louis Lachenal reached the summit, but both suffered horrific frostbite to toes and fingers. The story of their climb on Annapurna I is recorded by Herzog in his book Annapurna, written as he recovered in a hospital in Paris.
Seventy years since that epic climb, the original French route to the northern Annapurna Base Camp has lain dormant with virtually no intrusions. In 1950 the mysterious Miristi Khola valley was blocked by impenetrable jungles, so the expedition took a route across the wild ridges of the Thulobugin Pass below Nilgiri South. With no water for two days and a treacherously exposed trail, this journey was an epic in itself.
Often mistaken for the southern Annapurna Sanctuary/Base Camp or the high-altitude Tilicho Lake to the north, part of the Annapurna North trekking route is now fully renovated. It’s a surprisingly scenic and stunning adventure. A dramatically engineered road blasted across the cliffs gives access to a new hydroelectric project in the Miristi Khola valley above Tatopani. Today jeeps can drive through Chotepa and up to the dam site at Hum Khola Dovan (2884m).
From here the new trekking trail climbs steadily up the magical Miristi Khola through a tranquil forest, beside a tumbling turquoise torrent fed by picture-postcard waterfalls. It’s a beguiling route where only the sounds of clear water and birdsong disturb the tranquillity of nature. The first camp is at Sandhi Kharka, with shady trees, a porter shelter, and the smell of scented pines. This is paradise already, and it’s only a 300m climb. Continuing through idyllic woodlands, hemmed in by the great buttresses of Annapurna I, the trail climbs from the cool fragrant forest of ancient rhododendrons to camp at Bhusket Mela (3551m). The sunset on Annapurna I and Fang is magical from just below camp.
It’s best to have a day off here to acclimatize and explore the lower reaches of the original Herzog route from Lete. The path is virtually impossible to locate, and even here is quite exposed. Beyond the cave of Narchang Pit Hole, it’s not yet suitable to continue without risk. There is no chance yet to walk out this way to Lete and Kalopani in the footsteps of Herzog. One day this trail might be developed enough to make it a safe option for trekkers – to truly follow in the footsteps of the French expedition.
The route from here to the North Base Camp is sensational, with the steep cliffs and snowfields of Tilicho Peak ahead. Annapurna I rises sheer above, its rocky bastions protecting the Goddess of Plenty. We trek on, climbing quite gently to Narchang Lake Base Camp.
The tangled ice of the North Annapurna Glacier plunges into the frozen icy waters of the lake. The sunset on Annapurna is breathtaking. The Nilgiri peaks to the west are already in the shadows and the sheer cliffs of Tilicho Peak almost hide its summit. From the lake, a trail runs up the moraine to reach a shelf at around 4190m, where today’s climbers’ North Base Camp is located. It’s easy to continue east up to the ABC area at 4303m. A massive chasm now blocks the way ahead to the old Camp I near the glacier.
It’s also easy to explore the shelf west of Base Camp towards the cirque of Nilgiri peaks, by crossing two stony flat zones. There is no trail, but it is possible to follow the stream higher and then climb a grassy hill below Tilicho to reach 4300m. The enticing view reveals the top stages of the French route to the summit, with the great Sickle feature clear, if less distinct after seventy years and global warming. Ghostly plumes of spindrift rise up from the summit when the goddess is stirred.
Looking from afar at the summit ridge, it is sobering to imagine the trials and tribulations of that summit bid by Maurice Herzog and Louis Lachenal, with frozen fingers and toes, risking all. The summit pair descended, to be rescued by the debilitated Lionel Terray and Gaston Rebuffat, both also in some distress. Guided down by Sherpa support under Ang Tharkay and climbers Couzy, Schatz, and Oudot, the climbers managed to get to Base Camp. The retreat from the Miristi Khola, over the Thulobugin Pass, and down the Kali Gandaki to the sweltering humidity of the monsoon was perhaps as much of an epic as the climb. Dr. Oudot performed miracles on the injured. Later from India, Ichac, Noyelle, and Oudot traveled with Herzog to Kathmandu for an audience with the Maharaja, the last of the Rana dynasty to rule Nepal.
Sadly bidding farewell to Annapurna, our own trek back down the Miristi Khola to Tatopani and then by road to Beni and Pokhara was swift. Today the route along the mystical Miristi Khola to Annapurna I is waiting for adventurous camping trekkers to explore the hidden lake below the Goddess of Plenty.
Thanks to our guide Sanjib Gurung and team – Pasang, Aitaram, Nima, and Surya – plus our friend and co-trekker Steven Stamp, honorary kitchen boy!
Annapurna, to which we had gone empty-handed, was a treasure on which we should live the rest of our days.
– Maurice Herzog
Vital reading for this trek:
Annapurna, Maurice Herzog, reprints
Conquistadors of the Useless, Lionel Terray
Siân and Bob would also like to thank Pawan Shakya at Map House. Their trekking guide to this route – Annapurna North Base Camp Trek – is coming soon from Map House in Nepal.
If you can’t wait, it’s already on sale worldwide on Amazon websites: www.amazon.co.uk/Trekking-Guide-Annapurna-North-Himalayan/dp/B0BRHDW69D/
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