THE ANNAPURNA CIRCUIT had been on my — and my two travel companions’ — to-do list for a while. But the only time that worked for all of us was in January. This just made it more exciting and even more appealing.
Trekking the circuit at this time of year meant we’d experience Nepal in a quieter time, where lodging would be more available and the hiking wouldn’t be over-crowded. We also liked the idea of not knowing if we’d even be successful getting over the pass; we thought it added an element of adventure.
Watching for cheap ticket prices to get to Nepal was the biggest element of preparation for the trek that we did. We all work as outdoor educators and backpack and mountaineer for our jobs, so if you don’t have much experience, testing out all your gear and doing some winter trips would be very worthwhile before doing the Annapurna Circuit in January.
Quick tips and must-haves:
- Make sure to get all the cash you will need for the entire trek in Kathmandu, as there aren’t AMTs until Jomsom.
- Food and lodging is about $10/day.
- $30/day for each of us was more than enough for everything.
- Good hiking boots are key.
- Pack gaiters, a warm down jacket, warm hat, and warm mitts (unnecessary at lower elevations but necessary higher up).
If I were to do the trek again, I would try to learn more Nepali beforehand, as well as have a better grasp on the conversion from meters to feet. Otherwise, it was the adventure of a lifetime!
“You’re trekking the Annapurna Circuit in winter?!” “Isn’t that the wrong time of year to go there? Are you taking skis?” Many people would respond to our travel plans with statements like these, and to answer: It’s an adventurous time of year. The circuit has fewer trekkers on it and fewer teahouses open. The weather can be a blizzard, beautiful sunshine, howling winds, or socked in with clouds. It provides an experience of the Himalayas that is less about other tourists, more about true mountain living. It is possible, but getting over the pass is not a guarantee, and that is what makes the hike all the more exciting and rewarding.
The Annapurna Circuit starts in Besisahar, at 2,700ft, and reaches a high point of 17,700ft at Thorong La Pass. This means there is a huge range of environmental conditions you need to be prepared for. Even more so in the winter months, packing many layers—from a t-shirt to a good down jacket—is of paramount importance for success. A notice board and chart with elevation change and hiking times helps for planning a schedule and acclimatization strategy.
The first few days, the trail meanders past terraced rice growing beds (seen here in the background). While it is still likely to be warm at low elevations in January, it is not the growing season, so the fields are brown, and fresh vegetables are pretty minimal in the dishes on the menu.
From Besisahar to Manang (11,600ft), the path follows the Marshyangdi, a beautiful blue glacial river. We imagined that in the summer it would offer a refreshing dip spot, but not in January! Bathing in the winter months was limited to bucket showers for the most part, as many of the drains and taps were frozen solid in the teahouses, especially up higher.
Afternoon tea stops were a great way to stay hydrated and enjoy the midday warmth. Many people asked what the temperatures were; I never saw a thermometer. What people are wearing is the best indicator. Look at daytime hiking clothes and evening layers worn while inside the teahouses.
Choosing which teahouse to stay in for the night required a group decision that wasn’t always easy. Since winter guests were few and far between, sometimes we were torn about which locals to support. Lower Pisang (10,600ft) offered an overhead view so we could pick out which place might meet our nighttime criteria before we walked into town and teahouse owners started vying for our business.
We didn’t see anyone else trekking the day of our biggest blizzard. The wind and snow made for temperatures that were too cold for us to stop for rests, so we were appreciative of the teahouses. That said, inside the buildings were still pretty chilly, and it took some focused effort to dry clothing items in front of the fire in preparation for the next day.
Taking turns breaking trail through three feet of snow made for slow progress, but we enjoyed the adventure and teamwork aspect of traveling this way. With all the snow it also meant there were no jeeps or motorcycles traveling the road, unlike the rest of the year when it can be much less peaceful because of traffic.
Every few days there would be a checkpoint where you have to show your permit to the Nepali police. Here a group of them seem to be happily working away at shoveling off the roof after the storm. Other trekking infrastructure, like health clinics and fresh water stations, were closed for the winter months.
A stop to re-warm feet was in order this sunny but cold day. Trekking through the snow meant gaiters were a necessity.
Above Manang (11,600ft) the landscape becomes much more desolate and the living is simpler. We moved through this terrain with more focus and intention, knowing with both the altitude and the weather we needed to take care of ourselves.
The feeling of insignificance at the same time as accomplishment having hiked up and amongst the high peaks offers great life perspective to the trekker, with all the time in the world to ponder…step by step.
We crossed paths with a total of 8-12 other groups while hiking the circuit. As a group of three women, and trekking without a guide, we were definitely not your typical crew. However, we all have considerable hiking experience from North American wilderness travel and our work as instructors at Outward Bound.
The pass is at 17,700ft, though this was the highest my watch altimeter read when we got to the top of Thorong La at 12:35 on day 12 of the hike. Altimeters are influenced by weather systems and pressure, hence the inaccuracy. As winter weather has a greater impact on travel (trail breaking slows one down), it is a good idea to plan for a few extra days in the winter months.
After crossing Thorong La, a decent of 5,200ft down to Muktinath, where the first lodging is, is a long day, is hard on the toes, and requires an early start (in the dark in January) to ensure enough travel time with a safety buffer.
Down in the town of Kagbeni (at 9,200ft), the snow dissipated and the earth started to show again. How exciting after such wintry conditions. We saw more signs of fruit and vegetables growing again, and enjoyed wearing fewer layers!
In the higher elevation towns we noticed fewer women and children. We were told that in the winter they leave for lower elevation.
Following the Kali Gandaki River, we entered the deepest valley in the world. This gorge is encompassed by two major peaks: Dhaulagiri (8,167m or 26,795ft) to the west, and Annapurna I (8,091m or 26,545ft) to the east. It’s also an area of high winds, so hiking earlier in the day can be more pleasant. Here, on the backpack, you can see a lightweight solar panel; we took advantage of the sun for charging cameras and other electronics which proved valuable.
Winter means not much business for the more remote villages. We were the first customers for this shopowner in a week, and she was overjoyed with the sales we gave her. Her appreciation and excitement was more meaningful than the beautiful yak wool blankets we loaded into our backpacks.
We used drawing in a journal as a way to engage with the children, as well as to wrap up each day for ourselves as a group of three. Images we drew depicted our highlights or lows from the day. Our total hiking distance was 183km (114 miles) in 16 days. Our average hiking day was 10km, (6 miles) (min 6km, max 20km) and 6 hours (min 4 hours, max 10 hours).
Annapurna I (26,545ft), made more dramatic and spectacular with a winter coat of fresh snow. “Adventure is not in the guide book, beauty is not on the map. Seek and ye shall find.” (Terry Russell). Annapurna Circuit in January. Yes, it is possible. You just need to be prepared.
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