“So what’s the worst time of year for avalanches around here?”
I was pretty sure that I knew the answer to my question before it left my mouth, but part of me — the worrying part — just wanted to know for sure. Our guide, Ram, a 24-year-old Nepali built like a young Sylvester Stallone (muscly and short), peered at me through his knockoff Ray-Bans and cocked his head to one side.
“March, April — yeah, those are the worst months for avalanches,” he said, gesturing up toward the glacier that loomed above the narrow valley we were about to traverse.
And there we were in mid-April. April 13, actually. Friday, April 13. Perfect.
This was my first time in Nepal, although it certainly didn’t feel like it. My husband had lived in the country for nearly two years when he was in his early 20s, a decade before I knew him, and ever since, he’s been daydreaming about the place and scheming how to get back. His photographs of Nepal’s soaring mountains, Buddhist relics and smiling, weather-beaten people have adorned our walls ever since we moved in together.
So when a couple of old friends invited me to join them on a trek in Nepal’s Annapurna Sanctuary — a Delaware-sized chunk of land that’s home to 20,000-foot mountains, rhododendron forests, glacier-fed rivers and maybe even a Yeti or two — I jumped at the chance. Oli, my husband, had already committed to doing a ski trip at the same time, and he’d been trekking plenty of times in the Annapurna region anyway. I thought I’d go and see this storied place for myself.
“I hope I haven’t hyped it up too much,” Oli said, looking a little sheepish, a few days before I left.
“We’ll see,” I shrugged, thinking that maybe he had, at least a little bit.
Boy, was I wrong.
A long walk
Our plan was to spend 10 days on foot, taking an indirect route up to Annapurna Base Camp, the snowy, wind-battered little clutch of buildings from which real mountaineers scale the peaks that tower overhead. I was going to be walking with my friends Alec and Danielle, a Canadian couple who were finishing up three months of traveling across South Asia. I only hoped that they’d be as out of shape as I was.
On Day 1, we started the morning in Pokhara, the mountain town we’d flown to from Kathmandu the day before. A 90-minute car ride, which we had arranged with our guesthouse the night before, delivered us to the start of the trail. We got out of the car, strapped on our packs and started to walk.
And we weren’t the only ones. A few dozen other Westerners and Asians clustered around the start of the trail. Like us, most of them were toting trekking poles and Nalgene water bottles, smearing on sunscreen and lacing up their boots before setting off on the trail.
The owner of our guesthouse in Pokhara had warned us that we’d probably run into crowds along the route up to the base camp. The Annapurna region is the most popular trekking destination in Nepal, attracting about 50,000 tourists every year. Most of those visitors pass through during one of the two peak seasons: in October and November, when the air is especially crisp and clear or, like us, in April and May, when Annapurna’s thousands of acres of rhododendrons burst into bloom.