Sanctuary at the Top of the World : by Alan Ingram
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Annapurna - " Goddess Mother of the Harvests " - is, like Everest, a secluded
peak. Although its 8000metre summit may be
glimpsed from Phewa Lake in Pokhara, protruding on the far horizon between the
protecting bastions of Hiunchuli and Macchapuchre, a six-day trek over terraced
hillsides strewn with picturesque villages and through the deep, dark gorge of
the Modi Khola is required to reach the yak pastures and vast, glacier-filled
amphitheatre ensconced at the foot of the world's tenth highest mountain.
Named " the Sanctuary " by Colonel Jimmy Roberts, the pioneer and founder of
organised trekking in the Nepal Himalaya, this was the site of the base camp of
Chris ( now Sir ) Bonington on his successful assault on Annapurna's massive
along this popular route had mushroomed since my first visit ten years
previously but thanks to the strict controls imposed by ACAP ( Annapurna
Conservation Area Project ) the standards maintained are higher than other
regions of Nepal and compare favourably with those of alpine huts in Europe.
Inspectors check the general cleanliness of the lodges and their surroundings
and also their foodstocks to ensure all items on the extensive menus are indeed
available. The use of wood fires is banned and there is a depot for hiring
stoves and the purchase of kerosene.
Altitude is the only difficulty in reaching the Sanctuary although no
crossing of any high pass is required. On both my visits trekkers were
encountered in distressed conditions from attempting to go too high too fast -
one American was sure that if he pushed on the effects would wear off. Every
year, despite widespread warnings, there are fatalities in the Nepal himalaya
from AMS ( acute mountain sickness ).
The final two days above Chomrong, the highest permanent settlement in the
area, are through dense, bamboo-and-rhododendron jungle lining the sheer-sided walls of the
Modi Khola Gorge, with views ahead of the giant 7000 metre Gangapurna, before
one emerges into the spectacular beauty of the Sanctuary.
October to December, the post-monsoon season, is the peak trekking period
when the weather should be clear and dry but the walk-in on my return visit was
in heavy, prolonged rainfall - it was the worst autumn weather in 25 years
causing havoc with the still-to-be-harvested grain crops. The floor of the
Sanctuary was covered in two feet of fresh snow while the Tharong La high pass
on the Annapurna Circuit was temporarily blocked by the unseasonal snowfall
forcing commercial trekking groups on fixed schedules
to turn back and retrace their routes.
In the afternoons mists tend to swirl up the valley but in the evening can
clear, like a curtain being drawn, to expose the nearby Macchapuchre, the
"Fishtail-mountain", with its summit snowfields aflame in the sunset. An equally
dramatic view can be obtained in the mornings when the great South Face of
Annapurna I glows golden in the sunrise. Many trekkers miss out on these magic
moments by staying at the lower Macchapuchre Base Camp and only making day-trips
to the Sanctuary. They benefit however by avoiding the bone-biting, sub-zero,
arctic temperatures which prevail in the ice-bound basin under star-spangled,
Across the jumbled moraine of the South Annapurna Glacier a dangerous gully,
bombarded by a constant fusillade of stonefall, emerges onto a level terrace and
a 2000 foot climb gains the domed top ( c5000metres ) of Rakshi Peak - a snow
summit not requiring a climbing permit. The ascent can usually be done in a
single day from base camp but with its heavy cover of deep, soft snow I had to
make a high camp and take two days ( possible thanks to my trekking crew ).
The vantage point high in the centre of the Sanctuary provides a 360 degree
panorama of the encircling mountains and a proper perspective of their true
immensity. Starting from Hiunchuli, the western sentinel above the narrow
gateway to the Sanctuary, a tremendous ridge of ice and rock sweeps round the
skyline encompassing the graceful Annapurna South Peak, the jagged, black
pinnacle of Fang, and culminates in the formidable ramparts of Annapurna I.
Nearby towers the aptly named Tent Peak ( nepalese name Tharpu Chuli - one of
the so-called "trekking" peaks requiring a $200 climbing permit ) while the sacred and unclimbed Macchapuchre
presents a shapely silhouette as the eastern sentinel above the gateway.
Occasionly the profound silence is violated by the reverberating roar of an
avalanche as huge blocks of snow and ice crash, amid billowing clouds of
spindrift, to the glacier far below.
On the return journey to Pokhara a detour can be made from Chomrong through
the major Gurung village of Gandrung, with its maze of narrow, paved alleyways
and stone-built, slate-roofed houses surrounded by orange marigolds and superb
outlooks on Annapurna South Peak, Hiunchuli and the twin tops of Macchapuchre (
maccha - fish, puchre - tail ).
© Alan Ingram 2001/2
Reproduced with permission.