I reached the top of Poon Hill tired, windswept and wet, and I didn’t quite find what I was looking for — but I’d do it all again in a second.
They call it Poon Hill, and to the villagers of Ghorepani Pass who dwell at its base, I suppose it is just a hill. Yet this is Nepal, and these villagers are themselves 9,482ft above sea level. The peak of Poon Hill reaches 10,531ft, making it more than twice the height of Ben Nevis. That’s some hill.
Taken out of context, it’s just an unremarkable clump of mud and grass brightened by tattered lines of fluttering prayer flags, and on its cloudy summit there’s nothing but a bench, a toilet and a ramshackle viewing tower. However, Poon Hill keeps excellent company. It’s surrounded by some of the tallest and dramatic mountains on Earth and, on a clear day, it can show you these goliaths in all their dramatic detail.
The hill itself is the central point on a circular mountain route. Its paths are wide and well-maintained but often steep, and while seasoned trekkers consider it a beginner’s loop, it’ll make all but the fittest feel the pinch. The whole trek takes between four and seven days, depending on how impatient you are and how much ‘up’ you can take in one sitting. I had all the time in the world and a very low estimation of my own fitness levels: I was quite prepared to take two weeks if necessary.
The trek began with a taxi ride to the village of Nayapul. Our driver was a maniac. His tape deck played one song on a loop and he sang to us as he tried to pass a lorry on the bend of a mountain road. We reached Nayapul grateful to still be alive and fortified ourselves with boiled eggs, toast and tea while tens of Nepalese children watched us eat. It was time to get moving.
As the morning crept on, the sun came out, and while we’d quickly covered a lot of ground it was largely flat land. We had more than 6,500ft to climb before Poon Hill, yet we hadn’t really ascended an inch so far. For all my talk of going slow, impatience was creeping up on me.
I was greedy for progress, so much so that when we came upon a clearing with a dazzling waterfall I was keen to press on ahead. Fortunately, my girlfriend Rachel was still in possession of her sanity, and soon we were neck deep in water, swimming as close to the torrents as the current would allow.
As we dried ourselves off, a young Nepali appeared from nowhere, stripped to his shorts and climbed up a rocky bank to the top of the waterfall where he stood, taut and alert, as if about to jump. We waited 10 minutes for him to launch himself before giving up and moving on. Then, seconds after we’d walked out of sight, we heard a spectacular splash.
By now the path had started to climb and I was finally sensing progress. Up was the only way that mattered on this trip and there was a hell of a lot of it standing between us and Poon Hill, including the notorious 3,280 steps that linked the villages of Tikhedhungga and Ulleri. I wasn’t sure exactly what 3,280 steps looked like, but it was more than I’d ever climbed, and I only hoped I could reach them in a reasonable condition.
As we followed the course of a stream over grassy hills through bushes and hedgerows, we could well have been hiking in the English countryside. Birdsong drifted in from every direction and with the sun still shining, the day was beginning to fulfil its promise. An Australian couple, doing the trek in the opposite direction, stopped to chat. They’d spent two days around Poon Hill, waiting for the cloud to clear, but the incredible views they’d been promised had failed to materialise. This was something I hadn’t considered. The thought of walking all that way and being rewarded with nothing more than clouds was too appalling to take in. ‘I live in London,’ I thought, ‘I can see clouds any time.’
I brooded on this as we made our way through several tiny villages, each little more than a cluster of lodges and tea houses — small cafes selling hot drinks and snacks to weary trekkers. We stopped for lunch and I had my first taste of the dish that came to symbolise the whole trekking experience: dal baht. It’s essentially a combination of rice and lentil soup plus bread and whatever random vegetables happen to be lying around at the time.
To say this is the national dish is an understatement: the Nepalese, especially those in rural areas, eat the stuff two to three times a day. It’s slightly different every time, and if you don’t like the sound of it, you might as well stay out of the mountains.
Before leaving the tea house, we stocked up on our other staple — hard-boiled eggs. At these altitudes, vitamins are hard to come by and fresh fruit and vegetables are thin on the ground. Protein is therefore the name of the game, and hard-boiled eggs are the ideal portable snack, especially if you’re tired of energy bars.
With a rucksack full of the things, we forged onwards against a fierce sun, winding our way down a series of mysterious-looking country lanes to the chatter of cockerels and the tingle of bells dangling from the necks of lumbering yaks. Before long we’d reached Tikhedhungga. It was now decision time.
Tikhedhungga is one of the larger villages on the route, full of tea houses and comfortable lodges. It was an ideal stopping point but also marked the beginning of the 3,280-step climb to Ulleri. From here, things would get a lot more vertical; with around three hours of daylight left, the question was should we settle down for the night or should we face up to the steps like heroes?
I’m sure I’m not the first fundamentally lazy man to surprise himself on foreign soil, but impatience had worked its way back into my brain. With adrenalin coursing through my veins and a tank full of boiled eggs and dal baht, there was no way I was going to turn down the chance to prove myself on this gigantic stone stairway.
We crossed a huge Indiana Jones-style rope bridge and suddenly we were there at the foot of an almighty climb. I started counting but gave up shortly after the first 100 steps, sorely discouraged by the length of time it had taken us to cover them. Up we went, step after step, each one asking tough questions of our thigh and calf muscles.
It began to rain. A group of schoolchildren scuttled past. We’d seen their school on the way down to Tikhedhungga and it was crazy to think that every day they had to climb down thousands of steps and cross a huge rope bridge just to get to their classes.
As the rain grew heavier, we hit a crossroads. A local man in a smart hat appeared just in time to prevent us from taking the wrong route. “That way’s for donkeys,” he explained with a grin.
Onwards we climbed, our boots splashing as we went. Surely we must be more than halfway by now? Then, through the gap in the clouds, we caught our first sight of the Annapurna mountains. It was only a glimpse, just two jagged white cones behind a wispy thread of cloud — but what a sight.
On we pressed, ever upwards, but by now we were pausing every 10 or 20 steps, hands on knees, bent over and straining for breath. My groin was aching, and as we moved higher and higher I had to heave my left leg up with my hands just to keep it moving. I’d lost count of the steps long ago, but by now it felt as though we’d climbed thousands, and as the rain became torrential, the ground suddenly levelled off and the tops of buildings rose into view. We’d
done it. We’d reached Ulleri and I could still just about stand upright. Just about.
We surveyed the accommodation. The first place looked as though it’d be lucky to still be there in the morning. The second was no better. We settled on a busy little guesthouse with an open fire in its parlour. Our companions were a quiet group of Frenchmen and a German couple who had clearly reached saturation point with their guide. Dinner was an odd version of dal baht featuring what looked a bit like tentacles. As we sloped off to our room, a genial American arrived and a card game started, and as we collapsed on our beds we could hear laughing below. ‘They sound like they’re having fun’ I thought, but was too tired to either move or care.
Into the forest
If the first day was one of discovery, the second was all about appreciation. After the heroics of the 3,280 steps, we were hoping to take it a little easier, and the scenery around us certainly justified a leisurely pace.
While day one had been all open skies and cliffside ascents, the route from Ulleri to Ghorepani Pass was more like a passage through an enchanted forest. All around there were moss-covered trees and shrubs while above us a dense archway of ferns let in just enough sun to keep the scene delicately lit.
When the rhododendrons bloom in March and April I’m told the entire forest is enveloped in a carpet of vibrant red petals. It was now late May, but even without their colourful flowers, the furry, moss-covered trees glistened in the light. There was water all around: on the leaves, in the streams that criss-crossed the footpath, in the moist air.
We walked on in an impressed silence, alone except for the occasional villager scurrying past in the opposite direction. At one point, as the path started to climb, we were overtaken by a man herding dozens of obedient buffalo. For several minutes afterwards we could hear bells tingling in their wake. Then the sound was gone, replaced once more by the gentle trickle of the stream.
If the challenge of more than 3,000 steps had brought out the insufferable competitor in me, this landscape had the reverse effect. Nothing could have troubled me as I made my way across one tiny bridge after another; even the frequent bursts of rain did nothing to sour my mood.
I don’t know if it was the fresh air or the scenery, but I was experiencing mild elation as we ascended further into the canopy of trees. Perhaps someone had slipped barbiturates into my tea. Or maybe it was just the freeing simplicity of this wilderness existence. No worries. No need to think. No tasks, except to keep moving forward. No decisions, not even over food: it was always dal baht, eggs or energy bars.
After following the stream for hours, we emerged from the trees, and for the first time since morning we could see the sky in full. We’d made it to Ghorepani Pass at the foot of Poon Hill, and this time we headed straight for the largest guesthouse we could find — a long, glass-fronted structure with a fire and very welcome drying rack.
Upon removing our shoes and socks, we discovered we’d been attacked by the local leeches. Neither of us had seen any, but the welts and blisters on our legs and feet were proof of their presence and testament to their cunning. It was time to put those weary, blistered feet up and relax. After dinner, we shared several beers and plenty of laughs with three gregarious Tasmanians before heading up to our freezing box room and setting our alarms for 4am.
The final ascent
In my experience, when you’re travelling, there are two ways to do things: the perfect way and the next-best way. If you get hung up on doing things the perfect way, you’re doomed.
The ideal way to experience Poon Hill is to get up there in time to see the sun rise over the mountains. Our alarms woke us at 4am, but the raindrops pelting our window told us the sobering truth: if we attempted the climb the now, we’d get soaked on the way up and see nothing but cloud when we reached the top.
It was time to forget perfection and focus on the next-best option, and at that moment, this meant going back to sleep. We awoke again at 10am prepared to write the whole day off, but to our surprise, the weather had cleared.
Our time had finally arrived. Once more we began a weary ascent, this time up a steep, muddy path through shrubs and bushes. This time there was no leafy canopy to shield us from the elements, and the wind that stung our faces also fluttered the line of prayer flags that marked the halfway point.
With two day’s walking behind me, I was running out of steam. After propelling ourselves upwards for half an hour more, I heard a sound I couldn’t initially place. Birdsong? The wind? Maybe a mountain leopard? No: the unmistakable sound of Aussie banter. Our Tasmanian friends had beaten us.
We joined them at the tattered bench and looked out over the drop: there it was, that long-promised view. It wasn’t perfection as it wasn’t the clear day we’d hoped for, but it was worth it nonetheless.
An eerie swirl of cloud offered us glimpses of the range one peak at a time. First Dhalagiri, a near 27,000ft-high monster and the world’s seventh-highest peak. Then the eighth-highest, Manaslu. Next, Annapurna South and Annapurna I, followed by three or four of their huge bodyguards. Finally, Machhupuchhare — the unconquered ‘fishtail’ mountain with its twisted double peak.
There’s no sweeter reward than the one that follows hard work, whether it’s a Saturday morning lie-in or a cold beer after a sweaty game of football. Yet to see the world at its most dramatic at the end of the walk of my life? Well, that’ll certainly take some beating.
Airlines with flights from Heathrow to Kathmandu include Etihad Airways via Abu Dhabi, Kingfisher Airlines via Delhi, and Qatar Airways via Doha. Domestic airlines fly between Kathmandu and Pokhara, including Nepal Airlines and Buddha Air. It should take
around half an hour.
Average flight time: Around 12-14h depending on connections.
Most trekkers use the area of Pokhara as their base. From there, buses run to Nayapul, the starting point for the Poon Hill trek, although taxis are cheap.
When to go
Autumn is the most popular season for trekking as there’s a greater chance of clear skies. Spring is also popular, with moderate weather and rhododendrons out in bloom. In winter, trekkers can brave the cold, although some higher crossings in the Annapurna circuit may be inaccessible. Summer is monsoon season, which makes trekking much more difficult.
Need to know
Visas: British citizens require a visa which can be issued on arrival at Tribhuvan International Airport, Kathmandu. A multiple-entry visa (£25), valid for 30 days, can also be obtained from the Embassy of Nepal in London. www.nepembassy.org.uk
Six-month passport validity is required.
Currency: Nepalese Rupee (NPR). £1 = NPR117.
Health: Consult your doctor about the usual jabs and precautions.
International dial code: 00 977.
Time difference: GMT +5.45.
How to do it
Footprint Adventures offers a 13-day Annapurna trek for two. Price is from £655 per person. www.footprint-adventures.co.uk
Ramblers Worldwide Holidays offers the 17-day Foothills of Annapurna tour, from £2,659 per person, including flights. www.ramblersholidays.co.uk
Rough Guide to Nepal.
Shops in Pokhara sell maps and guides for the treks.
Published in the May/June 2011 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)