It’s never too late to follow your dreams, says JANE SLADE, even if they take you to the highest mountains in the world
Laughing mischievously as he disappeared down a narrow muddy path into what seemed impenetrable jungle, our guide shouted: “I hope this is the right trail.” My husband Neil and I barely heard him against the roar of the river below and the rain pelting our ponchos.
The monsoon season (July and August) is not the most comfortable period to trek in the Himalayas, but if you want to experience their raw power and energy and have the place to yourself there is no better time.
We had booked our ‘bucket-list’ holiday to mark Neil’s 60th birthday and chose the trek to Annapurna Base Camp as it is categorised as ‘moderate’ – so more suited to people of our age and fitness.
Even so, I was nervous. We were trekking novices and our training had been haphazard; a few walks round Richmond Park and Box Hill and a cycling holiday in Turkey. I had even emailed the name of our solicitor, who had our wills, to my brother-in-law before we left – just in case.
Thankfully we had Pertemba Sherpa with us. Most Sherpas rest during July and August after the expedition season, however Pertemba is now 70 and retired from climbing 20 years ago.
A three-times Everest summiter and friend of Sir Chris Bonington (conquering Everest’s South West Face with him in 1975), Pertemba guided The Prince of Wales on his first trek to Annapurna in December 1980, now advertised as the Royal Trek, and is still nimble and fit skipping along muddy paths and navigating hazardous bridges that he has known all his life.
Pertemba soothed our nerves by laughing, joking and even singing as he led us through rain-soaked jungle, past cascading waterfalls and across rushing rivers.
He led us up thigh-burning steep steps past Gurkha Villages, terraces of rice fields and bamboo forests, through valleys of tree-covered hills on our way to ABC, the 4,100m high point from where serious mountaineers set off to conquer the 10th highest mountain in the world; Annapurna 1.
The higher we climbed, trees and bushes gave way to meadows peppered with alpine flowers. The lush green hillsides framed against the stark white peaks of the highest mountains in the world left us speechless with emotion. We relished in the remoteness and peace.
We met a few hikers; some travelling alone using the maps.me app and others with guides. We felt heartened when we bumped into a pair of 20-somethings on their way down suffering chronic altitude sickness because they had walked up too fast.
We joined a schoolteacher from Greece for part of the way who had hired a guide and was exploring the country on her own, and an older mother and daughter on their first holiday together.
It was nice to walk in silence or simply stand and watch tsunamis of cloud roll over the mountains with other people like us, who just wanted to experience the grandeur and magic of this part of the world.
Accommodation was basic, twin rooms in teahouses. In high season(October/November/December) it gets so busy that late arrivals have to sleep on the dining tables and benches.
Food was simple but plentiful – porridge, pancakes, eggs and local bread for breakfast and momos, pasta, dal bhat, soup, and varieties of fried noodles for lunch and dinner. Alcohol was discouraged.
We didn’t really notice the air thinning until we approached the blue buildings at ABC on our fifth day. We couldn’t work out if we were dizzy with excitement or altitude.
I actually burst into tears when we arrived on the edge of the vast moraine leading to the glacier and brooding peaks we had worked so hard to reach; the Annapurna massif.
We were deeply moved too by the plaques placed in memory of those who had died scaling the great mountain beyond; and reminded of the hazardous way ahead by the line of prayer flags strung out across the mountainside.
Our challenge was nothing compared to what real mountaineers achieve. But we still felt proud of our trek. All those self-help books keep saying that it’s never too late to fulfill certain dreams are absolutely right.
We said our heartfelt goodbyes to Pertemba and thanked him for giving my husband probably the best birthday present of his life.
The Walking and Climbing Company offers treks to Annapurna Base Camp costing from £1,650 per person including accommodation, trekking meals, guides and porters but excluding flights. (walkingandclimbing.co.uk/ 01977 706718)