After Everest one other Nepalese peak has become synonymous with high adventure – Annapurna. Superlatives are insufficient to do justice to its seductive trails, sublime scenery and the fascinating culture of this magical massif. It’s no wonder that avid trekkers and mountaineers are drawn to these mesmerising peaks. In his 1947 anthology “The Mountain Top” Frank Smith summed up the appeal of trekking when he wrote: Escape from the shell of your small affairs and tread for a while those mysterious paths of the spirit that lead nowhere and everywhere. Then you will know beauty. Such is the essence of the Annapurna’s.
Taken from an ancient Sanskrit name for the goddess of plenty, Annapurna is not one peak but four numbered in order of height. These giants are engaging in all their moods; at dawn they are bathed in a soft hazy light, but soon clouds drift in, leaving the jagged spired floating like benign ghosts. Throughout sunset they are cloaked by fiery demons, at night they shimmer in the moonlight. Sometimes storm engulf the rampart, while at other times they’re reflected as a vision of earthly serenity in the cool waters of a lake.
The range of sights on the circuit is astonishing: terraced hillsides, dense jungle, humid bamboo clumps, and canopies of cloud forest, dank eerie woodlands, and silent alpine glades. Quaint farmhouses dot the landscape, while women in brightly colored sari’s wash clothes by the river. Elsewhere a Hindu god may catch your gaze with a smile of encouragement.
Higher up the land is barren. Weirdly eroded turrets support fairy-tale citadels, casting shadows over medieval villages and hermit caves. Monasteries adorned with colourful prayer flags cling to sheer cliffs where Buddhist monks chant evocative mantras, half hypnotized by the aromatic incense of juniper. Himalayan Thar and Snow Leopard guard the upper ramparts where an astonishing array of vegetation hides numerous birds. The Annapurna circuit remains one of the truly great walks of the world.
The Annapurna Sanctuary trek requires you to imagine an almost complete ring of high peaks, six of which top 7000 m and one – the enigmatic Annapurna gracing 8000 m. Picture this immense amphitheater hung about with glaciers, plastered with snowfields, buttressed by massive walls of rock that erupt from a basin of old moraines and raunchy streams. Dream, if you will, of a silver moon lighting the scene, of sunrise staining summits, of mist thickening to clouds that slowly fill the basin. And the last summit to be swamped by it all is one of the most charismatic: Machhapuchhre, the unmistakable “fishtail” peak, guardian of the Annapurna Sanctuary and seducer supreme. Everywhere you turn is a bounty is visual excellence. Wilfred Noyce the acclaimed poet-mountaineer concluded his book on the attempt of Machhapuchhre with the words; “If there be a paradise on earth, it is now, it is now, it is now.