Friday, 20 May 2016

The Poon Hill 'Stairmaster' hike

Chris overlooking the Annapurna range at dawn
The Poon Hill circuit is a 4/5 day trek that is considered easy to intermediate in difficulty depending on whose information you are reading. It is said to take in small Nepali villages and has occasional tea houses along the route offering food and board. There is varied terrain which includes dusty roads, some stone steps, diverse forest, walking tracks by terraced fields and, the highlight being the summit of Poon Hill itself standing at 3210m. Here one can watch the sun rise over the Annapurna range and you can take in the majesty of seeing several of the world’s biggest mountains coming to life. The route then follows on falling and rising until it eventually ends after completing 59km, 64km, 72km (who knows?).

We had talked of doing other routes. But decided as this was our first long trek and time was short that we would do this one. In retrospect we may have got it wrong.

To me (us) a trek should allow one to amble, walk, scramble, forge streams, sweat, get a bit lost (but happily discover that the new way is shorter), forget one’s water bottle, happen upon quaint inns/lodges/tea houses/cabins etc and generally revel in the openness, solitude and beauty of it all. We were ready for several days of hard walking for 6 or 7 hours but….

Our trek started in Pokhara after a cab ride to the bus park to catch the 7.00am local bus. There is supposed to be a bus every hour but our bus turned out to be the 7.00am, the 8.00am and didn’t leave until 8.30am. Consequently our intended early start began at 10.30 once the driver had finally set off, stopped for breakfast, then stopped for some tea and we had cleared the trek check in point.

The Poon hill trek starts off pleasantly at Birenthani by crossing a bridge and following a rutted, barely used dirt road beside the river. The valley is smallish and the route slowly climbs (passing a couple of houses) until it reaches a couple of tea houses in Sudame where everything changes and the route becomes steps. Quite nice flat rock steps that looked all rustic - but steps all the same. And they went on and on and on like the Led Zep song. 



Steps
For 2½ hours we simply put one foot in front of the other. Avoiding standing in donkey shit where possible and refusing to be dragged into the now frequent guest/tea houses until we reached Ulleri where we had decided to take our first nights stop. A nice little guest house overlooking a valley and mountains. With a  simple room with two clean beds, and  bathroom for 400 Rupees (about $4).  Rooms generally cost about 100-200 Rupees for a single on the walk and 300-500 Rupees for a double with bathroom. Beds are cheap but food and drink costs a lot more than in the towns. Fair enough since everything has to be transported by donkeys.

More bloody steps!
Day two. More bloody steps, loads of ‘em and they are most of the way to Ghorepani at 2800m. Taking out flat bits, that's  still roughly 1800 metres climbed up steps! There is some respite in the middle of the day when you have to go down a load and then re-climb again (which if I were a picky step climber I might point out would add a few more hundred metres). The trouble with steps apart from being bastards, is that you can’t look at much. You have to constantly be on your guard so as not to stumble and consequently the joy of walking is replaced by the tedium of just exertion. I do recall some foresty bits and some pleasant rocky bits towards the end but, in truth, the first two days were not that great which is a shame because we really wanted it to be amazing.

Guides. Many people had said you should get one but its really a waste of $100. You won’t pay more for accommodation or food as prices are pretty standard and its nearly impossible to get lost. If however, you want to boost the local economy by employing a Sherpa to carry your shit then go for it. Although there again you need very little so not really necessary.

Back to the trek. We arrived at Ghorepani a little earlier than we expected. We had thought we would be trekking for 5 or 6 hours a day but managed this leg in about 3 hours so got there at 11.30am and because we wanted to see a sunrise over the mountains the next morning we had a lot of time to kill. Which was just as well as a huge storm started just after we arrived. Ghorepani is quite a nice little place. Touristy with gift shops and lots of guest houses but pretty with blue roofed houses on either side of narrow pathways and dramatic views from the windows.

Poon Hill Summit
Day 3 we are up and at ‘em at 4.45am and guess what? To get to the top its once again the direct route with a 400m climb on steps!  We reach the Top of Poon hill in 45 minutes just as the sun is lighting the mountains. From here it is possible to see five peaks that are about 7,000m and upward and seeing them set against a clear blue sky, tinged with the first yellow rays of the sun make them spectacular.   All are crested with white snow and look magnificent with shafts of light rising over them like search lights. There were about 40 people on the summit – more than we have seen the whole time on our trek. But its a large area and this was the most hikers we would see for the whole of our walk in the mountains.

Annapurna Range from Poon Hill
The skies quickly start to mist at this time of year (and the rain clouds have loomed large for a week or so) but today they didn’t and we were able to watch the scene with no urgency before heading off. Steps! But then…joy. We hit rising and falling paths strewn with rocks. We can look about as we walk and take in the views around us. A green tree filled valley on one side, valleys and mountains on the other. The path hugs the ridge going through forests of huge Rhododendrons. The views of the mountains gradually disappear as you head lower. There are chasms to go walk down, streams to follow, steps to climb (one very long haul up the other side of a valley). But here the trekking is varied and the steps are no longer uniform but more natural. Walking along on this side of Ghorepani is what we wanted. Effectively we have done the hardest part and will finish the trek with the more scenic and interesting part. We pass log jams in the mountain stream that rushes down over shining rocks; a small collection of kerns placed over the years by other climbers; sheer cliff faces dotted with long sprouting mountain grasses and we even had a Lord of the Rings moment with white pony’s in the forest. The walk on this day was great. Tea houses were sparse so finding one to get a cup of sweet black tea was a treat. In all (including Poon Hill at dawn) we were on the trail for 10 hours. Eventually we reached the outskirts of Ghandruk and were dismayed to find one last set of 400 little regimented steps which almost made us scream.


Ghandruk is fantastic. Lots of guesthouses. But lots of homes, a german bakery, a few shops and surrounded by terraced farms. Our bed for the night was Shangrila and had a wide balcony in front of the empty bedrooms where we read, took dramatic pictures of more mountains and ate whilst, once again, the heavens opened just moments after arriving.

I woke at dawn to the yapping of an infernal dog that had gone at it all night. Well done that dog though. The dawn was majestic and with views of Annapurna South and Fishtail Mountain played out in reds and yellow. Quite lovely.

View from Ghandruk
Final day Ghandruk back to Birenthani. Another lovely day with the wooded valleys changing to farmed terraces. We follow a path that runs level for a few hours. Passing locals and donkeys and maybe 6 hikers. It's a beautiful day and the temperature soars the lower we got. Rachel’s knees are suffering after all the steps and both of us have sore calves so the absence of the dreaded ‘S’ word is a relief. Eventually we come upon Kimche where a dusty little used road runs down to a fast flowing, rock filled river. It’s really pleasant and beautiful.  We decline a ride in a bus and passing tractor as to not complete the circuit would feel like cheating. After a further 7km we then cross the bridge once more into Birenthani, sign out of our trek and, as luck would have it jump on a bus that is just leaving.

Last day heading down the valley


In conclusion. We are glad we did the walk but would not recommend it - It’s safe, there is plenty of opportunity to stop and rest and no chance of going astray. We saw some lovely sights and covered a lot of miles and now, a couple of days later are ready to tackle something more serious (with less steps). Bring on the Andes.

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