Annapurna Sanctuary, Nepal

Photo: Explore Himalaya

Whereas the popular Annapurna Circuit takes you on a three-week orbit of the whole Annapurna range, this trek heads straight for its soaring heart

Photo: Explore Himalaya

Difficulty: 2 out of 3
Duration: 10-14 days
Season: March-May, September-November

Whereas the popular Annapurna Circuit takes you on a three-week orbit of the whole Annapurna range, this trek heads straight for its soaring heart. There, after a five-to seven-day walk, you emerge from the Mardi Gorge to find yourself in a natural amphitheatre seemingly within touching distance of some of the world’s highest peaks.
Annapurna I is the pick of the peaks in pure height terms at 8,091m, but with its sister peaks all over 7,500m, it is more of a prominence at the end of a long, ultra-high ridge than a significant solo summit.
Instead it is the slight and relatively low peak of Machhapuchhare (6,993m or 22,943ft) that is the undisputed winner of the beauty contest. Seen from Pokhara, it appears taller than all the surrounding summits and is a pyramid reminiscent of the Matterhorn. As you walk north into the range though, a second peak becomes apparent behind the first, giving rise to the shape that earned the mountain its name – Machhapuchhare means ‘fishtail’. It’s an unlikely name for a holy peak but nevertheless the only known attempt to climb it in 1957 stopped short of the very top out of respect for local feeling.
The walk to the Sanctuary in its shadow is straightforward and with plenty of teahouses to offer meals and accommodation in the trekking season, it can be done relatively lightly encumbered. That leaves you to fall enjoyably into a routine where the most onerous responsibility is choosing a suitably sunny spot for lunch.
The first days are spent mostly below 2,000m where vegetation is verdant and the villages more frequent. Oak forests and stands of rhododendrons are common, and the settlements – mostly of Gurung people, of Gurkha soldier fame – are attractive and lived in all-year-round. Every now and then you must round cairns of mani stones (always passed to the clockwise side) and often the loudest sound in earshot is that of the flapping prayer flags straining at their lines.
The so-called Machhapuchhare Base Camp at 3,480m is reached on the penultimate day of the trek up, leaving just one final day’s climb to the trail’s end at Annapurna Base Camp, sat under the mountain’s imposing South Face.
Acclimatised and on a trail now familiar and mostly downhill, you can make good time on the way down, comfortably needing a day or two less than it took to go up. At Chhomrong there’s the option to turn off onto one of several alternative routes home – even to add an extra day and climb the famous Poon Hill for a sweeping farewell view of the entire western end of the Nepalese Himalayas.
Operators
Diverse Nepal Travel & Tours, www.diversenepal.com
Explore Himalaya, www.explorehimalaya.com