Short circuit

Kopra Ridge offers electrifying, up-close views of the Annapurna range and quieter trails than those that form the famous loop around the massif

Story by: Steve White

The Annapurna Circuit is one most celebrated treks on the planet. Its combination of accessibility and challenge has fired imaginations for decades, with many thousands completing its circumnavigation of one of the world’s 8,000-metre peaks, including a climb over a 5,000-metre pass, Thorong La.

But some today say this famous route risks becoming more circus than circuit. They say that while its teahouses have brought income to villages that would otherwise have depopulated in favour of the bright lights of Pokhara down the valley, the trade has changed the villages too. Those teahouses were often working farms before and the villagers’ taste for more tourism and development has seen the road advance further up both sides of the massif, bringing still more trekkers to the trail.

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Happily, some trekking operators are responding by adopting more sustainable practices and by branching out: using alternate trails that offer fresh challenges and fewer people. One such alternate is the walk to Kopra Ridge, a blade of rock that teeters on the edge of what is by some measures, the deepest canyon in the world, and is overlooked by mighty Annapurna South (7,219 metres).

The approach begins conventionally enough. Clambering out of the bus at Phedi, a common trailhead for many Annapurna hikes, you immediately tax your knees and heartrate on a long stone-stepped ascent up to a ridge. Thankfully the road noise soon drops away and the rhythms of the trail begin to assert themselves. Hikers find their pace, some seeking solitude at the front or back, others settling into conversation in the middle of the ‘pack’.

With the day shortened by the approach drive from Pokhara, the first overnight at Dhampus is not far off. Here the size of the guesthouses attests to its popularity, its location not just convenient but also offering the first wide-open views of the Annapurna massif. At sunset, everyone’s gaze sweeps back and forth across from Annapurna South on the left, to the sublimely graceful Machhapuchchhre, or Fishtail Peak (6,993 metres) in the centre, and on to Annapurnas III (7,555 metres), IV (7,525 metres) and II (7,937 metres) in that order on the right.

Next morning you resume the climb. At each village a clutch of trailside stalls offer a retail refrain that soon becomes familiar: Snickers and Mars Bars tempt with a reviving sugar-rush, stacks of off-brand sunnies next to rows of beanies in pleasingly ethnic colours. Ads dazzle against the ancient grey stone walls: pointing you towards the guesthouse with the best wifi signal or pushing Coke as the perfect accompaniment to a plate of momos, the local dumplings. Guesthouse windows sport Facebook and TripAdvisor logos, along with stickers from the trekking operators that have passed by.

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Untouched it is not, but most things remain appealing cheap by developed world standards meaning that even after some good-natured bargaining, both sides end up with a deal they can live with.

The trail passes into woodland near Pothana, climbed through the 2,000-metre mark before falling away again to Landruk, the next overnight. This farming village straggles across a precipitous hillside, the Mardi Khola river out of sight hundreds of metres below. Here the guesthouses are supplemented by tented camps, most with a simple toilet/shower block and a restaurant. So steep is the valley here that sitting out on a moonless night, you could be forgiven for taking the winking village lights high on the facing side to be a constellation of stars.

Daylight brings the knowledge that those lights were not just the houses and homestays of Ghandruk, but that they are your goal for the day. A rapid descent soon gets you across the river where several especially picturesque, flower-hung cafes and guesthouses urge trekkers to prepare for the sapping climb back up by trying the local honey, gathered from huge hives dangling from rocks by the river.

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Bigger aims, smaller footprints

Operators are looking increasingly at how to reduce the effect your hike has on the environment. World Expeditions, for instance, has targeted the increasing demand for firewood by adopting a ‘no wood burning’ policy, firing stoves with biomass briquettes and yak dung instead. They have also set up permanent tented camps in areas where no suitable accommodation was on offer, allowing them to put money into pockets previously not directly benefiting from trekking. Initiatives such as these have only gained more importance since the slump in tourism following the quakes of April and May 2015.

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Hundreds of stone steps later, you reach Ghandruk, and your day is done. A prosperous village, it is one of the biggest in the region with a jumble of sturdy guesthouses and hotels almost piled atop each other.

After a reviving sleep, you climb out of the village next morning into rhododendron country. Moss-bearded trees blooms with fat pink and red flowers in the spring and this forest stays with the trail the rest of the day. It’s almost all uphill, to a pretty lunch spot where the tables are laid out right on the stone flags of the trail and then beyond to Tadapani.

The last of the teahouse village stops on this route, Tadapani sits at the head of a pass, near-buried in rhododendrons. Compared to Ghandruk it is a scruffy place, just a handful of guesthouses slapped with whitewash and accented in teahouse blue. On a steely March day, it looks like something out of a Tim Burton movie. Dank and age-gnarled, the trunks throw out fat, almost-animate fingers towards the trail, the air of unease offset by the thousands of ripe pink and red blooms that lend a creepy charm.

Here the trail takes a turn for the wilder, leaving the stone-stepped main routes to clamber up through the wood to the snowline. If you are here towards the ends of the year, chances are you will need the over-trousers and gaiters you have been cursing as unnecessary weight up until this point. The path narrows and then disappears under a blanket of white that drifts to thigh-deep in places.

In a guided party, it’s a conceit that you are forging a trail but, postholing through snow, it is one not difficult to buy into. It brings such a thrill that unless you suffer the cold badly, deliberately targeting a time of year with snow would be a great way to add an edge to your Annapurna adventure, as well as reducing the likelihood of meeting many others on the trail.

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After several hours in the snow, you reach Bayeli where there is a relatively new tented camp with attractive stone paths and spotless toilets though no showers. It sits just below an older lodge but is otherwise isolated, peeking out from a forested bowl in the hills with a view that includes the trip’s endpoint, the lodge on Kopra Ridge, the wall of rock far too high to allow any sight of the Annapurnas beyond.

The final outward day of trekking sees you start out on a narrow contouring track that begins to climb in earnest after exiting the bowl about Bayeli. The climb steepens through the day as you first reach the foot, and then begin to scale, the ramparts of Kopra Ridge, on a trail that switchbacks up the last 200 metres of ascent.

Finally, you gain the top, where several simple mountain huts are hunkered down in the snow perhaps in awe of the spectacle that looms behind. At 3,660 metres, you are scarcely half as high as the peak that hangs, improbably, in the sky: Annapurna South. Immense blank walls and powerful shoulders guard its approaches and it looks every inch the Himalayan giant.

Set back out of sight, the main peaks of Annapurna are still higher of course, and to the west is the immense bulk of Dhaulagiri (8,167 metres). Between and far below them, lost in haze, the valley of the Kali Gandaki river. Flanked by two 8,000-metre peaks, some say this is the world’s deepest gorge.

Whatever you make of that claim, the view is ample reward for all the climbing and very different to that from the main Annapurna Circuit trail, now hundreds of metres lower. That route offers no such close-up views of peaks until its own high point at Thorong La.

Those with fuel left in the tank can follow the ridge a little higher, to where the trail turns to traverse rock and snow fields towards Annapurna South itself. Proceeding beyond this point depends on the conditions and your experience and anyway quickly turns from a hike into a climb into very committing terrain indeed.

Most people will be content with the ridge-top view from their lodge’s airy perch. The outward journey complete, relax with a hot drink and some freshly made momos and watch the sunset tint the mighty faces opposite.

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Next day you begin the return. This could be a three-day walkout using the main Annapurna Circuit trail but it’s also possible to make it a single day’s pell-mell descent to Swanta and drive out from there.

From the ridge it is more than 1,000 metres of tumbling descent, the vegetation zones traversed previously over days now sped through in hours, the near-barren alpine ridgeline left for scrubby firs, in turn left for oak and rhododendron forest once more. At the bottom, a pot pourri of leaves underfoot, the shade-dappled trail undulates into and out of a small valley to reach the final campsite.

The road at Swanta marks the highwater mark of development: from here it is just a bumpy couple of hours on the as-yet-unsealed surface to negotiate before you hit asphalt again.

All too soon the clamour of Pokhara reasserts itself. Homeward bound, you slip easily back into city habits. There remains one final reminder of the trail behind: climbing off the runway, headed for Kathmandu, you look back and remember the day you stood in the very shadow of Annapurna. AA

Practicalities

When to go

The two traditional trekking seasons are either side of the summer monsoon: March to May and October/November. Go a week or two early in spring or late in autumn and the cold will have put off most people. Summer is very quiet but be prepared for rain and cloud-reduced views.

How to get there

From Kathmandu, the capital, fly on to Pokhara, a laidback city nestled under Machhapuchchhre. Most out-of-country operators include this flight in their tour package.

Contacts

The author hiked with Australia-based company, World Expeditions, www.worldexpeditions.com

There are numerous other operators that can arrange options in the Annapurna area including Skyline Treks, www.skylinetreks.com and Summit Climb, www.summitclimb.com

Further info

Himalayan Map House’s NA505 is the map to have for this part of the Annapurna range. You can easily get it in Pokhara, as well as in bigger places along the trail.