Join Blake as he embarks on a trek through the Annapurna Circuit in Nepal, navigating treacherous mountain roads, snowy conditions, and coming face to face with human connections only the mountains can offer up.

‘Not possible’, laughs Pradip. A mountain guide in the summer and hostel manager in the off-season, Pradip knows the hike well. His face brightens as he reminiscences summers spent in the mountain air surrounded by peaks so giant you’d have to see to comprehend, he tells me.

‘It looks easy on this map, but it’s up and down the whole way, and more importantly you’ll get sick from the altitude if you go too fast … it is not an Australian hike,’ he says

I have a spare couple of weeks left in Nepal, enough time, in my mind at least, to trek one of the world’s great walks: the Annapurna Circuit. I’m a novice hiker whose recent diet of fried momos and cheap ‘Everest’ beers has diminished any fitness I thought I had.

The journey begins with Nepali folk music and the ticket collector’s shouts of ‘Besisahar!’ serenading our trip to the start of the circuit.

Nepali for ‘the city at the base of a hill’, the bus skids through stone roads etched into the mountainside town, swelling as it consumes passengers along the way.

I’m swept up in the excitement of the trip until we’re stopped by police on a steep mountain cliff. Peering through the other curious passengers, I’m met with the reality of Nepal’s mountain roads as I stare down at an upturned van lying still on the valley floor hundreds of metres below.

I’m presumably the only foreigner on the bus; however, words aren’t needed to convey the situation – these roads kill.

A 2016 report from Nepal’s Department of Roads found that the chances of a crash are ‘more than 100 times higher than in Japan and ten times higher than in India’.

We jolt to life again and it seems the incident is quickly forgotten by the bus driver, who resumes his animated phone conversation.


Alex looks back down the valley towards the Great Wall of Pisang

Out of the City and Into the Pines

The next morning, I agree to hike with an American named Alex. His easy-going attitude to life transcends into his hiking plans – which suits my equally lax preparation.

The valley is a stark comparison to the dusty gridlock of Kathmandu. The city’s commotion and smog has been traded for the scent of fresh Himalayan pine and the sound of a cascading river guiding us towards the snowcapped peaks in the distance.

The morning light paints rosy hues over a spectacular concave rock wall known as the ‘Great Wall of Pisang’, as the frozen streams crisscrossing the path creak back to life in the warming sun.

Idyllic moments like these are why thousands of people come to hike the circuit every year. The region is home to some of the largest mountains in the world, the tallest peak, Annapurna I, standing at 8,091 metres. Although Mt Everest is over 800 metres taller, Annapurna I is the world’s most deadly peak – 38% of those who summit die on the mountain.

After a day’s walk in solitude, we’re surprised to stumble upon a man with a thick white beard scribbling in a tattered notepad as we enter a small teahouse in the hillside village of Ngwal. 

‘Oh man, how are you doing?’, erupts Alex when he sees him and explains that they’d met briefly in the remote Langtang region weeks ago.

Over dal bhat (a Nepali staple consisting of rice and lentil soup) the bearded man named Frank tells us of his journey through the country.


Teahouses like this one perched high in the valley provide hikers with the Nepali staples of tea and daal


He’d been trekking solo for 70 days over mountain passes and frozen glaciers – often skipping police checkpoints in restricted areas and hiding out in welcoming Nepali villages. 

‘I don’t mind paying, but I want to be alone on my hikes … I don’t need a guide,’ he answers when we question his clandestine walks.

Heading Up the Valley

The next day, I agree to meet with Frank in a small village called Gunsang. Alex decides he doesn’t have the time needed to make it across the pass, so instead decides to finish his walk at the nearby Tilicho Lake.

I’d planned to visit the almost 5,000 metre high lake – the highest in the world – but the Annapurna’s wild weather had other ideas.

Reports for Throng La Pass, the circuit’s highest point and the world’s highest pass at 5416 metres, predicted three to four days of heavy snow from Thursday with a low of -31 degrees Celcius.

We’d either have to cross early Thursday morning or wait it out – and crossing in bad weather could be fatal.

In 2014 a blizzard swept through the Himalaya range during the typically sunny hiking season of October. In one night, six feet of snow blanketed the Annapurna massif killing 43 trekkers, including 21 on the circuit.


Alex holds his head as we ascend past Ngwal


Alex and I part ways after a hearty lunch in Manang. It’s a three hour hike to the next town of Gunsang where I plan to catch up with Frank, the lone Dutch trekker. I’d arrive just as the sun sets, provided all goes well.

My lone stroll is interrupted by a lady listening to music on a bench overlooking the valley.

‘Gunsang is closed for winter … I know because I own it,’ she laughs. ‘You need to walk to Yak Kharka, but it’s a long way and very high,’ she says.

I don’t want to backtrack, so I continue up the stoney singletrack.

The afternoon sun dips below the Annapurna Himal and plunges the valley into darkness. My headtorch is barely needed as the full moon and starry night sky light the valley.

I walk alone for hours, my thoughts being the only distraction in the still Himalayan night.

I arrive at the guesthouse at around 8pm to sounds of laughter coming from the common room. As I walk in, I see Frank’s familiar white beard and broken glasses.

‘I didn’t think you were coming. It’s so late!’ he laughs.

Cold ‘Everest’ longnecks are flowing and the atmosphere is buzzing. Everyone has the same goal – push over the pass by Thursday.

I on the other hand, am not feeling great – I’m beginning to feel the effects of the altitude, but put it down to the big days spent stubbornly trodding towards the pass.

A Horrid Night in the Hills

The next morning, I start off early to Throng La high camp. I regularly stop as the headache grows with each steep switchback I manage to stagger up. I meet Frank along the way and decide to link up with him for the final ascent to the 4,880 metre camp.

The teahouse is surprisingly modern, considering it’s sitting higher than the summit of France’s Mt Blanc. When Frank calls home, I realise it’s also a family he’s left behind for 70 days.

‘She [my wife] knows that it’s really good for me. She says it’s not easy, but you have to do it. That’s really love,’ Frank laughs.

But the isolation has its drawbacks.

‘The fall happened on the most dangerous pass I had to take,’ Frank tells me about his crossing of the glaciated Tashi Labsta pass. ‘I hurt my hip and my back really bad, and cut my head here, and here, and here,’ he says pointing at scars still healing on his forehead and a photo of his blackened torso. 

‘I couldn’t walk, but I had to keep going. I even had to use my ice axe, it was really painful … luckily I found a Japanese exhibition team, and they took care of me really well.’ 

Frank laughs off the incident by saying he neglected to mention it to his wife, but it’s clear recounting the story causes a pause to contemplate the risks he’d taken.

In the afternoon, a walk to a nearby viewpoint triggers a wave of nausea and pain throughout my body. My brain feels as though it’s swelling against my skull and I catch my self absently staring into the fireplace. A few others are feeling ill, and the guides check their respective client’s oxygen levels before bed. 

A nurse in the group is in disbelief as some of the numbers are read out. 

‘It can’t be right; he should be in a hospital,’ she says at a Dutchman with an absently ghostly look on his face. 

Without a guide to check me, I’m thankful that I can remain ignorant of my condition and head off for an early night as we plan to leave at 4:30am the next morning. 

I sit silently holding my knees as Frank falls asleep in the bed next to me. The pounding in my head feels like an intense rendition of my heart beating performed by a hammer on my brain. 

‘Are you eating something, I can hear scratching?’ asks Frank. The ‘scratching’ is a mouse eating the Snickers bars in my pack which is sitting next to my head.

It’s the last of my problems though, and I blame the noise on the snow falling through the cracks in my semi-delirious state. My stomach starts to churn, and I rush outside. Luckily the churns are just empty threats as the squat toilet is frozen over.


Dutch hiker Frank De Vakman

Our alarms eventually end the torturous night and I ask Frank for some medicine for the pain as soon as he wakes. I eat a breakfast of Ibuprofen, Diamox, and a few spoonfuls of oats with the others. I find it wasn’t just me that had the sleepless night – vacant faces lie on the table. 

Two other young solo hikers join Frank and I for our push over the pass. Conner, an American is waiting outside with garbage bags between his socks and runners as a rudimentary alternative to boots. The other is Boris, a young Israeli who’s dwarfed by his pack which resembles some kind of abstract monolith strapped to his back. 

‘It’s over 20kg … I even brought my Torah in case I had a chance to pray,’ laughs Boris when we ask what could possibly be in his towering pack.

The four of us shuffle silently in a single file through the snow. We occasionally stop and gaze at the stillness of the white mountains and the soft snow floating past us. The excitement of reaching the pass pushes aside my nausea and crushing headache. 

Luckily, unlike the others, my camera is still functioning in the cold and I manage to take a few photos before the chill is too much for my exposed fingers. We’re mesmerised by the beauty of the 7000+ metre peaks that jut out through the clouds.

‘We need to go … it’s getting cold,’ says Frank. He’s right, the wind is whipping snow across the pass and Boris and I can no longer feel our hands. 

A searing pain radiates through my fingers as a wave of blood rushes back into them when we are on the descent – the redness and symptoms of frostnip (and the stupidity of removing my gloves to take photos). Despite this, I’m thankful that we’re heading down as I know every step is slowly relieving the altitude sickness.

Retrospection at Yak Donalds

‘Yak Donalds? … We have to go there!’ exclaims Boris as we study the map looking for our next location. ‘Ahh why not?’ Frank chuckles caving to the excited Boris. For the first time, he seems like he’s the one in pain, and it’s at the prospect of a warm shower and a hot meal.

On the way down, Frank and a stray dog march a couple of hundred metres ahead of us. He’s been walking alone for 70 days, rarely speaking to anyone.

‘It’s strange for me to walk together with others for so many days … it’s nice, but it feels strange,’ he tells me.

I feel our presence has been taxing on him after his solitude and we let him and the dog continue ahead.

The town of Kagbeni sits on the Kali Gandaki river, a tributary of the Ganges which cuts a deep gorge through the Himalayan range. Children throw snowballs at each other from a monastery rooftop and cows wander idly through the narrow walkways. We’re the only foreigners and it’s hard to imagine seeing anyone else here.


Frank, Connor, and Boris studying the tourist map for a potential guesthouse to hold up in. Yak Donalds was an obvious choice for the majority

Yeshi, the manager of Yak Donalds, tells us that in the peak season it’s a different story.

‘Every day 150 to 200 people come through here for three months,’ she says. 

During winter though, the village hibernates seeing travellers every other day. I can hardly imagine the town booked out, as even the four of us feel like an intrusion on the sleepy riverside village. 

Another couple arrive in the afternoon, they’d crossed the pass late in the day and look shell-shocked by the decision. 

Like myself, their single-minded stubbornness likely got them over the pass, with later retrospection reincriminating the lack of concern visitors, like myself, often give to the authorities of the mountain – guides like Pradip and others who understand and respect the land.

Boris and Connor continue on down the trail the next day, but I’m still feeling ill so stay in the village an extra night with Frank.

In the evening, Yeshi invites us to a sarangi session as some Tibetans are passing by from the remote Upper Dolpo region who can play the violin-like instrument.

We’re hypnotised by the ever-increasing crescendo of chanting women and stomping feet as we sip raksi – a potent alcoholic drink that tastes like a vodka-rice wine blend. 


Yeshi Choeden Gurung in her family-run restaurant and hotel, Yak Donalds


Frank’s wife video calls halfway through the intimate performance, and she too watches from a Dutch train station, 7000km away. The lady next to me motions tears with her fingers and points to Frank. 

‘Tears of happiness,’ the woman says and the others in the room motion tears back. 

Later at Yak Donalds Frank pauses, ‘This trip is finished for me … it’s ok, but it’s the rush time coming back, and I don’t want the rush’, he says.

Even after my small walk, I feel Frank’s apprehension about coming back to ‘the rush’. My nose is still bleeding daily from the cold air, I’ve only just gotten over the altitude sickness, and I’m utterly exhausted.

Yet as I’m sitting relaxing in the city with a warm shower and a cold beer, I want nothing more than to seek out the awe and isolation that a winter walk in the Annapurna Himal gave me.