This is Tony Linfoot's story of crossing the Thorung La, the highest point of the Annapurna Circuit on 10th December 1998:
My party consisted of 3 people; myself and two friends, Brian Plunkett and Stephen Scott. I am Australian but living and working in London as an account manager for a telecomms company, Stephen is from Northern Ireland but works for American Airlines out of Heathrow and Brian is from Skelmersdale in northern England and runs his own business as an electrician.
We knew that a winter trek was going to be tough, so we wanted to be as prepared as we could. There were a few references in Lonely Planet and a couple of other books saying that the first two weeks in December were a great time to trek the Annapurna Circuit because there were fewer trekkers around and the weather was a lot more stable, but other references I had read said it was VERY cold and the Thorung La Pass was traditionally closed because of heavy snowfall by mid December. Based on what information we had gathered, we knew that it could be very close as to whether the pass would be opened or closed (our "pass day" was going to be the 10th of December)so it would be a real race against time to get there and get over by the 10th.
We left London, Heathrow on the 27th and flew into Kathmandu on the 28th. Our initial day was filled with the usual hassles, but we were settled in at our hotel in Thamel (the Earth Hotel, $10 US for the 3 of us per night, very central, reasonably comfortable, the Indian lady who runs it is very polite and can organise just about anything you want at a fair price) by about 5pm. Got very drunk that night but that's another story.
Next day was the 29th, which we spent organising our transport to Besisahar and buying a lot of the gear we needed for the trek. Winter trekkers please note; I have read the Lonely Planet section on buying locally made gear in Kathmandu, as I hope you also have done, and if you can afford to buy everything at home and bring it with you that's great, but we bought our sleeping bags, fleecy gear, down jackets and windproof pants all in Kathmandu for a fraction of the price of the originals and they were absolutely fine on the trek. Lonely Planet says if you buy locally made stuff, expect to pay RS5,500 - 6,000 for a 4+ rating sleeping bag and the same for a down jacket, but we shopped around and managed to get both for RS3,150 each - hell of a saving. Can't remember the name of the shop, but if you start from the Earth Hotel and walk down to the bottom of the street and turn left at the end, our shop was one shop from the next intersection on the right hand side. Crap directions, I know, but I'm sure you'll find it.
Prices we paid;
Buy your boots from home, you have to break them in anyway to avoid blisters, and bring your own pack (obviously). A few other good ideas are medicated talcum powder, a couple of "Blister Packs", Immodium and, as we found out, some general purpose antibiotics.(Ask your doctor).
In regards to transport, you can save a few bucks if you get the bus from Kathmandu to Dumre, but we got the lady at our hotel to get us a car organised. Much quicker than the bus, you are alot more comfortable and you shouldnt pay more than RS2500 (between three of us wasn't too bad) for the 3 to 4 hour trip (lunch break included). Yes, he drove like a maniac and nearly got us killed (twice) but the bus drivers are the same.
Please also note that the office for booking your trekking permits is no longer at Thamel, so jump in a cab (10 minutes drive). If you line up for your pass like everyone else it will take you quite a long time (queues even in December).You can get some chaps to bypass all of the hassle for you over on the side, but as always for a price, which can be quite costly. My advice is if you have the time, line up like everyone else.
Ok, we left our hotel at 10.00am on November 30 in our cab and got to Dumre by about 2pm. Dumre is a dump, by the way, and as soon as you get there you will get guys trying to get you to go by 4 wheel drive, saying that the trip to Besisahar is 3 hours by 4WD and 6 by bus (its really only about 4 at the most), and trying to charge RS3,000+. We got the bus, which leaves quite regularly from Dumre to Besisahar, which is only RS100 each (don't pay any more than that). The only way to travel in any sort of comfort on these buses is on the roof,(yes, the roof), and since the bus never gets above 20 kph on this route, it is a lot of fun with some great initial views of the mountains, just hold on to the metal cage and sit on your backpack. There are a few checkpoints, so have your trekking permit and passport handy.
Here's a tip; if you can leave Kathmandu earlier and get to Dumre by noon, do it. You can then get an earlier bus to Besisahar. Why? Because Besisahar makes Dumre look like Monte Carlo i.e. it is a dump as well, and if you have enough time in the afternoon, then I would recommend putting on your backpack, marching straight through Besisahar and walk the 2.5 hours to Bhulbule at the big suspension bridge. I wish we had done this, as it is a much more pleasant start and shortens your trek to Bahundanda the next day, a good way to ease into the trek if you are unused to the walking. Besisehar is a VERY grubby and dirty place, and Brian got food poisoning from a dhalbaht he ate here, which lasted for 4 days (more on that later).
Morning of the 1st of Dec, we headed off. Still very warm at this time of year at this low elevation (only about 700m)when the sun is out, but the temperature drops quickly when the sun disappears. Not much to tell you about our first three or four days that isn't already in Lonely Planet, so I will keep this part brief. Brian was still suffering from his food poisoning (vomiting, feeling dizzy and weak), but he struggled onwards for FOUR DAYS until we realised we had been carrying some antibiotics the whole way, which Stephen and I thought was quite funny. After taking some, he was fine by the 5th day, but a lot thinner. We did the usual stopovers at Bahundanda and Chamje for our 1st and 2nd nights. Daytime walking is still t-shirt and shorts at this time of year, but gets chilly at night very quickly.
3rd day was Chamje to Bagarchhap. Please note; midway on this day is the village of Tal; just after passing Tal, the path changes and goes over to the LEFT hand side of the river and stays fairly low. It isn't marked very clearly, so if you don't look at your map you may miss it and climb the sharply ascending "old path" on the right hand side of the river as we did.
DO NOT TAKE THE OLD PATH, STICK TO THE PROPER ONE ON THE LEFT !! We pushed on, thinking it would be OK because the map shows that it intersects with the new path anyway, but just before the intersection, we came around a bend to find that the already frighteningly narrow path had been wiped out by a landslide. Yes, a narrow path had been forged through by locals, but it was very unstable, only about 18 inches wide and was a fall of 80 feet to the rocks and water below if we screwed up. Let me say that we got through ok, but it was VERY dodgy, and not something I want to repeat in a hurry.
A local on the other side of the river came to the bridge to watch us just in case, which was a nice gesture, and said "yes, locals use that path, but it is very dangerous". Please don't make the same mistake we made. Follow the map closely.
When you get to Bagarchhap at the end of the 3rd day, it is a very sobering experience to read the memorials to the 20 people (11 locals and 9 backpackers) who died in the landslide disaster in 1995 that wiped out half the village after heavy rains. You can see the vast trail of rubble that still lies right through the middle of the village.
Local dogs kept us awake until 2am, until I diplomatically asked the one under our window to please leave by kicking it up the arse.
The 4th day is Bagarchhap to Chame, And is a cold start in the morning, with ice covering the puddles and mud. This is the point where we started to wear our fleecy tops and pants. A nice walk (still quite steep) with the trail passing a couple of scenic waterfalls. Again not much to report that isn't already in a guide book, when you get to Chame, go right through the town and cross over the bridge. The best hotels are here, we stayed at the New Tibet Hotel, good food and a big central fireplace in the dining hall where you can put your feet up to warm them. Please also note that if you have read the Lonely Planet where it says there are hot springs about 100 metres downstream, sorry, but they were wiped out by a landslide recently. Try not to be too disappointed.
Chame to Pisang was our 5th day, and we were still in good shape (Brian no longer ill). It was no colder than the day before, and it was still bright blue sky the whole way. It turned out that we were extremely lucky with the weather the entire trip, because every day but one was perfect weather; good news for December trekkers. However, the night before in Chame, we got talking to a Sherpa called Nima who told us it had snowed 2 weeks ago, but nothing since, and he didn't know how how long it would hold up, so we were fairly lucky I guess. He said that last year's season (97/98) was the worst weather for 30 years, so we picked the right season to come !! The point to note is that while the weather is meant to be reasonably predictable at this time of year (cold but clear) it is never 100% reliable.
This 5th day holds the best views yet of the mountains, and involves a steep climb about midway through up to a guest house in the middle of nowhere, which is a good place for lunch. It was here after that steep climb that I first began to feel the effects of the altitude; light headed and a little dizzy. It passed by the time we got to Pisang, so don't reach for the Diamox just yet, folks.
Oh, another tip; an American chap we met 2 days before did our trick of taking the wrong path and had his own unpleasant story to tell. Make sure that after the guest house at the top of the steep climb you stay on the LEFT hand side of the river and don't cross the bridge to the right, otherwise you will end up in OLD PISANG which is way up the other side of the hills with no bridge to cross except the one you wrongly took 3 miles back. Our American friend thought to just find a shallow point in the river and plough through to the correct side, but it was a very strong current (stronger than he first thought) which nearly bowled him over, and the water is FREEZING. He said he was quite frightened that he wasn't going to make it across, and was so cold on the other side that he couldn't walk. (No shit). A nearby local even built him a fire to warm up by for an hour! When he finally struggled into Pisang, he told us his story, and we all had a laugh, but you could see it shook him up a bit.
Please be careful, folks.
Next day was Pisang to Manang. A long day, a little colder, and there was some snow on the ground, but nothing too serious. Manang is not the bustling metropolis you expect from the comments in Lonely Planet, but you can get a good bed and meal (the best you will get until the Jomsom side of the trek so make the most of it...). The medical centre on the hill is CLOSED this time of the year, so please be aware of this. There is a chap that has a TV and video to watch movies on in the evening for RS30 each, so ask the hotel where he is (not easy to find, you have to go down lots of back streets). Very nice, we sat around on the yak skin rugs and watched 'Godzilla' the first night and 'Aliens 4' the second night.
[No doubt there will soon be an internet cafe... Ian]
Oh, by the way, you can get a bucket of hot water or even a rudimentary hot shower at most if not all villages on the way around the circuit now, this was not the case 3 or 4 years ago apparently. Progress, eh?
The next day is acclimatisation day, and nice to relax if you want, a FANTASTIC view of Annapurna 2 and 4 as well as a glacier and glacial lake right in front of your hotel (several good ones to choose from, good food and hot water). If you are feeling a bit adventurous, though, you can take 2 hours to go climb the path overlooking the beautiful blue lake for some photos, or even (as we did) go further up the mountain to the left (there is a path) into the snow. It levels out soon and gives you a fantastic view of Manang and of the valley you walked up yesterday, as well as the mountains. This is also a good idea to do because it will greatly help your acclimatisation for the oncoming days.
The next few days were by far the toughest, so prepare yourself. From Manang onwards to the pass, it becomes ever increasingly difficult to breathe because of the altitude, and we all started to get headaches as well after this day. And it is starting to get not just cold , but CCCCOOOLLLLLDDDDD.... From Manang to Ledtar isn't a particularly hard walk, but it is when you introduce these three factors (cold, altitude and thin air). From Manang onwards, we constantly wore our down jackets, gloves and hats until we were over the pass, so needless to say that from Manang onwards is where things start to change, to become more difficult.
Take your time on the Manang/Ledtar stretch, its not that far and will tire you out quickly as the altitude really becomes noticable. This is even more apparent on the next day to Thorung Phedi, which is the day before you cross the pass.
Day 9 is Ledtar to Thorung Phedi, which was again not that far a compared to previous days, but an ever-increasingly hard slog. The path climbs steadily over the rocky and barren ground (only a few bits of grass around now) to a steep drop down a zigzagging path through loose rocks to Thorung Phedi. Please note that this is traditionally the place where the Thorung La Pass crossing starts, but there is now a "hotel" (and I use the phrase loosely) further up the mountain. It is the biggest tip I can give anyone doing the circuit, especially in the winter; make the effort to climb the (very) steep path to the high camp, as this will cut short the already long and difficult Pass Day by as much as 2 hours. Believe me, you will thank yourself the next day.
The high camp can accomodate 14 people at one time, the food is very basic (tea, potatoes, 2 minute noodles and not much else) and the rooms are cold and have dirt floors. even worse is the "toilet" (and I use that phrase VERY loosely [is this a pun? - Ian]) which a lot of people ignore and find a hole (sometimes, sometimes not...) in the snow.
Spectacular views, though, from a nearby hillside if you have any energy left. I struggled up with my video camera (more on that later) to get some shots, but clouds started to roll in frighteningly quickly and obscured any views we had. I was very worried when snow started to lightly fall an hour later, as every day had been perfect up until that point, and as the next day was the most crucial that we have good weather, I thought our luck had finally run out.
That night was on of the coldest nights of my life. I had a headache, as did Stephen and Brian, who also had the first signs of altitude sickness. He was dizzy and finding it hard to concentrate, which was very worrying, so I gave him 2 Diamox to take. When we tried to get to sleep, it was absolutely freezing in our "room", and I had on my fleecy gear, my gloves, my hat, 2 pairs of wool socks and my sleeping bag. They did the job OK, but it was still uncomfortable, and I got almost zero sleep.
We "woke" at 5.30 am, and I looked out the window. At first I thought we had 10 feet of snow that night because all I could see was white, but I then realised that it was a thick layer of frost on the window, that is, on the INSIDE of the window. Brrrrrrr!!!
It took us 20 minutes to pack our gear away and get our boots on (now with 3 pairs of socks). There was now a group of about 9 or 10 people crossing on the same day as us, and we all agreed to start off together at 6am (safety in numbers). Amazingly, the sky was dark but clear, and only a very light dusting of snow had fallen that night, so our luck held.
All I can say about the next four hours is that despite all the gear, it was extremely cold and definitely the toughest thing I have ever done. I went to get my water bottle out of my pack after only 45 minutes and found it was frozen solid. My fingers and toes (and face) were numb, as were everyone else's, and one of the nepali guides stopped alot of us at a little stone shack after 90 minutes to light a depressingly small fire to warm our feet up. Mercifully, the sun came up around this time as well. Still bloody freezing, but not as bad as before that. Remember, there is usually a wind blowing hard over the pass, which multiplies the effects of the cold (as we found out...)
Before this point, I was very worried about Brian; his symptoms of AMS were no better and I made sure I kept an eye on him. However, he seemed to pick up after the sun rose, and we were getting closer to the top, despite all the "false summits" that the Lonely Planet describes so well.
The next 2.5 hours were spent shuffling along very slowly as it was very hard to draw enough breath, and stops were frequent (every 5 minutes at the most) but lo and behold, around 10.30am we shuffled around a long bend to the left and there were the few people that were in front of us celebrating and taking photos at the stone hut and chorten that mark the top of the Thorung La Pass at more than 5400m. Stephen was 10 minutes behind me, with Brian only 10 or 15 minutes behind him. We were pretty pleased with ourselves, yeah.
Almost everyone was suffering from headaches because of the altitude, and one girl in our party, Nicola from New Zealand, was throwing up in the snow (not a good sign). We only stayed for 25 or 30 minutes to get photos and a look at the view of the spectacular Kali Gandaki to the west. (breathtaking, pardon the pun).
There is a sobering reminder of how dangerous the pass can be; if you look on the chorten marking the top of the pass, there is a brass plaque dedicated to a climber (French I think) who died there last year (97), which I would speculate was caused in some part by the bad weather that was experienced in that year.Poor sod.
After the pass, the trail winds down gradually at first, then quite steeply, through knee-deep snow in some places. Slippery, so be careful, I ended up on my arse a few times. The walk to Muktinath will take you another 5 or 6 hours, and is tough on the knees because its pretty steep in some places.
The rest of our trek took 4 days along the Jomsom route through Muktinath, Jomsom (which we bypassed), Marpha (which is nice; good food and a FANTASTIC hot shower (we stayed at the Paradise Guest House), Kalopani, and on to Tatopani. Make sure you stay here at the Dhaulagiri Lodge; great food, lovely courtyard full of fruit trees and access to the ABSOLUTELY ESSENTIAL hot springs.
Forgot to mention that all along this route there are some spectacularly huge landslides (check out the one almost blocking the river just south of Tatopani). Scary stuff.
The final days walk is now from Tatopani to Beni; this is now as far as the road comes, and you can get a bus for 4 hours from Beni to Pokhara. Pokhara is a great place and was still very warm even in mid December. We had an absolutely fantastic time here for 6 days and in my opinion is alot better a place to stay than Kathmandu. It is laid back, quiet, and you can sit in a hammock with a banana lassi by the side of the lake to chill out and recover from the trek. Plenty of good restaurants and a few good bars; check out the Amsterdam Bar and the Moondance Pub especially. Lots of souveneir shops that aren't as pushy as in Kathmandu. We even hired motorbikes (RS200 per day plus fuel)and took them up into the surrounding hills for views of the Annapurna range. You can take a boat for a paddle as well on the lake and visit the Varahi Temple on the island in the lake.
After Pokhara we jumped in a minibus with 3 others (to split the costs) back to Kathmandu. Four 'must-sees' are the Monkey Temple, Durbar Square, Bodinath Stupa and the amazing Pashupatinath Temple, especially the burning ghats. (Read your Lonely Planet as always.)
I guess that brings my report to an end, so I hope it was helpful for anyone planning a December trek. I can say that it was one of the most challenging and enjoyable experiences of my life, and I highly recommend it to anyone thinking of going. They say that the Annapurna Circuit is the best of the top ten walks in the world, and once you do it, you'll understand why.
If anyone has any questions, I am only too happy to answer them as best I can. Feel free to email me at
You can also contact Ian Johnson, at IanPJohnson@yahoo.com