When I first started researching the Poon Hill Trek, I read countless accounts of exhausted hikers waking up at 5am and climbing the “hill” (translation = a 10,000-foot peak that would be classified as a “very tall mountain” anywhere else) in the freezing cold to watch the sun rise.
“Dumb morning people,” I muttered to myself, knowing that I’d never be seen among those idiots who awoke that early and climbed an icy mountainside…in the dark.
I mean, what’s wrong with waiting until later in the day? It’s not like Poon Hill (or the Himalayas) are going anywhere. It’s not as if they won’t be there at midday or late afternoon.
Well, that’s kinda true…but also kinda not. You see, at this altitude, the mountains basically create their own weather. All those glorious photos you see of the bare snowcapped Himalayan peaks? I can almost guarantee that those pictures were taken before the hour of 9am. Because once that magical hour hits, the clouds start to form, obscuring the peaks for the remainder of the day.
Akash explained all of this to us on the trek up, so I already knew what I was going to be doing at 5am today.
I was going to wake up – freezing – and hike up an icy mountainside in the dark – freezing – just like all of those idiots I’d read about (and pitied, because I knew they were freezing).
And indeed, at the gloriously dark hour of 5am, Jeremy, Akash, and I set off from our guesthouse, armed with the flashlights from our trusty cell phones, and joined dozens of other bleary-eyed tourists in trudging up, up, up Poon Hill. From the village of Ghorepani (9,429 feet/2,874m), we had to climb an additional 1,000 feet to the hilltop – the highest point in the trek – which maxes out at 10,475 feet (3,210m).
I was already struggling with the altitude the day before. (Did I mention this is classified as the “easiest trek” in Nepal?) I really, really didn’t stand a chance of having an easy hike.
But I know now why mountain climbers feel so incredibly victorious when they reach the summit. For over an hour, I gasped, wheezed, sweated profusely, shivered, stopped a million times to catch my breath, nearly slipped on icy steps, wanted to scream, shout, burst into tears, and quit, almost turned around and gave up on several occasions…
And then – and THEN – two stone pillars and string of colorful prayer flags are there to greet you, assuring you that you did it. You made it to the top. With the last vestige of my energy and determination, I climbed the final step and set foot on the top of Poon Hill, just as the sky was growing pink and the perfectly clear, cloudless peaks became visible…and I suddenly understood.
I was standing on top of the world.
We limped over to the conveniently placed coffee shack (the only sign of civilization for miles around) and ordered three life-saving cups of masala tea, warming our frozen hands on the tin mugs while we awaited the sunrise. I met the tired eyes of other trekkers, and unspoken communication passed seamlessly between us: “I know…This totally sucks…I hate life right now too…It’s going to be alright…It’ll all be worth it…Right?”
A few minutes later we got our answer, in the form of a gloriously golden sunrise that lit up the peaks like a bonfire in the sky. Directly in front of us were some of the tallest mountains on the face of the earth: Dhaulagiri (26,817 feet/8177m), Annapurna (26,545 feet/8091m), Annapurna South (23,920 feet/7219m), and Machapuchare or “Fish Tail Peak” (22,956 feet/6991m).
I’m a writer, but I don’t have words to describe what it was like to stand there, on the rooftop of the world, and behold such a sight. Whatever it is that passes through your mind and heart at that moment – be it spiritual, religious, a sense of inner peace or personal enlightenment – there’s no way you can be unaffected by what you’re seeing.
And all of the sweat, tears, and effort it took to get to this point all magically melt away, like it never even happened.
Of course, you’re reminded of it pretty quickly when you turn around and start heading down the hill. The trek down was a breeze compared to the trek up, but our day was just getting started. Akash told us that we had the longest and highest day ahead of us – seven hours, at best, along the ridgeline…and we’d be hitting snow and ice along the way.
Since that was the case, we thought it best to enjoy a little levity (and more breathtaking views) on the way down.
So! After downing more amazing potato roasties for breakfast, we set off in the opposite direction from Poon Hill, climbing for a brutal hour to the top of Gurung Hill. The views were spectacular, although the clouds were rolling in to obscure the peaks (aren’t we glad we got up at 5am to see them?).
As we pressed onward, the sky grew grayer and the temperature dropped, promising fresh snow in the future.
Sure enough, right as we entered the village of Deurali, the skies opened up and big white snowflakes began swirling through the air. This just happened to coincide with the most treacherous part of our trek – the steep, narrow winding canyon between Deurali and Banthanti. We were informed, in fact, that the previous day an unfortunate Japanese man had just broken his leg in that canyon and had to be air-evacuated out!
Fortunately for us, we had Akash. And Akash had done his homework – he knew this area would be snowy and icy, so he’d told us ahead of time to buy crampons for the trek. So out come our shiny new crampons – basically metal spikes you affix to your shoes – and down we go.
Without the crampons, it would have been a terrifying and dangerous trek. The stone steps were covered in thick ice, the trail was frozen solid, and the bridges were a scary mix of snow and slush. With our trusty crampons, though, we traversed the frozen landscape without incident – although we definitely had to take it slower than planned.
We were so slow, in fact, that by the time we reached the village of Banthanti we realized that we weren’t going to reach our goal of Ghandruk before nightfall. But we were all safe and uninjured, so that was the most important thing, right?
The great thing about this trek is that you have plenty of options for food and accommodation. When I pictured hiking in the Himalayas, I pictured starkness and miles and miles of empty nothingness. Higher up, I’m sure it’s like that. But “down” where we were (hard to imagine that 10,000 feet is considered “low”), guesthouses and teahouses abound, so you’re not forced to stick to a tight schedule. You can simply go at your own pace – or the pace Mother Nature forces you to go at!
After a solid 9 hours of trekking (including our early climb up Poon Hill) we reached the beautiful village of Tadapani, nestled below the impressive peak of Machapuchare (elevation 22,942 feet/6993m).
(Fun side note: Machapuchare, also called “Fish Tail Peak,” is a sacred mountain in Nepal, said to be home to the Hindu god Shiva. The summit is one of very few places on earth where no man has ever set foot. A British expedition set out to climb the mountain in 1957 and – at the request of the Nepalese King – stopped 150 feet short of the summit.)
Dead to the world, we dragged our weary bodies into the common room (with a wood-burning stove – THANK GOD) and basically collapsed there through a late lunch, early dinner, and painfully slow WiFi. (Not that I’m complaining, mind you. I still can’t believe it’s possible to GET WiFi up there!)
It was an epic day – a day I’ll remember forever – but I won’t lie…it was TOUGH.
And we still have one more day to go…