Look north from almost any vantage point of Pokhara in Nepal and one mountain dominates the skyline. Machhapuchhre soars above green forested ridges at dawn, floats sublimely above wispy afternoon clouds and glows pink and red at sunset. The Mardi Himal Trek route leads up a ridge that is part of the tremendous southwest buttress of the Fishtail Peak, Machhapuchhre, one of the most famous spires of the Nepal Himalaya.
Until a few years ago, thousands of trekkers walked from the Gurung settlement of Chhomrong to Annapurna Base Camp (ABC) along the narrow canyon of the Modi Khola, oblivious of the mighty Mardi Himal Trek ridge soaring above them. The Mardi Himal Trek was then the silent domain of just a few woodcutters and wild animals. Only the birds knew the secret charms of the Mardi Himal Trek and its beguiling, untouched grandeur.
Nobody thought that the lonely forest route, first opened as a camping trip would ever reach the dizzy heights of popularity that it has today. Now a lodge-based trek, the Mardi Himal Trek has become a firm favourite with both overseas trekkers and a new breed of enthusiastic, mostly young, domestic Nepalese hikers. Being a short trek of 5–7 days from Pokhara, it is often the first venture into the Himalayan foothills that would-be adventurers might relish. That is not to say that this trek is an easy amble; it is not. The altitude at the top of the razor-edged Mardi Himal Trek ridge is a shade over 4000m, and the trail twists and turns through the eerie silence of the beguiling forest, its ragged roots waiting to trip the careless.
For that reason, it is advisable to go with a reliable and trusted local agent like Third Rock Adventures, especially if this is your first trek in Nepal. The directors of Third Rock have been involved in the trekking scene in Nepal for over twenty years and have gained a lot of experience with groups and individuals.
As the established routes of the Annapurna massif have become busy with trekkers, other lofty viewpoints have been opened. Already debate rages about which trek is the better, Annapurna Base Camp or Mardi Himal Trek. The older favourite, the Annapurna Sanctuary (now more commonly referred to as ABC, the same trek), keeps its secrets until almost the last minute as trekkers battle through the dense undergrowth up the Modi Khola, catching only a glimpse of the tantalising south face of Gangapurna ahead. Beyond Bagar the great amphitheatre of the Sanctuary or Base Camp area opens out, revealing an encircling crescent of snow spires and gigantic rock walls. This is a mountain lover’s paradise; an awe-inspiring drama played out on a stage of epic icy proportions. It’s a magical spot.
Today we have the chance to bask in a new, surprising vantage point. The Mardi Himal Trek may not have the immediate drama of the great peaks all around, but it does have sensational, mind-blowing panoramic vistas in all directions, including the endless blue-tinged ridges of central Nepal to the south. Throw in the brooding faces of the Fishtail Peak (Machhapuchhre), a stunning view into the Annapurna Sanctuary/Annapurna Base Camp, and the airy belvedere of the Mardi Himal Trek itself, and this trek is in a class of its own.
The Mardi Himal Trek is normally started from Dhampus or Kande (Khare), accessed from Pokhara by the road to Beni. Either way the trail climbs to Pothana via Dhampus or Australian Camp. Already the views of Machhapuchhre are stunning.
The trail from Kande is a shock to those who have not trained and improved their fitness, as the path climbs steeply through a few farms into dense humid forest. The first night is usually spent in the good lodges of Pitam Deurali (2114m) for those on a longer trek. Annapurna South, Hiunchuli and Machhapuchhre are just visible through the trees.
Trekkers with a tight time limit might have to start from Kalimati or even Sidhing, although they should be well acclimatised to altitude before contemplating this option. Both these picturesque villages can be accessed by rugged jeeps that climb bumpily up the steep hillsides from the Mardi Khola. The trails from Kalimati or Sidhing climb rapidly and relentlessly to either Forest Camp, Low Camp or directly to High Camp.
Beware the sharp and sudden gain in altitude if contemplating these options. Nepali trekkers, though, seem almost oblivious to the height gain and charge on merrily with the enthusiasm of youth and excitement of new discoveries. Some of them have completed this trek in three days, but we do not recommend this schedule for unacclimatised foreign trekkers!
Those trekking along the ridge line from Pitam Deurali enter dense wispy forest, disturbed only by the cool breeze in the trees or the music of the birds. The trail often weaves and climbs or takes to steep stone steps as height is gained. Along the way a few isolated bhattis (basic shelters) offer trekkers sustaining snacks and drinks.
Ever onwards the trail sometimes descends around the hillside, in places where the ridge top is inaccessible. Forest Camp (2434m) is aptly named, a clearing in the woods below a spur that almost hides the mountains at sunset. The lodge food is a treat after the long slog of the day’s march, especially the dal bhat. These days the mattresses are a dream for a good night’s sleep.
Fully refreshed and eager to unlock the day’s new horizons, most trekkers are awake early. The trail from Forest Camp is buzzing with bird life as it climbs steeply to the superb vantage point of Rest Camp (2605m). Once again it is Machhapuchhre that holds court over proceedings, a silent sentinel that grows ever closer and more dominant. The trail climbs steeply again under the canopy of the forest.
It seems as if Low Camp will never be reached on some of the steep stairways that have been meticulously constructed to aid trekkers. These so-called ‘Gurung staircases’ are famed across the Annapurna foothills; once great, snaking ‘caravans’ of porters and mules carried goods into the interior of the Himalayas for trade and then for trekkers. This was particularly true of the Kali Gandaki route, when salt was traded between Nepal and Tibet through the fable lands of Mustang.
Low Camp (2990m) is a cosy spot, where good lodges have sprung up as demand increases.
The route continues the steep climb up eroded gullies between tangled roots. The views are hidden but the forest is enchanting; lichens and mosses paint the scene in vivid colours. Most hikers stop at Badal Danda (3209m), where the ridge finally emerges from the forest. At least five lodges offer comfort and sustenance; the highest located lodge has a fabulous view.
Far below the twinkling lights of Ghandruk remind all in this lofty perch that nature holds many wonderous sights.
The short stage along the open sheer-sided ridge top is a delight. The mountains remain on display with increasingly astonishing views. Far below in the deep canyon of the Modi Khola, those trekkers who have forsaken the high ridge panoramas continue to the ‘sanctuary’ of the goddess of plenty – Annapurna. They will have to wait a little longer for the views! High Camp (3540m) has nine lodges now; enough for all those seeking to get higher the next day.
What a day it is to come after a pre-dawn start!
The ridge is challenging, sometimes blocked by steep bluffs but the trail forges a way upwards. The Machhapuchhre viewpoint (3980m) is the destination for most; small teashops provide tea and drinks. It’s the views that are warming; Machhapuchhre shows its stunning fishtail off to amazing effect from here, as do Annapurna South and Hiunchuli. The great ice wall, tumbling with glaciers of Khangsar Kang (Roc Noir), Tarke Kang (Glacier Dome), Gangapurna and Ghandhawa Chuli are stupendous. Faster trekkers continue on, while others ‘struggle’ up with the altitude to reach Mardi Himal Base Camp (4216m), but in truth the view is little different.
As for Annapurna I, that peak remains mostly hidden, only to be seen clearly by those far below in the Sanctuary, or those who venture even further up the ridge. This means that those who ask the question: What’s the difference between Mardi Himal and Annapurna? Or: Which is the best trek, Mardi Himal Trek or the Annapurna Base Camp Trek? must take longer and do both!
This is a regular question that is asked by prospective trekkers every year. It’s quite simple in many respects, since it depends on two basic factors: how much time a trekker has available, and do they really want to carry a heavy load? The vast majority of trekkers today are taking the advantages of a local trekking agency like Third Rock because it makes for a much more relaxing holiday. There is no hassle with paperwork, permits on arrival, no need to book transport, no need to get lost and definitely no need to carry a heavy backpack. First-time trekkers might want to arrange a trek like this to ‘learn the ropes’. Mardi Himal attracts a lot of first-time trekkers, and with so many young Nepalese on the trail they are sure to enjoy a rich experience. Could anyone trek here independently? Yes of course, for some it’s the challenge and different sort of freedom that determines their choice.
Both the Mardi Himal trek and ABC treks have hard uphill stages, and both have easier prolonged downhill retreats. ABC is longer and thus more costly, but Mardi Himal involves less rough transport.
Autumn is best for those who want crystal clear views, but spring is ideal for botanists and those who like warmer weather. Late November and December are quieter, but very cold and often very clear. Lodges get crowded with Nepalese trekkers during the festival seasons of Dasain and Tihar in October and early November. Maybe the crowded lively experience at that time is an attraction.
Going with a Nepalese trekking agent means that trekkers do not need to be concerned with a lot of sometimes complicated detail. A typical Mardi Himal trek with a company like Third Rock need not cost much more than an independently organised trip. Arranging the trek independently needs more time and some hassles. Most foreign trekkers spend around US$30–35 a day plus permits (Rs3000 each for the Annapurna Conservation Area plus TIMS, Rs1000 with a guide and Rs 2000-2500 self-guided).
In addition, a jeep to Kande costs from Rs3000-5000 and a jeep from Kalimati may be from Rs4500-5000, but both could cost a lot more. As for guides, they cost US$35 per day upwards and porters may ask US$15–22 per day, including their food. Nepalese trekkers spend less, as they mainly trek independently, although some go in large groups with guides.
Silly question; a great many trekkers come back many times! And many come to request the services of Third Rock Adventures, a dynamic company based in the heart of Thamel. Trekking in Nepal can easily become addictive; and we thought it was only those hippies in the 1970s who got hooked!
Here is the route map of Mardi Himal Trek that will give you a rough idea about the trekking route. Also, learn elevation attained on each day of your trek.
These days most younger trekkers are finding all their information on the web and through blogs like this one. That said, some trekkers still prefer to carry ‘old-fashioned’ guidebooks about because they are easy to read, have a lot of detailed background information, don’t need power and can be read in a sleeping bag to fill in those cold evenings. Himalayan Map House has a comprehensive series of guidebooks, which are also available from Amazon and as Kindle ebooks.