Laughing mischievously as he disappeared down a narrow muddy path into what seemed to be impenetrable jungle, our guide said: ‘I hope this is the right trail.’
My husband Neil and I barely heard him against the roar of the river below and the rain pelting our ponchos. The monsoon season (July and August) is not the most comfortable period to trek in the Himalayas of Nepal, but if you want to experience their raw power and have the place to yourself, there is no better time.
We had booked our ‘bucket-list’ holiday to mark Neil’s 60th birthday and chose the trek to Annapurna Base Camp (ABC) as it is categorised as ‘moderate’ – so more suited to people of our age and fitness.
Even so, I was nervous. We were trekking novices and our training had been haphazard; a few walks round London’s Richmond Park and Box Hill in Surrey and a cycling holiday in Turkey. Not exactly intensive.
Thankfully, we had Pertemba Sherpa with us. He is now 70 and officially retired from climbing 20 years ago.
A three-times Everest summiter and friend of Sir Chris Bonington (he conquered Everest’s Southwest Face with him in 1975), Pertemba guided the Prince of Wales on his first trek to Annapurna in December 1980, now advertised as the Royal Trek.
Pertemba soothed our nerves by laughing, joking and even singing as he led us through rain-soaked jungle, past cascading waterfalls and across rushing rivers.
He took us up thigh-burning steep steps past Gurkha villages, terraces of rice fields and bamboo forests, through valleys of tree-covered hills on our way to ABC, the 4,100m high point, from where serious mountaineers set off to conquer the tenth highest mountain in the world – Annapurna 1.
The higher we climbed, trees and bushes gave way to meadows peppered with alpine flowers.
The lush green hillsides framed against the stark white peaks of the spectacular scenery left us speechless. We relished the remoteness, basked in the peace. I felt myself welling up.
Along the way, we met a few hikers, some travelling alone using the maps.me app, others with guides.
We joined a schoolteacher from Greece for part of the hike, who had hired a guide and was exploring the country on her own, and an older mother and daughter on their first holiday together.
It was wonderful to walk in silence or stand and watch the clouds roll over the mountains and to experience the magic of this part of the world.
Accommodation was basic, twin rooms in teahouses, with queues for the one shower and one loo.
Food was simple, but plentiful – porridge, pancakes, eggs and local bread for breakfast, and momos, pasta, dal bhat, soup, and varieties of fried noodles for lunch and dinner.
Alcohol was discouraged, as it exacerbates any altitude sickness.
We didn’t notice the air thinning until we approached the blue buildings at ABC on our fifth day. We couldn’t work out if we were dizzy with excitement or altitude.
I burst into tears when we arrived on the edge of the vast moraine leading to the glacier and brooding peaks we had worked so hard to reach over the course of eight days.
We were moved, too, by the plaques placed in memory of those who had died scaling the great mountain beyond.
And reminded of the hazardous way ahead by the line of hundreds of prayer flags strung out across the mountainside.
Our challenge was nothing compared with what real mountaineers achieve. But we still felt proud of our trek.
All those self-help books keep saying that it’s never too late to fulfil certain dreams – and they are absolutely right.
We said our heartfelt goodbyes to Pertemba and thanked him for giving Neil the best ever birthday present.