Thursday, May 8, 2008

Pilgrimages and Trekking to the Base Camp of Annapurna 1, Nepal

I often thought of Chaucer's 'Canterbury Tales' when I was trekking to the Base Camp of Annapurna 1 - at an altitude of over 4000 metres or half way to the summit at 8091 metres. To put this in perspective, Everest is 8,848 metres.

Annapurna 1, Nepal - 8091 Metres

It was the last trek of the year - too cold after November.

And far too fucking cold at night even then. Even under two enormously thick dunas and wearing every article of clothing I could muster including thermal underwear (top and bottom), I was teeth-chatteringly frozen all night ... sleep was impossible. Early in the morning, the tiniest sliver of exposed flesh between the cuffs of my two down jackets and my thick leather gloves was like being slashingly cut by a razor blade. And a big one!

Now I realize there is something deep in the human psyche that urges us to undertake such journeys or to make a pilgrimages. Something necessary and deeply symbolic.

I used to read about medieval pilgrimages, like the one to Santiago de Compostela in Galicia in northern Spain. The church is said to be the burial place of St James.

And of course I knew about the one Chaucer fictionalized in 'The Canterbury Tales'. Of which there are 88 extant contemporary versions - two in prose, the rest in verse.

Portrait of Geoffry Chaucer from Chaucer's Canterbury Tales, GG.4.27(1), University Library Cambridge

This famous pilgrimage commemorates the murder of Thomas Becket, Archbishop of Canterbury and his subsequent elevation to sainthood as St Thomas Becket. With the object of the pilgrims being his shrine at Canterbury Cathedral.

As you probably know, Chaucer's Tale is fascinating as a set of revealing character studies (or tales) of the members of a particular group of travellers. Who meet and dine at Southwark in London before setting out ...

Chaucer's Pilgrims Dining before Setting out for Canterbury from Southwark - Woodcut, 1484

There is a knight, a miller, a squire, a physician, nun ... and so on. With the pilgrimage structure allowing Chaucer to bring together this diverse range of people.

Pilgrims Journeying to Canterbury

The work is significant in that it is the first literary work in vernacular English (as opposed to the French of the court) and in that it provides insights into so many aspects of life in the C14.

So the trek up to the Base Camp of Annapurna 1 was my own particular pilgrimage!

We started out from Pokera, our Southwark ...

... with distant views of Annapurna just after we began ... for encouragement.

The inn we stayed at that night was an elaborate affair ...

... compared with the less and less grandiose resting places as we trekked on.

We made friends on the way ...

... and came across rice terraces ...

... and stretches of bubbling 'white' water ...

... and wide, complex and misty water falls.

Not far from the Base Camp, we entered the 'silent zone' (where the sound of anything living ceased, completely) ...

... and then the 'snow zone'.

At last, we arrived at the Base Camp ...

To be awoken next day
just after dawn by an avalanche, which sent everyone diving for their cameras.

Which was followed by the sun rise - hardly an anti-climax! Every camera was out again.

After a few days rest and contemplation and reflection, we unwillingly returned to Pokera, but not before taking one final long lingering glance back.

It was one of those journeys you think about for a long long long time after ... and still do.

Truly a pilgrimage.


  1. I've read about these pilgrimages to Everest and of northern Spain. The one I would most like to experience would be Galicia and across the northern part of Spain, a modern Don Quixote of sorts.

    I have read the Cantebury Tales in modern English and middle English. The dual language book is in storage along with other belongings, hopefully not for long. I can breeze through the middle English quite well. The older Beowulf in Old English (7th century) is more challenging but can be done.

    Thanks for sharing. Have a great weekend! - Volker

  2. I've been to Santiago de Campostela, but never to Annapurna, or anywhere else in Asia. For that, I envy you!

  3. hey keith - i envy you Santiago de Campostela - and the good thing about places you've never been to is tha they are always there for the future. i'm saving up south america! a whole continent. take care. nick

  4. I've long been attracted to mountains. Back in the summer of 1972 as I was nearing 19 years of age, I spent a few days in central Switzerland to see the Jungfrau (mountain) each morning. Hiked up part of the Schildhorn to view the Lauterbrunnental from Birg. Breath-taking to see the Jungfrau, Eiger and the Breithorn (mountains) from above the snowline. The view made an impression then and still does! - Volker

  5. hey volker. last time i was in salzburg, we did some mountain climbing - tho just round the base and i can't remember the name of the mountain. and climbed cradle mountain in tasmania (one of the australian states - an island in fact) when i was a kid - the view from the top was breath-taking! mountains do it for you - or they don't capture your imagination. take care. nick