Annapurna I was the first eight-thousander to be climbed. But, since that first ascent in 1950, it has been the least climbed of those 14 mightiest peaks. It is also statistically the most dangerous of them, with a death rate averaging over one third of all climbers.
Height: 8,091 m (26,545 ft)
Location: Central Himalayas, Nepal.
First Climbed: 3 June 1950 by Maurice Herzog and Louis Lacunal.
Climb Time: 17+ days.
Best Time to Climb: October and November.
Introduction to Annapurna.
At 55 km long (34 miles), the Annapurna massif contains Annapurna I (8,091m/ 26,545 ft, the world’s tenth highest mountain in the world), 13 seven-thousanders and 16 six-thousanders.
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While ‘massif’ is a geological term, in this case we can also consider it an accurately applied adjective too – the Annapurna Massif really is massive!
Despite its dangers, Annapurna and the surrounding region is still visited by thousands of trekkers and climbers. Few attempt the summit, but many take advantage of the vast Annapurna Conservation Area to take on some of the most beautiful treks in the world.
But be warned: no Annapurna adventure should be taken lightly. As we will see, this mountain has a habit of reminding us humans just who’s in charge…
History of Annapurna.
The name Annapurna comes from that most ancient of languages, Sanskrit. It means ‘full of food’, but is also translated as the ‘Goddess of the Harvests’ or ‘the mother who feeds’. Another name proffered is Morshiadi, the root and meaning of which is unclear.
The local inhabitants are the Gurung people. They came to the Himalayan region from Tibet in the sixth century AD. This was the same route of several other ethnic groups found in the Himalayas, such as the Sherpas whose name translates literally as ‘from the east’.
Annapurna’s modern history is focussed around its reputation as the world’s deadliest mountain.
The dangers involved with climbing this massif, and Annapurna I in particular, cannot be understated. Up to the beginning of 2013, there had been 221 summit ascents of Annapurna I, but there had also been 61 deaths on its slopes.
This fatality-to-summit ratio, or ‘death rate’ as it’s sometimes known, of 27% is the highest of any eight-thousanders. However, back in 2008, this ratio was 41%.
Of these deaths, one that stands out is the death of Anatoli Boukreev. He became well known beyond the mountaineering community for being a survivor of the 1996 tragic Everest climb, where Rob Hall and Scott Fischer lost their lives. In December 1997, this great of the climbing world perished in an avalanche on Annapurna’s slopes.In 2014, 43 people lost their lives on Throng La Pass while walking the Annapurna Circuit. This was the single worst trekking accident in history, and a stark reminder that even the area around this massif needs to be treated with upmost respect.
Annapurna is famed for having ‘a black wind’. It is named after the appearance of the vicious swirling winds that whip around the massif during storms. As it swirls, it suspends particles of dust and dirt in the air, giving it a black appearance. It’s also so cold that exposed skin becomes almost instantly blackened with frostbite, giving the wind an almost magical quality.
The black wind is referenced in this cautionary Tibetan proverb, which could well have been written about these deadly slopes:
“On the summit of a mountain of skeletons lies a great and terrible field of corpses. During the night-time fires burn there, during the day a black wind blows”.
Geography of Annapurna.
Annapurna is not one mountain but a massif: a group of connected mountain peaks that lie along the same fault-line. It begins in the west at the deep Kali Gandaki gorge and ends at Marsyandi gorge to the east.
The Kali Gandhi gorge is, by some measures, the deepest in the world and separates Annapurna from Dhaulagiri (8,167m/ 26,795 ft) to the north-west.
The summit itself has three peaks, all of which are over 8,000m (26,247 ft). These are Annapurna I (8,091m/ 26,545 ft), Annapurna I Central Peak (8,051m/ 26,414 ft) and Annapurna I East Peak (8,013m/ 26,289 ft).
The high point of the massif, Annapurna I, is 179 km (111 miles) north-west of the Nepalese capital, Kathmandu. The town of Pokhara, on the shores of Phewa Lake, lies to the south in the Pokhara valley.
Earthquakes regularly shake Nepal, including the one in April 2015 that devastated Kathmandu. Pokhara, a tourism hub that is the normal access point to the Annapurna Massif, thankfully suffered far less damage. It is normally reached by bus or flight from Kathmandu.
The rocks near Annapurna’s summit are made of limestone. These were formed at the bottom of a warm ocean millions of years ago. That they now sit at such height is a reminder of the incredible landscape changing forces that create mountains. This soft rock also means that, like many Himalayan peaks, erosion will eventually shrink them back down.
The major peaks of the massif are:
• Annapurna I – 8,091 m (26,545 ft).
• Annapurna II – 7,937m (26,040 ft).
• Annapurna III – 7,555m (24,786 ft).
• Annapurna IV – 7,525m (24,688 ft).
• Gangapurna – 7,455m (24,457 ft).
• Annapurna South – 7,219m (23,684 ft).
One of the more iconic mountains near Annapurna is Machapuchare or ‘Fish Tail’ (6,993 m/ 22,943 ft), lying to the south of the massif. Its twisted summit looks like fish diving down behind the mountain.
It is a sacred peak of the Hindu god, Shiva. As such it is, debatably, also one of the last few untouched places in the world, with no reported ascents to the actual summits. The only confirmed ascent was in 1957 by Wilfrid Noyce. However, respecting the wishes of the king of Nepal, he turned back 150 ft from the summit.
Across the Kali Gandaki gorge, Dhaulagiri (8,167m/ 26,795 ft) is the world’s seventh highest mountain but is also considered the easiest of all the eight-thousanders to summit. That said, it has claimed a number of famous mountaineers, including Ginette Harrison who died in an avalanche in 1999, so ‘easy’ is a relative term!
Wildlife of Annapurna.
Annapurna is located within the largest of Nepal’s three conservation areas. The Annapurna Conservation Area (ACA) covers an area of 7,629 km2 (2,946 sq miles), around 5% of Nepal’s total area.
The mountain tops may be barren places almost entirely devoid of flora, but the foothills and lower slopes certainly are not. Almost 6,000 species of flora listed in the ACA, though only 181 of these are found over 5,000 m (16,400 ft).
The lower elevations around Annapurna are heavily cultivated, with swathes of rice fields. During winter, these areas also produce amazing harvests of oranges, reflecting their almost tropical climate.
From these lowlands, forests containing oak, beech and rhododendron are met first, followed by coniferous forests of pine and then juniper at the tree line. A spring visit is best from a botanical perspective (as is often the case!), as the rhododendron trees bloom spectacularly during April.
In total, the ACA lists 486 birds, 102 mammals, 39 reptiles and 23 amphibians within its vast area. Let’s look at the pick of them.
The snow leopard surely features on almost any nature-enthusiast’s bucket list. This elusive creature is found in the Annapurna area, specifically in the northern parts. It is rare to actually see one though, with only 300-500 left in the wild and a preference to hunt at dawn and dusk. But the chance of glimpsing this magnificent creature is reason enough to keep your camera handy at all times.
Perched up on high ledges, the long-haired back Himalayan tahr is a goat-like creature, similar to the European chamois. Hunted by local peoples, so while this animal is relatively easy to spot, it becomes understandably shy if you try to approach.
Bharal, or blue sheep, have large horns that curve like giant eyebrows away from their heads. They are actually light grey or brown and, like the tahr, are excellent climbers. Along with the small rabbit-like animal, the pika, these are pretty common sights on the lower slopes.
Red pandas, native to the southern Himalayas, can also be spotted on Annapurna’s slopes. They do not tolerate temperatures above 25ºC so sleep through the heat of the day, but look out for their bushy red tail, black legs and cat-like face.
Oh, and the Annapurna region is supposedly home to the Yeti, otherwise known as the ‘Abominable Snowman’. This mythical creature (or perhaps not!) is thought to take prey as large as yaks, so perhaps wish not to see him on your visit!
First Ascent of Annapurna.
Annapurna I was the first eight-thousander in the world to be successfully climbed. It remained the highest ascent ever until Sir Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay conquered Mount Everest three years later.
On 3 June 1950, Maurice Herzog and Louis Lacunal stood on top of Annapurna I. Their fellow French expedition member made a film about the ascent, titled: Victoire sur l’Annapurna, meaning ‘Victory on Annapurna’.
However, their achievement was not without a cost. Both successful summiteers lost all their toes and most of their fingers from frostbite and gangrene on the descent. They also had several near misses, including being caught in an avalanche and having several lucky-to-survive falls.
The first climb of the treacherous south face was achieved by a British expedition in 1970. Don Whillians and Dougal Haston were the men to stand on top of the peak, having carved out a new route.
The first woman to reach the summit was quickly followed by several others! In 1978, Arlene Blum led the American Women’s Himalayan Expedition and four of them reached the summit on 15 October 1978. However, the costs of their achievement were also high, as two of the expedition team died while attempting the summit.
Climbing guide to Annapurna.
“Annapurna is a life-taking mountain. Climbing Annapurna depends on luck and hard work.” Mingma Sherpa
If the ’death rate’ (see above) hasn’t put you off, then let’s look at how 191 people have managed to climb Annapurna. The routes include what is regarded by some as the hardest mountain climb in the world – the south face of Annapurna.
The Standard route follows the West face and the North-west Ridge. From Advanced Base Camp (the end of the very popular Annapurna Base Camp trek) at 4,190m (13,747 ft), the route heads up the North Annapurna glacier to Camp 1 at 5,800m (19,029 ft).
From here it is a daunting climb to Camp 2 at 6,600m (21,654 ft) over an unstable glacier. Seracs (precarious ridges of ice) dangle and threaten to fall at any moment, so avalanche risk in this section is particularly high.
From Camp 2, it’s a technical, steep climb onwards to Camp 3 at 7,400m (24,278 ft). From here, the push to the summit follows the North-west Ridge to the summit at 8,091m (26,545 ft).
Descent follows the same path back down the mountain.
To take on this challenge, all adventure companies will require you to be an experienced, independent climber. Unlike Everest or other mountains, they tell us they are there to advise and not guide you up the mountain.
There are three routes up the south face: the 1970 British route, the 1981 Japanese route and the 2013 Steck route.
The 1970 British route heads up the left pillar of the south face, winding a seemingly less vertical path than the other two routes. The 1981 Japanese route goes directly up the centre of the south face and almost directly to the central summit.
Ueli Steck’s route, completed in an extraordinary 28 hours, cuts between these other routes, heading up the centre of the left wall.
Whichever route is taken, it is a long, highly technical challenge. The difficulty is reflected in how few people have succeeded or even attempted to climb this face.
Other routes include the new Rolwaling route, first taken and named in 2014 by Minima Sherpa and the North-west Ridge route, first climbed in 1997. The final part of this climb joins the Standard route, above. Both are, unsurprisingly, highly technical.
Information on trekking around Annapurna.
Be aware that, whatever trek you want to do, you will need to obtain the necessary permits. These include: a relevant visa, a permit for the particular mountain, a permit to trek in the region. You’ll also need to pay certain royalties or fees before you can step foot on the rocky slopes.
A route more often travelled than the ascents above, and considerably less dangerous, is the 220km (137 mile) Annapurna Circuit. Known as one of the most beautiful treks in the world, this circuit winds anti-clockwise around the Annapurna Massif.
Beginning at Besi Sahar, this walk takes you passed the iconic Machapuchare or ‘Fish Tail’, the eponymous Annapurna I, II and III and the mighty Dhaulagiri. There is a standard route, with maps easily available, but there are also some interesting side trips and alternate routes for those wishing for different challenges.
Its high point is the world’s highest trekking pass – Throng La Pass at 5,416m (17,769 ft). And it was here in October 2014 that a reminder of the power and danger of the Himalayas came.
43 people died and many more were injured at the Throng La Pass during a wild storm. So, while beautiful and far less dangerous than an actual ascent of the mountain, the Annapurna Circuit is still a route to treat with upmost respect and wise caution.
To begin the Annapurna Circuit you’ll need two types of permit, obtained from the Nepalese Tourist Centre:
• The ACA permit (Conservation).
• The TIMS permit (Trekking Information).
The Annapurna Circuit can be completed with an adventure guide, or you can take on the challenge yourself. One factor that helps the latter is the accommodation that’s available en route from the ‘tea houses’.
Tea houses offer dormitory-style accommodation in the local villages, though they’re usually private homes. This allows you to take on the Annapurna Circuit, or many other Himalayan challenges, as an inn-to-inn adventure. So leave your tent and shivering through the night at home and stay with the locals!
More widely, the foothills of the Himalayas close to Annapurna offer a wide range of trekking options.
One option is Poon Hill. Anywhere else and this would be classified a mountain (3,193 m/ 10,475 ft) but among the Himalayas it doesn’t come close to the giants that surround it. Poon Hill is, however, one of the greatest viewpoints in the world, with views of many of the high peaks around the Annapurna Massif.
Whichever trek you choose, the multitude of foothills and villages in the region allow you to design routes and multi-day hikes to suit you and your fellow hikers.
They can vary from family-friendly treks under 2,000m (6,500 ft) to more difficult routes that navigate through the trees or head up, around or passed many of Nepal’s famous peaks.
In the Himalayas you’ll never be short of great adventure options.