What A Bizarre Trip: An India and Nepal Expedition with Bryan Fox and Austin Smith
Words: Austin Smith | Photos: Bob Plumb
The trip was supposed to be about the world's highest chairlift in India, but after our first trip to the top a guy died in an avalanche on our way down. One was enough for us and we scrambled and went to Nepal. For us, India was loud, busy, chaotic, smelly, overwhelming and hectic and stepping into Nepal was serene. Even with Kathmandu being a city with over one million people things felt simpler and slower. Everyone greets you by saying "Namaste," making you feel like you're in one big yoga class.
Probably like you, I've never thought about going on a snowboard trip to the Himalayas—or more specifically—to Annapurna Base Camp. In 2014, Bryan, Curtis and I read a book to each other about Annapurna and it did not sound like a place you would want to snowboard. It is the deadliest mountain in the world. 1 out of 3 people that try to climb it die and it is the 10th highest mountain in the world at 26,545 feet.
After the avalanche we knew we wanted to leave but we didn't know where or how. We were connected to a guide named Luke Smithwick and he said if we could make it to Polkhara, Nepal in 3 days he had could take us to Annapurna Base Camp. It sounded far-fetched and we felt very unprepared for "basecamp" but Bob's ears perked up when he heard Nepal. I told Luke that we had no camping equipment, hardly any warm clothes beyond our outerwear and no interest in hiking up or snowboarding down anything Jeremy Jones-esque. He told us not to worry about it, he could work out details and logistics if we could show up.
It seemed wrong to leave somewhere that we spent so much time trying to get to but staying didn't feel right either, so we made it to Polkhar. It's in the foothills of the Himalayas, the biggest and most extreme mountain range in the world, which are the same latitude as Orlando Florida. The Himalayas are in the subtropics! Maybe you already knew that but that blew my mind. Annapurna Base Camp (ABC) is part of the popular Annapurna Circuit Trek, a 10-day hike from Polkhara, where you stay at Teahouses (microhotels) along the way. We only had 4 days so Luke got us a seat on one of the helicopters that shuttle people up and down to ABC for a selfie.
We imagined basecamp to be a mirage of tents with weathered, bearded men looking like soldiers pacing around in expedition suits endlessly jabbering about who was going to make the next summit push and who was on their way down. Then there would be us stepping out of a helicopter in street clothes and snowboards under our arms. But in reality, we didn't see any tents. There are four lodges at ABC with rooms starting at $1.80 per night, but they get you for $2.00 for the Snickers bar in the restaurant. ABC is at the bottom of an amphitheater surrounded by giants. The elevation is 13,549 feet but directly in front and all around you are peaks over 23,000 feet. They are by far the most remarkable mountains I have ever seen. The routes that people climb up were pointed out to us but none of them looked humanly possible.
On our first night a storm rolled in bringing thundersnow. It's tame principle as a thunderstorm but instead of rain, it's snow. Being up at elevation we were in the storm; it was foggy and you couldn't see the surrounding mountains. Each roar of thunder would roll down the mountains through the valley sounding like an avalanche. It was scary and nerve-wracking but also pretty damn rad. The thundersnow brought a foot of fresh and the next morning was bluebird. We caught a lift up a little higher from the heli as he made trips shuttling people to ABC. Now, we were at 17,500 feet with a foot of new snow and nothing but windlips between us and ABC below. It was unreal, the conditions, the scenery, the company…but something was off. Bob is notorious for being obnoxious. He teases everyone and is always talking. Today, he was quiet and slower but we were all slower. Hiking 100 yards became more of task at 17,000 feet. While setting up for a photo he couldn't figure out if Bryan and I were goofy or regular and we have been shooting together for almost 10 years. Something was off. We put two and two together while he slept that afternoon that he had altitude sickness. We played cards at night and the next day we continued to hack, slash and bash every windlip in the backyard of ABC.
And just like that, it was over. Time to leave the mountains and join the 19 million people back in Delhi, who were celebrating the Holi Festival. Everything in the city was closed, the streets that had been organized chaos were now empty. People were either in their homes or playing "Holi". It was a full-combat game in which the goal is to cover each other in as much colorful powder as possible…and then hug. The first group we came across who were playing came toward us, presumably to spray us with the powder. A boy put his arms out as if we were going to hug, I followed suit and opened my arms but it was a trap. He skipped the hug and broke a raw egg over my head and threw powder in my face. What a lovely game.
We spent 17 days between India and Nepal. None of us got sick or had stomach issues while eating everything we could. They're great places to visit if you're a vegetarian. Yes, driving is a bit crazy. We were taken to a dozen rug shops against our wishes, which turned into a game of how much we could negotiate prices. Bryan won with talking a guy down from $15,000.000 USD to $150.00 still didn't buy it. In large, people love Americans. You have money and they can sell you something, but regardless of motive, people are extremely kind. Hayden Rensch and Curtis were planning to come but cancelled days before because conditions looked too bad. They were right, it was the worst season in 20 years. We only took 7 runs in 17 days but they were ones we will never forget. If you are thinking of planning a trip to Japan next winter—the most reliable place you can go for powder—know that for the same price you can go rogue into the Himalayas with @Luke_Smithwick.