Himalayan High: preparing for the trek

Trekking to Everest Base Camp is not a trip for everyone. It is, at times, quite a physically demanding experience, and when you combine high altitude with plenty of challenging climbs, you get a recipe for suffering. When I tell people that I’ve made that hike, I’m usually asked two questions. First, they almost invariably ask, “Can ‘normal’ people make the trek?” and secondly they ask, “How did you prepare?” The answer to the first question is yes! Normal, average, travelers can, and do, hike to Everest Base Camp, but the answer to the second question isn’t quite as easy.

The first thing I would say is that by getting yourself physically ready for your trek, you’ll save yourself a lot of grief on the trail. In my trekking group there were clearly some people that were better prepared to deal with the rigors of hiking at altitude than others, and not long after we would start each morning we would find ourselves breaking into three groups.

Out front we had the faster, stronger, more able bodied group. There were usually three or four of us in this pack, and left to our own devices, we would probably have quickly left the others far behind. The second group consisted of hikers who were a bit more slow and steady in their approach. These men and women traveled with a more measured pace, and while they struggled at times, they generally showed up at the next rest stop with a smile on their faces. Finally, the third group was a much slower lot who would physically struggle for the entire length of the journey. They would often lag behind by as much as 10-20 minutes, and when they did catch up to the rest of us, they looked like they they weren’t enjoying themselves at all.If you’re planning on making a trek to Everest, or some place similar, you don’t have to be in that first group to enjoy the walk, but you probably don’t want to be struggling in the third group either. Fortunately, with some planning and dedication, you can improve your chances of completing the trek and enjoying yourself along the way, although the more time you have to prepare, the better.

As an avid runner, who covers in the neighborhood of 35-40 miles per week, I felt like I already had a good base for my physical preparation Still, I wasn’t sure what to expect in the Khumbu Valley, and I knew that altitude can do odd things to people, no matter what kind of condition they are in. Plus, I also knew I would be making some very long, and steep, climbs, so to improve my chances of having a good trip, I started to mix in some hill running to my regular routine. In the weeks leading up to the trek, I would run hills at least twice a week, and these weren’t just ordinary hills, we’re talking six long miles of up and down very steep slopes. When I arrived in the Himalaya, I found out very quickly that all of that training had payed off in spades.

Of course, I realize that not everyone is a runner and for many the mere thought of jogging up and down hills is exhausting. But that doesn’t mean there aren’t things that you can do to prepare for the journey anyway. In lieu of running, I’d suggest taking vigorous walks on a daily basis. Vary the distance and intensity of those walks to prevent boredom, and definitely mix in some hills as well. After awhile, start carrying a backpack equivalent in size to the one that you’ll be using on the trail, and fill it with a light load at first. Over time, add more weight to the pack until you’re essentially carrying the same load you will while on your trek. When ever possible, make those walks on an actual trail to help you get use to the uneven ground and varying conditions that you’ll face while actually on your trip. Did I mention you should also walk a lot of hills?

One aspect of a mountain trek that is difficult to prepare for is altitude. If you already live in the mountains, you’ll arrive at your destination with part of the acclimatization process already completed. But if you’re like me, you don’t live much above sea level, which can be a problem when you’re on your way to 17,600 feet. To help to offset those differences, I once again recommend regular doses of a cardio workout. In my case, that came in the form of running, but for a lower impact, but still highly effective cardio workout, add swimming to your schedule. The regimented breathing that comes along with swimming laps is also a good way to workout your lungs in preparation for the trek. Cycling is also a good workout, but at the risk of sounding like a broken record, you’ll want to mix in plenty of hills to increase its effectiveness.

While physical preparation is incredibly important, it doesn’t hurt to do a little mental prep work too. Before you go on your Himalayan trek, figure out which route you’ll take to your ultimate destination. Then, research what you can expect to find along the trail and what a typical itinerary consists of. The fewer surprises you have along the way, the more you can enjoy the walk. Knowing what is in store for you can be very helpful on a number of levels.

With all of this in mind, I will say that it is still possible to complete the trek without physically preparing, although you’re likely to have a much rougher time of it. By doing a little advanced training though, you can give yourself a better chance of completing a challenging trek and garnering the rewards of accomplishing that goal.

Next: The Gear of an Everest Trek