Himalayan High: dangers of the trek

Over the past few weeks I’ve shared all kinds of thoughts on an Everest Base Camp trek, one of the best long distance hikes anywhere in the world. I’ve also shared my thoughts on the best ways to prepare for the trek and which gear items you should bring along with you to the Himalaya. In this, the final article in the Himalayan High series, I’ll share some thoughts on the potential dangers of the trek.

Beyond a shadow of a doubt, the biggest danger that anyone trekking in the Himalaya will face is the altitude. It is the great equalizer when it comes to determining success or failure on a high mountain trek, and even the most physically gifted and prepared hikers can be laid low by the thin air. Common symptoms that are brought on by altitude include headaches, dizzy spells, nausea, shortness of breath, and a loss of appetite. More serious signs of AMS, or Acute Mountain Sickness, include lethargy, sometimes to an extreme level, an inability to sleep, and vomiting.

Most of the members of my trekking group experienced at least one of those symptoms to some degree or another. Nearly everyone reported headaches and nausea of varying degrees, with a few experiencing serious issues. Of our 12 person group, two were unable to complete the trek to Base Camp. One of those suffered considerable nausea and was lacking in strength, so he elected to go down of his own accord. The other, had a full on case of AMS, and was lethargic to the point of not being able to stay awake. She was slurring her words considerably and was physically ill to the point where she couldn’t keep any food down. It became so serious that she had to be carried down the mountain by our porters, and would eventually recover at a lower altitude.
As for myself, for the most part I suffered few problems from the altitude. I would often start the day with a slight headache and feeling a bit hung over, but once we hit the trail, I would soon shake off the sluggishness altogether. Unfortunately, I did suffer one side effect that has troubled me in the past – the inability to sleep well at altitude. I’d go to bed each night exhausted from the long day on the trail, and almost without fail, I’d wake up in an hour or two later, and be wide awake for most of the rest of the night. It was rather frustrating, especially over a 12 day hike.

Unfortunately, there isn’t a whole lot you can do about altitude. It is nearly impossible to prepare for unless you already live in the mountains, and as I said, it effects everyone differently. The best advice I can give is to make sure you’re proceeding up the trail at a slow, measured pace, and take the acclimatization process very seriously. Also, ask your doctor for a prescription of Diamox before you go. It is a drug that is very popular with mountaineers and helps ward off many of the effects of altitude sickness.

One ailment that was difficult to avoid is the dreaded Khumbu Cough. It is a dry, sometimes painful, hack that practically everyone hiking in the region contracts. The cough is a result of the extremely dry air and cold temperatures, causing an irritation of the bronchi in the lungs and seems to be exasperated by high levels of exertion. Everyone in my group, without exception, suffered the Khumbu Cough to some degree, including myself. But in an odd twist, my cough wasn’t so bad while I was actually in Nepal, but managed to somehow get worse after I came home. Avoiding the cough is not easy, but wearing a mask or covering your mouth and nose with a Buff, can help limit the damage.

The next most common problem that most travelers in the region experience is gastrointestinal issues, most often brought on by the food or water. Trekkers will generally eat each evening in the teahouses that they are staying at, and while the food doesn’t taste half bad, it has the potential to be problematic for exhausted hikers who are already dealing with all kinds of other conditions. The fact that all food items, and pretty much everything else for that matter, has to be carried up the mountain by porters, gives it ample opportunity to spoil, especially items that easily perishable such as meats and cheeses.

Like many places in the world, the water can be a challenge to deal with as well. You can fill your water bottles for free in most teahouses, but you’ll want to treat it with water purification tablets or use a filter of some kind before drinking it. If you don’t, you’re likely to suffer terrible GI issues, which isn’t a fun thing to experience when you’re out on a trail for hours at a time.

Fortunately, I was once again spared any GI issues, but other members of the group were not so lucky. Some suffered from travelers diarrhea, and were frequently looking for a private rock to serve as shelter while they heeded the frequent calls of nature. Others had outright food poisoning, getting sick from the food in general. My advice is to stick to basic foods and avoid anything exotic. You’ll also want to avoid meats and cheeses when ever possible, especially as you go higher.

As on any hike, you do run the risk of physical injury while trekking the Khumbu. There are plenty of places on the trail where you can slip and fall, damaging more than just your pride. Twisted ankles and knees are a real possibility, especially considering that some portions of the trail are make-shift stairs carved out of rock. After climbing up those stairs for a couple of hours, your tired legs are more likely to cause a stumble, and while there were a few such incidences in my group, no one was seriously injured.

One other common concern for travelers heading to Nepal is a potential chance encounter with the Maoist Rebels that are known to inhabit the countryside and remain active there, despite the fact that they won control of the government a few years back in democratic elections. In the past, those rebels were known to shake down trekkers for money and occasionally kidnap them as well. But those days are behind us, and visitors can now roam the countryside with out too much fear. They were seldom an issue on the road to Everest to begin with, and on my trek there was little sign of them outside of a few propaganda posters.

Like any trip to remote region of the world, there are always inherent dangers. But the amazing scenery, friendly people, and wonderful culture make this journey one that is well worth taking. Despite suffering issues from altitude, exhaustion, and an extremely nasty cough, I still enjoyed every minute of my adventure in the Himalaya, and suspect that any adventurous traveler would feel the same.

Himalayan High: gear for the trek

In my last post on my recent trek to Everest Base Camp I wrote about ways to prepare for the trek, physically getting yourself ready to handle the demands of the hike. It is my opinion that anyone who makes this trip will have a far better experience, and can save themselves quite a bit of grief, if they are well prepared for the trail. That same philosophy carries over to the gear that you choose to bring along on the trek as well. The proper equipment can make the hike a much more enjoyable prospect, but conversely the wrong gear can make it a difficult and uncomfortable affair.

After spending a couple of thousand dollars on the trek and airfare to Kathmandu, it is a natural instinct to want to save some money on your gear. While I’m all for bargain shopping, it is important that you be smart about it and still purchase high quality equipment. Certain pieces of gear will play an important role in your journey, and it is imperative that you don’t go cut-rate on those items, lest you end up regretting it later.

For instance, on my trek it was recommended that we bring a 4-season sleeping bag to ensure that we stayed warm throughout the long nights in the Nepalese teahouses. That type of bag is generally rated down to about 0ºF (-18ºC), and at the higher altitudes, the unheated lodges could potentially approach those temperatures or even lower. Some of my travel companions failed to heed these recommendations however, and arrived on the trek with just a 3-season bag, and within a few days, they were all begging for extra blankets in their rooms in an attempt to stay warm each night. Their bags did end up saving them money, but at the expense of comfort. Anyone who has ever been too cold to sleep can certainly tell you that it doesn’t make for a very fun night. By contrast, I took a GoLite 4-season Adrenaline bag, and was plenty warm, and comfortable, the entire time I was on the trail. In fact, I was able to sleep quite snugly in just my skivvies, while the rest of the group piled on layers.Another important piece of gear is your backpack, which needs to be large enough to carry all your essential equipment while remaining comfortable enough to wear all day long. It is essential that which ever pack you choose also fits properly, so that it carries your load without bogging you down or impeding your movement. Backpacks come in a variety of sizes and with many options, which is why I would recommend going to a gear shop and having one properly fitted for your particular frame. On my trek I carried a North Face Terra 65 pack, which is a very comfortable, no-frills bag that offers a lot of bang for the buck. If porters will be carrying the bulk of your gear, you may only need a small daypack. If that’s the case, I recommend the Kestrel 38 from Osprey.

The clothing you take along on the trek plays a vital role in keeping you comfortable as well, but since everything you bring with you needs to fit in one backpack, you’ll be limited in your options. Your clothing needs to be versatile, lightweight, and highly packable, all at the same time. At the lower altitudes you’ll want something that is cool and comfortable, but as you go up, you’ll need to stay warm and dry. Your best bet is to use a layering system, allowing you to pack a few items of clothing that can work in unison to keep you comfortable no matter what the conditions.

Generally a layering system starts with good base layers that stay close to the skin, wicking away moisture, and keeping you cool or warm as needed. From there, you add a fleece layer, which traps warm air between it and your base layer, providing extra warmth. I actually took two fleece layers with me, a lighter, performance fleece for lower altitudes and a thicker, expedition level fleece for when we neared base camp. Finally, you can add a shell jacket over your other layers for when it gets really cold. The three layers work well with one another to keep the warm air in, but the nasty elements out. A system such as this one doesn’t take up much room in your travel bags, and is very flexible for the varying conditions you’ll find in the Khumbu Valley.

Perhaps the single most important gear item you’ll take with you on your trek are your hiking boots. You can have every other piece of gear exactly right, but if your boots are bad, you’ll end up having a miserable time. Keep your feet happy however, and the trek will seem like a walk in the park – quite literally! Picking the right boots for a multi-day Himalayan trek is not an easy task, and it is a highly personal choice. You’ll want to try on a number of pairs of boots before you purchase the ones that will see you through the mountains, but be very careful in your selection, as this isn’t your local trail, and you’ll need something more than the light hikers that you’re use to wearing along those lesser paths. I recommend shelling out the cash on a good pair of hiking boots, but when you do so, keep in mind that these shoes will last you for years. My boots are made by Asolo, and they have been trekking with me on five continents. They are comfortable, flexible and very durable. Just be sure to break them in at home, long before you leave for Nepal. Trust me, you don’t want to try out new shoes on the road to Everest. Bonus tip: wear the boots with you on the plane. If your baggage gets lost in transit, you can replace just about anything else, but again, you won’t want to be breaking in new boots on the hike.

That about covers the essential gear for your trek, but there are plenty of extra things you can bring along to help make things easier, just don’t bring so much stuff that you’re overloading yourself or your Sherpa porter. For instance, I highly recommend taking trekking poles, as they provide extra stability and traction both going up and down the mountain. A good headlamp is essential of course and should be in every traveler’s pack no matter where they are headed, and you’ll want a wide brimmed hat to help keep the wind and sun off of you as you hike. An iPod has become almost essential gear these days as well, although you my have issues with recharging it on the go, in which case it just becomes dead weight. Don’t forget a good camera, as you’ll want to document the trip as best you can, and the usual assortment of gloves, beanies, and scarves can be useful in keeping you warm as well.

But if I were to recommend one non-essential piece of gear to throw in your pack, it would be a Buff. This versatile piece of kit is the most useful multifunction headwear you’ll find anywhere. They can be worn on your head of course, covering your scalp and keeping the sweat out of your eyes. But they can also be worn around the neck, keeping the wind and rain from running down your jacket, and when the gusts really pick-up, it can be pulled up over the mouth and nose to keep the dust out, something that proved extremely helpful in the Khumbu. Trust me, the Buff is a great piece of gear that doesn’t take up too much space in your pack and won’t break your budget either, but will provide you with plenty of uses.

When making a long distance trek of this kind, it is important that you choose your gear wisely. Don’t skimp on these items, as it may come back to bite you when you need it most, and always keep in mind that your gear is an important element in your enjoyment of your Himalayan adventure.

Next: Dangers of the Trek

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

Himalayan High: guided vs independent trekking

For many adventure travelers, the Himalaya represent the ultimate destination. A visit to those mountains combines physical challenges, stunning landscapes, and spectacular cultural experiences. But whether you’re making a trek to Everest Base Camp, hiking the Annapurna Circuit, or simply strolling to Namche Bazaar, you’ll have to make an important choice before you go – whether to hire a guide or travel independently.

If you have never gone on a trek of this nature before, the choice is a simple one. You should definitely hire a guide for your first long distance hike. But if you have even a moderate level of experience backpacking, then you should consider the choices quite carefully, as both have their advantages and drawbacks, which can have a direct impact on a number of aspects of your trip.

The first element of your journey that will be impacted by this choice is the cost. Going independently will certainly be a cheaper option, as you won’t be paying for a guide and possibly porters as well. While on a day-to-day basis, a guide doesn’t seem all that expensive, his fees can add up quickly over the course of a trek that can last anywhere from 10-30 days. But even this isn’t necessarily so cut and dried either, as a guide might also work closely with some of the teaouses and restaurants that you’ll visit along the way, earning you discounted rates. Those discounts could end up saving you a substantial amount of money, although certainly not enough to make up the difference in price for hiring the guide.
Speaking of accommodations, that is another area that will be directly impacted by your choice of going guided or independently. On the one hand, if you travel on your own, you can bring a tent, and camp out in specified areas. This will, of course, save you more cash, but be sure that that the tent is a warm one, and that you also bring a very warm 4-season sleeping bag. Even during the warmer months, it can get quite cold at altitude. Teahouses are always available as an option of course, even when traveling independently, but during the busier seasons they fill up quite quickly and you could end up paying a premium. When traveling with a guide, you’ll likely have reservations for the lodges in advance, and you won’t have no wonder whether or not you’ll have a comfortable bed, with a roof over your head, on any given night.

Traveling independently also allows you to go at your own pace, which means that if you’re not feeling well or want to spend an extra rest day in one of the villages along the way, you can. You’ll also be able to pick your own route, and there are multiple paths for reaching Everest Base Camp for instance. On the other hand, the guides usually have a planned out itinerary designed to get you to and from your destination in the time that you have allotted. They also have built in rest days to make sure you’re acclimatizing properly, but they want to see you up and back down the mountain on an orderly schedule, which helps them to run more treks, and gets you back in Kathmandu in time for your flight home. There are times when a well regulated schedule does prove to be handy.

Having a guide along with you does provide a measure of safety however, as they generally know what to watch out for in terms of altitude sickness. They also know the best routes to take through the mountains, and can provide information on the surrounding peaks, the villages you pass through, and various other sites that you’ll come across along the way. Your guide will probably also come with a porter or two, who will carry your larger backpack, freeing you up to travel lightly with just a day pack. if you’re not use to carrying a heavy pack over uneven and demanding terrain, this alone can be worth the added expense of hiring a guide.

On my recent Himalayan trek I joined a guided trekking group in Kathmandu, and I personally feel it was the best decision for myself. I did indeed have a limited time in the country and I wanted to take advantage of that time to the best of my ability. Having a guide helped greatly in that department. It didn’t hurt that our guide was also very knowledgeable, had a great personality, and was fun to be around either. Going in a guided group also meant that I was meeting new people and sharing the experience with others. In this case, we had members of the group from all over the globe, making it a multicultural affair.

There were a variety of times when I was very happy to be a part of that group. For instance, just getting a flight from Kathmandu to Lukla could have been tricky on my own. The weather was less than stellar the day we were making that trip, and we were forced to wait in the airport until the skies cleared. But being part of an organized, guided trek, meant that we already had our tickets and reservations, before we even arrived at the airport. Had I gone independently, there is a good chance I’d have gotten bumped, throwing my schedule off completely.

Later in the trek, while we were descending, there was a sign in one of the teahoues that we were staying in that said that they were booked for the next four nights. We had reservations to stay for the night that we were there, but that “no vacancy” sign made me very happy that I wasn’t arriving in the village, at the end of a long day on the trail, hoping that I could find a place to stay.

After a few days in the Himalaya, I did notice how easy it would be to make the trek independently. The infrastructure is in place to make it as simple as possible. The trails are well marked and easy to follow on your own and there are villages every hour or two along the way. For experienced trekkers and backpackers, the option is there and it is an attractive one. By going independently, you’ll certainly save some cash and have some freedom to explore the mountains at your own pace. But should you elect to go with a guide, you’ll find that the benefits likely outweigh the costs, and you’ll find plenty of reasons that it is a good option as well.

Both options are viable and it is important to pick the one that bests fits your style of travel.

Next: Preparing for the Trek

Himalayan High: Going Down!

With every journey to Everest, whether it’s going to the summit or simply trekking to Base Camp, the focus is always on the journey up. The news stories trumpet the fact that the climbers have reached the summit, rarely mentioning anything about the descent at all. When they do, it is usually because of some tragic accident that occurs on the way down, resulting in severe injuries or even death. But Ed Viesturs, America’s premiere mountaineer, is fond of saying that “the summit is only half way there”, and you can apply that same logic to a trek to BC as well.

On the way up the Khumbu Valley, trekkers struggle with the altitude gain, thin air, and challenging climbs up the steep slopes. As the days wear on, the hikers generally console themselves with the thought that going down will be so much easier. They tell themselves that on the descent, the air will start to get thicker, they’ll be fully acclimatized, and the trail will actually be going down the mountain. Going down is always easier, right? Turns out that isn’t completely true, and the trek back down the valley can still be quite the struggle.

Before you begin that descent, most of the trekkers who go to Everest Base Camp make one more big climb. One of the little known facts about this trip is that when you are actually in Base Camp itself, you don’t really get great views of Everest. Sure, the mountain is just a stones throw away, but you can’t see the summit, and it is hard to take in the true beauty of the mountain. Instead, you have to climb up Kala Patthar, an 18,192 foot (5545 meters) peak not far from Gorakshep, to get your true photo opportunities. Trekkers will set out as early as 4 AM to get to the top of Kala Patthar before sunrise so they can catch the first golden rays of the sun as they shine across the summit of Everest. The views are spectacular but the climb is killer. After that, it is indeed time to go back down the valley, toward the promise of thicker air. But as I noted already, the way down isn’t quite as easy as you would suspect. After reaching Base Camp there is a bit of a psychological let down, as there is a tremendous sense of accomplishment and a feeling that you’ve reached your goal. But “the summit is only half way there”, and there is still plenty of trekking to be done to get back to Lukla, and eventually Kathmandu. With the visit to Everest over though, it is more difficult to stay focused and motivated.

Following more than a week of hiking in the Himalaya, your legs are tired and the rigors of the trail really begin to take their toll. Those tired legs make going down the larger slopes very challenging, and you’ll find yourself as exhausted at the end of the day as you did when you were going up. Fortunately, you are able to make much better time heading down the Khumbu, and what took eight days to cover while going up, takes just four on the way back down.

As you descend, the air does indeed become thicker and you begin to feel like you can breathe a bit easier. Unfortunately, that can cause an irritation with the delicate bronchi in the lungs, which have already been damaged by the dust and the cold, dry air on the way up. This means that that case of the Khumbu Cough that you picked up on the way up the valley is likely to get worse on the way down. In my trekking group that was certainly the case, as we all hacked and wheezed our way along the trail. In my case, I returned home with a fairly minor cough, only to find that it got dramatically worse. Khumbu cough and severe jet lag are a potent combination.

For the most part, on the return trip down the Khumbu Valley you’ll stop at a number of the same places you did on the way up, although we took a different route, which passed through Pheriche instead of Dingboche, offerng some new and unique views along the way. Of course, all trails lead back to Namche Bazaar and eventually Lukla, where you’ll be ready to bask in the relative comfort there, while sipping a coffee at the fake Starbucks. From there, it is a short flight back to Nepal’s capital, Kathmandu, which marks an end to your Himalayan adventure.

It isn’t until after you’ve had some time to reflect on your journey that you can truly appreciate it. Trekking in Nepal is an amazing combination of a physical challenge, cultural immersion, and spiritual discovery. The views are enchanting, the people are warm and friendly, and the Buddhist mountain culture is peaceful and unique. It is unlikely that you’ll go home unchanged from your journey, and before long, you’ll be dreaming of seeing the Himalaya once again.

Next: EBC Trek – Guided vs. Independent