Himalayan High: On the trail (part 1)

If you’ve been following the series of stories on my recent trek to Everest Base Camp, you already know that any trip to the Himalaya begins with a visit to Kathmandu, but before you can actually start the hike, you’ll also have to hop a flight to Tenzing-Hillary Airport in Lukla as well. Once in Lukla, the trek actually gets underway, quite literally, immediately after you get off the plane. You won’t be picked up by any cars, taxis, or even a bus, but instead you’ll collect your pack, walk up a flight of stone stairs, and onto the path. The very same path that will eventually lead into the High Himalaya, and on to Everest itself.

But before you can go any higher, you must first go lower, and for the first day of the trek, you’ll actually be moving down. Lukla is located at 9380 feet (2860 meters), but in order to begin the acclimatization process, you’ll drop all the way down 8700 feet (2652 meters) as you make the hike to Pakding, the first stop on the way to Everest.

The initial day on the trail is a relatively easy one, as you’ll only spend about three hours hiking, on a mostly smooth, and easy to follow, route. Along the way you’ll wander through small villages built right onto the side of the mountain, and past Buddhist monuments covered in scared sutras, while the beautiful peaks of the Himalaya tower high overhead.

Even at that early stage of the trek you’ll begin to get a sense of what you can expect on the road ahead. The trail winds up and down steep slopes and across a number of suspension bridges that hang above gaping chasms, while an ice blue river, fed from a distant glacier, roars by far below. The trees and flowers are lush and beautiful, and in April, one of the prime times to visit the Khumbu Region, the air is filled with the fragrant scents of springtime in the mountains. Cool winds stir through the local flora and send dust from the trail into the air, something that is barely noticeable at lower altitudes, but will come back to haunt hikers in the days ahead.The road is far from empty, and you’ll encounter plenty of other trekkers along the way. Some will be in large groups, numbering close to 20, with several guides and a gaggle of porters in tow. Other, smaller, groups will be traveling independently, carrying their own packs and navigating their way without the use of a guide at all. But no matter if they’re part of a large, organized trek or going it alone, there is a camaraderie amongst trekkers on the trail, with friendly greetings, plenty of banter, and a lot of good-natured ribbing.

Trekkers aren’t the only ones who frequent the trail however, as there are plenty of Nepalis traveling between villages as well. Most impressive of these are the porters that you frequently see along the way, most of whom are carrying large, very heavy loads, up the steep mountain roads. While most of us are trying desperately to catch our breath, carrying just a 20 pound pack, these guys are hauling 100 pounds or more up into the very thing air. Worse yet they make it look easy, which can be rather dejecting at times.

Traveling through the Khumbu Valley is a challenge, especially as you move to higher altitudes. Fortunately, at the end of the day, you’re not climbing into a tent and hoping to get a good nights sleep. Instead, you’ll be staying in traditional Nepali teahouses, which have been a mainstay in the region for centuries. These teahouses offer simple accommodations with rooms that lack electricity and heat, but are small and comfortable, with a bed to roll your sleeping bag out on. They also have large common rooms where trekkers gather at the end of the day for warm meals, hot tea, and an evening of conversation and playingcards. A stay in the teahouse offers rest and relaxation, and a dash of local culture, that is an indelible part of any Himalayan adventure.

As I mentioned, the first day of the trek is short and not especially challenging. Trekkers drop in altitude to begin the acclimatization process, and for the most part, the hike is a pleasant walk through a beautiful area. But the second day is a completely different story. On Day 2, you’ll spend six to eight hours on the trail, and you’ll gain more than 2600 feet (800 meters) in altitude. Most of that will come after lunch, when you’ll begin a major climb that helps to make this one of the toughest days of the entire trek.

The final destination for that day is a place called Namche Bazaar, one of the larger, and more famous, villages in the Khumbu Valley. But in order to get to that place, you’ll need to climb a major slope. One that will test even the best conditioned trekkers. It is a long, grueling climb, that leaves you exhausted, gasping for breath, and more than ready for a break. But you’ll also feel a sense of accomplishment as well. You’ve conquered the first major hurdle of the trek, and you’ve climbed up to 11,305 feet (3446 meters). Fortunately, Namche Bazaar is also the first of two rest stops along the way, and the day after that long, brutal climb, you’ll have an opportunity to recuperate, acclimatize, and prepare for the journey ahead.

Next: A Visit To Namche Bazaar

Should a medical exam be required before a major trek?

Physicians and politicians in Australia are calling for mandatory physicals for any trekkers preparing to hike the Kokoda Track according to Aussie newspaper The Age. The Kokoda is a difficult and remote trail in Papua New Guinea, which has claimed the lives of three hikers this year alone. The track runs 60 miles in length through a region where the Australian military fought a pitched battle with the Japanese during WWII, and it has become a popular tourist attraction in recent years.

The latest person to die on the Kokoda was a 38 year old man named Paul Bradfield who was hiking the trail as part of a fund raising effort for a children’s charity. Before the hike he was believed to have been in good health and spent weeks training for trip. The exact cause of his death is still unknown, but it is believed that he suffered a heart attack while hiking. The other two people to die on the trail this year were also quite young as well. One was a 26 year old man, and the other a 36 year old woman.

This story brings up an interesting debate. Should a physical be required before embarking on any major trek? At what point does a government begin enforcing such requirements and how exactly do they do so? At the moment, Australia has no requirements of the trekking companies that operate on the Kokoda, but they are developing a “code of conduct” for those hiking the trail, and are now strongly considering the requirement of a medical check as well.
While three deaths is certainly something to be concerned about, it is also a very small number when you consider that 6000 people take on the Kokoda each year. Similarly, on Kilimanjaro in Tanzania, roughly ten people die in a given year as well, usually due to altitude sickness. But that too is a small number when you consider the thousands that climb the mountain each year. Should these relatively minuscule numbers of deaths cause a change in policy that will effect all the trekkers that go to these places? And would a mandatory health check have saved these three hikers to begin with?

On the other hand, there is a certain inherent danger to these kinds of trips, and obviously anyone can be at risk, no matter what condition they’re in. Wouldn’t a responsible traveler want to ensure their safety by having a physical anyway? Don’t they owe it to themselves and their families?

If Australia does institute a change, it’ll probably require the tour operators to be the ones that have to enforce it by requiring all hikers to show proof of a medical examination before they join the trek. The question is should they make this change, and if so, should other major treks around the world follow suit?

Classic Trek: The Annapurna Circuit

Climbers and high altitude mountaineers aren’t the only ones having fun in the Himalaya this spring. Plenty of backpackers will pour into Nepal too, setting their sites on one of the greatest treks in the world, the legendary Annapurna Circuit. Unfortunately, this may be the last great year to take this hike, as the completion of a new road could spell the end of the things that have made this one so special for so long.

The Annapurna Circuit gets underway near Pokhara, located in western Nepal, and has a completely different feel than trekking in the Khumbu Valley, the country’s other major backpacking hub. For one thing, it tends to not be as crowded, and it can provide a more authentic cultural experience.

Those planning to make the trek should expect to devote between 18 and 20 days to the journey. Over the course of that time, you’ll cover approximately 185 miles, and go as high as 17,770 feet in the Thorung La pass. The Circuit wanders completely around the Annapurna Massif, which is made up of a series of massive Himalayan peaks, of which, the central summit known as Annapurna I reaches 26,545 feet in height. It is the 10th highest mountain in the world, and considered one of the most challenging to scale. Trekkers will also journey in the shadow of Dhaulagiri, the 7th tallest mountain on Earth, which falls just to the west.

One of the unique elements to trekking in Nepal is that it allows travelers to stay in comfortable tea houses at the end of each day. These traditional inns are found in villages, located every few hours along the trail, and offer up warm, comfortable, and relatively inexpensive places to stay throughout the length of the trek. It also means that food and drink are plentiful, which allows for the backpacker to carry less gear and go at their own pace. The easy access to these Himalayan hostels means that you can spend all morning on the trail, and if you feel like taking it easy, stop early in the afternoon for a rest, or push on to the next village, not too far down the line.

As if the luxury of the tea houses wasn’t enough, the trail also has a number of Buddhist temples and other impressive displays of the traditional architecture of the region en route. Couple these attractions with the stunning beauty of the mountains, and travelers get a unique experience unlike nearly any other trek in the world.

The character of the Annapurna Circuit is changing however, and some fear that it will soon lose its charm. As I mentioned, a new road has been built in the area, and now increased traffic has turned a once remote, and tranquil hike into a dusty, noisy experience for trekkers. Many who have hiked the Circuit say that if you really want to experience it in its truest form, this is the year to go, as once the road is completed sometime in 2010, it’ll never be the same again.

The lasting impact of that road has yet to be seen, and for now the Annapurna Circuit remains one of the great clssic treks. It is easy to find a guide service to show you the route, either before you go to Nepal or after you arrive, but one of the other great elements of the Annapurna Circuit is that it can easily be done without a guide, making it one of the most accessible of the world’s classic treks.