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A Beginner’s Guide to Trekking in the Himalayas

Anusha Subramanian, a trained mountaineer from N. I. M. Uttarkashi, combines her knowledge with her experience of expeditions and high altitude treks to bring out this comprehensive guide on how to prepare for exploring the mighty Himalayas.

Himalayas have intrigued and attracted many explorers and adventure enthusiasts from across the world for many decades, for the call of these mighty mountain ranges is simply too strong to ignore. Most trained mountaineers and high altitude trekkers believe that trekking in the Himalayas is an adventure that every person should experience at least once in their life time. The Indian and Nepal Himalayas offer even the most inexperienced of trekkers a limitless choice of safe mountain routes, with views to die for, and memories that will last a life time. I am sure many have always wanted to walk or climb the Himalayan mountains but, you have been scared or don’t know how to exactly go about it.

Himalayan treks can be very rewarding. Apart from just offering spectacular views and adrenalin rush it gives oneself assessment time. Just after having completed one high altitude trek, it helps you understand your potential and strengths and weaknesses. Many first timers have come back rejuvenated and taken up exercising seriously and sworn to be fit. Many others have challenged themselves and gone higher year on year to scale peaks over 6000 meters in height. That’s the beauty of the Himalayas – an addiction that seldom can be cured.

I think anyone can do it and one does not necessarily need to be trained to enjoy and walk in the blissful Himalayas. The first step is to understand that there is a vast difference between hiking and trekking. Hiking applies to shorter routes and plain walks while trekking involves more rigorous walking along different terrains and altitudes. But, trekking is not tough as one might think of it to be. If you know to walk then you can trek as well. Walking along a trail with a backpack doesn’t require exceptional skill or conditioning, but it does require planning, the right clothes, shoes and above all old common sense.

Before you get too relaxed, it’s imperative to know that one should never embark on a Himalayan trek without a bit of physical fitness and preparedness. Yes, basic physical fitness is required but, most importantly one should remember that anything above 1000 feet should not be taken lightly and one needs to take cognisance of reality. Himalayan treks where the altitude is over 8000 feet, and sometimes extends up to 18,000 feet, needs good mental conditioning and physical fitness. Along with basic fitness, it’s equally important to be mentally fit as most of the times going for any trek is more about mind over body affair. If you are fairly fit and mentally strong and prepared, you can aspire to view the Himalayas up close and in person rather than sitting on your couch.

Physical and Mental Preparations

If you are not into regular fitness regime then a slight effort towards building your physical fitness (four to six weeks) before your trek is good enough. A few physical activities can be easily built within your daily routine. Initially start with walking for about 1-2 hours on flat surface for a week. Next, boost your stamina gradually by increasing the walk to about 3 hours. The subsequent addition would be walks on inclines and finally walking with a backpack of about 5 kgs weight. This would be a good enough exercise to prep you for a trek.

If you regularly work out in the gym, then walking on the treadmill with a backpack at a 2-5 per cent incline will enhance your endurance and also strengthen some of your trekking muscles i.e. legs, back and abs. An important thing to remember is that when you walk uphill ,the maximum pressure is on the thighs and when walking downhill, all the pressure is on the knees. Stretching and even yoga will help in getting those muscles loose and flexible before the trek.

Breathing is the other important aspect and one should work on increasing the lung capacity by doing simple breathing exercises. This is essential to prevent the panicky wheezing after 5 minutes of climbing. Practice belly breathing for high altitudes where the air is scanty. If you have a medical condition like Asthma, you need not worry about going to high altitudes – there are many asthmatics who are very good mountaineers. Asthmatics who have not ventured into any adventure activities should start with light trekking only. People with medical conditions are advised to consult their doctors before venturing into high altitude zones. Even  if there are no underlying medical conditions, one should get a thorough basic medical check-up done 15 days before they embark on their trek.

Most professional outfits organising Himalayan treks can assess one’s fitness levels. If in doubt, be conservative, especially when it comes to the dizziness and shortness of breath associated with high altitudes. At high altitudes, altitude sickness is one of the first and foremost things that one needs to take care of. One should discuss these aspects with the organisers in detail before going on a long trek.

The mental aspect cannot be generalised and varies with each individual. A basic tenet, however, is that trekking in the Himalayas is not like a walk in the park. You will witness nature in its rawest form and one should not go with high expectations of any sort. Adversities such as quick weather changes, getting sick etc. are common and need to be taken in one’s stride. Lastly, given the fact that the Himalayas are an eco-sensitive region, trekkers should make sure they take care of the environment and not be callous in the mountains. Every trekker’s first rule is to respect the mountains.

Altitude Sickness

One of the most common and most dreaded medical conditions while trekking in high mountains is Altitude Sickness. The symptoms of altitude sickness are headache, nausea, and loss of appetite. The cause is insufficient oxygen levels in the blood due to lower atmospheric pressure at high altitudes. If not attended to, altitude sickness can lead to Pulmonary Edema (water collection in the lungs) or Cerebral Edema (water collection in the brain ). Altitude sickness is highly unpredictable and one may reach a height of 13000 ft and still not demonstrate any symptoms till the next day.

Altitude Sickness can be avoided by following the “golden rule” – climb high, sleep low. Once you’ve made your way up past 3,000 metres (10,000 feet), do not ascend more than 300 metres (1,000 feet) per day to sleep. You can climb as high as you want, just make sure that you come back to a base camp that’s no more than 300 m (1,000 feet) higher than your previous night’s sleeping elevation. Resting at the altitude at which you became ill is often the most effective remedy for altitude sickness (other than descent). You’ll usually feel better in 1-2 (or up to 4) days.

Avoid tobacco, alcohol and other depressant drugs as these further decrease the respiratory drive during sleep resulting in a worsening of symptoms. Hydrate yourself by drink plenty of water. What you might think is altitude sickness might actually be dehydration, caused by the higher rate of water vapour lost from the lungs at higher altitudes. Eat a high calorie diet while at altitude. Any signs of discomfort should be immediately communicated to the trek organiser. Continuous communication is very important while trekking in high mountains as experienced leaders, guides, porters and fellow climbers can quickly come to assistance in case of any emergencies whatsoever.

Basic Trekking Essentials

  • Ask the trek organiser for a route map of the trek. You should study it in detail and also make sure that you have the route map with you at all times for ready reference.
  • Skills needed for trekking apply to any outdoor sport. A course in basic first aid wouldn’t hurt, but the least would be to have knowhow about bandaging a wound and detecting the signs of dehydration, heatstroke and frost bite.
  • Read up and learn to understand the weather conditions on a given day.  It’s helpful to know what’s coming by studying the common signs, rather than being completely washed over mentally and physically by sudden weather changes.

Gearing Up

  • Back Pack and Day Packs: A basic that any individual should understand while trekking is that the right backpack or day pack is a must. One must have a backpack which fits well on the back and does not ‘hang’. Choose a backpack with multiple pockets, padded shoulder straps, and large zipper closure. Make sure it’s the right size such that when properly adjusted, the base should sit on your hips and the top should be at least one hand-width below the base of your neck. Another important aspect is that the backpack shouldn’t be packed too much. For a more comfortable trek (and to help the porters), luggage should be kept to a maximum of 15 kgs. The day pack you carry will have your essentials like your camera, jackets, water bottle etc. A proper backpack on your back is half the battle won while trekking.
  • Clothes and Shoes: The remaining half of the battle is won with the right clothes and shoes. Wear loose clothes like track pants or cotton slacks or trousers, with a loose T-Shirt. Having a multipurpose jacket which can take the cold as well as the wind is a must. While on a Himalayan trek it is recommended that you wear woollen or synthetic blend socks designed to wick moisture away from the feet, as wet feet is the primary cause of blisters. Footwear designed specifically for trekking offers better support and traction. Choose a pair that’s a half-size larger than your street shoes to allow for some swelling as you walk and to accommodate slightly heavy hiking or woollen socks if need be. If your shoes are new, break into them while you are in the city training. It’s also good to carry a floater along so you can relieve your legs from the trekking shoes when at the campsite. That little tingle of friction you feel on your foot before you get a blister shouldn’t be ignored. Take off your boot and wrap your foot with a light cloth before that tingling evolves into a full-fledged blister.

Selecting and Planning the Himalayan Trek

Trekking activities in Himalayas is primarily done in 2 seasons: Pre-Monsoon between May – July and Post-Monsoon between August – November. Weather conditions in the mountains can change drastically hence choosing the right season is the most important aspect of any trip to the Himalayas. It is advisable to read about the various Himalayan destinations and other aspects of trekking. Talking to enough people who have done Himalayan treks earlier helps in gathering and learning from their experience.

After you have researched well on where you want to go, it is important to select the right Adventure Tour Company to go with. There are dime a dozen companies that offer Himalayan treks and other adventure sport activities in India but it is always advisable to read up on the company and do your own research by talking to people who have been with these companies before signing up.

Safety should be paramount. Make sure the company you choose to go with has certified guides, are aware of the routes and the terrains, can handle medical emergencies, respect the mountains, follow environmental code and conduct, and above all adhere to ultimate safety standards. People should make sure to enquire from their adventure operator about all the necessary aspects such as the places on the route, safety standards, medical related issues, high altitude sickness etc. and how are the organisers are equipped to handle these.

Beginners Treks in Indian Himalayas

The Himalayas offer treks both for beginners as well as for professional climbers. There are several destinations where you can walk for long hours and not demonstrate any rock climbing or mountaineering skills. You could go for treks in Uttarakhand, Himachal Pradesh, Arunachal Pradesh, Sikkim, Kashmir Himalayas, Ladakh and Zanskar ranges. First timers should look to go to mountains that range in the height of 6000 feet to 14000 feet. While choosing the trek route or destination, it’s important to be aware of region specific information such as torrential rains in certain seasons in Arunachal Pradesh, Uttarakhand (Garhwal and Kumaon) and Himachal Pradesh (Kullu and Spiti); snowbound areas in winter, densely forested trails, etc.

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View of the Uttarakhand Himalayas; Photo: Anusha Subramanian

1. Uttarakhand

  • Valley of Flowers: UNESCO Natural Heritage site, home to many celebrated flowers like the Brahmakamal, the Blue Primula and the Cobra Lily
  • Dodital – Darwa Top: Picturesque lake in the Uttarkashi district with a quaint little temple dedicated to Lord Ganesha. Darwa Top provides a panoramic view of the Garhwal Himalayan peaks including Bandarpoonch and Kala Naag
  • Gaumukh: River Ganga originates at the Gaumukh glacier. The trail runs through Chirbasa and Bhojwasa with beautiful views of Bhagirathi peaks.

2. Himachal Pradesh

  • Chanderkhani Pass and Malana: A trekking route that is steeped in legend and offers great views of Deo Tibba and Pin Parvati range of mountains. Malana is a unique village known for its own exclusive local governance. 
  • Hampta Pass: A moderately difficult trek that starts in Manali and ends in Lahaul valley. Great mixture of various sights and experiences of a Himalayan high altitude trek.
  • Triund and Indrahar Pass: From Triund, one can experience the most spectacular view of the snow covered peaks of Dhauladhar on one side and Kangra valley on the other. Indrahar Pass trek takes one through green pastures, dense Deodar and Rhododendron forests, into the Dhauladhar ranges with amazing views of Pir Panjal range, across Lahesh Cave and finally to the shepherd village of Kuarsi.
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Camp at the base of ChanderKhani Pass; Photo: Anusha Subramanian

3. Ladakh

  • Markha Valley Trek: One of the most popular and beautiful treks in Ladakh. Tread through high pasture lands of Nimaling and Kongmarula, with chances of sighting endangered wildlife.
  • Nubra Valley and Lasermo La (Pass): Visit a part of the old Central Asian trading route  across the famous Khardung La Pass and get amazed at the sight of sand dunes and double hump Bactrian camels in this amazing valley north of Leh. Catch sights of the Karakoram, Ladakh and Zanskar mountain ranges from Lasermo La Pass.
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Trekking in Nubra Valley; Photo: Anusha Subramanian

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Camp by the river at Nubra Valley – Ladakh; Photo: Anusha Subramanian

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Sand Dunes of Hunder at Nubra – Ladakh; Photo: Anusha Subramanian

4. Sikkim

  • Goechala Trek: Take an enchanting walk through the Tshoka Rhododendron forests, the vast Dzongri and Thansing meadows, the startling blue waters of Samiti lake, the looming presence of Kanchenjunga and Pandim. A must-do considering the sharp contrast of the mountains, the trails, the people and the culture compared to the rest of the country.

At the end, I would like to mention that whether you are alone with strangers on a trek or with your own friends, treks have the capacity to cement some long lasting friendships. Everything in the mountains is a community affair, right from putting up a tent to cooking and walking. Remember, nothing happens in isolation in the mountains.

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