I’ve promised a proper post on the Himalaya trekking experience to many and it’s nice to finally be able to get to it.
To begin with, let me outline what I am not going to do and what I am going to do. I am not going to pen down a day by day account of the experience. I had decided to do this friend thanks a fellow blogger friend and she has written a detailed account of her day-to-day experience. Of course, our experience wasn’t entirely the same, but if you are looking for a detailed account of what the experience would be like, I would recommend you read her account for the essence.
I plan to write about 5 things (LONG post essentially) –
I. My learnings from the Trek, especially from a ‘how-to-do-trekking-right’ point of view (yes, I am under the illusion that I have managed to ‘crack’ this)
II. My experience of the trek from a trekking group point of view..
III. What I took away from my week the Himalayas..
IV. Share some of my favorite photos of the terrain
V. Who you need to contact if/when you plan on going for a Himalaya Trek.
So, here goes.
I. 13 Trekking Tips
If I had to rate my preparation for the trek, I would give it a 7/10. I gave some things a lot of thought and completely neglected many others. My big excuse was that I was way too busy and excited about planning our road trip around the UK and the smaller excuse was that I had less to worry since I was traveling in a big group (with many mom’s) and they would have all bases covered. So, here’s my list of things to-do before going on a long trek –
1. Get a raincoat i.e. a real plastic-y rain coat. I screwed up on this one. I took my windcheater thinking ‘if it serves me well in rainy London, it will serve me well anywhere.’ Well, it didn’t. Walking about in rainy cities where there are sheltered walkways every few minutes is a far cry from trekking in the mountains. I had to do 2 hours of trekking completely drenched on day 1. Not fun.
(Our guides bought the 2 windcheater folks in the group huge plastic sheets that we wrapped around us for the rest of the trek. Worked very well.. but wasn’t raincoat comfortable)
I wasn’t very hit by the cold as it was generally between 6-12 degrees at the coldest points. London prepared me well for that. If you live in places which see much warmer climates, then lots of comfortable warm clothing like sweat shirts and scarves are essential too!
2. Invest in woollen socks and awesome shoes. Woollen socks is of self explanatory. As far as the shoes go, I really mean ‘awesome’. What makes an awesome shoe? Top class comfort, great grip and ability to resist rain. Ability to resist rain is key as a couple of friends in the group had this constant problem of their feet being completely drenched. Again, not fun.
I used Merrell’s trekking shoes. They were expensive (85 GBP) but worth every penny.. they were awesome. Highly recommended.
3. Invest in water resistant tracks. I miraculously got this right too. (This is the among the last few things I got right though) I got 2 Craghoppers tracks and used them through all 7 days. Served me very well especially given my rain coat issues. Again, they come highly recommended.
4. Take lots of zip lock bags and plastic covers. It’s amazing how useful these things are. You need them for wet clothes, used clothes etc etc. Carry loads. They come in handy.
5. Carry as little as possible when doing the actual trekking. I liken carrying a bag uphill to Chinese water torture – just like you feel the effect one drop at a time, every little thing you carry just gets heavier and heavier.. and heavier! There were 3 boys in the group and we carried bags with everyone’s stuff. Eventually, it came down to raincoats, caps, water and food. (You would think this would have been obvious to us on day 1…..)
6. Have one person in the group carry all kinds of medicines. Always useful.
7. Candies and high sugar snacks are great. We had a lot of food among all of us – energy bars, chocolates and the like. One snack that was a great hit amongst us were simple sugar candies that came in different flavors. They were easy to pop in, were high on sugar and required no chewing/work. Carrying these were really helpful.
8. Walking Sticks – This one has a disclaimer. The stuff recommended on this blog is generally stuff that is tried and tested by me. In this case, I’m going to make an exception. Here’s why – everyone in our 12 person group except one lone nut would swear by walking sticks and the amount of assistance they provided in slushy, slippery terrain, particularly terrain with steep downward slopes.
They didn’t work for me though. I tried using one for the first 2 days and it was definitely more of a hindrance than a help. So, I gave up on it and absolutely loved the freedom and had no problems whatsoever. But again, I’m willing to accept I’m the lone nut here. No harm carrying one along – that’s for sure!
9. Eat well and don’t be picky about food. I think it was breakfast on day 3. I wasn’t feeling so hungry and decided to skip the porridge and the egg. I can barely begin to describe how much I regretted it a few hours into the trek.
Lesson learnt. Never go light during a meal after that. I always ate, whether I was hungry or not.
I added ‘don’t be picky’ as the food may not always suit your palate but it matters a lot that you eat. In our case, we somehow had royal meals for dinners in the most remote of places (credit to our wonderful sherpa team), great breakfasts and generally simple noodle lunches. We got lucky. Good food or not, I hope you remember to eat.
10. Always take responsibility for yourself. We had 2 sherpa’s with us but being a big group, we were often split up and walking far apart. There was one particular day when 5 of us were a good 2 kilometres away from the sherpa walking with us (the other group had gone by car). We were in need of food and water but had none since the 3 boys carrying the bags had decided to do a funky split – raincoats in 1 bag, food in another and water in the third. Of course, you can guess which bag I was holding.
Lots of lessons learnt from that experience. Probably the most important one for me was to always take responsibility for myself. Guides are good but treat what they do for you as extra.
11. Staying fit is cumulative. There’s no faking this one. It shows. Either you are, or you aren’t.
12. Mental strength matters a LOT. When you have a group of 12 – including 5 mom’s, you definitely have a vast array of fitness levels. The one common factor was an immense amount of mental strengths. Our guides told us they were certain at the start of the trek that someone would fall sick/be unable to finish meaning one of them would have to take the person back. They were amazed we finished.
I was, too. All the mom’s showed admirable mental strength. And, in many ways, that trumped the relative importance of fitness levels over the 6 days.
13. Take time for recovery. A couple of us came down with light fevers and heavy colds at the end of the trek and we ended up sleeping the day and a half after the trek. A couple of the others were perfectly okay and (I think) went about their normal lives. They ended up getting sick right after while the first batch were recovering.
Make sure you budget time for recovery, whatever you do.
II. My experience of the trek from a group point of view
When a couple of us first decided to go on this trek, we didn’t necessarily envision this to be the big family affair it ended up becoming. We ended up having 7 kids i.e. 20-25 year olds and 5 moms. As a result, a big focus for most of us was to make sure the mom’s were okay. The trek was kind in places to them – for example, during our most difficult day where we had a tough 21 km stretch, most mom’s took up the option of having a jeep drive them for the first 14 (still wasn’t straightforward as the terrain was bad but definitely easier..).
I didn’t find the trek all that physically challenging. It was a LOT of walking, exhausting at times but not crazy exhausting. What I did find challenging was to go slow enough to keep up with the mom’s who walked slow. That was tough because I have a tendency to shoot forward, if left to myself and took all the restraint I could muster. I also find carrying the bag tough in parts as it also had stuff for 3-4 other people. I’m glad for these two things as it wouldn’t have been fun without a bit of a challenge. In any case, our effort pales when we put it in context of the effort put in by our ‘young’ mom’s who all made it!
We generally stuck to the relatively safer trekking parts since we were with mom’s and I found myself constantly amazed at how well they copied. :-) They just never refused to give up. And it was very inspiring.
We also ended up gelling well as a group. That helps a lot when you are a large group. The best part was that nobody complained. We progressively moved from civilization to isolation – the days in the middle were spent in places with no electricity, no drinking water, rat infested rooms (in some cases) etc. Everyone took it in good spirit and generally found humour in the situation. That worked well.
The other thing I noticed was that games, stories and the like really lightened the thought of a long walk. When we were deeply engaged, we barely realized we were covering large distances. When we were not engaged however, we were like the donkey in Shrek constantly asking our sherpa ‘Are we there yet?’
There were many wonderful memories – we spent many hours playing fun games, inventing fun games, telling each other stories, playing charades and the like. These are memories we will all take back with us and remember for a very very long time.
III. What I took away from my week the Himalayas..
I am going to keep this one relatively short as I wrote about some of my learnings from the ‘hill people’.
The Himalayas didn’t strike me as incredibly beautiful. Maybe the week spent previously in Scotland and the Lake District coloured my view but these majestic mountains triggered something more visceral. They were rugged, tough and commanding. I didn’t go ‘wow’ at the sights, instead I tended to feel very humble in their presence.
There were many things about the mountains that amazed but probably none more so than the ease at which a bottomless abyss popped up every once in a while. There were of course no boundaries or walls. One trip, slip or skid and it would be goodbye to life. At 12,000 feet, you just had to be careful.
My biggest learnings have probably come from seeing how the people there lived their lives. I came back feeling thankful for the comforts and options I had in mine. I am not going to claim, even for a moment, that I am happier they are. I do not really know how they feel about their lives. Besides, as humans, we get used to anything and everything. That said, while I found the mighty Himalayas a wonderful, almost meditative place to spend a week, I’m not sure I would be keen on a life there.
All I can do is thank god for my luck. I’m working on putting together a list of things I will do more from here on in – aside from skipping elevators more, complaining less, I would also like to thank the lord for every meal rather than do the current once in a week ‘bundled’ version and in general, remind myself to be thankful.
I’d like to make sure these actions are not short term. Embedding them into my life is work in progress. I’m hopeful they will stick.
IV. My favorite pictures
There are so many. Most of them are up on Facebook thanks to the other group members who worked hard. For those of you who have me on your friends list, I’m tagged in a few photos and I guess you could check the rest of the albums out. Here are links to the albums in case their privacy settings allow for them (albums 1, album 2)
Here are 12 of my favorites (captions on top) –
Climbing as it begins to rain on Day 2. We weaved in and out of India and Nepal during the whole trek
The whole group at a distance
There were TONS of strawberries on the road. Amazing sight.
Kalapokhri or black pond – a holy pond that supposedly never freezes. The mist was an ongoing theme throughout the trek
Trail amidst the clouds. Our hair was soaked with dew while walking these paths
The mighty Kanchenjunga (3rd highest peak in the world) at 4:45am in the morning. We could only see this for 5 minutes before the mist took over. The Kanchenjunga is considered a holy mountain and cannot be climbed from the Indian/Tibetan side. The climbers have to go over to the Chinese side to be able to scale the mountain.
As you might notice, the surrounding mountains give it a nice human shape. As a result, it’s called the sleeping Buddha. The Kanchenjunga is the broad one in the middle.
Some beautiful meadow-y parts
Where we fought with walking sticks turned light sabres :-)
Lovely walks through the forest
Lots of brooks/creeks/streams and ponds
And of course, the damn good looking group :-)
V. Who you need to contact if/when you plan on going for a Himalaya Trek.
There’s a specific reason for this section. As I’ve mentioned here before, I was inspired to take this trek by a fellow blogger friend. This trek has been in ‘planning’ for nearly two years and I have this friend to thank for inspiring me to do this.
Before I give you the contact details, I’ll put in a disclaimer. I’ve written here of the best memories from the trek and that doesn’t take away from the difficulty of it. You have to be willing to ‘rough it out’ a fair bit as the conditions are tough. Most of us didn’t bathe for 4-5 days on average, for example. The bathrooms in some places were shocking but that’s the nature of the game. We also walked 80 odd kilometres in 6 days and when you factor in the fact that most of this is either uphill or downhill, this wasn’t an easy task either.
All that said, the experience was incredible. Although I’m not super keen to repeat the experience for a year or two at least, I’m sure I’ll want to go back again in the years ahead.
And a big reason for our incredibly positive experience (especially given the circumstances) was thanks to the way we were taken care of. Our two wonderful sherpas, Pemba and Norbu took wonderful care of us and saw to it that our needs were attended to in every possible way. Everything was possible in their presence, a reply to any question was a ‘yes yes yes’ and they always wore a smile on their place. Both of them are very proud ‘hill people’ and were absolute gems. The phrase ‘we couldn’t have done it without them’ is thrown around a lot. In our case, we might have been able to make it through the trek but when it came to taking back an amazingly positive memory, we really couldn’t have done it without them.
Pemba and Norbu didn’t appear by magic, of course. They are freelance trekking guides and we had the fortune of spending the week with them thanks to our wonderful trek operator, Wangchuck Paljor. Wangchuck is a wonderful wonderful man and was constantly in touch with the guides making sure we were doing okay. We had been in contact with Wanchuck over the last 6 months peppering him with dozens of questions. We have a detailed google doc with all these FAQs compiled (happy to share if needed) thanks to Wangchuck’s patience.
He went out of the way many a time and two instances come to mind. My grandparents stayed in Darjeeling while we went trekking and Wangchuck spent an entire day taking them sight seeing, out of his own initiative. And he won me over when he noticed I was desperately looking for a place with a connection to the internet as I needed to advance publish my blog posts for the week. Wangchuck, of course, took me home and made sure that happened.
So, if you ever decide to go on a similar trek, I would highly recommend Wangchuck for great rates (we spent <500 USD per person, all included, for the whole week. Of course, ‘all’ doesn’t include flights), wonderful service and a great experience.
Contact Wangchuck on firstname.lastname@example.org. He is very responsive.