Preparing For A High Altitude Trek
Its 9 pm and Anoop has just woken me up for the summit push. We are here at 16,000 ft at Stok Base Camp, undoubtedly the highest I've ever perched in my life. For others, these are familiar territory owing to their past Himalayan traipses. My head was feeling heavy and the moment I got up I was disoriented. I couldn't figure out things, my visibility was blurry and headaches accompanied. I exclaimed to Anoop that I was not at all well and that I won't be joining him for the Stok Kangri summit attempt. He thought its just the sleepy mind that's talking and asked me to get up quickly and get ready. But I knew this was it; I can't continue any further. I had AMS.
A visibly worried Anoop now hurriedly called up the support staff who immediately rushed to my tent and checked on my pulse and breathing. They looked worried indeed. My oxygen reading was hovering at around 65-70, not at all good for this altitude especially in a place like Stok Kangri. And there was little possibility of evacuation at this hour. Their concerns were genuine; the trails of Stok Kangri had seen multiple deaths and the only way of evacuation was to walk back the same way to Leh which we covered in the last 3 days. I was given meds, support staff would keep a watch on me through the night with an oxygen cylinder in standby just in case. In my mind, I was petrified that this place may become my grave! I did manage to pull through the night somehow and by morning my condition had improved. I had a terrifying encounter with AMS on my very first Himalayan trek.
Fast track to 6 years from that incident to 2020 and I've done 9 Himalayan treks and numerous treks in the Western Ghats without ever looking back. The higher you go the more are the risks of altitude sickness your body is exposed to. I've ensured to keep my fitness level upto the expected and the only thing that should ever be in my head is that I be livid and enjoy to my fullest while on those trails. But then Altitude Mountain Sickness (AMS) can happen to even the most experienced and fit person; the mountains are beautiful but unforgiving.
A lot of people that go on a Himalayan trek come from the metros who are slogging out every day in a corporate cubicle (like me), desperate to break out to a period of solitude and calm. A picture of a person sitting on top of a mountain peak with 270-degree views of snow-capped peaks on social media definitely adds to the dream of putting self there. Or those surreal pics of walking along with horses and sheep on a flowery-grassy meadow in Kashmir; who wouldn't want to be there? As a result, most either fail to see the challenges and risks associated or simply undermine the preparedness associated with such an adventure.
So what has changed in all these years on how I approach a Himalayan trek? What all preparations are to be done before setting foot at an altitude of 10-11,000 ft?
1. Working Out: Time to get fit!
Time to put on those joggers and get out of that couch that you've been lazying for past so many months. One of the keys to having a safe Himalayan experience is to ensure you're in good shape. Running will help you achieve this. A good cardiovascular activity is a must before you set out. Start slow, take small steps. 1-2 km of slow jogs are more than enough to warm up your body to start off with. Slowly increase the distance with every passing day; by the time you're nearing trek dates, you should be able to clock 5 kms in 25 mins and 10 kms in 1 hour. This is critical, start at least 1.5 months before your trek dates.
I also tend to cycle to work and back. Cycling is an excellent workout and will help in shaping up your legs and hamstring. Remember you need to have a strong pair of legs to cover long distances on rocky, uneven paths. In KGL 3 people had to back out and take mules back to Sonamarg on the 3rd day itself because their knees couldn't take it more.
Besides, take up any activity or sport that involves cardio. Swimming is another excellent option that will help you get ready. In fact, swimming is one of the most intense activities that demand from your body. Sports like Badminton and Tennis are also useful. The bottom line is to take up any sport/activity which will get that sweat out and push you to your limits. Don't think about keeping it for the last minute, it will never happen.
2. Take the Stairs
While at office take the stairs instead of the elevator. Same back at home. One of the regular complaints that I've seen is knee pain which prevents the trekker to pursue ahead. The same happened with me in Khopra Ridge trek back in Oct 2019 when my right knee was in excruciating pain towards the last 2 days. Treks in Nepal have stairs throughout and traversing pass them takes a toll on your knees. Steps climbing is an important exercise that I had neglected all these years and made me realize how critical it is to prepare.
3. Gulp Up That Water!
Hydration is yet another important part that most trekkers ignore. In the mountains, as you gain altitude oxygen level starts depleting. You'll definitely feel it as you pant more often and take more time to cover small distances. This will result in you sweating more and increased heart-rate and oxygen requirement. Drinking plenty of water is critical to replenish this need. Besides, this will also help relax those strained muscles. Your trek leader will coarse you to chug down anywhere between 6-7 liters of water every day. As such its imperative that you prepare much before that. Start with 4 liters of water every day while you're rocking that excel report in your office. Of course, you'll be hitting the loo more often but that's ok. And by the time you're trekking ready you should be comfortable with 6 ltrs every day.
4. Go on Weekend Hikes
Another good way to prepare and check your fitness is to go on 1-2 day hikes. It can be a day hike to a place like Savandurga, Davalappana Gudda . Skandagiri near Bengaluru, or weekend hikes to places like Kudremukh, Kodachadri, Kumara Parvatha, Tadiandamol in the Western Ghats with a loaded backpack. If you had a hard time there then you're not yet ready for the high slopes of the Himalayas. I've seen trekkers who descend to Himalayan treks from the likes of Maharashtra, Karnataka, Tamil Nadu generally would've had done quite a few local treks.
In higher altitudes, calorie intake is critical for your body. Digestion tends to slow down at higher altitudes and you need to stick to food that digests faster without compromising on the calories. Which means time to switch to high fiber and protein-based diets. Avoid oily, sticky foods, and reduce consumption of junk food as your trek dates inches closer. All your efforts in putting up to a good fitness level have to be supplemented with a well-controlled diet as well.
One must also refrain from alcoholic drinks and smoking during preparations. Alcohol and smoking will burn up that oxygen in your body which by the way is already struggling to intake in that hostile zone. A big NO! Most trek operators have a strict no-nonsense attitude towards this; they will send you back the same route without asking any questions. A peg of rum or smoke in that freezing cold sounds inviting, but that will actually do more harm to your body than any good.
Acclimatization is the process of letting the body adapt to a new environment. Our body is used to a certain altitude, temperature, and conditions. Most of us will be coming from plains which are at sea level. When it suddenly gets exposed to a new environment it will try to acclimate to the new surroundings and will happen slowly. As such you need to give sufficient time for the body to adjust. Few ways to help the body adjust:
a. Drink plenty of water or fluids (no, not that rum). This will help the body with more liquids and oxygen.
b. Reach the base or the starting point of the trek by road and 1-2 days in advance. This has 2 advantages; one, as your body is gaining altitude it helps it to adjust slowly. And by the time you reach the base camp your body is in much better shape. Two, you get to enjoy the drive to the base camp which itself is rewarding and gorgeous. For example, for Stok Kangri instead of taking a flight to Leh directly we took a flight to Srinagar and from there took a cab to Leh via Sonamarg, Drass, Kargil. And that drive from Srinagar to Leh is to date the most beautiful I've ever taken.
c. Even after reaching the base camp of the trek takes rest for a day or two. Don't take up any physical or strenuous activity. Just be in your room and enjoy the views all around.
d. Diamox. Now this has two schools of thought; some feel Diamox is helpful in acclimatizing, others (like me) believe in avoiding any medication and let the body acclimatize naturally.
e. Don't rush, take it easy while on the trail. Gaining altitude too quickly is not at all advisable. So, while you may be the fittest of the lot still go easy. You don't want to be rushing up too quickly and then end up panting and losing your breath. Besides, enjoy the views all around, strike up a conversation with your fellow trekkers and local guides.
7. Be Humble, Keep That Attitude Back at Home
The Himalayas, or for that matter any trek are in remote locations and you'll have the chance to see a different side of life. A life that's much more simple, locals that are agrarian and tend to livestock. Their lives are filled with many more hardships than you can imagine, yet their smiles will just fill your heart with happiness. We are guests there, be humble, and interact with the locals. See their way of life, their culture, food. In all my treks I've met people who make me introspect what kind of a person I am.
Also, when you're signing up for a Himalayan adventure you are also acknowledging for the "facilities" that will be provided. Squatting in a makeshift loo dug out in the ground and only covered by a tent shouldn't make you uncomfortable. Simple food like dal, chawal, roti, and sabji is what you should expect, anything over and above is luxury. You'll be going 4-5 days at a stretch without a shower, let along with any hot water shower. Your tents will stink of those smelly socks from hours of walking, a warm comfortable room and bed will be replaced with nothing but a tent over your head (which will be fluttering in the cold wind) and a sleeping bag. If you can't keep up with these then I guess you need to hold on to those dreams of a Himalayan trek for now.
8. Be Aware of Yourself, Your Health Conditions
If you have a history of illness or recovering from surgery or sickness it is always advisable to discuss this with your family, doctor, and trek operator before embarking. If not consulted this may prove to be fatal later. Remember, the oxygen depletes faster at higher altitudes coupled with exposure and risks. Don't hide these, discuss openly.
9. It's Ok to Say "I Can't" and Turn Back
I still remember at Stock Base camp while we were packing up and preparing to descend to Stok village. While I was staring at the valley ahead Raj Bhai, our trek leader came to me and said, "Hrishi ji, dukhi mat hoiye. Aap itni dur aa gaye ye v bahut Badi Baat hai. Ye pahaad yehi rahenge, aap fit ho k wapis aa sakte ho (Hrishi, don't be sad. It is commendable that you were able to come this far. Don't worry these mountains will remain here, you can always come back)". These words still linger in my mind before I go on any trek. It is Ok to say "I can't go any further" or that you're not feeling well and want to descend back. This will perhaps save your life. I've seen in my own trek groups wherein the person is not feeling well but wants to continue ahead, risking not only his own life but endangering others as well. Just because they had spent few quids on the trek and feel that money spent will go for a waste. Or maybe the fear of "failure" or "I-am-strong-how-can-I quit" attitude takes over the presence of mind and judgment. Even the mildest headache should be reported to the group leader. We all are in inhospitable territory, it is quite obvious the human body is trying to acclimate to this. If it is unable to then it will throw signs at you like headaches, sleeplessness, nausea, loss of appetite etc. Remember in most Himalayan treks the only way of evacuation is by coming down the same way that you've just covered. Besides, treks like Stok Kangri, Roopkund, Rupin Pass don't have easy exit points either. Don't take it lightly, you may need to descend asap before it's too late.
10. Sign Up Only After Going Through the Details Extensively
Quite often people (even me) sign up for a trek just by getting floored by the pics on social media without realizing the risks associated. I made the same mistake when I signed up for Stok Kangri as my first ever Himalayan trek! To start off with start researching about the intended trek; call up the trek operator, people who have done it or have extensive knowledge of the mountains. Don't attempt something that you're unsure of. If you're signing up for the first time then start with a trek that goes anywhere between 11-12,000 ft like Kedarkantha, Dayara Bugyal, which are relatively much easier without compromising on those Instagram worthy views. Scale-up gradually to then moderate level treks like Hampta Pass, Sandakphu-Phalut, Tarsar Marsar before going for the likes of Roopkund, Stok Kangri, Rupin pass, etc.
11. Carrying the Right Gear
I've made the mistake of packing stuff that I never used and only added to the lug. At the end, my backpack was unnecessarily heavy which resulted in an uncomfortable bag and body. Carrying the right amount of everything is essential is key to a happy and comfortable trek. Don't cram up everything just because you "think" you may need it. For example, I was lugging a sleeping bag in my 2 weeks trek in the Annapurna region which I never used and ended up adding 1.5 kgs to my back. I'll come up with a separate post on this on what to pack for a high altitude trek.
I don't want to scare the creeps out of you but it's important you have an insurance that covers you up for that trek/adventure. Unfortunately not all insurance covers up the risks of high altitude treks and adventures. You need to choose one which involves the same. For example, before we signed up for our trek in Nepal the permits required us to have health insurance. Fortunately, most trek operators include health insurance as part of the overall deal so that's a good thing. Imagine you're at Everest Base Camp and you got hit by altitude sickness. A Heli evacuation will cost you in lakhs, which will be fortunately get covered with your insurance.
13. Weather and Temperature
Are you a spring or an autumn person? Do you enjoy trekking in under a pouring sky in July-Aug, or a sucker for snow during the months of Dec-Jan? These are some of the things which you need to keep in mind with regards to weather and temperature. In the mountains, the weather may flip in just a matter of minutes. In April one can expect to see Rhododendron flowering and a bit of snow in many treks. However, mountain views can get hazy or cloudy on some days, marring clear views of peaks such as in Goechala. While during the months of July-Aug monsoon rains are welcomed in Himachal and Uttarkhand, and expect the same in Valley of Flowers or Hampta Pass. Autumn is when the weather is clearer, the views are much sharper and clearer. A good time to trek in Nepal as well as Uttarakhand, however, expect the season to wind up in Leh and Kashmir regions. And Dec-Feb one can expect plenty of snow which attracts people to trails like Brahmatal, Kedarkantha, Har ki Dun, etc., though be prepared enough to brave the freezing cold.
14. Go With an Open Mind
You are going on this trek to not only enjoy the views and be closer to the top of the world from the summit but to also connect and relish nature. Stay away from your smartphones, which otherwise you're always glued to; those Instagram and FB posts can wait till you get back home. Depending on the trek you'll be there for 5-10 days don't lose on moments trying to connect with materialistic, frivolous things. Sit there in the meadows and watch those snowy peaks for hours, huddle up in the dining tent and sing out in your hoarsest voice, smile without a reason. Your eyes should well up by that first rays of sun lighting up that snowy peak. Write it out in a diary on all things that have happened until now on the trek. Enjoy that sip of water you've just filled from that glacial stream, the purest form of water, even purer than Bisleri. Lie on the ground and watch the milky way, or spot that shooting star. Break bread with the locals, listen to their stories, share yours. After all you've signed up for nature.
In the End...
Even the fittest person can get AMS. Like I mentioned mountains don't discriminate between a fit and unfit person. However, you can definitely increase your chances multi-fold by being ready to the elements. One needs to be fit both mentally and physically, these mountains I tell you will test your limits. Go prepared and you'll have stories to tell of your trek back home. What are the other things you think are important to prepare self before undertaking any High Altitude Trek?