I am no expert on high altitude and high altitude sickness. It is commonly known as AMS or acute mountain sickness. But I am someone who loves going to the mountains. For me views are more important than gaining height. But as it is easy to gain height on treks these days, I have been up to Kala Pathar (Everest Base Camp Trek, Nepal) which is 5,643 meters or just a little above 18,000 feet. I am someone who tries to trek at least once a year. Recently I came across a program where I felt they were treating Diamox as a substitute for acclimatization. I feel very strongly that Diamox is not a substitute for acclimatization.
It is said that the risk of altitude sickness may start from 2,400 meters or 8,000 feet. By 10,000 feet almost everyone will end up paying attention. Anyone can reach 10,000 feet easily in India if you visit Leh or Kaza.
As there is less oxygen on the higher altitude, it affects the body adversely. The body needs time to adjust to the less oxygen. Some of the very common symptoms of AMS are headache, nausea, feeling breathless etc. There is a vast literature on the internet that documents all things related to altitude sickness.
One of the most common advice (for me the soundest advice too) to deal with altitude sickness is to take it slow. One should not be in a hurry to gain height. It helps to gain height gradually, whether you are walking or moving in a vehicle. For example, when I was trekking up to the Everest Base Camp, there were two days, one at Namche and another at Dingboche, where we stayed for one extra night at the same place. They were heaven sent to me, it helped in soothing my aching limbs and giving me a better shot at acclimatizing to the height. I would not dream of chopping it off from my itinerary. The other advice is drink plenty of fluids (not alcohol though) to keep the body hydrated.
A very common medicine mentioned to deal with the problems of high altitude is Diamox. All my guides carry it. But all of them are stellar people, they plan the trek so well, that I never had any need to take Diamox. But then that is just me. It is entirely your and your doctor’s call whether you need Diamox or not. If there is a need for Diamox, along with acclimatization, it should be done properly.
However, I came across a trekking program recently which was planned such that there were no rests. And it was mandatory for everyone to take Diamox before the trek! The height gained was not more than 3600 meters! It took me completely by surprise, and then it left me seething.
The group was starting by train from a state in South India. They were proceeding to Uttarkashi the same night they arrived after their 42 hour train journey. And after reaching Uttarkashi they would start trekking the very next day. If I would have joined that group (and I would have been paid for it too) I would at least start from Delhi. And yet the road journey was done in such a haste that it made me hesitate. I went on a conference call with the stakeholders. And that is when I learned that it was compulsory to take Diamox if you wanted to join the trek!
I was so angry, I could not think straight. I mean you rush people like a piece of luggage from one part of the country to another and then insist that everyone treks after taking Diamox! Now what kind of planning is that? I dropped out of that trip without any hesitation.
And then I hit the search button on the internet. I found that the company was not alone. Some were more sophisticated in their approach but the essence was same, we have limited holidays, let us go as high we want on Diamox!
And it is not that I never used to work! In fact all my major treks were done while I was working full time. I never came across a guide who even tried to suggest Diamox as compulsion!
I will repeat once again that I am no expert on high altitude but even in my limited experience I firmly believe that Diamox is not a substitute for proper acclimatization.
Last year in 2014 I went to Chandratal (4,300 meters) after staying in Manali for two nights. Then we stayed at Batal for a night. I was perfectly fine at Chandratal. This year in 2015 I stayed one night in Manali and then headed straight for Chandratal without a stop at Batal. On the first evening I had a headache and I was not feeling happy in general. I took it easy at night and then the next day we headed down to Tabo and I did fine after that. So, it is not that if I have been to a place before I can rush to it the second time!
Maybe it is me who is out of touch with the world but for me Diamox will never be the only acclimatization plan for my trip in high mountains!
When I go on trekking I am taken in my things on large scale. We end up camping in places which are often the size of many football fields! I am so used to leading a cramped lifestyle in the city life. You practically rub shoulders with someone else all the time! So when I go on a trek I literally feast on the open spaces. But there is the beauty of small things too.
I have a theory. I share my best pictures in the first few posts that I do. I sometimes tell myself that a particular picture is a better fit for some other theme and I should hold it back. But till date I have not been successful! Whatever I like most, I share it immediately. So all my better landscape pictures can be seen in these posts.
However, I would keep going back to the folder thinking I have do one more post. I would look at the pictures and go away thinking I have shown them all! And then it dawned on me, I never show the small bundles of joy on a trek! More often than not, it would be our trekking guides who would spot such things of beauty. Rama Kant ji spotted this wild mushroom! Later the local women who looked at the picture told us that it was edible! But we left it well alone!
She also falls in the same category, small bundle of joy. But look at her face! It is her ‘I am doing the world a favor’ face, which she makes when I ask her to pose for a photograph! Let her move away from the camera and she would be smiling again!
When I saw an Iris for the first time on a trek in 2006 I went crazy with delight. That was one trek in Uttarakhand where I bent down to click every wild flower that I saw! I now almost take the Iris for granted. And yet I still click a few pictures, because there is a lot of joy in the small things too!
You will find marsh marigolds growing in abundance near water sources. And if the water source is near the campsite I go and fill my water bottle on my own. If it is far away I pinch water from the kitchen tent! It is a lot of fun to go near the water source because these yellow beauties bloom with more happiness out there.
If you pick up your trek carefully, you would hardly meet anyone on the way except the Gaddi people. They are the tough mountain people who move with their herd of animals in search of grazing pastures. They live in temporary shelters and sell their produce to the market. It is a tough life for when it rains it pours and you still have to keep moving with your herd. In the winter they come down from the heights with their livestock.
It was fun to have dandelions on our first campsite. The girls would like to blow it away and I would like to click pictures!
This is a very commonly growing wildflower in the mountain, I have seen it almost on my every trek and yet I can’t remember the name nor can I find it while searching for it. But pretty and delicate it is!
So now you see why I felt my story was still incomplete! Not only do I get to enjoy the open vistas on the trek, I get to enjoy small beauties as well!
I close this post with a Himalayan anemone which is the flower. Unfortunately I do not know the name of the insect. Now my trek story is complete! I have shared the beauty of the small things that you find on a trek!
I first went on a trek in 2002 and how green I was! I trekked with Seshadri (my husband) to Sar Pass in Himachal Pradesh. He had been on a few treks in college itself. The stories he used to tell were enough to put anyone off trekking for ever! Once they were lost in a jungle in Uttarakhand and walked from morning in the rains till 9.00 pm before they reached anywhere and got something to eat. I told him I was not interested in any of these mis-adventures! And yet I wanted to trek! So we went on a YHAI trek which was well organized. And the rest is history. After trekking for more than ten years here is a post dedicated to tips for first time trekkers.
1. Trekking in Group vs Trekking with Friends vs Trekking Solo
After having done all, I would vouch for trekking with family and friends. If I can’t get anyone known to trek with me I go solo (with a guide). But then I am old.
I once a met a couple who got married on that day in a remote hill temple on the Triund trail. They did so as a mark of respect to the mountains because they first met on a trek! So, I guess group, family, friends or solo is a very individual choice.
2. Easy/Moderate/Difficult Treks
Treks are categorized as easy, moderate or difficult. The actual terminology used may differ, but that is what it boils down to. Let me be honest with you. I get tired on all the treks! Even the easy ones tire me out. I get dead tired on the difficult ones. If you are testing waters, I would say go for an easy trek but beware, all of them are tiring.
3. It is not a Race!
I learned this with YHAI. They drilled it into us that trekking is not about who reaches the next campsite first. You do not run from campsite to campsite when you trek! It is everything in between the two camps that is beautiful. Sometimes when I walk through thickly wooded areas, I just wish to sit down and breathe in the smell of the forest. I like to touch the wild iris, or simply stand taking in the view and then click a picture.
4. Packing Lists
A lot of websites give a long packing list. Carry what makes sense to you. I make sure that I have warm clothes (including a down jacket) a decent rain gear, a torch and comfortable clothes. It makes sense to wear a full track pant (anything that covers your legs) as then you are protected against thorns and bushes. I drink water out of a normal water bottle. See what you feel necessary and cut out on fluff. If you don’t have a sleeping bag, it can be hired.
5. Water Sources are Important
However much you may like a spot, campsites are established near water sources. Once the camp is set, water is required both for drinking and cooking. If you are 5 kilometers away from the water source it will make everyone’s life miserable. So, listen to your guides because they know the water sources. I do not use purifying tablets when I am trekking in India. But once again that is an individual call and depends on what you are used to.
It is imperative to maintain a good liquid intake while trekking or one can get dehydrated and dizzy very quickly on the mountains. Drink juice, drink tea, drink soup, drink water, just drink something. Alcohol is not counted as legitimate liquid intake. I fill the water bottle from any flowing stream. Photo credit for this shot to my nephew Dilip Dwivedi aka brat 1.
7. Call of Nature
On most of the treks, other than the tea house ones, the call of the nature has to answered in the open. Stay away from water sources and do not contaminate them.
On tea house treks there are guest houses along the way so you stay under a roof rather than a tent. Valley of Flowers if one such trek in Uttarakhand India. Everest Base Camp and Annapurna Circuit treks in Nepal are also tea house treks.
8. Trekking Shoes
It is imperative that you break in your trekking shoes if you bought a new pair. And if you wear a sneaker on your first trek like me, you will slip and slip and slip on snow! And then you will learn your lesson like me and never wear them again particularly if there is snow! Having a good pair of shoes that has been broken-in can make all the difference to your trek! It is no fun to trek with blisters.
Food is cooked when tents are pitched at the next campsite, which usually doesn’t happen by lunch. So, you may get a packed lunch at the best. While trekking the main meals are breakfast and dinner.
10. Loud Noises
I take a strong exception to loud noises on a trek. You see, I pay all that money to get away from the noises of the city. You are not cool if you are shouting at the top of your voice while walking, others are walking on the same trail to find some peace and quiet.
And may you drop the music system from the sheerest cliff if you are carrying one and playing it at full volume. Trekking and loud noises simply don’t mix. Stay away in the cities and go to the nightclubs instead. Trekking is not for you.
11. Pay Attention to the Altitude
As we go up higher, the air gets thinner. As it gets thinner it becomes difficult to breathe. At higher altitudes our body needs to acclimatize to the lack of oxygen in the air. Otherwise we would get altitude sickness. It happens if we ascent very rapidly and gain a lot of height at a very fast pace. research about altitude sickness particularly if you are going above 10,000 feet.
12. Carry Your Medicines
It goes without saying that you need to carry your medicines on the trek. There are no medicine shops once you leave the starting town. If you have any health concerns, you need to consult your doctor too.
13. Nights without Electricity
As soon as the sun goes down, it gets dark, remember there is no electricity. It becomes pitch dark after a while. Kitchen tent becomes the communal hub. After meals either people talk to each-other, sing songs or else they take out the tripod and try night photography. There are a billion more stars in the sky on such trails.
All the night sounds get magnified. I have heard people say that they didn’t like the sound of the stream at night! I myself find it a bit uncomfortable to hear the horses (on some treks they carry the load) munching just nearby our tents. If you lead the tent flap open a frog may decide to hop in. Some insects are commonly inside the tent, attracted by the small tent light!
That brings me to the topic of tents. If you do not have a tent you can easily hire it. The places from where you start the trek, like Joshimath, Uttarkashi or Manali are easy hubs for hiring trekking equipment.
A first time trekker once asked me, “So can anyone open my tent from outside?” It only dawned on me then that the answer is yes, I was effectively sleeping out in the open. And that is why having reliable guides is a must particularly if it is an all women group.
If it snows the tents collapse from the weight of the snow. You are then required to sit and hit against the tent roof to clear the snow deposit. A whole night of snow is no fun when you are in a tent as you would be up all night hitting at the tent roof.
15. Trekking with Children
It is possible to trek with children but then the trek must be geared towards their comfort. We used to send our daughter, Chhavi, up on a pony when she was smaller. She now walks all the way on easy treks, but we make sure that it is an easy trek. Since we adopted her my husband and I never trekked together, because adult treks are not suited for her. We take turns to do tough treks, one of us stays with her at home while the other one is out there building character!
No one can predict the weather. Whatever you get, you have to grin and bear it. When Chhavi and I went to Deoria Tal all we got was clouds. I still sulk looking at the amazing pictures that others have posted on the internet. But then it is part of the game. Sometimes the weather cooperates and sometimes it says, “thou shall not pass!” Respect the weather, respect the mountains.
17. Being Fit
If you are moderately fit you will enjoy your trek more. It is no fun to do a trek on sheer will power and I am saying this from personal experience. Walking everyday for an hour or so will make a difference on easy to moderate treks. Once you have done a few treks, you will anyway not need my advice on how fit you need to be!
18. Money Matters
It is more cost effective to trek if you are in a group. If 5 friends are trekking the fixed cost gets divided by 5. The variable cost doesn’t go up by so much! Be careful as there would be no bank, no ATM on your trekking route. But then there are no shops either. If your team forgot the salt and realized it after 5 hours of walking, the salt can now be bought by going back on the trial! You may only take 3 hours to get down but that is how far away the salt it. You do meet shepherds and occasional village folks on the trail. Offer them tea and they may find salt for you from their tents!
19. Try a Day Hike
If you are not sure if trekking is for you, try a day hike. You go on a 5 hour walk but come back to your hotel in the evening. If you like it, next time don’t come back. Stay in a tent, go on a trek! If you don’t like it chances are you will not like trekking.
20. Nature on a Grand Scale
For me trekking is about being with nature. It is nature on the grand scale. We from the cities are not used to valleys big as many football fields. I so like to call them home, even if for a few days.
21. Don’t Litter
It goes without saying, do not throw trash. Bring all wrappers and bottles back with you.
22. It Builds Character
Seshadri and I are very fond of saying that trekking builds the character! It is difficult to explain the sentiments behind this feeling. But you are away from civilization, most of your gadgets conk off as there is no electricity to charge them anyway. There are no shops, there is nothing, other than trees, mountains, streams and such things. There is some amount of discomfort involved in trekking, you do get tired. If it rains you walk in rain. All this, we firmly believe helps in building character!
23. Listen to Your Guides
The mountains are the backyard of your guides. They are the locals, you are the novice. It pays to listen to them. It pays to select them carefully and it pays to retreat when they tell you to get down due to bad weather or any other reason. I have given up on more treks than I would ever care to remember either due to bad weather or bad health. As long as I get back in one piece I can go back and complete that trek the next time. The key is to get back in one piece.
In this post on tips for first time trekkers, I have truly raked my brains to cover as many areas as possible. If you still have a question, do drop them in the comment box and I will try to answer them as well.