What is it that makes me go back, again and again, for a hike in the Himalayas, I wonder often. I lack stamina, have not been into any form of sport my entire life, cannot really call myself adventurous, I get easily scared when the weather turns foul at higher altitudes in the mountains and crossing a glacier gives me the jitters.
In short, I am a very unlikely candidate to keep up with this activity for so many years. And yet, I have gone for trek after trek, year after year, well into my forties and fifties. I am sure the credit goes to the Himalayas for stoking and keeping this passion alive in me. The bottom line is – If I could do it, you can do it too!
People like you and me who are not adventure freaks or into serious mountaineering but who would like physical exertion, breathe in the fresh mountain air and be one with nature can hike on the innumerable trails in the Himalayas. At the lower altitudes, these trails take you through villages, meadows, forests and streams and as you ascend, the tree line recedes giving way to glaciers and snow laden mountains, Himalaya meaning the abode of snow.
So, here are a few tips for the uninitiated on how to go about a hike in the Himalayas. Just do it and let the magic unfold.
1. As a first trek, choose a simple one of not more than 2 or 3 days and not taking you above 8000 to 9000 feet. There are several good treks at lower altitudes like Mcleodganj- Triund near Dharamsala, Nag Tibba near Mussorrie, Deoriataal and Tungnath-Chandrashila near chopta, Parashar lake near Mandi, valley of flowers in Uttarakhand, Dayara Bugyal near Uttarkashi, Sandakphu near Darjeeling, Beas Kund near Manali etc. Don’t dream of doing the Goecha La trek in Sikkim or the Pin Parvati trek straightaway. The tree line ends at about 11000 feet and conditions generally get harsh beyond this altitude requiring acclimatization. A trek involving crossing of a Pass at 12000 feet or above should be attempted after experiencing a couple of treks to lower altitudes.
2. Read about the terrain, the trek route, the level of difficulty, the best time to trek, how to reach the starting point of the trek, the flora and fauna of the region, the villages en route etc. Most of the information is available on the internet. This will make the trek enjoyable and wholesome rather than experiencing it as an adventure activity alone.
3. The next aspect that you need to decide is whether to go with people/organizations well established in this field or you want to go on your own with a group of friends. The benefits of starting with an established group are many. They have a wealth of knowledge and experience which they share with the participants in their orientation sessions, take care of all logistics of arrangements and also provide trekking gear. Some of the prominent ones are The Youth Hostel Association of India (www.yhaiindia.org), STEP Trekkers (www.steptrekkers.org), Indiahikes (www.indiahikes.com), Indian Himalayan Adventures (www.ihaclub.com). A few treks down the line, you can think of doing it on your own, hiring guides, porters, cooks and tents.
4. Do not start buying expensive and top end hiking gear immediately. Yes, a good pair of hiking shoes is a must, which should be used and broken into before the trek. The need to buy other equipment will depend upon the nature of the trek and what can be hired or borrowed easily. You can start buying rucksack, sleeping bag etc after you have done a couple of treks and intend being a regular.
5. Start walking regularly for about 45 minutes to one hour every day, at least for one month before the trek. This really helps. And climb stairs to the extent possible. Otherwise, you will end up with extreme stiffness in the legs on the first day of the trek. Even if you have been walking regularly in the plains, it would still be better to have an acclimatization walk in the hills on the first day and start the trek the next day.
6. Packing your sack sensibly with the essentials with the weight distributed evenly is an art which needs to be perfected over the years. Take minimum number of shirts and trousers but you can be liberal in the number of undergarments and socks. One warm sweater, a jacket with windproof covering, a woolen cap/muffler, thermal gloves, and sunglasses are the essentials. The clothes should be packed in 3 or 4 separate thin waterproof covers to keep them dry even in a heavy downpour. Stack the clothes packets vertically with two packets at each level so that the weight is distributed evenly from the bottom of the sack to the top. The heaviest items should be in the middle portion. Pack the rainsheet, gloves and woolen cap in the top compartment of the sack for quick access. Many sacks come with a separate access to the lowermost compartment, which would be ideal for packing the sleeping bag. The water bottle goes obviously on one of the side pockets for easy access while walking.
7. For protection from rain, a rain sheet is the best and will serve the purpose much better than a raincoat or a waterproof poncho or waterproof trousers and uppers. A rain sheet (called a barsati in Hindi) is just a large waterproof sheet folded and stitched at the top to form a hood over your head and body and is large and loose enough to cover your sack too. You can hold the sheet ends and continue to walk comfortably or it can be made hands free by attaching strings to the sheet which can be loosely tied over the abdominal area. It generally rains in intermittent spells during the day and a rain sheet is the easiest to put on and take off.
8. Do not trek on an empty stomach but at the same time, do not have a very heavy breakfast as it would tire you before you have trekked even a kilometer. Walk at your own pace, steadily without having frequent resting/snacking breaks. Whenever you feel tired or out of breath especially while walking uphill, take very short rests leaning on rocks instead of sitting down. If you sit down frequently, thinking that the rest will energize you, walking will become even more difficult. Take small sips of water whenever you feel thirsty and sucking sugar candies also helps. Munch on snacks like dry fruits or chocolate while walking and ideally you should have two snack/tea breaks and one lunch break in a trek of about 10 kilometres of 6 to 7 hours.
During these breaks, you should relax with the sack off your back and take off your shoes too if you like. If you are already at some height, put on your sweater or windcheater as soon as you sit down as the heat generated in the body while walking dissipates immediately.
9. While walking, keep to the mountain side and watch where your next step is going to land. If you want to take photograph or just enjoy the scenery around, stop walking for a minute or two. Doing any of these while walking, can lead to a stumble and a fall, sometimes with very serious consequences. Another safety aspect to be observed is not to overtake another trekker when the path is narrow and certainly not without intimation or in a hurry. An accidental rubbing of the sacks or rolled floor mats on top of the sacks can actually topple over either person.
10. Be aware of Mountain Sickness which can strike anyone as altitude is gained, especially if the ascent is not gradual and the body is unable to acclimatize. Headache, nausea, dizziness and inability to follow instructions are some of the symptoms as oxygen supply to the brain gets diminished. If symptoms persist, it is safest to descend to lower altitudes as Acute Mountain Sickness can be fatal once it sets in. Also, once you have reached some altitude, do not go to sleep at night without eating, irrespective of how tired or exhausted you are after the day’s trek as this can also have serious consequences.
11. Respect the mountains, the local customs of the villagers and ensure that your hike is environment friendly. Littering is a big NO NO. Walk up to the village or shepherd huts near the camp and interact with the folks to get an insight into the life in the mountains. You will be amazed at the friendliness and warmth that you would receive. If you can, carry small gifts for the children that live in remote areas.
12. Once you reach the camping place and the tents have been pitched, keep your sack at the head of the mat assigned for you and take out only the bare minimum items for changing clothes, footwear to be used in the camp etc. DO NOT unpack your sack completely and fill up the limited space inside the tent. Just imagine what the tent would look like if all the occupants did likewise! If it is a sunny day, you can leave the shoes outside but before you retire for the night, keep the shoes in an orderly fashion between the outer layer and inner layer of the tent to ensure that these do not get wet due to rain or even dew.
13. While there is still some daylight, locate essential items like medicines, torch, water bottle, plate, mug, muffler etc that you may need at night. Rummaging through the sack for any of these in the darkness, with the help of a torchlight can be very difficult and extremely irritating for your companions. Since you will be sharing a very small space with several others, follow basic etiquette like not talking too loudly when others are resting/sleeping, not airing your smelly pair of socks on your sack etc. Of course, if you snore, you cannot do anything about it except sympathize with the other occupants the next morning.
14. The Himalayas abound with wildlife – panthers, black bears and birds – but it is very unlikely that you would encounter them during the day. If you have to go out at night to answer nature’s call, don’t go far from the cluster of tents and take a bright torch and also a friend along if possible.
15. Lastly and most importantly, enjoy the hiking and camping experience. Breathe in the fresh unpolluted air and the heady scent of pine cones, have your dinner under a sky filled with unbelievable number of stars, nestle cozily in a warm sleeping bag inside the tent, get up at the crack of dawn to experience the silence and the wilderness around, huddle around the fire in the make-shift kitchen with a hot cup of tea and chat up with the cook, catch the first or last rays of the sun on the snow peak in front and share stories with fellow hikers during campfire.
Experience all of these and more – the laughter and banter among friends, a great appetite, good physical exercise and watch the cares and worries dropping off like withered leaves.