Preparing for high altitude treks

Kang Yatse

And finally, after months of contemplation and efforts, I could manage to do my first high altitude trek. A lot of questions revolved around my mind when I planned to invest nearly all my vacation days in a solitary, outlying place in the depths of Himalayas. I thought of sharing some common concepts here about high altitude treks. Inbox me if you still have any questions.

Idea in mind

The whole idea of a trek erupted after I read a Facebook ad about Stok Kangri by an adventure group emphasizing the statement- ’Highest trekkable peak in India’. Such ads quite excite the target audience like me. I did a real good research on what this peak is, whose name I haven’t ever heard of. Web search dictates this peak as one of the highest trekkable destinations in India with a cloud touching altitude of 6153m. Six thousand meters! The highest I had ever done till that date was 4200m in Himachal and never thought that some normal naive trekker with limited climbing experience can summit a SIX THOUSAND meters peak. It really excited me to dig further about it.

Further reading and a few discussions with diverse adventure groups suggested that Stok Kangri has become a commonplace. People don’t even get proper place to erect their tents at the base camp. And indeed, it is very much crowded. You won’t be able to figure out  if your tent is on a poop. Even people who haven’t got trained enough for the trek attempt the summit. They face the consequences later. Neverthless, the word ‘CROWDED’ itself drained all my interest in this peak and I began my search for similar such peaks in India. As a matter of fact, the peaks in 6000m club are mostly at Ladakh. I found a couple of others, certified as ‘trekkable or require minor mountaineering skills’. These peaks were namely Kang Yatse 2 in Markha valley (6250m. Remember, Kang Yatse 1 at 6400m is very much technical.) and Mentok Kangri (6400m) in Tso Moriri region of Ladakh.

Kang Yatse 2 or any such high altitude peak for that matter, I later learned, is not that straight forward and requires you to build quite a good amount of endurance, strength and stamina. If you are going there without getting trained, you might end up quitting even before you reach the base camp. In many circumstances, one might face AMS as well. So beware to do your homework starting a couple of months before the start of your trek. I did a lot of crossfit sessions and running sessions before I considered myself fit for it.

READ: My adventures during Kang Yatse 2 trek

Reason to train

Okay. I got your question. Why do we need training?

In the Himalayas, it’s not just about going down the trail. After a certain altitude (say 2500m), human body faces the effects of altitude. This is because of the decrease in environmental air pressure as the altitude increases, which results in decrease in the amount of oxygen. If your body doesn’t get the required amount of oxygen, it will not work efficiently. The brain itself, even though it weighs just 5% of the total body weight, uses around 15% of the oxygen the body gets.

Building physical endurance

Now how does training help?

  1. Proper cardio exercises like running, swimming or even cycling can help build the cardiopulmonary systems stronger and also build the required endurance. If your lungs have more capacity to hold oxygen, it will be beneficial where the oxygen is less.
  2. Breathing exercises will help you gain control over your heart beats.
  3. Some high intensity trainings like crossfit and boxing will make your body adapt to less amount of oxygen.
  4. A little strength training can add icing to the cake as you need to carry your own body weight plus the backpack up on the hills while ferrying from one camp to the other.
  5. Apart from this, it’s better if you follow a proper diet (not for reducing weight!!). Increase the intake of protein, iron, antioxidants and vital vitamins in your food. This will help build immunity and increase oxygen-carrying red blood cells in your body.
  6. Plus, a complete no-no to cigarettes and alcohol before a couple of months and during the trek.

Also READ: How to start running

Building mental endurance

Physical training is absolutely necessary but what most of the crowd miss out is a proper mental endurance. Due to high popularity and glamour such kind of expeditions carry, most of the people don’t understand the importance of mental preparation which is required. This is mainly because majority of the crowd is first timer for high altitude treks and have not been exposed to such unforgiving conditions before.

Following are some of the ways to build the same:

  1. Build confidence in yourself that you can do it. Be prepared for adverse weather conditions and the resulting effects on your body and mind.
  2. Visualize the game before starting it. Look for the complete picture, read the blogs by people who have already did the trek, converse with your trek leaders about diverse terrains to be encountered.
  3. Build your passion towards travel and motivate yourself and the team. As your brain might not function normally at higher altitudes leading to depression and negative vibes, it’s your will power and the control over your mind which will define your achievement in the end.
  4. Understand your limits and build tendency to accept failures. Even if you are not able to do it today, you can always come back with better preparation tomorrow. Mountain will always be there. At least, you will get to know your limits and the areas to work on.

Things to carry

For the summit day, you will require crampons/snow boots, gaiters, ice axe and a helmet which are normally provided by the adventure group you would be associated with. You are required to get your own basic trekking and winter gear. For me, the most difficult part was to decide on what to wear during the trek and how much to pack in the bag. It’s a common rule that your backpack should be light.

You should read about a real good explanation on the concept of layering of clothes here.

I carried the things mentioned below for the trek which I have shared on my Insta as well. I got nearly everything from Decathlon.

Backpack stuff
Things to carry for a high altitude trek
  1. 60L backpack
  2. Rain cover for the backpack (40-60L)
  3. 20-35L backpack (useful for the summit day)
  4. 10L daypack (useful in your initial acclimatization days)
  5. Couple of quick dry breathable t-shirts
  6. Couple of pairs of quick dry breathable socks for trek, woolen socks and one pair of woolen gloves (just in case), muffler
  7. Waterproof trekking shoes (>=5000mm. Make sure the midsole of the shoe is not very soft. For me, Forclaz 500 did the job. It costed me around 5000 bucks.)
  8. Flip-flops or sneakers (useful while on the camps)
  9. Biodegradable garbage bags (can be used as laundry dry bags as well)
  10. Toilet kit (sunscreen with >=40 SPF is most important)
  11. Notepad and pen, energy bars, reusable water bottles(2), napkins, head cap
  12. Tiffin box, cup, spoon
  13. Quick dry towel
  14. Down jacket (or a fleece jacket, for the cold)
  15. Waterproof and thus, windproof shell jacket (RET 12. This will not keep you warm. It will just protect you from wind and water.)
  16. UV protective polarized sun glasses (most important), night glasses (optional)
  17. Breathable inners or thermals
  18. Light weight hiking pants (couple of them will do)
  19. Baliclavas
  20. Identity documents (for permit to climb mountain)
  21. Headtorch (you will need it for the summit day and while on the camp), lighter, compass, camphors, insect repellant, playing cards, carabiners, scissors, clips, fevi sticks
  22. Medical kit

It was a mixed feeling of gamble, mystery, excitement and fear.

At an altitude of 6200m, this summit chase was my first ever high altitude trek. Proper training is required to conquer such a height, as already mentioned by me, and Cultfit helped me in my quest.

A lot of time, energy and money was spent for this trip and it is worth all the resources.

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A nature trek at Bir

We had quite a considerable travel for this year. And by considerable I mean, it was an experience, an amalgam of varied people and varied souls. It was merely an experiment to dig off this place called Bir, which I had never heard of in my whole lifetime, but supposedly is an amazing destination, quite unexplored till now. It holds the credit of hosting the Paragliding World Cup in 2015. This comes to it with its naturally apt place for paragliding which is the second highest place in the world for this adventure. And can you believe it’s just a couple of hours journey from McLeodganj? Bir is one of the most amazing paragliding destinations in the world.

We had a wedding ceremony to attend at Chandigarh on 25th Oct 2016. Our plan was to hit the mountains before the ceremony as we seldom get a chance to travel to the northern parts of India. Flying off from Bangalore, we reached Delhi early morning on 21st. We didn’t even have a half-baked plan till then. 3 places continuously hovered our minds regarding the final destination to opt for. Priority wise, the list seemed like Manali, McLeodganj, Bir. We were then at ISBT, Delhi, half an hour distance from the airport. All the inter-state buses originate from here. Haryana, Himachal Pradesh, Punjab, Uttar Pradesh, Rajasthan, name it! All the transport departments have their buses present here. We were constantly enquiring about various timings, duration and other things for that matter to reach the above places. Ultimately, after strenuous 2 hours, we found out that we will be able to visit Bir only, given the constrictive time frame. So here the story began.

We booked our tickets for the evening bus to Kangra and planned a visit to Chandni Chowk in Delhi in the leftover time. Without any doubt, Chandni Chowk has the most diverse and authentic food items than any other street in India. We tasted around 10 different dishes on a single lane leaving aside some. The nature of this place is such that any Indian would feel connected to the country here. It has all sorts of religious places side by side. A mighty Gurudwara, a silent Church, an architecturally marvelous mosque, a pure Jain temple and colorful Hindu temples. All at one place. And yet, there are no fights. A kind of unity that we read in our textbooks is visible here. After a long walk in this Bazaar, we headed back to ISBT. We left Delhi at around 6.30 PM amidst the blowing horns, unmoving cars, the overloaded buses and smoky air.

The beautiful Kangra valley
The beautiful Kangra Valley

After a long journey of 12 hours, we reached this place with beautiful mountains all around. The world’s largest peaks are here, the Himalayas. Though the season wasn’t snow-favorable, we loved the exquisite beauty of these mountains. The dense lines of Oaks, Rhodendrons, and Deodars makes this place so green and cold. After getting down from the bus, we had to hire a cab to reach our stay at Zostel. Zostels are among the best backpacker’s hostels in India. With quite an economic pricing, open and cool nature, and awesome customised itineraries for their customers, this place has gained attention not only of the Indian backpackers but of the foreigner travelers as well.

Zostel Bir
Zostel Bir

We got dorms for us and had our unpacking started. After getting fresh, we had a walk around the silent town. Villagers say, all these hotels, restaurants, cafes have opened up in a year to satisfy tourism. People are gradually putting this place on their travel list. Thank God, we came here before encountering any more rush. We had a delicious English breakfast at this beautiful place called Joy Cafe. After this, we went back to Zostel and found out some people are leaving for a couple of days trek followed by Paragliding. We initially had a plan to do paragliding alone and leave for Mcleodganj for a couple of days there. But looking at the number of people and the nature of trek, we thought and confirmed our inclusion in this sudden plan.

We were a total of 12 people. Most of them were solo travelers. The trek began only after we reached the base village after three hours journey from our hostel in a jeep. The village seemed quite friendly. Before the villagers, we trekkers needed to be friendly with each other. After already having some basic conversations during the travel to base camp about each other’s how-abouts, we mixed among ourselves so quickly that the bond still exists. We walked among the bushes and the moderately difficult terrains. Our trek was mostly along the unmotorable paths. We waved our hellos and namastes to the villagers, “gadariyas”. We had hold of some really sweet little sheep on the way. They undergo a lot of pain to give us a bunch of wool. What a sacrifice and no one counts! Initial day trek plan was to reach a village and stay in tents overnight.

 

The first-day trek was approx 8 km and took us 4 hours including all the breaks. In between, we crossed River Uhl in Barot, which is a part of the watershed of Beas river. There is this man-made bridge above the river to connect the two sides. Man-made bridges are considered risky by many as it shakes with every movement of yours on it. The rope tied structure and wooden platform take the shit out of you. And you see down, it’s cold fierce white river! We decided to have a halt by the riverside. I tried putting my hand in the river and my hand froze for a few seconds. The river water is the fresh molten ice of the Dhauladhar ranges, Himalayas. I took a pint of water in my enclosed hands and gulped it straight in my mouth. The divine feeling is still engraved in my mind. So cold yet impressive, takes everything in its way yet tastes the same at every point, so emotionless yet takes out the emotions from every other living being on the earth. A river is a perfect example of solidarity.

 

We left the riverside in an hour and the skies already began to turn dusky. We had our mobile torches handy and after a simple trek of a couple of hours, we reached our destination. It was a small guest house amidst the mountains. We had an option to stay inside the rooms or outside in tents. Of course, tents! Before going to sleep, we had hot tasty dinner prepared by the caretaker of the guest house. The campfire was arranged by our guide. We already had a good stock of rum and whiskey. What else is needed to feel warm? People began to tell their horror stories one by one drinking sips of whiskey in this cold planet. The singing session followed, again, one by one. Then the usual talks about the nature of jobs everyone had. We had 4 IRS officers, 2 software engineers, a CA, a medical student, an architect and a marketing executive in our group. Everyone had a different story and a diversified life. It was a pleasure hearing them all.

 Also READ: My adventures during Kang Yatse 2 trek

Everyone was tired and went to bed shortly. We had a great sleep inside the tents. Really great, at effectively around 5 deg Celsius.

The next morning, we could spot the sun coming out of the mountains gradually and throwing light on our drowsy faces. Sunny faces rose up and everyone was awed by the beauty of this place. Imagine a place with no city culture, only trees, mountains, rivers and you! We all had a sumptuous breakfast. The place is so serene that we thought of having a stay there for a day. But given the timelines and our further excitement for Paragliding, everyone revved up and got ready for yet another day of trekking.

 

Soon, the weather turned hot. We were segregated into groups. The trek was quite beginner level but a lot of walking. We walked and walked till we got to a place where we saw sheep being shaved for wool. There was this human-heighted machine and the sheep were being pulled between that to razor them. Poor little sheep. Felt bad hearing their screams and realized how selfish humans are. Soon, we returned to our track and within a couple of hours, we had a bright resting spot. We could even see the Billing mountain from that place. The place was quite photogenic and hence, we all had several group shots. After around half an hour of rest, we moved on, to cross yet another mountain. This one was the last. Our patience was being tested. We could see paragliders hanging in the air and gliding like eagles. So high they were. It felt like colorful kites are flying.

Paragliding
Flying without the wings

After another couple of hours, we reached this mountain called Bir-Billing. Finally! The first thing that came to mind was food. Definitely, everyone was hungry. We ordered the special north Indian Maggi, which is quite common in Indian mountains and among trekkers. And the cost? Just 25 bucks a plate. Now, we can see our goal in front of our eyes- paragliding.

The wonderful group
The wonderful group

Everyone seemed afraid at first. Everyone had a different guide stitched at the back of the glider. The first thing the guide did was hook us inside the belts which would form like a seat when you fly up. The next thing was an instruction to run as fast as possible down the hill. Oh! Now, that was the only and most difficult part. Down the hill, there’s nothing. First timers would definitely fear for what’s going to happen if the belt loosens. So, here it went! The guide started shaking the glider so that necessary air pressure would open up the glider fully with force. Now, we had to apply a near to equivalent force against the air and the mammoth glider so that when we reach a certain point when there’s nothing beneath our feet, the glider would make you fly in seconds. Ahh! The guide shouted, run run run! I started to run as energetically as possible. Before my turn, I had seen my fellows trying their best to run but fell. I didn’t want to fall. Luckily, things went perfectly for me and I had a safe take off!

There was a lot of air pressure building up. I sat comfortably in my seat. The guide was behind me. He was pulling 4 strings attached to the glider body at a time. There were around 18 of them. He had to analyze which strings to hold in which condition. The guide was quite experienced in his field. 13 years of that flying. He had flown from Bir to Manali as well and had competed in several paragliding events. The moment I asked him about his native, he took a sharp left and then took us further up. And I was dumbstucked after that. Thankfully, I was guarded with a quite thick jacket, which my sister had brought for me from London. Else, it would have been a shivering experience up there as it was effectively too cold. I could feel the speed of winds and I could hear them. They were quite loud in their mission. Their mission to flow and take anyone aghast. It felt like the winds didn’t want any disturbance in their area. Quite protective! The next thing I see is the beautiful Bir town in the bottom. I had a 270 deg view of the area. I could spot the monasteries, the temples, the lush green farms and the colorful houses of its farmers and I had a dream then. A dream to fly once in my life on my own. How lucky the birds might be who were flowing beside us! No equipment required, they had all of it naturally!

Paragliding site at Bir Billing
Paragliding site at Bir Billing

We flew for about half an hour when the guide started taking a descent gradually. When we reached near the ground, he instructed me to keep my legs straight for safe landing. I followed and we had a remarkable landing! The photographers were all around! As if some celebrity has just landed on some grassland. I liked a couple of pics and took them. The guide began to wrap up his kit. We had a handshake and he went off. I found my friends sitting nearby. The obvious thing to follow was the discussion about the short glide and their guides! Everyone had a good experience and seemed satisfied.

After another half an hour of discussions, we had to leave for Zostel. Everyone was damn tired. After reaching Zostel, every one of us planned one more night stay there, except the IRS guys as they had their office next day.

The night stay at Zostel went great with Old monk and Signature in place. A lot of childhood memories rose up. We got to know different people more. And I realized, everyone is same, everyone has a similar set of cultures, a similar set of problems, and a similar view of solutions for these problems. Where we differ is personal opinions, personal ambitions and most importantly, the environment in which we grew up. And I really loved this way to socialize with people instead of hanging around in bars and have a silly conversation under a decorative rooftop and unwanted noise. I wish to continue my journey of inner observation, outer exploration, and learning. 

Also READ: Preparing for high altitude treks