Saturday, December 19, 2009

Can I go to the Mountains – A Beginner’s general guide to the Himalaya

Genesis of this post lies in an evening several years back in Mumbai. I had just delivered a talk on my climbs and as I came down from the stage a group of people surrounded me with their smiles and greetings. Once the crowd thinned marginally I noticed a young couple, shy and hesitant, hovering at the periphery looking at me expectantly. The beautiful lady was visibly pregnant. Our eyes met and I smiled back and they stepped forward. While shaking my hand, she asked, ‘Can I go to the mountains?’ And the husband mumbled, ‘You know…’ I nodded knowingly.

But in reality, ‘I did not know, I still do not know.’ I have no idea if a pregnant lady can go to the mountains. I have no recollection now of what I had said then but what I do remember was my complete amazement at the lady’s desire and spirit and her husband’s willingness to share her dreams. At a time when most women would stay put at home surrounded by near and dear ones opting to be pampered this woman here actually wanted to visit the mountains. I don’t know who they were or if they did eventually go to the mountains but if they are reading this then I would want them to know that this post is dedicated to her and to countless women around the world and the ones that I come across who simply knock me off my head with their courage, visions and lofty spirits. I salute them from the deepest core of my heart.

I get this question all the time and my stock answer is, ‘Of course you can and you must go to the mountains.’ And I mean it in all sincerity so the other day someone asked the methodologies as well and then I realized that I got to come up with a kind of beginner’s guide to the mountains. So here it is, since even I was a beginner to the mountains one day and like any of you was hesitant, apprehensive and seriously in doubt of my capabilities.

There are absolutely no hard and fast rules or do’s and don’ts for going to the mountains though there are guidelines and suggestions, which I would share with you. But please understand right at the beginning that to enjoy and immerse yourself into the supernal world of the mountains you don’t need to be an extreme climber like me or even a climber for that matter. There are many saner ways of enjoying the heights that do not demand a very peak physical output or extended time periods. Whatever is required already lies within you; you were born with the ingredients mapped in your genes. If you are human, I am guessing here that no other species has yet started reading my blog; then you can visit the mountains. There is absolutely no age or sex barrier either. Toddlers barely out of their cribs do pretty well up there as do octogenarians. I know since I have seen them and have accompanied them as well. Before we get down to the ground and get dirty I would like to add that it is not possible for me to cover all the aspects of going into the mountains, and I would endeavor to cover different topics like camping tips, medical tips, safety tips, etc in my forthcoming posts but if any of you have any specific queries as well please do leave a comment along with your email id and I will get back to you.

As a complete beginner you must first decide what you wish to do in the mountains. If you simply want to travel to some Himalayan holiday resorts in some popular hill stations then this post is not for you. I cannot advise you on that. But if you wish to go beyond the so called peripheries of civilization and go walking or ambling or trekking in the hills then you are at the right place. You may or may not wish to camp out on your first outing even then it is ok. Whereas if you wish to become a real and serious climber then too you must spend at least one season up above the snow line to really know if you have the aptitude for this sport. I have seen many youngsters who straightaway come for the basic course and then realize that they are not up to the rigors and risks of mountain climbing.

Preparation: Though one of your reasons for going to the mountains should be to increase your fitness level, even then building it up prior to the trip would be helpful and would make the experience more enjoyable. A brisk walk for an hour every morning for a month prior to the trip should be enough for most of you. If you can add stair climbing of a high rise building then it would be better. Practice 15 minutes of daily pranayam as well. These essentially apply to those of you above 40 or those who otherwise are sedentary and on the overweight side. Those with high BP and pulmonary ailments should not ideally cross 10,000 ft on their first trip. Please carry medications as prescribed.

Where to go: Pick up an easy and well known trail or place for your first trip to the Himalaya. You can choose to go to a hill resort and look for easy walking trails around the place. Often the most reliable sources of information are the respective state tourism websites, check the trail and route grading according to your team size and strengths. Read and study as much as you can; a good place to find such information is the site. Ask others who have done it before or have experience in such matters. Your first objective should ideally be one that is just within the outer periphery of your physical limits. And do go to a place that is scenic rather than aim for altitude. Pick up a trail that will give you awe-inspiring views of the majestic snow clad mountains. A trail that takes you through villages and lets you experience local cuisine, color and culture is even better. Read up books on Himalayan flora and fauna that you are likely to find in the region. Don’t exceed your walking distance to more than 8 – 10 km and a height gain or loss of more than 1500 ft per day.

Team: Don’t be a soloist like me, ever. Go with a jolly and well-compounded team. The team should have evenly fit members and ideally one super fit as well. Ensure that this super-fit person doesn’t have a propensity to show off. His fitness is more as a backup. Plan to carry not more than 10 kg on your back. Ideal team for first timers would be 6 – 8 members within similar age group with similar interests. There should be one unanimously chosen team leader. The team leader must drill into everyone to leave all their mental and normal life baggage back home and only carry their spirits to enjoy life to the hilt. In short please become and behave like an excited kid in a candy store.

Duration: Your objective will determine your duration as well. A week long (road-head to road-head trip) is ideal for beginning. Else you can chose to do short hikes on trails around the place where you stay. For instance there are many short trails in and around Manali that can be done in a day’s hike from your hotel. Likewise for almost all the hill stations.

What to carry: I will put up a complete list equipment, clothing, etc later, but for the time being what you must have is a good footwear. It should be comfortable enough to move your toes, since toes really hurt on your way down if there’s no room for movement. An ankle length water resistant boot with a good gripping hard rubber sole is ideal. There are many brands available today. Depends upon your budget really. We do have few dealers in India today supplying good quality foreign brands in footwear. Ideally you should wear out this shoe before you step into the mountains. Never take a new shoe for a hike. Thick cotton socks are best for hill walking and you must carry at least three pairs. Carry a sturdy walking stick or ski pole for support. Carry a pair, like I do, if you have any back or lower limb problem. Whatever you may carry to the hills, don’t carry anything new. You must have already tried and tested each one of them while at home. It’s better not to come up with surprises in the outdoors, though I harp about surprises all the time. Then comes choosing the ideal rucksack, headlamp, sleeping bag, carry mat, etc. etc. I will give a complete guide to buying trekking gears later along with the ideal list of equipment.

When to go: Most mountain trips are enjoyable in the summers (April – June, mid September – early November). During monsoons any of the regions with less precipitation like Lahoul, Spiti, Ladakh, etc are good. Sikkim can be visited during the winters too, so can you visit the outer and the lesser Himalayan ranges. Most of the Himalayan belt gets heavy rains and it is best to avoid this season. Though mountain weather can never be predicted with certainty and over the last three or four years I have noticed a tangible shift in weather patterns due to climate change phenomenon and global warming. Rains make trails slushy and dangerous along with threats of landslide, even the road journeys can be risky, hence do avoid mountains in the rains.

How to walk: The universal mountain rule is: slow and steady. All those who have climbed with me know my pace. There is no point in running since the mountains are not going to run away and your trail walk should be fun, enjoyable and please do stop periodically to look at the roadside flowers, or dip your hand in the gurgling brooks. Do pet the mountain dogs and the sheep and pat the back of the curious children barring your ways. Smile as much as you wish and can, greet people on the way. Breathe deep and evenly. Your heartbeat is bound to rise in frequency in direct proportion to the altitude and your efforts, you will sweat, you might even wish at some point that you shouldn’t have read this post but all said and done, your heart and your limbs are enjoying the walk, just be slow and steady. It is unwise to stop on a rise so stop before you start climbing, take few really deep breaths and outs to empty your lungs of any old stale CO2 saturated air, drink water and then start the upward march. Do it slow and stop once you have reached the top. Along with other things happening inside your body, the view too would take your breath away. Whenever you find breathing difficult do the following: using short, quick and sharp puffs of air through open mouth empty your lungs completely till you can feel it collapse and then gently and slowly breathe through your nostrils filling up first your lungs to their bursting capacity. Repeat this 5 – 6 times and you would get your breathing back like magic. Whatever else might happen, never panic, don’t worry, nothing is going to happen to you. If you find it really hard going then just sit down at a place, preferably on a rock or wood, above ground, drop your backpack and drink water. Take few pictures as well. Chat, joke around, pull someone’s legs, munch on some biscuits, break into a song, anything that your heart fancies. Don’t rest for too long either since you don’t want your body to cool down completely. Ideally you should aim to have breakfast around 7 and strike off around 8 and walk till about 1 pm or so. While on the move you should have water bottle and something to eat close at hand. Even if you are moving as a group each member must have her own water bottle and eats. Fill up the water bottle at every opportunity from the rivers, waterfalls, etc. Ideally you should drink at least 2 liters of water during your walk of 5 hrs. While descending don’t ever run, lean back into the slope keeping the CG between you and the ground behind you. If the slope is too steep then you can come down sideways keeping weight more on the rear leg; a supporting stick would be invaluable. Carry your backpack high on your shoulders so that the bottom of the sack rests on the small of your back. Don’t pull the shoulder straps too tight. None of the straps on your backpack should hang loose. Overall please do remember that you are not in a competition and you are not competing with anyone. Your team mates could be slower or faster than you but you need to find your own rhythm, speed and ease of walking. Thereafter just stick to it. Believe me; in the mountains a person who is seemingly walking at double your speed has barely an advantage of few minutes over you. And while he is zipping by, perhaps shaking his bottom at you in jest, remember that he is actually missing out the pleasures of the journey itself. Whichever way you may look at it, being slow and steady is the winning formula.

What to do: As you would realize you would be walking only for a small duration in the day and you must fill up the rest of the hours by engaging in various associated activities of the trip. Please assist your support staff of porters, cook, guide etc in the following: preparing ground and tent pitching, collecting water and deadwood, disposing garbage and cleaning the area before departing next morning, tending to the pack animals (horses, mules, donkeys, etc), building camp fire, distributing tea and other meals, etc. Also interact with local people, shepherds, and other hikers on the trail and gather local knowledge, make new friends, marvel at the star studded night sky, have fun. If you have any skills then do share with others. Your support staff is a wealth of knowledge but they are generally shy and hesitant to mix up with the guests, but do sit with them and you will pick up amazing stuff. In short please engage yourself in as many things you can while on the move. You are having a unique and perhaps never before experience, so make the most of it. My own expeditions and climbs are often more memorable for what all I experienced outside the real climb.

What not to do: I will only touch upon the main points. Please understand and respect local customs and culture and abide by them. Always remember that you are the outsider, you are the guest here the onus lies on you to maintain the decorum of the place. Never litter the trail or your camping site ever. Do not drop anything on the way. Please get back everything that you carried in with you. In your normal life would you visit a friend’s house and leave your garbage there? The same applies to the mountains. If possible carry back the garbage left by others before you. Do not offer any money to any villagers or children on the way come what may. Unless you have used their support for something specific and they have asked for so, otherwise don’t. Just because you have some ready cash in your pocket doesn’t mean you are wealthier than them. Don’t offer food either to anyone unless someone visits your campsite. On the way back it is best to hand over all your food leftovers to your support staff, they know best what to do with it. Please dissuade from handing out chocolates and candies to village kids. It spoils their habits, and honestly they don’t need it. If you really wish to indulge them then ask them to pose for pictures and share your background with them. Sit for a while if you want and chat with them. I always smile at the kids and ask them to show me the trail or walk with me, I ask their names, what do they do, etc but never offer any money or sweets even if they ask for it. Please remember these kids are not beggars so don’t spoil them. Don’t throw garbage or waste products in the river ever since somewhere down the villagers would be using the same water for drinking and bathing. The mountain rivers and waterfalls are very tempting to jump into and please do so if you are at least 5 – 6 km away from the nearest habitation. Do not pluck flowers en route, though you can pick up the ones already fallen and press them as a present for your near and dear ones later. Do not disturb the wildlife and tease the monkeys etc. You are the intruder here so they always have the right of the way. If you leave them alone and give them wide berth so will they reciprocate. Maintain your silence and don’t disturb the tranquility of the mountains. You can of course shout in joy and break into a song and dance but please never be raucous. Though in the cities I listen to music all the time, in the mountains I don’t carry any radio, ipod, etc. Listen to the sounds of nature; it’s a melody beyond imagination and replication. I will end this point with the age old wisdom: shoot only with your camera and leave only your footprints.

Record Keeping: No matter how much you might have read or heard about the trail you are doing, even if you have done it before, each time it is a unique experience. Though I am rather tardy in this respect but I would suggest that you do keep a diary and take pictures along with sketches if you can. Your records can always help those who would follow you. Once you get back as a seasoned Himalayan pro, believe me you will be beseeched by your friends, families, colleagues alike to let them in to your new found wisdom. So go ahead and do show off your pictures, your insider knowledge of what happens in the greatest mountain range on earth.

How to organize: Though I always profess a self-organized trek, for first timers it is best to go with an agency. This would entail a higher cost but it is worth it. An agency will take care of all logistic and administrative requirements so that you can just land up and meet the support team at a pre-determined location. Once you gain experience then you can choose to do it yourself. The most mind boggling and time consuming part of any expedition is the food and fuel planning. You can discuss your food preferences with the agency as well. Most agencies offer fixed schedules and itineraries and you can pick up one suiting your time, budget etc. Every state tourism offers their in-house trips which are reliable and generally good. Though in these trips you might end up joining other groups as well. There are few basics you must remember while looking for an agency. Ask others, take recommendations, look at their websites, client comment’s etc, and do talk to them. Even a cursory conversation will tell you if they are reliable and competent. At every road head there are few local agencies as well, who normally are sub-contracted by the bigger city based agencies so if you know any of the local guys then go to them first. Self organizing is great fun and you can always hire things like kitchen items, gas, tents, etc from many agencies which will make your overall budget much less. In most of the road heads you can pick up your basic food items as well. So if you are willing to take the risk then plan to spend two days at the road head to look for a local guide and porters and cook, complete your purchases and take off on the third day. For sure you will forget something in the first few occasions but it is great fun to learn this way. Better still if you plan to cook yourself and only hire porters for load carrying.

Budgeting: As a thumb rule, if you hire the services of an agency then be prepared to shell out around 1500 - 1800 INR per head per day all inclusive (food, porters, cooks, guide, tent, etc). This is applicable for minimum team strength of 6. If the number falls below this then the charges per head would go up. Bigger and more reputed the agency is; it will charge higher fee. Finally it will depend upon you what kind of amenities they are offering and you want. Do remember that when we go into the mountains and the outdoors we actually want to experience the outdoors so don’t ask and settle for homely comforts and cozy beds. Then you could have stayed home as well. Do undergo certain amount of hardship, believe me you would enjoy it more. For self organized trips you can easily reduce this expense by half.

Safety: The safety factor is paramount for any outdoor activity. Go slow, take lesser number of halts and ask if you feel lost. On a popular trail there would always be someone around to show you the way. Drink as much water as you can and eat small snacks in between. Cover your head always with a small cap or bandana, etc. A great way to hike is to tie an umbrella to your sack. When crossing landslide areas do check for any likelihood of imminent boulders and mud slide and cross it fast. Any rivers or streams to be waded en-route should be done in the early morning hours and from a wider point preferably. Don’t pluck unknown fruits and eat, they could be poisonous. Carry a straw for drinking from little pools of water. There are countless tips for safety, please exercise your discretion. Atop all, as a group please stay together within visual and calling distance. A whistle can be life-saving.

Recommended Trips: Though there are zillion treks for first timers in Himalaya, I would recommend: Sandakaphu, Pindari, Har ki dun, Valley of Flowers, Deoria Tal, Chandrashila, Madhyamaheshwar, Stok Markha, Beas Kund, Chandratal, Chandrakhani, Tapovan, etc.

While concluding let me add, since this is my blog and a mean for self marketing, if any of you feel the above beyond your grasp and do want more clarity then you can of course hire my services as an adventure consultant, and I will make and arrange the entire package for you.

So what are you waiting for! Happy Himalayan Hiking Holidays… I will still see you on the top!

P.S. You can apply the above guidelines to any outdoor trips I suppose, be it in the Western Ghats or lesser mountains


  1. Satya, I recently came back from Mt.Annapurna circuit trekking. All my friends were asking me so much about the what/how/where of trekking and hiking. I think all i have to do now is put a post and redirect them here. If possible can you mail me your contact details? I have lot to discuss. mailto:

    PS: Should I go on to write how much you/your post has inspired me, i may have spend my lifetime then.

  2. it was really inspiring.your laungage is very simple, straight and understanding. thank you for your valuable guideline for beginners like me. keep up your good working going. soon we will meet you on top.

  3. Am all ready to go with you anytime you are ;-)