“Appa, what is Diamox, my trek leader, asked me to keep 10 Diamox tablets with my trekking gear,” my adult daughter Rachita queried before her trip to Himalayas. It reminded me of her childhood days when only questions were her conversation.
“It is an anti-hypertensive drug called Acetazolamide used to prevent and reduce the symptoms of altitude sickness,” I said, having taken a few during my Mount Kailash (In Tibet Himalayas) trek.
“You and Amma have done so many treks and know so much about trekking and treks. You should share your experience with others.”
“It is Mamatha who does all the planning and preparation while I sit cooling my heels before any trek I confessed.
“No, seriously,” she went on. “You should write about aspects other than mere gear and equipment.”
So I dutifully obeyed my daughter and decided to blog it out….
What constitutes a high-altitude trek?
Altitude is measured from the nearest sea level, not from the base of the mountain. Generally, alpinists and trekkers consider any place 9,000 ft above sea level or higher as high-altitude.
9,000-12,000 feet: High Altitude
12,000-18,000 ft: Very High Altitude
18,000 ft and above: Extremely High Altitude
26,000 ft. and above: Death Zone
How is trekking at high altitudes different from lower altitudes?
The number of oxygen molecules in each breath you take at 20,000 feet will be less than 50% of the oxygen molecules you breathe at sea level. This is the reason that commercial airplanes maintain a cabin pressure of about 6,400 feet above sea level even though they fly close to 30,000 feet from the surface. At that cabin pressure, your ears pop, and you can get dehydrated on long flights. But you don’t get sick. That’s why air travel is safe unless you have severe heart or lung disease. But spending hours at 15,000 feet at a low-pressure location, such as high-altitude trekking—could cause altitude sickness.
10,000 feet altitude….14.30%
20,000 feet altitude….9.70%
It is important to note that adequate preparation is an absolute must for any long trek, but more so for high-altitude treks. One has to be prepared well before setting out. (The highest point I have ever been to is 18,800 feet on Dolma La Pass during my Kailash Parikrama).
It is vital to be well prepared if you are trekking above 14000 feet altitude.
There are three categories of preparations necessary for a high-altitude trek:
Start Aerobic activities at least two months in advance of your high-altitude trek. Brisk walking( speed of more than 6 kilometers per hour) will improve your VO2 max, the maximum volume of oxygen that your body can use. This is important for a high-altitude trek as there will be less oxygen in the air for you to consume, and each breath has to count. Also, make sure to include hill training for whatever form of cardio you choose.
Do your longest training walk at least a couple of weeks before you begin your trek to give yourself adequate time to become fit.
At a high altitude, you may find yourself breathless after just a tiny burst of exertion. A good way of getting your breathing back under control is to practice yogic breathing. Even getting used to breathing in a rhythm and taking deep, abdominal breaths can help. The more you understand how to get your breathing under control, the less panicked you may feel on the trek if you experience breathlessness.
Get used to drinking a large amount of water and eating even when you feel nauseous. At high altitudes, you should be drinking water frequently, no matter what activity you are undertaking. Humidity is lower at higher altitudes, which means that sweat evaporates quickly, and you can become dehydrated without noticing. Lower oxygen levels also make you breathe faster, so you lose more water through respiration–sometimes twice as fast as sea level. Another effect of altitude sickness is a more frequent need to urinate. All this means you need to drink much more liquid as dehydration can mask or worsen the symptoms of altitude sickness.
“Toughness & Stamina is a quality of the mind that is shattered by fatigue”– Len Smith.
If you’re going to a high-altitude place or on a long-distance trek, then you’ll first need to mentally prepare. First, remember that toilet facilities can be either nonexistent or very basic. You’re just going to have to train yourself to squat for at least five minutes. Build up your leg muscles by doing squats. Reach out to your butthole with your hand and hold for a few seconds without losing your balance. I’m telling you this since you’ll have to train well to use wet wipes properly.
Learn about what you’re up against. Find out the altitude gain on each day of your trip. Ask the trekking company you’re booked with for advice. Search YouTube for the hike you’ll be going on, or for related topics such as the township or hamlet you’ll arrive in or tips for packing, etc. Talk to other people who have been there to see what wisdom they have to offer.
If you’re female, a few more tips when it comes to mental and self-preparedness. For example, going to the toilet is just not as easy as it is for guys. So be prepared to go behind a bush without feeling embarrassed.
Always keep a day’s supply in your cargo trousers so that you’re never without, e.g., toilet paper, wet wipes, hand sanitizer, sanitary items.
If monthly cycles can’t be avoided, dispose of off used sanitary items carefully. For example, to reduce odor, wrap them in tinfoil before putting them in a plastic rubbish bag.
If you’re trekking at a high altitude, be aware that your cycle may not return to normal for 2-3 months afterward.
Being well-equipped and having the right gear is extremely important. The added hardship of not having the proper equipment will stress you out. In addition to your head torch, take some good LED lights or a lantern for your tent. I found that facing the light upwards to the roof spreads the light better with fewer shadows.
Have your clothes organized and nearby in case you need to get up at the night
Be self-sufficient: take some medications with you in addition to your first aid kit. Many travel medicine clinics sell travel packs containing antibiotics, Magnesium supplements, Vitamin C, Diamox, oxygen canisters, and tablets for nausea and diarrhea. Take Diamox (Acetazolamide) if you’re going to high an altitude, but keep in mind that you’ll need to go to the toilet far more often if you take them.
Hiking boots are the first thing you must buy when you decide to go on a high-altitude trek, and they must be broken in before you go to avoid blisters and sores. In addition, you need good UV sunglasses and good quality sunscreen to avoid getting a sunburn. Other necessities are an excellent sturdy water bottle, a basic medical kit, and the correct clothing.
You will not have any kind of internet or phone connection with the outside world. Inform your loved ones in advance about your expedition, so they don’t worry. Once you are on your trek, use the time to meditate, which is usually not possible back at home with many distractions.
Prevent nasty surprises – test all your gear in advance, especially your boots and backpack.
2 pairs of trekking trousers (zip-offs preferred). Use cargo trousers with as many pockets as possible, even if you are a female.
3 long-sleeved shirts
1 zip-up vest, thermal.
6 pairs of socks (2 liner socks, 2 trekking socks, and 2 padded trekking socks)
6 pairs of breathable underpants
2 sports bras
1 pair of long johns (thermal underwear)
Fleece-lined tracksuit bottoms or down trousers
Lightweight, windproof fleece
Lightweight synthetic raincoat
Waterproof rain trousers
Lining gloves and windproof gloves.
Hiking boots (your shoes must be broken in well before your trek)
A good pair of Shoes is vital for trekking or hiking. The comfort, quality and sturdiness determine a trekker’s ability to walk long distances without injury.
There are 3 types of hiking shoes;
Trail shoes: They are used for hiking in dry climates, on relatively smoother trails-less rugged or rocky paths.
I use a pair of good quality sneakers that do the job for me as well.
Hiking shoes: These are for climbing hills, steeper inclines and muddy paths. They provide more stability and ankle protection against protruding limbs and rocks than hiking shoes do.
I use hiking shoes from any reputed Company line Adidas.
Trekking boots: These are designed for mountain and hill walking, backpacking and mountaineering. They have stiff soles to give the ankles support and protection on difficult rocky trails. They are usually taller and stiffer than hiking boots, providing insulation as well as support and protection.
I use Quecha trekking boots.
Trekking poles. Make sure you check them before setting out.
Head torch (remember to pack spare batteries)
High-quality sleeping bag
Thermal sleep sheet
Water sterilizing tablets
Hydration sack or drink bottles (2 × 1L metal bottles – a hot water bottle will also come in handy at night)
Travel-sized shampoo (there aren’t many opportunities to shower when you’re trekking, but when a hot tap presents itself, you’ll be thankful for shampoo!)
Sunscreen: Use a good quality 30+ SPF sunscreen lotion since you are at a higher risk for skin damage due to the sun exposure which is much more intense at high altitudes.
30+ SPF lip balm
Small detergent cake
Tissues (double as toilet paper)
6 passport photos (1 for visa, 2 for trekking permit) plus US dollars for visa purposes (for Nepal treks only)
Plastic bags/bin liners
A deck of cards
A book/books about the places you are visiting.
Solar phone charger
Snacks, such as chocolate bars and lots of nuts
Plastic ziplock bags (handy for all sorts of things)
Vaseline, coconut oil.
They say, “The Best View Comes After the Hardest Climb, and It’s not the mountain we conquer, but ourselves.” So take a high-altitude trek at least once in your life.
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