The ultimate guide to trekking
Sixty years after the first successful ascent of Mount Everest, the Himalayan region still offers plenty of high adventure
HINDU scriptures say that in ‘‘a hundred ages of the gods’’ you could not do justice to the Himalayas. So where do mere mortals start?
Knowing where to go in an area 10 times the size of France is daunting. Everest gets most of the headlines, but the Himalayas are vast, especially when you include mountain ranges west of the Indus — the Pamir, Hindu Kush and Karakoram.
This 4000km crescent, stretching from Kyrgyzstan to Myanmar, is a geography of superlatives — the highest mountains, the deepest gorges, tracts of wild forest, the rolling high plateau of Tibet, and, in Bhutan and the Indian state of Assam in the eastern Himalayas, some of the greatest biodiversity on the planet.
Then there are the people. It is true that in some areas the Himalayas are wild and barely populated, but in most there is an incredible diversity of cultures that have adapted to surviving in an environment that can be exceptionally hostile as well as incredibly beautiful.
These huge peaks are also the meeting point for three of the world’s great religions: Islam in the west, Hinduism to the south and Tibetan Buddhism to the north.
It’s an incredibly dynamic region. New roads and airports are making some areas more easily accessible, while significantly diminishing the appeal of others, such as the famous Annapurna circuit in Nepal.
Political shifts also have altered horizons. Mountains along the northern border of Myanmar have recently become accessible for the first time in decades, while visa restrictions and unrest in Tibet have made travelling there more difficult.
Trekking is also changing. Many assume walking in the Himalayas is only for rugged types who enjoy roughing it. That was true in 1953, when Everest was first climbed and trekking tourism didn’t exist. Now there are new ways to experience the Himalayas: luxury lodges for those looking to take in the views with a bit of comfort; treks that focus as much on culture as scenery; and new lodges and homestays for those who want to relax and get beneath the surface of Himalayan life.
The walking itself is usually not too difficult, apart from the altitude, of course. It’s the altitude, along with problems of travelling in one of the least developed regions of Asia and the usual fears about hygiene, that puts off some people. Staying healthy in the Himalayas is certainly more difficult than it is at home, but if you’re used to walking and are cautious about gaining altitude, then you’re unlikely to have any problems. And the rewards are spectacular. The summer monsoon is much heavier in the eastern Himalayas than it is in the west, and so the most popular trekking periods in much of India, Nepal and the region to the east are April and October.
Skies tend to be clearer in the autumn, although it’s colder too, but that’s when Everest and other popular treks are at their busiest.
Zanskar and Ladakh, largely Tibetan Buddhist in terms of their population but politically part of the Indian state of Jammu and Kashmir, are north of the Himalayan chain and enjoy much better weather in July and August. These are also the best months for K2 and the rest of the Karakoram, including Kashmir, as well as the Hindu Kush.
The most popular trekking areas ( such as Everest, the Annapurna region and Ladakh’s Markha Valley) have a network of fairly basic lodges, opening up these areas to independent trekkers who don’t want to carry a tent and are on a limited budget. It’s also possible to reach Annapurna, or Nepal’s Langtang region, by bus, without the need for costly internal flights.
For those with a bit more to spend, there are off-the-peg itineraries from specialist travel agents. The best use good local outfitters and provide a guide, either Western or a local who speaks good English. For those who don’t want the hassle of organising transport and accommodation, this kind of trip is perfect — and for camp- ing treks in remote areas, it is essential. You can also approach a local agent directly, which is useful if you have a group of friends who want to trek together. Since Nepal’s civil war ended in 2006, the number of trekkers visiting the Everest region has more than doubled to 35,000 a year. At the height of the season, about 60 flights land at Tenzing-Hillary airport in Lukla each day. The Sherpa township of Namche Bazaar, the gateway to Everest base camp and used for altitude acclimatisation, has excellent mobile coverage. So if you go in peak season, expect a crowd. If you have a group of mates who want to see Everest, most companies will organise a private tour.
World Expeditions is one of the biggest operators, running more than 20 treks this year, with the accommo- dation a mixture of camping and lodges on the standard trek to Everest base camp. Some of its northern autumn departures are already full, so hurry if you want to go in the diamond jubilee year of the first ascent.
If you prefer a bit more comfort, there are now two chains of luxury lodges on the way to base camp, Yeti Mountain Homeand Everest Summit Lodges. We’re not talking five-star spas here, but an ensuite and a hot water bottle are a big step up from standard lodges. If you’re looking to beat the crowds, local trekking guide Bonny Masson has this advice: ‘‘If you’ve got the time, do the original trek the British expedition took in 1953.’’ This started in Kathmandu, but a bus will now take you to the end of the road just beyond the town of Jiri. The trail beyond is a tougher walk than the stages from Lukla, which most people now reach by air. ‘‘You will get a better slice of life in Solukhumbu, and the trails are quieter.’’
Alternatively you can trek out of season, in December or February, when numbers are down and the trails are quieter. But you should be prepared for lower temperatures.
Adventurous types can hike to the little-visited east face of Everest inside Tibet via the Kama Valley, one of the least known but most beautiful approaches to the world’s highest peak. Unlike the Nepalese side, this wild valley has hardly changed at all.
In recent years, the visa situation in Tibet has been inconsistent, but that now seems to be settling down. KE Adventure Travel offers a 20-day trip out of Kathmandu, including nine days of trekking. Stunning views are what prompt many to go trekking, but the Him-
Above, from Mount Evere Buddhist nu Kargyak vill in Ladakh; a a warming c tea for trekk