I have just been on a short break to Cuba. Ideally I wouldn’t have wanted to go away so soon before departing on Remote Year but the trip was booked even before I heard about the Remote Year concept. I was travelling as part of a small group of people around Cuba, but with a central part of the trip involving hiking through the jungle and staying in simple accommodation in the mountains. I love trekking: it means that you can really get to see a country and in many cases get away from the standard tourist trail.
I have been on lots of different treks over the years from Morocco and the Alps to Bhutan and Nepal. However, I always remember my first trek in Nepal during our gap year. Most of the treks, like the Cuba, have been organised by one of the many adventure travel companies (Explore Worldwide, KE Adventure, Mountain Kingdoms etc.) but our original trek we organised ourselves and just took a walk-specific guidebook with us. Before setting off we had to spend some time in Katmandu organising trekking permits, buying equipment and informing the British Embassy where we were intending to trek to.
We decided on the Helambu circuit, which was located an hour or so to the north of Katmandu. We soon discovered that trekking was a lot more difficult than we thought; probably as we were carrying way too much stuff. I also had walking boots that never really fitted my feet so got large blisters on the first day! At the end of the third day we ended up at a village with two British and two Danish trekkers. We were told that the next villages would all be ‘shut’ as everyone would have left to go and celebrate the Sherpa New Year back in Kathmandu. In order to complete the trek we would therefore need to complete two days’ trekking in a single day and go above the snow line. The two Danish trekkers had already tried to go ahead but had turned back. They had met a Frenchman who had failed to cover the required distance who ended up staying out in the open. As a result he unfortunately got frostbite on his figures.
The villagers suggested an alternative route that we could take which involved heading down another valley where we would then meet the end part of the Helambu circuit. Given what we had been told we all considered that this was a much better idea. Due to illness we didn’t all head down the route together but split up into two groups. We ended up with a day’s trek down a valley with no map, no guidebook and no official path. However, we did do the sensible thing and took the advice of the locals not to continue on.
Over the past years I have met many people who have not taken advice, who were more concerned with the destination, than with the experience of travelling. In many cases this has not ended well with people needing to be carried off mountains or worse air lifted. My advice is that there is always another day. Enjoy the experience and if it is not your day to get to the top then so be it. This doesn’t mean ducking out as soon as it gets tough but the mountains can be dangerous places and putting your life and the lives of others in danger is not sensible.
Since our original experience of trekking I’ve learnt so much and I am in much better shape than I was back in those days. I’ve experienced trekking at altitude for periods of over two weeks. I find altitude difficult and normally get dreadful headaches for at least a few days. But I would go again tomorrow. My best advice to first time trekkers would be to take it slowly, very very slowly: the aim should be to walk at a pace where you don’t raise your breath. That way you shouldn’t need to stop and you can continuously enjoy the scenery around you. Try to be more like the tortoise rather than the hare….