Take a Hike, or Better Yet, Take a Trek

Physician's Money Digest, July31 2004, Volume 11, Issue 14

Prayer flags fluttered in the cold wind as Iascended the snowy slope to the crest of ShinjeLa Pass. I gazed upon snow-covered Himalayanpeaks extending to the Tibetan Plateau.In the past 8 days, I had trekked 80 miles throughBhutan to reach this pass, 16,000 feet above sea level.In front of me, the trail descended steeply to my destination,Laya, a seldom-visited village of yak herders andhigh-altitude farmers. This was Himalayan trekking atits finest—quiet, pristine, rugged, and exotic.

Guide to Trekking

Trekking is multiday hiking supported by guides,porters, and pack animals. While backpackers mustcarry all their gear—including stoves, tents, sleepingbags, and food—each day, trekkers carry only a smalldaypack containing warm clothes, rain gear, a camera,and snacks. All other items are transported for them.

Treks vary from 2-day walks over easy terrain tochallenging month-long circumnavigations of remotemountain ranges, valleys, or glaciers. Himalayan trekkingis most familiar, with outstanding treks also foundin Patagonia, New Zealand, the Andes, and the Alps.

Gear differs little from day hiking—a well-constructedday pack, sturdy hiking boots, layered clothingfor changing weather, pants, and a rain jacket. Theoutfitter provides tents, a stove, food, and fuel, but thetrekker must bring a sleeping bag and pad.

Typical Trek Day

Although details differ due to climate, altitude,and terrain, most treks operated by American outfitters,such as Mountain Travel Sobek (888-687-6235;www.mtsobek.com) and Wilderness Travel (800-368-2794; www.wildernesstravel.com), start the day withhot drinks and warm wash water delivered to thetrekker's tent. A hot, tasty breakfast follows beforehiking begins around 9 AM.

Distances average 6 to 10 miles daily. Each hikersets their own pace, stopping to rest or enjoy thescenery as desired. One guide will lead; no one isallowed ahead. The second guide, often hours behind,will walk with the slowest hiker.

Meanwhile, porters break camp, load the animals,and move ahead, setting up the next camp. Whentrekkers arrive in late afternoon after walking 5 to 9hours, snacks and drinks await them.

Dinner, served late in the evening, frequently featuresdelicious local cuisine such as salmon or beef,with fresh greens and vegetables supplemented withvacuum-packed food. Traditional dehydrated backpackerfare is almost never seen during a well-run trek.Camp cooking is a specialty of many experiencedguides who take great pride in their culinary skills.

Reasons to Trek

Trekking is a unique way to experience rugged,remote, and otherwise inaccessible regions. Althoughphysically demanding, it requires no specialized training—only an adventurous spirit and the ability towalk long distances.

I have trekked the Paine Circuit in Patagonia (866-937-2445; www.visitchile.org), an 8-day, 65-mileloop around the Paine Massif. I saw the three towers(Torres del Paine), touched the Grey Glacier, andobserved vicunas and Andean condors. In Bhutan(www.btb.com.bt), I completed the demanding high-altitudetrek to Laya, a 16-day, 140-mile hike crossingfive mountain passes, each over 15,000 feet high. Enroute, I visited school children, yak herders, rice farmers,and Buddhist monks, while observing daily life infriendly villages far removed from automobiles, electricity,or television.

Treks are slow-paced journeys that permit closeobservation of the natural world with time forthought and reflection. They allow unusual opportunitiesfor personal contact with local people and area great way to visit and photograph our planet'sunspoiled regions and unique cultures.