The Hobo Guide to Trekking Nepal

The Hobo Guide to Trekking Nepal

When I returned from my first trek, I found it impossible that anyone could have a negative experience on the mountain. Putting aside the obvious physical exertion, I was puzzled that others could be immune to the infectious sense of romance, captivation and appreciation I developed for the world’s tallest mountain range.But in just one hostel common-room sitting, I met some trekkers who were leaving Nepal with less than stellar memories. How could this be? Well, as it turned out, many of them were doing most – if not all – of it wrong. In more colloquial terms, they kooked it.

In the name of transparency, I’ll admit I’ve developed a love affair with Nepal so deep that poor little Romeo can eat his heart out. So to help you out with your trip, and to ensure no one goes back home talking trash about my girl, I’ve thrown together a survival guide to getting high in the Nepalese Himalayas.

How to Trek

All-Inclusive Package Tour

First up, there’s the pre-booked, all inclusive, no-thought-necessary package tour. Takers of this option tend to be couples and more mature trekkers, but I’ve met a handful of 20-something-year-olds who’ve opted for this style due to the hassle-free nature of taking their hands off the steering wheel and letting someone else do all the logistics for their holiday. One of the strongest arguments I can make in favour of this option is that during peak season (late March-May and September-November), hotels and tea-houses can be packed full of trekkers, so you won’t have to worry about finding a bed that night. On the other side of the coin, those going with nothing organised can be left to sleep in the dining room, or worse, have to trek back downhill to find a bed.

If you are going to opt for the easiest (laziest) option, be wary. Group sizes are usually 10-plus, and there’s no guarantee you’ll get along with your fellow trekkers. There’s even less certainty you’ll be civil when the going gets tough, rivers of patience begin to run dry and true (cunty) personalities begin to dominate the others. These tours can, however, offer the most relaxing experience if you’re after luxuries like hot towels before dinner and complimentary Snickers bars – something I sadly had to skip several times at altitude due to my tight-ass nature, which genuinely sucked, because sugar has a profound impact on the human spirit when you’re exhausted 5000m above sea level.

Pros

  • Zero organisation on your end
  • Highly professional guides
  • Higher-quality accommodation, guarantee of a bed each night

Cons

  • Expensive
  • Pace can be slow (to accommodate for the others in the group)
  • Possible dislike of others on the tour

Guided but Unorganised Trek

You can save yourself many hundreds of dollars by simply landing into Nepal with nothing organised, finding a Nepalese guide and heading off from there. This is arguably the best option for a first-timer to Nepal, due to the fact that the going-rate for a guide is $25USD a day, and before you leave town, they’ll organise things like your TIMS card and national parks permits – two prerequisites to trek. The Nepalese government encourages this type of trek, as some Western-operated tour groups that offer all-inclusive tours tend to pay their Sherpas and porters the same $25 rate, keeping a handsome profit for themselves. This isn’t always the case, but it’s an ugly reality about some western operators fucking over the locals in Nepal… and getting away with it.

For your $25 a day, you get to spend your time with one of the nicest groups of people on the planet, get insight into local customs and ways of life and benefit from having someone to answer all your trivial questions. You also don’t have to worry about paying for their accommodation or food, as guides accompanying guests stay and eat for free, an incentive encouraged by the Nepalese government. If headed to Everest, you’re expected to pay for your guide, but they receive a 50 per cent discount on the flight.

I found a freelance guide – 46-year-old Rupa. He was a sixth-generation Sherpa, meaning he’s part of the ethnic group of Nepalese people who have grown up and lived a massively isolated life in the mountains of the Langtang region. He had more than 30 years of trekking experience, summited mountains over 7000m high, carried over 100kg for weeks on end as a porter and worked for countless companies as a guide, but never as a lead-guide due to his caste. Top-tier Brahmans are often only selected for this role due to their authority over the other guides, porters and cooks.

I digress.

Rupa had been operating as a freelance guide for years now, meaning he was slowly acquiring work irregularly from references, returning previous clients and, well, nothing but sheer luck and persistence. Admittedly, Rupa, like other guides, makes a stupendous amount of money per day compared to his Nepalese brethren, but after we hugged and said our goodbyes, he had no work on the horizon for weeks; inconsistent employment is a sad reality for a lot of these freelance guides. This is a large part of the reason I implore you to take this option seriously – you’ll see your money go directly into the hands of a genuine Nepali in need of financial assistance who often has no work for weeks, if not months, on end. Rupa invited me to his family home when we returned from the trek, and I took him out for dinner, beers and joints upon our arrival to Kathmandu from Everest.

Walking with a guide can also ease a lot of the stress associated with finding accommodation, especially on popular treks during peak season like Everest Base Camp, Poon Hill and Annapurna Base Camp. This is because the guides will often offer to walk ahead to secure your bed, and try to get you a cheaper price for taking dinner and breakfast in a tea-house. As well as this, you’ll be introduced to local Sherpa people, even family members or friends your guide has known for decades. Within the space of finishing a thermos of tea, they’ll be your friends too.

I suggest you have a cuppa or meal with your potential guide to get a sense you’ll get along with them; after all, you’ll be spending nearly every waking minute with them for up to two weeks, during which time you’re pushing your body through shit it really isn’t enjoying. Basically, you want to get a good vibe off a guy before you head out. On that note, discuss the route, your fitness level and ideal pace. Trekking with a guide like this gives also gives you a flexible schedule, as opposed to the aforementioned pre-organised groups. This becomes invaluable if you’re feeling a little ill from altitude one day. They know the early signs of altitude sickness long before you’ve even noticed them, and will encourage you to rest for the day.  Trekking with a large group will often give you the option to either rough it out – a horrible idea at altitude, which can ultimately jeopardise your trek, or simply turn around and end your trek early.

Pros

  • No strangers to walk (and/or fight) with
  • Intimate trekking experience
  • Flexibility
  • Local knowledge, having a translator on-hand
  • Direct support of the local economy

Cons

  • Possible dislike of guide (highly unlikely)
  • Less certainty of accommodation than pre-organised tour

Solo, unguided trek: the real-deal adventurer’s style

Arguably, this the most rewarding style of trek. Walking often can put you in a head space that I imagine is what meditation or yoga does for others; it enables that state of zen all-too-many Eastern suburbs socialites tend to Instagram about on their sunrise walks.

It goes without saying, though, that this isn’t the recommended option for first-timers. Check-posts throughout the national parks are often plastered with posters of lost trekkers, a poignant reminder that the mountains aren’t to be fucked with.

Poon Hill and Annapurna Base Camp are two treks you could complete without a problem in terms of getting lost; so long as you read up on the realities of altitude sickness, you can hike these treks without too much difficulty.

Navigation on the majority of routes these days is incredibly simple. Every time you enter a village, there will be one way in, and usually just the one way out, so getting lost isn’t really possible.

If you find it hard to socialise, or simply don’t want to, trekking solo offers a level of self-reflection and pure ecstasy when you reach that destination that is impossible to rival or replicate. But if it’s purely a choice based on finances, you may miss out on some experiences that can only be facilitated by having a Nepali guide along for the ride.

 Pros

  • Independence, solitude and zen-ness
  • Cheap

 Cons

  • Chance of getting lost
  • Possibility of missing out on accommodation
  • Missing out on local knowledge and the cultural immersion that comes with trekking with a guide

Other Things to Consider

Never underestimate altitude sickness

Trekking into altitude can throw up some genuine health risks, regardless of age, fitness level and smoking status – the mountains simply don’t give a shit. Just two days before I reached Gorak-Shep, the village you stay the night before reaching Everest Base Camp, an Australian man died of altitude sickness (http://www.abc.net.au/news/2017-03-06/australian-man-dies-trekking-in-nepal/8327104). Despite the fact this guy was 49, altitude sickness is something that should not, but often is underestimated. At that same village, I saw a young woman being thrown on the back of a horse to get to lower altitude, a $150 expense.

At 5000m above sea level, there’s 50% less oxygen available for your poor little lungs to utilise. Failing to factor in the physical exhaustion of tens of thousands of steps a day on a steep incline and dehydration could end your trip early, so don’t make the mistake of thinking you can beat the mountain. The best advice I got from a Sherpa was that if you have a headache, stop walking and drink all the water you have. If your headache isn’t better in a few hours, you’re getting altitude sickness. All this means is that you should rest for an extra day. If you’re on a pre-organised tour, this might not be an option, so like I mentioned before, allow some extra time on the trek for unexpected surprises like acclimatisation days and weather delays.

Yes, there are drugs like Diamox that help, but you don’t want rely on it to get you through for days on end. Resting really is the better, and only option if you get a headache that deteriorates.

For all those stoners out there, you’re in luck. Sherpa people believe in smoking hashish to worship Shiva, the Hindu creator and destroyer of all, a God who lived on the summit of Mt Kailash. Hash, coincidentally, is great at combatting some of the symptoms of altitude sickness like insomnia and loss of appetite, so smoke it up!

Don’t fuck on the mountain

Before we get to the why, I’ll mention that you’re not going to get laid on the mountain unless you’ve got a significant other there. 10 days of trekking with no showers isn’t exactly an aphrodisiac for the opposite sex; and if it is, they’ve got problems. Mountains are the most sacred thing to the Nepalese people, and they really don’t get down with the idea of westerners knocking boots on their holiest of sites. Nepali legend says those who don’t abide will get sick, a punishment handed down directly by the mountain.

Allow for extra days in Kathmandu before departing home

This point mainly concerns treks that require a flight, like Everest, or treks in the west of Nepal, but still applies to all treks. Weather in the mountains changes at the drop of a hat, and while you may be treated to endless blue skies for weeks on end, if on the day you’re flying back from Lukla to Kathmandu and the weather turns shit, you’re spending the night in Lukla. I spent three days there due to bad weather, during which time I witnessed several mental break-downs by trekkers who were missing international flights as a result of failing to take into account bad weather.

Don’t over-pack

You’ll find yourself backing up the same pair of undies for days on end. The same goes for socks. It’s not beautiful imagery, but it’s a reality, and saves your spine that little bit of grief after hours of walking. First trek, I made the mistake of taking a camera body with three separate lenses; the following trek, it was one lens. Small reductions make a big difference at altitude.

Embrace the filth

Sherpa’s say don’t shower at altitude – it might feel heavenly for two minutes, but the inevitable icy burn will hit your naked body before you’re back into your gear, and you risk catching the flu.

Consider lesser-trekked spots, like the Langtang, Mustang and Manaslu regions

Popular routes like Poon Hill, Annapurna Base Camp and Everest Base Camp are packed – even in the off season. That’s great for the hotel owners on these popular routes, as tourist numbers are getting back to normal, but trekking behind a slow group without the opportunity to overtake becomes a bit of a downer after a while. Also, Everest and the Annapurna regions were fairly sweet after the earthquake, whereas Langtang, which receives far fewer tourists, got absolutely smoked. Consider Langtang for two reasons – ther are less people, and therefore more serenity, and also, that region needs tourists more than anywhere right now.

Buy some munchies before trekking

Getting a box of Snickers up to Gorak-Shep, the village you’ll sleep in before setting off to Everest Base Camp and Kala Patthar involves a porter’s wage for around eight days of work. A simple understanding of economics explains the $5 you’re sometimes forced to fork out for a tiny chocolate in remote towns. My advice, grab a box – yes, a box – of whatever your preferred munchies are, and save yourself a pretty penny along the way.

Cover by the author; insets by the author, Martin Jernberg and Igor Ovsyannykov