Striding along in the second hour of the morning’s trek, your muscles have loosened up, the speedier circulation is carrying more oxygen to your brain and, as you inhale the crisp mountain air, your head and body feel wonderfully clear and full of energy.
The brown earth trail, peppered with grey boulders, snakes through a patch of dark green conifers. In the silence among the trees, a brook splutters, awakening a childhood memory of Minnehaha (“laughing water”) in The Song of Hiawatha. Above, perfect snow cones daubed with golden sunlight parade on the skyline. Beyond the trees, the trail meanders into a meadow of springy turf, sprinkled with red, yellow, magenta, and white flowers nodding in the breeze. The sun spreads a mantle of warmth on your back and you pause beside a rock, luxuriating in the beauty of summer in the Himalaya.
Did you picture heaven?
Now picture this. Your torso is trussed up in six layers of warm fabrics, your hands are encased in gloves topped with mittens, a fleece cap is pulled low over your forehead and your neck gaiter up till your lips, as you desperately try to cover every possible inch of your face. Yet the cold air stabs at your nose and cheeks as you hunch, with muscles stiffened in the battle against the cold. Surrounding you is snow — blankets, mounds and columns of it.
You take a step, trying to grind the heel of your boot into the rock-hard snow underfoot. The trail slopes upward ever so slightly and, unable to dig in sufficiently, your boot slips a few inches back on the frozen surface. You take another step, only to slide back a few inches again. The exertion makes you breathe faster but you must avoid panting with your mouth open. You stop to rest, drawing in the icy air through the nostrils to warm it before it hits your lungs. You look around, but there is not an iota of comfort to be drawn from this hostile land. You resume the macabre stepping and sliding dance.
If this enchanting scenario appeals to you, as seems the case with a growing tribe of Indian trekkers — the foreigners have been at it for years, but they have a reputation for masochism to live up to — then welcome to winter trekking. Something about the challenge posed by snow and wintry heights seems to strike a chord with adventure seekers. Then there’s the fact that some treks are only possible in the extreme cold (like the Chadar) and some far prettier (the Singalila or the Chopta) at this time of the year.
However, though it is possible to go straight from your desk job to a strenuous walk in the Himalaya during the summer, it’s unwise to do this for a winter trek. So here’s how you can prepare.
Prepare your body and mind
The body has to work extra hard to acclimatise to altitude on a winter trek because it is coping with extreme cold. So get it used to the exertion of walking uphill and downhill with a moderate load, well before the trek. Walk a lot and include stair-climbing in your daily routine. Jogging is not essential but, along with gym work, will be useful if you have the time and inclination to get very fit ahead of the trek. On rest days, play a sport.
For a winter trek, you must gain weight so that the body has surplus fat it can burn to generate warmth. A couple of kilos above your normal weight will be enough. To gain weight, your intake of carbohydrates must exceed requirement. The body will use what it requires as fuel and store the surplus as fat. If you are doing an exercise regimen to prepare for the trek, you will be using more carbohydrates than normal, so hike your intake to cover this.
Many people think that a “putting on weight diet” is a licence to eat anything. It is not. Do not eat large quantities of Western junk food or Indian fast food which is deep-fried. Steer clear of bad cholesterol. You cannot afford to have clogged arteries in conditions of extreme cold. On the trek, snack constantly. Supplement the usual chocolates, lozenges and nutrition bars with cheese, nuts, gajak and gurpatti.
Get the right gear
The good part is that thermals with wicking away property (instead of absorbing moisture, the fabric transports it to the outside, from where it eventually evaporates) are now available in India.
However, if the layers you wear above that are not breathable, the purpose will be defeated. For a moderate winter trek, take two sweaters, a fleece jacket, windproof-cum-waterproof Gore Tex outer jacket, fleece cap, windstopper gloves, mittens and fleece pants. For an extreme trek, add a balaclava, neck gaiter, down jacket and insulated trousers. Carry only nylon and fleece socks — at least six or seven pairs. Insulated winter trekking boots and gaiters are essential.
A sleeping bag certified for – 25° Celsius, a liner and a mountaineering-quality mat are advisable. Take along two thermos water bottles of 1-litre capacity. Trekking poles for treacherous terrain and a pee bottle are optional but helpful items. Stick some tape on the pee bottle so that you can distinguish it by touch in the dark.
Primed for your first Himalayan winter trek, are you? Go ahead, you’ll love it. Let’s see, you’ll love leaving your sleeping bag in the mornings and you’ll love the desperate ritual of stuffing your icy clothes inside the sleeping bag for a few minutes to warm them before wearing. You’ll love it. Absolutely.
Yana is a mountaineer and an adventure expert.
Source of Ganges
This trek follows the Bhagirathi upstream to the source of Ganga in Garhwal Himalayas. From Gangotri, you travel across pine forests and meadows to reach the multi-hued Chaturangi glacier.
Chopta-Tungnath Chopta is located just beyond Rudra-prayag on the Gopeshwar–Ukhimath road. The trek ends at the Chandrasila summit that affords the most beautiful view of Nanda Devi, Trishul and Chaukham.
The crystal blue water of the Dodital lake (north of Uttarakashi) is home to rare species of fish like the Himalayan Golden Trout, and dense oak, pine and deodar forests surround it.
Har ki Doon
Har ki Doon lies in the foothills of the Western Himalayas, at the base of Fateh Parvat. The surrounding forests are part of the Govind Wildlife National Park. The trek starts at Taluka, near Dehradun.
This trek in the Kumaon Himalayas, starts at Song, moving along the banks of the Pindari and winds up at the glacier that has distinctive patches of lush greenery on a stark white landscape.
One of the larger bugyals (meadows) in Uttaranchal, Bedni is also a major station on the Nanda Raj Jaat Yatra, a ritual procession held every 12 years. The trek starts at Mundoli (240 km from Haridwar).
The trek to Sandakphu, the loftiest peak of the Singalila Range, starts near Darjeeling. The region has more than 600 varieties of orchids, the most to be found in a single geographical area in the world.