About Andy

Andy is CFO of ITrekNepal

Fitness and Travel

When contemplating or preparing for a Himalayan trek one of the main concerns most people have is whether they are fit enough for the demands of the trail and how to improve their conditioning. In my experience almost everyone who arrives in Nepal has adequate fitness to complete their chosen trek (aside from possible altitude-related problems), but many do not have adequate fitness to fully enjoy the trek. Many trekkers make it to their destination but are so exhausted by the effort that the only reward is being able to boast about their accomplishment. It should also be noted that there are some people who are so concerned about not have adequate fitness that they over train and injure themselves before getting to Nepal. A well-planned physical fitness program, ideally started at least six months before starting the trek, is really essential to having a successful, enjoyable trek.

In an earlier post I outlined a recommended training program to prepare for a trek. The emphasis of course was on aerobic conditioning and building leg strength, both with gym exercises and hiking. Another aspect that is too often overlooked is having overall fitness and strength in all parts of the body to reduce the risk of injury of in any area.  This is especially important since you will need to move a lot of gear around in a variety of situations (airport baggage claim, hotel rooms, mountain lodges, etc) which can put an abnormal strain on the back and neck. It is all too easy to pull a back or neck muscle trying to lift a heavy bag from an awkward position, and the resulting pain can literally ruin a trekking vacation. It is also important to exercise caution while you’re travelling to lift and carry your bags carefully, always lifting with your legs as much as possible with a straight back.

So be sure to include core and upper body exercises into your fitness program for optimum trek preparation.. You’ll look good, feel good, and have a wonderful, unspoiled trekking vacation.

A Nepal Biking Experience

Nepal is justifiably renowned for its great trekking. The iconic destination of Everest Base Camp and other trekking routes lure thousands of adventure seekers from around the world. Many travelers to Nepal are also discovering that biking offers many of the same rewards as trekking, along with some unique aspects that can’t be found just trekking in the mountains.

While it is called “mountain biking”, the typical biking itinerary in Nepal is more than an off-road experience. Roads in larger towns are mostly paved but in small towns and villages they’re usually gravel and packed dirt, sometimes resembling wide trails more than roads. So a mountain bike is the best way to cover lots of distance and all kinds of terrain in Nepal, but the overall experience is very much like road biking.

I’ve recently completed a couple of two day bike “treks” in the Kathmandu Valley  that were as exciting, challenging, and picturesque as any biking I’ve ever done in other parts of the world, and recommend the experience to anyone with basic biking skills and fitness. It’s a wonderful extension to any Nepal trekking itinerary.

ItrekNepal is based in Bhaktapur at the Sanctuary Lodge on a hillside overlooking Bhaktapur and the eastern stretch of the Kathmandu Valley. From the grounds of the Sanctuary Lodge you can see a relatively low mountain ridge that arcs from the north up to a high point at Nagarkot at around 7000 ft elevation (2200 meters) and over to Dhulikhel and Panauti. For the first trip, which can be completed in one day, we spent the night at the cliffside hotel with stunning views of the high Himalayan peaks. We had trucked our bikes (Trek hard tail suspension bikes in good condition) up to Nagarkot for the start of the trek, though cycling up from Bhaktapur would have taken no more than 3 hours at a leisurely pace. I was accompanied by our guide (a competitive mountain bike racer in his spare time) and one of the local ITrekNepal staff. In the morning we took off through the small town of Nagarkot, and then descended a remarkably smooth, paved road. Winding for over a mile through a pristine mountain park, certainly one of the best-maintained parks in all of Nepal, we stopped occasionally to admire the panoramic views over the valley. The road from there on was packed dirt with enough slope and ruts to offer a moderate challenge, including a brief, fairly steep uphill section halfway down the mountain. At lunchtime we arrived at Changu Narayan, the oldest temple in the Kathmandu Valley, dating back to the 4th century! The temple complex includes some of the finest examples of Nepali wood, stone and metal craftsmanship, all well worth spending an hour touring before or after lunch at one of the small cafes near the temple.

From Changu Narayan the road descends quickly to the valley floor. The final few miles along the valley road back to Bhaktapur is smoothly paved, passing through several small villages before arriving at the “backside” of Bhaktapur. We navigated the streets and alleyways of Bhaktapur carefully to get back to the Sanctuary Lodge by mid-afternoon with our only regret that the trip hadn’t been longer.

I returned in November to bike from Nagarkot again, this time in the opposite direction, south toward Dhulikhel and Panauti. This time the initial descent was anything but smooth. The winding dirt road was steep enough to require constant braking and much of the surface had an ungraded, rocky “washboard” quality that demanded caution. But it was a ton of fun and wouldn’t be overly difficult for anyone with some mountain biking experience. This trip, however I was with another ItrekNepal staffer who had never ridden a mountain bike before. I gave him some quick instruction and after 10 minutes he was handling the terrain with a smile. After that I stopped worrying about him, relaxed, and let my attention drift for a moment when my front wheel suddenly pitched backwards and I found myself face down in the dirt. Other than a nasty bump on my shin and a bruised ego I was ok and got going again with a lot more respect for this part of the route. It was the only fall any of us had that entire (on the one-day bike trip during the summer I had done an “endo” right in the middle of a village, awkward enough to garner some laughs from the local folks without getting hurt).

In 20 minutes were at the bottom of the hill and wound our way through a series of compact valleys dotted with small villages. The local people seemed fascinated by our presence. Dozens of young children clamored around us in the village squares as we pedaled through like metal cowboys. It was clear that few westerners ever visit this part of the Kathmandu valley, though it’s a favorite getaway for well-to-do Nepalese city-dwellers. After a long, steady climb on dirt and paved roads we arrived in Dhulikhel. We were staying at the Dwarika’s Shangri La, a mountain resort version of the famous Dwarika’s in Kathmandu. The road ends at the bottom of a long stone staircase leading up to the lobby of the hotel. The climb, even carrying our bikes the entire way, was well worth the effort. As we passed through the hotel lobby and stepped onto the veranda we were greeted with a panoramic view of several majestic Himalayan peaks. While the Shangri La is more expensive than the many other hotels and guesthouses in Dhulikhel it is worth every penny, for the views, the comfort, and the unique presentation of Nepali heritage that only Dwarika’s knows how to re-create.

Our route the next day bypassed the large town of Banepa on a delightful village road that had just recently been opened, so new in fact that we only discovered it by pouring over local maps with one of the hotel staff who confirmed that a foot trail on the map had  just been widened into a small road. After several idyllic miles it connected with the main road from Bhaktapur to Panauti, smooth and with little traffic this far from the city. We reached Panauti before noon. This is a hidden gem of a town, just 32 km from Kathmandu yet worlds away. Located near the Roshi Khola and Pungamati rivers, it appears to have been left exactly the way the founders had built the town, with narrow streets and ancient structures. The cultural centerpiece of Panauti is the Mahadev Temple complex, which dates back to the 15th century, a well-preserved example of classic Newari architecture and craftsmanship.

There is a five day bike route that continues past Panauti up through the mountains that surround the southern part of the Kathmandu valley. We returned the way we came though, back through the hubbub of Banepa, along well-travelled roads. Along the way we stopped in the small hilltop town of Sanga, riding and pushing our bikes up incredibly steep, narrow streets off the main road to a promontory with a commanding view of the Kathmandu Valley. Overlooking the town and valley is a 66 meter statue of the Buddha, the tallest in Nepal, and still so new that the construction scaffolding had yet to be removed.

From Sanga we raced down a very smooth, winding mountain road, fast enough to pass several cars and trucks as we made our way back to Bhaktapur. There are three things to say about biking in Nepal other than the magnificent scenery and warm people you’ll meet: 1) the roads are generally in very poor condition, hence the need for mountain bikes but also the reason to rejoice when you happen upon smooth pavement; 2)  Nepali drivers are very loose in their interpretation of the rules of the road, compulsively passing each other without justification or fear, so you’ll need to pay close attention when biking through large towns; and 3) while Nepalese drive recklessly (by western standards at least) they also drive so slowly that it’s hardly dangerous and you can often outpace them on a bike. But there’s little need to ride fast when everything about you is so glorious – I think you might want to go as slowly as possible too.

Acute Mountain Sickness (AMS)

     Acute Mountain Sickness (AMS), often referred to as altitude sickness, is a fairly common and serious risk when trekking at high altitude in Nepal. AMS can develop at altitudes above 2000 meters (6500 ft), and the risk increases significantly as you ascend to higher altitudes.

     The early symptoms of AMS are headache, extreme fatigue, and loss of appetite/nausea. Some people also experience shortness of breath while resting. AMS is a result of the excessive accumulation of fluid in certain parts of the body, specifically the brain and lungs. When mild symptoms occur you must stop immediately at the current altitude until the symptoms have gone away. If symptoms persist after you have rested for a day or two, you must descend to a lower altitude (300 – 500m/1000-1700 ft lower)

     Worsening symptoms of AMS including increasing tiredness, severe headache, vomiting, and loss of coordination.  These are the symptoms of the more severe case of AMS call High Altitude Cerebral Edema (HACE). HACE can lead to unconsciousness and death within 12 hours if the symptoms are ignored. Increasing shortness of breath, coughing, and tiredness are signs of High Altitude Pulmonary Edema (HAPE), which can also be rapidly fatal if ignored.

     A person suffering from AMS may not be thinking clearly and may have to be forced to descend.  A person with AMS should not be allowed to descend alone. They should descend to an altitude where they feel their symptoms improve (usually after 300 – 500 meters of descent). Always follow your trek guide’s advice about how to deal with AMS symptoms.

     If you experience any AMS symptoms but are unsure whether it is AMS, always err on the side of caution and stop ascending and consider descending to lower altitude.

     Medications are not a good substitute for proper acclimatization in reducing the risk of AMS. Acclimatization requires a planned, slow ascent of not more than 300 – 500m (1000-1700 ft) per day. If you are acclimatizing properly you can also consider taking Diamox to prevent or alleviate AMS symptoms.

     You should not plan to trek to high altitude (over 3000 meters) if you have heart disease, difficulty breathing at sea level, or are pregnant. Children may be more susceptible to AMS, and because they may not be able to describe their symptoms should be watched very closely.

      Good physical conditioning does not prevent AMS, and persons who have not experienced AMS at high altitudes in the past may still develop symptoms on subsequent treks.

     Sleeping pills, sedatives and alcohol should not be used at high altitudes as they tend to decrease breathing and can lead to AMS. Drinking 3-4 liters of water or other fluids per day to avoid dehydration will help in the acclimatization process. It is also possible to use a Gamow bag to treat the effects of AMS. A Gamow bag, available at the Himalayan Rescue Association’s outposts in Periche (Everest) and Manang (Annapurna), simulates the air pressure of low altitude.

     While it is possible to employ helicopter rescue in case of serious AMS symptoms you should not rely on this, or wait for a helicopter if you experience AMS. Your first recourse should be to descend to lower altitude. However, because it may become necessary to call in a helicopter for evacuation, you should have an insurance policy in effect that covers this (very expensive) service. The helicopter service company requires a financial guarantee to implement a rescue so having this is essential if you are planning to trek at high altitudes, especially at or above 5000m/16,000 ft.

Key facts about AMS:

  • Anyone is susceptible to AMS, regardless of physical fitness or previous high altitude experience.
  • AMS can be deadly so act immediately at the first sign of any symptoms.
  • AMS can start to occur at altitudes as low as 2500 meters (8000 ft)

You can also read more about AMS at this professional site dedicated to the subject:

http://www.altitude.org/altitude_sickness.php