Chris Zaremba is our regular writer on fitness for the over fifties. He’s forever taking on new fitness challenges  and this time he describes a recent trip that took the demands on his fitness to new heights… the Himalaya Trek Challenge!

His Journey

I’ve taken the Jungfrau Railway in the Swiss Alps, done the cable car to the Aiguille du Midi summit in Chamonix and I’ve traveled on the Pike’s Peak Cog Railroad up the mountain of the same name in Colorado.

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All these ascents have something in common as well as the great views from the top – there was a distinct lack of exercise involved. Not even the rarefied air at the summits made for real exercise as I made very few steps.

That was all a few years ago and since those times, I’ve discovered the benefits of being fit. My initial fitness experiences were all in the gym, starting with cardio and then adding resistance training, but over the past year or so I’ve taken on challenges outside the gym: long-distance runs, cross-country cycle rides and triathlons.

Taking on the next challenge

A few months back it was time to add another new challenge and for this one, I was keen to see how my body – well into its 50’s – would cope with some serious hill walking now that it’s down to 11.5 stone.

My wife, Jenny, had always wanted to go to the Himalayas, so that was the first decision made. We selected a route that would take us to the climbing base camps of Annapurna and Machupichare, the Fishtail mountain.

Getting ready

After choosing an appropriate gap in our diaries when the weather was expected to be good, we started  shopping for the trek equipment we would need. All came together in November 2012, when we arrived in the manic city of Kathmandu, capital of Nepal. Here we met the eight others joining us on the journey – Vanessa, Sue, Suzanne, Paul, Frank, Mike and Martin from England and Sheila from Vancouver.

Meeting the travel-mates

I was pleased to see they weren’t all mega-fit, mountain-confident teenagers most of them were in fact a little apprehensive about the trip and one was even older than me! But they’d all done some serious hill or mountain walking before and none were impressed that my only experience of ever being higher than Snowdon had been by train and cable car.

Just a few concerns…

I was concerned about a couple of things – firstly, I have slightly dodgy knees, which often don’t react well to exercises like lunges or squats, so how would they cope?

Secondly, although I knew I was much fitter than just a few years earlier, I wasn’t convinced that my endurance was up to the amount of effort required for this trip.

And thirdly I wondered whether I would be affected by altitude sickness. There was only one way to answer these questions – pull my rucksack on and start walking! The route had been carefully planned. The trip would take us on a ten-day trek from Nayapul at 1300m above sea-level to Annapurna Base Camp (ABC), the turn-around point on day six at 4150m, then back to Nayapul over a linear distance of 90km.

trek the himalayas_2

This sounds like a climb of 2850m. In fact, the total ascent (and descent) was over 7000m thanks to the concept of ‘Nepali Flat’. This is the name given to a section of walk where the start and end point are at much the same altitude, but there is a big valley to drop down to, or a big hill to climb over and often at least one of each.

The Nepali Flat

The best example of the Nepali Flat happened on day three of the trek, we started at 2300m and ended at 2300m, but spent the entire day going either up or down. There was no ‘real’ flat that day and I doubt that there was more than 1km of level walking in the entire 90km route.

Another statistic relates to steps. For most of the route, we followed routes used by the locals and their mules to walk between the different hill villages. And 90% of this route was up and down stone steps, not a sloping track – the locals explained that steps are easier to traverse over long distances of steep gradients.

I am reliably informed that the total number of stone steps for the whole trip was over 120,000, with the longest single flight of steps being 4,900 up on the morning of day two – and this being Nepali Flat, this was immediately followed by 3,500 down.

Are you beginning to feel for my knees yet? The food was fast-carb heavy throughout (it was a surprise to see that spaghetti and Snickers bars are typical Himalaya foods!) with breakfast omelettes forming the daily protein. Six of the trekking days were in a ‘no-meat’ area for religious reasons and of equal concern (if not more!) there was also a no-beer-bottle zone – bottles are a heavy and a space-inefficient use of mule-carrying capacity.

With the exertion, water was key and we purified daily by using tablets. The weather was great – bright and clear for most of each day with rain only in the late afternoon and evening, which cleared up by midnight to give a cold overnight.

Minus 20 degrees C was the most extreme temperature experienced at night at ABC with no heating of course. I was therefore pleased that the pre-trip shopping had included ultra-warm sleeping bags. The views were spectacular of course, especially the sunrises and sunsets on the snowy peaks.

The locals showed us every kindness throughout and were genuinely grateful for small gifts of coloured pencils and similar that we left at schools in the hill villages a long the way.

And I must offer a special thanks to our travelling companions, to the guides who do this trip regularly and also to the porters who carried the heaviest of our rucksacks – now that’s a tough job I wouldn’t want. On the fitness side, I surprised myself by not having any endurance problems and the altitude sickness left me alone.

And the knees? Not only did they survive but actually improved. I’d taken the precaution of taking the full RDA of Ibuprofen every day on the trip and also a week in advance and I think this built up a level of resistance that worked. Would I recommend it to other 50 plus year olds (and anyone younger)?Absolutely! But make sure you’re at least reasonably fit first. I would not have succeeded on this trip a few years ago, back in my 17 stone-plus days.

I would have wimped out before lunch on day one! My successful and enjoyable completion of my Himalayan trek made this one of the many new experiences I’ve been able to do since making fitness a key part of my life. So, bring on the next challenge!

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