Read Part 1 here
Preparation is the key to success, people say. For a task like this, it is about identifying the threats and preparing for it. The biggest threat on the trail is altitude sickness. Anything above 3500m is in the realms of high altitude and the Annapurna base camp is pitched at 4130m.
But sitting pretty in Bangalore, I cannot possibly prepare for high-altitude. ABC is almost twice the height of the highest place I have ever been at. Doddebetta is the highest altitude place I have set foot on so far. It is the tallest mountain in the Nilgiri Hills at 2,637 meters. Bangalore at about 920 m – surprisingly at a higher altitude than Dehradun (450 m) – is approximately 4.5 times shorter than ABC.
Only thing I can do is go to UB City Sky Bar on the 16th floor – perhaps the tallest bar location in Bangalore – increasing my altitude by another 100 meters, down a couple of large whiskeys on the rocks and feel even higher. This is the closest I can come to high altitude preparation in here.
The second biggest threat is the bone-chilling cold for which I can actually prepare myself. Preparation here is nothing but burning money in Decathlon.
The expected temperature range in November is 5 to 15 degree in the daytime and once the sun plunges down the horizon in the evening, mercury plummets dramatically. The lowest temperature I faced in life before is 0 to 2 degree at night in the Garhwal region in lower Himalayas in Uttarakhand around the same time last year. Even then, it was quite cozy and warm inside the hotel room. Only when I, scantily clothed, ventured hurriedly out into the night with few others in search of a bar like a bunch of escapists from an alcohol rehab center, I felt the sharp pinch of cold on my skin. That night we couldn’t find a bar and I returned back to my room shivering like a cat out of the water.
At the base camp of Annapurna, the outside temperature at night can be as low as -15 in the time of our visit. Inside the teahouse accommodation, where we are expecting to spend the nights, the temperature would be no better than -4. Teahouses are essentially small hotels that offer both a place to sleep as well as home-cooked meals. They are usually rudimentary with flimsy thin walls and no heating facility. Spending nights in such low temperature is not easy. The baseline of my preparation would be about preparing for these conditions.
There’s a saying in the Scandinavian countries – ‘There’s no such thing as bad weather, only bad clothes’. I visit a nearby Decathlon store to get a general idea of what is bad and good clothing. When I proudly tell the salesperson about the trek in an I’m-so-great-you-know tone, (actually I tell him I’m going to Everest base camp assuming he may not have heard of Annapurna) the salesperson returns an ethokke-endhu (what’s-the-big-deal) expression and tells me he has lived in -7 temperature for 3 years and has done many treks in much worse conditions.
He tears off a page from a notebook and quickly writes down a list of things I should buy – sleeping bag, 90 liter backpack, waterproof cover for the backpack, two hiking poles, one fleece blanket, two fleece sweaters, trekking shoes, woolen socks, gloves, balaclava, thermals, down jacket and trekking pants – and hands me over to another executive. He thrusts the list in the new guy’s hand and says, “Get him all these stuff”
What, No! Wait, I don’t have money! I just came to do window shopping
The new guy swiftly walks away with the list and I run after him. He stops in front of brightly colored sleeping bags hung for display.
I still haven’t told my wife about the trek. If I go home with the sleeping bag now, she will parcel me in the sleeping bag and send me back to the shop. So I quietly tell the guy that I have only come to take a preliminary look at the products and price range and will be visiting again to buy at a later date. “Okay, no problem”, he says with a smile but still takes so much of his time to explain in great details about each product. He knows sooner or later he will get his chance to loot me – where else can I go in Bangalore! The only other place is the Wildcraft shop.
I sneak a look at the price tag of each product and make mental note. To give you a perspective of the average overall cost, let me jot down the price here: sleeping bag = Rs 4500, 50 liter backpack = Rs 2500, waterproof cover for the backpack = Rs 500, two hiking poles = Rs 2000 x 2 (good quality ones), fleece jacket = Rs 1000, trekking shoes = Rs 3500, woolen socks = Rs 800 x 2, gloves = Rs 400, cap/balaclava = Rs 500, thermals = Rs 800 x 2, down jacket = Rs 5000 and trekking pants = Rs 1700 x 2. The items in the list are bare necessities.
Now, some of the products on this list are on discount sale and some prices are the starting prices. Trekking shoes can cost more than Rs 3500. A -5 sleeping bag can be as high as 9k. And, I have not even mentioned a few other essential items in the list – headlamp for one. Sleeping bags and trekking poles can be taken off the list as they would come free with your trek package. Considering these plus and minus, roughly you are in the region of Rs 20,000 minimum.
To be fair, the cost is remarkably reasonable for the good quality of their products. If you go with Wildcraft, the figure stretches to Rs 30,000. The problem is, my pocket is too thin so I need to watch out every penny that goes out of it. There are jackets which alone can manage up till -10 temperatures but they are very costly and I may never get a chance to use it again. In Bangalore temperature, I can get evaporated in 10 minutes of wearing that. In the other hand, I can buy multiple, multi-use clothes and do layering. There’s this rule of 3. The rule of 3, supposed to take care of cold that dip to -10°C, is a simple formula of wearing 3 layers of woolen, inners and lower wear.
I would want to be in the balance and I realize that balance is difficult to achieve. The cost of buying multiple layers is going to be costlier than the minus 10 Down-Jacket. I’m also going to have to drag the extra weight of all the layers all through the mountain. Weight is a crucial element – the lighter the better. Then with all the layers, I may even look like a bear myself and there is a risk of somebody aiming their tranquilizer dart gun at me.
I leave the store scratching my head.
I make a phone call to a person with whom I have played football a couple of times. Last year he trekked to Everest base camp with his wife. There can be nothing more convincing than the words of somebody who has done it himself.
He goes by the name of – initial rather- K.P. I don’t know his actual name. Everybody calls him K.P and he himself calls himself K.P when he rings me back, “K.P here”, he says.
K.P suggests that I should give a thought about buying things from Themal street in Kathmandu or from the shops along Phewa Lake in Pokhara in case I don’t have any grand plan of returning to Nepal for another trek – of course, I don’t for the time being at least. These places are known for selling trekking gears for knockdown prices. “Quality isn’t great, but serves the purpose quite well”, he recommends. He is not in favor of Decathlon products. The jackets and gloves which he bought didn’t stand up to the real-world temperature in the Himalayas. He warns me, “Up there it is much colder than you imagine”.
According to him, renting is not a worthy option for long treks since the cost of renting almost comes up to the cost of buying them. And if I’m buying from Nepal, I will have the option of selling them back to the same shop – for dirt price obviously – after the trek. This sounds no different than renting, but I like this. At least I don’t have to sleep in a sleeping bag which has somebody else’s fart collection.
We talk about altitude sickness and water purification tablets among many other things. Before he cuts the call, he passes on another important information, “Toilets there won’t have running water. You need to get used to using paper” I imagine myself climbing the mountain with a huge roll of toilet paper on my head.
I make two more visits to Decathlon mainly because it is near my house. I wish the store has a temperature adjustable climate chamber like I should be able to close myself inside, set the temperature and check whether I can handle a particular temperature with a particular clothing. Not too far-fetched an idea isn’t it? Finally, after a combined total of 6.5 hours in the shop in three visits, I take home a pair of breathable underwear. The rest, I dismissively decide with a sideways tongue-flick gesture, I will pick up from the streets in Nepal.
Phew, so much for preparation.