Monday, August 15, 2011

A Typical Day on the Trek, the Ladakh Version

Seeing as this was only my second big multi-day trek, it may be difficult to keep from comparing this Ladakh trek around the Ripchar Valley to last year's trek to Annapurna Base Camp.

While last year's trip to Nepal seemed to have more routine each day, there was still a basic formula to a day on the trail in Ladakh. The trekking days were shorter that last year, as in we started later and ended earlier, but when you take into account the terrain, the altitude (we were over 12,000 for all but the first night in camp before we started actually walking) and the lack of organized stops along the way, the days seemed both longer and more difficult than Annapurna.

So I don't have to completely reintroduce the characters, here's a link to that post. As is the case with most things on a trek, all times are approximate. 

6:00am - Tea, Coffee?
Each morning at 6:00am, our faithful guide and kitchen dude Sarbu would approach the tent vestibule with a welcoming hot beverage. The intent of this beverage is twofold; (1) it's just a nice touch to have an instant coffee or black tea delivered to your tent and (2) it's an insurance policy against campers not getting moving in the morning.
Not a bad morning view
6:10am - Washing Water
Shortly after coffee, two bowls of warm washing water were placed outside the tent. The stated intent of these bowls is that they're for any morning washing you may want to do; however, since I tended to do most of my washing (these are the things you want to know) with the "arriving in camp bowl of washing water", I really just used this water to soak my hands and warm up a little. I'm a delicate little flower.

Once my digits were warmed up, it was time to visit the facilities, brush my teeth, quickly reorganize the tent, stuff the sleeping bag, repack the trekking duffel, and make sure the daypack, which was the only thing we were responsible for carrying, was stocked appropriately. The stock included my daily allotment of Crystal Light or Gatorade poweder (but usually Crystal Light, I'm addicted to that stuff - on a quick side note, the four of us were suffering the withdrawal effects of not having wine for so long and quickly assigned grape varietals to flavors, as in White Grape = Sauvignon Blanc, Fruit Punch = Malbec, Cherry Pomegranate = Cabernet; these are the things you think about when you're walking around the wilderness for 10 days) and a Clif bar, rain gear (which wasn't nearly as necessary in the world's highest desert as it was in Annapurna, and any expected changes in layers throughout the day. Not a bad deal.

6:30 or 6:45am - Arrival at the Dining Tent
Once ready for the day, it was time to hit the dining tent for more coffee. Like last year, I tended to be the first to hit this stage. Either I'm extremely efficient or disgustingly unhygienic.
Lindsay approaches
7:00am - Breakfast
Breakfast was two courses of guilt-free calories. The first course consisted of a bowl and a half of porridge with honey and sugar. The second course consisted of 2 - 3 small omelets and 4 - 5 pieces of some sort of carbohydrate. The default carb was toast; however, Judith (a lover of fine dining and pancakes) would give Sanjeev a subtle hint like, "Hey Sanjeev, I really love Deepak's pancakes." Magically, the next day pancakes would be on the menu. Freshly brewed coffee gets consumed through this entire process. Sanjeev also picked up on the fact that my caloric intake increased on days we were climbing passes so on those days there was just a little more food.
Warm breakfast morning
After breakfast, we actually had a little free time. Since there weren't cooking facilities along the trail at lunch, Deepak had to cook lunch right after he cooked breakfast. If we started trekking for the day right after breakfast, it wrecked the timing. Most mornings we sat around and talked, wrote in journals, or made final preparations for the day (making sure we had the right varietal of Crystal Light for the day, making sure our water bottles were full, checking which layers we had included, making a last stop at the toilet tent). One or two mornings we continued the previous night's game of canasta.

9:00am - Start Trekking
There were far fewer villages than last year's trek. As a result, there wasn't a destination stop to make during the morning where we'd sit down at a tea house and stop for 20 - 30 minutes to relax with a tea, Coke, or Everest beer (you know, on the days that were mostly downhill). Instead we would just figure out a time when everyone was getting tired around midway through the morning and, at a spot that looked comfortable, take a quick break that included sitting rather than just catching our breath. After that break, it was back to the trail. Most days, around break time or slightly after, Deepak and Surya would catch up with the food, stop for a quick minute, and quickly scurry out in front of us. You really have no idea how slow you are as a paying customer until you see somehow appear from the distance, catch up and pass you (all while carrying our lunch), and then have that lunch set out for you when you finally "catch" back up.
Starting the final day toward Kanji
Noon-ish - Lunch
The time varied depending on the day and whether we were at a spot that wasn't too exposed (i.e., on most days that we climbed passes we ate a later lunch). On last year's trek, there were actual kitchens along the way and lunch actually took a lot longer because of it. I remember days when they would purposely slow us down because lunch wouldn't have been near ready when we arrived. This year, lunch was cooked at the previous night's camp, packaged, and then served while on the trail.
Short catnap after lunch
The blue tarp (which doubled as the evening yoga tarp) would be set out and we'd gather around. Surya would first hand us a box of mango juice, which was perhaps the sweetest, most sugar-filled juice I've ever tasted. I thought it was delicious. Others on the trek did not. In addition to the juice, lunch typically consisted of salad (which is pronounced "salat" in the trekking world, and if you ever take a trek with Sanjeev you'll be pronouncing it that same way within the first couple days), some sort of protein (usually a canned meat like tuna or cooked Spam), some sort of carbohydrate (my favorite was the aloo jeera Deepak whipped up one day), and a bread. The breads were fantastic, plentiful, and typically region inspired. Parathas some days, Tibetan sweet bread on others.

12:45pm - Afternoon Trekking
After a brief rest, it was time to hit the trail again. Depending on the location of the next camp, the afternoon trek could be anywhere from two to four hours. The trekking days seemed "shorter" than last year; however, based on the lack of "long" stops at tea houses, I feel like there was just as much walking, the days were just more compressed. Regardless, the trekking was at higher altitude and seemed more difficult, so early arrivals at camp weren't necessarily unwelcome occurrences.

3:30pm - Arrive at Camp
By this time in the day, you started looking in the distance for any signs of camp. The most obvious sign was typically the blue dining and kitchen tents off in the distance. Some days you could see the tents for the last 45 minutes, some days you didn't see them until you were actually in camp. Most days, camp would only be partially set up, so we would get to the dining tent and just hang out there and relax a little bit while our tents were set up. The reality is that the sleeping tents aren't terribly exciting places to hang out, so the dining tent was, in my opinion, the preferred spot to be.
The blue tent (it's there, I swear)
4:00pm - Yoga (i.e., more resting for John)
My other trekking companions tried to make a point of doing yoga for a little while each day. I participated on two days but haven't quite caught the yoga bug. Plus, on the days I participated I had a tendency to make jokes, which apparently isn't typical while doing yoga. I don't think I was technically not asked to participate, but I think it was better for all parties that I typically didn't.
Before I wore out my welcome
4:30pm - Setting up the Tent and Washing Water
Once yoga was complete and/or the tents were ready. It was time to hit the tent and get organized. They would lay out a sleeping mat inside and have our bags set out. Sarbu, the guy responsible for setting up the tents, would even have our respective bag on the correct side. This year there was less rain, so it wasn't so much a race to the tent and we typically took turns getting set up.

Once you had your sleeping bag out and got reorganized, it was time for the washing water. Each evening two warm bowls of water would be set next to the tent. I would bring a bowl inside the vestibule, zip that shut, strip down, and let the washing begin. "Washing" really just means adding some camp suds to the water, dipping a towel into the water, and trying to wipe your self clean. We've also found that wet naps can be quite effective. The last step is trying to dry yourself off with another towel, which never seems to work. The goal is to get no water in the tent, and after a couple days, this goal is reasonably attainable. Thankfully, no pictures exist of this entire process.

Once clean, it's time to put on "camp clothes". My camp clothes consisted of an extra pair of hiking pants, a white long sleeve t-shirt, an extra pair of hiking socks, low-top hiking shoes, and my black fleece vest (i.e., the frat vest). I wore the same clothes for all 11 nights at camp. In addition to this, we would fill a stuff sack with warmer layers like our down coat, thicker fleeces, gloves, and hat. The other important thing to not forget in the "evening bag" was the headlamps. As you can probably imagine, it gets cold and dark when the sun goes down.

5:00pm - Tea, Coffee, and Canasta
Shortly after the comedy of the washing process concludes, it's time for a nice warm beverage and cookies. We would head to the dining tent where Sarbu would be eagerly waiting for tea and coffee hour. The choices were plentiful, including tea, instant coffee, hot chocolate, and some mocha-coffee-vitamin drink called Bourne Vita that Sanjeev seemed to enjoy. In addition to the warm beverage, there would be some sort of snack. All days that included packaged cookies and on certain days that consisted of fresh popcorn. Yes, it is possible to pop corn on a trek at 13,000 feet.
Lindsay ponders her next move as Glenn prepares to ridicule it
The warm beverage quickly became secondary and the next couple hours were spent playing cards. Canasta, to be exact. Boys versus girls (yes, the boys basically dominated the trip, winning six of nine games) and lots of trash talk. My journal quickly became not only a set of notes of what happened during the day but the book of record for scoring our canasta games. Thirty years from now, the canasta scores will be infinitely more interesting when opening that book.

7:00pm - Dinner
I can't say enough good things about the food on the trek. Dinner was no exception. The first course was some sort of soup. Last year it seemed like we alternated between chicken and vegetable (and it was tough to differentiate). This year there was more variety: tomato, vegetable, chicken, mushroom, and fresh lamb. After a bowl and a half of soup, Sarbu would bring the rest of the meal. In general, there would be between four or five different things to select from. Typically, it was carb-heavy. One night, we had pizza, spaghetti, and roasted potatoes. The final four nights, it included the sheep purchased along the way. There was never any shortage of food. Sarbu continually circled us with serving dishes and made sure our plates weren't finished. Again, you'd think a high altitude trek would be a good way to lose weight. It's not.
7:45pm - Tea, Coffee, and Canasta
Following dinner there was one last round of tea and coffee. But rather than tea and coffee, we'd top it off with a hot chocolate. Mmmmmm dessert.

The first few nights we were dead tired at this point and headed to the tent very early. Unfortunately, when you start to get ready for bed at 8pm, you tend to wake up very, very early. By the third night or so, we decided that an hour or more of canasta never hurt anyone. From my and Glenn's perspectives, it just gave us more time to dominate. Throughout the evening, the layers start to come out. By the canasta hour, especially on the nights at higher altitude, fleeces, down coats, hats, and gloves had all made an appearance.
Yep, she's wearing two down coats
9:00pm - Prepare for Bed
When it was time to call it quits, it was time to get ready for bed. We would grab our water bottles and head toward the toilet tent. There must be something about creating a bathroom because most nights we brushed our teeth near the toilet tent, much like your sink is very likely near your toilet. There is no explanation for this. In fact, I can't think of a worse place to brush your teeth. After visiting the tent and brushing teeth, it was time to head back to the tent

9:10pm - Bedtime
Depending on the temperature, there were some nights when the time between the toilet tent phase and the bedtime phase was far less than ten minutes. Depending on the temperature, I might elect to keep most of my layers on or strip down to an appropriate level. This year I used a sleeping bag liner which served two purposes; an extra layer of warmth when cold and a thin layer when hot. Genius. I fashioned a pillow by wrapping my down jacket in a fleece. It was comfortable enough, though I'm semi-allergic to down filling so I'd often wake up with eyes as puffy as the jacket. Judith was the smart one of the group. She borrowed a pillow from Lufthansa when she arrived in India. She's the real genius.

Once situated in the tent, it was lights out. I tried to read a couple nights but the reality is you're just too tired. Lindsay tried to stick with the reading a little bit longer but I think she read about 45 pages of "The God of Small Things". Glenn had coincidentally brought the same book and got through about 9 more pages. Not exactly a ringing endorsement for the award winning book
Moonrise over camp
When you repeat this cycle for ten or eleven days you find a rhythm. The days are long (almost as long as this post) but rewarding. In fact, when all is said and done the 21 total days I've spent trekking in Nepal and Ladakh (plus the 5 more I have planned in November) will be some of the most memorable days of this experience.


  1. Hi John, your comment on my own blog triggered my arrival here - and I'm glad it did.

    Just reading this lovely post about your trek brings home a whole lot of memories from mine and my wife's trek around the Annapurna Circuit only two years ago although, by the sounds of it, we were at considerably lower altitude in the early stages of our multi-day hike.

    It was by far and away the most challenging activity I've done to date and we completely underestimated the mental and physical toughness necessary to make the 17 days. That said, we had an amazing time, had an excellent guide and porter to ourselves, and made a bunch of friends along the way. I'd go back in a hearbeat.

    Looking forward to reading more of your adventures. I'm also going to link your blog on my site ( for other curious expats out there interested in learning more about life in India.


  2. Thanks for the comment, Russ.

    In hindsight, we would have loved to have done the Annapurna Circuit but inexperience, time, and worries about the elevation on the higher passes made Annapurna Base Camp a better choice for us last year. With ABC, we started around 6000 feet and only topped out around 13,500 (and that was on the 7th day) - much more manageable than flying into Leh from Delhi and immediately depositing yourself at 11,500 feet.

    We've determined the 9 - 10 day range is about our speed; I'm not sure how we'd do with 17 - though I suppose it's all about expecatations. If you do another trek in this part of the world, I'd highly recommend the guide we used. Sanjeev Chhetri, who runs Ramailo Treks ( He's done both our trips (last year was through Mountain Travel Sobek) and he also now guides for National Geographic. He's fantastic. We're using him again for one last short trek in Bhutan at the end of November before we head home for good.

    Thanks for leaving your blog URL as well. It's a great site and one I found through Twitter - you were a "suggested person" and I'm glad I found it.