ON ONE OF HIS 80 EXPEDITIONS, professional skier Luke Smithwick met a friend in Kathmandu. “He was super tired,” recalls Smithwick, “but we had a delayed flight to Tibet, so we went out for a trail run that day.” What seemed like a good idea on the fitness end spelled disaster for longterm health. Says Smithwick, “He had a slightly scratchy throat, but was psyched to move just like any athlete would be. We went for that run and it aggravated the scratchy throat and that developed into a respiratory illness for the rest of the expedition.”
There are a couple lessons here. One, travel is stressful. Jet lag and sleeplessness in a germ-filled metal tube is a recipe for a cold. Two, you’re gonna be tempted—tempted to “stay fit,” eat local delicacies, sample the local inebriants. Just remember: People seldom fail on expeditions because the climbing is too hard. As fickle and critical as weather is, it still comes in second as the leading cause of failure. Illness is the number one reason that expeditions fail. While you’re travelling as a climber, you are not the average tourist. You’re an athlete on your way to a serious physical and mental undertaking. The adventure should take place on the mountain and not on your way to the destination. Exploratory eating, carousing at clubs, and spontaneous cultural forays should be left for after the summit attempt. Brushing your teeth from the tap in Pokhara might turn into a a fever that knocks you flat in Camp I on Annapurna. The crux of your climb is not your fitness, your gear, or your partner. It starts before you step out the door. Plan ahead and take precautions. By doing so, you’ll give yourself the best shot at getting to basecamp and on to the summit.
Resist the temptation to try the street food or anything too exotic. Besides the germs and viruses foreign to your body, food not prepared to Western specifications might contain parasites and toxins. “Delicacy” is often a code word for something the locals would not eat themselves. On a trip in a foreign land, what you eat and what you drink are your biggest concerns, but they are also easily manageable. For food, stick to meals cooked in hygienic tourist-standard settings. The adage “Cook it, boil it, peel it, or forget it” is sound advice. Smithwick says, “I would say these days, there's a pretty good understanding in the mountain world of hygiene for food. I would stay away from street food in Asia. I would just be really tight on water—make sure it is clean. I really think the main disease vector is either waterborne or in dust. Some believe it's in the air and the dust. A lot of folks get sick when they go up to the Karakoram Highway.”
Whiteouts can happen in a storm or any local atmospheric event that creates low cloud cover, and they’re very common in the mountains. Not being able to see where you’ve been and where you want to go is an obvious problem. To mitigate whiteout hazards, consider the following:
While you might crave fresh fruits and veggies, the water used to wash them might be the cause of illness. Sometimes wrapped bars and food brought from home are best. Use bottled water if you necessary, but keep in mind the plastic waste you’ll be producing. Consider the refillable Lifestraw water bottle, or use a pump water filter for tap water. For multiple users at basecamp, use a gravity water filter.
“You just have to stay healthy—that's all it is,’” Smithwick says. “That starts as soon as you walk out the door of your home. Just don't roll the dice at the start of the trip until you've had your summit attempt. Your body is presented to so much new bacteria when you travel, to a different climate, different locations. Keep it simple: basic food and focus on fluids. I don't really eat on flights. I just drink a lot of water, and I try to sleep based on the new time zone.”
Keep your journey smooth, safe, and painless. At different points you might be on a bus, train, or back of a scooter. You might have to sleep on a bench or in the airport. You’ll be breathing recirculated economy cabin air, diesel fumes, and choking dust. You’ll be traveling with thousands of other potentially infectious people. Most of this cannot be avoided, but to minimize discomfort it might be worth having a travel agent. Everest guide Garrett Madison says, “For those who travel less frequently, I think it’s still a good idea to consult a travel agent—if you can find one, they are a dying breed. Charles Mulvehill is my go-to travel agent. He finds the best routes, with the most flexibility, and the best rates. That can save a lot of headaches if the expedition finishes earlier or later than planned and you need to change your flight home.”
For travel in-country, it’s often a good idea to have an agency that takes care of everything from the minute you land to the minute you depart. They handle all transactions because you pay them electronically. This eliminates language barriers and manages the time-consuming details of lodging, itinerary, and red tape. Madison says, “For complex expeditions I have partners that help me with permits, transportation, local labor, and food. They also have the latest on-the-ground info of the region, range, or peak you are heading to. You might learn some valuable information that can really impact your success and enjoyment.”
Having assistance is important because something is guaranteed to go wrong. Flights get cancelled, luggage gets lost, or a hurricane jams the airports. The road might wash out in a monsoon or there might be a labor strike near the trailhead. Keep a level head and know that everything will work out in the end. If you’re going super remote, the farther you get from a major town or city, the smaller the plane gets, the worse the weather can be, the more likely flights will be cancelled.