Life

A Beginner’s Guide To Trekking And Climbing The Best Trails On The Planet

One foot in front of the other. You trudge. The frozen snow cracks under your boots. The air gradually thins. Up.

One foot in front of the other, that’s the key. The peripheral edema causes your hands to swell in your gloves. Your cheeks start to redden. Up. Up.

One foot in front of the…where were we? The altitude plays games with your head. Like being high and hungover at once. Trains of thought glide past and you just can’t seem to clamber aboard. Your boots weigh 50 pounds each. You can’t make it. You will make it. You won’t. You will. This was supposed to be fun? Up. Up. Up.

Climbing mountains is a lifestyle. It’s something that you fall in love with over time. I liken it to a fine Scotch whisky. No one likes Scotch the first time they drink it — it’s like burnt wood. You get a heady rush that’s more dizzying than warm. But somehow, inexplicably, you long for another sip. The next thing you know, you’re on an isle in the Hebrides talking yourself into buying a $150 bottle that Robert Louis Stevenson supposedly favored. That is trekking and climbing. The first time you go for a summit you wonder, “What the hell was I thinking?” But before you’re down the mountain, or finished with the hike — legs still aching — you’re mapping out the next big peak.

Not everyone is fit enough or skilled enough to just dive in and climb Denali, or Rainier, or Everest. You have to work up to that. Just like you have to work up to a 20-year-old Scotch. Here are some places around the globe where you can start indulging in some serious exercise, travel and adventure. I’ve tried to hit each major global region to start out with…more will come:

SANDAKPHU, INDIA/NEPAL

We’d already been trekking for two days when this photo was taken. It was 6:30 in the morning. I have never felt more like a copper top getting charged by the morning sun. By 10 AM we’d be on top of that mountain you see behind me.

Sandakphu is the perfect introduction to the Himalayas. Nestled deep in West Bengal along the Nepali border at 11,941 ft above sea level, Sandakphu is a great beginner’s climb. You don’t need a whole hell of a lot of gear. There are plenty of tea houses to shelter you every night along the road up and down (it takes three days up and two down). There’s a small village on top of the mountain with plenty of guesthouses and kitchens. You’ll be greeted with warm smiles, bowls of curried yak, and rhododendron moonshine. But that doesn’t compare to the summit’s stunning view. Everest, Kachendzonga, Lhotse and Makalu are all visible. That’s 4 of the 5 highest peaks in the world. Take the road to Darjeeling. It’s worth every moment.


KILIMANJARO, TANZANIA

This is the highest point on the entire continent of Africa. An 8-year-old kid can climb it. Raising above the great plains of Tanzania (and Kenya) at 16,001 feet above sea level, Kilimanjaro is a great way to get over your fear of heights. It’s a pretty low intensity ascent and descent. Approximately 16,500 people make the summit every year — so don’t expect to be alone on the trail. There’s little kit you need to make the climb. Just pack sensibly and frugally. Wear great boots. Kilimanjaro has 8 different routes to the summit. They really don’t vary all that much in difficulty. Marangu is the easiest, and thus the most lined with trekkers. Machame is by far the most scenic route, but a lot steeper in places. That being said, an 85-year-old man climbed the mountain in 2012. So, what are you waiting for?


THE THREE PEAKS, UNITED KINGDOM

This is getting a little harder. The Three Peaks Challenge is an endurance test where you climb Snowdon, Scafell Pike, and Ben Nevis in Wales, England and Scotland — the highest peaks in each state respectively — all in the same day. That may seem crazy. Unless you’re from the western United States. They’re 3,560 feet, 3,209 feet, and 4,416 feet above sea level. We call those hills out west! But don’t be overly confident. This is an endurance test. You need a sturdy pair of boots and a decent all weather jacket. And some serious recuperating provisions for the drive between mountains. I would recommend finishing at Ben Nevis. That way you can spend the next few days recovering at a local whisky distillery on a glen.

VIA ALPINA, EUROPE


A lot of people seem to like sitting on trains to see Europe. That’s fine I suppose. I find it much healthier and hands on trekking and climbing the Via Alpina. To trek the entire Via Alpina you need about 3-4 months. Most people take 6 months to do it properly. The Via Alpina starts in Monte Carlo and snakes it way north into the French Alps before turning east. Then you climb, trek, and mosey your way through Switzerland, Liechtenstein, Austria, Germany, Italy and Slovenia. That’s eight countries checked off the ol’ list. Few other treks offer the options and diversity of culture, terrain and difficulty. You can climb a peak or two, or stay in the valleys. It’s really up to you. This is also very first-world Europe. So the accommodations, services and trails are some of the best in the world.

In short: Don’t sit on your ass; ditch the Eurorail Pass. Buy some good boots and a rucksack instead and walk from one side of the Alps to the other.

APPALACHIAN TRAIL, EASTERN USA

Conceived in the early 1920s as a way to connect city dwellers to the farms and pastoral wonder of Appalachia, the A.T. is a great way to explore the eastern United States. At 2,200 miles from Maine to Georgia, you can climb peaks, run through valleys and chill in some ancient forests. The Appalachian Trail even has it’s own vernacular (and a podcast network to distribute said vernacular). If you plan to hike the whole trail in one go (45-70 days) you’ll be called a “thru-hiker.” Most people don’t have that many days to hike, so they take it in pieces and are called “section-hikers.” The trail is well-stocked and fortified. There are plenty of trail towns to crash after a long day on the path. About 2,700 people a year make the full “thru-hike” one way or another. So, expect to meet some people and make some friends on the trail and over a crackling campfire. Even if you climb Clingmans Dome (6,643 feet above sea level, and the trail’s highest point), you aren’t going to need too much gear for the trek. It’s all low intensity hiking. Just be prepared for some weather, and plan wisely with your food and waste.


PACIFIC CREST TRAIL, WESTERN USA (Mexico and Canada)

I probably shouldn’t have two treks in the United States here. I don’t care. The Pacific Crest Trail is a brilliant hike that takes you from deserts to high alpine to deep foggy valleys and everything in between. The trail stretches 2,659 miles. It’s highest point is the Forester Pass in California, at 13,153 feet above sea level. So expect to bring a little more gear than you would on the Appalachian. That is a serious climb on a well-worn path. Generally people take 100-ish days to walk the whole thing, which is still going at a good pace. Some of the towns are further apart, so you have to plan a little more thoughtfully concerning food and supplies. What makes the trail worth every step is combining the Ansel Adams Wilderness, the John Muir Wilderness, Sequoia National Park, and then the string of volcanoes that make up the Cascade Mountain Range. Each are worth your time in their own right. Combined they make for a once-in-a-lifetime and life-affirming trek.

TORRES DEL PAINE, CHILE

Further down that string of volcanoes on the ring of fire you’re going to find yourself in Chilean Patagonia. Torres del Paine, literally the Towers of Pain, are a cluster of peaks jutting into the sky like the teeth of a gnarly crocodile. The cluster has yet to be properly surveyed. That means there are unexplored corners of this magical land. The peaks are for extremely experienced mountaineers only, and even then not recommended. However, there are loads of great trails and hikes around the mountains that offer an amazing array of treks. If you have four days, you can walk the “W” circuit. This will take you around the towers and by Lago Pehoe and Valle del Francés for the most picturesque views. There are “refugios” for camping all around the park. Generally, you don’t need that highly advanced gear. Just good all weather hiking clothes. Oh, and a great camera with some nice glass to bring back amazing photos.


TONGARIRO ALPINE CROSSING, NEW ZEALAND

It seems like we enjoy walking around volcanoes a lot. The Tongariro Alpine Crossing is a long day hike around hot springs and a couple volcanoes, which are sometimes active. The treks are 10-15 miles one way and offer very little in the up and down. This area is a pretty heavily visited tourist area. But that shouldn’t stop you. It’s amazingly beautiful. The lakes shine like deep emeralds as they seemingly hang between conical mounds raising from the ashy crust of the earth. There’s something otherworldly about the whole place. If you set out early enough, you can avoid the day tourists. You’ll have the place to yourself and you can watch the stars fade into blue as the sun breaks the horizon. You don’t need any special gear. Just bring a good camera and patience.

MOUNT BROMO, INDONESIA


Back in Asia we find more volcanoes to climb. Mount Bromo has erupted a lot recently: 2004, 2010, 2011, 2015. So please check with the Indonesian Center for Volcanology before you make plans. If all is well, then trekking to these volcanoes is a fantastic experience. Leaving misty, verdant hills of Cemoro Lawang in East Java, you only have to walk about 45 minutes to reach Bromo (Javanese for Brahma the Hindu creator god). Once you reach the volcanic area, the earth turns to a dark sea of sand below your feet. Rippled cones sit like ancient pyramids on a black and ruddy plain. The life of the jungle fades away completely. Take another hour walk to Mount Penanjakan for a panoramic view of the where new earth spews into life. Java is a magical place and these are magical hikes. Take them.

Zachary Johnston is a director, writer, traveler, and part-time chef and mixologist. You can see for yourself on Instagram @ztp_johnston, or on Twitter@ZTPJohnston.

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