Skip to main content

Preparation and YWCA Training Prove Crucial on High-Altitude Adventure

By Cotty Lowry, Adventurer and YWCA Endurance Sports Client
February 28, 2014
Social Share

The Annapurna Circuit, a 125-mile trek around the Annapurna massif (Annapurna I, II, III, IV and South) in Nepal is considered one of the world’s great hikes. The 17-day trip starts near Kathmandu and ends near Pokhara. Beginning in subtropical rice paddies and mountainsides of rhododendrons at 3,600 feet above sea level to a high desert of subzero ice and snow over 17,800-foot Thorong La Pass, then back down along the Kali Ghandaki River, we trekked through one of the deepest valleys on earth. This valley is formed by Annapurna I, tenth-highest mountain on Earth at 26,545 feet and Dhaulagiri, the seventh-highest mountain at 26,795 feet. You really realize how small your really are, and you experience a world that really must be seen to be believed.

I started making long hikes (at 60 years old) in Switzerland in 2008 with the Haute Route — 113 miles from Chamonix to Zermatt; in 2010, The Tour du Mont Blanc, 110 miles around the highest mountain in Europe; and a similar two-week hike in 2012 of the Jungfrau Region, under the north face of the Eiger, Monch and Jungfrau, and then the Lauterbrunnen Valley. All of these Swiss hikes have about 33,000 total vertical feet of ascent and descent, but they never go over 10,000 feet above sea level. A lot of up and down.

While on the Tour Du Mont Blanc, I accidentally and luckily met and hiked with the famous guide book writer, Kev Reynolds — a writer of 35 guide books and the writer of the all of the books I had used for my previous European treks! I stayed in touch with Kev and he recommended the Annapurna Circuit in Nepal as my next challenge.

So what were the challenges?

Think about this: you have flown for 20 hours, 12,000 miles, halfway around the world from Minnesota. The time zone is 11 hours and 45 minutes ahead (even the time zones don’t make sense), You arrive in a tiny third-world country with some of the most extreme geography and weather conditions on earth, limited medical facilities and known political instability. You will be at altitudes where helicopters don’t do well. They have 124 political parties and a monarch who lost the last of his power in the voting that occurred while I was there in November. The State Department’s advice: don’t go near large crowds.

This is also one of the most beautiful and ecologically diverse places on the globe. The people show kindness beyond imagination. The region is filled with culture and history, and the Buddhism and Hindu religions happily coexisting is a lesson I wish we could all learn. I’ve been all over the world and this may be the most beautiful and most interesting place of all.

So, after signing up for the trip and spending a bunch of money on airfare, I had this constant fear, as if there was a freight train coming down the tracks at me, and the arrival at the station was October 18, 2013. Facing this chaos, I knew one of the things I could control was my physical condition. After hearing about YWCA Endurance Sports from Nicole Cueno and investigating the program, I committed to work with one of the YWCA’s endurance trainers. I started working with Kym Zest about three months before my departure date. Kym listened carefully to my needs, calibrated my age and present condition, then created a specialized plan of attack for me. I knew I was in good hands because she had done this successfully for another hiker who went to Nepal in April.

We started off slowly. One of Kym’s workouts was called “prehab.” To quote her, “a fairly easy 20-minute workout so you can avoid rehab later.” It worked. As time progressed, the workouts became harder and longer but, interestingly, my nagging aches and pains started to go away. Fat went away too! I had been worried about knee pain, but getting into shape resulted in no pain on the trip.

That’s not to say training or the trip was easy. I can tell you that after walking several miles, doing 100 squats, elevating 12 pounds over my head while climbing stairs, the burpee — my favorite exercise — is easy. But I knew it was either pain now or pain later, and I’d miss the trip if I were in pain later. I had never been above 12,000 feet before, and knew I had to go a mile higher. At that elevation every trudging step requires a deep gasp of ultra-cold air.

There were two really hard days on the trek. The crossing on day 8 of 17,800-foot-elevation Throrong La Pass, which requires a 3000-foot ascent followed by a 5,000-foot descent in about ten hours. It’s funny, when you get back to about 13,000 feet, the air you breathe starts to feel real thick. The other really hard day was seeing the world-famous sunrise at Poon Hill, then descending to Muktinath — a killer 7,100-foot drop on rock trails and steps.

I simply could not have done this, let alone enjoy the trek the way I did, had I not been correctly prepared for this kind of abuse. The YWCA’s endurance training allowed me to truly enjoy the trip, the scenery, my new French and British hiking mates and our Nepali guides. This was one of the best experiences of my life, and got the most out of it by being in great physical shape.

My next big goal comes from a conversation I was having with Philippe, my French buddy and fellow trekker, as we passed above the 15,500-foot level on day 8. In his wonderful language, he said “Cotty, you know, we are now above the Mont Blanc,” and I thought yes, and we have another 2,300 feet to climb. That’s when I realized that after walking around it, I could and would summit the Mont Blanc. I would need to learn a bit about ice axes, crampons and glaciers, and so I will in the next few months.

Here’s my advice: aim very high, well beyond your comfort level, so you feel there is a big old locomotive steaming right at you. Overprepare by getting the best equipment, advice and training available. Invest the time and money necessary for the preparation, go through the pain in advance, and you will accomplish more than you believe possible and have memories that will last forever.

Ready for your own adventure? Prepare with the help of the YWCA of Minneapolis Endurance Sports Coaching Packages and Training Plans.