So which style of trekking is best for you?
Solo trekking and trekking in a group are vastly different, and whichever road you choose to venture down, you are definitely going to have a completely different experience.
There is no definitive blueprint, people have their own views on this topic, although we have all read the warning signs at the entrance to the national park or in information literature, ‘Never walk alone.’
Both styles of hiking have their pros and cons and the decision you make requires careful consideration, much of which will be based on your own level of experience, confidence and your own personal preference.
Working as a high altitude guide for the past decade, I have seen it all and want to share with you a few first hand experiences I've had to deal with when things don’t go exactly to plan during both solo and group expeditions.
These personal anecdotes give you some actual and easy to relate to scenarios and the point is simply to show you how serious making the wrong choice, being complacent or taking bad advice can be.
Is solo trekking safe?
As a guide, I am regularly asked whether I think people should take on multi-day adventures alone or with a friend or two or join up with a group.
The first things that always comes to mind is, "Where are you planning to go? and "What have you done before?"
For me, doing the Overland Track in Tasmania is completely different to walking the Larapinta Trail in the Northern Territory, from end to end. They both require a good level of fitness, the ability to carry heavy loads, but the terrain, environment and overall commitment are vastly different.
To take it one step further, neither of these walks compare with attempting a trek in an altitude environment, a place where people can experience problems.
The point is, there are so many different locations, environments and opportunities, and each setting may need a different set of skills, so you just need to be realistic in your decision making, as to which option is best for you.
In saying that, I still think both styles have their place, and I am not partial to one or the other. Personally, I think it is smart to share the journey with at least one companion, just in case an incident arises.
I know some people will agree with me, whilst others will not, which is the reason we have these debates, right? I also know there are many experienced adventurers out there who can comfortably navigate most forms of trekking, but simply enjoy the company of others.
For the purest though, the person who wants to experience the freedom of the hills, the solitude or have a true unfettered connection with nature, there will always be that alluring attraction to going it alone.
People will argue until the cows come home about this; many stating that it's foolish to venture out alone whilst others will say that travelling in a group is no guarantee either and incidents can still happen.
Whichever way you decide to go, just make sure you are qualified and have a solid skill-set built over time to match and complement your desired ambitions.
Walking for an hour in the bush close to your home with a day pack and litre of water is a completely different beast to setting off for weeks on end, travelling through remote areas where you may not see another person for days.
You will need to be comfortable in this arena with the skills to support yourself, have a high level of fitness, carry your own food, water, equipment, shelter, safety equipment and be able to cook.
If you are not on a well defined trail, it is important that you are not reliant solely on technology i.e GPS or a mobile phone, whilst being able to use a compass and read a map.
You should also have emergency communications, either an EPIRB or satellite phone and have a contingency plan in place if you need to evacuate or contact help.
And don't forget to tell someone where you are going, give them a plan of your trip and check in every few days.
Obviously common sense plays a big part, leaving ego out of the equation and having the experience and skills to complete your journey safely.
There are many benefits to going it alone, taking on an adventure unsupported or with minimal help. Apart from being extremely rewarding, you also get the chance along the way to discover things you never knew about yourself matched with a real sense of accomplishment.
You will not be tied down to any set schedule, you don't have to wait for anyone, you go at your own pace and stop whenever you like.
Probably the most important thing you need to remember when you head out alone is that you are it. The buck stops with you and your safety and survival is your responsibility alone.
Oh, and one other thing. You better enjoy your own company.
A Frenchman in trouble in the Himalayas
In the good old days, pre Covid-19, I was guiding a magnificent group of trekkers into Everest Base Camp. They were a super fit group, with most of them involved in the fitness industry.
One of the guys, Harry, who was extremely capable in the outdoors, often ventured off, never far, or anywhere I felt uncomfortable and always let me know.
Anyhow, there was this particular day, after we had spent a couple of nights in our private camp up near Base Camp, that we stopped for lunch at a small teahouse in a place called Dhugla, which sits at around 4600m.
After the spicy noodles, we set off down the valley for the village of Pheriche, our destination for the night. There is a glacial river that runs just below Dughla, and due to a landslide, a bit of re-routing was needed.
I took the group safely on a twisting course through the boulders and across a makeshift bridge whilst Harry had spotted a short cut and asked if he could go that way. He loved exploring alone and after all, this was his holiday and he was more than capable.
As Harry was crossing the river, he came across a young French guy who was slumped in a rocky alcove, hidden from the main trail. He was completely disoriented, delusional and oblivious to where he was.
Harry took his pack and helped him up to the main trail, where I met them. I could see that the guy was in a bad way, his breathing was shallow, he was unsteady on his feet and he needed help. He was shaking and had minimal warm clothes so I dressed him with a spare down jacket I was carrying in case of emergency. He also had no food and only a mouthful of water.
I spoke to and examined him and found out that although he was clearly very fit, he had no experience at altitude, he was trekking alone, underprepared and had ascended to Everest Base Camp way too fast without any thought or plan to acclimatise first.
Even though he was descending, the damage had been done on the race to reach the flags.
I assessed that he was suffering from high altitude sickness, most likely Pulmonary Edema (HAPE) or fluid on the lungs due to his shortness of breath, lethargy, headache and dry cough but was also exhibiting symptoms of Cerebral Edema or fluid on the brain, due to confusion, altered mental state, dizziness with nausea and poor vision.
Pheriche was only a relatively short walk, but luckily home to the Himalayan Rescue Association (HRA) medical clinic, staffed by amazing volunteer doctors, usually from overseas.
The weather was bad, with thick fog, so I decided that immediate descent was the best course of action. I managed to slowly guide him down the valley, keeping him warm, hydrated and fed before arriving at the clinic a couple of hours later, where the doctors took over, stabilising him and arranging a helicopter to Kathmandu the following morning.
He was diagnosed as suffering from HAPE and would most likely have died had Harry not found him between the rocks.
Why trek in a group?
As I have mentioned, travelling in a group is a personal preference but it can also depend on your confidence and ability. I think it is a great way to travel, but I know it is not for everyone.
For many adventurers, they just love the journey, exploring the outdoors but prefer sharing it with friends or meeting new people.
Others enjoy knowing that there is someone or even a team of experts there to steer the ship, and help them out if they have any concerns or issues.
For many, it is a great opportunity to learn and pick up new tips, tricks and ideas, all the while building on their own personal skills.
Then there are those that have hectic lives and just want all the components of the trek organised, to have all their questions answered, and be fully prepared without having to plan the details themselves.
This style of adventurer just needs to know a date, book a flight, pack their gear and join the group.
For me personally, I have made so many life-long friends with people who I barely knew before the trip. A lot of these people just wanted to try something different, so they did some research, found a destination or challenge that interested them, and a guiding company with a great reputation who they could trust and signed up.
The fact that you get to spend so much time with people, sometimes more than you would with your own family back home, without the usual distractions or luxuries, and your main stimulus is either your surroundings or the company of others, you discover a lot about people.
You also have plenty of opportunities to spread out and take some time out for yourself.
Most of the time, I find people are reasonably likeminded when they join a group trek, and they tend to get along pretty well and build strong bonds.
Of course, that is not always the case, and I have seen personality clashes where people just don't get on.
I remember one of the first trips I joined as a client in a group, climbing an introductory peak in the Himalayas, there was one person who was just a little different to the others, had a few idiosyncrasies that raised eyebrows, and quite a few people took out their own frustrations on this individual.
Looking back, it was pretty cruel. Whatever I thought of this person, and even if their actions were frustrating, it was easier just to ignore it and get on with the reason I was there, which was to climb.
That was a good learning curve for me though, because as a guide, I have had occasions where people don't get on, or even friends have a falling out or guests have minor disagreements, which can happen simply because people are feeling a little stressed or outside of their comfort zone.
Luckily, I understand group dynamics very well, and often step in to resolve issues, which are usually quite trivial, or simply calm the issue down.
To be honest, you have so much time and space, that if you do not enjoy the company of someone, you can still have your space and free-time without having to make it personal.
I suppose, like in any situation, there is always a downside for some.
Group travel, may in some people's eyes reduce the freedom or opportunities you have when traveling alone.
In a group, you are more likely to be bound by departure times, stopping as a group to eat or rest; side excursions may not always be possible and you don't have the choice on where to stay.
Decisions may also be made outside of your control and you will be required to follow those.
You may not be able to move as fast as you like, particularly at altitude, and this can become frustrating for highly motivated or competitive individuals.
I think, as a guide, it is important to find a sweet spot, and not put pressure on people. If someone wants to walk slow, I let them, and depending which part of the world we are in, it is normally quite simple for me to allocate one of my guides to take care of them.
For me, most of my guests keep coming back, which is great, and some are already onto their 5th and 6th trip. Some of the guys are happy to trek, with no interest in climbing, and just soak up and enjoy their time under the stars.
Others have a clear goal, and are preparing for high altitude climbing with some already entering the arena of 8000m mountains.
It's a great feeling, when I am preparing to head out on a trek or climb, to know that there will normally be some people I have travelled with before plus the chance to get to know new people. Although it can sometimes feel like I am heading out with a bunch of mates, I know I still need to stay professional and focussed, as I have a job to do.
When Kilimanjaro doesn't go to plan?
A few years ago I was guiding a group of 10 adventurers on Kilimanjaro.
There is always a friendly discussion as to whether Kilimanjaro is a climb or a trek.
I think it is both. It is a high altitude trek at 5895m, which requires no technical skills as there is no rope or crampons required, but you are still required to ascend to a considerable altitude.
Anyhow, the route I am referring to here is the Rongai route, which is one I prefer, as it along with the Lemosho route give adventurers more time to acclimatise, and it's less crowded.
Anyhow, our group set off first for our summit push at around midnight, with over 1000m of vertical ascent ahead of us.
Myself and Bosco, one of my senior guides were out front, setting an easy pace, and Kasim, my head guide was at the rear, chanting his inspirational quotes, 'No pain, no gain, You can do it."
There were 3 other experienced guides spread through the group, providing close care for each team member.
It was not long into the climb that quite a large group, with around 8 clients, passed us at a pretty fast pace. I was surprised as I knew the company they were with and their reputation, which I thought was pretty good.
Our group stopped for a quick break after an hour, and I advised my guys that our current pace would not change all the way to the summit, for which they were very happy with.
I also mentioned that the team who rushed passed us were moving too quick, adding there would likely be a number of their group turning around and heading back down and not to be alarmed or disheartened.
I had no way of knowing exactly. Had they previously acclimatised on another mountain, then they would be fine, but otherwise, I could sense trouble on the horizon.
Sure enough, I saw 1 client coming down under her own steam but couldn't see a guide. Then not long after, I saw a lone guide walking down and about 20 metres behind him, was a solo female trekker, who was clearly nauseous.
I spoke to her and asked if she needed help and could hear that she was crying and seemed unsteady on her feet. She told me she felt sick, so I held her up whilst she vomited to the side of the path. I looked for the guide and he was still walking ahead so I called him back and told him to look after his client.
We continued up towards Gilman's Point, our first major goal, which was still a few hours away. It was still dark by this stage and I could see a group of head-torches coming towards us. I saw that there were 3 guides holding up what appeared to be an elderly gentleman. I could see that he was on supplemental oxygen and looked in a really bad way, barely able to stand.
I checked the regulator and saw that it was on the lowest oxygen flow rate, so I instantly turned it up to 4 litres per minute. It was like a shot of adrenaline, and he managed to lift his head, which had been slumped. Although he was not functioning normally, he did manage to say 'thanks' and I could tell from his accent that he was an Aussie.
So off we set again and at 9.37am, the entire team were having their photo taken in front of the iconic Mount Kilimanjaro sign, announcing they had reached the summit of Uhuru Peak, Africa's highest point.
I didn't think too much more of what had happened during our summit bid until a few days later when we were arriving back at the Marangu gate, signifying the end of our climb.
As I crossed the unofficial finish line at the small hut, I saw a man sitting there, waiting for his team to come in. He was wearing clean clothes, and recognised me, but I was not sure who he was.
He told me he was the guy who was coming down on oxygen, and he remembered me turning up his oxygen. He thanked me again and said that it made all the difference, and he was able to get down safely.
He then gave me a hug.
Our group had a few celebratory beers in the hut, at which time a young woman, with a European accent came up and thanked me for helping her up on the mountain when she was feeling sick.
Another hug followed.
At the end of the day, the choice is yours
Whichever style you choose to enjoy your adventure, just make the best and safest decision for yourself.
You are the best judge of what you are capable of.
The key is to get outside and enjoy the incredible landscapes our world has on offer.
The benefits are endless, and after all the craziness and uncertainty that has been happening in our world, there has never been a better or more important time to dust off the boots and take some time out to reboot and breathe in the fresh air.