As the GHT is an extensive network of trails there is a route to suit anyone. The idea behind the trail network is to encourage people to develop their own itineraries to suit the sort of experience they are seeking. So for example, the Tamang Heritage Trail between Langtang and the Ganesh Himal is an excellent short, easy trek among colourful Tamang villages and a magnificent panoramic viewpoint at 3700m – it’s ideal for those who want a genuine interaction with mountain communities and some great views. At the other extreme are the Makalu High Passes route where the views of Mt Makalu and the Everest region are sensational, however this trail requires mountaineering skills at high altitude (over 20,000 feet) and requires a very high level of fitness.
The best way to prepare for a trek is to trek, so the longer and more sustained your exercise program before you depart the better. Of course, few people have the time to dedicate to long training periods but it is important to try and get some cardio-exercise every day and then a longer session or two on the weekends. The fitter you are before you start the faster your body will adjust to daily walking and altitude. However, the effects of altitude are very complex and fitness level is not the only factor to consider when acclimatizing. The only way your body can cope with a change in altitude is to acclimatize slowly and let your body adjust naturally. That means being patient, remaining hydrated, not pushing yourself too hard and always being aware of your physical condition (and others if in a group). There are a number of drugs available through your GP that can assist in the acclimatizing process, so it’s worth consulting your doctor about all the health implications of traveling in Nepal before a trip.
I have many favourite bits of gear and clothing that I would sorely miss in the hills! I have a sleeping bag that will keep me warm even if a wild storm was to blow in (Mountain Hardwear Phantom 0). Most people purchase a sleeping bag that is barely warm enough for the hills, normally because they want to save money and they are poorly informed. As you are spending one third of your trek in the bag make sure it’s toasty (rate to at least -5ºC for treks below 4000m, -10 ºC for treks to 5000m). As well as the bag make sure you have a comfy sleeping mat as the ground is often rocky and cold (I love the Exped Down Mat 7). I am a massive fan of trekking poles and have used them on every trek for the last 15 years. If you want to be trekking in your dotage, use them now. I prefer the carbon-fibre shaft models (Black Diamond Alpine Carbon Cork) with flick locks as they perform better in very cold conditions. I also have a bunch of gadgets that really make life more convenient and fun, like a decent headtorch (Black Diamond Spot), a Power Monkey eXplorer solar recharger, Kindle 3 ibook and the indispensable iPod for relaxing in camp after a day on the trail.
Costs really depend on which route you take, how comfy you want to be and what sort of support you require. For example, a young Nepali guy just walk almost all of Nepal for less than $2000 as he was able to rely heavily on local hospitality and he didn't cross the high passes. At the other end of the spectrum is the World Expeditions Nepal Traverse - a 150-day trek for $35,000, which crosses all the high passes.
Yes, it could be possible to do the Nepal GHT in one continuous push. If you are considering starting in October then you’d require a serious rest break from mid-February to mid-March while the winter storms close the high passes. Alternatively you could start in Fevruary and end in July but that potentially means trekking in the monsoon. Either route would be physically and logistically tough and expensive depending on how many were trekking, but it is possible. A sample itinerary would be: From Kanchenjunga (2 weeks to start) head over to Makalu (2 weeks), over the high passes and through the Everest region (10 days), through the Rolwaling and Langtang (3 weeks), around the southern flanks of the Ganesh Himal (1 week) and then around the Manalsu and Annapurna Circuits to Jomsom (3 weeks). From Jomsom head thru Upper Dolpo via Chharka Bhot to Pho (2 weeks) then to Gamgadhi (2 weeks) and up to Simikot and to the border behind Api and Saipal (2 weeks). So that’s about 130 days plus rest and bad weather stops, which always seem to happen in the mountains. A big issue would be cost; you'd need food dumps along the route as most of the villages are subsistence-based and you would have to have some porters or pack animals to carry supplies.
You can walk either way. Robin generally chooses east to west because the sun is on his back (good for route finding and solar recharging). The passes are much the same east to west or reverse, and depending on the time of year you start you might find west to east gives better weather.
The national dish in the mountains of Nepal and India is dhal bhat, a rice and lentil combination, which is common throughout the Himalaya. In Tibet you will more likely find thukpa, a noodle and vegetable soup. In Bhutan it’s ema datchi (boiled cheese and chili). If you have a full kitchen crew then it’s possible to carry other foodstuffs around with you, and for longer treks dehydrated meals are ideal.
Many of the places you pass through on the GHT are subsistence based, so it is necessary for you to carry all of what you need to complete your trek. Sometimes you can purchase a chicken or goat but you must be prepared to slaughter and prepare it within your group.
Your fitness level may not help you avoid the effects of altitude it can have a direct bearing on how well your body copes with the continuous physical exercise of trekking. The fitter you are, the faster and more easily you will become ‘trail fit’ and the more likely that you will enjoy every day in the mountains. Ideally you should concentrate on cardiovascular fitness, build stamina and undertake a bit of strength training to add muscle tone.
As the GHT follows local village to village trails for much of it's length there are plenty of local lodges and shelters along the way. Most villages throughout the Himalaya offer some form of shelter to the passing traveller, but don't expect much and it is essential that you can speak the local dialect - remember there are over 20 ethinic groups along the trail in Nepal alone! The main areas that offer some form of accommodation in Nepal are:
Kanchenjunga - from Suketar/Taplejung to Pangpema (the last few days are in herders huts)
Makalu - from Tumlingtar to Tashigaon, then check if the tea-shops are open to Base Camp
Everest - extensive tea-houses throughout the region
Rolwaling - the Eco-Himal lodges in the lower valleys and basic tea-houses as far as Na
Langtang - tea-houses throughout Helambu and the Langtang valley as far as Kyangjin Gompa
Ganesh Himal - Tamang Heritage Trail has basic tea-houses and there are some simple lodges in the Tipling valley
Mansalu - tea-shouses to Samdo, there is a simple lodge being built beside the emergency shelter before the Larkye La which should be open in 2010
Annapurna - extensive tea-houses throughout the region
Mustang- simple tea-houses to Lo Monthang
Dolpo - tea-houses from Juphal to Ringmo and in larger villages in Upper Dolpo
If you trek during the yarsagumbha colection season (April/May) you will find thousands of Nepali people in the hills using simple shelters and nomadic traders who sell staple foodstuffs to them. It is always recommended that you carry your own emergency shelter, at least 5 days of food and a satellite phone and/or emergency beacon.
You certainly have to use a trekking agency in all Himalaya countries to process trekking permits. In Bhutan you have to use a local company for all of your logistics and field crew, there isn’t much that you can do to change or customize itineraries. In India, Nepal and Pakistan it depends on where you are going, your language skills and field-craft, and the level of risk associated with your route. We enjoy long treks in wilderness areas that inevitably requires some sort of support crew: a guide/translator, a climbing Sherpa to carry ropes, etc, and a cook to carry essential food. If we are going to be away from villages for a few days then we'll also take a local porter or two to carry food supplies and lighten all loads. In the main trekking areas you only really need a guide for communication. In many remote areas there is a minimum group size of two 'tourist' trekkers, thus preventing truly independent trekking. But then it is always safer to trek with at least one other for both altitude and security reasons.
A great idea is to try and team up with nomads through the remoter sections, Sorrel Wilby did a similar thing when she traversed Tibet. At the moment this method is frowned on by authorities for travellers to Nepal, but it would certainly be an option for resident Nepali to explore their country.