I’m back in Bangalore after two glorious weeks in the country of Georgia.
I was there for our first international trek through World Of Hikes, our sister concern. And I’m thrilled to let you know that it was a grand success! 🙂
We trekked the remote Caucasus mountains, across Atsunta Pass in the lesser-known National Parks of northern Georgia.
However, today, I’m not writing to you about the trekking experience in Georgia. (Of course that was fantastic, but I’ll save that for later).
Instead, I’m sharing an inside story with you, about the interesting lessons that we learn while mounting an international expedition.
We faced challenges right from the time we started planning the trek, and they went on till we reached Georgia, completed the trek and came back.
Most of these have lessons built into them, which is why I thought I’ll write about them.
I’ll take you through this bit by bit. Sit tight and read away! 🙂
The challenge of planning a trek away from home
Where do we start? This was a big question.
At Indiahikes, we already have a certain way of organising treks. If you have trekked with us, you would know of the “Indiahikes experience.” But to make that experience possible, we have dedicated manpower to manage each aspect — cooking, camping, leading, guiding, renting, store managing, transporting. And we have well-established base camps for every trek to manage trek operations.
Also, our entire trek has a certain flow which is much-loved by our trekkers.
But this time, we were not on home turf. This was going to be an away game, and a tough one.
In Georgia, we were dealing with major constraints
First, we could not send as much manpower as we’d like to Georgia. Georgia has tough immigration laws, especially for Indians. As recently as Monday, six travellers, few of whom were Indian, got deported after landing in the capital city. If you are not permanently employed, if you have not traveled to other countries before, if you don’t come from a certain class, you are likely to get rejected. Our mountain cooks, guides and helpers were not likely to make the Georgian grade. This was a major setback. We were handicapped before we even began.
Second, a big weight constraint. We would have to carry all our equipment from India — tents, sleeping bags, foam mats, food, cooking equipment, safety equipment, everything required for 14 people for 5 days — on a flight. We could not source this equipment locally in Georgia. First, there weren’t enough places to buy them. Second, we were not okay with compromising on our brand and quality.
Then a volume constraint. We needed everything to be compact to take on a flight — a big challenge with the nature of equipment we were carrying. Everything would have to be packed tightly enough to transport over flight, bus, car, or on horseback. This meant we would have to redesign our kit bags.
Next came the lack of someone to fall back on. Georgian people are extremely endearing, no doubt about it, but they are hardly our Himalayan mountain staff. While trekking here, we would not have a local trek manager who would say “koi dikkat nahi, ho jaayega,” (no problem, we’ll manage it), to any problem arising on the trek. There was no backup. Yet, we had to be ready for all emergencies.
Fifth, a language constraint. Georgians largely do not speak English. After two weeks there, I found hardly a handful of them who speak just enough English for some basic exchanges. This makes any communication extremely challenging.
We were seriously saddled by these constraints, which is why our pre-trek planning would make or break the trek.
Packing everything in under 90 kilos
This turned into our starting point. Weight was one of our biggest challenges. We sat together and took a hard decision. We would have to change the way we trekked. We put a limit to the weight we would carry — an astoundingly low limit of 90 kg. For a team of 14 trekkers, this sounded outlandish. A team of this size usually treks with over 200 kg of equipment and food.
We would have to innovate and redesign the entire trek from a weight perspective — without compromising the Indiahikes quality.
We went through this step by step.
Shelter was a first. We would be camping three nights. And we were particular about having our own yellow Hillman Tents. Seeing them in Georgia was a dream we didn’t want to let go of. Besides, we knew that the local tents did not match up to the quality of our 4-season tents. So, that was 5 Hillman tents, each weighing approximately 5.5 kg. That amounted to 27.5 kg.
Next came sleeping bags. Our regular Hillman sleeping bags weighed 3 kg and were bulky. We threw a challenge to our partners at Adventure Worx to redesign a sleeping bag that could withstand temperatures of -10, yet, would weigh less than 1.5 kg. They baulked at the thought. This had never been attempted before. But Raju Sir, the founder of Adventure Worx, loves such challenges. He said he would have to rethink the entire sleeping bag, but he would have it ready.
This in itself is a story because of the number of iterations we had over size and weight. But finally, we got more compact sleeping bags that weighed 2 kg, and yet kept us warm in -10 degrees. We needed 14 sleeping bags (12 trekkers + 2 World Of Hikes members). With covers it came to 2.2 kg each. That was another 30 kg added to our 90 kg limit.
With 58 kilos gone, we had to think of the sleeping mats. On our Himalayan treks, we use rubber mats as sleeping mats. Not only do they cushion the tent floor, they keep us warm as well. We wanted the same performance at 20% of the weight. We also had a dual purpose in mind. We wanted our mats to work as cushions to protect our delicate equipment during transport.
This didn’t take us much time to decide. We had experimented with foam mats earlier and found them incredibly versatile — though they were not long lasting. The good thing? They weighed close to nothing. But they came with another problem. They were bulky. We had to find a way to bind them in a small package.
First, we trimmed their size to slightly less than our regular size. Every inch mattered. We fabricated special straps that could hold them tight to a compact roll. At the end, we had 14 rolls of almost weightless sleeping mats.
After shelter and warmth came food — another humongous challenge. Our trekkers love Indiahikes food. We couldn’t compromise here.
We wanted our trekkers to experience Georgian culture and cuisine. Georgians take their food seriously. They have long elaborate meals. You could look up “Georgian supra” to get an idea of their love for a feast. Almost every meal in Georgia is a supra, with endless food, wine and chacha.
How could we give them the best of both worlds — great Georgian and Indian food? We still couldn’t ignore the weight constraint here.
Then more constraints cropped up. This trek to Atsunta Pass is not an easy one. You cover not less than 15 km on all trekking days. Our days were going to be long — we had absolutely no time to prepare elaborate meals, especially without the manpower.
This is where we borrowed an innovation from polar expeditions — dehydrated food. We were worried. The general impression of dehydrated food is that it is full of preservatives, tastes stale, isn’t nutritious enough.
Our Chief of Operations, Manish Pasad knew a young woman Niketa, who had just launched a startup of dehydrated foods, Desimealz. Our demands were high but she was a willing experimenter. It took us a month to sample different foods, but Niketa and her team were ready with the food we wanted. Our fears were also easily put aside. The food was not only delicious, but also retained its nutritional value.
After careful choosing, we had a light, compact menu with 9 meals and believe it or not even dehydrated tea and coffee! The food, including the cooking equipment (minus the stove) came up to around 15 kg.
After food, came our toilet gear. Here, again, our Chief of Operations, Manish Pasad brought in a new kind of toilet tent. A light-weight toilet tent that would spring into position when unbuckled. We threw in a lightweight foldable shovel and an even lighter pickaxe to dig a pit. This amounted to around 5 kg.
Then of course, a basic safety kit. We skipped oxygen cylinders because this was not a heavy duty trek in terms of altitude. We carried all our basic high altitude medicine, our Life Saving Drugs and basic first aid. The medical kit weighed just about a kilo.
Totally, it amounted to around 84 kilos, giving us a buffer of 6 kilos to add miscellaneous items.
Making everything less voluminous
Now we had to pack everything in. For this trek in Georgia, we had several modes of transport ahead of us — flights, cars, buses, carriers on top of vehicles, horsebacks, our own shoulders.
We needed ergonomic kit bags, big enough to fit in around 15-20 kilos of voluminous goods, yet compact enough for a person to carry.
Our operations team was now loving this challenge. They wanted to design new kit bags not only for Georgia, but for our future Indiahikes treks as well. They used Georgia as an excuse to again sit down with the designers at Adventure Worx.
Every zip, every strap, every buckle was reworked. A special fabric was procured. Even the colour scheme and patterns were worked on. And they finally came up with terrific bags. They looked so good and compact! We were going to be proud to even haul them around in airports. Dull kit bags had suddenly come to life!
We managed to fit 90 kilos into 6 bags. We also carried two spare bags in case any of them came apart during transit.
Two people would represent World of Hikes in Georgia
With all the gear in place, it was decided that Sandhya and I would go on the trek. Sandhya, our co-founder, who went on a reconnaissance of the trail in July, would be the Trek Leader. I went as an Assistant Trek Leader, also to document the trek in more detail.
I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t nervous. The task in front of me was enormous. I had more butterflies in my tummy than my wedding day!
With everything in place, Sandhya and I left for Georgia on Sept 3rd.
Managing operations in Georgia
It may look innocuous, but our only major task in Georgia was to procure two gas stoves for the trek. Without gas stoves, the trek would halt. The gas stoves that we wanted were not the butane-filled hiking gas stoves. From our experience, those were okay for one or two member team, definitely not for a 14 member team.
We wanted to buy regular gas cylinders just like in India. We also wanted a compact size. Unfortunately, Georgia mainly uses piped gas. Local people could hardly help. It’s not exactly your everyday buy, so asking people where we’d get “gazkura” did not give us much insight.
Thankfully our founders had trekked in Georgia earlier. Sitting all the way in Bangalore, Arjun suggested we go to Didube, a local market, and look around. Sure enough, we found a hardware store with gas stoves. We bought two 5 L gas stoves.
Our next challenge was to get the gas stoves filled.
It’s uncanny, but by sheer luck, we found a station to fill gas right next to our Airbnb stay. The old man at the station scolded us for being naive and paying too much for the stoves. Sigh.
But with that, we had everything in place. We were all set to start the trek!
Next came the trekkers, who didn’t act like trekkers, but like organisers
On our normal Indiahikes treks, all trekkers have to do is get themselves from Camp A to B.
But Georgia was different. It was an expedition. It was almost a Do It Yourself trek, and we intentionally designed it that way. In a foreign country, that was the way to trek.
And how our trekkers did it themselves! They set up camp, they dug toilet pits, helped cook meals. We split into teams, who would exchange responsibilities everyday. We even cleaned up a campsite, which was badly littered with tins, alcohol bottles. It felt good to clean up another country!
We often talk about what an ideal team must be like, how fit they should be, how participative they should be, and in many aspects, I think this was an ideal trek team! They made the first international trek of World of Hikes a success. A big shout out to each of you! 🙂
Some lessons I draw from this experience
1. Working with constraints is good for bringing about a greater change. With constraints, I think we have it in us to creatively solve problems. We had a 90 kg weight limit. But it brought out a whole lot of innovation in food, equipment and packaging. It changed the trek all together.
2. Preparation is the key to success. I think most of us don’t prepare enough for our tasks. Yet, I noticed first hand how much preparation matters. We started preparing for the trek a month in advance. Every equipment was redesigned. Food was rethought. I would notice Sandhya checking and rechecking our Georgian connections for our food and stay.
3. Thoroughness is crucial. I feel we don’t give importance to being thorough — to get down to the tiniest detail. On the trek, there was an instance where I felt lost. We were in a near white out. Trekkers were around me looking very anxious. I brought out a print out of our trek documentation and immediately figured out the way. The documentation was thorough enough to tell me to look for a shepherds’ hut, and sure enough, we found a hut within 3-4 minutes! That lifted everyone’s spirit immediately! Thoroughness matters.
4. The style of leadership matters. Leadership styles differ from person to person. Here was Sandhya, who in her quiet unassuming manner was directing the whole show. She was hands on with everything. Yet, she never seemed ruffled. I learnt how important it is to be calm, down to earth in every critical moment. The trek threw surprises at us every day! With Sandhya around, these looked like normal work, not surprises at all.
Next trek to Atsunta Pass, Georgia
There are going to be 4 teams to Atsunta Pass next year, in the months of July and August.
I will tell you more about the trek later. But mark my words. If there is one international trek you must do, this must be it. It is a much wider canvas than even our Kashmir treks.
I’ll keep you posted about the dates through my future posts.