Who is an Ideal Team Player on a Trek? – Lessons from Kyrgyzstan

Have you observed that all Indiahikes t-shirts say “High Altitude Trek Team” and not High Altitude Trekker? Not many people know this, but there’s a strong reason behind it.

We have always looked at high altitude trekking as a team sport, not an individual sport. It’s the “team” that treks together to the summit. They camp together, cook together, face their highest moments and lowest moments together. This has always been our ideology.

But I’ve always wondered What makes an ideal team player on a trek? Am I one?

The thought came to me while hearing some anecdotes from our recent trek exploration in Kyrgyzstan (Yes, we just explored a brilliant trek in Kyrgyzstan, which I’ll tell you about next week.)

The exploration team consisted of our founders, Arjun and Sandhya, the head of our L&D Team, Lakshmi, our founder’s daughter, Mini, and Gerrit Onstein, our overseas expert on Experiential Learning from The Netherlands. Five seasoned trekkers. They trekked across the Ala Kul mountain pass in the Karakol region of Kyrgyzstan. 

While they regaled us with their stories, I quietly made notes of what an ideal team player would look like on a trek. 

Trekking in Kyrgyzstan was very different from what we expected. It was a lot greener, much more forested as compared to the barrenness we expected. For all of us at Indiahikes, it was a wonderful learning experience.

1. An ideal team player is resilient

“During the first two days of the trek, we noticed that Gerrit had a slight bump on the top part of his foot,” Arjun recalls. “It’s an abnormality he has developed recently. Plus he is around 6 ft 4 inches tall. He rarely gets shoes his size. Nevertheless, he wore his ill-fitting trekking shoes and started the trek. 

“It was the day of the pass-crossing. The climb was a stiff one, at an almost 60-degree inclination. We were trekking on the slippery moraine. With every step we took, we slipped a few inches. This went on for an hour until we hit the pass.

“The view from the pass of the Ala Kul (lake) made us temporarily forget the difficulty of the climb. But it didn’t stop there. We had to trek for two more days, with long hours of trekking, on tough terrain, with a steep descent over rocky scree. A river crossing came in too, on the penultimate day,” says Arjun. 

Gerrit on the pass, overlooking Ala Kul lake. Photo by Arjun Majumdar

“We were back at the hostel in Karakol when Gerrit took off his socks and shoes. We were shocked to see that his entire foot was gnashed! His wounds were pulsating raw and bloody.

“His foot had been grazing the insides of his shoes throughout the trek. What surprised us was that he did not once mention this to us. He had quietly climbed the pass, gotten on the other side, and nursed his injuries after we were back at our base,” says Arjun. “He wouldn’t have mentioned these to us if I had not spotted his injuries accidentally!”

When I think about Gerrit Onstein, a fun-loving, Gandalf-like 60+ year-old with over 30 years of experience in the outdoors, I can’t help but feel a strong sense of admiration. Anyone in his place would have likely raised a hue and cry about a crushingly painful foot. But he went on without a sound, withstanding one of the most painful experiences for a trekker.

To me, his resilience was a huge takeaway. There have been times on treks when I have been riddled with muscle cramps, fatigue, or bruises from small slips and falls. (I’m sure you have too.) The question is, how many times have I been able to overcome small issues on my own without bothering my team about it? 

Resilience is not something anyone is born with. It takes time, hardship, and experience to build. In fact, trekking is one of the best ways to build resilience. 

But many people confuse resilience for a sense of “I’ve got to do what I’ve got to do.” The question is, are you doing it with grace? Are you trekking with a sense of “It is ok, it is part of life,” or are you grimacing on the trek? The answer to this will tell you whether you’re an ideal team player or not. 

Lakshmi making her way up the challenging moraine towards the Ala Kul Pass. Picture by Arjun Majumdar

2. An ideal team player is an active contributor at all times 

“One of the people I loved trekking with this time was Lakshmi. Even though we meet each other at work every day, seeing a person on a trek for 5 days is completely different. And seeing the way Lakshmi went about her trek surprised me,” says Sandhya. 

A story that stuck with me was when the explorers narrated the story of Day 2 of the trek. “Day 2 was a particularly long one,” says Lakshmi. “We were trekking to the base of the pass, and I was mentally exhausted. Like every Trek Leader, Arjun had said “Bas, another 750 meters more,” and it took us more than an hour to reach the next camp,” recalls Lakshmi, scowling at Arjun. 

“In my defense, my map had the camp marked at an earlier spot, wherein it was much later,” laughs Arjun. 

Vast grasslands to be traversed on Day 2, beyond the last mountains you see.

But what Arjun said after this was my biggest takeaway. “I noticed that Lakshmi was exhausted that day. She was visibly tired, and nearly irritable. 

“What surprised me was that as soon as we reached the camp, despite her tiredness, she was the first to start pitching camp, fish out the dehydrated food, light the stove, and start cooking,” recollects Arjun. 

“She did this throughout the trek. Right from the word go, Lakshmi was on her feet, taking charge of everything she could.”

“When we travelled in and around Bishkek, the capital of Kyrgyzstan, she took charge of maintaining accounts of our travels. She did it immediately with every minor transaction. On another note, she ensured that she tended to 12-year-old Mini, being a role model as a didi. I realised I was watching an ideal team player at work,” says Arjun. 

Mini, Lakshmi and a local guide in the meadows of the Ala Kul trail in Kyrgyzstan. Picture by Arjun Majumdar

This got me thinking. How often have I been an active contributor to my trek team, taking charge and contributing on my own? Have I gone out of my way to help fellow trekkers? Do people have to tell me what to do or do I voluntarily step up?

You’ll notice that most trekkers come back with a deep sense of admiration for their Trek Leaders. It’s for this very reason. Trek Leaders tend to be active contributors. They go out of their way to care for trekkers. It could be lending a helping hand, offering to carry the backpack of a fatigued trekker. Many times, they even stay up all night to keep an eye on a mildly sick trekker. 

This is a hard-hitting lesson I learned from Lakshmi, to be an active contributor at all times. Not everyone can. All of us want to rest, have our own “me time” on treks. Yet, only a few can be contributors like Lakshmi. Yet, they are the ideal team players. 

Lakshmi and Sandhya cooking outdoors, improvising to keep the wind out, with the Ala Kul Lake forming the backdrop

3. An ideal team player on a trek accepts and welcomes any circumstances

You know, one thing that bothers me these days is when trekkers start making demands. Some want continuous hot water at remote high-altitude camps. Some of them want single-occupancy tents. Some of them want someone else to wash their cutlery. Sometimes, I wonder if they realise the significance of what they’re asking. 

On the other hand, when I heard about how Mini trekked, it really soothed my soul. Mini is Arjun’s 12-year-old daughter. I have watched her grow over the past six years. She is like my niece. Having been a trekker from the age of 6, she has always learned the right spirit of trekking. She is one of the most adjusting and demand-free kids I’ve known. 

But this was the first time Mini was going on a trek that would demand a lot out of her. “She has never walked on such alpine terrain before. I was worried about that. The moraine section leading to the pass was grueling. It was something that tested everyone’s endurance, including seasoned trekkers like Sandhya and me. But Mini didn’t say a single word. She just went about putting one foot in front of the other,” says Arjun.

Mini on the moraines while descending from the Ala Kul pass. Photo by Arjun Majumdar

“Even after crossing the pass, the descent on the loose scree was draining. It was rocky, steep, and continued for 4,000 feet. And after the whole descent, we had to cross the river. While the water was thigh-deep for most of us, it was waist-deep for Mini. She just crossed the river, because it had to be done. There wasn’t any fear or apprehension,” says Arjun. 

“Even when we had to use the pre-constructed camp toilets at two campsites — they were pretty horrid — Mini didn’t say a word. She managed with what she got at every point in time,” adds Lakshmi. 

“That’s what you want from a team player. Someone who adjusts with what you have and makes the best of it. And for someone as young as 12 to do that is incredible,” she says. 

From a larger perspective, this has always been our outlook at Indiahikes, which our co-founder covers beautifully in her TEDx talk on How She Climbed The Mountain of Entrepreneurship. Listening to her talk will give you an understanding of how we look at work, life, or our treks.

An ideal team player is someone who accepts any circumstances, welcomes them and even enjoys it, just like how 12-year-old Mini did. Not many of us are ideal team players on treks. But we can be one if we just keep these thoughts in mind.

4. An ideal team player on a trek is physically and mentally prepared for the trek

When the explorers were narrating the story of their trek, I realised that all five of them were tight as a pack of wolves on the trek. “There was only a five-minute difference between the first and last person, even on the toughest day of the trek,” recollects Sandhya. That’s how physically fit everyone was uniformly. 

This was apparent on the penultimate day of the trek, when they had to cross the furious Karakol river.

“Before we started the trek, every local guide had told us that the bridge on the river was broken, that crossing the river would be impossible. This meant that we would have to return without completing the trek. 

But having studied maps, and constantly quizzed other trekkers and guides along the way, we realised that not all sections of the river were very turbulent. Upstream, there was one section where the river fanned out, became flatter and calmer. We knew we’d be able to cross this section with knee-deep water,” says Sandhya.

“Even so, we knew that there was a 20% chance of the river being un-crossable. For this, we were well-prepared to trek all the way back, climbing 4000 ft back up. We knew all five of us were physically and mentally prepared for such a situation,” says Arjun.

The Karakol river in a slightly gentler section. Picture by Arjun Majumdar

To me, this is the ultimate sign of a well-prepared team, where every team member puts in time to prepare physically and mentally. They not only study the trek and know where they are going, but are ready for any outcome on the trek, however difficult it looks. “The moment you have unprepared trekkers with you, you know that they are a liability,” says Sandhya. 

The biggest takeaways:

Having heard many of their stories, I can continue to talk about more attributes of being an ideal team player on a trek, but I’ll save it for another day. 

To me, the top 4 learnings are to be resilient, contribute actively to the team, prepare well for the trek and learn to deal with any circumstances that you face. 

If you can do these on your trek, you’ll be an asset to the team. Anyone would want to have you as a team member.

I would like to know your opinion or observation. What do you think makes an ideal team player on a trek? Drop in a comment below and let me know!

Swathi Chatrapathy

Swathi Chatrapathy

Swathi Chatrapathy heads the digital content team at Indiahikes. She is also the face behind India's popular trekking video channel, Trek With Swathi. Unknown to many, Swathi also writes a weekly column at Indiahikes which has more than 100,000 followers. A TEDx speaker and a frequent guest at other events, Swathi is a much sought after resource for her expertise in digital content. Before joining Indiahikes, Swathi worked as a reporter and sub-editor at a daily newspaper. She holds a Masters in Digital Journalism and continues to contribute to publications. Trekking, to her, is a sport that liberates the mind more than anything else. Through trekking, Swathi hopes to bring about a profound impact in a person's mind, body and spirit. Read Swathi's columns. Watch Swathi's videos.