On The Couch: Mountaineering and Trekking with Himalaya Expert Gavin Turner

We sat on the couch with our Himalaya Operations Manager and Himalaya Expert Gavin Turner, to find out more about his extensive mountaineering and trekking experience, his travels to the Himalaya and find out what it is that inspires him to climb mountains. 

Gavin has spent much of the last 18 years travelling, studying and working in the Himalaya. He has completed more than 30 treks and climbs throughout the region, where he also has many years experience as a trekking guide and director of study abroad programs for overseas university students.  Highlights have included several visits to Tibet, multiple visits to the classic Everest, Annapurna and Langtang regions of Nepal, and countless rugged journeys through the stunning landscapes of the Indian Himalaya.

Gavin is also an accomplished high altitude mountaineer, and has climbed widely in the great ranges of the world, including reaching the summit of 8201m Cho Oyu, the world’s 6th highest mountain. Gavin will also be hosting our first ever Himalaya Road Show in April and May across capital cities in Australia - find more information including dates and times here.

What inspired you to start climbing and trekking mountains and when was your first climb?

I first went to the Himalaya in 1997 and hiked the Annapurna Circuit. It was still fairly wild and adventurous back then, with a crazy bus journey just to get to the start of the trek. Those three weeks in the Annapurna region started my love affair with the mountains and it was in 1999, when I spent 9 continuous months exploring different regions of the Himalaya, that I climbed three 6000m mountains in a couple of months in Nepal and India.

The stunning Annapurna Region, NepalThe stunning Annapurna Region, Nepal

What has been your most memorable climb or trek to date and why?

It’s hard to pick out just one. I’ve climbed a lot in the Cascades in North America and some of my most memorable climbs have been there, like Liberty Ridge on Mt Rainier. I have reached the summit of Mt Rainier 16 times, about 8 of those were solo climbs.

My two expeditions to Aconcagua have been highlights. Argentina is a great place to visit and it’s a fun, exciting and challenging expedition. In December 2013 I reached the top at 4.30pm and I was the only one up there on the summit, after climbing by myself in one long day from Camp 1.

My first climb in Nepal was Island Peak, in the Everest region. We were a small team of 3 friends and instead of flying to Lukla, we hiked in through the Arun Valley, a challenging week long trek that approaches the Everest region from the southeast. This trek is known for its long ascents and descents, as it cuts across the steep ridgelines that form the middle hills. It really was a tough trek, with over 8000m of vertical ascent gain over the week. It was September and still warm and humid down low and we were carrying everything we needed for the entire expedition. The Arun valley was undeveloped at the time, with very few lodges and some nights we slept on the mud floor inside the homes of the local villagers, sharing their basic dinner of boiled potatoes and rice. It was a great adventure. The climb itself was great too and the view from the summit of Island Peak is one of the best in the Himalaya.

World Expeditions climbers making their way to the summit of Island Peak - NepalWorld Expeditions climbers making their way to the summit of Island Peak - Nepal

What is it about climbing and trekking in the Himalaya that you love?

I love being in the mountains. That is the simplest answer.

Mountains are powerful places and for me, they represent the very best of the natural world. Going into the mountains is the ultimate contrast from the city based lives most of us have. There is a clarity there, as the other stuff that we are usually preoccupied with just falls away. The basics of life are foremost in the mountains and I find that simplicity to be refreshing.

I also find them to be both empowering and humbling. You have good days in the mountains, and you have not so good days. It’s the way it goes and you learn a lot from that. You can’t fight it, so you learn to work with it.  Mountains provide a venue to challenge myself, physically and mentally, drawing on my resources and demanding my best. I get to hang out in some of the most stunning environments in the world, drink hot chocolate as the sun brings warmth for another day, and share all of this with good friends. And that is a lot of fun.

You have spent 18 years travelling, studying and working in the Himalaya. What is your favourite region in the Himalaya and why?

It depends on what I’m wanting to do and who I am with. Different regions are special in their own way.

Trekking in the Everest Region Nepal - Image by Gavin TurnerTrekking through the Everest Region Nepal - Image by Gavin Turner

What keeps you going when you experience challenging times on the mountain?

That’s all part of it. There’s lots of variables, and you need to be prepared for anything. Managing the challenges gets easier with experience. You get a better idea of what might happen and how to manage it. The mental side of mountaineering is hugely important. Each trip is challenging in its own way. Things can and often do change quickly in the mountains. You have to be ready to adapt quickly to changing circumstances.

Who inspires you most?

In the world of high altitude mountaineering, I have to go with George Mallory and Reinhold Messner. There’s others too, like Bonnington, and contemporaries like Conrad Anker.

Reaching the summit of Cho Oyu (6th highest mountain in the world) must have felt incredible. What where you feeling and what was going through your mind when you reached the summit?

It felt great to be up there. The expedition was challenging as we survived a severe 12-hour storm in our tents at Camp 1 at about 6400m, we lost every tent that night. Experienced guides said it was one of the worst they had endured. Reaching the summit is the half way mark on every summit day, so celebrations generally giveway fairly quickly to the reality of the work that is still to do to get down safely. Most accidents happen on the way down. I got back to ABC that night, off the mountain, so it was a long day.

After returning from the summit of Cho Oyu, Camp 3, 7500m.After returning from the summit of Cho Oyu, Camp 3, 7500m.

What World Expeditions Himalaya trip would you most like to do next and why?

The Baruntse Expedition, a 7000m peak in the eastern corner of the Everest region. This would be a fun trip.

Looking out to Honku Valley and Mera Peak from around 6700 on BaruntseLooking out to Honku Valley and Mera Peak from around 6700 on Baruntse

How do you physically prepare for more challenging climbs or treks?

Staying fit year round is important. I train most days, so I keep a good baseline throughout the year. That way gearing up for a big climb is more about fine tuning, rather than starting from scratch. Still, I’ll ramp up my training about 6 months out. A lot of high intensity interval work whether that be running or cycling, some longer endurance work but rarely over 30 minutes duration, and weight training focusing on leg, core and back strength, utilizing lifts like the squat and deadlift that target major muscle groups. I find the high intensity training and interval work particularly beneficial. A lot of endurance athletes have overlooked this form of training in the past, but I have found it to be immensely valuable. Speed is safety in the mountains. High intensity training develops the capacity for speed unlike other training formats. Not only that, it replicates the demands of climbing at high altitude, where everything is very taxing on the body. So it’s great preparation for performing in that environment.

Climbers on Mera Peak, Nepal - Photo by Nathan DraneWorld Expeditions Climbers on Mera Peak, Nepal - Photo by Nathan Drane

Mental preparation is also very important – how do you mentally prepare for a tough expedition?

The physical training is a big part of my mental preparation. It gets me ready for the challenges of the climb, and provides time to think about it too. Pushing myself whilst training creates memories that I then draw upon when I am climbing. Plus staying focused on the goal is important. You have to want it, otherwise it’s too much hard work!

What are three pieces of equipment every Himalayan traveller should take with them?

Excellent sunscreen (I use the Neutrogena SPF 80+), hydration tablets with sodium and potassium to restore electrolyte imbalance at the end of the day, and treats from home that you’ll enjoy eating when things gets challenging.

What would be your top 5 tips for aspiring mountaineers?

Learn from experienced climbers, invest in the right gear, build up to bigger challenges gradually, know and respect your limits, and have fun.

Gavin Turner, on the couch

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