Making tracks – The Great Himalaya Trail

I am way overdue for a post about the Great Himalaya Trail (GHT), the so called  ‘holy grail of trails’ or the ‘trail to rule them all’. And yep, it was all of that. When I got back to Seattle in July and sat down at my desk, it was as if I never left. The pencil and pad that I write my ‘to do’ list on (which I never get done) was still sitting askew next to the keyboard. Traffic still bustles by and the boats still go through the ship canal. I’ve have had some fun adventures including runs and climbs in the pacific northwest since I’ve been back, writing about those is easy…but summing up 87 days of walking across the Himalaya? An experience harder for me then climbing the tallest mountain or running across a country.

What to say? Over 1,200 miles across some of the highest mountain ranges in the world. According to wikipedia, we joined a small club of less than 40 people who have documented some sort of traverse of the Himalaya. Some went further, some shorter, some solo, but only two other teams as high. In fact, we became the third team to take the high route on the GHT, crossing all five technical passes. And the first team to do this self-supported in the sense of not having a team of porters and guides. I like to think we went ‘alpine style’ – quick and light versus ‘expedition style.’ Call it what you want. We also had tons of help along the way from friends and strangers near and afar. We walked and climbed from east to west across the northern part of Nepal frequently feeling like we had stepped into a post card or a movie set.

We are working on documenting our trip along with descriptions and GPS tracks for the technical passes on www.greathimalayatraverse.org. A nice write up was done about our trip in the Nepali Times, and John has a good summary posted  ‘The Trail Tests, The Trail Provides‘, an expression I heard him say many times on the trail. Below are mostly pictures and thanks to folks. You can find about 80 pictures divided into two gallaries here as well: Vol 1 and Vol 2.

We walked east to west, just under the Tibetan border.
Kanchenjunga, Makalu, Everest, Rowlaling, Langtang & Helambu, Manaslu & Ganesh, Annapurna, Lower Mustang, Lower Dolpa and Humla. 

The technical passes stand out the most in my memory. Why? Because they frankly scared the hell out of me and went on for days. We had all sorts of problems ranging from not being able to find the right approaches, to avalanche concerns, falls, running out of rope, bad anchors, crawling on snow bridges, crevasses, ice falls, rock fall, you name it. Below is a google earth rendering of crossing the two highest technical passes near Makalu, each over 20,000ft and separated by a plateau. We studied this before we left, but we really didn’t know what we were getting into…here are some images…

John setting up the rappel on Sherpani Col at 6,146m/20,164ft
Plateau between Sherpani and West Col. Approx 20,000ft.
We camped here the day before in a whiteout, no working stove, no water, not much oxygen, not much fun.
Working our way up the ice fall on technical pass #3 Amphu Labsa pass at 19,000ft
Kathleen rappelling down Amphu Labsa into the Everest region.
Our rope was too short and we had some really sketchy moments getting down.
Tashi Labsta (4th technical pass) rained rocks on us for three days.
Scary as hell but oh, so beautiful.

I don’t want to give you the impression we were always in technical environments. Those five technical sections consumed maybe 15 of the 87 days. Otherwise, we were usually between 10 and 15 thousand feet, John declared 4,000m (14,000ft) the ‘perfect elevation’ where it wasn’t humid, not too cold, no flies, and nice villagers. We passed through many many high mountain communities and also dropped ‘down’ into lower elevations, even into the tropical jungle few times where it was hot, humid, buggy and monkeys swung through the trees.

The Khumbu valley above Pheriche, familiar ground for me and a trail section I love.
We asked a million locals for directions, thanks!
And we scared a lot of school kids who had little (or no) experience with people like us.
John liked to lecture the kids about staying in school, Obama, and Mr. T. (“Don’t be a fool, stay in school!’)
They didn’t understand a word he said, but everyone had fun.
Lots of fun
We were always happy to find bridges, even when in disrepair.
The kids were amazing, but the poverty in the far west was immense.
But everywhere we went people smiled.
Almost
We often camped with yak herders and traders
The last 30 days were extremely difficult with some of the hardest days of my life. We were usually awake by 4am and moved all day and often into the night. We were able to move a little fast as we didn’t need to carry all of the climbing gear that was needed on the technical passes. Sometimes we could even run. The terrain was beautiful – huge landscapes similar to the American Southwest. In the end, the days blurred together and we became ragged, dirty, thin and in a constant struggle between staying healthy and not falling apart. We never lost the ability to appreciate the trail though, and as John would say, ‘The Trail Tests, The Trail Provide.’
Over 30lbs lighter – a couple miles from our last village on the border
John arriving at Hilsa, our final village on the Tibetan Border in the far west.
Hard to believe it was over
Walking across the ‘Friendship Bridge’ to Tibet.
And there we are: lean, mean and done!

So that is a wrap folks. Why was I drawn to this? Hiking the Appalachian Trail as a teenager gave me a taste for long linear journeys and for many years I have wanted to return to a similar experience. The transcon run in 2012 met some of this need but it was on road, not himalaya single track. When I found out about the Great Himalaya Trail – it became an itch that would not go away. What did I learn? That we can do anything we set our minds to do. That big adventures can be accomplished one step at a time. That I will never get tired of Dal Bhat.  That John and Kathleen are good folk. That I am still a wuss with exposure. That I love Nepal and being in the mountains.

I’m doing the best I can to re-adjust to civilian life. I’ve been busy keeping the pizza and beer joints busy in Seattle and trying to sit still at the computer. I’m trying to get my running legs back and also getting ready for a return to Nepal in another week for a fast pack around Annapurna. I can’t wait.

There are a slew of thanks to give, they are already out there on thank you pages found on www.greathimalayatraverse.org and also on www.wideopenvistas.org. The latter is a registered nonprofit in Washington State that I setup up to help kids in Nepal. We raised about $2,400 and hope to raise more – that kind of money goes a long way in Nepal. Please consider donating and inspiring me to do more adventures.

A huge thanks to Julie who just competed in the world 24hr navigation championships in South Dakota. That might give you an idea why we called her two different times with the sat phone. Both times we were over 18,000ft and fundamentally lost trying to get over dangerous passes. Along with the phone, I also had a satellite transponder that showed our location every 10 minutes. By studying her computer screen and additional maps Julie was able to help us find safe passage. How cool is that? I’m not sure anyone has every done something like that from half way around the world (not to mention the dead of night for her). Later, when we reached other impasses we would sometimes ask each other if we should call ‘our lifeline’. Beyond the tele-navigation, Julie was awesome at keeping my spirits up and super patient as our trip stretched out longer and longer.

With Julie on Mount St. Helens earlier this month.
I have to share this video Julie made when she thru-hiked the PCT.  Inspired by it, we did some of our own dancing on the GHT. Whether those ever see the light of day, time will tell.

Dorjee Sherpa also fielded quite a few sat calls and helped us with our food resupply caches, remote translation, permits, visas, you name it. If you want to trek, climb, or do something off the beaten track in Nepal or Bhutan, he is your man. If he can help me get to the top of Everest, he can pretty much move the world in my book.

Robin Boustead is the architect of the Great Himalaya Trail and he led the first team to walk the high route, crossing all five technical passes.  His book was invaluable and he was always ready to give us advice. He has a beautiful website about the GHT, be careful…it will suck you in!

In 2012, Doc McKerr became the first person to thru hike the high route of the GHT unsupported. I stole this picture off his facebook profile. A member of the British army who has worked extensively with the Ghurka soliders in Nepal (maybe the toughest fighting force in the world),  Doc gave us tons of advice before we left and helped us throughout our trip with good cheer and info passed through Julie. Thanks Doc!

What the GHT will do to you…Doc McKerr

And Pasang Sherpa deserves much thanks. Pasang is a porter that I have now had the pleasure of knowing for five years. He doesn’t have much money but he has a huge smile and a ton of goodwill. He also has five children and frequently faces difficulty finding work and sending them to school. We raised money through www.wideopenvistas.org in part to help him and his family. When we found out that the Nepal government was requiring all foreigners be with a Nepali guide in certain parts of the far west, we hired him to sweet talk are way through the checkpoints. It worked and we owe him a debt of thanks.

Thanks Pasang!

And big thanks to PROBAR and RUNA. We had bars and more in five different food caches spread across Nepal and at times it was our only real source of energy. Good companies, good products. I wouldn’t plug them otherwise.

Last…I owe a huge thank you to John and Kathleen. Through thick and thin, we stuck with each other – sometimes holding each others lives in our hands. Other times laughing, crying, or just dreaming up all the good food we were going to eat when we got off the trail. They are two of the kindest and most thoughtful people I have ever met. They are also very good beer drinkers and athletes. Follow their adventures at www.knuckleheadadventuretours.blogspot.com

That is a wrap…safe travels. More to follow.

-Seth

One step at a time.

9 Responses to “Making tracks – The Great Himalaya Trail

  • Wow Seth! The pictures are amazing, and the whole thing is hard to fathom. I’m glad you’re all safe, and I’m challenged to even picture the experience. Very inspirational. I hope to see more pics and hear more, as you assemble the record, such as it is.

  • Namaste’ !

  • Great to read your summary. Glad all went so well!

  • Absolutely extraordinary. Thank you so much for sharing more about your adventure. And your photos are stunning. -Andy Robertson

  • A+ on your great article for “what I did no my summer Vacation.”

  • I still can’t read this and not cry, Seth. Its an unbelievable accomplishment, and I thank you for being with John and Kathleen. I worried less because it was the three of you.

  • Your inspiration abounds. This post brings unabashed tears to my eyes. Congratulations and well done – you are three amazing human beings.

  • Seth, this is a beautiful blog post. So good to hear about your adventures. You continue to inspire me. In fact, one of the reasons I am out here now, exploring the world by bicycle is because of your just go do it attitude. I love reading your posts about your adventures. I look forward to reading many more and perhaps doing more research in cool places. Congrats on a fantastic journey. Janet (jjpeterberger.wordpress.com)

  • Amazing…just amazing!

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