The Adventure Journals

Failures And Friendships On The Great Himalayan Trail

3:30pm. If the helicopter doesn’t arrive within the next hour, it will get dark on the flight back. But it turns out it wouldn’t arrive at all tonight. I am completely dehydrated and I haven’t eaten for two days. I just want to get out of here! The afternoon is waning…

My friend Pemba has called the rescue company “Everest-Heli” in Kathmandu at 10am. My insurance company has been informed via satphone. For three hours I have been lying on a field outside a remote village, the only plain area large enough for a helicopter to land. We are in the Tibetan border region, in one of the remotest corners of Nepal. Even for a rescue mission, a special permit is required, which can only be requested in person at the ministry – and that takes time.

My plan to become the first person to hike the easternmost, highest, and most dangerous section of the Great Himalaya Trail in Nepal in winter has failed. A distance of at least 250 miles, with over 80,000 feet of climbing, two passes over 6k and another three passes over 5k, a small, self-sufficient team – that was the ambitious plan. Preparations for this expedition took two years, and the idea had begun to take shape long before. We always knew that all we could do would be to make an attempt. Realists that we are, that is what we have always called our project. But let’s go back to the beginning. What got me here?

For thirteen years I have travelled regularly to the Himalayas and completed over a dozen trekking, research, film, and mountain expeditions. For many years I have conducted research on the Himalayas at the Geographisches Institut of the University of Göttingen. I have been observing climate change impacts for years and before my very eyes. Talking to locals I have learned first hand about the problems and challenges. In Nepal, too, snow fall has decreased for many winters.

Less winter precipitation means that mountain passes that would have been covered in deep snow in the past would now likely be passable; but it also means lack of meltwater in spring. People cannot cultivate their fields anymore and pastures are too dry for viable yak tending. Many people have already had to leave their villages for this reason.

From these findings grew my idea: to use the winter drought as an opportunity for an adventure project. To make the first winter attempt on the high route of the GWHT, while focussing on the local people. I would like to show to the western world how our excessive consumerism, and the resulting unnecessary pollution, makes people on the other side of the globe suffer from impacts they have done nothing to cause.

The main question was - who to stem this project with? I wanted to immerse myself in the local society. Foreign companions might make this more difficult.

Chance had it that in 2015 my company Third Pole received a contract to film a Mt Everest expedition on the Tibetan north face for German television. It was the year of the great earthquake. Still early on during the acclimatisation period, we cancelled the expedition because of it. In the middle of this catastrophe I got closer with Pemba. He was our expedition’s Sirdar, a mountaineer with strong experience in climbing eight-thousanders, and a sincere and open chap. It didn’t take us long to realise how well we clicked. Three months after the earthquake I visited Pemba and his family. Together we walked to his home village to get an impression of the impact the earthquake had had. While very different on the face of it, we soon became good friends. I told him about my Great Himalaya Winter Trail idea and, in his plain yet determined Sherpa way, he replied that we had to try it.

On 1 January 2017, in the very east of Nepal, Pemba and I, together with three of his relatives from his village who were all experienced Sherpas, set off for the Kangchenjunga base camp. For much of the trek we had to rely on our own supplies. We chose the Lowe Alpine Expedition Backpacks. The weather conformed to my expectations: dry, but bloody cold. We progressed according to plan. There was indeed hardly any snow.

We sought out the Kangchenjunga basecamp to acclimatise, with the proper Great Himalaya Trail to follow. Narrow paths, often grown over or covered in snow, and extremely remote. After nearly two weeks we took our first high pass, the 4,750m Nango. Up to this point, all had gone well. But now came the setback. In the small Tibetan village of Olongchun, at 3,800m, I fell very ill. Within one day, I lost two and a half kilos in bodyweight. The medical drugs that we had brought did not stop my diarrhea. After a couple of days I decided to fly out to get checked and treated in Kathmandu.

To my great joy my Sherpa friends carried on without me. Luckily we were all in agreement that my withdrawal must not spell the end for our attempt.

After slightly more than a week in Kathmandu I felt restored to the point that I could rejoin the crew. In the meantime, Pemba Jangbu, Phuchhetar, Ang Dawa, and Dafuri had begun the key stage, passing over the Ice Cols, at over 6,000m. My plan was to meet them on the Khmubu side and complete the trek together. But even during the approach to the passes the Sherpa got stuck in rough terrain, covered in deep snow.  On top of that, the weather was changing, bringing more snow, so they had to abort their attempt.

Pemba and the team had given everything to follow through with our adventurous attempt, despite me dropping out. But it wasn’t meant to be.

At no point did I doubt for even a second that Pemba had made the correct decision. Pemba is incredibly experienced. If the Sherpas make a judgement and conclude that it is best to turn back, then it is the right call. More difficult was the question of what next, since our route back over the high passes was now blocked. I mulled over this for two days. Most important to me was to rejoin them in mountains. But should we continue the trek on the low route, between 1,500m and 3,000m? What would that mean for the project? More distance, and more days, sure. But this hadn't been the aim of the project.

It was a planned attempt –that is what we called it all along– and it has remained an attempt.

Yet we did arrive somewhere together in the end: we have gotten closer as friends. The difficulties in particular showed us just how similar our feelings and views really are. A connection that I find hard to put into words. Away from the project I learnt a lot about myself. The forced break had given me enough time for that.

Patience and composure are things that I have taken away from this. Not the temporal and foreign feeling one might bring back from a holiday and try to preserve through daily routine only for it to be ground away all too quickly. Rather an insight, a realisation of the inner-self that is needed to make it even possible to gauge which direction to choose.

The project has made me realise that paths aren’t made for destinations, nor for the journey itself. But for what you find along the way; for what got you there; and for all that you didn’t anticipate. And so I made my biggest strides, completely unexpectedly, during my long rest days in Kathmandu. I will stay true to travelling, and to my friends in the world, for sure. But in the future I will avoid long detours. A sequel or part 2, though, I don’t consider a detour. Pemba and I are already in the process of planning for winter 2018!

Many thanks to Hannes for this Adventure Journal. If you've been inspired then please check out his website.

Products used in this Adventure Journal

Expedition 75:95

Expedition 75:95

75 + 20lt | 80 x 37 x 31cm | 2.58kg

Single compartment design, Axiom 7 technology and ultra-tough fabric combine to make this pack the only choice for expeditions into high mountain environments.

Rucksac Liner - Black Version

Rucksac Liner - Black Version

50 - 80lt |

Waterproof rucksac liner. Keeps your essential clothing and equipment dry.

Ultralite Drysac

Ultralite Drysac

2.5 - 20lt | N/A |

Ultralite, waterproof nylon stuffsac with roll top closure. In sizes XXS to XL.

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