The Hardest Trek on Earth
By Wiebke Nedel
Day 45, West Col, eastern Nepal crossing from Makalu into the Everest region: I was hanging on a rope, the front spikes of both crampons rammed into a wall of blue ice. I had already descended more than 100 feet from the pass, but the mountains were forcing us to retreat. I had to climb back up.
Nothing is easy at an altitude of 20,200 feet, but this seemed impossible. My calves trembled like a sewing machine, while snow swirled around my goggles. I had no ice axe, just a jumar to grip the rope as I hauled myself up, one foot after another, ramming into the wall of ice.
I had been moving for 11 hours straight at this point. I had never been more exhausted or more focused in my entire life. There was only one thought. “Get back up this wall!”
This 1,100-mile trek across Nepal, from east to west on the Great Himalaya Trail, started as my “dream come true.” Since 2011, only about 30 people have completed the epic traverse, and I was about one third of the way to joining them when I found myself inching back up the sheer ice.
I had known there’d be risks. Climbing in the Himalayas, crossing glaciers and high passes, and depending on the weather for a little bit of luck invite danger that no expertise, no team of accomplished guides, no high-tech gear, and no level of fitness can ever totally eliminate. As my Nepali friends say: “The gods reside in the highest mountains and only they know when your time has come.”
But it’s one thing to be told, and another to experience. That bit of wisdom became tragically real when Khem, the head cook of our expedition, was killed by rockfall when most of the others were still high on West Col. He was in a small group, just ahead of the rest, and had already descended to the bottom of the pass. The weather had changed fast and was causing avalanches of rock and snow, and Khem was struck by a boulder. The others in his group were OK, but conditions below the pass were deteriorating. And since most of our team and equipment were still up on the col, our lead guide decided it was safest to spend the night on top, at an elevation above 20,100 feet. So I was climbing back up what I’d just begun to come down.
We were roughly a third of the way through our 147-day high traverse of the Great Himalaya Trail when Khem died. Ultimately, we continued the journey, but his death affected all of us in profound ways, and even now I can’t start a story about the Great Himalaya Trail without first thinking of Khem. He was doing what he loved—working and living in the mountains—but that’s small consolation to those left behind.
I first heard of the Great Himalaya Trail in 2014, during a seven-week sojourn through the Himalayas. It’s the longest and highest alpine trekking route in the world, stretching more than 3,000 miles from Bhutan to Pakistan. I was immediately drawn to the Nepali section, opened in 2011. The idea of being in the mountains every day and in a tent every night for five months, hiking the highest ridges in Nepal, ignited something in me.
That year, I also met Satish Man Pati, an accomplished mountaineer and the owner of Nireka Adventures, an outfitter based in Kathmandu. We stayed in touch, talking about the Great Himalaya Trail, and after Satish summited Everest in 2016, he agreed that guiding the GHT would be his next big challenge. Organizing a five-month expedition across Nepal’s most remote regions would be a bigger logistical job than Everest. All he needed was clients. I signed up without hesitation.
We launched our journey in March 2018, traveling east to west. The route is divided into seven unique sections; some require technical travel and some are so remote that only local guides know the ways across the glaciers and through the forests. Though I would end up being the only trekker to do the whole 5 months journey, 20 people from five countries joined us on different sections at various times.
The whole endeavour involved crossing 22 passes, 15 of which were above 16,000 feet and two above 20,000 feet. Every time we crossed a high pass, we prayed to the gods and left prayer flags behind. We visited monasteries and received blessings from the lamas for the climbs ahead. There is a constant awareness of the dangers and the fact that we are not entirely in control—which is why, after the initial shock, the team quickly came to peace with Khem’s death. In the Himalaya, people live with risk in a way that outsiders don’t always understand. There was no suggestion of ending the journey.
Day 133, Rara lake, western Nepal: Our mules ran away. Just two weeks from the finish and the expedition came to a halt because of wayward mules. Kale, the strongest of the animals and a bit of a rebel, disappeared first. Then two others followed. And while Sudip, the mule driver, was out looking for them (unsuccessfully), climbing all the way back up a 13,000-foot pass we’d already crossed, the remaining four mules escaped as well. We couldn’t move an inch without them.
Rara Lake is surrounded by dense pine forests, with little meadows spread throughout. Sudip was hoping he’d find the missing mules grazing in one of these fields, but no such luck. Sudip did not give up. The mules were his livelihood, his pride, his money, and his future. It took two days and at least 50 miles of walking, but he finally found the rogue animals—and returned a happy hero.
The great mule mutiny became part of our story. Throughout the five months, we faced small and big challenges, heart-warming and heart-wrenching ones, and together they added up to something we never could have imagined. We felt lucky when we happened upon a Tibetan traditional wedding in a remote village at the foot of the Kanchenjunga glacial valley in eastern Nepal. When leeches “attacked” us in the jungle, we suffered itchy, bloody legs for days afterward. We passed countless monasteries and enjoyed views of glaciers in the morning sunlight, of alpenglow on the peaks, of langur monkeys watching our every move.
But one thread wove through it all. More than anything else, I learned about the Nepali people. Over these five months, I walked through countless villages clinging to the steepest of slopes, with terraced grain fields carved into the mountainsides. Who knows how many years it took to create these fields? But I saw the effort that goes into cultivating them—the plowing, sowing, weeding, and harvesting. What does it take to envision the impossible and then tackle it despite all odds?
Around wood-fired stoves, sitting on earthen floors, I learned that no slope is too steep to cultivate, no river too big to cross, no mountain pass too high to climb, no person too old to walk, no field too small to plough, no school too far to walk to, no object too heavy to carry up to a village in need (even if it is a hospital bed for a village that does not have a doctor or a nurse). I learned that we limit ourselves; it’s not our circumstances that limit us. When you live among the world’s highest mountains, you understand that a fatal avalanche could occur at any time, but that doesn’t mean you walk away.
Someday I will return to the Great Himalaya Trail, and cross West Col in Khem’s memory. It will remind me that real adventure is never safe. And it shouldn’t be.
Wiebke Nedel devotes her work and life to personal- and leadership development in a global context. As a mountain- and wilderness guide she uses the wilderness as tool and teacher for personal growth and self-awareness. She lives in Cape Town and works worldwide. Since 2017 she has been running social immersion programs in Nepal with Nireka Adventures.
Satish Man Pati is the owner and lead guide of Nireka Adventures. He has been guiding in the Himalayas for 30 years and summited Mount Everest (8848m), Cho Oyu (8201m), Manaslu (8163m), Mount Denali (6190m) in Alaska, Mount Kilimanjaro (5895m) and many more.
Nireka Adventures' scheduled expeditions for 2020 include:
3 to 26 March 2020 - Nireka Peak climb (6159m) in the Everest region
The ascent of this recently opened and rarely climbed spectacular peak is mostly in ice and snow, and is comparable to big alpine routes. Despite the relatively small height difference, it demands an excellent condition and acclimatization. The climb itself is relatively straight forward, though it does require ice axe, crampons and large sections of fixed rope. It is a very physically possible climb for anyone in good shape and with a desire for high adventure. From the summit one of the best vistas of the Himalayan world opens up, with Mt. Everest, Mt. Lhotse, Mt. Makalu, Mt. Nuptse, Mt. Cho Oyu and endless other Himalayan peaks surrounding you.
23 September - 27 October 2020 - Bhutan - The Snowman Trek
The Snowman Trek in Bhutan is one of the most beautiful and also hardest treks in the world - strenuous with long days and much time spent in high altitude! Only a handful of trekkers venture out into the Lunana, the most remote region of Bhutan every season. The trek crosses 13 high passes over 4400m and as high as 5230m along the border of Bhutan and Tibet. We will pass through many nomadic yak herder camps, will see tiny buddhist monasteries and four of the most remote small villages of Bhutan. The backdrop of 7000m peaks graces our journey with breathtaking views of Chomolhari and Jichu Drake. This is a once in a lifetime adventure.
For more info on these or other Himalayan adventures, from high altitude mountaineering or trekking the most remote regions of Nepal, India, Pakistan or Bhutan to walking some of the famous routes in the Annapurna and Everest regions or the Langtang Valley, contact Nireka Adventures, who can co-design the perfect experience for you. Contact them on [email protected]
First published in Backpacker magazine, www.backpacker.com