The Great Himalaya Trail
The Great Himalaya Trail (GHT) is a proposed route of over 4500 km of existing trails stretching the length of the Greater Himalaya range from Nanga Parbat (Jam-mu & Kashmir, Pakistan) to Namche Barwa (Tibet) thus passing through Kashmir, India, Nepal, Bhutan and Tibet. When completed, it will be the longest and highest alpine walking track in the world. As of July 2010, only the Nepal and Bhutan sections have been walked and documented thoroughly. The other countries are still being researched. Winding beneath the world’s highest peaks and visiting some of the most remote communities on earth, it passes through lush green valleys, arid high plateaus and incredible mountainous landscapes. Nepal’s documented GHT has 10 sections comprising a network of upper and lower routes.
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Below our frail Twin Otter aircraft, giant waterfalls dive off sheer rock cliffs.
Titian sunbeams dance through the cracks and crevices in the frozen fuselage. A runway appears in the cockpit’s front window and our hearts pump furiously. Seconds later, silence prevails. The unbearable, damp heat of the lowlands has been replaced by the crystal clear Himalayan mountain air.
If all roads lead to Rome, none lead to Simikot. Northwestern Nepal is one of the world’s most isolated and poorest regions. A well-aimed stone’s throw could easily end up on the border of India, Nepal and Tibet. Before heading east on the Great Himalaya Trail, we begin with a two-week loop into the mysterious Buddhist Limi Valley, in the far forgotten northwestern corner of Nepal.
The Great Himalaya Trail
A Pilgrimage for the Soul
Children chase a bunch of chicks around a muddy puddle in the main bazar – the market street of Simikot.
Donkeys bray and two old men listen to an ancient, crackling radio. It is autumn, shortly after dawn and the contrast of the green-brown daubed mountains already flattens out.
‘This is all a new adventure for me,’ chuckles Ram Kumar uneasily as we sip hot chai. We want as much contact with the ethnically-diverse population as possible, so we lug along neither food nor expedition gear. We have hired Ram to dampen culture shocks en route and to bridge the language barrier. A small team; light, fast, flexible.
The Tibetan Border
‘I think I already lose some weight,’ Ram mutters, sweat beading at his bulging belly, as we begin another climb on the old salt trade-route towards the Tibetan border.
Brightly colored and decorated women, with giant ear and nose rings, do the laundry in an icy tributary of the Karnali. In Daurapiri we witness the mesmerizing consecration dance of a young Hindu shaman, while three goats are slaughtered for the following village feast.
‘We build road,’ we are told as a man gestures wildly to warn a far-away farmer and his herd about impending explosions.
And, after a huge dynamite blast, we climb over the rock rubble past the demolition men – nowhere is there a helmet to be found. A little further we encounter an old Soviet truck spewing toxic fumes. ‘You American?’ inquires the 16-year-old boy behind the wheel. He has just dropped his contraband, and is about to drive back over the 4560m-high Nara La pass to the Tibetan border village of Hilsa. ‘You want ride?’ he offers lightly.
With a giant plume of dust in our wake, we roar over what could barely even be called a wide trail were it located in the Swiss Alps. I peer out of the cabin to find the valley floor, but without success.
A herd of yak appears from around the corner, accompanied to the sound of furious honking by our teenage driver. There is barely space to pass and the cliff face drops into an abyss below. I cover my eyes and piss my pants. ‘Hitchhiking is dangerous!’ I recall my mother once admonishing. A day late and a dollar short. We’re here for walking, for crying out loud.
Out for Harvest
In Hilsa, we leave the GHT and tour the mystical Tibetan-influenced Limi Valley, only opened to foreigners in 2002.
High above the seething Karnali, an impossible path has been hewn from the perpendicular wall. In a gulch we encounter a collection of sculpted houses against a cliff. Every inch is filled with perfectly carved terraces. Ripe millet stalks sway on the echoes of drums. Humming women chant and the whole village is out for harvest. Shangri-la? Hold your tongue!
A Cup of Tea
Deeper into the valley, the hamlets of Til, Halji and Jang are as if drawn from some medieval graphic novel.
At dawn we chant the mantra on the rhythm of the prayer drum at the 500 year old Gompa, a Buddhist building serving as monastery, fortress and school. ‘Yes, yes, delicious,’ I nod to the head lama after worship as I try to gulp down the rancid, yak-butter tea.
Days later we pitch our camp in an arid Himalayan landscape just below the 5000m-high Nyula La pass. Ram tries to light a fire from the yak dung he has collected behind some stones.
Onwards and East
‘This is the first time I will sleep in a tent,’ he confesses with a shudder.
A passing shepherd warms his hands and disappears half-heartedly into the night with emaciated goats following in his wake. It’s raining stars in the frigid night air. Howls of a nearby wolf pack rifle through the valley. By the time we stumble back into Simikot our bodies have adapted to a diet of Chapati, Dal Bhat and yet more Dal Bhat. Our skin has acquired the musky odor of our dusty surroundings. Onwards, east.
Mugu and Jumla
‘First time, bad weather,’ I shout to Ram as we climb up to the pass.
The wind howls at my face and I feel ice forming on my beard. I pull my clothes tighter. To my left, the Lhashamma peak, at 6412m, is being swallowed by the clouds. It is the worst weather we’ve had for weeks. On every step up, my lungs cry for oxygen and my muscles plead. Still 200m ascent until the 5100m Kagmara La pass is reached. I’m already higher then any summit in the Alps, but the ridges and peaks around me merely laugh. A golden eagle swoops effortlessly on a thermal. It has been two weeks since Simikot.
Into the Dark
I recall the place fondly as I toil – terraced fields shimmering in the sun and cannabis plants flowering among the cornfields, spreading a sweet smell over the trail.
Malnourished, rag-wrapped, but charming children do not even know how to beg. The village community of Dharma haunts us to the edge of the forest. ‘We are not doctors,’ we have to admit to disappointed, poor faces. We have been confused with aid workers. Saddened, we disappear into the dark, tropical jungle.
Crossing the River
Push and Shove
Mule caravans dominate on the steep, undulating forested trails, exporting famous red rice, cultivated in Mugu; and importing consumer goods.
The Dasain Hindu festival concludes in the windy regional capital of Jumla. Thronging crowds – haggling and waving rupees – push and shove. The streets are crimson with the slaughter of goats and the bloodthirsty goddess Kali rejoices.
Ram struggles but eventually finds two young boys willing to porter in the rugged Dolpo, a sparsely populated high desert, which requires us to carry almost all food and camping equipment for the next weeks.
Enthusiasm evaporates when the braided carrycots are awkwardly twisted on their backs.
Jewel in the Lotus Flower
We traverse the 5100m Namala and 5300m Bagala passes in a knee-jarring and frigid 48-hour marathon.
Even to high-desert standards, superlatives pour from our mouths. It is difficult to process – the human brain is not built to comprehend such a vast landscape.
At the southern horizon, the 8000m Dhaulagiri blocks the monsoon rains and to the north the vast Tibetan plateau still awaits freedom. We descend into the Tharap valley, the perfect vignette of what forbidden Tibet is all about – manis, stupas, gompas, dust-scattering yak caravans and monasteries decorated with prayer flags. Contrast points in the ochre mountain desert.
‘Weather changing,’ Nima Sherpa, our new guide, mumbles one freezing morning, nodding in direction of snow-fluted Bigphra Go Shar (6729m), rising sharply behind our bivouac camp on a rocky outcrop in the immense Drolambu icefall.
Clouds of spindrift blow over the ridge in the sunshine. The silence is only broken by the roars of invisible avalanches breaking off the Gakoshir Himal.
The Rolwaling Himal is west of the world-famous Khumbu, where Everest reigns. This secluded valley, on the border with Tibet, offers a wild and dangerous route to the Everest Region over the glaciated Tesi Lapcha pass. Rolwaling serves as a wildlife barrier between the Langtang and Sagarmatha National Parks. A surging river thunders through virgin forest full of swinging, thieving monkeys. Above the canopy, tiny streams trickle along steep granite walls.
The valley has only one settlement worth mentioning – Beding.
The village is perched above a colorful monastery below Garin Shankar Himal. Mutilated Sherpa hands reach out: ‘Mister, you need porter?’ A tragic reminder of previous cruel ascents. We must continue and soon we have camped. Our simmering gas stove battles with crushed ice chunks from the Drolambu ice fall. Snuggled in layers of down, I peer through the tent zippers towards the chaotic debris on the Trakarding glacier.
Labyrinth of Ice
After some photography on the Tesi Lapcha, pass we descend quickly through broken crags and into a steep gully, which reminds of the hostility of this place – an avalanche of rock thunders towards us without warning, forcing us to shelter.
An easy scramble through the steep ice gully in the icefall puts us on the vast Drolambu glacier. ‘We must move quickly,’ Nima says in broken English. The first clouds appear and orbit like comets over the pyramidal Teng Ragi Tau. The wind surges over the Tesi Lapcha Danda ridge and through our intended pass. We rope up and strap on crampons. I risk a quick glance towards the rarely climbed 6000m peaks scattered across the azure, Drolambu-bassin before we head upwards.
It seems fitting that, back down on the glacier, a small memorial remembers the less fortunate. After a never-ending labyrinth of ice, we finally reach solid ground and Namche Bazar, veiled in freezing fog.
To Climb, Or Not to Climb
Extreme wind and altitude sickness; and only 10% of expeditions reached the summit the year we were there – we knew Mera Peak at 6,400m would be a serious challenge but we’re Belgians, the bravest Gauls.
Mera Peak is the highest of the so-called ‘trekking peaks’. Approximately 2000 climbers attempt its summit annually. Four factors stand between success and failure: acclimatization, wind, stamina and luck.
The approach through the mesmerizing Inkhu Khola valley came from a fairytale. Conifer, maple and rhododendron blanket the lower slopes. The trail emerges onto a high-altitude, mountain tundra where the late-autumn hues the grassland in gloomy red.
The landscape is dominated by the immense twin shards of Kusum Khangkharu and Kyasar which alter perspective as we climb higher and turn east towards the Mera La pass.
‘After Dal Bhat, you go walk there,’ Nima Sherpa says as he points towards the surrounding ridges. ‘Good for summit day!’ We nod and obey. Mera La base camp, at 5250m, does not afford much sleep. Is it summit fever or exhaustion? Or the frantic wind tugging at the tent canvas?
By 9:30 the following morning, we’re ready for battle. After a fluid one-and-a-half hour climb, we pass an abandoned high camp. The wind blows small particles of ice into our faces but push through the onslaught. We are moving fast, even by Sherpa standards. Our water bottle freezes solid.
Impossible to Conceive
We jump crevasses and Nima chuckles. ‘Me happy Sherpa,’ he says. ‘You strong.’
But above 6300m the tempo slackens considerably. The thin air makes us gasp for air every 10 paces – this is terrific work and when the body has had enough, the mind must struggle on. But at 1:30, we crawl onto the smaller summit, just south of the central peak. There is not even a breeze. If a heaven for mountain adventurers exists, then we have found it. It is impossible to conceive. Five 8000m giants dominate the horizon; Everest (8848m), Kangchenjunga (8586m), Lhotse (8516m), Makalu (8485m) and Cho Oyu (8188m). Our world is rich.
I read 6420m on my altimeter. We high-five the mountain gods and wave budhistische prayer flags into the sky. Three hours later we sip hot tea from our sleeping bags. The sun goes down and our smile freezes. Three weeks of trail separates us from Kathmandu.
All Images by Steve Behaeghel