Beautiful, rough, hard and unforgettable.

So big, so far, so long.

The Great Himalaya Trail.

I thought it was a once in a lifetime sort of a thing. The journey, the effort, the emotions too big, too scary, too beautiful to be repeated.

I was wrong.

Imagine you are at 5563m above sea level on a mountain pass that is more like a summit than a pass. This mountain range stretches for more than 2500 kilometres separating the plains of India from the Tibetan plateau. You are right in the heart of it and it feels as though the world is at your feet. You are totally alone and right then there is nowhere else you need to be.

This is something of what that is like.

This was my world.

circa 1000 miles

circa 100,000m ascent

twelve 5000m passes

twenty 3-4000m passes

solo and self-supported

35 days

Why repeat something already tried? This wasn't a race. This isn't a waymarked long distance trail. You cannot claim an FKT (fastest known time) for the Great Himalaya Trail simply because there are too many variations on a possible route, too many variations on style.

Repeating something is interesting. I’ve done it before. The challenge doesn’t actually get any less. It’s just different. You’ve learnt things, you are different. But the mountains are different, your body and mind are different. So the challenge is different too.

Kanchenjunga Base Camp, 5 October 2017.

I just really needed to go for a long walk.

This is my 2017 route overlaid on the Great Himalaya Trail route planner.

My rationale was fairly simple, to make an independent, solo and self-supported crossing of Nepal keeping as much to the high mountains as possible. The result was arguably the highest independent route crossing the country to date. There are still a few sections where this route can be refined further to bring it closer to my original rationale.

I propose this route, until improved upon, is a benchmark for independent runners / trekkers wanting to attempt "the" Great Himalaya Trail.

Some people like to drive fast cars. I like to go by foot.

In Robert Pirsig's novel, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, he writes, 'In a car you're always in a compartment ... You're a passive observer and it is all moving by you boringly in a frame. On a [motor]cycle the frame is gone. You're completely in contact with it all. You're in the scene, not just watching it anymore, and the sense of presence is overwhelming.'

This is something of what moving on foot does for me. There is no longer anything between me and my surroundings. My feet are in rhythmical contact with the earth, I'm breathing, I'm looking, I'm listening. The more fully I am in my environment, the more I am pulled firmly into the present.

That is when I feel most alive.

The north-eastern corner of Nepal, the Kanchenjunga region, is still properly remote. Villages are still a few days walk from anywhere, shopping is done in Tibet and post-monsoon you are unlikely to see even locals on the trails. It's a harsh landscape if you are alone.

Yaks go shopping in Tibet.

This wild jungle forest between Kanchenjunga and the Makalu Barun has become my bête noir. In 2011 I was lost in this forest for three nights without communication. Five years later, in 2016, I made it through and realised I'd never previously even been on the main trail, just a series of woodcutting and animal trails.

This time in 2017 I was totally focused on keeping to the trail, and not falling off it. The trail is airy in places and with postmonsoon growth it isn't always easy to see where the path ends and the (substantial) drop begins.

I saw this, and had the wherewithal to think, "oh, that could be a good photo to take, for later investigation".

Pug marks of a tiger, most likely, I've since been told. At 3175m it was high for a tiger, but not uncharacteristic.

These pug marks were fairly fresh. I continued unperturbed. I was simply focused on the trail and minimising leech attack. The leeches were, at least, distraction enough that I failed to realise that disturbing whatever animal had made those (fresh) pug marks could be serious.

Why go so far without so much as a name or a tag to put to the achievement? Simply because I could. I wanted the courage and the clarity that an extended effort can give to me. I wanted the satisfaction of something begun and completed. I wanted to learn again how our self imposed boundaries are simply an illusion to be ripped away.

Prayer flags and burning juniper below Kanjin Gompa looking south towards Lantang.

Gyalbu had been standing outside his lodge looking up the valley and as I approached he called to me from a distance, 'Lizzy!'

His call of recognition imbued me with a strong sense of belonging in the sense of, "this is where I am, and this is what I do". I hadn't passed for a year, he had no idea I was close. But perhaps it's not so often that there is a foreign woman alone on the trail, typically all in black, and moving at some speed.

With Gyalbu and his daughter outside the new lodge that they are building.

After a wild bivy on my descent from the Kanja La (5187m) the second breakfast he treated me to was very welcome. Even more so was to hear his news and see how he is rebuilding his life after losing his wife, Pema, in the 2015 earthquake.

Approaching Langtang the mud lies on the path in exactly the way I remember. Then metres later this ...

Likely the whole village was swept into the river by the huge avalanche landslide triggered by the earthquake on 25 April 2015. It must have been terrifying.

The power of nature is immense. On a journey like this you are totally aware of it. There is no cushion between you and the world around you. You are part of it, not separated anymore. Warmth comes from movement, water doesn't come out of a tap, there is no roof to shelter you from the rain, the snow, the wind, the sun. You are totally aware of your vulnerability and your insignificance. But with that comes a deep appreciation of your strength. It is an appreciation that only comes when everything else is stripped away.

Disappointment. What had, in 2016, been the perfect trail stretching out before me, was now being dug into road.

In 2016.

My disappointment of course came from a runner's point of view. But road-building is an issue fraught with questions. As mere observers we cannot pass judgement. But as an observer I can note the changes across the breadth of Nepal, even in the space of one year, and realise that the way of life for very many people is changing rapidly. There are undoubtedly many improvements but there are consequences too.

Nothing lasts. The world is impermanent, everything changes, everything is in a constant state of flux, of movement. Nothing stays the same.

But still some things endure for a lifetime.

Like love, like friendship.

I followed this trio of older women for some way on the trail. What you don't see in this photo are their dokos holding a load of firewood. I was finding it hard to gain ground on them despite their load. And then they stopped, sat down at the side of the trail to rest and to chat. Who wouldn't with that view!

As I passed onwards alone I envied them for their easy companionship.

Life is hard in these mountains. I was constantly reminded that while I was making this journey just because it was what I wanted to do, the local people were using the trails out of necessity. If ever I thought I was making good progress this reminder put me firmly back in my place.

It wasn't all easy. And my feet took a battering. Despite my best attempts to dry them out every night, having wet feet all day every day for days on end took its toll. The pain reached a peak around Manaslu / Annapurna region. The raw points wouldn't heal and every step was like walking on needles.

Crossing the Larkya La (5135m) to the north of Manaslu.

The sense of space was sometimes nearly overwhelming. As was the knowledge that this vast space can be crossed on foot and alone.

It was humbling and yet empowering.

People asked about my worst moment.

Without hesitation I tell the story of one particular river crossing high in Dolpo between the villages of Chharka Bhot (4302m) and Tinje (4110m). Yes, this is high country!

Early morning in Chharka Bhot (4302m).

I'd been in and out of the river at its source on the descent from the Mola La (5030m) until the point where it was joined by the Dikhun Khola. There was no bridge but it was shallow and not particularly fast flowing, I didn't even remember the crossing from 2016. I selected a nice wide shallow part, took my (now dry) shoes and socks off, and started across.

Two thirds of the way, and already shaking, I realised just how cold I was and how serious this could become. If I lost feeling and fell thus soaking the contents of my rucksack I would have no way to warm up. Going back would take longer than going forward and I needed to get out fast.

I one-handedly pulled my remaining pole out of my rucksack pocket (its partner long since broken weeks earlier and this one kept for emergencies) and forged onwards.

I crawled up the far bank, pulled on my second duvet jacket and crouched cowering in the gorse. It was some time before I could force socks and running shoes back onto my icy feet. Huddled down I was suddenly surprised by two Dolpa-pas on horseback. They passed before I even thought to call out, so surprised was I. Traffic is light on these trails.

Eventually I hauled myself onto my unfeeling feet. Ever tried walking on something you cannot feel? It is somehow disconcerting, destroying any sense of balance. An hour later, feet just starting to come round, I could see two figures sat at the far side of an open grassy kharka. The horsemen had stopped for a break and waved me over. They fed me tea and roti. We shared some broken conversation. I left them reluctantly knowing likely they had beer too and once they overtook me I'd be unlikely to see anyone for hours.

This is what I'd wanted, I kept reminding myself. This is what I had wanted; the roughness and the difficulty, as well as the beauty and intensity of the experience.

I had wanted it all.

People also ask me about my best moment. That's a harder question. It's more about the whole journey with all of its ups and downs. It's about the challenges - physical, mental and emotional. It's about a fundamental appreciation of the small things. It's about making strong connections with people yet staying detached. It's about a sense of empowerment and learning how to share that with others.

It's about the people I met. This is their story too.

Happiness is meeting friends again.

In 2016.

She and I are the same age. He is four years younger. She speaks some English. He speaks only Tibetan.

On the last day of October he had wondered to his wife whether the foreign woman on her own would come again. I turned up that evening after dark.

So many questions he had, so much he wanted to talk about, she told me. But language failed us.

So much different, so much the same.

I was transfixed by this young boy (and his cap) in Bhijer (3850m).

A remote corner of Dolpo there are just three trails leading from the village. I drank tea and bought biscuits and noodles before heading over the pass to the last village of Pho (4087m) and the wild, habitation-less crossing into Mugu.

I have a twin nephew and niece living in NYC just a little bit younger than this boy. Their lives couldn't be more different.

Leaving Pho (4087m), the last village of Dolpo, just after daybreak.

Between two worlds.

When an end is (nearly) in sight.

Looking towards Mugu having just crossed the Chyargo La (5150m) in the far north west of Dolpo.

This was the moment I suddenly felt I was getting close to completion. There where the sun was setting was my way out of this.

People commented that I should sometimes smile at the camera. But if you are in the cold and wind somewhere above 5000m, anxious about the descent ahead and where to sleep for the night, posing for the camera that only you are holding up doesn't really come too high on any list of priorities!

"This" being this 35 day journey on foot alone to cross Nepal from east to west. For no better reason than I really needed to go for a long walk.

After this high, wild and isolated stretch, ahead and below me the way would finally be easier again, with food, shelter and people to talk to.

But there still at 5000m, cold, buffeted by wind, night falling and with days still ahead of me I thought about what lay at the end of this long walk - hugging a dear friend, drinking a coffee, washing in hot water, eating something tasty, reading, conversation.

The first habitation in over 48 hours. After a couple of icy bivvies, reaching a fireside and food felt like untold comfort, even though not wanting to stop for an hour of cooking time it was still only noodle soup. The mother was away, but the girls remembered me from before and these two small children waved me off on my way.

Finally I was warm enough to strip down to my running leggings and remove my long pants. In the cold of Dolpo I'd had no reason to look beyond my feet. Only now I realised how deeply the dust and dirt was ingrained into my skin.

If you can force your heart and nerve and sinew, to serve your turn long after they are gone. And so hold on when there is nothing in you, except the Will which says to them:

“Hold on”.

Rudyard Kipling

In 2016 I started in one pair of running shoes, and sent a new identical pair to Kagbeni. My feet had changed shape by the time I reached there. The old shoes were rotting but I had to cut the new shoes to even get them on my feet. It took days to beat them into some semblance of comfort.

The 2016 shoes.

In 2017 I decided to learn from past mistakes and I sent an old and wide pair of running shoes to Kagbeni. I forgot that these were already second hand and that I'd since worn them well. They were super comfortable but I gave them more than they had life for. By the far side of Dolpo they were split from toe to heel.

There is a pain that I know very well. It is distinctive and uncompromising. Even so I tried to deny it, until I had to admit that this was no phantom pain that would disappear. This was likely three stress fractures in my foot and I was still a 3-day journey from Hilsa, from where I would have a 66km backtrack to Simikot for my waiting flight.

The trail became my torment instead of my ally.

More than 30 days of a tough journey had given body and mind back their strength, but now tiny bones in one foot reminded me I was not invincible. Sometimes I'd stop for tea, momentarily forget the pain and simply enjoy the realisation that I'd got so far. Moving again my foot would harshly remind me the achievement was false and there would be a price to go further.

I reached the last pass, the Nara La (4560m). I was so close but the pain was nearly unbearable. The delorme satellite tracker which had been sat in my rucksack pocket for the whole journey started pinging. Rich had sent out news and people were sending encouragement. I started to run, tears streaming down my face, some stubborn piece of me wanted to reach that bridge before the end of my 35th day.

I reached the bridge across the Karnali and the border with Tibet with just 3 minutes to spare.

No one was there. This time not even the police were on the checkpoint to tell me not to step foot on the bridge across to Tibet.

I finished alone just as I had started.

Already cold I took shelter in a teahouse and sat crouched by the fire reflecting on what this had all been about.

There is no destination, there is only the journey.

It took sheer bloody mindedness and a 22 hour day to backtrack to Simikot with my broken foot.

Snow had fallen overnight, it was beautiful and very, very cold. It reminded me how lucky I'd been to make this journey not once, but twice.

I met this boy and his mother in 2016. This time he waited four hours on the trail to make sure he didn't miss me as I passed again on my return to Simikot.

A journey is made up of moments. Those moments are all that count.

Finally in Simikot, sat on a hard bed in a cold lodge room, I unpacked the parcel Rich had sent for me. Clean clothes, sandals, toothbrush, but that wasn't all ... he had also packed a loaf of bread, two apples, some nuts, a lump of cheese and a small bottle of wine. After being on my own for so long it brought me to tears, the thread connecting me back to Kathmandu and my other world.

I knew I would mourn the simplicity and discipline of these days on foot. I would miss the beauty and the freedom I found in the high mountains. I would alternately be grateful for and resent a return to the places where life was (relatively) easier. But it was time now to go back to my other world.

This journey was about many things, but also about trying to give opportunities to Nepali runners, particularly girls, for whom one chance can be a catalyst for much wider change. It’s not just about running, or winning, but changing attitudes, widening horizons and improving lives. It’s really important.

In 2016 we opened a fundraiser. It is closed now but you can read more here. If you'd like to donate please email us directly. Any contributions are still very welcome.


Cover photo © Richard Bull | GHT Map © Himalayan Map House & Robin Boustead | Words and photos © Lizzy Hawker / KORA Explore 2018.

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