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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Disappointment. What had, in 2016, been the perfect trail stretching out before me, was now being dug into road.
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.
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.
The sense of space was sometimes nearly overwhelming. As was the knowledge that this vast space can be crossed on foot and alone.
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!
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.
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.
Happiness is meeting friends again.
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.
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.
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.
"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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
A journey is made up of moments. Those moments are all that count.
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.