Journey On foot across the Nepal Himalaya

Beautiful, rough, hard and unforgettable.

circa 1000 miles

circa 100,000m ascent

twelve 5000m passes

42 days

This journey was a crossing of the Nepal Himalaya from Kanchenjunga in the east to Hilsa in the west, between 21st September and 2nd November 2016. It was a variation on the high route of the Nepal section of the Great Himalaya Trail, made in alpine style - fast and light with minimal support.

It's hard, or nearly impossible, to capture a 1000 mile journey in a few photos and a few words. It's difficult to describe the multitude of sights and sounds, or to explain the experiences, feelings and emotions. The moments shared here are just a small part of the story to give some insight into what was a wild and wonderful adventure.

After my first run from Everest Base Camp to Kathmandu in 2007 I longed to make another such journey but longer and higher. Rich first told me about the Great Himalaya Trail in early 2010, and it was in fact the embodiment of the kind of journey I had been thinking about. It became my dream. An attempt in 2011 ended abruptly after getting lost in jungle forest between the Kanchenjunga and Makalu regions. A return was delayed by a long and tough period of injury and uncertainty. I kept dreaming.

But sometimes with a lot of hard work, a lot of trust and a lot of support, dreams can become reality. This journey turned my dream into a reality. And I want to use it to help young girls in Nepal to use their dreams to change their reality. You can read more about this later, please do support us if you can.

Everything starts somewhere. Lhonak (4785m), the yak grazing grounds below Kanchenjunga Base Camp. My GHT journey started here, up in the damp and heavy clouds, although in fact it was simply a continuation of what began five years earlier in 2011. Monsoon stayed late. My feet stayed sodden. I reached the Khumbu before I dried out and the clouds lifted. I reached Langtang before the mountains appeared.

Basic necessities. Steaming just cooked millet ready for tongba. I slept under a roof when I could. Eating and sleeping enough became necessary in order to keep going day after day. I didn't always get enough of either. I had some cold, roofless nights. But more important than food and shelter was sitting by the fire sharing broken conversation. It was these connections with people I met that made the journey real.

Communication. This satellite tracker was my bridge between the known and the unknown - transmitting my location, and permitting an exchange of messages that conveyed the support of those I needed it from. I was alone for extended periods of time, but unlike 5 years earlier in 2011, I was never totally isolated. The tracker sat in my rucksack pocket against my chest. I missed the familiar sound of an incoming message when I returned to Kathmandu.

At the beginning I couldn't think of the end.

Each day there was something to worry about, something to challenge me. So when I was drinking tea I had to just drink tea. Otherwise the moment of drinking tea was also lost and it was those moments that kept me going. I drank a lot of tea.

One caveat - the Great Himalaya Trail is not a recreational trail. It is a vague concept that in reality is a network of local paths. I was here because I wanted to be. The locals are on the trails because they need to use them. Think about it. It is humbling.

One bridge and one moment of gut wrenching realisation. When a bridge stops in mid-air …

Yaks go shopping in Tibet. This broken bridge necessitated a two day detour following fresh yak shit, crossing three sub 5000m passes to reach the village of Yangma. It felt like the end of the world.

I spent two nights and day in this yak herders' tent. Waking in the middle of the first night with snowblindness was the worst moment of the journey. I wondered if I would ever see again.

On the 5177m Lumbha Samba. It was hard work breaking trail. But I would later regret neglecting to think about my eyes.

Jungle. In 2011 I was lost in this jungle forest - somewhere around the corner and a long way to the right of this photo. I realise now I'd never been on the main trail, just a series of small woodcutting and animal trails. At one point falling 6 to 8 metres at a time in old growth forest where suddenly there was nothing beneath my feet, I lost my permits, phone, maps, tracker, money, camera, diary. I was three nights without any means of communication and totally reliant on my own resources to resolve the situation. Had I been unable to move no-one would ever have found me.

Emerging from the jungle to the bridge across the Arun Nadi in 2016. Big relief.

It is perhaps understandable that this time I was apprehensive of this section, scared of repeating history. Post-monsoon the trail was again overgrown, but at least I was always on the main trail. I tied the delorme (satellite tracker) around my neck just in case. My eyes were still sore after the snow blindness. I was completely alone, just leeches for company. I wore my rain pants but they attacked my snow cuts and bruises. Pulling leeches off open wounds is not great. It is hard to hate an entire species but I came close that day.

Some weeks later. The leech wounds healed in time. Everything does. But I still have the scars now.

High above the west side of the Arun, in the Makalu Barun. This was fairly remote hill country. This lovely 22 year old woman took me in for the night, fed me, gave me raksi (moonshine) and a mat on her floor. She swung her baby on her back as she went about her work.

This was near to my lowest point of 452m on the banks of the Arun. The paddy fields were a vibrant green in contrast to later landscapes. My feet were still permanently wet, water was taking the easy option and streams were flowing along the trails. Kind people fed me bananas and tea and daal. I was already always hungry.

Along the entire journey a lot of people gave to me from the little that they had. I appreciated and was humbled by the hospitality, the kindness and the willingness to welcome a stranger.

A halcyon scene on leaving Bharabise. At 819m on the Arniko highway between Kathmandu and Tibet this town was my only major road crossing. Arriving at 8pm during Dashain was not a great idea. It was filthy and hard to find a bed or food. I couldn't get out of there fast enough.

Goats need to eat too. I descended into Jalbire in the middle of the day, dripping with sweat, starving and hoping for chana and alu. Still Dashain and bandh too all I could get was noodle soup in a small teashop. I drank two litres of water while I was waiting and looked at the men sitting with their beer wishing I too could take respite from the day's heat. But I had hours to go before I could call it a day. No-one was telling me to go on, but I did. For days and days I pushed onwards as though it mattered. Curious.

Looking back after crossing the 5140m Kangja La. Given the conditions this was easily the toughest pass of the journey. l had less than one hour after taking this photo to find my way off the snow covered moraine. It was hard to see any cairns.

On the pass. The chains aiding descent into Langtang were buried in snow. I opted for the ladder instead. I forgot that bare flesh on freezing metal is not such a great idea. I forgot to take a photo. I lost the trail after dark and bivyed at around 4300m under a sloping rock. It kept most of the frost off me. It was a quick descent to Kanjin Gompa in the morning light. A breakfast of milk coffee and muesli tasted like a feast.

I had met some young boys in Tarkegaon the night before. They were porter guides for a small group. They were delighted when they realised that I had passed through their village of Chyamtang some days earlier. They were both horrified and admiring when they realised my intention to cross the pass alone. They told me, "but at 40 you should be sitting by the fireside with your feet up". I think they were secretly happy that I dashed their expectations.

The village of Langtang once stood here. It was destroyed by a huge avalanche landslide triggered by the 25th April 2015 earthquake. Friends died here.

It was a beautiful morning when I descended into the Langtang valley. It made reflection on our insignificance in the face of the power of nature all the more acute.

Between Langtang and Manaslu - the perfect trail stretching out ahead. It was all the more perfect for being totally unexpected.

The trails weren't always so perfect. Rich told me to follow the cigarette packets. I did. Cigarette packets and Lhasa beer cans. I learnt to love bright trash that hadn't yet been faded by exposure to the sunlight. It meant I was on a trail that was going somewhere.

Children. They often made my day, often showed me the way, often made me think about what was important.

Bharal, or Himalayan blue sheep (Pseudois nayaur), below the 5135m Larkya La, Manaslu.

Yaks starting their descent from the pass. This was my seventh crossing since the first edition of the Manaslu Trail Race in 2012.

A powerful sense of place. Looking back towards Mustang on the ascent to the 5550m Jungben La. This was already one month into my journey.

Space. There was a lot of space. I thought I'd have a lot of time to think too. But I was actually quite busy.

Lying on my back for twenty minutes before I reached the village of Saldang in Dolpo. A rare pause. It felt wonderful. It wasn’t until this moment that I realised how little I stopped. Most days I was moving from first light until a couple of hours after darkness fell. This became my normal.

In Dolpo I was told, "but women travel by horse". In this wide open landscape a family travels to the next village on horseback. Distances are big. The climate is harsh. The environment is unforgiving. Crossing a 5000m pass with a baby is normal.

Hunger. This was on the far side of the 5414m Yala La. As soon as I found running water under the ice covered rocks I stopped and made 1.5 packets of noodle soup. I was hungry. The previous afternoon I hadn't been able to find the trail to the pass. In fact there was no trail to find. Running out of time before darkness I had tried to find shelter from the relentless wind in a dip on some rocky moraine at about 4800m. Already in my sleeping bag at 17:30 dinner had been one tsampa biscuit. Breakfast the same. I got cold enough that I reached the pass itself, despite the effort that required, before I could remove my thick bought-from-an-old-local-guy-in-Kagbeni-just-in-case duvet jacket.

It was about here that I realised the enormity of this journey. Late in the afternoon, high above the river valley I had just descended, between two wild bivys separated by a 5000m pass. The nearest person would normally be a three day journey in either direction. The sense of distance and solitude was almost overwhelming.

I was totally alone. I saw no-one from day break on the first day until night fall on the third. The villages of Pho and Mala were separated by three 5000m passes, two river descents, two major river crossings and a lot of up and down. The trail was sometimes good, sometimes sketchy and sometimes non existent. Most people traveling this way would take 7 to 8 days with horses to carry supplies.

How much is enough? This rucksack was my world for 42 days, together with what I found along the way. Here it lies on a trail on the banks of the mighty Karnali in Humla.

The final descent to the Tibetan border from the 4560m Nara La. The Tibetan plateau lies ahead. The sky is a deep blue. It is windy. I'd like to think the snow covered peak in the far distance is Kailash.

At the end I couldn't think of the beginning.

It was simply a journey.

A bridge across the Karnali, a khata and a piece of orange marking material - Hilsa and the border to Tibet - this was the end of my GHT.

I'm still working out quite where my journey took me. It was an adventure. It was a challenge. At times wild, wonderful, terrifying, awe-inspiring.

This was my Great Himalaya Trail.

It was about many things, but also about trying to raise money 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. You can read more here!

Sunmaya Budha, an 18 year old from Jumla, became the Asian SkyRunning Championships Ultra SkyMarathon® champion in her first race outside Nepal. She returns home a strong and positive role model for other young women in a remote mountain region where illiteracy, discrimination and patriarchal attitudes are still prevalent.

Big thanks to The North Face for supporting me to make this journey and enabling "Never Stop Exploring" to be what I do rather than just three words on a page.

Cover photo © Richard Bull | GHT Map © Alex Treadway | Words and photos © Lizzy Hawker / KORA Explore 2016.
Created By
Lizzy Hawker
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