On the morning we started heading for the finish line, we woke to find the mountains covered in a fresh blanket of snow. There was a sweet smell to the air: in Gamgadhi it had only rained, and the air was clean now. It smelled of crispy mornings and fresh water. It was nice to walk in that smell, in that sweet clean air, rather than the endless dust we’d gotten used to.
I was not looking forward to it. It was hard to get out of bed, to summon the motivation for lots of climbing and relentless undulation. Then a happy thought occurred to me. Yesterday we got in touch with our agent in Kathmandu and booked our flights out of Simikot. Heck, they were expensive: it was about as much to fly from Simikot to Kathmandu as it was to get from Kathmandu to Europe. An alternative was to fly just to Nepalgunj and then spend 15-18 hours on the local bus to Pokhara. As much as I think the local bus is an essential Nepal-experience, just now I don’t think I could handle that much of it anymore. Sometimes comfort doesn’t have a price.
Anyhow. That meant that 8 days from now, on the first of February, we would get wings, get out of the cold mountains, and find ourselves back in the capital. Eight days from now we could go to Dolce Vita and have one heck of a celebration with cheese croquettes, amazing pizza, and beer. So I smiled. We all smiled that morning and walked hard. Somewhere, somehow there was power and courage left in all of us. Courage that in my case was driven by the beautiful promise of pizza.
The ambiance did not last very long. Our GHT councillors Lisa and Stuart had sent us all their best tips for this stretch, with some places marked as ‘dubious’, ‘odd’, or something along those lines. The people here were odd. They did not smile, and they did not chat. Except to demand things from us: some demanded money, others demanded our poles, and of some we were unsure whether they demanded food or medicine though we had neither to give.
We planned to spend the night in Bam but it was so hostile that we walked as far away from it as we could. A few villages on an angry lady made us understand that we could only stay in the guesthouse if we gave her cough medicine. We didn’t have any, nor a stomach to stand all this begging and demanding any longer. We disappeared out of sight to set up our tents high on the hill.
Besides of a randomly shouting drunk man it was a quiet night. There was a beautiful sunset over the mountains, who now instead of barren brown were virgin white as far as the eye could see. It was cold – a cold spell followed after the storm – but clear. And somehow we’d escaped the worst of it: the pass above us lay open whereas the hills around were covered in white. The threatening clouds which were predicted to bring more snow had disappeared in the afternoon without touching us. At least the mountains were still smiling on us, even if the people were not.
The following morning we climbed to our last pass: Chankheli Lagna. I remembered a story Robin once told us about his guide Pema. “One more Pass…”, he had warned with a finger lifted in the air, “… if I have to do ONE more pass!” That was exactly how I felt. Yet the way to pizza was over the pass, so I climbed on muttering and cursing. 200m before the top we entered a magical snowy forest. The view from the top was really nice too: the endless white on one side, and a wall of jagged, white peaks on the other. There are so many untamed mountains in this corner of the country. It was amazing, but the wind cut straight through bone that morning so we did not linger long.
Luckily a lot of donkey trains pass this way, otherwise it would have been hard to find the path on the powder-covered steep hill down. The walk was relentlessly undulating but we kept our pace. We wanted to make it to Rimi, a village with a nice guesthouse. It was a long day, a hard day: by the end of it my ankle was swollen and hurting again. We found the guesthouse completely locked.
We tried to inquire in the village whether or not the owners would show up at some point. The people on this side of the pass were a bit more easy-going, though still not quite friendly. They just told us to sit there, so we sat and waited but no one ever showed up. When that became clear Marylene went out again to find noodles, but when she tried to ask some guys if there was a shop they only laughed at her. She did find some eventually, so we set up our tents in the garden of the closed guesthouse. Noodles were a meagre dinner after pushing hard with high hopes for dal bhat.
It wasn’t that though, the lack of proper dinner, that cracked us. It was the stares. We were stared at for hours in the evening, and then in the morning again. People stood above us, pointing and shouting out things in Nepali that we did not understand. In the morning we just stared back, which in turn made them feel uncomfortable. Then we left. I felt bad afterwards, but I didn’t know what else to do. I understand that people are curious, that they don’t see a lot of westerners and especially not a lot of tents. But in other places people had a look, a chat, and then let us be. I was over feeling like a monkey in a zoo.
I realised then that more than anything, I was mentally and emotionally exhausted. Physically I could take more: my body would keep doing what the head required of it, as long as the head just kept it together. It did not. The head just wanted to be done, it wanted to go home, something that is quite new to me. Messner once wrote: […] The longer I climb, the less important the goal seems to me, the more indifferent I become to myself. My attention has diminished, my memory is weakened. My mental fatigue is now greater than the bodily. It is so pleasant to sit doing nothing – and therefore so dangerous. Death through exhaustion is – like death through freezing – a pleasant one.”
I recognised that feeling from Sherpani Col. After I fell I just wanted to sit down, stay there. Thankfully I had guides who roped me in and pushed me on. There was no mortal danger in Humla, only fatigue and indifference. At times I wished we’d just settled for Gamgadhi. At times I really didn’t care whether it was Simikot we got to, or some other place.
Yet at times we talked about what happened on those high passes, on the way down from Sherpani Col. it took long, long after I fell and after I hired Sondesz, long even after we returned to Kathmandu for the magnitude of what happened there to dawn on all of us. When I fell down several meters and hit my head on the rocks at over 6100 meters above sea level a coin was flipped, and I had an equal chance to live as I had to die. That realisation hits me hard sometimes, just as it can hit the group with the power of a thunderstorm. But I lived. And those who live must make the most out of that, for one by finishing what they have started.
Simikot matters. The countdown now stood on one hand. We stocked up on food after Rimi, deciding it would do us more good camping quietly out in the woods, even if that meant forsaking dal bhat. That would also keep our sleeping bags clear of the bedbugs that this area was so notorious for. Maybe we already had them, though. I wondered sometimes if we might have picked up some flees and lice on the way as well.
Once we hit the river, things got much better. The high route goes up and over another pass at 4000m, but being in the state we were in and with snow on high elevations we decided to follow the river path down in the valley. In the sunny afternoon we were making our way on a newly built gravel road when a couple of locals called us down to the river, asking if we wanted to eat. These people were so nice that we soon forgot all the bad feelings of the previous days. There were hot springs too: a lot of people were bathing and relaxing, though we never would have noticed if we didn’t go down. After a couple more hours along the river we came across the perfect camping spot. Some people came to have a look and a chat, then went on. Things had a better feel there.
We started to understand that we might be in Simikot a day earlier than we thought, so we kept the pace high. The valley was beautiful: the azure blue Humla Karnali wound its way around spectacular cliffs, with parts of equally spectacular trail carved out in the rock itself. Some of the fields were green here, reviving the landscape. Going was still tough: the undulation remained relentless, yet so were we. In the afternoon we came upon the village of Rip, where a guy greeted us pleasantly outside a small guesthouse. Suddenly I couldn’t bear the thought of eating nothing but noodles once again: my stomach was empty, my legs out of power. I pleaded with the others to spend the night there. Rice and potatoes have seldom been such a treat.
From Rip we were sure that if we pushed, we would make it out in two days. The entire stretch from Gamgadhi had been an emotional rollercoaster, the whole GHT had been, and the final two days all the more. In the evening in Rip I cried, though I wasn’t quite sure why. In the morning I wanted to cry again, just because I wished it was all over. Planes passed overhead and I just wanted to be in one. Fly away, fly back, fly home. Mentally and emotionally, I was the wrecked one. PJ and Marylene, they felt the physical much more.
Other times I knew I was getting there and I felt strong. Even with a swollen ankle, there was still steel left in those calves and thighs, though only when the mind was in a mood to use the steel. A part of me kept on refusing to believe that I was actually finishing it. By all means, we shouldn’t have! I should have been hospitalised, and this thing should have broken us long ago. We knew nothing when we started this.
Sometimes we talked and laughed about all of it, remembering Ongjuk and his machete, and how he saved us. Remembering all the questions we got in Kathmandu. Are you taking on a guide? No! Do you speak the local language? No! Do you have any mountaineering experience? No! Have you ever been at altitude before? No! Are you taking an extra porter then to carry some of your luggage? Noooo! I don’t know how we did it. I don’t know how we managed to get this far. If there weren’t any pictures of me on those passes and on every single stretch of the trail, I would doubt the truth of it myself. I do know one thing: that these mountains have been smiling on us all along. There has been more almost-didn’t-make-it situations than I can count on my hands, and yet here we are. Maybe we were destined for this trip, maybe we were just lucky, and maybe we had a bit of favour of the powerful giants we walked by.
On our final night in the mountains we set up our tents at the edge of a village. A woman and her daughter came to watch us, both being funny. Then another woman showed up, all stern, demanding money. That had not happened before, but we did not have much choice so we payed. PJ was annoyed about it. Marylene and I went on a quest in the village to find eggs. It was the stern lady who sold them. It turned out she was really nice: after we purchased the eggs we stayed for tea and befriended most of the village in the process.
People were still asking us for medicine (in a nice way, though). We’d learned by now that the health posts had nothing to give, while people were dying from a common cold. I felt bad. I wished we could help them. We were maybe on our way out, but they remained here: living hard lives in damp, cold, smoky houses. There is really nowhere to recover, even from a simple cold. I resolved to get in touch with some organisations to see if they were doing any work in this area. I couldn’t do anything now, but that doesn’t mean I can’t try when I get back.
The villagers came by for a merry chat while we were cooking dinner, then left us to ourselves. A warm feeling overwhelmed me when I went to bed. These people, this country, this trip: how amazing had it been. All the things we’d seen and done. “One trail to rule them all”, the posters of the Great Himalaya Trail read. Devastating, brutal, harsh as it may be, it’s true. There will not be a journey to the likes of this one again. I slept like a baby that night.
On the final morning we had another cup of tea in the village, then set out for the finish. We left the bright blue river behind and started the long 900m climb to Simikot. It was a tiring final hill. A lot of the other long and weary climbs from the past month came to memory. It was such a fitting end to it, though. In Taplejung we’d spent the first hours of the Great Himalaya Trail on a knee-wrecking descent, while we were now spending our last sweating with burning legs on an endless ascent. It was so fitting I was amused. Yet still, my head was not processing it. It was just another long hill up, which surely tomorrow we would have to go down again.
When the town came into view, Marylene was done for. PJ was confused. I just had a mind for finishing it. I’d always imagined that when I reach the end, when the town would pop up, I would be utterly overwhelmed and cry. But even when we found our hotel and put our packs down for the last time, no tears came. We hugged and we congratulated each other, but we were all too smashed to grasp it. We did it, we pulled it off, we walked the length of Nepal through the Himalaya in winter! It did not dawn on me. All I felt was a calm inside, and a burden that fell off my shoulders. Even when the congratulations started coming through, the fact that it was done did not hit home.
Sleep came hard on everyone that night: too many thoughts toiled through our heads. In the morning my senses were dulled by exhaustion, of which I rated myself an 11 on a scale of 1 to 10. Just now we could feel how truly tired we all were. I was amazed we had managed to keep going in this state. We could not even summon the energy to walk down to the airport and see if it was possible to fly out a day early. For two days we sat motionless on the balcony of hotel Kailash, looking for warmth. We did not talk much. Everyone turned inward, trying to make sense of it all.
Other than exhaustion, there was emptiness. Where once all the planning, anticipation and ambition for the Great Himalaya Trail had been an empty space remained. I knew that place: the black hole of a great adventure’s aftermath. It had come when we looked upon the Southern Ocean in New Zealand as well. Only at the end of Te Araroa we were fit, strong and fierce people; while now we had been broken, we were numb, we were ghosts in Simikot.
It all hit home on the plane. While we sat and waited clouds were gathering over the mountains with a promise of snow. The forecast promised it too: snow and clouds and rain until the middle of February. We got out on the brink: soon the planes would not be going. My brother always says I was born to be lucky, I suppose he is right. The mountains smiled in the sunlight as we made our way to the plane. They smiled on us until the end.
As the pilot made the engines roar and the ground disappeared beneath the wheels, the tears came. Tears of joy, tears of disbelief, tears for all that happened along the way. I couldn’t believe that I was still alive, and at the same time never felt more like it.
That was the scariest flights I’ve ever been on. The plane rocked and tilted and swayed in the wind. Marylene and I both had a puking bag in hand after 15 minutes. She got to put hers away, I didn’t. In Nepalgunj we never entered the airport: we were led across the tarmac to a plane bound for Kathmandu. The promise was a reality now: there is no celebration like a pizza-and-beer one.
On the way there, the white giants made their final appearance. Tall and proud they pierced above the clouds, and it felt as if old friends were saying goodbye. I knew them now: Dhaulagiri, Annapurna I, II and IV, Fishtail, Manaslu, the Langtang range and many more. It looked tough, all of it. Seen from up there, it became even more absurd that we’d passed them all. I felt incredibly proud, and even more at peace. “For the sake of curiosity and peace of mind, I must go on.” And I did.
I’m guessing many of you are wondering what I’ve learned from it all. The biggest lesson is to make a start. Don’t listen to the voices saying it’s impossible. Don’t give up out of fear. Start, take one step at a time, and the rest will follow. And even if it does turn out to be impossible, well… as soon as the first step is taken, you haven’t failed.
That, and to remember. Remember to be grateful for all we have at home. Remember that the small annoyances don’t mean anything. Remember the people, their hospitality, the harsh lives they lead with a smile. Remember that things are getting rough when toilet paper is one of your dearest possessions. And remember a time when happiness was simply having an egg.
As a disclaimer in his guidebook, Robin wanted to write: “You think you can do it, but you probably can’t.” As for me, it became exactly the opposite. I thought I couldn’t do it, but as it turned out, I could.
“Through these fields of destruction
Baptisms of fire
I’ve witnessed your suffering
As the battle raged high
And though they did hurt me so bad
In the fear and alarm
You did not desert me
My brothers in arms”
Total ascent: 63640 m
Total descent: 60290 m
Total distance: 1263 km