In late April I walked alone into the Himalayas for a five day trek with nothing but a small day pack on my back. Does this seem scary? If so I completely understand. I don’t think I’m particularly courageous and plenty of fears crossed my mind as I thought about and planned the trek. Without a guide, maybe I’d get lost in the mountains and never be found. Maybe I’d be buried in an avalanche. Or die in a heavy snowstorm. Or maybe there would be another deadly earthquake, like the one that hit Nepal in 2015. All these things have in fact killed plenty of trekkers in Nepal. But it’s also worth noting that there were about 6,000 pedestrian fatalities last year in the United States and yet we still keeping crossing the street.
Planning the trek in Nepal was in a sense a case study of what I wrote about late last year in the second of two posts on fear (“Getting Friendly with Fear”). A big problem is that all too often we are ruled by this and other negative emotions. Fear can be particularly irrational and often holds us back – we worry a lot about infinitesimal risks (eg. terrorism and foreign travel) and don’t give enough thought to things that are actually really dangerous (eg. unsafe driving and unhealthy eating). Personally, I think that eating processed food every day is a lot more dangerous than trekking in Nepal (with the exception of a small number of high risk treks like Everest ascents) but before doing my homework about my specific trek I didn’t know for sure, so I looked into each of the risks before committing.
As I started to think about doing the trek, I realized I wanted to do it without a group or guide as long as that could be done safely. I find group tours ridiculously over-structured with everyone doing this or that at the same time and with trekking you have a wide variety of fitness levels. So a group trek was out of the question, but I was slightly more on the fence about getting a guide, which plenty of solo trekkers do. Aside from the obvious benefit of not getting lost, I definitely felt I could learn a lot from a local guide, about the region, the local villages and culture. Also, guides call ahead and reserve guest houses each day so you don’t need to worry about finding a place to stay each night.
In spite of these benefits, my preference was to do the trek without a guide. Tour guides are a bit like baby sitters for adults and I’m not used to that much supervision. This isn’t at all to say they are unprofessional. In general I had a great impression of the Nepali guides I met on the trail and at guesthouses (and for about $25/day I think they provide a valuable service for many trekkers). It’s just that I feel pretty confident in my ability to get from point A to point B pretty much anywhere on earth and I don’t think I need a local to hold my hand. The guide I had for the short sunrise trek in Bali (a guide was compulsory on that mountain) was both professional and likable as a person but at the top of the mountain, when I walked around getting photos from different vantage points, it irritated me when he repeatedly asked me to stay with the group.
Often in this blog, I point out an analogy between the way we travel and the way we make our way through this world over the course of our lives. I’ve never had a “job” (one way of structuring how we make a living) or a marriage (one way of structuring our romantic, sexual and reproductive lives), and in my travels I prefer the freedom of independently planned and unguided exploration. Sometimes I stop for 20-30 minutes and take photos of something and I don’t want to be apologizing to the guide or having him prod me to keep moving. Also, one of the major joys of independent solo travel is all the interesting people I meet and I don’t want to feel that I’m knocking the guide off his planned schedule if I get into a chat with a fellow trekker on the trail or at a rest spot.
So as I researched and planned the trek, I tried to confirm if I could do it safely without a group or a guide. I started learning about the trek and any risks involved, not just physical dangers but practical issues like finding a room every night. In this day and age, that’s really easy to do. The trek I did (Ghorepani-Poon Hill Trek) is on almost all “best Himalaya treks” lists and there are numerous blog posts and YouTube videos documenting it. With this or any other travel destination, you can also see what it looks like by doing a Google image search or searching Instagram (#poonhilltrek). In Kathmandu I also asked a lot of locals and more experienced trekkers relevant questions (Do you really need a guide? Will the guesthouses be full at this time of year? Do I need a sleeping bag? etc. etc.) and I found their wisdom invaluable.
After learning about the trek from these sources, I realized that this was a really established trek on clear trails and that it would be almost impossible to get lost. Every day there were a few places where the path reached a sort of junction. Many times there was a sign pointing which way to the next village and when there wasn’t there was usually a local somewhere around to ask (or at most I waited five minutes for some trekkers with a guide to come along). There’s almost never any snow along this route in late April so I was able to cast aside concerns about weather related perils as well. So after confirming that the risks of doing this trek solo were very small, I planned ahead with a sense of both relief and anticipation.
While people who do these treks solo and without a guide are definitely in a small minority, in my own mind I feel like I wimped out a bit. Ghorepani-Poon Hill is pretty close to the easiest possible Himalayan Trek you can do. The trek I most wanted to do in terms of scenery and potential for photography was the Annapurna Circuit, a trek around the entire Annapurna range, which takes about 12 days and offers stunning views of the Annapurna mountains, forests and also the Mustang desert region on the north of the loop. Just before I left Bangkok an Australian guy half my age who I met at a networking event here described the Annapurna Circuit as the hardest thing he’d ever done. The trek covers about 200 km and reaches a max altitude of 5416m but the physical challenge had nothing to do with my choice. I picked my five day trek because I’m very much a city person and I was worried that I’d get bored during 12 days in the mountains, with not a jazz bar, art gallery or fine restaurant in sight. Ghorepani-Poon Hill seemed like a great way to taste test a Himalayan trek, but I still think I was a bit of a weenie for not making a more challenging choice.
I should note though that even this modest Himalayan trek isn’t for anyone who is out of shape, overweight or has heart problems of any kind. You ascend to a maximum altitude of 3,200 m and much of the trek is over 2,500 m. At those altitudes there’s 20-25% less oxygen in the air. You’ll definitely notice the thin mountain air while climbing the 4,000 stone steps leading to Ghorepani on day 2. Out of the hundreds of trekkers I encountered on the five day trek I only saw two people who were extremely overweight. Plenty of thin people struggle with this though, because of the altitude, because they have busy lives and don’t exercise back home etc. I think of myself as a skinny weakling but I can say I’m in good shape physically and during the trek I more than held my own against trekkers half my age.
Along with my slight shame at choosing one of the easier treks I’m even more embarrassed about worrying that I would find the time in the mountains boring. The trek was one of the most memorable experiences of my life, and I’ve had a pretty unconventional life so that’s saying a lot! To start, the Himalayas were among the most beautiful sights I’ve seen in all my travels, and there was plenty of other great nature along the route as well. After the incredible natural beauty, meeting lots of really interesting trekkers and locals was another great experience. A few of these people would likely become good friends if we lived in the same place and a couple of them are talking about visiting me in Bangkok. I’ve only returned to a small portion of the places I’ve traveled, but I’m thinking about going back to Nepal in October and November to do the Annapurna Circuit and experience Diwali, the Hindu festival of lights in Pokhara, the gateway to most Annapurna treks. I’m already looking forward to that and thinking about the great photos I’ll be able to share on the blog.
I shared photos from one day of the trek in the last post and here are the rest of my favorite photos from the trek.