The Climate Smart Great Himalayan Trek

It has been eight years since a group of hikers and a dog walked across Nepal to promote tourism and highlight the climate crisis

Apa Sherpa making way to a high pass in the higher sections of the Great Himalayan Trail. Photo: HIMALAYAN CLIMATE INITIATIVE

A broad smile lit his bearded face as Dawa Steven Sherpa strode towards us down the mountain path. The afternoon sun glinted off grey stone walls and wheeling crows croaked overhead on his approach, a dark coloured dog trotting cheerfully at his heels.

Behind Dawa, Apa Sherpa grinned broadly, a diminutive figure brimming with taut energy, followed by Samir, the tall shy photographer hung with cameras, and an entourage of assorted small children and curious hangers-on. After a month walking the Great Himalaya Trail the team were bronzed and hardened, their leg muscles solid under the dusty grime, and shoulders rippling beneath sweaty tee-shirts and big packs.

“Great to see you guys. We are almost halfway!” called Dawa Steven optimistically, hugging his girlfriend who had travelled with us to Gorkha from Kathmandu that morning. “The dog has been with us since Thame!” After our early start, we were happy to sit with the party exchanging news over cups of milky tea in a village shop, prior to the official municipal welcome felicitations within the lofty precincts of the Gorkha palace.

The Great Himalaya Trail Climate Smart Celebrity Trek was the brainchild of Prashant Singh, traversing the 1,700km length of the Nepal Himalaya through 22 districts from Ghunsa in the shadow of Mt Kangchenjunga in the east to Darchula in Humla on Nepal’s far western border. Its high-profile purpose was to draw attention to the effects of climate change on mountain ecosystems, and spread the word to the local communities through which they passed.

The historic town of Gorkha was a convenient meeting point, although closer to one third the total length. Prashant and I had brought a bus-load of Kathmandu-based media to further publicise the initiative. And to check how they were getting on in those days before widespread cell coverage connected the hills.

Apa, the first ‘Super Sherpa’ to summit Everest 21 times, came from his Utah home for the awareness-raising event, and Dawa Steven took a break from mountaineering and climate ambassador advocacy activities. Prashant’s Himalayan Climate Initiative was just newly formed in 2012, and keen to make its mark on the government, local NGOs and foreign donors concerned with environmental issues whom he had persuaded to fund this novel expedition.

The effort was lauded by the President and Prime Minister, and several intrepid ambassadors and Kathmandu development workers accompanied sections of their hike. Messages of goodwill and “god speed” were received from international supporters such as Al Gore, Reinhold Messner and Joanna Lumley. At a roadhead in Sindhupalchok, Apa was presented with a certificate from the boss of the Guinness Book of Records in a makeshift ceremony.

Films and photos taken along the route are still being used today, showcasing some of the most rugged and breath-taking mountain landscapes on earth, and passing beneath eight of the world’s highest peaks. Both VNY2020 and Nepal Tourism Board are dedicated to promoting the Great Himalaya Trail as a long distance multi-day walk, conveniently divided into bite sized sections to encourage repeat visits. Tara Airlines have painted the GHT logo onto its STOL aircraft and boarding passes.

Himalayan Climate Initiative has since become one of Nepal’s most innovative organisations, dedicated to finding sustainable solutions and practical business responses to the rapidly escalating environmental concerns that are engulfing Nepal. Recycling plastic bottles, producing re-useable shopping bags and collecting rainwater are just some of the ideas they have turned into thriving social enterprises. Based in an expansive Budhanilkantha site, I recently listened to exciting experiments from college kids that included vertical vegetable farming, natural water purification, plastic waste for road building, and reuse of household grey water.

The celebrity trek was cleverly created as part of the overall Great Himalayan Trail Development Programme, a government project supported by the British and Dutch, and designed by a TRC team of Nepali consultants of which I was team leader. Our objective was to spread tourism benefits and stimulate local livelihoods by promoting trekking beyond Sagarmatha, Langtang and Annapurna. In 2010 an estimated 95% of all trekkers to Nepal were concentrated in those popular protected areas with only 6,000 tourists venturing further afield. Today, that figure has grown to nearly 30,000, and more when Nepali trekkers are included.

I certainly did not conceive this ‘iconic and globally significant new tourism product’ for Nepal, but I was the first to weave it into government plans -- the National Ecotourism Strategy and Marketing Plan first featured the Great Himalaya Trail in 2001, a long time ago.

Two people had stumbled upon the GHT concept concurrently from their different perspectives – marketing and rural development. Jamie McGuinness, a Kiwi climber and trek organiser, one evening in 2000 on my pink sofaed sitting room, explained his inspired idea to film a multi-country trek along the length of the entire Hindu Kush Himalaya. Shortly afterwards, Malcolm ‘Mac’ Odell of The Mountain Institute, over lunch in his Baluwatar home, shared his brainwave to harness tourism to bring benefits and business opportunities for remote communities between and beyond the three established trek areas.

We were following in the footsteps of early pioneers. Mountaineer Peter Hillary led the first high altitude traverse in 1980, Americans Arlene Blum and Hugh Swift first walked the full length from East Bhutan through Nepal and India in 1982, and the British Crane brothers first ran the Nepal Himalaya in 1983. Many adventurers have ensued including commercial trips, boosted by Robin Boustead’s 2011 book, several websites and a series of published maps.

We modified the route to maximise benefits for mountain residents, using a cobweb of lower trails winding east west through the middle hills, ensuring the widest appeal for hikers and even bikers. Like the historic Silk Road, the precise path moves with the time of year and aspiration of the trekker.

Waving goodbye in the sunshine outside the glowing brick walls of the Gorkha palace, Apa, Dawa Steven, Samir and their team still had a very long way to walk. Speeding along the trails as their fitness levels increased, and despite daily stoppages to explain their mission to ever-growing crowds of interested villagers and local authorities as word spread ahead of them, they completed the traverse in just 99 days.

And when they returned to Kathmandu, tired and triumphant, Setuk the dog ‘with yellow eyebrows’ was still with them.

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Lisa Choegyal