Justin Lichter and Shawn Forry set off to hike the length of the Himalayas from the easternmost 8,000 meter peak in the world, Kanchenjunga, to the westernmost 8,000 meter peak, Nanga Parbat. The ambitious traverse spanned an approximate distance of 2,500 miles and it took three months for the hikers to successfully make their way out of the highest mountain range in the world. This is their story.
Every time I go on an expedition, people ask the questions, “Why did you do it?” or “Why did you go there?” The answer is simple – I want to see new places, explore new areas, and challenge myself in different conditions. The locations of my expeditions change, but the reasons don’t. This time, I chose the Himalayas.
Part of the fun of a hike is the challenge of the planning. It helps get me excited about the trip. I get to play with maps of different scales and try to weave them together like a jigsaw puzzle. The goal is always to connect as much backcountry area, big mountains, deep river valleys, and anything relatively unpopulated, with the least amount of walking on roads. Sometimes this works like a charm and other times it leaves you disgruntled and hating life as you plod along on hot asphalt with cars whizzing by for what seems like an eternity. Nevertheless, knowing that my route was great or needed some tweaks, and then dealing with everything that entails, makes the trip that much more rewarding.
There wasn’t much information out about a route through the Himalayas when we undertook this project. Robin Boustead, a native Australian who is living in Kathmandu, is trying to put together a Great Himalaya Trail through the Himalayas. He had published a guidebook on many treks in Nepal. We were able to get some information from him. At the time, he had only hiked the Nepal section of the route we were planning so we gathered the information he had for that section and bought some maps for planning the rest of the trek.
India and Pakistan are relatively unknown. We used websites, Lonely Planet hiking books, road maps, and anything else we could find. In a few cases we even read historical biographies about old British and Kiwi explorers heading into the Himalayas. As could be expected about largely unexplored territory, the information we collected from different sources often didn’t jive. We were getting mixed signals about a lot of the passes regarding how technical they were and what equipment we might need for crossing them. In the end, we tried to predict as many unforeseen circumstances as possible and decided to plan for resupplies and extra equipment, since we knew we wouldn’t be able to get much gear once we were there. We devised a plan to leave our extra kit for swapping out gear and resupplying in a duffel bag at a hotel in Kathmandu which was reachable from a couple of access points along the route that was coalescing from our research.
My climbing partner, Pepper, and I have a different mindset than most people heading into the Himalayas. We come from a long distance hiking and ultralight background compared to a mountaineering or trekking background. We were doing this trip with as little as we could get away with and were trying to use gear items for multiple purposes. We spent a lot of time planning our gear; figuring out how we could shave ounces and then hoping that our ultralight equipment would work in the biggest mountains in the world.
We knew the weather window was tiny for a trip of this magnitude. There are basically 2-3 months in the spring and 2-3 months in the fall before the onslaught of monsoonal moisture or impending winter weather. The monsoons move into Nepal by June and then sweep from east to west into India. We were going to have to maximize our time on the trail and move fast to keep ahead of them and to finish in one season. No names came to mind of people who had finished this traverse in one season before us, but if anybody could do it we knew it was us because of our ultralight backgrounds and our tendency to hike over 30 miles per day.
The actual preparation for this trip was quite different than a lot of the others that I have embarked on. It was a whirlwind. I left the United States on March 21, which was a little early for me since I typically work as a ski patroller through the winter. I was on patrol up until the last week, training for the hike by skiing, (nordic, backcountry, and telemark). The fact that it was a record setting winter, which blasted the region with 2-3 weeks of straight snow around the time we were leaving, didn’t really help. It was a nightmare. Everything took so much longer to get ready and get around. My driveway hadn’t been plowed for over a week due to the 15 feet of snow that had dumped on us. The plows simply couldn’t keep up. My car couldn’t even make it up the driveway so just getting the duffel bags to the car and getting out to sort out any last minute errands was an adventure. I wasn’t sure if I was even going to make it to the airport.
I stepped off the plane in Kathmandu and was a combination of relaxed, nervous, and excited. It was great to put the madness of pre-trip details behind me, but now I had to deal with the mayhem of Kathmandu. I loathe the onslaught of touts and taxi drivers that most second and third world countries have when you exit the airport. I assumed that everybody was trying to rip me off, but despite my dread, I mentally prepared myself and was ready for it as I exited with my two huge, heavy duffel bags. After the usual negotiations, I finally agreed on a price and got a ride into Thamel, the tourist district of Kathmandu. We still needed to pick up maps, get permits, and scout out resupply options before we set out on the hike.
Thamel was intimidating. It’s a spiderweb of interlacing, tiny streets with no rhyme or reason; all filled with a million people wandering in and out, while cars, motorcycles, rickshaws, and scooters weave between them. It was sensory overload and it smelled foul. I will never forget the putrid smell of the rotting garbage on the streets of Thamel.
Pepper was due to arrive the next afternoon. That did not go as planned. He didn’t double check his ticket and assumed his flight left at 12 noon when it was actually 12 midnight. He missed his flight and was rescheduled for the next day. I wandered through the crowded streets trying to get acquainted with the city while I picked up the maps for the hike and looked for things for our resupply kit. Resupply options weren’t looking promising. I saw street vendors selling days old chicken and meat, the skinned goats and pigs were covered in flies and all of it sat rotting in the sun. By 3:30 in the afternoon, the jet lag from 72 hours of travel from San Francisco to Seoul to Bangkok to Kathmandu, hit me and I was done for the day. The next three days were the same.
We didn’t realize we had hired a rally car driver to drive us up the bumpy dirt road along the sheer cliff, but he seemed to be the only one having any fun with the ride. Happy to be alive after a ridiculous 16 hour day sitting in a cramped jeep with 10 other people, I was finally able to straighten my neck and peel my seemingly permanently bent legs off of the metal bar attached to the seat in front of me as we arrived at Taplejung, our eastern terminus.
Normally, we stay clear of guides by any means possible. We are not the typical clients. However, Robin Boustead had strongly recommended having a guide for the entire trip and it seemed like a good idea since we didn’t speak the language and were heading into unfamiliar terrain with some technical passes. We had made the decision to hire a guide for the first three weeks through the Nepalese Himalayas while in Kathmandu. The guide we ultimately hired didn’t speak much English but from what we could tell, he was telling the truth about having done the technical passes. He also seemed willing to push himself when we told him our typical daily mileage and hiking hours. We planned on using him for about 200 miles, approximately one tenth of the trip, but in reality he was with us for only about 100 miles.
From day one we were making concessions. We had already told him our usual hiking schedule and routine of hiking for three hours and then taking a 45 minute break and repeating that until it got dark. I’m not sure if it was the language barrier, sheer stubbornness, or bad business practice but he never learned to adjust to our schedule. His pack was laden with heavy equipment and he wasn’t even carrying any food. Our packs were stuffed with 10 days worth of food and our pace was going to pick up as our packs lightened every day. His pack would always be heavy. This was going to be a problem. We needed to give him a “sherpa shakedown”, but were having moral hesitations because we didn’t want him to leave some of his only possessions behind. He had sweat pants, jeans, extra shorts, and tons of extraneous clothing and equipment. The Nepali meal schedule is different than our Western meal schedule and with his lack of food, we had to stop at random intervals, usually around 10AM, 2PM, and 7PM, as we passed people’s homes to ask them to cook him some food which usually set us back for over an hour. Our breaks were staggered and it was burning a lot of hiking time. Often, he would make arrangements to stay at somebody’s house during a break when we had planned to hike on. It was frustrating.
On top of the schedule delays, we were ascending passes above 4700 meters (15510 feet). We were postholing for miles and navigating through white outs. The guide had clearly never been to these passes and he was following in our tracks; never volunteering to lead or break trail and he had no idea where we were or how to read a map. When we pulled out the map to navigate, he would point to a river when we were on a pass or point to a village we had passed the day before. When we got to one village prior to our first pass over 5000 meters, he decided to hire someone from the village with his own money to help us find the pass. This was completely unnecessary since we were doing all of the navigating anyway, but we assumed he probably wanted some Nepali company. We later learned the reason that led to his desire to hire another guide. The night before the pass, we had to camp at a high camp and he was scared to camp and sleep in the tent by himself.
Being behind schedule the next night, because we postholed for hours over the Lumbha Sambha La Pass, we had to camp again. This time, after we set up his tent for him, he woke up screaming at three in the morning. Pepper and I woke up and asked him what was going on. Not understanding his broken English, we went back to sleep with his headlamp illuminating what was left of the night. When morning came we asked him again what had happened. He said a Yeti had unzipped the door of his tent, then stood on his chest and started to strangle him while another one watched from a few feet outside the tent. We were suspicious. He was adamant about it. He said that Yetis were all over the area and that they had tried to come back a few times during the night after he had woken us up. He had apparently stayed awake the rest of the night and had been lucky enough to have scared them off. I asked him what they looked like and he described little black, hairy creatures about two feet tall that walked on two legs. The next few days he told all of the villagers what had happened. Each time, Pepper and I laughed hysterically.
Making matters worse, his body was hurting from his pack. He started looking for excuses to stop early and at times we had to carry things for him. Other times he hired locals to carry some of his gear. We had become his porters and his guide and we knew we had to get him out of the backcountry for his own safety.
Pushing Hard Through to the End
We finally got ‘our guide’ back home to Kathmandu and things immediately started to go more smoothly, with the exception of classic Nepali hiccups. 2011 was supposed to be a big tourism year so they were promoting “0 strikes in 2011.” That definitely wasn’t the case. During the 2 months we were there, they had at least 3 or 4 strikes. Often we would lose days because we couldn’t get back out of town after resupplying. It took 47 hiking days to get across Nepal but an additional 21 days of resupplies, waiting for permits, and waiting around for strikes to end. As a comparison, we normally only take about 1 rest day per month. Despite the added waiting time, we were breaking into hiking shape and picking up the pace now that we were guideless. We routinely did 2000 meters of climbing and descent in a day, sometimes over 3000 meters. We started referring to these days as “Double-Doubles,” since we were also dreaming of In-N-Out Burgers. We averaged about 22 miles per day through Nepal.
The last 13 days through Nepal were the toughest of our trip. We had a 10 day stretch through the remote area of Dolpa followed by a quick resupply in the town of Gamghadi before ending in a 3 day dash to the Nepali-Indian border. The 10 day stretch through Dolpa was probably the most difficult stretch of hiking I have ever done. It included eight passes over 5000 meters, countless hours of postholing, numerous climbs over 3000 meters, uncooperative weather, and utterly amazing scenery.
At times, the postholing through rotten snow at 19000 feet would slow us down to 100 yards per hour. It was grueling and frustrating. We couldn’t get enough calorie dense food to keep our weight on. The typical Nepali cuisine is dhal bhat, which is rice and lentils, and they eat that twice a day and that’s basically all they eat. We tried to avoid the dhal bhat as much as we could because we came to the conclusion that we were probably having a net deficit in calories with how our stomachs would feel the next day. I don’t have much extra weight to lose anyway and I probably hit 145 pounds, a weight I haven’t seen since middle school. We joked that if Pepper could see my heart beating through my back and glowing like E.T. that we had to reevaluate the situation. I have put our start and end shots next to each other to compare and the emaciation is amazing. Unlike any other hike I have ever done.
After finishing Nepal, my partner had to head for home to start work. I continued on through India and hiked another 700 miles. Fortunately, upon finishing Nepal the food got a bit better in India and I was able to maintain my already skinny body weight. Luckily, I really like garlic and cheese naan and I was able to find Domino’s pizza a couple of times so I was able to stock up on calories in a more common method, binging. People were amazed at the quantities of naan, Coke, and pizza I was putting away. It still wasn’t helping me gain any weight.
Originally, I had intended to do 150 miles though Pakistan but Osama Bin Laden was assassinated during our hike and things got very politically heated. Reaching the Pakistani border, I reevaluated my plans and decided to end my hike at the Line of Control between India and Pakistan, which was very heavily militarized and pretty scary in its own right.
I arrived home a month later and then the fun began. All of the delicacies I had been dreaming of over the past few months were crammed into my refrigerator. Ben and Jerry’s in mass quantities, yogurt, dark chocolate, salads, cheeses, and chocolate soy milk. I am now back up to 156 pounds.
It was a grueling, tough trip. I lost more weight than on any other hike. I met some genuine and amazing people that would have given me the one shirt that they owned right off of their back. I experienced selflessness, resourcefulness and simplicity. I also experienced rudeness and ogling. I am humbled and grateful and feel a strong sense of accomplishment; but more than anything, I am speechless. I wish I had seen the Yeti too.
About the Author: Justin “Trauma” Lichter has hiked over 20,000 miles since 2002 using a method of travel referred to as Ultralight Backpacking. An adventurer and a minimalist, Trauma covers thousands of miles more quickly than previously thought possible. His travels have taken him to Africa, Norway, Iceland, New Zealand and across the United States. Trauma is sponsored by a number of great outdoor companies, including: Granite Gear, Montbell, Icebreaker, CAMP,Garmont, Leki, Larabar, and SteriPEN. When he’s not on the trail, Trauma can be found backcountry skiing, snowshoeing, nordic skiing mountain biking or just relaxing with his dog and travel companion, Yoni.
All Photos displayed in this article are © 2011 – All Rights Reserved – Justin “Trauma” Lichter
More photos and stories about Trauma’s adventures can be found at his web site
Outtakes (Sights, Bumps & Scrapes Along the Way)
Packlist for this Expedition
|Montbell UL Super Spiral Down Hugger #1||36oz||36oz||36oz|
|Thermarest Pro-Lite X-Small||8oz||8oz||8oz|
|MLD Duomid Cuben||12oz|
|Big Agnus Fly Creek UL 2 Tent Prototype||32oz|
|Easton Kilo Tent||32oz|
|Ti Tent Stakes (8)||1.8oz||1.8oz||1.8oz|
|MLD UL Groundsheet||1.2oz|
|Granite Gear Snow Leopard Prototype||38oz||33oz||33oz|
|Granite Gear Uberlite S.S. 18L||.74oz||.74oz||0.74oz|
|Granite Gear Air Pocket, S||.57oz||.57oz||.57oz|
|Granite Gear Air Zippsack M||1.7oz||1.7oz||1.7oz|
|Granite Gear Air Zippsack XXS||1oz||1oz||1oz|
|Montbell UL Down Inner Parka||7.98oz|
|Montbell Tachyon Anorak||2.3oz||2.3oz||2.3oz|
|Montbell Outpace Parka||9.4oz||9.4oz||9.4oz|
|Camp B-Dry Jacket||6.7oz|
|Montbell Thunderhead Pant||7.2oz||7.2oz||7.2oz|
|Montbell Dynamo Pants||2.8oz||2.8oz||2.8oz|
|Icebreaker Balaclava Lite||1.45oz||1.45oz|
|Icebreaker Pockets 200 Beanie||1.45oz||1.45oz||1.45oz|
|Icebreaker Quantum Glove||1.25oz||1.25oz|
|Leki Windstopper Glove||1.5oz||1.5oz||1.5oz|
|MLD eVent Rain Mitts||.99oz||.99oz||.99oz|
|Icebreaker Hike Lite Mini Sock||2.0oz||2.0oz||2.0oz|
|Montbell Stretch Lite Pant||13oz|
|Montbell Breeze Spun Shorts||8.5oz||8.5oz|
|Icebreaker Mondo Zip Bodyfit 150||7.15oz||7.15oz||7.15oz|
|Icebreaker Nazomi Hat||2.4oz||2.4oz||2.4oz|
|Icebreaker Hike Lite Mini Sock||2.0oz||2.0oz||2.0oz|
|Superfeet Woolies insoles||4.85oz||4.85oz||4.85oz|
|Montbell Stretch Semi Long Spats||2.1oz|
|High Gear Watch||1.5oz||1.5oz||1.5oz|
|Smith Director Tactical Sunglasses||.95oz||.95oz||.95oz|
|Leki Aergon Carbonlite||12.8oz||12.8oz||12.8oz|
|Primus Gravity MF II, multifuel stove +bottle||8oz||8oz||8oz|
|Evernew ECA-267 900ml Pot||3.5oz||3.5oz||3.5oz|
|Evernew 900ml Water Carry||1.0oz|
|Evernew 1500ml Water Carry (2)||3.0oz||3.0oz||3.0oz|
|Evernew 1500ml Water Carry for fuel||1.5oz|
|Communal gear was split|
|Princeton Tec Apex Pro||6.1oz|
|Princeton Tec Remix||2.26oz||2.26oz|
|Sat Phone, Iridium 9555||9.75oz||9.75oz||9.75oz|
|Sat Phone Iridium 9555 Battery, spare||2.2oz||2.2oz||2.2oz|
|Garmin Geko 301||2.5oz|
|Camera, Canon S95 + SD cards||6.9oz||6.9oz||6.9oz|
|Spare Camera battery (2)||1.5oz||1.5oz||1.5oz|
|Video Camera, Contour HD||4.45oz||4.45oz|
|Spare Camcorder battery||.8oz||.8oz|
|Waterproof Casefor video camera||3.85oz||3.85oz|
|Solar Charger, Power Monkey Explorer||6.1oz||6.1oz|
|Head Hunter Sunscreen||4.0oz||4.0oz||4.0oz|
|Head Hunter War Paint||1.2oz||1.2oz||1.2oz|
|Head Hunter Lip Balm||.4oz||.4oz||.4oz|
|Emergency Meds- Immodium, Vit I, etc.|
|Repair Tape, McNett Tenacious Tape||.5oz||.5oz||.5oz|
|Rite in the Rain Journal||.65oz||.65oz||.65oz|
|Credit Card, Cash|
|Copies of passport, Birth Cert, Visas||.7oz||.7oz||.7oz|
|Extra passport photos, needed for permits||.5oz||.5oz||.5oz|
|Waldies insoles, homemade||1oz||1oz||1oz|
|Rite in the Rain Trekker Pen||.65oz||.65oz||.65oz|
|Sterling Ice Thong 7.7mm, 35 meters||49.3oz|
|Sterling Power Cord, 6mm, 45 meters||?|
|Camp XLC 490 Crampons||13.8oz|
|Camp Corsa Nanotech Ice Ax, 60cm||8.8oz|
|Camp Nano 23 Biners (6)||4.8oz|
|Camp HMS Nitro Lockers (2)||3.8oz|
|Camp 8mmx60cm Dynnema Runner (3)||2.1oz|
|Camp 8mmx100cm Dynnema Runner||1.1oz|
|Camp 12mm Dyneema Runner 240cm||4.8oz|
|Camp Stream Ice Screw 22cm||6.2oz|
|Camp Stream Ice Screw 12cm (2)||8.8oz|
|Camp Speed Helmet||7.4oz|
|Camp Alp 95 Harness||3.4oz|
|TOTAL||114.3oz total, gear was split|
|Some of these items were communal, so weight was shared.|