Fifty Years of Trekking in Nepal

Features Issue 172 Mar, 2016
Text by Evangeline Neve / Photo: Kevin Bubriski

Retracing the past 50 years of trekking in Nepal, an integral part of Nepal’s tourism industry

Nepal is undoubtedly a trekker’s paradise. With some of the most varied and spectacular scenery in the world, amazing mountains, friendly people, and long stretches of great weather, there are few places in the world that are better for it. From easy hikes to classic treks to rarely visited remote areas, there is something for every interest and fitness level. 

With so many tourists coming to Nepal each year to trek, it’s hard to imagine a time—just 50 years ago—when trekking was unheard of. Of course, many parts of Nepal can only be reached on foot, and this was, and in many places still is, a matter of necessity, not pleasure. When visitors first began to visit the country, explorers, mountaineers, and scientists were among the first to travel out of the valley. It slowly evolved from there. 

The father of modern trekking in Nepal in generally considered to be Colonel Jimmy Roberts, a retired British Gurkha recruiting officer and climber, who first took a small group of Americans on what was then an unheard of adventure. 

The term, trekking, was first coined in South Africa, and now refers to a long hike over a period of several days, usually for pleasure. Though, according to KevinBubriski, a U.S. Peace Corp volunteer who first came to Nepal in the 70s, his first trekking experience was walking to the village where he was posted. I also experienced this when I first visited Okhaldunga for a health post survey years ago; as we were not climbing to a high altitude, our group often walked for eight or ten hours each day, and though not along an established trekking route, it was all the more fascinating for it. For a week we saw no other foreigners, and often slept in long, open rooms with up to a dozen other travelers in local lodging houses. Chyang was plentiful. 

Frederick Selby, a consultant sent to Nepal by the U.S. State Department, traveled to the Annapurna area in 1961, four years before the start of organized trekking, in the days when an airplane landing in Pokhara was still an event exciting enough to draw a crowd. No permits were required back in those days, but neither were there any maps, porters, guides, or trekking equipment to be found in the country. Selby and his team used Maurice Herzog’s 1950 book, Annapurna, as a guide for that first trek. 

Over the years, Selby has continued his interest in Nepal, particularly the more out of the way places, and has been back 10 times to date. In recalling a visit to Dolpo, he said, “Homespun clad people crowded around us, hoping we could cure their infectious rashes, ailing hips, other physical problems. We gave them whatever we had, hoping their ailments would be improved.”

When I asked Frederick Selby what the difference was, in his opinion, between trekking in Nepal and elsewhere, this was his reply: “Let’s compare…there is the Milford Trek in New Zealand, Kilimanjaro in Africa, the High Road over the Alps beginning in Chamonix, France, and other locations. None have the combination of stunning mountain scenery, beautiful ancient temples, villages which are welcomingto trekkers, relatively reliable good weather during specific months, trails which are manageable by those who are fairly fit, and a solid support system of guides, porters, cooks, etc. Costs are reasonable when compared to other countries. And Nepal has so many good treks. In my opinion, the most interesting and challenging trek leads from Mustang through passes to northern Dolpa, down to Dunai and the airstrip in Juphal. It is infrequently traveled.”

Kevin Bubriski said: “Some of my favorite long walks were from the Mugu area out to Tansen,  Palpa, which I did in both 1978 and 1979.  Both walks were in the monsoon, and were at least a few weeks of very long days in the rain. While there were hardships and really no guide books or trekking facilities, there were discoveries along the way.” 

There are established treks in Nepal to accommodate many levels of fitness, as well as varying time constraints. Getting completely off the beaten track with no another soul in sight is an experience that will not be forgotten soon, and will probably also lead to more unique and fascinating local interaction. For this, it’s important, though, to travel with a reliable company that includes a good support team, as the farther you are from civilization, the more important it is to carry everything that you need with you. 

With some of the more popular routes, such as Everest and Annapurna, there are so many lodges and places to eat to be found along the way that much less is needed in the way of supplies and manpower. Despite the allure of more remote locations, you shouldn’t underestimate these busier routes. I had a fantastic experience trekking to the Everest Base Camp in 2009; we set out from Lukla in late September, and for most of the way up, we often had the trail to ourselves. There were long hours when we saw not a single other tourist, though we did hit the crowds on the way down. It was a great introduction to trekking, filled with spectacular views and unforgettable experiences. 

When planning a trek, safety should always be a primary consideration, and even on these more populated routes, where the trail is easy to follow, it’s never advisable to trek alone. A good guide is always an asset, and can provide unique insights into the local culture, history, and flora and fauna. At the very least, trekking with a group of friends will provide safety and support in case of accident or injury. Frederick Selby also warned of the arguably misnamed “Trekking Peaks,” 33 of which have been designated and which you might think of as easy climbs due to the inclusion of the word “Trekking.” But these are actually climbing peaks that require skill and experience, as well as professional equipment and a good backup team, and are not intended for casual trekkers. 

As any one who’s ever taken a stroll through Thamel knows, there is also now no shortage of places that sell almost anything a trekker could possibly need or want. While many people arrive in the country fully equipped, it’s now possible to set yourself up for a trip pretty much from scratch with what is available here. Some shops even sell or rent second hand shoes, sleeping bags, and other trekking necessities. 

The bestselling book 1000 Places to see before you Die lists the Jaljale Himal trek (one that I’d never even heard of before) as highly recommended. This trail in eastern Nepal is a sparsely traveled area with regular views of four of the world’s five tallest mountains—Everest, Kanchenjunga, Lhotse, and Makalu. The full trek takes about 23 days, though, so this is one for when you’ve really got some time on your hands. 

However, even those with limited time and non-existent experience can enjoy a taste of trekking. There are several short treks around the rim of the Kathmandu valley that provide great vistas and a little sample of the trekking experience. With lower altitudes, there is no need to worry about acclimatization or a list of supplies, and you can break your trek at various points to conform to your schedule and time constraints. One of these is from Chapagaun to Godavari, which in addition to mountain views, also provides opportunities to see birds and wild flowers. 

Some others: Pharping to Champadevi, Sundarijal to Chisopani, or you can head up to Kakani, Namobuddha, Shivapuri, or Changu Narayan. And, while these places may not have the remote mystery of far off locales, don’t underestimate the change that just a few hours’ distance from Kathmandu can have on the scenery and people you meet. Checking in with an experienced tour operator and explaining your interests and the time you have available will help you to figure out which of these many short treks would be best for you. 

Whichever trek you choose, it’s important to remember the environment, and those who will come after you, even while you’re enjoying your experience. Trekking is an important part of Nepal’s tourism industry, and the beauty of its nature must be safeguarded. Any packaging or other trash you bring with you should leave when you do, and simple things like bringing along your own water purification supplies instead of buying bottled water, for example, will go a lot way towards not polluting the landscape that so attracted you in the first place. 

Frederick Selby really hit the nail on the head when he told me, “A pleasure of trekking is the participation in different cultures.” Mainstream tourism in many countries tend to focus on famous sites, or relaxing on a beach, and while pleasant, such activities can sometimes isolate you from the local culture. Walking through hills and valleys, especially in the more remote areas, can give you an insight into a place in a way that nothing else can.  Over the years, I’ve spoken to many people who have come to Nepal from Europe, the U.S., Australia, Japan, and many other places, and almost without exception, they have told me that the time they spent trekking has been the highlight of their stay. Particularly, young people have been deeply impressed by trekking, having never experienced, or in some cases, even imagined places cut off from roads and the outside world. Some things have to be seen firsthand to be believed, and it’s not hyperbole to say that such experiences can be life-changing. I’ve met people who so loved the experience and friends they made while on a trek that they return to Nepal to make the same trek again, year after year, and seem to enjoy it just as much each time. 

And, as with all the best travel experiences, it’s not just about what you see, but who you meet along the way—and meeting friendly, great people is something you can count on pretty much anywhere you choose to trek in Nepal. And while in these past 50 years a lot has certainly changed, there are still beautiful places to see and hidden wonders to explore. 

Here’s to 50 more great years!