From Mountain to Mountain

Features Issue 166 Sep, 2015

Jagan Timilsina, 31, started his career as a porter and quickly climbed ranks to become a guide and finally an Everest summiteer. As a certified responder he was one of the first people to be in the field after April earthquake helping people out - with schools, houses and injuries. It was a blow to him and the entire tourism industry that a couple of major trekking routes in Nepal were wiped out and image of Nepal’s safety tainted. But an avid outdoor bug no less, Timilsina now aspires to embark to less chartered regions to showcase Nepal’s virgin beauty to the world.

His phone buzzes to no end. But that doesn’t distract him from dressing an ear infection. Carefully cleaning the wound with alcohol swabs and pressure syringe, he proceeds to apply antibiotic ointment. For medic and trekking guide Jagan Timilsina, there’s no such thing as being too careful tending a patient. A breathable sterile gauge goes on top and with the patient now free to go, Timilsina prepares to head to the school to finish a roof job. The phone rings again as he walks. It’s his wife.

“Hello,” answers Timilsina, hoping to tell his beloved all about his relief work in Nuwakot. A brief pause later a sinister voice replies from the other end, “If you’re not home my tomorrow, I’ll leave you!” His wife hangs up abruptly and he knows this is not a drill. Terrified, Timilsina packs his rucksack and rushes back home to his wife and kids in Pokhara, just in time to save his marriage. With his whereabouts difficult to track and scary tremors abound, his wife wasn’t entirely wrong in letting off her steam at the elusive and incommunicado spouse. 

“When the earthquake struck in April earlier this year, I was in Tibet with clients,” says Timilsina recalling the chilling moment he heard of the news. “We cut our trip short and returned to Nepal. I was glad that my family was safe.” Timilsina then went immediately to the most isolated corners he’d never been to for helping out people he never knew. “All my trekking and expeditions I was due to lead were cancelled, so I had enough time in my hands anyway,” adds Timilsina. His ability to trek and expertise as a medic made him quite a versatile responder. Expertise in travelling, medics and construction made him a versatile responder, able to access some of the most hard-hit places. One instance would see him training Nuwakot’s locals in first aid and in another, he would be crossing a stricken bridge over a raging river below to reach a desolate village in Dolakha; or somewhere in Okhaldhunga trying to admit a mute 8-year-old kid with leprosy to hospital. Besides helping over 8,000 earthquake survivors directly or indirectly with his can-do will-do attitude, Timilsina is more than just a guide and medic.

Born in the enviable greens by Pokhara’s Phewa Lake, Timilsina has accomplished what most people can only loftily imagine: scale Everest. His lifestyle, nonetheless, couldn’t get more modest. Timilsina leads an humble life with his wife and two beautiful children in his hometown. He claims to have a difficult time convincing his better half about his outdoor lifestyle. His restless kids, 8 and 6, nonetheless are often found wrestling and running amok about the house - an adventurous spirit they’ve already picked up from their father. A modest house by the lakeside is a testament to his love for nature. But for the 31-year-old, it’s been a long time coming.

Timilsina was brought up with six sisters and a brother in a simple farming family. Everyday as a kid, he would walk two hours to school and back. For the struggling family, financial problems would soon arise when his parents couldn’t satisfy basic necessities, and had barely enough to get by. “At this point, I knew I had to do something to support my family,” says Timilsina reminiscing his teenage days. “I was desperately looking for a job although I was still in middle school.”

1998 was a tremendous year for Nepal’s tourism, celebrated as Visit Nepal ’98. This was an opportunity for Timilsina to embark on a journey as a trekking porter for the first time, a job he felt he seamlessly fit in. His restless nature would have him wander about Pokhara’s hills, even to Panchase and as far as India without his family knowing. Along with helping his family in the fields, Timilsina would carry heavy load as a porter on long trekking journeys. “Perhaps all the walking I did as a kid came handy,” remembers Timilsina nostalgically who for the next four years would work as a porter and grow affinity for nature and travelling. But not without a few anecdotes to share.

“The first time I got to reach high altitude in Annapurna Base Camp I was really excited. It was during my first year as a porter. I suffered from some altitude sickness but my job required me to persevere. I was carrying about 40kgs on my back and I was exhausted. I could not enjoy the mountains or the night sky during that time.” Feeling sick in Machapuchare Base Camp wouldn’t stop him either, because he needed the job. Telling the guide about his predicament was not an option, because he would be turned back without pay. “So in the middle of the night without anybody knowing I went down to Deurali because I knew the symptoms would subside in lower altitude. I did not even go to a hotel because my guide would find out the next day. I slept on a rock for two hours in the winter cold.” After feeling better and before anybody came to find out, he walked back up to MBC. “I had to do this because I had to earn money for my family and also because I was determined to reach ABC and not turn back halfway.”

But more often than not, he felt like he could not continue with the job because he doubted his body’s ability to carry such weight or reach that altitude. Further, mistreatment of porters, himself included, broke his heart. “Because I was a porter, I was heavily discriminated by the hotels. My colleagues and I would have to sleep outside even in cold and eat stale food. We were not considered on the same level as the guides. And that hurt me a lot because we worked as hard. But I had to look after my family as well. And that kept me moving.” Slowly but surely, he got over the quandary and started to enjoy the treks he was a part of.

However, his luck would run out with the advent of the Civil War. Less flow of tourists meant he was out of jobs for several months, and he considered moving to Kathmandu for manual labor. In 2002, he finally got a break after joining Himalayan Encounters, a leading trekking company, to work as a guide-cum-porter. “I was happy to finally up a notch and show tourists around my beautiful country.” 

Within a matter of months, he stood out in the company, which then hired him as a permanent staff. This was a moment of pride for the new guide since many don’t get that offer even in years. “Eventually, I got opportunity to travel abroad. I got to understand tourism better and explore more with a few close calls no less.” In 2004, Timilsina and his guests were caught in a heavy crossfire between the Army and Maoist insurgents in western town of Palpa. What he admits a bold but brazen move of evacuating his guests to safety put him in highlight and was celebrated as a small-time hero by his entourage. “But none of that mattered,” he continues. “My heart was always in the mountains. They made me feel like I had to push myself to the limit. I set my sights high up.” Having led dozens of trekking trips in years to follow, he’d become a favored mountain-hardened adventure bug and was nurturing his forlorn dream of scaling Everest. The idea though would be brushed off by many as preposterous and impossible.

“In 2007, I had made up my mind to climb the mountain. It wouldn’t be easy because training would cost a fortune, nevermind permits. Further, quitting cigarettes and drinking overnight was quite difficult to handle for my body. I started saving and after three years I received advanced mountaineering training required for Everest expedition and had made valuable network in this field. I was technically and physically ready, particularly because I was actively trekking to high altitudes and scaling smaller peaks.” But why climb the highest mountain, or any? His answer is well rehearsed: “It unshackles my mind and sets it free.”

Almost five years after training, he finally had a chance to climb Everest. Challenges in the expedition were aplenty. He was caught in an avalanche; lost his snow goggles, suffering from near snow blindness; partially lost circulation after his oxygen valve malfunctioned; and couldn’t open his left eye midway. If walking past corpses frozen in harsh blizzards were not harrowing enough, a few members in his own expedition would succumb to the mountain’s unforgiving terrain.

“As I struggled on the slope with each painful step forward, I saw faces of my beautiful wife, son and daughter. My wife’s words and their plea to not go ahead with the mountain rang in my ears. The morning I left home for the expedition, I had secretly packed my equipment at night when she was asleep and as I left, told her I was going on a trek. Every so often, I would think of giving up just so I could be back with my family. To give my kids a better life and better education, something I never got in my life.” Timilsina recalls emotionally. “But something in me wouldn’t give. And I kept moving.”

Despite all odds, on May 19th 2012, 8:30am in the morning he stood on top of the world. With mountains below that stretched infinitely into the horizon, he remained in silence for two minutes to pay homage to the hundreds of people who had died in Seti flood in his hometown a couple of weeks prior. He had achieved a feat many would consider impossible. It was surreal to look down to see many peaks he had previously climbed. Even 8,000m peaks like Annapurna and Dhaulagiri seemed like mere foothills from Everest. “It is an inexplicable feeling, especially after having endured all the hardships in life. From back in the days when I couldn’t afford education to standing on the summit of Mount Everest. It has been but a dream. I felt like a free soul,” says a proud Timilsina, looking back on his life.

Everest definitely was a high point in his life, but Timilsina’s adventurous spirit would not satiate. Right after the expedition he enrolled for a paragliding course with outdoor training company APPI. No mishap stopped him, even after crashing butt-on into a stone wall during training. Next ordeal was getting sucked into a cave while abseiling in Chitwan. And then riding into a gutter to avoid a speeding truck while cycling in Manakamana Highway. Timilsina was not intimidated by challenges, which is perhaps why he has gained a reputation as a maverick of adventure, perhaps even foolhardy and obdurate in that regard.

Having spent most of the time helping people out since the earthquake, the passionate trekker is determined to push the envelope. Now proudly running the outdoor venture Freedom Adventure Treks, Timilsina is in a mission to document virgin and less chartered trails in Nepal and intent in bringing tourism back on its feet, especially promoting far-western and eastern regions. He maintains a wide grin on his face now eager to head back to the mountains and far beyond. Yet it’ll only be a matter of time before the adventure seeker gets that unnerving phone call from home for an obligatory and much-needed recess, and heads for a quality time with family back home.