In the beginning - Trekking Nepal

Features Issue 124 Mar, 2012
Text by Don Messerschmidt / Photo: Robin Boustead

Someone once said (or should have) that life is one great, long trek, up and down, looming on the horizon (often high atop the next hill!), destinations that when fInally arrived at are often the inspiration or start of another trek.

What’s a ‘trek’?
The term ‘trek’ derives from the South African Boer (Dutch) word ‘trekken’ meaning ‘to pull’ or ‘to travel by ox-wagon’. Today, however, trekking has become a state of mind most commonly defined as a long, arduous journey or expedition, for adventure and enjoyment, on foot, in the mountains; especially in the Himalayas.

One of the first times I wrote about Himalayan trekking as a relatively ‘new’ adventure sport, almost half a century ago, I started with this lead:

“Trek across Nepal to Everest base camp
Cut through the great Himalaya to the threshold of Tibet
Drink salt-butter tea and yak milk
You might even see the Abominable Snowman!

“Is this idle talk? ...Dreams? ...Maybe, but fully possible. You can do and see all these things and more (except, perhaps, the Snowman) trekking in Nepal. During the past [few] years, Nepal has opened to the outside world. Now, as never before, you can visit this landlocked kingdom of Hindus, Buddhist, Sherpas and fabulous mountains. You can trek, photograph, and camp in the heart of the Himalaya among the world’s highest, most rugged peaks...”

(Summit magazine, March 1968)

Although a bit naïve from today’s perspective, those few lines from 1968 were among the first to encourage adventurers worldwide to consider visiting the Nepal Himalaya. The trekking industry has come a long ways since then.

I called my 1968 article ‘How to trek in Nepal’, the fourth in series of stories about Nepal published in Summit: A Mountaineering Magazine (USA). ‘How to trek’ gave advice about opportunities for hiking northwest of Pokhara, east to EBC (Everest Base Camp), and to a few other destinations.

Later in the year I led two commercial treks for Mountain Travel, Nepal’s first trekking agency. One was to EBC and the other to Thak Khola in Mustang District. We tent-camped for most of a month to EBC and back with 19 clients, all Americans, supported by several dozen porters. The Thak Khola trip was shorter, walking from Pokhara and back (there was no road and no airport to Jomsom then).

The decade of the 1960s was a time before today’s big dollar trekking infrastructure was in place. Trekking agencies and guide services were in their infancy, and there were few of the hotels and tea shops that are now ubiquitous. Nor were there many of the ‘comfort resources’ that today’s trekkers expect, like solar showers, soft drinks and bottled beer, fancy menus with European cuisine, and soft beds. It was also well before much of today’s sophisticated gear was invented. Nobody trekked with carbon-cork-elliptical-spring-fitted-shock-absorbent trekking poles, nor with self-inflating sleeping mattresses, for example. With so little in the way of services and fancy (expensive) equipment, and given unimproved trails and bad bridges, early trekkers in Nepal had to be ‘tough’.

In the beginning, we lived off the land and either camped out in tents carried by porters (or “coolies” as they were sometimes called), or slept on house porches. Occasionally we found someone selling tea (coffee was unheard of). If we drank tea black without milk it was free. The earliest inns were called ‘bhattis’, small and temporary (in winter), serving good food and giving travelers a place on the floor to sleep out of the weather.

Food was inexpensive then (not now), but the choice was limited to ‘daal-bhaat’ (lentils and rice) with a spicy veg curry. A complete meal in 1964 cost ‘tin mohar’ (1½ rupees; about 20¢), and for another half rupee we got a meat curry, or an egg and a small glass of milk. It was well into the 1970s before trailside menus began featuring exotic fare like muesli, apple pancakes, lasagna and chocolate cake.

A popular drink in the inns was a mild millet wine called ‘daru’, served warm. It tastes like Japanese sake. Among the customers were Gurkha soldiers on leave, civil servants on assignment and, occasionally, foreigners on an adventure. A night’s stay was free; we paid only for food and drink. Today, nothing is free on trek; everything has a price.

In the early 1960s I usually trekked alpine style, carrying my own gear, without porters. But when I needed one, the daily rate was ‘saadhé saat rupiyaã, sukha’ (literally ‘7½ rupees, dry’, meaning that the porter supplied his own food). That was the equivalent of $1/day, already over three times what the early British trekkers paid their porters a decade earlier, but considerably less than you pay now when a porter’s wage may go as high as a thousand rupees (about $12 per day).

Strangers on the trails
Back then, foreign trekkers were exotic strangers. We were often stared at, and sometimes deserved it. Stephen Bezruchka recalls his cultural insensitivity when he and his wife first came to Nepal in 1969. “In the hot lowlands Lois would trek wearing really short shorts. I cringe thinking of a photo of her dressed that way eating Indian peanut butter out of a metal can, one of those treats we ‘sahib’s’ enjoyed...” The only other foreigners they met were missionary women in long skirts. “We even joked how funny they looked!”

That was then. He jokes no more. Bezruchka, a medical doctor, now advises foreigners to behave appropriately, dress modestly and trek safely in his comprehensive and popular ‘Trekking Nepal: A Traveler’s Guide’, now in its 8th edition.

When the British mountaineer Bill Tilman first trekked in Helambu, north of Kathmandu, he encountered villagers who simply could not refrain “from putting their heads inside my tent very soon after our arrival...” He wrote about it in his 1952 book, ‘Nepal Himalaya’. Another Brit, Showell Styles, in his book The Moated Mountain (1954), describes trekking from Trisuli to Gorkha across the mid-hills where he and his companions soon became “accustomed to the sudden halt of an approaching [local] traveler, his dropped jaw and fixed stare as we passed, repeated a hundred times a day.”

The stranger-as-curiosity effect lasted well into the 1960s, when I first trekked in the central hills as a Peace Corps volunteer. In every village I was typically assailed by inquisitive youngsters, and when I stopped for the night I was inevitably overwhelmed by their infectious curiosity. They were typically wide-eyed with wonder when I told them that my soft sleeping bag was filled with “hãns ko pwãkh” (duck down) and the pad with “phĩj” (foam). That I spoke Nepali, however, didn’t faze them, for didn’t everyone? But that I spoke English; now that was something I could help them with. I remember drilling children to pronounce ‘school’ as ‘skool’, not ‘ee-skool’ or ‘see-kool’. The ‘sch’ consonant cluster stymied them!

The first modern backpacks
When we early Peace Corps volunteers arrived in country we were issued a ‘Trapper Nelson’ wood-frame pack-board with a stiff canvas bag — clumsy, uncomfortable and heavy (9 lbs., empty). Bill Tilman once described them as “massive structures of the Yukon type, built evidently for professional packers, old timers, ‘forty-niners’, and such like, men who could ‘take it’ in every sense.”

After a few months my Peace Corps buddy Bruce Morrison and I could ‘take it’ no longer, so we sent off for modern lightweight aluminum and nylon backpacks from a California outfitter named Dick Kelty. And soon, after bragging about our Keltys, the Peace Corps began ordering them for other volunteers.

Today there are many brands of backpacks on the market, but outdoor sport historians remind us that Dick Kelty was the pioneer inventor. His innovative design dates to 1951 when he and a hiking companion decided to shift the weight of the back load from the shoulders to the hips. “In order to do this,” we are told, “they had to skid the ends of their pack boards into the rear pockets of their jeans. This was when both of them realized that this is a much easier and comfortable way of carrying a load.” Trying to stuff the wooden pack frames into back pockets inspired Kelty to invent a hip belt. Then he replaced the wood frame with light aluminum tubing, the canvas bag with rip-stop nylon, and the rest is history...

Dick Kelty once told me that he kept a photo under the glass on his office desk — of me with my Kelty Pack on trek in the Himalayas.

Flimsy footwear
In 1953 the British journalist Ralph Izzard, who worked in Asia and wrote for the ‘Daily Mail’, was assigned to accompany that year’s British Expedition to Mt Everest. In his 1954 book ‘An Innocent of Everest’, Izzard describes going shopping for suitable footwear in New Delhi. But because there were no mountaineering stores or trekking outfitters in India (or Nepal) in those days, he had a problem. “Climbing, or even stout walking boots were out of the question,” he wrote. “Being a large-footed man in a neat-footed nation I could find no boot or shoe to fit me in any shape or form except a single pair of sneakers or tennis shoes in a Bata store.” He bought them to wear around camp, “but in the end,” he says “I marched nearly 400 miles in them over the roughest possible going before finally throwing them away (they were retrieved by one of my coolies who is probably still wearing them).”

A decade later when I needed trekking shoes, I went to the old Bata shoe store on New Road in downtown Kathmandu where I, too, encountered the problem of size. The best I could find was a small pair of light rubber and canvas Indian ‘jungle boots’. To free up my cramped feet, I cut away some of the rubber toe cap, then wore the ugly green things for many miles like open-toed sandals.

When ‘Vibram’ soled boots became available, they were an instant hit for trekkers and mountaineers. “For rough walking,” wrote Bill Tilman, who first used them in the early 1950s, “the ‘Vibram’ soled boot is more comfortable than the nailed. It is supreme for that everyday Himalayan pastime of boulder-hopping (provided the boulders are dry), and is generally suitable for climbing except on wet rock, wet ice, or fresh snow on rock. It is a matter of taste.”

Early treks and trekkers of note
Neither the early Peace Corps volunteers of the 1960s nor the British adventurers of the early 1950s were the first foreigners to trek in Nepal, of course. That distinction goes to others, like Joseph Dalton Hooker, the English botanist who roamed the eastern hills in 1850; to the English adventurer Douglas Freshfield and the Italian photographer Vittorio Sella who were the first to circumambulate Kangchenjunga in 1899; and to the 14 Indians from the Survey of India who mapped virtually the whole of Nepal in 1924-1927 for the British colonials in Delhi.

Even earlier, in the late 1800s, other Indian surveyors, the so-called ‘pundits’ on special assignments, trekked through the Himalayas to Tibet as spies for the British in the ‘Great Game’ that pitted China, Russia and England against one another for control and influence in this part of Asia. Bill Tilman has described one of them, known only as ‘M.H.’, “who in 1885 traveled up the valley of the Dudh Kosi west of Everest to Tingri in Tibet, whence he returned to India by Kyerong and Trisuli valley, thus traversing Nepal twice.” And before them, as early as 1628 AD, intrepid and stalwart Catholic missionaries trekked from Lhasa to Nepal, descended the dangerous track down the Bhoté Kosi to Kodari, then transited through Kathmandu on their way to India.

Death drops
Well before modern trail repairs and road-building, some of the original old bridges and riverside tracks were quite terrifying. While traveling from Kathmandu west to Pokhara in the early 1960s, a Gurkha Army officer named Duncan Forbes and his porter Manbahadur confronted a dangerous crossing in Gorkha District. Forbes wrote about it in his 1964 book ‘Johnny Gurkha’. Near Arughat bazaar they received “a shock” while crossing the Maudi Khola. The narrow gorge, he says, “was spanned by so crazy and dilapidated a bridge that I found Manbahadur, who was ahead of me for once, standing facing it like a horse refusing a jump.” It was a cantilever bridge (common then, but only rarely seen today) locally built with “baulks of timber anchored with rocks at one end. Each level of timbers overlapped the course on which it rested and stretched out further towards the middle. The gap in the middle was spanned by more planks. The whole thing had slipped at one end and was twisted and leaning at such an angle that it look as though it might collapse at any moment. The flimsy wooden handrail was so loose that to hang on to it would have been fatal.”

“I looked below into the river bed,” Forbes wrote. “There, at the bottom of the death drop, people were unconcernedly washing themselves and their clothes. I looked across the gimcrack structure at the cliff on the other side, and balancing precariously I crept across. Manbahadur fatalistically followed.”

On the far side someone told them that a few weeks earlier a man had fallen off the broken bridge to his death.

Even more fearsome were tracks that crossed sheer cliff faces along some of Nepal’s wildest river gorges. When my companion Bruce and I came down the Marsiangdi river track from Manang to Lamjung District in 1964, we crossed several cliffs on narrow wooden planks laid atop posts driven horizontally into cracks in the rock face. Earlier, in 1950, after Bill Tilman had come up the gorge he wrote that “...the builders of the road had exercised boldness and ingenuity, stringing wooden galleries across the face. Such structures, known as ‘parri’..., were pretty frail, particularly the handrails which were better left alone or at the most touched rather than grasped. They were seldom wider than a single plank and were reached by a stone staircase or up-ended logs with footholds cut in them. When the river was low many of these cat-walks could be avoided by a little boulder-hopping in the river bed. In the rains the traveler has no choice. He must then mind his step...,” he concluded with understatement.

The Swiss geologist Toni Hagen, another early trek pioneer from the 1950s, encountered similar perilous crossings on cliffs along the Arun river gorge in eastern Nepal. So did the Tibetologist, David Snellgrove, out west on his seven-month 1954 trek through the high Himalayas.

Nepal’s first trekking agency
In my 1968 ‘How to trek’ article I introduced readers to the group trekking services of Col. J.O.M. ‘Jimmy’ Roberts, Nepal’s trek agency pioneer. As a Gurkha officer in India, Roberts had plenty of experience rambling through the Indian Himalayas. Then, in 1950, he became one of the first modern Brits to trek and climb west of Kathmandu.

In those days mountaineering expeditions necessitated some very serious trekking. In June 1950, for example, while the French expedition led by Maurice Herzog was making history on Annapurna-I (8,091 m/26,545 ft), Bill Tilman, Jimmy Roberts and two other Brits were on their way up a nearby but lesser peak called Annapurna-IV (7,525 m) from the north, Manang side. Tilman explained later in his dry style of humor why they failed to make the summit, attributing it simply to an “inability to reach the top.” Okay. But more to the point, to get there and back Tilman and his companions had to trek, hard, for weeks. While in Manang District, they were the first foreigners to Nar and Phu, and the first to trek much of what is now the well known Annapurna Circuit route.

Jimmy Roberts fell in love with Nepal on that trip, and returned often. For awhile, he served as Military Attaché at the British Embassy in Kathmandu. After retiring from the Gurkhas, he stayed on as a civilian, and in 1964 he founded Nepal’s first trekking agency: Mountain Travel. It was the start of a long walk to what has become a booming adventure travel industry. (The original Mountain Travel is now part of the Tiger Mountain group.)

“Beginnings were modest...,” Roberts wrote in a rambling, undated essay on ‘How it All Began’. He recalled “sketching out a plan to provide for no less than 8 trekkers in the field at one time. I would have 8 bags, 8 pads, 8 this, and 8 that. I wrote down 8 tents, scratched out the 8 and wrote 4 – let ‘em share...” He soon tossed out the whole idea of limiting group size to eight.

His initial advertisement in ‘Holiday’ magazine brought only five inquiries, but it was a start. “My first clients came to do an Everest trek in the early spring of 1965,” he wrote. “There was a story in circulation a year or two later that these were ‘three American grandmothers.’ In fact, a more sporting trio of enthusiastic and appreciative ladies I have never since handled”.

Three years later when I led the two Mountain Travel treks, we stayed the first few nights in the old Royal Hotel on Kantipath (it now houses Election Commission). The Royal gave us a taste of historical panache. I remember Col. Roberts introducing the proprietor, jovial Boris Lissanevitch, who entertained us each evening with his stories and jokes while mixing drinks and ‘rubbing elbows’ with the Kathmandu elite in the hotel’s rustic Yak-&-Yeti Bar.

Roberts’ approach to running treks was simple: “We try and give you all the ingredients of enjoyment, with Sherpas who look after you, but who do not intrude. The final, total experience remains yours to create, and to enjoy to full without organizational worries or distractions. Stated simply, I would say we are trying to show you the mountains of Nepal, its valleys and villages and people, under the best possible conditions, but without shielding you from reality.”

As business prospered Roberts hired Dawa Norbu Sherpa and another ex-Gurkha, Mike Cheney, to assist him, two names that “are inseparable with the story of the development of Mountain Travel,” he later said.

Mountain Travel promoted ‘expedition trekking’, a notion that Roberts never fully defined. Rusty Brennan, who operates a company called Ri Adventure Travel and knows the system well, is more explicit. Expedition trekking, he says, “is group travel, fully supported and not dependent on local resources.” It’s a style of trekking that carries “all the resources needed to complete the journey and handle any kind of weather or trail condition.” In Jimmy Roberts’ day, since there were few places to stay in the hinterland, he outfitted his trips with enough gear – tents, stove, food, utensils, and fuel – and enough support staff and porters (or pack animals) to be independent; or as Brennan puts it, with enough staff “to go the distance.”

For guides, cooks and kitchen boys, Roberts favored employing Sherpas, the indigenous residents of the Mount Everest region. “Sherpas,” he said, “give trekking agents in Nepal a most unfair advantage over their counterparts in other parts of the Himalaya. I cannot hide the truth – I love them. And at times they drive me stark staring mad.”

Over time ‘Sherpa’ has taken on other meanings. Now any trip guide or porter may be called a Sherpa, whether he actually is one or not. And because Sherpas are world renowned for their skills in guiding clients to summits, it is no wonder that in some diplomatic and political circles (and based on a pun) someone who assists officials or delegates at ‘summit meetings’ and conferences is now known as a ‘Sherpa’.

The notion of ‘trekking’, itself, has also changed — it has “morphed into a travel experience that now uses resources along the travelers’ route and is no longer a self-supported near-wilderness activity,” says Bennan. Eventually, as guest houses and tea houses began to spring up on the main trails, ‘teahouse trekking’ became fashionable, alone or in a small group, with or without porters, following a popular route, and relying on trailside accommodations for meals and overnight stays. Both expedition and teahouse trekking remain immensely popular today.

The author is a contributing editor and frequent writer for ECS Nepal. He can be contacted at

For this story he has borrowed stories, quotes and insights from many sources, including Tilman’s ‘Nepal Himalaya’ (1952), Styles’ ‘The Moated Mountain’ (1954), Izzard’s ‘An Innocent on Everest’ (1954), and Forbes’ ‘Johnny Gurkha’ (1964). On early treks (for comparative purposes) see Hooker’s ‘Himalayan Journals’ (1855), Freshfield’s ‘Round Kangchenjunga’ (1903), Snellgrove’s ‘Himalayan Pilgrimage’ (1961) and Hagen’s ‘Nepal Himalaya’ (1961). The list is by no means exhaustive.

The Jimmy Roberts/Mountain Travel story is best told in Roberts’ unpublished essay ‘How it all began’, quoted here. See also ‘Soul of a mountain man’ in ‘Action Asia’ (Oct/Nov 1999; Dick Kelty’s role in the history of backpacking is told in ‘Backpack History – How and when did they come into being?’ online at (> Articles > Backpack History), posted September 13, 2011. For other insights on ‘trek-trekker-trekking’ the observations of Rusty Brennan (of, Steve Bezruchka, Robin Marston and other correspondents and friends (and early trekkers) are acknowledged with thanks.

At the start of adventure trekking in 1952, Bill Tilman called Nepal “the largest inhabited country still unexplored by Europeans.” Now, after 60 years, Tilman’s “unknown Nepal” — unknown to outsiders, that is — is firmly ‘on the map’, so to speak, and there is very little of the Nepal Himalaya that has not been trekked by Nepalese and foreigners alike.