As the sun warmed the valley, the memory of a subzero night faded. The golden barley mounds around us mimicked the forms of two peaks in the distance—snowy, arrowhead-shaped giants jutting literally miles into a deep-blue sky. I pictured a blindfolded person being flown around the world and deposited in this hidden valley. When the mask was removed, he would almost certainly guess where he was, for there was only one place on Earth this could be: the Himalaya. The world’s greatest mountain range. Nepal, where the modern adventure travel industry was born, and where its focus has newly returned.
Imagine yourself as a surveyor for the British Raj in 1852, forced to scope the height of Everest from a hundred miles away in India. Hiding the very roof of the world would seem impossible, but that is what the Kingdom of Nepal effectively did by restricting all foreign access until the middle of the 20th century. Compelled to get creative, mountaineers attempted to climb Everest from Tibet, and two of them, George Mallory and Andrew Irvine, famously perished only a few hundred meters from the top in 1924. It wasn’t until mid-century that King Tribhuvan finally cracked open the hallowed gates.
Traveling adventurously is surely as old as time, but “adventure travel”—the industry, the lifestyle, the passion—didn’t yet exist. It would be hatched in Nepal, its godparents some of mountaineering’s all-time greats, starting with the Englishman Bill Tilman, whose 1949 Himalayan wanderings are considered the very first trek by a foreigner. In 1950 Maurice Herzog and Louis Lachenal did what no human had ever done before by scaling an 8,000-meter peak, Annapurna I; in 1953 Tenzing Norgay and Edmund Hillary summited Everest. People were only slightly less astonished by these feats than they would be when Neil Armstrong set foot on the moon.
The travel revolution began in earnest when Col. Jimmy Roberts, a military attaché to the British Embassy in Kathmandu, had an idea that was radical for its time: If porters, equipment, and guidance were supplied, enthusiastic travelers, and not just mountaineering superheroes, could experience the Himalaya too. He founded Mountain Travel and in 1965 led three American women on an Everest trek. Two years later he and Leo Le Bon, a rock climber and travel agent from Berkeley, California, guided the first commercial Annapurna trek. Le Bon helped launch an American counterpart to Roberts’s enterprise, which has grown into the adventure travel titan now known as Mountain Travel Sobek. The company has since expanded its offerings to all seven continents, but for Le Bon, Nepal will always remain the center of the adventure travel landscape. “You have eight of the 14 highest mountains on Earth,” he says. “Rhododendrons that grow 50 feet tall and spectacular glaciers. Hundreds of tribes with all of their customs. The mix of cultures and religions, Buddhism from Tibet, Hinduism from India. What more do you want?”
But only recently has order been restored to the adventure travel universe, as Nepal shakes off a decade-long civil war that pitted Maoist insurgents against the government and resulted in more than 13,000 deaths. After a peace settlement was negotiated, elections were held in April 2008 to form a new government, and the Maoists emerged as the leading party. The assembly’s first vote transformed what was formerly the world’s only Hindu kingdom into its newest democratic republic. The royal dynasty, more than two centuries old, was toppled, banknotes swapped a portrait of dethroned King Gyanendra for an image of Mount Everest, and thousands of people celebrated on the streets with the words “New Nepal” painted on their faces. At the time of my visit last fall, the new government hadn’t even celebrated its hundred-day anniversary.