email a friend iconprinter friendly iconBest New Trips: Hiking Nepal's Great Himalaya Trail
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I was traveling with representatives of SNV, a Dutch organization that is spearheading the GHT. The agency wanted to test the tourism potential (very high) and infrastructure (very low) of Humla and see how the GHT might spur responsible development along the length of the route. Joining us was Kathmandu-based guide Jamie McGuinness, who in the late 1990s was one of the originators of the GHT idea.

Today, two provisional GHT routes have been identified and will be finessed as their planners get feedback from trekkers and guides. The Main Route has the most economic development potential because it proceeds through the Middle Hills, mostly below 10,000 feet and home to about 45 percent of Nepal’s population. The more spectacular Extreme Route, meanwhile, breaks off to climb into the heart of the Himalaya, crossing dozens of high passes and topping 20,000 feet. As with much of the Continental Divide Trail in the U.S., new pathways didn’t need to be created through the wilderness. Nepal’s mountains are minimally developed, but they offer a wealth of trade and pilgrimage routes. The GHT elegantly connects these existing paths without blazing a single new trail.

Humla exemplified the GHT’s promise of little-known trekking treasures. Snowcapped peaks jutted into a brilliant blue sky. Sheer mountainsides plunged to the Karnali River, turquoise and frothy. Waterfalls plummeted from both sides of a narrow, dark-walled gorge. And this was just the first day. Riding some kind of trekker’s high from the scenery, we cruised way ahead of the porters schlepping our gear. Night fell and the temperature plunged below freezing. We were four people with one sleeping bag and no tent. Only McGuinness was unfazed. “I’ve got a pretty warm jacket,” he said. “You guys can share my sleeping bag.”

A veteran Himalayan wanderer in the finest tradition of Tilman and Roberts, McGuinness, 43, was used to improvising. In the mid-1980s he had dropped out of the University of Auckland to prospect for gold in the Australian outback. Afterward he says he “traveled really rough in a denim jacket and a pair of board shorts with $10,000 stuffed into the pockets.” He guided tourists in Egypt, sold Trans-Siberian Railway tickets, and trained sled dogs in the Arctic. Nepal, as is the case for so many adventure travelers, was the ultimate destination, the place he graduated to after apprenticing elsewhere. McGuinness arrived in 1988 and basically never left, logging thousands of trail miles. All of this walking inspired his simple, superb idea. “Imagine a trail from one end of the Himalaya to the other,” says McGuinness. “Imagine hiking it.”

As the night deepened we reached a stone hut and ducked through the doorway into a cramped room with a dirt floor. Flickering lamplight revealed a woman preparing watery soup over a woodstove. Her husband squatted to her left. Another man—possibly her second husband; polyandry is not uncommon in Humla—sat to the right peeling potatoes and staring blankly into space. “Namaste,” McGuinness said heartily and began chatting in Nepali. The ambience was Deliverance II: The Himalaya, yet McGuinness was chipper. “It’s a toss-up who’s smarter, the potato or the man peeling it,” he quipped.

The hut was smoky and crowded, so I stepped outside into the bracing air. A few other faintly lit huts stood on the slopes nearby, but otherwise the darkness was complete. I heard the trickle of a creek on its long, unhurried journey to the Karnali. A yak stood on a shelf of flat ground by one of the huts, and I imagined that we were of the same mind, thinking about next to nothing and enjoying the chance to be still.

When I heard the voices of the porters an hour later, faint but drawing closer, I was relieved that we would have places to sleep—but disappointed to be less alone. I took a deep breath. The mountains hulked above, dark and indistinct, their masses swelling as if to merge with the blackness of the night itself.

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