Solo Traverse of the Great Himalayan Trail High Route
Hello Matthias. Who are you and how did the idea of the Great Himalayan Trail High Route come to your mind?
Hei, my name is Matthias, I am a neuroscientist, working at a University. I am a ultrarunner, so I like to go fast and light for long distances. I also have some background as a climber/alpinist.
I love maps and spend a lot of time at local map stores. I am totally fascinated that some places around the world are still not fully mapped out. One day I read a post online where people discussed how to cross a mountain pass in the Himalayas, struggling to find a safe route. Later, it turned out that the mountain pass was incorrectly labelled on the maps. In Nepal, some of the mountains have many different names, and they differ between the local language and the “official” maps. I find it really exciting that with all the digital data available today, that there are still remote places where one can get truly lost. For me, this is in stark contrast to the European Alps, for instance, where it sometimes feels like every single trail has been marked and travelled a hundred times.
Once a friend gave me a book about two brothers who run part of the lower route of the Great Himalayan Trail (GHT) in the 70’. These guys were neither professionals nor sponsored athletes, but somehow managed their traverse with the help of local people and the right attitude. Super fascinating! After reading the book, I wondered if it was possible to adopt their style and move quickly also at higher elevations.
Through the years the idea to hike the GHT grew in me and in 2022 I was finally brave and fearless enough to undertake the 1800km journey.
Planning and preparation for this journey is known for being long and hard. How did you plan the route, resupplies and logistics?
I knew my trip across the Himalayas would take between 100-150 days (it took around 100 at the end). Most people I talked to before said that one would probably have to come back 2-3 times to Nepal to finish the entire route, as the weather window is relatively short and due to other logistical issues like Visa and permits.
In Nepal, the ideal hiking season is very short. I started at the beginning of April, still in wintry conditions. In the past, some people had started even earlier, but around mid-March there is often still too much snow at higher elevations. The hiking season ends already around early June, when the monsoon starts.The harsh winter had brought a lot of snow this year that just started melting as I was starting my trip. Throughout the whole traverse I was hoping to get as far as possible into my journey before the start of the monsoon. Monsoon season means not only flooding rivers, but also landslides that cause logistic issues for resupply.
Half the time I would be camping in remote places and eat my own food, for the rest I had to rely on locals for food. Some people do “section hikes” and then travel back and forth to Kathmandu for resupplies whenever possible. For me, that was not an option as it would be very time consuming and I also liked the idea of staying in the wild without interrupting my trip. In the ultrarunning world there is a saying “be aware of the chair”. Once you feel the temptation of sitting down and resting, it is hard to get back out there!
The maximum amount of food I carried with me was for 12 days, which coincided with the longest section without resupplies. This is the most I can physically carry considering the elevation often above 5000m and all the mountaineering equipment and extra gear.
Throughout the traverse I heavily relied on locals to feed me and supplement the food I carried. Commonly, locals eat Dahl Bat, a rice dish with lentils and potatoes. Rarely meat, maybe some eggs. However, all these things are difficult to transport and take a long time cooking. One thing that is widely available and easy to pack are cookies. I never ate so many cookies in my entire life.
Locals would sometimes make a kind of flat bread called “Roti” that I would eat with cookies. Another thing that is widely available in the Tibetan community is Tsampa, a kind of porridge made from roasted barley flour. The first time I tried it, it felt like eating dry flour and it got stuck in my mouth. Later I learned that locals mix it with sugar, water and yak butter. Then it becomes actually quite tasty. Yak butter and sugar is how many locals get their calories.
In total, I met 3 times with a porter who brought resupplies that I had stored in Kathmandu, both food and gear. For example, in Makalu Base Camp I needed a 200m rope that would have been way too heavy to carry the entire way. Meeting up with the porter was logistically quite interesting, as it would take the porter many days to reach me and there were times when I was afraid that we would miss each other. The other two resupply points were easier to reach from Kathmandu. All in all, I started with 12 days of food, and at every resupply I received another 12 days of food, totaling in 48 day’s worth of resupplies, which covered about half of the totals. For the remaining days I completely relied on local food.
Another side of logistics is consumable gear like gas canisters for cooking, which are hard to find outside of Kathmandu. Before I left, I did a lot of testing and figured that I could use one gas canister for roughly 12 days, when using it as sparingly as possible. Gas canisters were also part of the three resupplies mentioned.
Experience with gear choices play an important role in any expedition. Some ultralight equipment, among others a Middus 1p in DCF and a Framus 58L Ultra 200 backpack, were used. What was your average and max pack load, and why did you decide to go ultralight on some of your gear choices? How did it affect the journey?
In general, it is pretty safe to say that everyone likes to travel as light as possible. But I think there is a limit when ‘ultralight’ gear sacrifices too much and becomes ‘stupid-light’. For example, when waterproof layers become so thin that they do not protect against rain and hypothermia anymore. Given that the GHT is very unforgiving with gear, I did not want to make that mistake.
I started with 28kg with 12 days of food. I was really pushing the Framus 58L pack to the limit, but it held up incredibly well.
The East of Nepal is where the technical parts are and as I moved to the West the passes got less technical and lower in elevation, so my pack got lighter and lighter. I could leave heavier gear as I went on, so in the end I averaged around 16kg. Not ultralight by any means, but with ropes and all the equipment needed for this remote traverse, there are many things you just cannot get rid of.
Ultralight meant that I was able to cover longer distances in a shorter period of time. For my trip that was essential, as it allowed me to complete the traverse before the monsoon got really bad and also before my Visa expired. In the West of Nepal, which is usually quite dry, when the monsoon arrives the water level in the rivers rises easily by 1-2 meters and the lack of bridges can make them impossible to pass.
To the best of my knowledge I might be one of the first solo travelers that covered the entire GHT high rote in one season. Ultralight gear was part of the equation.
I could have gone lighter by bringing less food, but I needed some extra margin knowing how much your body needs just to keep warm at that altitude.
I was really surprised about the comfort of the Framus 58L. Even pushing it out of its designed carry load, I found it as comfortable as frameless packs with a standard 5kg base weight. The backpack is not only lightweight but highly water resistant, so in conjunction with DCF drybags I could keep everything dry. Through rain and snow, I was just amazed how dry the pack remained on the inside compared to standard nylon packs. It performed much better than previous packs I had.
On a funny note, it is curious that after so many days of not showering and keeping all my dirty gear, the backpack still smells like the new Ultra 200 material. This is in stark contrast to other backpacks that take on the smell of dirty clothes and food after long thru-hikes.
What was the hardest part of the trek, mentally or physically?
Having started in the East right after winter, I was very concerned about the first 5000m pass, called Lumba Sumba. Since it connects Kanchenjunga area with the Makalu national park, I knew that if I could not make it through, I would have to make a long detour. The approach to the pass takes about a week, and on the other side it takes another week to get to the first resupply.
Not making it over the Lumba Sumba pass would mean barely making it with enough food. Due to Covid, no one had gone through the area in the past few years, so I was quite worried there. I was very relieved when I arrived at the foot of the pass in the afternoon, even if I sank into the soft snow down to my hips. Post holing in deep snow at that elevation was extremely exhausting. My plan was to wake up early in the morning at 2am to take advantage of the frozen snow and make it over the pass without post hauling through the deep snow. I felt a bit like Jesus walking over water, just that in my case it was snow!
This was an important day, as from there on I knew that the next mountains passes will have more technical difficulties, but I had successfully passed one of the most challenging ones in difficult weather conditions.
There are three technical passes in the East that are above 6000m, with 40-degree slopes requiring propper mountaineering gear like need crampons and ice axe. Here, you are in contact with hard packed blue ice, climbing down rocks and navigating through a labyrinth of crevassed glaciers.
For the rest of the hike, the main challenge was navigation. In many places the trail is not obvious, especially near rivers where it disappear every year during the monsoon season.
Any interesting story to share?
I have hundred stories!
On one of the last mountain passes in the East, Gyanzen La (5500m), I felt so relaxed and confident after 80 days of traveling at high elevation. Then suddenly, within just a few minutes the weather changed drastically and dropped 1 meter of snow that came out of nowhere. And all of that in a desert-like landscape, I was stunned. Staring at my GPS, trying to find the route, it was so much snow that I could not wipe the screen clear fast enough. It became a complete white out situation, very scary.
What made things worse is that at that time, I was not equipped with winter gear and was wearing trail running shoes and shorts. Until then, all had gone so well, I was almost finished with the GHT, but it was a strong reminder to remain alert and as if nature wanted to tell me “you are not done yet!”.
Any suggestions for anyone planning to venture on the Great Himalayan Trail?
The GHT is really a different kind of trail. I have been on trails where one could cruise through and average 40-50km a day. But on the GHT you have to lower your expectations. On my longest hiking day, 16 hours, I only managed to cover 5km, crossing a glacier that was reminiscent of loose boulder field.
There is a lot of route-finding and river crossing that slows you down a lot, as you constantly have to figure out where to go next. There is beauty and enjoyment in it, sometimes also frustration, so one needs to like that challenge.
Also, there is a community of people online that I recommend reaching out to. Everyone I contacted for information has been very kind and helpful.
Lastly, a typical closing question. Where next?
Honestly, I really don’t know! Honest boring answer. 🙂