Interview with GHT Hiker Shawn Forry
Recently two Americans, Shawn Forry (trail name Pepper) and Justin Lichter (aka Trauma) trekked the Nepal section of the Great Himalaya Trail from Kanchenjunga and reached Simikot 57 days later. Their style might be considered unusual to those familiar with trekking in Nepal. They did it unsupported and self-guided, relying on pre-placed food and equipment stocks and a trekking agent in Nepal to manage logistics.
We catch up with Shawn by email from the USA (his trek partner Justin is still walking through India) and ask him some questions. An inspiring read to anyone who dreams of trekking the whole trail but it also comes perhaps with good advice for people wanting to walk a section of the trail.
Why did you decide to take up this 8000m > 8000m challenge. What was the inspiration?
Trauma first brought up the idea of the Himalayas to me on a fun fall hike we did together with some other fellow hiker friends in the fall of 2009. At that time I was so intimidated by the notion of traversing the highest range in the world and doubted it’s feasibility, that I quickly wrote it off. Coincidentally, a few months later I ran across a tiny blurb about the GHT in an edition of Nat Geo Adventure magazine. After looking into the research of Robin and the GHT.org, as well as some historical hikes like Hillary’s, Swift/Blum, and Wilby [see wikipedia], it became apparent that this might be something that could be realistic and something we could potentially tackle in the fast and light, self supported strategies we’ve utilized on other long hikes around the world. In thinking about the aesthetics of what would be an inspiring start and finishing termini, we realized how Kanchenjunga and Nanga Parbat would make natural locations and then the dream of seeing all of the 14 8,000m peaks started to take shape. The more we dove into the planning and logistics of the hike, we saw how many hurdles would need to be overcome, but the geography and pure aesthetics of the land and route are really what prompted us to continue down this path that would take up over a year of our lives.
Can you give a quick run through of the places you trekked through in Nepal? i.e. your route? It’s hard to see from the waypoints alone.
We started our trek by taking a bus to Taplejung and heading north on the Kanchenjunga Trek to Ghunsa. We planned on heading to Kanchenjunga base camp, but opted out to save time and the additional need to acclimatize. Went over the Nango La to Olangchung Gola, Lumbha Sambha La into Chyamtang. Snow was way too deep to head towards Makalu BC, so we had to re-route south to Num. We opted out of the lower cultural route to Lukla from Num and ended up skipping about 60km of high route over West Col, Sherpani and Amphu. Flew into Lukla went to Namche, EBC, Cho La, Renjo La and Tashi Labsta. From Simi we road walked to Singati and then road walked over Tinsang La to Barhabise. We took the cultural route from Barhabise to Melamchi and then took the Gosainkunda trek to Dhunche. Road walk to Syabrubesi and then back to the high route all the way to Dho Tarap. Through Dolpa we went over the Jyanta La and Nengla La towards Pho and then High Route again all the way to Simikot where we finished. Our route was mostly based on a balance of logistics and high route scenery.
How did you manage with permits? I think around Manaslu you need 4 permits, plus a guide with you. What do you think could or should be changed for thru-hikers?
Ask anybody that knows me and they will tell you how much I hate dealing with backcountry permits. I have a stack of fines and citations from various Park Rangers over the years to prove it! Permits were definitely one of the biggest looming questions we had prior to beginning this trek, but hindsight, things worked out well to our benefit. We ended up going through a trekking company, Adventure Alliance, that was recommended to me from a friend of a friend.
Knowing that there are literally hundreds of trekking agencies in Kathmandu and very few of them are familiar with the Great Himalaya Trail, having a trusted point person to run the behind the scenes paperwork mess was integral to the success of our hike. We took about 5 days prior to the start of our hike to organize and sort through the mountain of permitting requirements. By getting all of them started at the same time, it allowed some of the more time intensive areas like Dolpa and Manaslu to be completed and issued by the time we would be heading through those areas. The most confusing and frustrating aspect is the lack of clarity about what permits are actually needed, their price, and what other stipulations go along with that area in terms of guide requirements. For instance, you mention in your question that you need 4 permits for Manaslu and a guide, but we went through that area with one Conservation Area Permit, a TIMS card and no guides or porters. Every check point we went through, nobody questioned our documents, yet almost every other trekking party was coming up to us asking how we didn’t have a guide.
On the flip side, we went through the Upper Dolpa region, which has a permit price tag of $500USD and yet we saw absolutely no one in the region with any sort of check point authority. My biggest recommendation for Nepal and their permitting system would be to have one standard ‘all in one’ permit. If you look at trails like the Pacific Crest Trail in the US, there is one governing body that oversees the development and regulations of the trail. They issue one similar permit to thru-hikers who are attempting 500 miles or more of the trail in a year for a nominal fee. Regardless of what Nepal sets the price of this ‘all in one’ permit, it would alleviate the frustration and confusion around this permitting structure. I have a feeling the popularity of the GHT will continue to increase, and trekking companies may become more familiar with the areas the route goes and the necessary required permits, but ultimately a specialized permit for thru-hikers would be the most efficient system.
What was your favourite spot on the hike?
Naturally one would think the classic destinations like Everest base camp or Annapurna would be high on my list, but actually Dolpa was by far my favorite region of Nepal and the GHT. I felt this area had the perfect blend of culture, scenery, and pure wilderness. Very few trekkers venture into this remote area and the local customs and way of like haven’t been spoiled by tourism and catering to trekkers. Being such a remote and harsh, dry landscape, it was fascinating to see how the people had adapted to the land and made it sustainable. Walking through the barren landscape of Dho Tarap after coming over several high snowy passes and seeing young local boys tilling the fields with their yaks made such a lasting impression on me and where I finally feel like I understood Nepal and it’s people. That sense of time and place really resonated with me in that moment in time.
If you were going to recommend a part of the trek for somebody with a shorter time available, which bit would it be?
I felt like the link up of the Annapurna Circuit and Manaslu Trek had the perfect balance of Nepali culture and mountain scenery while also being logistically easy to get to and from the trail. There are plenty of trekker accommodations and if you are heading east-west, both the climbs over the Larkya La and Thorong La are gradual enough to allow for plenty of time to acclimatize. I felt this area was also a huge transition zone in regards to the landscape. The Nepal you see in Jagat on the Manaslu Circuit will be vastly different from the Nepal you will see in Jomsom on the completion of the Annapurna Circuit.
For something more wild and remote, hands down the Dolpa section from Jomsom to Gamgadhi has to be some of the most challenging and genuine miles in Nepal. I feel like the culture is authentic and you will see absolutely no one along your route. There are various loops you can take you adjust your level of commitment and duration. Lake Phoksumdo is spectacular as well as the Buddhist village of Shey Gompa and Chharka Bhot. Getting to/from the area is relatively easy via Pokhara and Jumla, but you are definitely in some far off places. This was the one area in Nepal where we went through a valley with absolutely so settlements established (Yala La to Chyargo La).
Which part was the most challenging?
Dolpa, but maybe that’s why it was so rewarding. 375km without any sort of resupply, nine passes over 5000m and being consistently at elevations over 14,000ft definitely wore us both down. I think Trauma and I both lost 10-15lbs in the 9 days we were going through this section. We were totally sick of the food we were carrying, had a lack of appetite from the elevation, were routinely gaining and losing 4000-6000m everyday, and consistently coughing up bloody sputum. Type 2 fun possibly, but some of the most rewarding miles we’ve ever done.
If conditions would have allowed for it, I think the section between Makalu and Everest over the 3 high passes (West Col, Sherpani Col and Amphu Labsta) would have potentially been the hardest section. Not only because of the altitude and technical aspects, but sorting out the logistics of getting food supplies would have been a headache. Rumor had it that we could have pilfered some food rations from some of the Makalu and Baruntse expedition teams, but these seemed unreliable as well as not very self sufficient.
You’ve done big treks all over. What was different about trekking in Nepal compared to other places you’ve trekked in?
The sheer scale of things really stands out. The amount of elevation you can gain and lose in one single day still staggers me. To see elderly women passing me, hauling 50lbs of rice on their heads and wearing little more than worn out sandals stills boggles my mind. I think the blend of culture and scenery is something I hadn’t experienced before and it really enriched the experience and added a fresh perspective. To really get to know a place is to get to know it’s people and I feel really fortunate to have been able to see Nepal in that light.
Any other anecdotes or funnies from the trail?
One thing we read a lot about in the planning process of this expedition was the cultural acceptance of staring. We became quite accustomed to becoming the town spectacle anytime we would take a break in a town or village. By the end of the trip we barely even noticed when locals would congregate around us. One particular instance that stands out on our final days heading to Simikot was where we took a meal break along some river rocks. About 5 minutes into our break, 3 villagers passed by us and hoped off the trail to join us in a river side rest. As usual the staring ensued as we aired our feet out and stuffed our faces with copious amounts of calories. After about 30 minutes of spectating, I think the 3 villagers must have become bored with us and quickly nodded off into a slumber, one by one. I’m not sure if they lost interest with us or we were just too boring for them, but we ended up packing up and returning to the trail without them even noticing that we had departed. I’m still not sure where to feel let down and disappointed about our lack of entertaining skills.
How do you rate Sean Burch’s Great Himalaya Trail ‘World Record’ crossing in 49 days? He did it differently with a team of porters and a different route.
I’m not really one to take on challenges purely from a speed aspect and don’t really know the ins and outs around Sean’s expedition, but knowing the route that we chose and the self sufficient nature of our hike, I think esthetically our trek has a lot different appeal and intent than Sean’s. Not to discredit what Sean accomplished, but knowing that we covered nearly the same distance in 47 days and a handful of those days we traveled less than 3 hours due to either logistics, acclimatization, resupply or stomach ailments, I think we could have easily knocked off 5-10 days if we were solely out there for speed. Sean set the bar for what is possible and now it will be up to others to see where things can be improved upon.
Knowing that we were consistently on a higher route, fully self sufficient, and without guides or porters, I think our route and strategy had a different set of challenges and ultimately something other folks could aspire to achieve. I don’t think it’s practical for future GHT hikers to organize a fully supported hike complete with porters and guides, both from a logistical stand point and a financial reality, and I hope what our hike was able to achieve is the notion that other folks can come out here on their own and hike a similar route. Our big objective was to try and make the Himalaya range more accessible and less intimidating. We based our route around what made the most logistical sense in terms of resupply and the need to carry tons of technical gear, as well as the ability to self guide ourselves. In our planning process, we were consistently told that anything less than a 150+ day itinerary would be impractical and thus would require 2 trekking seasons to either avoid the monsoonal rains or the closure of high passes through the winter season. This notion only further fuels the idea that the Himalaya range is inaccessible and a lot of people cannot dedicate that much time off in their personal lives. I truly believe that the GHT can be completed in one trekking season by any experienced trekker. The challenge is sorting out the details about how best to go about accomplishing this brand new route for people to explore.
I’m currently trying to type up a logistical planning sheet for other aspiring GHT trekkers looking to travel in a similar fashion. After many long conversations with Robin during our planning process, there seems to be a disconnect with what is accepted as possible with Nepali hiking and what are considered norms in trekking regions that have similar long distance trekking routes. Ultimately I think it is important to prioritize what ever the individual trekker is looking to get out of their hike, but I also think it is helpful to consider all perspectives on how to go about tackling the Great Himalaya trail.
Many thanks for taking the time to answer these ones Shawn and good luck out in the back country.
Thanks so much for taking the time to put this questionnaire together. I fully committed on promoting the GHT and truly believe that it could be the ‘trail to rule them all’. Many thanks and let me know if there is anything else I can do to help you all out.