Nepal is a place where people come to connect with the mountains and simplify their way of living. It is an incredibly unpredictable place and that can be frustrating or fantastic. I just want to be able to remember that after I leave.Justin Lehmann
The Farewell Ascent — Introduction
Walk around any city in the world and you’ll see that technology has monopolized our focus; all necks crane downward with eyes fixed on a miniature screen. We often fail to be present in our own environments and with our loved ones.
Paradoxically, the same constant access to the Internet that places us in a perpetual state of distraction facilitates otherwise impossible connections at the very same time. At least that’s how we felt when we received an email from an absolute stranger in Nepal.
His name is Justin, and he shot us an email with a photo of him canoeing across a lake in his adopted homeland, wearing a three-year-old pair of our trusty Chore Pants. We were intrigued that a guy in Nepal had not only found Taylor Stitch, but also seemed to have one hell of a story to share.
As we came to find out, Justin has been living in Nepal for the past three years, and in that time he’s seen his share of both good times and bad. He was living in Nepal in the aftermath of the 2015 earthquake felt the consequences of a blockade with India that shut down the country; but in the end, he’s experienced a country that captivates the imagination and wanderlust like few can. “Nepal will always be a big part of my life,” Justin remarked as he told us his story, “it made me realize how little control we have over some things. The Nepalese are a tenacious and resilient people. I hope I can take a little of that with me wherever I end up next.”
We got to talking, and Justin shared with us that he was planning a big move to Finland—and that he wanted to get one more trip under his belt before the next chapter in his life: a trek along the notorious Annapurna Circuit. What is Annapurna? It’s a 250-mile long, blister-bursting technical hike that reaches 18,000 feet at its highest point. A trail that crosses jungle, crystal-clear alpine rivers, and forests of rhododendrons along jagged, knife-edged peaks. A storied trail of great beauty and steeped in a culture of resilience, gratitude, and enjoyment. Justin was curious if we wanted to come along for the ride.
“Well, of course.”
Just like that, Justin would become guide to a handful of our friends crazy enough to tag along: Aaron Brimhall, Dallin Jo Jolley & Spencer Cotton.
The Farewell Ascent — It Begins
- It Begins
- Day 1
- Day 2
- Day 3
- Day 4
After a 30-hour flight into Kathmandu, Spencer, Aaron, and Dallin snuck in a nap before setting off for Annapurna. And by nap, we mean a nap. This trip included a lot of things, but sleep was not one of them.
Eyes-wide with the cluster that is Nepali traffic, they navigated out of the capital before heading down the highway for Besisahar to find their guide for the trek, grab their permits, and head into the Annapurna Conservation area. Let’s just say this trip isn’t for the impatient—after a 30-hour flight, it was a 12-hour, white-knuckled drive to Annapurna.
The road was long and beat to hell, with the highway turning abruptly to dirt only a few hours in. Their driver’s lip packed full of powdered lyme and chewing tobacco to stay alert—sped through traffic, casually overtaking buses and trucks at blind corners with little regard. Any chance at grabbing some shut-eye ended with the apparition of blinding headlights from an oncoming dump truck. Locked brakes and full skid: the driver missed a head on collision by mere inches—a symbolic sense of Nepal, the uncertainty of everything. Their trip, and possibly their lives, spared by less than a matter of inches.
Their newly-minted sense of alarm was swiftly rewarded when a huge leopard bounded across the road back into the jungle. Seeing a leopard is rare; but for the sleep-deprived crew still many hours away from beginning the trek, it was surreal: “Wait, we’re hiking out here with those fucking things?”
After a late arrival to Justin’s homebase, the gang grabbed a few fitful hours of sleep, then awoke and promptly began the trek. To approach the trailhead, they got their hands on a Mahindra Bolera SUV, similar to a bulletproof Indian 4x4. There was no question this one had been put through the ringer—chassis dents all over, rusted metal everywhere you looked, and apparently an engine that wouldn’t die.
As they made their initial ascent in the Bolera, the ever-changing landscape is the only thing that kept them awake. One minute they’d be hugging a rock face with a sheer drop into the gorge; the next they’d be crawling through forests and sleepy mountain towns. Periods of boredom were constantly punctuated by hairpin corners and a beauty rivaled only by how dangerous the road was. Aaron and Spencer were snapping away; Dallin and Justin were staring awestruck. Driving like madmen, they eventually arrived in Chame at nightfall. They hadn’t changed clothes since first touching down and didn’t feel the need too—which either says a hell of a lot about the gear, or the lethargy that creeps in when sleep becomes a luxury!
Chame is a small mountain village where many travelers choose to begin Annapurna. They found lodging in a little guest house and stole five hours of sleep. It felt like an eternity, but between their adrenaline and newfound ability to function as zombies they rose with the sun at 5:30 in the morning.
The next day they began the trek in earnest.
They headed up the trail, stopping every mile or so in disbelief that they were actually attempting the trail on little-to-no-sleep, and were greeted by their first look at snow-capped mountains. A fog descended into the gorge. They had driven almost 10,000 ft.
You can plan as much as possible on paper, you can even see many sections of the trek from the comfort of your own home on the Internet; yet, it’s only until you’re physically on the trail that the entire experience takes on a whole new meaning. It’s almost impossible to put into words, the sheer beauty and craziness of the whole trip. Inspired by the grandeur of the landscape, they were ready to trek to their next waypoint at Humde.
One problem: Humde was another 2,000 feet in altitude. Trekking for 12 hours, bodies still adjusting from the sleepless nights and changes in altitude, this was more than some hellacious walk in the park. Justin’s dog Jura (the unofficial mascot and tireless pain in the ass that would not tire out) was running around, putting the crew to shame. She whipped around, doled out bountiful licks, and contributed a spirit that made it just a bit easier to trek onward.
They arrived in Humde, as you can imagine, absolutely wrecked. The TS gear was holding up throughout the entire trip, from humid jungles to snow lined roads, but dirt sticks to anything. At some point, you just accept it. After some moments recollecting, they grabbed dinner together, Aaron and Dallin passed out, and Spencer and Justin stayed up a little while longer drinking Raski, the local moonshine. Naturally, the next day started more slowly.
The morning light in Humde reflecting off the snow-capped peaks in the distance captured a beauty unparalleled to anything they had ever seen. Sleep deprived, physically exhausted, and with higher altitudes awaiting, they took advantage of that moment in time to remain in high spirits as they headed to Manang, one of the highest-elevation cities on the trail.
Think about trekking. Think about trekking 30 miles on 14 hours rest, spread out over the course of several days, gulped down in several-hour, restless bursts. Now think about doing that at 14,000 feet. If you live at sea-level, you’re sure to notice a difference as low as 3,000 feet. Now imagine breathing in the almost non-existent oxygen at an elevation greater than 10,000 feet.
While Day 3 was a shorter journey, it sure felt like the longest. Acclimating to the altitude at this point on the circuit forces many trekkers to turn back, but trusty Jura was unfazed as she kept the troops moving onward. (We haven’t seen many studies conducted on the negative effects of altitude on canines, but we’d hazard a guess there aren’t very many!)
Manang is a beautiful town. Old brick and stone houses formed from the mud itself are built on a small plateau that overlooks a glacial lake and an ice-cold river. Old caves that were carved out of the sandstone over millennia look across the valley. The team couldn’t miss the chance of experiencing the ancient caves, which required a little detour of scrabbling up the mountain to have a look. Prayer flags fluttered in the wind over the town; everyone enjoyed a yak burger in silence.
Returning to Manang, the whole town was illuminated by the most incredible glow from the waning sun. The tremendous orange hue reflected off everything in sight, from the ice and snow and up the historic walls of the stone houses built generations prior.
Everything changed on Day 4. The plan was to trek to Tillicho Lake, the highest lake in the world; however, Mother Nature had different plans, an avalanche forced the closure of the trail ahead, and it seemed that not one person was being allowed through. Rescue helicopters were constantly flying up and down the valley; rumors were flying that people were stranded or sick; but the Annapurna authorities assured the team that things were perfectly fine. They trekked onward with knots in their stomachs.
Almost to their next stop in Yak Kharka, they were greeted with groups of people turning back; and not one to admit it, even the local guide began to show signs of unease. Fellow trekkers signaled the unthinkable: the trail was definitely closed to passage and the TS crew had a very real decision to make—either continue on to the unknown, or turn around and make their way down the mountain.
As often as in life, there is rarely a trip to Nepal where things are guaranteed.
Over a lunch of Yak salami and cheese, three-quarters of the squad—a group of strangers only four days prior—decided it was in their best interest to head homeward; while Justin, in keeping with his promise to end his time in Nepal on a high-note, continued on to finish the trail with no hesitation.
As if in a movie, the boys’ descent could only be described as a cinematic montage of their experiences of the trek—securing the craziest driver up for the challenge, they barrelled full-force down the mountain capturing their final glimpses of the Annapurna they experienced on their four-day ascent along the way. Just as they came, they pushed the limits of speed and adrenaline probably not prescribed by even your most seasoned climber.
Rest assured, a connection in Hong Kong later, the boys made it home to the States in one piece and with a newfound respect for the power and beauty of nature.
The Farewell Ascent — The Conclusion
We can’t have incredible lifetime experiences every single day, let alone every couple of weeks. And in our hectic lives, in this world we live in, it is remarkably easy to forget or disregard the beauty that surrounds us wherever it is we call home.
That’s why, regardless of nuance, we think that no matter the journey you're on there are two things that are meant to remain steadfast: your resolve to live life to the fullest—whether venturing off to your nearest national park for the weekend, or taking a couple weeks to experience Nepal for yourself—and the nearly second-nature preparation that goes into your decisions: the loose itinerary you’ve mapped out in your head, the must-sees you’ve predetermined, and certainly not least, the gear you trust to bring along for the ride.