Mapping a trail with a total ascent and descent of nearly 500,000 feet — that’s the equivalent of reaching the summit of Mount Everest 17 times — and a highest point of 20,341 feet is a pretty unfathomable task. Add the fact that it happens to be in one of the most remote parts of the world, and it's definitely an intimidating undertaking.
Robin Boustead has taken on the challenge, however, and has mapped much of the Great Himalaya Trail, which spans roughly 2,800 miles through the Himalayan regions of Bhutan, Nepal, India, Pakistan and Tibet.
He returned last week from his latest effort along the trail and told us what it takes to map some of the most remote and changing landscape on the planet.
Mapping works better after napping
So, first question: Why take this on?
I first went in 1993, and have been [back] every year since. In 1996-'97 I was spending time with some friends who are guides and we were fantasizing about the route and kicked that idea [of mapping it] around for a while. At that time there were lots of areas closed to tourists, and I didn’t know much about the nature of the trail, so it was a dream.
The Himalayan landscape is incredible, but ever changing
When did it start to become a reality?
In 2004 I decided to trek to Mount Kailash by walking across Nepal from Kangchenjunga, the third-highest peak in in the world. We started to work out the best way to join the route, [and] I did a lot of research to find out if it was possible. In September 2008 I set off and realized it was much harder than I ever thought it would be! I didn’t think anyone would be interested in the trail, but it turned out they were!
So it's been an ongoing project to create the maps?
I was unimpressed with the maps of the Himalayas and I thought, "Why not try to improve them?" I worked with the Himalayan Map House, who were very happy to develop interlinked maps of the Himalayas. Of course there was the earthquake in Nepal, so we have three versions so far, and will work on producing another next year.
What difficulties come up while trekking the Himalayas?
If you can name it, it’s a problem. Basic navigation is difficult and you are traveling in and out of so many different ecosystems. From tropical to subtropical to alpine, and everything in between. The environment is always changing, so the trail is a lot different to what you expect. Even if you are an experienced mountaineer in your own climate, there will be an area you will struggle with on the trail. It really tests your skills.
Trekkers pass local villages on the Great Himalayan Trail
There must be a lot of beautiful moments?
You really only start trekking after the first four weeks — after that you just sort of fly, or float, along the trail. That lasts until around 90 to 100 days and then it starts to get tough again as your body begins to wear down. But for those weeks in between it is the most incredible feeling.
Check out more incredible pictures from the GHT here
Any tips for those thinking of tackling the route?
I wouldn’t say my work is about telling people the route to go, it’s about giving them a selection of routes and allowing them to find their own path. Around half of the people on the trail take their own route.
The highest point is 20,341 feet and the lowest 1,312 feet. If you walk the high route you go up and down nearly 500,000 feet. It’s not uncommon to have an ascent and descent of 10,000 feet per day on that route. It’s hard graft.
But most importantly, get out there and do it! No matter how tough you think it’s going to be, it will be tougher! But it is a great, life-changing experience. You genuinely don’t come back the same person.