Everyone has their own route through the Himalaya. Here's mine - a long traverse starting near India's border with western Nepal and finishing in Ladakh.
The simplest reason to trek through mountains is to get to the other side. My journeys were directed at no such thing. India’s western Himalaya stretch from the Indus to the Nepalese border. It's a distance of perhaps 750 kilometres as the crow flies - about a third of the length of the whole sweep of the Himalaya from Pakistan to Arunachal Pradesh. I wanted to travel along the ranges, staying as close to the high peaks as I could.
First recorded traverse of the whole Himalayan chain
A group of mountaineers took three and a half months to cross the same stretch of country in 1981. They were engaged in a ten-month trek from Sikkim to the Karakoram; the first recorded traverse of the whole Himalayan chain.1,2,3 Peter Hillary - son of Sir Edmund, the Everest pioneer - was one of them. He was accompanied by another New Zealander, Graeme Dingle, and by the Indian mountaineer Tashi Chewang. A second group shadowed the climbers, taking lower trails and acting as a support team. The trip does not seem to have been a very happy one; Hillary and Dingle quarrelled furiously from the start of the journey to the finish, and on one occasion they came to blows.
In May 1981, while Dingle and Hillary were quarrelling their way across the passes of central Nepal, another walker set out on a long journey. Sunderlal Bahaguna was sixty-five years old when he left Kashmir to walk along the Himalaya. He was a Gandhian activist; his trek was intended to draw attention to the destruction of the Himalayan forests. He travelled in the style of the Buddhist monks of antiquity. He held meetings in the villages he passed through and gave speeches, and during the rainy seasons and the cold seasons he rested up. He came to blows with nobody, so far as I know, and he didn’t write a book. His journey took thirty-two months.
Two years later a pair of English brothers, Richard and Adrian Crane, made the trip in just a hundred days, running all the way4. Like Sunderlal Bahaguna, they were travellers with a cause; they ran to raise money for the charity Intermediate Technology. They carried only the barest essentials, and purchased whatever food and lodging they could find in the villages they passed through. The Indian part of the Himalaya took them forty days.
So there are three ways to do it - the monk's way, the climbers' way and the runners' way.
And my way? I travelled partly on my own, and mostly with my partner Julia Davidson. The Cranes had pruned their itinerary ruthlessly to fit their timetable. They had stuck to the foothills through Kumaon and Garhwal and Himachal Pradesh, and then they had run north across the Himalaya by the old trade route to Ladakh. But they had ignored the carnival of mountains beside them. The Himalayas march through Nepal in a thin high file, and then in India they throw a party. Mountains trip over one another and tumble into waiting valleys. I didn’t want to miss the party just to save a little time.
We wanted to follow a route a little more like the one that Peter Hillary had taken, but our journey had to be a walk, not a climbing expedition. We'd have no support party to scurry to and fro for us, fetching ice axes and ropes whenever we needed them. We would employ no porters. If there were mountains that we couldn’t cross unaided, we'd go round them. If a motor road took the most natural route between two points, or if we needed to visit a town to buy supplies, we'd catch a bus. Otherwise, we'd travel on foot by the most rugged and interesting route we could manage.