The Great Himalaya trail is set to be the longest and highest alpine walking tracks in the world. Winding its way through 4500kms of the worlds highest peaks and most remote communities, it links five Asian countries: Bhutan, China, India, Nepal and Pakistan. The trail can be carried out in one continuous trek or broken down into several interlinking ones and in February 2011, the first-ever range of GHT commercial treks will be start with the Nepal section.

The man behind the trail is Robin Boustead. Originally from the UK, but now living in Sydney, he has been guiding treks in the Himalayas for over 20 years. He was the first to walk the Nepal section in 2008/9 and will be leading it for World Expeditions in February. He then plans to complete some segments in Tibet, Bhutan, India and Pakistan over the next two years.

He spoke to Katy Dartford about the development of the GHT:

Katy: Creating such a huge trail must have been a massive task. How did you get involved?

Robin: Well, I got a bit bored with leading treks in Nepal to be perfectly honest. Then in 2002 I was there working on another project when I received a fax from the Home Ministry. There had just been an agreement with the Chinese over where the mutual border was between the two countries. This demilitarised the Nepal side of the border, opening them up to trekking for the first time in over 50 years. That sparked a little bit of interest in me. There were nine areas that had never been opened to tourism before and apart from a few anthropologists, they were completely unvisited. So I thought wow that sounds pretty wild and interesting, so I went off and researched them. As I was doing that I researched the areas between the main trekking routes and I slung them together and an idea of the GHT came about. The concept of a trail along the length of the Himalayas has been around for a long while, but it was always held back by bureaucracy and a complete lack of information. So I thought at the very least it will be interesting to map them and document the areas. When I realised it could actually be a continuous trail through the mountains, I thought it would be fantastic so had a crack at doing that. Now Ive just finished the Bhutan GHT network and next year we’ll be spending 8 months walking in the Indian GHT network. Its actually turned into an international project where we can use the trail to help highlight and coordinate development programmes along the length of the Himalayas. For example, local community and educational programmes for porters and kitchen staff who are already working in tourism. We want to spread the benefits of tourism to them. Its worked very well in some areas like Everest and Annapurna, so all we need to do is take a few hundred people a year along the trail, do it sustainably and responsibly and spread the benefits out to communities that previously were thought to have virtually nothing to offer the rest of the world. Now they can start to get some benefits from the intrinsic value of their own cultures.

Katy : It’s a very long trail. How long does it take to complete and how long did it take you to put together?

Robin: Well the Nepal version took me 152 days. There was some time spent researching where the trail could go. I’ve worked with World Expeditions to produce a 157 day itinerary which is how long the inaugural trek next year is. No one has ever attempted to walk the length of Nepal in one season along the high route. It took me two seasons to do it because I needed the extra time to research trails and stuff. At the moment there are some people attempting to break in a trail but of course they are going to have to break for winter. You need 5 /6 months to do it and to be post monsoon. At this time of year there just arent enough days before the winter snows close the high passes. So

next February well head off from Kanchenjunga and attempt to do the whole thing in 157 days.

Katy: Has anyone signed up for it yet – its a lot of time out to take?

Robin: Actually Im quite surprised. The whole trip is 21,000 which is a lot of money and time and a huge commitment. I think its fantastic how people have got excited about the trail. I always envisaged people would walk it in sections. The world expeditions agenda is actually 7 different treks that link together and I was surprised and delighted that people were signing up for the whole thing- as well as doing it in sections. Some people doing the whole route even have family joining them for the last section which is going to be fun. But I think the majority of the people that get involved will be doing it over a period of time.

Katy; So do you think it will become more of a tick for people than something like Everest?

Robin: Well, Everest base camp appeals to people who want to go trekking in Nepal and want to see Everest and have a tea house experience. The GHT is not about that. Its about spending time in remote communities and wilderness areas and having that intrepid explorer feel to getting into the Himalayas and getting to grips with terrain and mountains that are just going to blow your mind. Youre experiencing an enormously diverse range of ethnic groups. There are 21 different ethnic groups along the Nepal section of the GHT alone. When you go to Everest base camp you are being mono cultural as youre in Sherpa communities only. But the idea of the trail is to get people to cross passes, ridges, valleys and by doing that you get a much broader sense of the Himalayan communities and what life is like in the mountains. And of course its great if you want to get away from the tourists. I think there are many people getting frustrated that a lot of trekking destinations around the world are becoming so overtly commercial. If you want to see what life is really like and not have to stand in a queue to get over a bridge for example- then the GHT is for you.

Katy: Is it something you could do alone- or do you have to be part of a commercially organised trip?

Robin: Well its a trail network so there is not one prescribed route. The idea is to have a high trail of the iconic, tough mountaineering wild routes and a network of trails that link lower routes going from village to village. Now the lower route are on far more establish trails and its much easier to self guide and get resources along the way. On the higher routes you do need support because you could end up in the mountains for three weeks before you can re supply food or fuel. So the high route is more of an expedition style trek and the lower routes give people the opportunity to self guide.

Katy: So its officially being launched in Feb next year?

Robin: Well the notion of the trail has been around for a long time. But we are the first people attempting to walk it in one bash so its a significant point in the evolution of the trail. The Nepal government adopted the trail in its 2011 Visit Nepal promotion which is great and I would like to think next year the trail will get a lot more exposure. If we can get other people signing up for it in 2012 and get other trekking companies adopting it the better. If we can see it really establish itself as a commercial proposition for companies then thats a big step.

Katy: So its not just World Expeditions running it?

Robin: Anyone can do the trail and the guidebook comes out in the beginning of November. I have a series of maps Ive been working with a local publisher in Nepal to produce the first interlinked series of topographic trekking maps for the whole country. There are broadsheet topographic maps available for Nepal, but the trail information isnt very accurate and it doesnt tell you were campsites are for example, so weve produced these maps which we can hopefully expand to cover the whole of the Himalaya. They’ll be launched in December so Im doing a guidebook and topographic map launch and so we can say to people look there are resources out there, go and knock yourself out that will be launched in Kathmandu and in January Ill be at the adventure travel show.

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Sean Burch is currently running the trail.Sean is trying to help raise the profile of Nepal Trust and the work they do in Humla in the far north-west of Nepal, the end point of his run. Nepal Trust also managed the 69 day 2003 run of Rosie Swale-Pope. Given that Sean is aiming to complete the run in 60 days, it is possible that the same route is being run which is quite different to the high-route of the GHT.

Dawa Steven Sherpa has rightfully gained recognition as a spokesperson for the environment in Nepal and the Himalaya, particularly on the issue of climate change. In association with WWF, Dawa plans to walk from West to East with a team fromAsian Trekking,the family company that he runs in Kathmandu. He plans to begin in January 2011 and spend 135 days to reach his goal.

Want to find out more about this exciting new trail?

On the Great Himalayan Trail new trekking route set to open up a whole new world.