What it's like to take hippies with money on treks through the Himalayas
In the latest installment of Hopes&Fears' anonymous interview series, we spoke to an "unofficial" and "absolutely illegal" trekking guide.
I’m a private guide in the Himalayas. I take people out into the wilderness and deliver an immersive cultural experience: being in a dark, smoky shack eight-days’ walk from the nearest road, drinking a liquor fermented from locally farmed wheat, smoking hash grown by an 80-year-old man who kills time watching sheep…
There are other aspects of the job, like setting up camp in the shadow of the highest mountains on earth or trekking through an area where, for thousands of years, yogis, sages and wanderers have come to collect their thoughts and meditate. Thousand-year-old temples, untouched wilderness, exotic wildlife and all that. But, really, what it’s all about is getting fucked up off of homemade liquor and strong black hash in the company of some truly rustic people.
Ignorance got me into this. The first time I went to Nepal was in 1998. I was an 18-year-old idiot on a gap year with a friend. We were traveling through Southeast Asia, and got tickets to Kathmandu on a whim. My main thought back then was, “Oh cool! I want to see Mount Everest!” I fell in love with the place immediately. So much so that I went back for a study abroad semester in 2001. I learned Nepalese, and have been back ten times since.
In 2007, I totaled up all the money I’d spent and all the money I wasn’t earning while living in Nepal, and it ended up being a nearly six-figure sum. I realized I needed to get paid to do this, instead of paying to do it. I had done enough trekking as a tourist to start guiding people.
There’s a lot of different things that need to be done. It takes a lot of people. I'm the leader. I keep the instruments organized and I do the surgical procedures, so to speak.
The way it works is,
you get your ass to Kathmandu and I got you from there.
A hi-res experience
My very first client—and several of my clients since—have come from me hanging out in the mountains, getting high and getting other people high.
Once, I was hanging out with this guy for half an hour and gave him ten grams of hash. I got an email from him six months later. He said, “I want to take my mom on that trek. Do you have a guide you could recommend?” I replied, “Yeah, me.” The way I see it, providing the drugs is the best way of building client relationships. It’s an investment.
I gave him my rate, which was very expensive. My rates are higher now. At the time, it was $600 a day for two people. He wanted to go for fifteen days, which amounted to ten grand all in all. His jaw dropped. But I told him: I’m going to deliver a high-resolution experience. If he goes with a traditional guide, he’s going to get a low-resolution experience, is what I think I said. He had done the trek already—he’d already been around the block—but now he wanted to take his mom. That’s a different thing from being a bachelor and slumming it.
Native Nepalese guides are fine—they get you in and get you out. They take you around to the major sights and make sure you don’t die falling off a cliff or eating some weird berries. You get to see some nice mountain ranges. Most Nepalese guides don’t realize that details matter. They don’t understand Western forms of marketing and merchandising. They don’t get that you have to tell a story. And they certainly don’t know that making small talk with people on the trail, asking them what they’re doing and where they’re going and what their kids are studying in school leaves a good impression because it’s the little things that count for Westerners. Plus, they’re definitely not providing the really good, high-quality hashish.
The way I see it, providing the drugs is the best way of building client relationships.
A shtick and a gamble
I told him, here’s the deal: I know the language, I know the history, I know the ethnography, I know the political situation. I can interpret temple iconography and expound at length on the religious philosophies of Buddhism and Hinduism. I can contextualize anything we see and experience—anything we see on this trek, going back thousands of years.
So you got a JPG on your last trek, I’ll give you a TIFF. That’s the difference. Most people don’t give a shit about these things. But if you’re doing it with your mom, then it’s worth it.
He thought about it for a few days, then decided to go for it. When I gave him the high-res shtick, it was a gamble. I had been winging it all along. Then I realized it was true: there are people that actually want something different, something more.
On the trail
The way it works is, you get your ass to Kathmandu and I got you from there. I don’t want to deal with your flights in and out. My rate includes everything but booze, but I tend to cover that anyway. Imported alcohol is expensive on the trail because, in some of these remote locations, it has to be hauled by mules or carried by humans. So we drink the locally made stuff. It’s cheap and I pay for it. The typical length of a trek is sixteen days, so you need to take three weeks off.
We never leave before 8:30 AM, which is a point of pride for me. The fact that we leave late every day says a lot about our style. The Nepalese are out the door at 7:00 AM at the latest. Typically, they leave at 6:00 AM and walk for twelve hours. My style is slower paced. We wake up, have a chill morning, leave late, walk for three or four hours, have lunch, walk for another few hours. Generally, in the Himalayas, you aim to get in by 4:00 or 5:00 o’clock, because past 2:00 o’clock it can storm, rain, sleet, snow, ice. Also, it’s probably unwise to travel by night as a holdover of the political legacy—during the Civil War, the army had a shoot-on-sight policy after dusk. But I routinely get really into cultural interpretation and spend too much time rambling about monasteries and stopping for tea, so we usually get up to the village or guesthouse late, around 5:00 or 6:00 PM.
Nepalese guides take you around to the major sights and make sure you don’t die falling off a cliff or eating some weird berries. They don’t understand Western forms of marketing and merchandising.
Hippies with money
I would describe my clients as hippies with money. They’re at a point in their careers where they have money and time, whether they’re entrepreneurs or consultants. They have a certain flexibility and willingness to go into situations where their comforts aren’t met.
My last clients were the 45-year-old attorney and his 70-year-old mother. He’s a super cool guy, an international border dispute attorney—mountain bikes, trail runs, has two kids, works one day a week, makes 150K a year, loves to get high. His mother is a psychiatrist who does pretty interesting work on the side collaborating with a shaman from Guatemala. It sounds like they’ve got a cult going in Vermont, where they do initiation rituals and sweat lodges and vision quests. Good people.
Before that, it was this hippie weirdo from Santa Cruz. He’s 65, made a bunch of tech money and did a lot of LSD. He’s the most bohemian of all my clients. It was him and his girlfriend, in her forties, holistic practitioner, and his adult kids, who were in their twenties. Generally, my clients are sophisticated, cultured individuals who have traveled quite a bit.
As a professional, I always hire a Nepalese guide to accompany the party. I’m not legally a guide in the eyes of the Nepalese government—I don’t have a license, I can’t get permits, I can’t technically even call myself a guide. And I get a lot of shit from other guides for it. There were a few times, late nights, when the clients have all gone to bed, and the guides and the porters stay up. It’s like, ten or fifteen Nepalese guys—and me.
We’re hanging out, smoking, drinking, chilling, shooting the shit. I buy everyone rounds of Raksi, which is the local barley liquor; I get people high. Generally, it’s cool. But sometimes it gets a little testy. The Nepalese guides will grill me: how many times have you done Mustang? What about Makalu? Or, Lake Rara? I’m saying one, they’re saying 17. I’m saying zero, they’re saying four. I’m saying three, they’re saying 26.
Point is: I hire a professional guide to handle logistics. In the eyes of the law, they’re in control and they’re responsible. They select the accommodations. They get the rooms. They order the food. I provide the experience.
I’m aware of how strange it is being a foreigner guiding people through the Himalayas. Imagine a Nepalese guy who spoke heavily-accented English being your guide in New York City. Not only is he your guide, he’s claiming to have the in on New York culture. He’s claiming to be able to get you into nooks and crannies of New York, take you to places that no other New Yorker can take you, and contextualize it all in the history and politics of the region.
I’m aware of how strange it is being a foreigner guiding people through the Himalayas.
Before I guided professionally, I guided friends just to have somebody to hang out with. My most twisted experiences all happened back then, when I was still an amateur. I was going to places I had no businesses going, and I got in over my head. There were two experiences where I almost got my party killed.
One of them was right after the Civil War. We were in the far west of the country, a heavily Maoist area. The Maoists were vehemently anti-Western. They saw all Westerners as the colonial oppressors of the rural population, and regarded foreigners in general as spies and saboteurs. The Peace Agreement had been signed six weeks prior, so I thought it was perfectly fine to go into that area. I was dead wrong.
We flew into a remote airstrip ten-days’ walk from the nearest road, razor wire everywhere, snow everywhere. We weren’t prepared for snow. We had no maps because we were so far from civilization. We hired a local guide, with whom we had a billing dispute and ended up parting ways. The gossip about the dispute traveled to the local village. A machete-wielding mob assembled and we had to flee in the middle of the night. We were flown out of a military airstrip. They said: “Oh, you’re those people? Yeah, we heard about you.” They put us on a flight the next day. That was in 2007.
My last amateur guiding experience was in 2012. It was winter, I was with five friends from Brooklyn, and we were trying to get to a remote area that was closed off because it was covered in ice and snow. As we found out later, this was due to extreme storms. We really wanted to go there and I wasn’t taking no for an answer. So we walked for two days and got to our destination, a high camp at 12,000 feet.
That night, a hundred-mile-an-hour blizzard struck and tore the building we were sleeping in apart. We woke up with three inches of snow on our sleeping bags. We had to flee the building in the middle of the night. We spent the next day and a half struggling to survive. I panicked, based on my previous experience in 2007.
I took a bunch of Valium, went catatonic and basically left everyone to their own devices. I assumed everything would work out in the end. It did, but only because the friends I had taken were these intense Jersey guys that weren’t going to go out dying in a blizzard. They took care of the situation.
In the end, everybody survived. We all got hypothermia. But no one had to get their toes amputated.
A big part of my job now is making sure the anecdotes don’t ever get that interesting. A memorable experience, but nothing too outlandish, because that gets dangerous. Just being there is exotic enough. People are overwhelmed every second of the day by all the sights, smells, sounds. They’re in this really rugged landscape, surrounded by this really vibrant culture. Technology is the most minimal they’ve ever encountered for weeks.
The Peace Agreement had been signed six weeks prior, so I thought it was perfectly fine to go into that area.
I was dead wrong.
The coolest trek I’m going to do is going to happen this fall—it’s a rub your own hash trek. A year and a half ago, I linked up with the hash kingpin of Gorkha, which is a former kingdom in the western part of the country. This guy has a massive operation. He produces 50, 100 kilos a year of amazing, amazing hashish. When I found out he was doing that I approached him with a proposition: “Hey, I want to bring some Westerners here, to stay at your place, spend a couple of nights, then go up to the highlands around your village and make some hash.” He was cool with it. So in the fall, which is hash season, that’s what we’re going to be doing. I have two clients signed up and ready to go. It’s definitely an innovation in the trekking business.
What I do is absolutely illegal. If we get caught, the Nepalese I’m working with will suffer the legal repercussions whereas my clients and I won’t.
Even if we do, in Kathmandu, there’s a separate jail for foreigners. It’s basically a shitty guesthouse—they have a little garden, they sit around playing chess, and it’s full of Nigerians because the Nepalese justice system is racist too. I’m not that worried about it.
Honestly, if I get locked up in a guesthouse in Nepal for a few years, I’ve already done that. My chess game will get real good. But the Nepalese I work with will have problems, and I’m going to have to foot the bill for significant bribes to get them out of trouble. Obviously, I want to avoid that.
At the end of the day, I’m not making much money. The point isn’t to get rich. I live in Brooklyn. I have expenses. I have costs. I have health insurance. This is just what I like to do with my time. I like to share the experiences I have with the people I guide. I’m really selective about my clients: I only work with people I think I’m going to have a good time with—people that can tap into my wavelength. That’s the deal.
Editor's note: Nepal’s Home Ministry has recently confirmed that this month's two major earthquakes and subsequent tremorshave caused at least 8,583 deaths. Combined, this is the deadliest disaster in the history of the country. You can donate towards earthquake relief through UNICEF, American Red Cross, or other reputable charities.