As an active, outdoor family we enjoyed some fantastic walks over the festive season, challenging ourselves to conquer steep hills and soak in exceptional views. As enjoyable and fulfilling as these walks were, they pale in significance against the journey of this month’s inspirational lady who decided to take a break from her highly demanding job in London in order to travel around Asia for 4 months on her own. As part of this adventure, Italian born Viviana Stecconi decided to sign up for one of the most challenging treks in the world – The Snowman Trek. Having never travelled alone, and with no previous trekking experience she simply wanted to prove that she could achieve anything that she set her mind to.
“And when you go to think of all the beautiful things in the world, don’t forget to think of yourself” (ANON)
So Viviana, what was it that made a self confessed workaholic decide to leave her home comforts in London and trek across the Himalayas?
For me it was a completely random decision! I was looking for something to challenge me, and a chance to prove that I was good enough. Nothing specific happed to make me feel this way, it was more the accumulation of little things ranging from work to family and each of them slowly made me start doubting who I was, what I was doing and why I was doing it. I needed something that would help me regain my confidence and make me feel alive.
So I did what everyone does these days and asked Google! I literally typed in ‘what are the most challenging treks in the world’ and I found The Snowman. It was the longest, sounded remote and exclusive and most importantly for me required no previous trekking or climbing skills. In addition it was in Asia and I was already heading to that part of the world as part of a sabbatical. So for me the choice was a no brainer - this was the challenge for me!
“Life is too short to not have fun; we are only here for a short time compared to the sun and the moon and all that.” (Coolio)
The Himalayas is a relatively unknown area to many, can you explain where your journey would take you, what your trek involved and what you would be required to do?
The Snowman Trek is possibly the greatest trail on earth and definitely the toughest trek in the Himalayas. In a nutshell it requires 25 days of trekking, 25 nights of camping and the crossing of 11 mountain-passes above 4500m, 5 of them above 5000m.
The trail follows the spine of the Himalayan range on the North West side of Bhutan, between Bhutan and Tibet. It starts from Shana, passes through Laya and ends in Lunana. During the trek we spent most days walking between high mountain-passes occasionally reaching very small villages on the way. There were no hotels so the only accommodation available to us was tents.
In terms of what the trek involved, we walked between 6-8 hours every day for a total of 500km over 25 days and climbed up roughly 6000 floors for a total of 18,000m. This involved a lot of up and down!
The mountain weather was harsh and we woke up every morning in freezing cold tents facing an average temperature of between 0 and -7 degrees Celsius. We showered once a week with a bucket of hot water, which wasn’t as bad as you think but wet wipes were definitely my best friend, and washing your hair was particularly tricky - I washed mine once!
“Character is more important than intelligence for success” (Gilbert Beaux)
In terms of what we were required to do, technically it was relatively easy. We had to be fit but nothing crazy, no climbing skills were necessary so basically we just had to love walking for a really long time every day!
Mentally it was a different story. We had to be strong, committed, determined and willing to adapt to the different scenarios and situations that the mountain threw at us on a daily, sometimes hourly basis.
As you say, mountains can be challenging places at the best of times. What was the hardest thing for you to overcome?
There’s not one moment of the hike that I would highlight as being my main challenge. The most difficult thing to comprehend was the overall length of the journey and the constantly changing weather.
When you hike a peak you can see the end goal, it is in front of you at all times and you only have one “enemy” to focus your efforts on. In The Snowman, there is no definitive peak. You have the journey and every step of the journey is your “enemy”. Every time you complete a pass you know there is another one to go and eventually I came to think of crossing high passes as being similar to living life; we fatigue to get all the way up, just to come back down again, just to struggle to get back up!
The cold was also a bitter enemy. Going to bed at night in sub-freezing temperatures and waking every morning with a frozen sleeping bag was a huge mental trial. When you are at the mercy of nature, you start to realise how small and insignificant us humans really are. Waking up to a rainy morning was demotivating because we knew that if it was raining at camp it was most likely to become snow a few hundred meters up and that it probably wouldn’t stop for the entire day. Being soaking wet for hours on end whilst walking is not fun, and frustratingly our clothes never dried out at night so we would have to wear wet cloths for a few days in a row, definitely no fun at all! However the breath taking views on a sunny day would soon dissolve all the misery of the rain and I came to respect the weather and learnt to appreciate the warm, life giving sun when it emerged.
“When the sun is shining I can do anything; no mountain is too high, no trouble too difficult to overcome.” (Wilma Rudolph)
How did you manage to pick yourself up from these toughest moments?
Everybody has difficult moments. Moments when you think, “What on earth am I doing here? Why didn’t I stay in my warm comfy home in London?” The truth is, I left what was familiar to me for a reason and during the toughest moments I had to remind myself why I was there in the first place – for the challenge, to prove to myself that I could do it and to re discover myself as a person.
Did you have moments where you just wanted to pack your bags and walk away from the trek?
I had some mini crisis during my 4 months away and definitely a couple of bigger crisis during the trek. These would tend to occur when I wasn’t feeling well because of altitude sickness and I had long sleepless nights battling in my head the reasons why I should and shouldn’t be there.
Every time a crisis would happen I would remember all the reasons that lead me to where I was and convince myself that giving up was not an option. Before leaving I was very scared about the idea of traveling alone and not being able to complete the trek. It wasn’t until someone said, “Whatever happens, you are always just a flight away from home” that I realised, giving up and coming back is easy…staying and completing the journey is the real challenge.
Did you meet anyone along the way made a difference in your life? Anyone you are still friends with?
For me, meeting people whilst travelling is half the fun. During my time in Bhutan I met 2 very special girls: my hiking buddy Martina and my tent mate Candice.
I originally booked my trip to stay in a single person’s tent, as I was scared about the idea of sharing such a small space with a stranger. Then one month before the trek I realised two things. First I needed to save some money, as I was spending so much traveling (so the £500 supplement for a single tent was a bit too steep) and secondly, because I am actually a pretty sociable person, I realised that sharing would probably make this challenge easier!
It’s funny how destiny is always there looking over your shoulder! Deciding to share the tent was the best choice I could have made because it meant that I met Candice, an incredible American woman in search of a similar purpose.
Bhutan was almost the end of my journey, but it was just the beginning of hers. Candice was another woman in her thirties looking for something more than just a predictable life, another workaholic looking for something more to define her and another young woman that didn’t want to fit into the conventional view of what was expected of her, especially in a conservative place like Salt Lake City, which meant being married with multiple kids and holding down a stable job.
Together we helped each other to understand that life around us should be defined by who we are or want to be. Only we can define what the right life situation is for ourselves. There is nothing wrong with being different. In fact being true to yourself and your life purpose is what leads to happiness and fulfilment.
The second person that I met was Martina my hiking mate. Martina opened my eyes to the fact that travelling alone is fun but travelling with others is even better! Her qualities made me realise how important having the right travel buddy is for ensuring a successful journey like The Snowman; someone that will motivate you during difficult moments, wait for you when you are slow and celebrate every conquest along the way. Her story inspired me as she saved for four years to be able to take part in the trek, then told her family that she was going to Bhutan on a business trip, as she didn’t want them to worry whilst she was roaming across the Himalayas! Martina was my trekking buddy for the entire 25 days and I am so grateful for meeting her, she literally was my guiding star.
“If you want to go fast go alone, if you want to go far go together.” (African Proverb)
What are your best memories from your journey?
The unforgettable, soulful, untouched views and the generous people that we met along the way. The people of Bhutan are beautiful people who live a simple life, but their hearts are huge and filled with kindness.
How has this experience shaped you to become the woman you are today?
It has made me more confident about myself and showed me that simplicity is a way of life that leads to happiness. The people we met had almost nothing but would give us everything. The natives would invite us into their homes because they wanted to learn from people who were different from them. Theirs is a world were different is not scary, a world that embraces all people rather than isolating them because they are unknown or unfamiliar.
“There are no strangers here; only friends you haven’t met yet.” (William Butler Yeats)
Now that your legs are rested and the blisters are healed, would you do it again?
Yes for a 1000 reasons! The top 3 being the amazing views, the daily feeling of freedom and peace, and last but not least to keep reminding myself that life is all about the journey not the destination. In our everyday lives we are so focused on end goals that we often forget the journey towards achievement is much more important than the final destination we crave.
“Success is a journey, not a destination. The doing is often more important than the outcome.” Arthur Aske
Bhutan is often seen as a mystical country. Can you share any interesting facts about it that you learnt up along the way?
For sure! I learnt loads of random facts that I found extremely surprising:
- Bhutan is one of the most remote countries in the world - The first road in Bhutan was built in 1962
- Most of the country has very limited electricity and phone service - Members of the Parliament walk to the most remotes village of the country to understand what the population needs are
- Bhutan is the only country in the world that doesn’t have a single traffic light in its capital city. They installed a few in the past in Thimphu (the capital), but the population didn’t like them as they found them to impersonal, so instead, policemen stand at major intersections and direct the traffic.
- By constitutional law at least 60% of the country should be covered by trees, currently 71% of land in Bhutan is covered by forest.
- Bhutan is a very poor country (low Gross National Product) but it has a very high Gross National Happiness index. People here live a simple happy life based on respect and mutual support and I feel that we could learn a lot from that here in our material obsessed western culture.
Article 9 of Bhutan’s Constitution says, “The State shall strive to promote those circumstances that will enable the pursuit of Gross National Happiness.”For more information and incredible pictures about Viviana’s journey please visit her on Instagram @vivsteviv