When Jono Lineen’s younger brother died in tragic circumstances, Jono fled to the Himalayas, where he would spend eight years among the world’s highest mountains.
The experience culminates in his book Into the Heart of the Himalayas, a fascinating memoir that traces his solo trekking odyssey from Pakistan to Nepal across thousands of kilometres of mountain terrain. No-one had ever before attempted to walk the length of the Western Himalayas alone, but Jono’s intentions were more psychological than physical. It was about immersing himself in the Himalayan culture he had grown to love, assimilating the wisdom of the place and coming to terms with his loss.
Jono’s openness with everyone he meets on the trail—from Pakistani military officers to Tibetan lamas and naked Hindu Saddhus—lies at the heart of one of the most complete portraits of the Himalayas ever written. Jono Lineen—a lone, disarming man—crosses borders, religions, castes, languages and philosophical boundaries to find the way to embrace his future.
Outer Edge Managing Editor Tara Tyrrell spoke with Jono Lineen about his book, his journey and his inspiration.
You mention in the book that you have always had a fascination with the Himalayas, when did that begin and why do you believe it did?
Don’t know why it began but I remember looking at adventure books when I was a little kid in Belfast, mountaineering books by Chris Bonnington and Doug Scott, I was fascinated by the photos and continued reading that genre as a teenager. No doubt that influenced my desire to get to the Himalayas.
What did you do to prepare yourself for the 2,700km hike?
I was a full-time professional cross-country ski racer on the World Cup circuit until I was 24. I’ve always been in good shape. Yes walking 40-45 km a day with a 25 kg pack at 3000-4000 meters is tough physically but honestly I didn’t do anything extraordinary to prepare for it physically. I did however have to prepare myself logistically – knowing what food I could buy in villages along the way and how to cook it, being prepared for many very cold nights, searching across the world for maps (the area is a sensitive border area between India, Pakistan, Tibet and China so maps of the area are archaic or non-existent). I also had to prepare psychologically because spending four months alone is a challenge in itself. In the first few nights I was alone on the trail in Pakistan I slept with a knife under my pillow because of stories I had heard about the region, but of course all I received from people right across the mountain range was extreme hospitality.
What would you say was the greatest challenge you faced on a physical level?
Probably the biggest physical challenge was the day I had to cross the 5000 metre. Sisir-La pass I had walked up through the village of Hanupatta in a rain storm, the villages on that side of the Himalayas don’t experience much heavy precipitation and the mud brick houses were literally disintegrating. It was late in the afternoon when I continued on up to the base of the pass but was unsure how far it was to the summit. I joined a man, his son and their four donkeys, there was fresh snow and the man was shovelling off the top 6 inches to make it easier for the donkeys to trudge on. This was amazing because it was 20 kilometres to the next village, he was prepared to shovel for 20 km. eventually one of the donkeys collapsed from exhaustion and the team turned around. I continued on, now following the tracks of a yak, there were a few false summits but eventually I made it to the stupa that marked the col just as the sun set – an amazing stroke of colour and light – and then continued down out of the pass in moonlight. I set my tent up in darkness and hadn’t the energy to make dinner that night.
And the greatest achievement?
The greatest achievement of the trek came long after the completion of the walk. Yes, at the time I was excited to be the first person to solo traverse the entire length of the Western Himalayas, but the greatest happiness around the trek was my understanding many, many years later that the walk and the very long process of writing this book were about coming to terms with the tragic death of my little brother Gareth.
What was the most exciting part of the journey?
The most exciting part of the journey was reaching the source of the Ganges River – Gangotri – at sunset on a bluebird day. I had so wanted to get there because the river is such an important part of Hindu culture in India, there is so much mythology and history around it. I was walking as fast as I could towards it across the glacial moraine but was worried I wouldn’t make it before the sun set so I threw off my pack and started running, hopping from boulder to boulder to arrive at the glacial cave of the source just as the sky was the colour of salmon and rubies and the face of the glacier glimmered in turquoise. It was just one of the many staggeringly beautiful moments in the walk.
What was the hardest part of the trip, mentally?
Mentally it was being alone for long periods of time, going for days on end without speaking English. It was difficult but of course when you accept that then space opens and your mind becomes freer.
What advice would you give to someone else who was preparing for such a journey?
To prepare for such a long walk through vastly different cultures requires great bodily shape but also a particular mindset. You have to be the kind of person who is comfortable outside their comfort zone; so much can happen and so often if feels as if you have little control over it, weather, people, your own body, equipment, politics, it’s all there. Be prepared for change and to change.
What was your favourite place and why?
There were so many places that floored me. When you walk such distances at altitude day after day your body drops into a meditative state. As I said at one point in the book the goodness I experienced in the Himalayas came from the ground up – walking became my meditation. Every day I walked myself into meditation and in that mindset I could see beauty everywhere and every day. It was an amazing way to live your life and I’ve tried to incorporate some of that openness and life view into my everyday life at home.
Was there one person who you met on your journey who inspired you, or influenced you, to keep going, more than anyone else?
Well the person who inspired me and pushed me on, not just through the 2700km of the trek but through the 15 years of writing the book was my brother Gareth. It took a long time for me to realise it, but without the memory of him in my life I never would have undertaken this journey and I never would have stuck with the many, many drafts of a story I never completely understood.
The book and the journey were completed with your younger brother Gareth in mind. My favourite quote in the book is on page 266, where you are sitting right on the Ganges and you talk about Gareth’s death being a source of fear for you. “Fear of not deriving the most out of life”. Do you feel that this is something you have accomplished with this trip?
‘Fear of not deriving the most out of life,’ – realising mortality does that. The completion of this trek is something I’m proud of. Writing this book is something I’m even prouder of, but most importantly I’m proud of being able to integrate the idea of finding beauty and meaning in life into my everyday existence. Spending time in India, Nepal and Pakistan reminds you that we in Australia are the lucky ones – take advantage of what we have been given and enjoy this great life.
Any plans to go back?
Yes I’m escorting a trek with World Expeditions to the Lahaul-Spiti area of the Indian borderlands in July next year.
And finally, why did you decide to write this book?
Wow – that’s a big one. The quick answer is that I started this trek knowing I was going to write a book. I kept copious notes and at the end of the walk I holed up in a guesthouse room in India and starting writing. The book I produced was something similar to the mountaineering books I’d read as a kid, but nowhere near as good. I knew it was far from publishable and so began a winding road of research and rewrites that brought me finally to the point of no return. Over a dozen years I created a book that was layered and complex but still did not convey those diamond moments that stood out in my mind. It was the advice of a friend in Kathmandu that opened the door, after reading the draft she said there was something going on behind the story that I had to understand before it would be complete – yes, very cryptic. It was a few days later, while editing a section of the book that I realised, in a flash of understanding, that the book was actually about my coming to terms with the death of Gareth. With that knowledge I rewrote the book again and all those strange and wonderful interactions with people and landscape were reframed in the light of my own personal history and that’s when the book began to sing. So my decision to write the book changed over the fifteen years of its creation – but I know now that the book before me is the one I was always destined to complete.
Jono Lineen is a writer and public speaker whose passion for landscape and humankind’s connection to it inspires his writing. He has worked as a trekking guide, a medico for Médecins Sans Frontières, and is a former world class ski racer. He holds an MFA in creative writing and is also the author of the bestselling River Trilogy: Travels Down Three of the World’s Great Rivers.
You can purchase Into the Heart of the Himalayas at https://www.mup.com.au/items/136225.