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Adventure Sports

with Stefan Nestler

Unfortunate expedition

Hannes Kuenkel on the Great Himalayan Trail

Not only the winter expeditions on Mount Everest and on Manaslu have failed. Another winter project did not work out as planned. Hannes Kuenkel and his Nepalese friend Pemba Jangbu Sherpa abandoned their attempt to hike on the highest route of the Great Himalayan Trail: the German after 130 kilometers, Pemba after about 220 kilometers, for different reasons. “I have expected all expedition-type events, including earthquakes,” Hannes told me, “but not that such a ‘bagatelle disease’ like diarrhea would kick me out.”

As far as possible

At first, fantastic weather

Actually, Hannes and Pemba had planned to hike, along with their Sherpa team, in 50 days as far as possible to the west: from the far east of Nepal, along the eight-thousanders Kangchenjunga, Makalu and Everest, and then first towards Rolwaling. Even to this site, the winter trekking would have led over more than 22,000 meters of altitude in ascent and descent each, over two passes higher than 6,000 meters, and four ones above 5,000 meter. Overall, the Great Himalayan Trail alone in Nepal is more than 1,500 kilometers long.

Doubly sick

Badly afflicted

The 35-year-old German and his 31-year-old Nepali friend had planned the project for one and a half years. After three weeks, however, Hannes Kuenkel really copped it. Suddenly he felt weak, then the diarrhea started. Kunkel had to be flown back to Kathmandu by helicopter. The diagnosis of the doctors in the hospital: acute food poisoning and an infection by parasites. “It did not suit my plans to sit around for ten days in Kathmandu,” admits Hannes. “On the third day I thought: How can I stand it? But then I got involved in these things and accepted them.”

Better the easiest route

In the meantime, Pemba and the other Sherpas tried to continue the expedition. “I thought the team’s decision was a great one,” remembers Hannes. “That they said: We can not give up our project just because I get sick.”

Hannes (3rd from r.), Pemba (l.) and their comrades

Kuenkel calls himself “a rather classic Himalayan traveler and explorer, who accepts the difficulties posed by the alpine terrain and who sometimes climbs up to enjoy a great view, always trying to take the easiest route.” Kuenkel, who raised in the town of Hamburg, is now living along with his wife and two children in Goettingen. The graduate geographer is the head of an outdoor marketing and film production company. He is not a great climber, says Hannes, even though he has already participated as a filmmaker in two expeditions on eight-thousanders: in 2013 on Manaslu, where he climbed up to an altitude of more than 6,000 meters, and in 2015 on the Tibetan north side of Mount Everest, when the devastating earthquake in Nepal led to the premature end of the climbing season.

Now an entrepreneur

Pemba Jangbu Sherpa (2nd from l.)

On Everest, Kuenkel got to know Pemba Jangbu Sherpa, a really good mountaineer. Pemba has already scaled Mount Everest and also gained experience on the eight-thousanders K 2, Makalu, Manaslu, Cho Oyu and Shishapangma. “He is a very cautious and experienced high altitude climber, but at the same time a real joker,” says Hannes. “A great guy. I trust him.”

By the way, I can confirm Kuenkel’s impression. During the AMICAL expedition to the 7,246-meter high Putha Hiunchuli in fall 2011 – I turned around just 150 meters below the summit – Pemba  Jangbu turned out to be a very strong climber, always in a good mood. The married father of two children is now self-employed: In Kathmandu he has been running the expedition and trekking operator International Altitude Mountaineering (IAM) since 2016.

Right decision

“Of course, there is also a business level between us. After all, he is working for me,” says Hannes. “But first and foremost we are friends.” Hiking with a real Nepali friend was a new and very nice experience, that he had not made before during his 13 previous trips to Nepal.

Waist-deep snow

Actually, Kuenkel wanted to return to the team after illness. But the weather had deteriorated dramatically. “The guys have failed due to the snow, at an altitude that Pemba and I would not have expected: between 2,500 and 3,000 meters,” says Hannes. “There was partly waist-deep snow on the the northern slopes of the steep valleys. The trails were barely visible and exposed to avalanches.” Pemba decided to abandon the project. “If I had been there, I would have made the same decision, probably only one day earlier,” says the German adventurer.

Don’t rush your fences

“It should not be this time. But we made the best of it,” says Hannes, adding that he did not return empty-handed: “I’ve learned patience. That you can not rush your fences. I have taken this experience back home.” Kuenkel does not have any concrete new plans, but the somewhat unfortunate winter expedition on the Great Himalayan Trail will probably not have been his last project in Nepal. “Somehow the Himalayas attract me again and again,” says Hannes.


15. March 2017 | 1:14