In 2014 we are celebrating our 30th Anniversary year! To be in business for 3 decades and still be independent and successful is a rare achievement in the travel industry nowadays. Himalaya Magazine recently asked Tim Greening, one of the co-founders, to reflect on how KE started and how adventure travel in the Himalayas has changed over these years.
Looking back at 30 years in adventure travel, the first question is where has the time gone? It only seems like yesterday that we were in Northern Pakistan for the first time, cramped in the back of a crowded local bus trying to stay rational after a 40 hour journey from Rawalpindi to Skardu. Only 2 hours to go and we stopped to pick up a herder and dozen of his goats on his way to market, they filled the last spaces in the aisle.
It was late May in 1984 and the wild section of road linking the Karakoram Highway (KKH) and Skardu was open for the first time that year, but only on alternative days for one-way traffic either east or west. Inspired by Galen Rowell’s classic photo book, ‘In the Throne Room of the Mountain Gods’, we were on our way to Baltistan to trek through the Karakoram Mountains to K2, the 2nd highest mountain in the world. The region had only just opened after being shut throughout the 1970’s due to political conflict with India. Mountaineers had been flying in for a few years but this had sometimes involved them being stranded in Skardu for weeks when bad weather stopped flights. The opening of the new road we were travelling on was going to herald the start of tourism in the Karakoram. We just happened to be in the right place at the right time.
After a memorable first trek, we had already fallen for the unique charm of Pakistan and planned to go back. I had just left North London Polytechnic where I used to run the college mountaineering club. It was through this that I met my business partner, Glenn Rowley. Although a trained chef, he was at that time working in a knitwear factory in Leicester, saving cash for his next climbing adventure. He had a friend in the club and joined us on regular climbing weekends. On our return to the UK we thought of ways to finance further travels in the Karakoram and Himalaya, and came up with the idea of guiding our own K2 trekking trips. In the late summer of 1984 we set up ‘The Karakoram Experience Ltd’ as a specialist tour operator.
In Pakistan, we had employed Mohammed Iqbal as our local guide, (recommended at the dinner table in Mrs Davies Hotel, Rawalpindi by none other than Reinhold Messner). Iqbal became our first local agent and we still work with him to this day. His company, Baltistan Tours, is now run by his eldest son, Zafar. In those days ATOL and other bonding licences were not compulsory and all we needed to bring in bookings for KE was a single advert in the back of the UK’s Climber & Rambler magazine, together with a folded A5 leaflet of grainy photographs explaining our K2 trek dates. The business plan was minimal, but with no competition we soon had a full group signed up. More groups snowballed and by 1986 we had to find a base other than Glenn’s mothers’ house in Leicester. She complained that her friends could not get through to her phone; it was always busy with KE enquiries!
With the deposits in the bank for future treks we purchased our present office at 32 Lake Road, Keswick, and Glenn and I started new lives in the heart of the English Lake District, close to the mountains we love. The North London Poly connection continued when Kit Wilkinson and Amos Doron who were also at college, joined us in Keswick to help out. We turned the bottom floor of 32 Lake Road in a café called ‘The Trekkers Lodge’ and we all lived above it. Kit still works for KE today and Amos went on to form Keswick Bikes just around the corner.
The rest of the 1980’s were the golden years for tourism in the Karakoram. There were no real guidebooks and every new trip we ran was exploration. We were called the Karakoram Experience and found ourselves in many situations that we would never put clients through today. On our first ever commercial trek to K2 Basecamp, which I led together with Glenn, we argued about who was going to cook for the group at the first nights camp, only to discover that one of the local porters was a much better cook. We were completely naïve with the basics of group treks and had never been on a commercial trek ourselves, as there were not many offered in the early 80’s. Hotel bookings were a nightmare, sometime whole groups would turn up to find only two rooms available, men in one, women in the other. Groups would be cut off by flash floods for days travelling up the KKH, porters would regularly strike on the Baltoro glacier, with permits and red tape never ending.
On leaving Flashmans’ Hotel in Rawalpindi in the early hours of one morning with a full bus of 3 separate trekking groups making our way up the KKH to Skardu (as flights had been cancelled) we stopped for lunch 12 hours later at Chilas. On re-boarding the bus I decided to count everyone on, only to be shocked to discover 2 clients had be left behind at the very start in ‘Pindi. A call from the nearest army post and a 30 hour taxi ride solved the problem and I never made that mistake again! We always referred to the “experience” in our name and no mention of holiday.
Travel in the Karakoram was wild, unpredictable and completely addictive; clients became good friends and returned year after year. The locals had a reputation for fierce looks, but turned out to be as friendly and welcoming as anyone you could wish to meet. Over the next few years we opened up most of the classic trekking routes in Pakistan and made them accessible to the regular hill walker. Some remote areas had not even had access to news from the outside world for decades. On our first trek into the Boroghil Valley, bordering the Wakhan corridor of Afghanistan, the local village elder was astonished to find out that man had landed on the moon for the first time! This was ‘real’ adventure travel, but then, unfortunately, the first Gulf War started and tourism in Pakistan has been on a downward spiral ever since.
The Karakoram is probably the most spectacular mountain area in the world and should be experiencing the benefits of tourism, attracting just as many visitors as Nepal. Sadly politics and religion have always been stacked against northern Pakistan. We have never stopped taking travellers there and even following the tragic murder of mountaineers at Nanga Parbat Basecamp earlier this year; people still regularly phone our office wanting to trek to K2.
As a business model, a company offering travel only to the Karakoram would never have survived. Thankfully, we were able to diversify! In the summer of 1986 the Chinese opened up the Kunjerab Pass at the northern end of the Karakoram Highway and a few intrepid Western travellers trickled into China for the first time. We followed the pioneers and after an extraordinary overland journey through China and Tibet, we entered Nepal for the first time. From that point on, Nepal was important to KE and we also started selling our first treks elsewhere in the Himalayas, in India and in Bhutan. Central Asian destinations, such as Kazakhstan, were added to our portfolio, as were the Andes of Peru and the mountains of East Africa.
In 1996, we decided it was an appropriate time to change our name to ‘KE Adventure Travel’. Up to this point, we had organised the 1st British ascent of Mount Bogda Shan in the Tian Shan, numerous other climbing expeditions in India, Nepal and Bhutan and even the very first mountain bike holidays through the Himalayas. We were keen to hold onto the reputation for exploration which was a major part of the appeal of The Karakoram Experience, but also wanted to show that we were a travel company that operated elsewhere in the world. In light of Pakistan’s problems over the last decade, it was one of the best business decisions we have made.
Nepal, Bhutan, India and Tibet have all had their problems during the last 30 years. In particular, the civil war between the Maoist’s and the government in Nepal badly affected tourism in that country, until the Peace Accord was signed in 2006. Nevertheless, throughout the crisis years, we continued to take groups to Nepal in ever expanding numbers and it has become our most popular trekking destination. Organising treks in Nepal was always slightly easier than other Himalayan countries, mainly due to the expertise of the Sherpas. Tough, loyal and honest, they have embraced tourism to help their own development and are a pleasure to work with. They are undeniably the best local guides and trek crews in the Himalaya and the most successful, as a result. When we led our first Everest Basecamp trek through the Khumbu in 1987, we could not have imagined that within a couple of decades it would be possible to complete the same trek without camping!
Probably the most dramatic changes over the years have been in communication. I can still remember how we used to talk to Iqbal in Skardu. Our fastest form of communication was by telex. If we needed to ask a question we made sure we got it right first time, because we had to drive half an hour to our nearest telex office in Penrith. The telex would be picked up in Rawalpindi and was from there put in the Pakistan postal system and took a week to travel up to Iqbal’s office in Skardu. Obviously, the reply took just as long to reach us. We thought our first fax machine in 1987 was a godsend and our lives changed in 1996 when we started using email. Even in the last few years, mobile technology has brought us even closer and only yesterday I called Zafar in Hushe Village of Northern Baltistan with reception as good as anywhere.
The other great change has been the type of client we attract and their perception of what is ‘adventure travel’. In 1992, Bikrum Pandey, one of our long standing agents in Nepal introduced us to Mark Van Alstine from the USA. Mark ran a similar operation to ourselves out of Aspen but struggled to get enough clients to be viable and so together we formed KE USA. We created our first website in 1998 and took our first bookings via the web in 2000. Suddenly, KE had gone from the Climber & Rambler magazine readership to attracting clients from all over the world. Work colleagues used to look twice if you said you were going on a trekking holiday, nowadays it is virtually mainstream. With increased numbers now involved, some clients are turning up on trips with no real idea of what they are letting themselves in for. No matter how much effort we put into writing detailed dossiers and presenting all the facts, some people just do not read them. With adventure travel being so much more accessible, more and more people are finding themselves out of their comfort zone. But, this is exactly what makes it so addictive. Seeing and experiencing different cultures, along with the challenge of a remote trek is a life changing experience for many of our clients.
KE now employs 25 people in Keswick and runs over 400 trips to 88 different countries. Probably the greatest thing we have gained from the last 30 years is our friendship with a wide range of people in all corners of the globe. We realised early on that we are only as good as our agent on the ground and for things to work well these people need to be our friends. Most of the people we work with in the Himalaya have also visited us in Keswick and have had their own life changing experiences. I will never forget meeting Iqbal on arrival at Heathrow the first time he came over to visit us from Baltistan. He fell off the bottom of the escalator and, as he picked himself off the floor, he said…”moving stairs, first time”! We have always had a policy of trying to put a little back into the areas we visit and look back with pride at villages such as Hushe where the fresh water scheme and small hydro electricity generator that we helped install in 1995 still work today. Nowadays, virtually all the help we give to local communities is done through the Juniper Trust Charity which is celebrating 20 years of funding sustainable local projects next year. Adventure travel changes lives not just for Western travellers but also for the areas we travel through.