I Hiked the Himalayas in Jandals to Honour New Zealand’s National Footwear
A patriotic and idiotic journey of 150km over the world's highest pass, toes out.
A couple of proud Kiwis. All images by the author (left)
A freezing blast of wind howls up the valley and sends me staggering. Grit and dust sandpapers every exposed inch of flesh, clawing at my eyes beneath my sunglasses.
My broken jandals are dangling by a thread; one solitary scrap of medical tape holding them to my filthy and blackened feet. They've carried me for 150km, over ice and snow and scree, across the highest pass in the world. For every gauntlet the Himalayas has thrown down—insomnia, gastro, altitude headaches, frozen toes—they've provided a constant rubbery reassurance. Now it's all falling apart at the seams.
The arch of my right foot screams with every shuffling step, while the throbbing pain in my hip forces me to swing my left leg in awkward half-circles. The Tramadol is wearing off, and I'm getting nervous.
I've got no more painkillers, no water. My trekking partner long since disappeared into the haze blanketing the vast and featureless river plain, and I haven't seen another soul in hours. Maybe I'm going the wrong way. The imposing spine of the Annapurna range—the world's deadliest mountains, my constant companion is almost entirely blotted out by the gathering black clouds.
Rain begins to fall. I try breaking into a pathetic little jog, but the stabbing lances of pain are too much to bear. I lean into the wind, resume my sad shuffle, and think back to better times.
From the comfort of a Kathmandu guesthouse, hiking the Annapurna Circuit in jandals had seemed like a hilarious jape. I'd just been reunited with my good mate Ed, and the whiskey was flowing freely. Having completed a tipsy outfitting expedition earlier in the evening, we started spitballing ideas for making our hike really memorable. Why not do the whole thing in our jandals, I suggested? Haha. Classic gag. Real thigh-slapper.
In the early days of the trek, our unconventional footwear performed beautifully. We flip-flopped our way along a winding river of blue glacier melt, through gorgeous bands of multi-coloured forest, enormous rock formations, and a spot on the map intriguingly marked 'Fields of Marijuana'. Sure enough, beds of the devil's lettuce sprouted all along the side of the trail, although the buds had been carefully cropped; probably by the grinning Nepali grandmas who kept trying to sell us hash.
It was enormously satisfying to saunter past the Harry Hardcores furiously pumping their dual hiking poles, heavily outfitted in thousands of dollars of gear, with a string of porters in tow carrying the rest of their shit for them. Jaws dropped at savage jandals/singlet/speedies combo, and we took great delight in yelling cheerful salutations as we left each bewildered group in our dust.
Sitting around the teahouse stove each evening, we met with a sea of amused, bemused and confused faces. Everyone had the same question: Why?
Jandals are our national footwear, we explained. It's a matter of pride. We have a National Jandal Day and everything. No, we're not taking the piss. Your culture has thousands of years of rich history, so you can't understand how desperate we are to lay claim to anything—be it meringue-based desserts, long-dead racehorses, or tacky rubber casualwear. We don't have much of a heritage outside the indigenous Māori culture—forgive us for appropriating anything we can wriggle our hairy hobbit feet into.
While New Zealanders love jandals, it turns out jandals don't love us back. My cousin Bronwyn said I was "a podiatrist's nightmare". I thought she was kidding about how bad it'd be; she thought I was joking about actually doing the hike without proper boots:
"Jandals are one of the worst shoes you could spend a prolonged amount of time in, especially if you're walking any kind of distance."
I found this out the hard way. An old injury in my right knee returned out of nowhere, like a vengeful ex on a mission to make my life miserable, and I discovered a new and exciting pain in my left hip. My only salvation was prescription opioids. We'd tried to procure Valium before we set off, but for some reason the pharmacist offered us a blister pack of Tramadol, which ended up being the best 100 rupees I'd ever spent.
My podiatry problems paled in comparison with poor Ed's predicament. The fever had developed into full-blown gastro: What little food he managed to get down exploded out the other end completely intact, as if his insides had turned into a game of Kerplunk, while the colour and viscosity of his urine was indistinguishable from Chelsea Golden Syrup.
Fortunately, we'd just arrived in Chame, one of the only villages with a hospital. Unfortunately, said hospital was located atop an endless set of staircases; presumably some sort of Darwinian triage for weeding out patients too weak to save. We heaved ourselves to the top, and a flock of doctors descended upon Ed. After much poking and prodding, they decided he was dangerously dehydrated—his body hadn't been able to recover because it was constantly under the strain of physical exertion. One full day of rest and foul-tasting electrolytes were prescribed.
We both woke up feeling invincible, and resumed trash-talking new friends we met along the trail. Of course, such hubris would not go unpunished.
At 3500 meters, the trail had already started claiming its victims. One of our Aussie friends had disappeared back down the mountain—her heart wasn't in it—and an Irish guy and his mate had both munted their knees so badly they couldn't continue. I felt a little guilty: Ed and I were actively tempting fate, but somehow still standing.
We were conscious that getting too gung-ho with the altitude was a big mistake, so we stopped for an acclimatisation day. While replenishing our supplies—a giant hunk of yak cheese, vast quantities of digestive biscuits—Ed's twisted mind devised the secret weapon which would later save our lives. With the shopping done, we watched Seven Years in Tibet at the local cinema; a projector room which looked and smelled like a cave, complete with yak pelts to sit on.
The next day we were blessed with crisp blue skies, gorgeous sun, and a breeze that set the ever-present rainbow bunting a-flutter. Flocks of birds wheeled over the valley in constantly shifting kaleidoscopic patterns, and the occasional Himalayan vulture cast huge shadows on the land below, full of silent menace.
Despite the rest day, the arch of my right foot was sorer than ever before. My broken jandals were slightly more contoured than the ones I'd borrowed off Ed, so I strapped them back on with medical tape.
There was no quick fix for the altitude insomnia. That night was my worst yet, exacerbated by the yak cheese doing strange and unspeakable things to my gut. I felt like death the next morning, but a bellyful of potatoes and coffee perked me up enough to make the ascent to base camp. This was the first section of the trail to feel dangerous; a single-file path cut into the scree slopes angling down to the river far below. One false step, and we'd be history.
Ed got into a stand-off with a yak, no doubt sent to punish us for indulging in the delicious cheese of its brethren. While he forced it to yield before the stick of authority, this tribe of smelly walking rugs was not done with us yet. Minutes later we narrowly avoided walking into a mini-landslide, with fist-sized rocks bouncing down the slopes towards us. We took cover behind a wall, moving quickly through the danger zone at the urgent motioning of a Nepali bloke on the other side. One of his fellow guides had been killed by falling rocks only last year, he said. The cause? Yaks, wandering around higher up the mountain.
Thorong Pedi base camp was humming with excitement for the assault on the pass. Everyone was planning to set off before sunrise, some as early as 2.30 AM, which Ed and I couldn't understand. Sure, it was a pretty tough nine hour hike, but why not leave at a more civilised hour and finish by the late afternoon? The locals we chatted to were sort of vague, but said the weather was better early in the morning. We made a special concession to get going by 6 AM, and hit the sack.
Here's what we didn't know: A few years ago, a storm dropped 1.8 metres of snow on the pass within the space of 12 hours. One group of trekkers huddled in a hut at the summit, slowly succumbing to hypothermia and frostbite as they waited out the storm, while others desperately tried to make it down. When the survivors in the hut walked out, the snow was littered with the bodies of their friends and companions. 43 people died, and hundreds more were severely injured.
If I'd known this, I wouldn't have slept a wink. As it was, the combination of altitude and excitement ensured I only got about three hours. We were the last to break camp, as usual, and started our climb as the sun was rising.
While I'd padded my aching arches with thick wool socks, Ed went al fresco, and soon lost all feeling in his toes. We gained 500m of altitude in less than an hour, and encountered our first section of ice. It was time to deploy the secret weapon.
The Jampons (a jandals + crampon hybrid) worked an absolute treat. Two bumbling Kiwis disappeared; in their place stood a pair of sure-footed mountain goats. Combined with the lack of oxygen, this had a strangely euphoric effect. My pack felt like it weighed nothing at all, and I was bursting with enthusiasm and awe at the sheer majesty of the vistas surrounding us. The feeling persisted all morning, peaking at the top of the pass. We'd made it to 5416 meters, and our jandals had carried us the whole way. I stripped down to my boardies and singlet and leaned my pack against the stone tea shack, oblivious to the macabre memories trapped within its walls.
We ditched the crampons and soggy socks for the soft snow of the descent, and proceeded to enact an impromptu performance of Bambi on Ice for the amusement of our fellow hikers, abandoning any pretences of dignity to slither and slide down as best we could.
We slept late the morning after our epic hike, but decided to push on around the circuit anyway. This proved to be my undoing. The sandstorm roared into life in the early afternoon, which is when Ed and I got separated. After 20km of plodding along, the merciless wind and constant pain had long since stripped away the jubilation of crossing the pass. The passage of time warped, and my thoughts danced in strange directions. A town came into sight across the river plain, wavering in the haze, but never seemed to get any closer.
Finally I lurched into Jomsom, a broken man. This was without doubt the end of the road. I was done. Ed organised a jeep down the mountain for the morning, and bless his heart, came back bearing Nepali rum, coke and cigarettes. Our pilgrimage was officially over.
Brad Pitt's hilariously bad Austrian accent made it difficult to take Seven Years in Tibet seriously, but there was one line that stayed with me: "The more difficult the journey, the greater the depth of purification." The Tibetan people cleanse their sins by walking long distances across unforgiving terrain, while enduring numerous hardships. The more painful the pilgrimage, the more rewarding it is.
The great psychologist Danny Kahneman was the first to formalise this strange divide between our experiencing-self and our remembering-self. A task which we assess as awful while we're doing it can somehow crystallise into a thing of beauty over time. Much of child-rearing is banal and frustrating, but the experience satisfies us far more than the sum of its parts. Suffering might not be a crucial ingredient for creating meaning in our lives, but it certainly helps.
Of course, psychology has also taught us that we humans are excellent at rationalising our terrible decisions—say, a couple of idiotic Kiwis pulling a stunt they dreamed up on the turps, then pretending it had some higher purpose after the fact. Hiking the Himalayas wearing jandals was incredibly stupid. We were lucky it didn't go horribly wrong. It was excruciatingly painful. But by the matted side-curtains of the Great White Yak herself, it was one hell of a rewarding experience.
Richard Meadows, a recovering former business journalist, blogs about money, travel and the pursuit of happiness at Deep Dish. You can follow his lifestyle experiments on Twitter , Instagram or Facebook .