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Define Adventure: A Photographer’s Journey – Island Peak, Nepal

Words by October 2023 Island Peak Team Member Jonathan McMillan 
Film Photos by Vasco Hartigan
Other photos shared by various team members

“You say ‘amateur’ as if it was a dirty word. ‘Amateur’ comes from the Latin word ‘amare’, which means to love. To do things for the love of it.”
– Mozart in the Jungle

24-hour travel days don’t get any easier. But in life, I like to think of that stuff as paying taxes. Long, exhausting travel days are the price you pay for the trip away. It’s all part of the game. You can’t get to A without going through B. I’m blessed with the ability to fall asleep anywhere.

I don’t know why or how, but I only really thought about it at the start of the year when I had those three months away and caught a few long flights. I’ve got the luck of sleeping on planes.

Coming back from Nepal to Australia, one connecting flight was 10 hours, and I fell asleep before we even took off, waking up with an hour to go. Thanks for coming.

When I think of adventure, the first thing that comes to mind is the unknown outcome. When you head to a new part of the world, adventure happens straight away. You’re struck by the different climate as soon as you step off the plane, the language barrier, and then the next thought is, ‘Okay, now who is not going to rip me off and take me to my hotel stress-free?’

Island_Peak_October_team28

When the world decided to shut down for all those years, like most, my attention and attitude changed towards travel. It shifted to ‘one day we might not be able to do this,’ whether it’s towards making more of an effort in your local area to maximize adventurous weekends or hopping on a plane and heading overseas for a culture change style adventure. Opportunities are all around us.

New doors open each day, and the trip to Nepal was a door I couldn’t walk through. There’s something so special about individuals signing up solo and going on a group trip. Coming together for the greater good of adventure and to see what’s out there. The mountains are always calling my name, but heading to Nepal wasn’t on the list for the year I had planned.

Until I saw a friend of mine promoting Epic Expeditions, and once I went looking and saw the photos, there was no turning back. ‘Fine, I’m in,’ I replied

The lead-up to this expedition was like no other trip I’ve done. The gear list needed, from the clothing to these 6000m boots and a climbing harness. So many new elements to understand and wrap my head around. Like a kid discovering his new favorite toy, the trip to Island Peak took up a lot of positive space in my mind on a daily basis.

Being a photographer myself and knowing that photos unfortunately never do a place justice, I knew I was in for a treat with what my eyes were about to see and where my hiking boots would take me.

A highlight for me, even before we left the heart of Thamel in Kathmandu and headed to the Sagarmatha National Park, was that Epic Expeditions starts the trip a few days earlier, giving us a few nights in Thamel to connect.

I love that. There’s always that awkwardness on the first night when you slowly get to learn about each other. Funny how fast that ends, and before you know it, you’re connecting like one big family, like you’ve known each other for the last 2 years, not 2 days.

Departing the city was a relief. After months of chatter about the trip, departing Thamel was like, ‘Yep, here we go.’ Ready to welcome in the unexpected challenges coming our way, no doubt.

Lukla airport, known for its short runway and its title of the world’s most dangerous airport. The flight time is only 25 minutes long, but for those who fear flying, let alone flying into Lukla Airport, that 25 minutes felt like a lifetime. Smiles ear to ear as we stepped off the plane and just looked around us, in complete awe of where we had landed.

There must have been something in the air that day, a bit of luck was in our favor. For the last 8 days, no flights had landed or left Lukla airport due to the bad weather. That morning we were the 3rd to last plane to land, and for the rest of the day, no flights again left or landed due to the clouds settling in.

I always am confident that how a trip starts is the momentum of how it carries out for the rest of the duration, and at this stage, we had luck and good weather on our side.

Expeditions like these don’t happen without porters and guides. Simple as that. We were greeted by 4 legends. 4 of the strongest and happiest men. These 4 men were our porters, carrying roughly 40-45kgs… making our day pack of 15kgs look like nothing. Dipak and Bagy were our 2 local guides. They’ve done this trek a dozen plus times.

You trust their opinion, and when they talk, you listen. They bring the energy when the crew would feel low, and Dipak would bring the jokes to get some laughter out of us on a daily basis. When I reflect back on this expedition, my highlight goes straight to the days coming up. In events like this, it’s the moments you least expect that make it to your memory highlight reel.

From Lukla, we spent the next 9 days learning, chatting, exploring, hiking, and laughing a lot. The daily laughter from this trip was next to none other. Time on legs averaging from 4-7 hours of hiking, with 10 am hot tea breaks along the way, and most meals being the famous ’24-hour Dal Bhat power.’

Making our way through Sagarmatha NP, each day we were immersed in different surroundings. Some days it felt like we were in the jungle, and other days like we were walking on the moon all by ourselves, with nothing but the views of mountain peaks and the sound of the river flowing. Pausing along the way to filter some water to try and keep the thumping headaches away as we climbed higher.

Two rest days were required to let our bodies acclimatize to the altitude before arriving at Base Camp. Rest days had an optional hike, so I guess they weren’t rest days for some, but they were normally shorter days. A full day in Namche on day 3, putting us at 3240m. Namche was closer to a city rather than a town.

It had it all. Even an Irish pub, that’s when you know it’s got some population passing through. It was a town at the end of the earth with the dramatic backdrop into the valley, clouds rolling in most afternoons, with the occasional break in the sky and a surprise peak just popping through, leaving us all with jaws to the floor and a moment of ‘where the heck are we?’ Picturesque paradise.

When you sign up for adventures like this, there is so much unknown. How will my body handle it? How will my gear hold up? Will I get blisters? Do I have the right first-aid gear? Sickness was bound to happen, right?

I underestimated the harsh realities of existing at altitude and was dealt the hand of daily headaches, drinking as much water as I can, but clearly still not enough to keep enough space in my brain to relax.

We all, in some way, shape, or form, got dealt a fair share of issues in terms of how our unconditioned bodies handled the elements. Some worse off than others, but again, our incredible porters and guides saved the day, especially on the days when we felt like it wasn’t going away. We had a few close calls too, with Lucy, whose body was just rejecting everything she put in it at around the 4500m mark.

Around 10 pm, she got carried down to the tea house below us, sitting around the 4100m mark, and woke up feeling tenfold better than she was 18 hours earlier. The porters and guides making the right calls, and we all felt so safe with each decision made. Epic took care of everything, and the whole 18 days couldn’t have run any smoother on the logistical side of things.

Nights were my favorite. Family-style meals each night that ended in an hour or two of card games and laughter. Sipping on honey ginger lemon tea and picking at some biscuits for dessert as the tea house slowly got quieter with each group heading to rest their heads to do it all again the next day.

Each day I’d wake up, put on the same shirt I’ve worn for the last 10 days, thinking about the last time I changed socks. ‘Hmm, one more day out of these,’ I think to myself. Repack the duffel bag just in time before the porters come and collect them, making sure I’ve got enough snacks for the day ahead.

A few Snickers bars and a bag of nuts normally sorted me, plus hydration packs to try and keep the fluid intake up to date, praying that no headaches would bother me today.

Summit day eventually came around, and we were then faced with the reality of what we actually came here to do. The last 10 days, we were so distracted by the hours of conversations and endless views that the end goal of Island Peak sometimes slipped our minds, in a good way.

Arriving at Base Camp, we were faced with not only sitting at 5100m altitude but our hardest challenge yet. A few hours of practice on the climbing ropes after lunch made us feel a little more comfortable with what the night was going to present itself with, but you never really know until you are in the depth of it.

Island_Peak_October_team47

Rest at Base Camp came around quickly. From arriving at midday to having lunch to practicing on the ropes to getting told 11:30 PM tonight we have to be back at the main tent to get ready to depart at midnight was a bit of a ‘Here we go.’ Laying down at 5:30 pm, praying to get a few hours in and just hoping that the headache gods are on your side and they’ve let you off this time round.

I woke up feeling the best I ever have, which caught me off guard. Still a minor headache and nose running like a tap, of course, but others were worse off. My roommate in the tent was in the wars. Thumping headache. So far from ideal on summit day. We knew we had a good weather window, and when you get good weather in the mountains, you make moves, and the energy from everyone was how you’d imagine the grand final morning.

It was quiet, and everyone was in their own head, but you knew, oh you knew that everyone was fired up and ready to go to war with themselves and this mountain.

The support we had around us was surreal, from the climbing sherpas to the support we gave each other. Epic Expeditions attracts such a powerhouse of humans, with a few guests from previous trips coming back, which speaks volumes on its own.

Head torches on. Bags ready. Climbing gear packed. Water bottles topped up. Looking ahead of us was just a line of lights from the other groups that got off earlier than us. Each time we looked up, it was a moment of ‘Oh, geez, we’ve got a long way to go…’ Everything just seemed so much scarier during the night. One wrong move and it’s a nasty drop down, so with each step you take with full control and back yourself in.

I personally didn’t do much research into Island Peak and here are the pros and cons to that approach. I didn’t need it until I wish I did. After 5-6 hours of scrambling up a side of Island Peak, we made it to crampon point where it was time to get into your harness and get your crampons on.

It hit me then that maybe I should have looked more into what happens after crampon point. Every step at 5800m makes you work for it. It was step step, break. Step step, break. Repeat. As the sun started to rise, it felt like we were given a second life.

The excitement of seeing the mountains to our left and right gave us a push. The next leg towards the summit felt like it wasn’t getting any closer. Each of us charged on like champions to put a close to what we came here to do.

I’m normally a pretty headstrong guy, and I’ve done some challenges in my life that I know I can reflect back on and channel an inner strength to get me to the other side, but for some reason, I was battling mentally on this one. Negative self-chatter hit me like a ton of bricks. It was thanks to the team ahead and behind me that got me through the harder bits.

Arriving at the rock wall was daunting. All we had left was 300m till the summit, but goodness me, they weren’t letting us off easy with the final push. Here’s when the climbing harness really played a role. I was no mountaineer before this, but add rock climbing, crampons, 6000m of altitude, a skill you learned less than 24 hours ago, and you’ve got a challenge ahead of you.

Left, right, and pull forward with the ascender and pray the rope holds you, and just hope no one above you knocks a loose rock or vice versa that you don’t knock one below you. Again, the guides play such a big role in this journey. I remember so clearly Bagy at the top of this rock section just yelling down, ‘My friend, you are so close. I’m here waiting! Come, come quick!’ And I’m just in an absolute world of exhaustion questioning all my decisions on how I got myself into this situation.

With that last push feeling like a lifetime, arriving at the summit was a surreal moment. I didn’t expect it, but a single tear dropped from my eye as I whispered, ‘We fucking did it.’ And with that, I just dropped to my knees and tried to take it all in. Looking around, seeing views you can’t even explain. No words can put you in the feeling we all were feeling in that moment of time. And with that, I have 7 new friends that I now call my summit family.

The ‘why’ is always hard to answer before you go on a trip like this. You can point out the obvious like adventure. But the ‘why’ doesn’t present itself until you least expect it. The ‘why’ became more obvious with each day, from the laughter we shared to the down days we all felt. The ‘why’ is the people you come across in the mountains and who you get to walk alongside for hours a day.

More from the blog

Welcome to our Journal!

snow lake trek pakistan

Here at Epic Expeditions, adventure is constantly on our minds. 

Our blog – or Journal as we like to call it – contains epic trip stories, photo diaries, and news about new tours. 

Thanks for checking it out! 

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The trip we're most stoked about

MONGOLIA
Horse Trekking in Mongolia Expedition

Next trip: September 3rd - 17th, 2024

Adventure Guide

Hailing from the Toronto region of Eastern Canada, with a background as a former standout athlete (hockey of course) and a  love of mountain adventure, Clark is a welcomed addition to the Epic team.

In addition to being a keen photographer and adventurer, Clark brings his brilliant sense of humor, leadership skills, and positive attitude to everything he puts his mind to. 

When he is not leading trips, he is working on taking over the hard apple cider game in Canada as a skilled craft brewer. 

Adventure Guide

Noemi grew up in the mountains of German-Speaking Switzerland where she naturally developed a deep love and respect for mountain environments.

She is a talented photographer, aspiring climber, and speaks at least 5 languages fluently including Arabic (and probably a few more that we don’t know about), which she taught herself in a matter of months by watching YouTube videos. 

Noemi has spent the last several years traveling, hiking, and photographing her way around many different countries in the Middle East, South and Central Asia, and Europe, and we could not be more stoked to welcome her to the Epic team! 

Adventure Guide

As our man on the ground in Mongolia, there is not much this legend can’t do. As a native the Bayan-Ölgii province of the Western Mongolia Altai, Syerik has been working as a guide and tourism entrepreneur…

for the past several years and is one of the rising stars in Mongolia adventure travel industry. 

He is currently building a beautiful Ger (Yurt) camp near his hometown where he will host Epic Mongolia team members on our trip as well as other travelers from around the world! 

He is the perfect guide for your trip to Mongolia. Serik did an amazing job giving us a well rounded experience in the Altai NP region and down in the Gobi…
The food was fantastic and Serik gave us many opportunities to learn about the Kazakh culture in that region including traditional meals. (I can’t recommend enjoying the milk tea enough!)

– Coastal

Head of canine operations

Choriza started off life as a care-free vagabond on the streets of Madeira Island without any place to call home. From the moment we met her, we knew this dog was just different, and it was pretty much love at first sight. 

She gave up the dog street life in favor of joining her new dad Chris to become a full-time member of the Epic family towards the end of 2022.

These days she can be found listening in on the fringes of important Epic business meetings while half-asleep on the couch. She is a keen hiker, lover of mud, rare steak, and might just be the sweetest little dog we have ever seen. 

Adventure Guide

An experienced trek leader and
IFMGA aspirant ski guide, avid alpine climber, devoted adventure photographer.

Organized and guided trekking expeditions, climbs and ski tours in Tajikistan’s Pamirs, Patagonia, Peru, Morocco, Nepal, Kyrgyzstan, Georgian and Russian Caucasus and Kamchatka.

A full member and meets the organiser of the British Alpine Club. Visited over 40 countries, lived in the UK for four years. Certified first-aider.

We joined Andrew on a fantastic trip to the Fann Mountains in Tajikistan, pure nature and magnificent scenery! Andrey was super prepared and led us safely up and down numerous passes and through some rough and icy cold rivers. Thank you for a very memorable trip, your planning and prep was excellent!

– Monika Steinlechner

epic expeditions team

Adventure Guide

Our man in Nepal, Sandip is what we like to call a “Swiss Army Knife”. There is not much Sandip can’t do when it comes to helping Epic to run our expeditions smoothly in Nepal.

His tireless work ethic, passion for all things trekking in the Himalayas, and smart decision-making mean that Sandip is a truly invaluable member of our team.

Sandip is passionate about showing visitors to his country an amazing time, and he goes above and beyond to make sure that happens. 

His company Himalayan Masters is Epic’s trusted partner in Nepal and one of the country’s top new tour agencies.

We really enjoyed the entire journey, and I would like to say that Sandip is truly professional. He guided us and he is a hardworking person, providing us with the best service and taking care of each one of us. Plus, he is super funny! The kind of professionnal you always want to find on your path for your explorations! 

– Alexandra Ruth

Fairy Meadows

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Our Favorite Experiences

#1 Sunrise from Reflection Lake

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#2 Hiking to Nanga Parbat Base Camp

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#3 Playing cricket with the locals

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Trips Where We Visit Fairy Meadows

Our flagship Pakistani adventure tour.  Road trip with some  hiking and cultural immersion.

A trekking-style tour that features some very remote locations, inlcuding a K2 viewpoint.

Adventure Guide

João has born in the mountains of Madeira Islands in Portugal. Nature lover, writer, musician, guide, for him, a day without contact with outdoor vibes is a nightmare. 

With a degree in Cultural Studies in Portugal and a Master of Arts in Global Cultures and Creativity in the U.K.

João found out what really matters in life can be found on the trails, and in the contact with people from different backgrounds and cultures.

Guiding, crazy trekking missions, and sharing observations about the natural world, – these are some of João’s passions. 

After trekking to K2 Base Camp and exploring all over Northern Pakistan, he fell in love with the country and the local people. His experiences resulted in his desire to share these feelings with the world.

João is one of the most experienced guides at Epic and his skillset and positive mindset in the mountains is second to none

When not in Pakistan, João is  guiding and exploring in the Madeira Islands trails –  discovering some of the hidden treasures on his Portuguese Island.

João I can not thank you enough for the off the beaten paths and views you keep giving. Definitely one of the most challenging and amazing hikes we did 1200m meters all the way up to Fanal forest and circling back to the hidden village. Wow!

– Jeffery 

travel hunza valley

Adventure Guide

Sohail is the newest addition to the Epic team and we are beyond stoked to have him on board. As a veteran of the Karakoram and a native of Karimabad in Hunza, there is not much Sohail can’t do in the mountains. 

Besides having the ability to speak more languages than we can count, Sohail has explored every corner of Gilgit Baltistan and logs more trekking miles 

in a year than most people will do in a lifetime. As of the summer of 2022, Sohail has summited Gasherbrum 1, Gasherbrum 2, and K2 – three of Pakistan’s five 8000-meter peaks. Sohail guides several trips including our annual bespoke expeditions but specializes in Hunza Valley tours.

Chris and Sohail, and the team at Epic are FANTASTIC! Highly recommend anyone to do a tour with ‘Epic’. They have the perfect balance of fun, excitement and wild adventures, tied in with being super professional and ensuring your safety/health in a foreign environment. Don’t waste a moment and book a tour with these guys as the value for money is UNREAL!

– Borgan

iran travel tour

Adventure Guide

Pedro’s been traveling all around the globe since 2009. His keen interests in documentary photography, rural life, and local people from different ethnic groups have been the focus of many of his professional projects.

Since 2012, he has developed his passion for travel and awesome shared experiences into a full-time adventure photography tour leader position.

Pedro has found himself continuously going back to the Middle East, with his likely favorite destination being Iran. Pedro lead his 11th tour in Iran with Epic in spring 2020

When Pedro’s not traveling the world with Epic Expeditions, you’ll find him based in the western south of Portugal planning he’s next adventure missions, logistics and working out his photos in local exhibitions.

 I loved the combination of hiking, camping around breathtaking scenery mixed with the cultural aspects. The guide (Pedro) is knowledgeable and work very hard to make the trip as memorable as possible. All in all an epic adventure with some extremely epic individuals! Go for it, you won’t regret it!

– Coastal

Diane Bouvet

Adventure Admin / Marketing

After fleeing from the corporate fashion world in Paris towards the start of 2020, Diane has been working as a web developer and graphic designer remotely from various bases across the globe

She brings all of her incredible design and organizational power to Epic Expeditions and is responsible for many of the beautiful behind-the-scenes design elements. 

Diane has been to Iran and to Pakistan twice including all over Gilgit Baltistan and KPK.

k2 gondogoro la trek

Head of Operations | Guide

A veteran of Pakistan travel, Ralph is an experienced guide, photographer and writer who specializes in documenting remote locations. 

Not one to simply go where everyone else does, he insists on exploring new and lesser-known areas.

Together with Epic Expeditions, he shows people parts of Pakistan that most other operators don’t even know about. He is particularly fond of the village of Barah, which he believes will become just as famous as Hunza one day.

Just got back from EBT’s Trekking Amongst Giants 15 day tour. The experience was first class. Ralph, our head guide, ensured that the entire trip ran smoothly and relatively on time (a bonus for anyone travelling in Pakistan). We had so many unforgettable days on the tour and the trekking was well-planned, safe but also a rewarding challenge. 

– Calvin


Traveling to a non-tourist destination can be a little intimidating but EBT takes all of the worry and trepidation away. From the pre-trip call to meeting the wonderful staff in person you can tell that you are dealing with a company that has a passion for what they do each and every day. Ralph, Zahid, and Khan were supportive, kind, and always willing to go the extra mile to make sure that everyone on the trip was getting what they wanted out of the experience.

– Katrina 

adventure tours pakistan

Founder | Adventure Guide | Director

Since he started exploring the world, Chris has been seeking out every shade of adventure in various parts of the globe and had visited more than 70 countries along the way. 

Over the last 10 years, Chris has logged more than 7000 trail miles across five continents and climbed multiple 6000 + 7000 meter peaks in Pakistan and Nepal.

A few years back, a distant dream and a deep passion for the mountains and the people of Pakistan led Chris to co-found Epic Expeditions at a time when foreign adventure tourism in Pakistan was almost nonexistent. Since then, Chris has guided more than 20 expeditions to various parts of Northern Pakistan.

Chris believes in using photography and powerful adventure experiences to dismantle negative stereotypes regarding what mainstream media considers “dangerous” countries while facilitating unique and meaningful memories in the mountains for countless people from around the globe. 

For him, an ideal start to the day begins with a steaming cup of good coffee, the beam of a headlamp, alpine boots, and a camera in hand.

He lives in Madeira Island when not leading expeditions in far-flung lands. 

Chris also works as a writer and photographer on his blog Off the Atlas – an adventure travel blog all about Pakistan.  

Read this interview our staff did with Chris to learn more about him!

Chris believes in Pakistan and its people, and he believes in the value of journeys shared with others and family cultivated on the road. Honesty and integrity are at the heart of what he does, and this really shines through in his work as a guide. He also makes great coffee – whether at 5am in an empty guesthouse or half way up a Himalayan peak.”

– Will De Villers

Pakistan is a magical country! Had 3 of the best weeks of my life thanks to Epic Backpacking Tours with owner, and one of our awesome guides, Chris. From detailed itinerary, preparation with an equipment list, and visa assistance. To amazing food, great porters, helpful guides, and great accommodations. Epic really hit home run after home run. […]

Their desire for adventure and amazing trip is just as high as yours. Bring a good pound of coffee for the trip. French press coffee every morning and no average tin coffee, plus you’ll be in your guides good books.

– Clark Tyler

epic backpacker tours

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