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The Interview: Steve Conlon, Above the Clouds

SteveConlonAndTheKingofMustang

The King of Mustang and Steve Conlon.

I met Steve Conlon about 15 years ago, after a friend traveled to Nepal with him and his company, Above the Clouds. She had enormous respect and confidence in Steve as a leader and a creator of authentic experiences in the Himalayas. He’s still at it, as he explained over a lunch with Jamling Tenzing Norgay (yes, his dad summitted Everest with Hillary) in New York City this past year. Now his daughter Lisa has joined him in the family business. Steve is a pioneer in the adventure travel world and I decided it was time to let him talk about how his extraordinary company began.

Steve, tell me about the beginnings of Above the Clouds?

In 1982, I was managing a local trekking agency in Kathmandu.  As my Nepali wife,  Muna, and I prepared to move to the US to raise our soon to be born son, several Sherpa friends came to me and suggested, “Why don’t you start a trekking business when you get back home, and I’ll handle your groups over here.”  And that’s just what we did.  Our son was born nine days after we landed, and Above the Clouds was born later that same day.  Once again, necessity, combined with a fierce passion, was the mother of invention.  In the five years I lived in Nepal, I had visited 65 of the country’s 75 districts, and that enabled me to develop some innovative itineraries that gave us a leg up in Nepal and proved to be foundational to our growth.

Rivercrossing mustang
Crossing a river in Mustang.

How would you define an Above the Clouds trip — what makes it unique, in other words?

Your adventure travel trip really begins with the first communication with the company, even before you’ve signed up.  We are a very small company, still fueled by passion for adventure travel as an art form, and that comes through from the very first, and often very long, phone call.  Here’s a quote from one caller several years ago: “You’re the fifth travel company I’ve called today, and the first one that has taken the time to really speak with me.  All the others sounded like they were reading notes off a computer screen.”

In my treks throughout the Himalaya, I never lost my awe and love of the mountains, but over time it was my experiences with the people that left the deepest impressions. All our trips combine opportunities to experience both the natural and cultural elements in depth.  As interesting and innovative as our itineraries are, I’ve learned that no single element is more crucial to determining the quality of experience you bring home with you than your trip leader.  I firmly believe that with the right trip leader, you can experience freak weather occurrences, delays, unpleasant group members (a rarity on ATC trips!) and even a bout of Delhi Belly (even rarer) and still come home and say it was the best trip of your life.

Almost every adventure travel company describes some of their trips with the phrases “off the beaten path” and “authentic experience,” but many of those trips are identical to other off the beaten path trips.  Those descriptions have been at the core of what we have been doing for almost 30 years.  We don’t take travelers to unvisited places just so they can say they went where no tourist has gone before, but rather to bring them into contact with people who aren’t accustomed to interacting with foreigners, so that they can have a person-to-person experience, as opposed to a tourist-to-native experience.  In the field, we provide a framework, or structure, within which each traveler can have their own adventure, safely and knowledgeably.  We don’t want to have the adventure for you.

How has adventure travel changed since you began Above the Clouds?

Adventure travel has changed in parallel with the changes we’ve seen in the world in which we live and travel.  Communication with places like Nepal and Bhutan have gone from scratchy land line phone calls to telex to fax to email.  Today people can access much more information about formerly obscure destinations online, read reviews by other travelers, and book trips directly with foreign inbound operators through their websites.  The field has become more crowded and competitive, requiring each player to be nimble and creative.  To compete, it’s imperative that we provide a clearly distinguishable value added to the traveler, and that’s central to every trip we send out.

Not that long ago, adventure travel seemed focused on arduous trips to “undiscovered” places, with physical rigor the order of the day.  Now that there are no more undiscovered places, the focus has changed. I see two contrasting trends in the industry, one positive, one negative. The positive trend involves examples  like Liz Gilbert (Eat, Pray, Love) and Greg Mortenson (Three Cups of Tea), among many others.  Both took an unexpected detour that became crucial turning points in their lives and the lives of many people around them.  I especially like the Mortenson narrative because he goes from being a mountaineer, where the adventure is heavily weighted on the physical side, to a spokesman and crusader for educating the needy, where the adventure is more personal, charitable, and spiritual.  To me adventure is stepping outside your own comfort zone and trusting your instincts that you’ll still end up with your feet on the ground.  Liz Gilbert did just that, but all the companies now offering Eat Pray Love trips in her footsteps are really, in my opinion, selling fake adventure travel.  Have your own adventure, not someone else’s.
How have the travelers themselves changed?

Today’s adventure travelers have changed in parallel to the industry.  Many are more knowledgeable, adventurous, and discerning than their earlier counterparts.  A quarter century ago, the prime age for adventure travelers was 45-60.  Today, with greater exposure to the wide world at an earlier age, we see more and more travelers in their 30s and even 20s heading off to distant horizons.  Today’s travelers tend to lead more hectic lives, hence the pressure to offer shorter, more compressed trips.  There’s more awareness of the traveler vs. tourist dichotomy, and many people who visit remote destinations often come home feeling the need to somehow give back to the communities with which they interacted.


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Women in the village of Ghara.

What qualities  — physical, spiritual — do you like to see in your travelers?

While some level of physical fitness is essential if someone is going to enjoy the trekking experience, certain other traits may be just as, or even more important, than the physical.  Openness, curiosity, and humility are traits that set the table for an enriching cross-cultural experience.   I always hope our travelers arrive with an already developed feeling of awe of and respect for the natural world, and know that they will finish their trip with an even greater sense of it.

There are dozens of adventure travel companies out there. Why should someone consider Above the Clouds for their next trip?

We don’t try to cover the entire world, just a few special corners of it that we know intimately: the Himalaya (and all of India), Patagonia, and Italy.  Our in-depth knowledge of these places is exceeded only by our passion for them, and the people who call these places home.  Our connection to these people opens a door into their world that would be almost impossible to open on one’s own.  This is part of the value-added that we feel is unique to ATC.

On many of our trips, we meet no other groups the whole time we’re on trek.  This provides the opportunity for a fuller immersion into the natural and cultural environments through which we travel.  It’s not possible to replicate the four-month-stay model of a Liz Gilbert in a two-week trip, but it’s as close as most of us with limited vacation time can come.


Atck

Lenticular cloud over Kangchenjunga.

You’re leading two trips this fall — tell us about them.

The first trip goes to one of my favorite places in the world, the former kingdom of Mustang in northern Nepal.  My co-leader is Tsewang Bista, a nephew of Mustang’s king, but more importantly a well-known and respected figure throughout the kingdom.  His presence and guidance will provide the group with the sort of entree that I spoke of above, giving us access to the homes of ordinary people and the royal palace in Lo.  On our final night in Lo we’ll be dinner guests of the king and queen, a very rare event, and we’ll all be dressed in local garb pulled from royal closets.  The next day isn’t too bad either, as we fly by charter helicopter over the route we took in, thereby avoiding the uncertainty of the Jomsom flights, and providing a story tale ending to a magical journey. The dates are October 15 to 31.  Land cost for this trip includes a donation to the American Himalayan Foundation, an organization doing great work for the people of Mustang and elsewhere in the Himalaya.

The second trip is a new itinerary to the east base camp of Kangchenjunga in northern Sikkim, a tiny former kingdom sandwiched between Nepal, Tibet, and Bhutan.  The area was only opened for tourism within the past few years and has seen less than a handful of groups to date.  Once again my co-leader provides an immeasurable value-added by virtue of his knowledge of the area and connection to the local people, known as Lepchas.  Jamling Tenzing Norgay is the son of a legendary father (you can guess who), and a well-known figure in the world of adventure travel in his own right, having been the central climber in the 1996 Everest IMAX film.  Kangchenjunga, at 28,169′ the third tallest peak in the world, has enthralled me since I first saw it almost 40 years ago.  Unlike most Himalayan peaks, which are squeezed between similarly spectacular neighbors, Kangchenjunga sits all alone, totally dominating the surrounding countryside, making it look all the more imposing.  This year’s trip is already closed, but we will be running it again in early November of 2011.

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A Nepali view, almost above the clouds.

When you’re not roaming around Asia, where do you find your center of gravity?

After searching for ten years, and looking at 108 properties (an auspicious number in Tibetan Buddhism), we found a hilltop home in northern Vermont where even my Nepali wife could feel at home.  We see most of Lake Champlain and all of the Adirondacks to our west, and Vermont’s iconic mountain, Camel’s Hump, to the east.  We occasionally hear the sound of a car or truck, and even more occasionally the sound of a plane landing at Burlington airport, but most of the time it’s just the sound of leaves rustling in the wind.  The office is here as well, and I have to admit, some days it’s just plain hard to focus on work, though that’s not a complaint.  When we lived in Massachusetts, I lived for my next adventure.  Now it’s much harder to leave home, and a delight to return.

For more info, visit Above the Clouds.

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