Interview by Everett Potter
I met Steve Conlon of Above the Clouds years ago. He was a pioneer in the field of adventure travel, taking people on extended treks in the Himalayas. Now his daughter, Lisa Kumari Conlon, is literally following in her father’s footsteps. She has trekked alongside him in the Himalayas and now she’s the new generation at the helm of Above the Clouds. Lisa graduated from the University of Vermont in 2007 and completed her MBA this year from Champlain College, all the while traveling, trekking, exploring and adventuring. I met her in Manhattan earlier this year.
EP) You’re the second generation of a family business. What was it like growing up in one of the first families of adventure travel?
Growing up the way I did – with an American father and a Nepali mother – and traveling so much, shaped who I am. A lot of my childhood memories are in airports, other countries, trekking, totally different cultures and traveling in general. It forced me to have a very broad-spectrum acceptance of what “normal” really is. People eat differently, dress differently, families live differently, people have more or fewer opportunities, sometimes things work out and sometimes they don’t – and all of that is okay. Traveling to places both old and new has enabled me to keep learning and growing.
My early exposure to places like Nepal also helped me to deal with the everyday ups and downs of life with a calm center, realizing that what might seem like a big problem to people here really isn’t such a big deal when put in perspective. I feel privileged to have had that early exposure to the world, and excited to now be in a position to share that knowledge and love of travel with fellow adventurers.
But, far and away the biggest impact of growing up traveling as much as I did is that I seem to have either inherited or grew into a pair of very itchy feet – I’m always looking for the next great trip!
EP) You become an adventurous traveler as a kid, I’m guessing?
From the perspective of any of my peers growing up, my life certainly appeared adventurous, but to me it was just normal. From the time before I was two years old we would take trips from our home in New England to my grandparent’s home in Nepal. It entailed a drive to the airport, a flight through Europe and onto India, a lay over (a few in fact), a flight to Kathmandu, another flight to Biratnigar, a 7-hour bus ride and a hike to get to the house – and to be honest it all seemed rather normal to me. That said, my parents always made sure we took some “traditional” vacations, like regular summer vacations to the Maine coast and a trip through the Rockies; but, trekking the Himalaya and Andes, or rafting in the Yukon were much more the norm for us.
One way that my childhood shaped and prepared me to be very adventurous is in terms of food. I love new foods and I’ll try pretty much anything! My grandmother in Nepal cooked dinner over a wood fire from ingredients she grew, cultivated and harvested and I’ve still never tasted anything better. It taught me to be open to trying new things.
EP) How would you define the essence of an Above the Clouds trip — how does it differ from what your competitors offer?
When you truly understand the essence of a place, from an insider’s perspective, and have a sense of how it looks and feels to the first time visitor as well, you’re ideally positioned to design trips that open the door to that place in a way that’s different from the cookie cutter stuff that you see everywhere.
For example, in the Mustang region of Nepal, our trips are guided by the nephew of the king of Mustang, providing our groups with entrée to places and homes (including the Royal Palace) unavailable to those on other trips. Every other trip but ours walks up to Lo Manthang, the capital, then turns around and walks back out to the airstrip at Jomsom.
In addition to retracing your steps on the way out, and walking into the wind, which is heavy with sand, you’re then dealing with the very real possibility of your flight out of Jomsom being canceled, which I understand you have first hand experience with. After working so hard to attain the state of mind that you get at the end of a long trek, to have it wash through your fingers due to the stress caused by worry that you’ll miss your flight home, is, in our opinion, unacceptable. So we chopper all our groups out from Lo Manthang, saving people those problems as well as an extra week of their precious time. And seeing the route you spent a week hiking along from an eagle’s perspective is an unforgettable cherry on the cake of a great adventure.
EP) Why should someone choose an Above the Clouds trip over that of another operator?
We realize that our trips aren’t for everyone. If someone is looking to check off destinations on their bucket list, we might not be the ideal company for them. If someone is looking to dig beneath the surface of the destination, and get their hands dirty, figuratively speaking, we’re a good fit for that kind of traveler.
EP) Do you attract recreational trekkers, hard core types, or those who seek cultural immersion? Or all of the above?
It’s really hard to pigeonhole our travelers, especially demographically. There seems to be a psychographic profile to our travelers, not easily defined, but one characteristic would be the notion that education didn’t stop when you picked up your diploma, and pushing your boundaries is the only way to keep growing and the best way to feel fully alive. And while one of those boundaries in our business is certainly physical, the more interesting and rewarding areas are cultural, emotional, mental, and even spiritual.
When I started this job my father explained to me how we are “Dream Merchants”. People take their dreams very seriously and it is our job to take them just as seriously. Listen to what people dream of and what they believe achieving that dream will do; believe in it and find a way to help them experience what they didn’t know was possible. Since then I’ve always thought that what all our clients have in common is that they are the Dreamers of our day. We believe that there are parts of the world that touch your soul, that have the capacity to change you – our clients believe what we believe, and it’s our job to share some of the magic that has kept us connected to these parts of the world.
EP) Tell me about someplace that you go as a company, a place where you’d gladly drop everything and go this afternoon for an extended stay?
Such a hard question! It changes daily to be honest. In general, I’m only home for about 2 weeks from any given trip before I begin to plan my next trip and I almost always measure my life by the next upcoming trip. It’s just the way I am.
So today, if I could pick up and go for a few months I’d be off to Bhutan. As the world has become smaller and more homogenized, Bhutan has masterfully walked the tightrope between holding on to its traditions and making its peace with the outside world. Being there helps me to stay grounded and centered, and provides me with inspiration and lessons for maintaining my own center when I have to return to my desk and the world back home in Vermont.
EP) What destinations are new for Above the Clouds this year?
We ran a small, exploratory group to Kangchenjunga Base Camp in northern Sikkim in 2010 with Steve (my father) and Jamling Tenzing, Based on that, we’re running our first regular trek there this November, with both of them leading it again. According to Jamling, fewer than 100 trekkers have been on that trail since the Indian government opened it a few years ago. There are precious few places like that left on the planet, but we continue to search them out, and this one’s a real treasure.
EP) Where are you scouting for future trips?
We are in the process of scouting some trips in Myanmar, which is becoming more open now. We’re extremely interested in exploring the northwest corner of the country especially, which has some really rarely traveled villages and really remote areas to trek. I’m beyond excited about it!
EP) Do you think adventure travel is becoming less adventurous and more focused on creature comforts?
Adventure travel most certainly has changed, but it has done so in tandem with the global changes that have been going on, especially in the last decade or two. As the world gets smaller and more interconnected there will inevitably be changes; just think about what a miracle it was that Hillary and Tenzing made it to the top of Everest 50 years ago this May – and then compare that to what climbing the world’s tallest mountain today entails: $50K permit, fixed ropes, set ladders, insurance, full staff, other folks carrying your gear etc…
One big change we’ve noticed is because people today have less time than ever before, so trips are shorter, requiring more efficient travel planning, often requiring the use of things like helicopters to minimize the trip length. Another big change we’ve noticed is the preference for private trips over group trips, again a sign of changing cultural values in today’s world.
EP) With all of your travels, where do you find your center of gravity?
I’m fortunate to live in the beautiful and laid-back state of Vermont. Still, work can be hectic and stressful at times, so I grab my climbing shoes, trekking boots and some good friends and head out into the Green Mountains, which are right outside my front door.
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