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From her office in Brussels to the Snowman trek in Bhutan

From her office in Brussels to the Snowman trek in Bhutan

Veronika Švecová is literally in love with mountains! She is 36 years old, from the Czech Republic and has been living in Brussels (Belgium) for the last 10 years. Even though she is busy working as an EU Competition lawyer, she doesn’t see her office job as a barrier for chasing mountaineering dreams and spending holidays close to nature.

In an inspiring interview, she explains how she began to nurture her love for the mountains and how she ended up travelling around the world in search of the most remote and difficult treks, challenging summits and unforgettable mountaineering experiences. With no intentions to battle world records, nor to become an extreme athlete, Veronika tells us how the connection to mountains made her realise many things about life and motivates others to move out of the comfort zone and follow their passion.

Veronika, what is your professional background? Where do you work and how would you describe your daily job routine?

I am a lawyer specialised in EU competition law and have been working for the EU institutions since 2011, namely the European Commission. In my job I focus on fiscal aid and the banking sector. My daily routine could be described as working on my cases, meeting and negotiating with States and banks' representatives as well as interacting with law firms. It is the typical office job.

Do you remember when was the love for the mountains born?

It all started at the age of 20, when I met my former boyfriend. As he was born and raised in the Czech mountains, he loved mountains and nature in general. For our first holidays he took me to the High Tatras in Slovakia, an amazing mountain range with it’s highest point at 2,655 m. There, I discovered, for the first time, about the beauty of mountaineering. At the time, I wore jeans and hiked in simple boots. I still laugh when I look back at the pictures and think of it! When I reached the highest point of our trip (Mt Rysy, 2473m), I cried out of exhaustion, anger and fear. But later, when we came down, I was full of emotions and felt a lot of happiness, adrenaline and accomplishment. At that point, the love for mountaineering and the mountains was born.

 The Snowman trek in Bhutan - Photo: Veronika  Švecová

The Snowman trek in Bhutan - Photo: Veronika Švecová

How did you nurture your love for the mountains?

After Slovakia, we kept travelling and discovering mountains in Austria, Switzerland, Norway as well as other "smaller" mountains elsewhere. After some years, I felt I would like to see the world and the mountains outside of Europe but I was always scared to take the decision to go for the unknown and so far away. Also, there was no one around me that would like to go for a mountain trip outside of Europe.

When I turned 30, I dreamt of Patagonia but knew I would not find the courage to go on my own. On Christmas day, I received a book called "Trekking in the Patagonian Andes" from a friend of mine. Receiving this book somehow gave me the courage to go for it even if I should go alone. Three weeks later I booked my flight and month later I packed my 65l backpack (which weighed 21kg) and left to Patagonia for a month. I could hardly stand straight with my heavy backpack or lift it up on my back and I had no idea at all how I could possibly walk with it for even one hour not even talking about the whole month. On the first day of trekking, I wanted to give up after 2 hours of walking. I wanted to scream and cry how angry I was with myself for feeling that I did not have the strength to do it. Anyway, I had to finish the day. I walked slowly but I finished and at that moment something broke free in me. I felt enormous strenght, courage and belief circulating through my veins. This convinced myself that I could do it! It was a moment I will never forget as it was a breaking point and a decisive moment that determined my trekking life for the years to come. By finishing this one month trip, I gained enough confidence to take up further challenges.

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“With every new trip, I gained more and more experience and trust in what I could do and achieve.”

Veronika Švecová

With every new trip, I gained more and more experience and trust in what I could do and achieve. In 2016, during my first trip to Peru, I climbed and stood up on my first almost 6,000 summit. The experience and feelings I encountered when going up and setting my foot on the summit with a 360 degrees view on the surrounding peaks brought my mountaineering passion to another level. I fell in love with snowy peaks and ice climbing and since then I have been pushing my borders further also in that respect by climbing some other peaks in Nepal, Bolivia, Peru and Ecuador.

How did you decide you wanted to go trekking to Bhutan? How did you get to know about the Snowman trek?

After my second big trip to the Nepalese Himalayas in 2013, I started to search which trip I could do next. I remember I used the following key words in Google: "the most difficult trek in the world" and "the most beautiful and remote trek in the world". The search gave me a very clear result: The Snowman trek! That is how I discovered Bhutan as a country. I have to admit that even though it is next to Nepal I never heard about this country before nor the trek itself.

The more I read about it, the more I knew it was the one I wanted to do. There were two big "factors" that held me back from going though. First, going with an agency for an organised trek was always a no go for me. I always travelled solo or with friends or people I met randomly (with exception of the climbing adventures), having no strict intenerary and I never wanted to give up that freedom. Bhutan however does not allow individual travellers to enter the country. They always have to come with an agency and treks must be done in an organised group. Secondly, I knew I would not be able to find and put together enough people to do the trek. First, because of the extremely high costs for this trek and second, tell your friends: hey, let's do this expensive trek which takes 27 days, you will walk, camp and sleep in freezing temperatures, the chances that it will rain most of the time and you will see almost nothing are about 80% and on top of it the success rate of finishing it is less than 50%. Lonely Planet even states that "More people have summitted Everest than have completed the Snowman trek.". Well, not the best teaser, right?

 The Snowman trek in Bhutan is deemed as one of the most difficult and most beautiful treks in the world. It takes almost one month to complete it, crossing nine passes of over 4,500 m.

The Snowman trek in Bhutan is deemed as one of the most difficult and most beautiful treks in the world. It takes almost one month to complete it, crossing nine passes of over 4,500 m.

I kept this dream in mind, hoping that one day I would do it. In 2016, I faced a difficult family situation that marked me a lot. Therefore, when things calmed down (it was during the autumn 90-day window from September to November, when it is possible to attempt the trek), I took a spontaneous decision and in 2 weeks I was leaving to Bhutan for the Snowman trek.

 Yaks are used in the Himalayas as transport animals. During the Snowman Trek, yaks are used in the high altitude passes. Photo: Veronika Švecová

Yaks are used in the Himalayas as transport animals. During the Snowman Trek, yaks are used in the high altitude passes. Photo: Veronika Švecová

Tell us more details about the Snowman Trek…

The Snowman trek leads through the most remote areas of the Bhutanese Himalayas up to very high altitudes and takes about 27 days (almost 200 miles) to finish it. During these 27 days, we walked between 5 to 9 hours per day and camped in altitudes above 5,000m, more than once. The temperature during the trek is well below zero and the camps are sometimes on snow. Many groups that attempt this tough trek do not finish it due to problems with either the high altitude or snow blocking the mountain passes. When you get into the Lunana area (one section of the trek starting on day 16) and snow blocks the passes (which happens quite often), the only way out is by helicopter as this is a no return point. Just for illustration, in our group of 9 people, 2 people had to be rescued by a helicopter. In a group that started 3 weeks earlier 6 out of 9 gave up on the trek because it rained non stop for the first 14 days.

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“80% of the strength needed for doing these type of challenges comes from your mind.”

Veronika Švecová

How did you prepare physically and mentally?

As I decided to go from one day to another and left only 2 weeks after I took the decision, there was no time for any physical or mental preparation. But I do have to admit I have never done any special preparation for any of the big trips. Although I do keep myself fit overall, by regularly playing squash, occasionally running and doing cardio in the gym.

People sometimes wonder I must be training a lot for the treks and climbs. I do, but I always say that even though it is good and important to be fit, 80% of the strength needed for doing these type of challenges comes from your mind. I saw big, strong and very fit men giving up. There were situations and circumstances I would had probably given up, and the only reason I did not was my extremely strong will and love for what I am doing, which I consider more important than any physical preparation.

 The Snowman trek in Bhutan

Did you carry your own backpack with all your stuff? How heavy it was?

In Bhutan we had yaks and muls to carry all of our stuff since the trek takes 27 days and we had to carry food supplies for the whole month. Though, I did carry only a small 10 kg backpack, but it was just to stay in shape.

On my other trips to Peru, Ecuador, Bolivia, Patagonia and Nepal I usually carried between a minimum of 18 kg to a maximum of 29 kg, depending on how long the trek was and if there were food supplies and shelters on the way. My hardest trek was Huayhuash trek in Peru, where I carried all the hiking equipment and food for 10 days and walked between 7 to 9 hours per day. The backpack had a weight of 29 kg at the beginning of the trek.

What was the toughest moment in Bhutan?

From a physical point of view, I do not consider I had any such moment. It rained, however, literally non-stop for the first 6 days of the trek. You can walk in mud, cold and rain for 2 days but when it lasts 6 days and you have no place to hide, sit by the fire or dry your clothes and you have to keep walking hours in the rain during the day and freeze in your tent during the night and you know you still have 20 days ahead, it is mentally very challenging. So the toughest moment was to keep the hope the weather will once improve and sustain the mental motivation to go on.

 The Snowman trek in Bhutan

Is the Snowman trek in Bhutan “the most difficult trek in the world”?

Speaking about this, people often ask me if it is rightly considered “the most difficult trek in the world”. I would say there are more difficult treks in terms of physical difficulty, such as the Huayhuash trek I did alone. But, I would say that what makes the Snowman trek "the most difficult” one is the combination of distance, altitude, remoteness and weather conditions. You better have good psychological resilience towards discomfort, cold, hours of walking in very high altitude and rainy weather. All of this during one month, without any possibility to get warm or sleep in a nice bed.

What was the greatest moment?

That moment will always stay anchored in my heart. We had an acclimatisation day. This means that we climbed a ridge to a higher altitude (4,700m) than the one where we had our camp, to get acclimatised to the altitude and descended back again.{This is method to prevent altitud sickness and adapt the body to higher altitudes with less oxygen}. After we climbed up, I decided not to go back down directly with the others but to stay up there alone and walk the ridge towards its end, from where there were amazing views on the 5,000 to 7,000 m peaks. It felt so magic. I hanged prayer flags from my mum and dad, sat up there, prayed for them, felt grateful for the people and the things I have in my life, contemplated about life. My heart was exploding with happiness! One year later, my dad passed away. Since then, I always think of that moment, the prayer flags with his name and the prayers that wind spreads into all directions and feel peace in my heart.

 Camp site set below one of the passes of the Snowman trek in Bhutan - Photo: Veronika Švecová

Camp site set below one of the passes of the Snowman trek in Bhutan - Photo: Veronika Švecová

Continue reading the second part of this interview here.

From her office in Brussels to the Snowman Trek in Bhutan - Part II

From her office in Brussels to the Snowman Trek in Bhutan - Part II

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