"I put one foot in front of the other, focusing on the rocks beneath my feet and the tightness of my muscles. I gasped, struggling for oxygen in the altitude-rarified air … I was anxious about what lay ahead, but … I was where I wanted to be - at the beginning."
In 1995, Jono Lineen undertook a 2700-kilometre trek through the Western and Central Himalayas. The journey had never been completed solo, so he was impelled by the desire to be first to achieve the feat as well as to immerse himself in cultures he admired. He completed the walk at the end of November that year and, shortly afterwards, wrote an account of his journey based on diaries he had kept over the four-month journey.
He always assumed that he had undertaken the trek as a physical goal. But, as he read his account, he noticed that something was missing, something that explained the personal reasons behind the walk. Over time he realised that the experience had been a means of coming to terms with the drowning death of his younger brother Gareth, seven years earlier. Only when he addressed this could his account be complete and a sense of closure be achieved.
Lineen cuts a fit and impressive figure sitting on the terrace of the National Museum of Australia, where he works as a curator. Behind him, in the autumn sunshine, Lake Burley Griffin and the buildings of the Parliamentary Triangle doze beneath a benign Mount Ainslie. It's all very different from the precarious life he lived for those four months nearly 20 years ago.
He's been working at the museum since 2009, first in visitor services, now as assistant curator with in the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander program. "When we first arrived in Canberra, I was a stay-at-home dad," he recalls. "I would often bring my two boys to the museum. It's such a great place for families."
After decades living in the northern hemisphere, Lineen initially found it difficult to adjust to what he refers to as the "savannah of the Aussie interior". "But I also came to appreciate the space that lets you breathe and, particularly, the light.''
He grew up in Belfast in the 1960s, a time of growing sectarian hatred in Northern Ireland. He remembers the grey skies, the brooding stone buildings and the violent thump of the bass drum during the Protestant marching parades. In the early 1970s, his family settled in British Columbia, Canada. Lineen has fitted an impressive amount of activity into his 50 years, with jobs ranging from trekking guide and medico for Medecin Sans Frontieres to forestry operations manager, journalist and world class ski racer.
He recalls his fascination with the Himalayas and walking began at the age of about 10 when he would devour the mountaineering books of adventurers such as Chris Bonington and Reinhold Messner.
By his early 30s, after five seasons in the Himalayas and several years working as a trekking guide in Asia, he decided the time had come for his own expedition. Already fit and familiar with the Himalayan region, he required little preparation other than a set of old US Ordnance Survey maps to fashion a path for his journey between Pakistan, Tibet, India and Nepal. In addition to his 20-kilogram backpack and waterproof jacket, he wore just one pair of hiking boots.
Setting out in early August 1995, Lineen began his journey in Pakistan-administered Kashmir, at the confluence of the Indus and Astore rivers. Over the next four months, his trek would take him through the Muslim, Buddhist and Hindu regions of the Himalayas.
Many of the people he met were overwhelmingly generous, such as the Tibetan man in Chatra Bharu, who insisted that he cook Lineen the same momo (half-moon-shaped meat and vegetable stuffed dumplings) that he used to prepare while chef for the Dalai Lama. And interestingly, recalling the sectarian bigotry of his Belfast childhood, Lineen encountered few examples of religious tension during his journey through three very different cultures.
Some time after the walk, he sat down and wrote a 250-page account of his trek, based on diaries he kept during the journey. But when he returned to it, a while later, he realised how inadequate it was.
"So I did some detailed research and rewrote the book incorporating more about the landscape, history and, later, spiritual geography of the region,'' he says. ''All that took several more years. But I was still not happy. It still needed to have the energy and feeling of what I had experienced during those four months."
Then, when he was working in Kathmandu, he gave the manuscript to an editor friend. She told him, "There is something underneath - something in the background - and the book is not complete without it." The breakthrough came later when Lineen was working on the section of the manuscript recounting the part of his trek where he had reached the source of the Ganges River.
"As I read the account, I remembered the stillness, the sun setting behind a glacier, the sense of protection in the landscape, the coolness in the air and the half shadowy light … and I asked myself, 'Where had I experienced this sense before?' The answer was: looking at my brother Gareth's body in the morgue in Canada."
So, with this in mind, he recast the book, not just as an account of his journey but as a means of coming to terms with the loss of his brother. As he writes, " … Gareth has taught me many lessons, the first of which is that remorse can be the catalyst for great change''.
"The most difficult part of the experience was not the walk," Lineen tells me, "but the writing of the book, the process over years of revisiting the text and reimagining it. But through this process of writing the book, I gained an incredible sense of closure around Gareth and his passing."
As he writes, his brother's legacy "is timeless. It's simply to get the best out of the time I have in this body. Every day, find the beauty".
A major part of that is human relationships, he says. "As my younger son put it perfectly the other day, "Dad, the most important things in life are family and friendship, aren't they?"
And he continues to find beauty in nature, relishing the nature reserve behind his house in south Canberra to walk and meditate. "It's so crisp here, crystal and thin, unencumbered by humidity or pollution. There's certainly a relationship between the light of Canberra and light of the Himalayas."
Into the Heart of the Himalayas: 2700 kilometres Alone Across the Highest Mountains on Earth.