Read time – 5 minutes

On July 12th 2019, on the Taglang La pass in the Himalaya, a piano was heard at the highest altitude on record, in an ambitious and awe-inspiring performance to raise funds for local communities.

In the thin air with low temperatures, it was sure to be a challenge for a pianist with serious altitude – raising vital funds for the Exodus Travels Foundation Himalayan Community Support Projects.

We met with Carole and Neil Bowman, long-time Exodus clients and passionate advocates for the Himalaya, to hear more about the world’s most demanding recital…

Interview with Carol and Neil Bowman

How did you first get involved in travelling with Exodus?

Carole: Dare I say I can’t remember, it was quite a long time ago! We’ve probably done about 25, possibly more, Exodus trips, and we first started travelling with Exodus about 20 years ago, if not longer.

Many of our trips have been trekking, mostly with Valerie Parkinson who we know very well, and mostly to the Himalaya. But we have done lots of others as well. Our most recent trip was Japan about three or four weeks ago.

Hitting the High Notes: A Pianist with Altitude

Carole & Neil in Ladakh in 2014 at the summit of Dzo Jongo East, with guide Valerie, and their friend Frances

Do you have a favourite memory from a trip?

Carole: The answer is usually where I am at the time. Maybe it’s going back to a place that you’re familiar with and absolutely loving it and knowing people there. We’ve got to know so many people in Ladakh now, local people and staff who work there, it’s been great going back and meeting them over the years.

Neil: Our first trip there was in the early 90s, I don’t know why specifically we decided to go but we did.

Carole: Because you wanted to do some animal and bird watching!

Neil: I’m a birdwatcher, so I was happy to go to a different area for birds. But the trek along the Markha Valley was fantastic. The first time we travelled with Valerie was to Tibetin 2006. And since then we’ve been back to Ladakh another five or six times, trekking and climbing.

Carole: And to Nepal as well – the last one we did before this was the Manaslu Circuit, from where this crazy idea emerged!

Neil: I suppose it emerged because, in 2012, with Valerie we climbed Stok Kangri – we didn’t quite get to the summit as the weather closed in. We decided to use that trip as a fundraiser as well.

It was our first fundraiser for the Himalayan Community Projects which Valerie had already told us about. So we thought it would be a good one, and shared it with Tibet Relief Fund.

Valerie on Stok KangriValerie Parkinson on Stok Kangri

Neil: So we climbed, got to within 100m of the summit and raised quite a lot of money, £6000+, and half went to Exodus and half to Tibet Relief Fund. The money for the community projects went towards providing filtered water in the Markha Valley initially in one or two tea tents.

Valerie’s idea of ridding the Markha valley of plastic bottles gathered pace and since then, the money has funded one or two eco cafes. When we were there last, a couple of years ago, we’d seen one of the eco cafes, and heard about a flood which severely damaged one of them, so we thought it was a good time to do a bit more fundraising.

 What is it about the area that really draws you in?

Carole: Upland desert, mountains, the challenge, high altitude – I flourish at high altitude, dare I say! Ladakh is one of the few places now where you’ll find fairly pure Tibetan culture still in place, and that for me is really worth supporting. And as I say, we’ve got to know a lot of Ladakhis, so we just love going back. 

Can you tell us more about the projects you’ll be supporting?

Neil: The other project we’re supporting helps elderly people in Nepal in the Langtang Valley, which we heard about when the earthquake happened in 2015. It was one of the most devastated areas to be affected.

We haven’t actually been to the Langtang Valley but when Valerie came back last year from trekking there, she told us all about it. She described how the elderly people there needed help and so we decided that would be a good cause to support. 

What was it that inspired you to take action?

Carole: The fact that we’d already raised quite a lot for our previous project, and the need for some more. It was on the last trek actually…

Neil: Coming back from the Manaslu Circuit, we had a long day’s drive in a jeep along probably the worst road we’ve ever been on, five-ten mile an hour stuff….

Carole: Over bumps and lumps and rocks, and Valerie and I were sitting in the front, giggling a lot as we do, and we thought we needed something serious to focus on, so I said “Let’s do another project” and we came up with the idea because Neil’s a pianist…

Neil: An amateur pianist!

Carole: …. and I just said, well, let’s get a piano on the Taglang La, and we said we’ll work on it. We’ve met with Valerie several times since, and decided that would be the one as it fitted perfectly with her next trip to Ladakh which we have booked on. She located the piano, and we took it from there.

Hitting the High Notes: A Pianist with AltitudeArtist: Alex Demetris

Where did she source the piano?

Carole: The piano is in a college near Leh, Ladakh’s capital, and they’ve agreed to loan it to us. The problem of getting it up to the pass…it’s not that huge, as it is a motorable road. We have been there before. In fact we were first there in 1992, and it is doable…as far as we know! We’ve heard a recording of the piano being played – all the notes work!

Neil: I think I need to learn some music hall songs, it seems to be that kind of sound – a bit honky-tonk, ragtime.

Have you decided what you’ll be playing?

Neil: Pretty much yes – I’m classically trained, so it’s mostly classical, but I’ll be doing a little bit of jazz, ragtime and more popular things too. The unknown is how long I’ll be able to play for, but I think half an hour’s enough at that altitude.

It’ll also depend a bit on the weather, it could be very windy and cold, or it could be perfect weather, blue skies and sunshine. I’m keeping each piece short, just two or three minutes long. 

Are there any particular obstacles you think you might face?

Neil: Probably the weather, as that’s the unknown.

Carole: We’re not too concerned about the altitude as we’ve been at high altitude so many times now, and neither of us has had any issue…but it could always happen.

Neil: We have four days of acclimatisation anyway, and we’re being driven up to the pass, so it won’t be like we’ve trekked for three hours before we get there. 

How much are you hoping to raise?

Carole: We’ve pitched the target to the height in metres of the pass, £5328. At least a couple of the people who are on the trip have donated already, even though they don’t know us!

To help Carole and Neil reach their fundraising target, you can donate on their giving page.

If you’re looking for a challenge, browse our summit tours below.