Swiss Road Builder Treks Into History


If Swiss geologist Toni Hagen had climbed instead of trekked for 40 years, he could have conquered Mt. Everest 1,500 times.

Hagen, 72, estimates he has covered 5,550 miles of this Himalayan kingdom since he came 40 years ago to help build Nepal's first highway.

"I have crisscrossed the whole country, and there is no corner where I have not been," he said.

Recently King Birendra enacted a constitution, establishing a constitutional monarchy and declaring a multiparty democracy. But in 1950, Nepal was one of the world's last forbidden kingdoms. Few foreigners had been allowed to enter, and none had explored it. It had no roads.

The government, seeking to build a highway through the Himalayas and across the plains to India, sought help from Switzerland, another mountainous nation. Hagen was asked to make a geological survey.

There already were a few cars in the kingdom: limousines that were carted over narrow mule paths by human porters. Thirty-six men, marching in four sweating rows, carried nine wooden beams bearing a shiny new automobile destined for the aristocracy.

Other people, including Hagen, walked--from Mt. Everest in the north to the Indian border in the south.

Four decades later, Hagen still leaves his home in Switzerland's Lenzerheide hill resort for an annual trek in Nepal. A stocky man with thinning white hair, he reckons the trekking and a sense of humor "keeps me youthful."

Once, during his travels as a surveyor, Hagen reached what was then the kingdom of Mustang on the northwestern border with Tibet. The next day the queen of Mustang sent a message that she was suffering from sunburn and could Hagen help?

Hagen sent the best he had--a pain-relieving ointment that at least would do no harm. "She was just curious," Hagen said. "She wanted to get some contact with me."

The royal couple invited Hagen to tea the next day. The queen said the ointment was excellent.

"I was not a doctor but had to carry a lot of medicines," Hagen said. "I had to distribute them because the local people considered me to be a doctor."

Another essential was the sack of silver coins that would take care of his expenses for six months at a time.

"The chief porter who was carrying the coins knew he was the most important man in the group," Hagen said. "Whenever we came to a resting place in a village, he would put down his basket under a tree with a big noise.

"But imagine doing that in any other country at that time, or today in Nepal. The money would be gone in no time."

One of Hagen's most treasured possessions is his trekking permit, a document now issued to tens of thousands of tourists every year.

But Hagen's slip of paper carries a unique distinguishing mark--the numeral 1. It was the first ever issued.

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