Catch a Lyft to Everest: How a Chance Meeting Turned into a Trekking Company
Ever since reading Jon Krakauer’s “Into Thin Air” about a 1996 Mount Everest disaster, Mark Johnson and his wife Holly had been interested in making the Everest Base Camp trek in Nepal, despite having only ever traveled out of the country for a trip to Cancun and being novice hikers. For years, the journey sat on their bucket lists, uncrossed.
Mark was never one for conventional careers. While I was researching an article about unique jobs you can get with an English degree, he and I began trading emails. I quickly learned that Mark had done them all.
Mark graduated from East Carolina University in 1990 with a bachelor’s degree in English. He’s held positions as a blogger, editor, graphic designer and director of communications, earning more than 100 national awards for writing, photography, editing and video production. After discovering his love for bluegrass music, he even spent 13 years in Nashville as a musician and songwriter.
His career path has been so eclectic and full of 180-degree turns that when he decided to team up with a man he met during a Lyft ride and launch an Everest Base Camp trekking company, it was almost to be expected.
When Your Lyft Driver is a Sherpa
It was by sheer chance that Mark, who was considering a communications job with Lyft in Nashville, decided to use a Lyft instead of an Uber in August 2016. His driver was Dawa Jangbu, a charismatic Lyft driver and Nepalese Sherpa who had made the Everest Base Camp trek many times.
Thanks to his general exuberance (which I could sense even over the phone as he and I spoke), Mark struck up a conversation with Dawa.
Mark wanted to hear everything, but Dawa had to move along to his next fare, so the two traded numbers to arrange a conversation. Three days later, Dawa, Mark and Holly met at a Starbucks inside a Target to discuss Dawa’s time in Nepal over caramel macchiatos.
Mark and his wife clung to every word as Dawa talked them through the trip: the costs, the length — all of it. Mark remembers Holly being brought to tears as they listened to this man describe his experience doing the thing they had so longed to do.
“[The memory is] as clear as something that happened 10 minutes ago,” Mark told me.
After that conversation, the couple committed to making the trek in spring 2018. They had no hiking experience, Mark had just left his job at the Tennessee Wildlife Federation and they had three kids. But they knew they would make it happen somehow.
Over the next two and a half months, Mark was applying for jobs left and right. But he found that he enjoyed being at home after working in an office for more than a decade. He wanted to find a career to supplement his blogging that would let him stay at home.
During those months of job searching, Mark could not stop thinking of the trek that was now only a year and a half out and whether he would be able to make it happen. He and Holly shared the news of their scheduled trip with anyone they could tell, mostly to hold themselves accountable to following through. But they discovered something exciting in telling others of their plans for Everest: They were not the only ones who wanted to do it.
One day, while training on a local track (and still out of a job), Mark was struck with an idea. He had researched the trek thoroughly online and found that there were no companies in the middle of Tennessee that offered packages for Everest. In fact, there weren’t many in the U.S. at all, and most were based on the West Coast or in Colorado.
Yet so many people he had spoken to were interested in making the trek. What if he partnered with Dawa to launch a Southeastern U.S.-based company that arranged treks to Everest Base Camp?
Launching an Everest Base Camp Trekking Company
Dawa had the trekking experience necessary but no marketing expertise. Holly was good with financials. And Mark? Well, Mark could write — persuasively.
“I can tell you right where I was standing [when I had the idea], and I turned and walked to my pickup and called my wife,” Mark said. “She was so immediately interested, she didn’t even hesitate.”
Getting Dawa on board was a little more challenging. After all, the pair barely knew each other, and here was Mark, suggesting that they go into an international business together. It took Dawa a few months, but eventually, the two embraced this new, mutually beneficial partnership.
Once Mark had gotten Dawa’s buy-in, he designed a website and a marketing campaign — something he knew how to do from his career in writing and marketing. In January 2017, he and Holly brainstormed company names. Eventually, they landed on Hobnail Trekking Company. It’s named after hobnailed boots, which are famous for their role in historic Everest summits.
Since launching the company, Mark and Holly achieved their ultimate bucket-list goal: They hiked Everest Base Camp on the company’s inaugural trek in spring 2018. The company now arranges treks at Everest Base Camp, Gokyo Lakes and Annapurna Circuit.
Dawa, as a subcontractor of the company, gets his cut for leading the treks, and Mark earns his paycheck as owner of the company. Mark is also the company’s biggest advocate with his writing, marketing, social media presence and photography.
Thus far, the company has sent 19 Americans to Everest Base Camp with several more lined up for the 2019 season. “When we began the business, we projected that it would take two to three years to really have it moving, and that’s pretty much what’s happening. The interest has been amazing, though,” Mark said.
Hobnail Trekking Co. does all the work — aside from the actual hiking. Mark and his company make all the arrangements so that their guests can show up with their gear without having to worry about navigation, food, lodging, etc. The popular Everest Base Camp trek currently goes for $4,790 for the upcoming season. But Mark’s company also offers an International Flight Package that takes the cost to $6,540.
To supplement his income from Hobnail, Mark also runs a business called Big Harvest Creative Group that does freelancing, e-marketing and builds websites. Because he has a knack for juggling so many careers, he actually launched the company at the same time he started Hobnail.
“I’m not getting rich from either business, but I’ve also been able to be here when my kids get home each day, prepare home-cooked meals, drive people to doctor’s appointments and Scout meetings and all that stuff while also doing work that I’m passionate about, rather than driving through traffic each morning to a 9-to-5 job,” Mark explained. “That’s the huge appeal of being an entrepreneur.”
What Mark loves most about his work at Hobnail is that his story and the stories of the people who have made the trek through his company (including a 72-year-old woman with two replaced knees) are proof that something so monumental can be achieved by “normal people with kids and bills and dirty dishes.”
What’s even cooler to me is that Mark was able to do all this — Hobnail, his music career and everything in between — with an education in English. As someone who faced criticism from friends and family for pursuing an English degree, it’s reassuring to see someone hone the skills he learned and do something so unique that still pays the bills.
And, like a true English major, Mark has written a book that chronicles his Everest adventures. “Doofus Dad Does Everest Base Camp: One of Planet Earth’s Epic Adventures Told by a Slightly-Less-Than-Epic Guy” is available now on Amazon.
Timothy Moore is an editor, freelance writer and proud English major. While he hasn’t made the Everest trek in Nepal, he has happily taken on the biggest mountains Scotland and Ireland had to offer — and his legs still feel the burn.