Taking the High Ground

This father-daughter team specializes in treks to the world’s Alpine regions

by Rosie Wolf Williams

above_clouds In 1982, Steve Conlon was a photographer in Nepal with a pregnant wife, when a woman walked in and asked him to run her trekking business in Kathmandu. The seed for Above the Clouds was planted. Lisa Kumari Conlon joined her father’s adventure travel business, Above the Clouds, after realizing the law and politics were not what she wanted to do.

Some people travel to slow time down, to speed it up, or to fall in love with life again. Steve Conlon, the founder of Above the Clouds, discovered love and his life’s purpose in his travels.

The adventure travel and trekking company specializes in once-in-a-lifetime trips led by experienced guides to places Conlon and his family know intimately: Patagonia, India, Bhutan, and Nepal.

Born in Worcester, Mass., Conlon majored in international finance at Kellogg School of Business at Northwestern University (Class of 1970), after finishing undergrad studies in accounting at the University of Massachusetts. He was drafted into the Army before completing his degree and was sent to Vietnamese Language School at Fort Bliss in Texas.

He had an interest in Tibetan Buddhism and an itch to travel. Nepal seemed a logical destination. His first trip was in 1972 after leaving the Army. “It was like walking through history, going to places where the wheel wasn’t even close to arriving yet. There was no communication at all, other than verbal. No radios. No phones. Life was very basic and simple, and the people were incredibly happy and open and welcoming. I thought, This is the way life should be.”

Conlon returned to the United States in 1973, but by 1975 was back in Nepal. He opened a language school to support himself, teaching English, French, and German to local residents — to date, he speaks nine languages — while learning Nepali, trekking, and interacting with the community. “I visited 65 of the 75 districts of Nepal, most of it on foot,” he says, “and I became a self-taught anthropologist (amateurish, of course).”

He met Muna Gurung, his future wife, during a 1978 trek of a distant area of Nepal. But he ended up returning to the States to study professional photography in Manhattan. Still, he kept thinking about Nepal and the happiness of the community. In 1980, he returned to Nepal, and he and Muna were married in 1981.

Conlon opened a photography studio and planned to stay in Nepal for the rest of his life. But when Muna became pregnant, they began to discuss their desire for their children to experience both cultures. During Muna’s pregnancy, a woman walked into Conlon’s photo studio and asked if he would be interested in being a guide for her trekking business in Kathmandu.

Conlon realized he spent most of his time in the darkroom, when he really wanted to be outside experiencing the beauty of Nepal. He took the job offer, but he and Muna decided it was more logical to raise their family in the United States and make frequent visits to Nepal. They landed in Boston, and their son, Andrew Bahadur Conlon, was born nine days later.

That was in 1982. Conlon remembers his father’s telling him, “You know, you’ve had this wonderful, carefree life, living over in Kathmandu, but now you’re a father. That’s a whole new ball game.’” He told his father he thought he knew the world of trekking in Nepal better than anyone. “He said, ‘Well, go for it.’ It all came together; that sort of fertile moment in life when everything’s happening.”

The family settled in Worcester and Above the Clouds became a reality. In 2000, after spending countless weekends in Vermont, the Conlons moved to Hinesburg. “We knew we were going to at some point. It just felt much more like home than Massachusetts — the slower pace. Socially and culturally, it fit like a glove.”

Above the Clouds dominated the Nepal trekking market through the ’80s and ’90s, but focused on Bhutan, Patagonia, and India when Nepal suffered political strife in 2001. In the mid 2000s, the Conlons were able to return to trekking in their beloved Nepal.

Over the years the landscape has changed, he says, with teahouses and lodges making way for hotels. Communication has improved, as cell phones and texting replace fax machines and relay telephone calls. But the essence of travel with Above the Clouds remains the same.

“For me, trekking isn’t primarily about the physical component. It’s what happens in your head and your heart while you’re out on the trail,” says Conlon.

“You are walking on trails that have been used for centuries, if not millennia, and you’re meeting local people. I’ve often said to our clients that 90 percent of the conversation on the plane going into Nepal is about the terrain, and 90 percent of the conversation on the way coming out is about the people. The mountains are wonderful, but after three or four days, they become wallpaper — beautiful wallpaper. Mountains give us pleasure, but what gives us more pleasure than another human being? Nothing.”

Stacia Betley, University of Vermont student and former intern of Above the Clouds, says the Conlons expect their clients will gain more from a trek than simply photographs and a stamp on their passports.

“Above the Clouds is a unique company in that it has found a way to provide clients with a trip of a lifetime, while also minimizing their environmental impact and supporting local communities,” Betley says. “The social impact that tourists have on the country they travel is enormous. To prevent negative social impact, [Above the Clouds] educates clients about customs, traditions, and how to act respectfully before they leave for their excursion.”

The Conlons’ daughter, Lisa Kumari Conlon, was born in 1985 and grew up thinking the trekking life was ordinary. But her parents did not want to put any pressure on either of their children to be involved in the business. In truth, neither of them showed any interest in it. “We took them hiking and trekking often,” says Conlon, “but at some point, it almost seemed like torture to them, I think.”

Lisa was set on getting a law degree and going into politics. However, in her senior year at UVM, where she was studying political science and history with a focus on south Asia, she worked on a campaign and began to disagree with some of the practices she saw. She realized she would hate being a lawyer, and decided to take some time off after graduation to decide what she would do.

“It was kind of what everyone in our family did,” she says. “You have a big decision or you have a change in your life: Why don’t you go see the world for a little while and see how you feel when you come back?”

Lisa went to Nepal and met up with her mother at the family farm. She eventually headed to Patagonia to work in a lodge during trekking season. She realized that her lifetime of travel had helped form her character, and she wanted to continue her global experiences. Lisa called her father and suggested she work for Above the Clouds. He agreed. He needed to leave for Patagonia, and Lisa could take over the office responsibilities.

Lisa says, “When I arrived, there were six Post-its — on a desk stacked on top of each other — of people that were going to be going: the clients’ names, things to follow up with, and details to take care of. I didn’t even know how to check the voice mail. Thankfully, there was a Post-it for that!”

Since 2008, Lisa has put her own mark on Above the Clouds, including a redesign of the website and database. In 2010, she began a collaboration with her mentor and former professor Abigail McGowan to create a UVM-credited trekking/travel study program to Nepal. The first departure was in 2012, the same year Lisa earned her master of business administration from Champlain College.

“I honestly can’t imagine having done this program with anyone else. I’m not a particularly good tourist myself,” McGowan admits. “I’m often just as happy to read about great sites as to visit them in person. What I love is just being in a different place and exploring how communities work and what makes them tick. Lisa gets that, and makes that possible, with her love of Nepal, with her incredible Nepali staff who love to share their own roots and connections to places, and with her immaculate preparations for everything.”

An assistant and an intern currently help in the office, which is temporarily based at Lisa’s home in Burlington’s South End. The company has evolved from primarily offering group trips to creating custom trips, typically for two to five people, but as many as 18, and even some individual trekking. “We recently partnered with Yoga Vermont to offer a trip this fall,” she says.

A leadership transition is underway as Lisa takes on more responsibility for day-to-day operations, allowing Steve to spend more time in South Hero with Muna. He is also taking on a new role as grandfather to Calvin Robert Ambir Conlon (born in 2013 to his son, Andrew, and his wife).

“I knew what the benefits were from trekking but I guess I had underestimated,” he says. “It made me feel that I was able to take care of my family through doing this and I got to stay connected to that part of the world. But I created something that was beyond what I ever expected.” •