The mountains of Nepal. Photo courtesy of Matthew Fioretti
The mountains of Nepal. Photo courtesy of Matthew Fioretti

In an age where the Internet has all but eliminated the need for travel agencies and guidebooks, some local retailers are making part of their living by offering trips abroad.

One of those retailers is Queen Anne’s Matt Fioretti. Fioretti started mountain climbing when he was 16 and made his first trip to Nepal in 1992. Two years later, he started his guide service. Realizing that optimal climbing seasons were only four months of the year and not wanting to be a “climbing bum,” he opened Four Winds on Queen Anne in 1995.

Once a year, Fioretti takes four people on big climbing trips, and twice a year, he treks with up to eight people. The treks last between 16 and 26 days, and the climbs range from 30 to 60 days.

People now come from all over the world to travel with Fioretti. “I’ve been doing it so long, I guess I’m kind of the guy on Nepal,” he said.

Flexibility is a requirement because of that, Fioretti said. Signing up for one of his trips, people must fill out a questionnaire with questions like, “If a yak crushed your camera, how would you handle it?” — that weeds out people with control issues.

Queen Anne’s Julia Valcik became friends with Fioretti after she learned about his trips and traveled with him to Nepal in April 2014.

The trip involved 16 days on the trail, with some extra time in the cities. Valcik also did some traveling herself through the country.

“It’s hard to put any assumptions aside and just be on the trip,” she said, but spending time in Nepal and seeing how people lived was fascinating. “It really brings an awareness to how lucky we are to be living here and basically how easy we have it.

“It pretty much opened my heart, and it was just nothing, unlike anything I’d done or seen, and it was just absolutely awe-inspiring,” she added.


Challenging climbs

Training before the trips is inevitable, but people must submit a climbing resume to participate on the climbs. Fioretti offers commercial and guided climbs. Guided climbs require climbers to have some experience, while commercial climbs are much more technical and difficult. On the treks, skill levels range from beginner to serious hikers. With all of the trips, altitude is a challenge and something Fioretti covers extensively.

Valcik had never done a trek of this magnitude. One of her favorite days was when they were at the top of the mountain. They started at 3 in the morning, hiking through the dark, in thin, oxygen-deprived air. Then the sun came out behind Everest, and “it pretty much moved everyone,” she said.

Queen Anne resident Steve Hawes also went on Fioretti’s trip in April 2014. “It wasn’t like it was on my bucket list; it was the farthest thing from my mind,” he said.

Hawes did a lot of cardio and hiking to prepare. Some days, he would do long walks from Queen Anne to Ballard or Fremont.

“The beauty of Nepal is incredible — it’s hard to describe,” Hawes said.

The group also bonded really well, he said, noting he now considers his fellow trekkers lifelong friends.

The trip wasn’t without its challenges for Hawes, though — the biggest being the altitude. Living at sea level and then going to 18,000 feet, there’s no way to prepare, Hawes said; you just need to get through it. Overcoming that gave him a “tremendous sense of accomplishment.”

“It had a definite impact in terms of what the experience was — so outside the box, and to be immersed in it, especially for two weeks,” he said. Seeing how the Nepalese people lived and how happy they were with how relatively little they had was eye-opening.

Each night, the travelers would stop at teahouses. Throughout his 20-years as a guide, Fioretti has stayed at the same places, so he has created long-term friendships with the owners.

“We get taken in way differently than if you just went on your own,” he said. He also has a crew of seven Sherpas whom he employs every season.

Fioretti’s deep connections with the people and culture really made the trip for Hawes. “It really made it very special for us to be part of his entourage because he was very well liked,” he said.

Hawes is now considering doing another trip with Fioretti next fall.

Valcik said she couldn’t have asked for a better guide than Fioretti. Because he has been doing it for so long, he has formed “incredibly deep family relationships” with people in the remote villages. Sometimes, they would invite the travelers to their family dinners, sitting around sharing stories.

She was also impressed by Fioretti’s knowledge of the area. At one point, Fioretti pointed out prayer flags flapping on a peak, explaining that they were there to honor someone who had died. She saw other guides walk past, without stopping to share the story.

“I got so much more out of the trekking experience,” she said. “It wasn’t just trudging through the country.”

Valcik hopes to go to go on another one of Fioretti’s trips with her sons, so they could see how they can push their bodies and see that “not everyone lives the same way we do.”

This is Fiorett’s way to change society. He hopes it inspires people to keep “our connection to nature, which has become a very shallow relationship; I’m part of that too,” he said. “But this is how I try to keep people connected to being human.”

Fioretti has also expanded his travel business with a trip to Tibet every other year, which he describes as a “National Geographic [-style] adventure trip.” On that trip, Fioretti and his travelers make a pilgrimage around the holy mountain Mount Kailash, where they stop at meditation and prayer sites. They stay at a holy lake for more meditation, before walking out, for nine days through the Limi valley. In the future, Fioretti may expand to trips in western Nepal or Mongolia.


Getting immersed in culture

Another Queen Anne resident who has expanded his business abroad is Nick O’Connell, who teaches writing classes through his Writer’s Workshop. He started teaching in 1987 and has continued, while publishing his own work in newspapers, magazines and novels.

In 2004, he decided to start teaching writing trips abroad. He had about 12 students on his first trip, and he’s stuck with similar numbers since then, traveling every spring.

O’Connell’s weeklong trips focus on going to high-end wineries, restaurants, hotels and historic places. He likes to travel to smaller towns in France and Italy and may plan a trip to Spain in the future.

Most of the travelers have an interest in food and wine and are “a little more adventurous than your average traveler,” O’Connell said. Many are just interested in writing, although O’Connell does get a few professional writers.

O’Connell handles all of the logistics once the travelers arrive in the city. He schedules an event for most nights but leaves some unstructured time. During a typical day of one of his trips, students have a writing class in the morning and then an activity like a tour of the city or a cooking class in the afternoon. In the evening, he has dinner set up at a local restaurant.

O’Connell’s neighbors Paula Cipolla and her husband, Steve Albright, went on O’Connell’s trip to Vaison-la-Romaine, France, in May 2012. They were interested in a trip that combined traveling overseas and writing. The duo traveled to France early to explore some of southern countryside, then met up with the writing group.

O’Connelll encouraged his students to bring in the culture of the place they wrote about, Cipolla said. Some students wrote about a culinary experience; others wrote about a winery they visited. Albright wrote his piece on the sounds of the market, and Cipolla’s writing was on finding a sense of solace.

People are able to “just focus on writing, soaking themselves in the culture of the place and then just enjoying meeting all of the people,” O’Connell said.

Cipolla, not having taken any writing classes previously, wanted to learn more about the structure of writing, whereas Albright had joined the trip more as a spouse than an interested writer. Still, he said the classes made them “not just writers, but [we] communicated better and listened better.”

Students can finish their piece and try to get it professionally published. O’Connell plans to start publishing the writing on his blog. He always gets at least one story out of the trips himself.

In the future, O’Connell would like to do trips on other continents, like to Argentina, or maybe other places in Europe, like Germany. Some places are a harder sell than others though, he acknowledged.

“I just think these trips are a great way to immerse yourself in another culture in the funnest possible way,” he said. “I just choose destinations very carefully — these are very rich culinary and cultural experiences.”

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