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Get to Know a Guide: Ralph Cope

Hello fellow adventurers!

In this week’s blog post, we continue our ‘Get to Know a Guide‘ series and introduce to you another one of the epic staff.

This time, we got to know a bit more about Ralph Cope, Head of Operations here at Epic Backpacker Tours. He also works as a guide throughout the year and has lots to share on the subject of trekking and adventure. Let’s have a listen!

Who are you and what do you do at Epic Backpacker Tours?

My name is Ralph Cope and I am the Head of Internal Operations over here at Epic Backpacker Tours. I also help develop and guide various tours – mostly in Pakistan and Central Asia – and manage website development. 

What is your favorite part about being a guide with Epic?

Ralph and Chris Lininger, Owner and Director of Epic Backpacker Tours, scouting in Kyrgyzstan.

Although a lot of my work these days is administrative, I insist on (and enjoy very much) guiding. I am a social creature and love interacting with guests, but the most rewarding part is helping them to accomplish things that they never thought possible before. Our trips can be challenging – even intimidating – at times, but it never ceases to amaze me how people with the right support can overcome difficulties.

What got you into trekking and expedition planning in the first place?

Being from the Pacific Northwest, hiking and the outdoors has always been a part of my life. I have been hitting the trails fairly regularly since 2011 but didn’t really start trekking seriously until my first trip to Nepal in 2014. 

My reason for being in Nepal was fairly innocent at first: I was just a humble backpacker and wanted to see real mountains for once. I ended up doing the Annapurna Circuit solo not knowing what was in store. 

About halfway through the trek, an unseasonably late and violent blizzard struck the region and pretty much stopped everyone in their tracks. I managed to find a safe place to hole up but tragically many people, including locals and foreigners, lost their lives. To this day, that blizzard is still one of the worst natural disasters to affect tourism in the region. 

Needless to say, this event left a deep impression on me. Upon returning home from Nepal, I endeavored to learn as much as possible about outdoor survival and long-distance hiking. Since then, I have logged countless trail hours and gotten certified in Wilderness First Aid and CPR.

What is the best trek that you’ve ever done?

I would say the best trekking I have ever done was when I was in the Drakensberg of South Africa. In 2017, I spent several months in the region doing nothing but hiking, and have to say it is one of the most enriching experiences that I have ever had. Aside from the sheer difficulty of hiking here (the Drakensberg poses some very unique challenges) the region is just gorgeous. Scenically, I don’t think there is anywhere else in the world quite like the Berg. 

What’s your fondest memory from a trip organized by Epic?

The group at the summit of Moses Peak in 2019.

My fondest memory has to come from back in 2019 when we summitted Moses Peak for the first time ever as a group on our Trekking Amongst Giants program. Although we had seven very fit and capable individuals with us on that trip, the thought of scrambling and bouldering hopping at over 5000 meters in the dark was a bit nerve-wracking for some. Some were questioning whether they would make it at all.

After 3-4 hours of climbing and a few hard-earned breaks, we managed to get every single individual to the top of Moses Peak. The weather was permitting and visibility was excellent; because of this, we could see K2 perfectly in the distance. People were of course stoked.

That night we feasted on the best lentils, rice, and curry of our lives and everyone shared their own personal experience. For me, it felt amazing to hear everyone talk about pushing themselves and achieving something they never thought possible before. To me, that’s what Epic Backpacker Tours is all about.

Can you tell us a funny story about a misadventure?

I once took shelter in a cave in the Drakensberg after an enormous thunderstorm developed. I had just topped out at a pass when it started dumping buckets on me; the flashes of lightning happening in my periphery were also a bit very concerning. 

So I quickly consulted my topo map and ran in the direction of a cave that I had already marked. When I arrived it was relatively dry – and by relatively I mean there was one somewhat flat, slightly-damp boulder just large enough to accommodate my tent. The rest of the cave was already flooded with a few inches of water. 

Even after a rough night of sleep though, it was all worthwhile in the morning. I exited the cave at sunrise and at that exact moment the clouds parted, revealing to me the first panoramic views of the Berg in all its glory.

Ralph was sorely missing his bag of spices during this sheep boil.

What is one piece of equipment that you never hit the trail without?

A bag of spices. I like to eat well (as best as possible) while trekking. Cumin, curry powder, chili flakes, and dried garlic or onion are a godsend. 

Luckily, I don’t have to worry so much about cooking when I have a dedicated cook team, as on the trek to K2 Base Camp. Those guys make better curry than I ever could, especially in the wilderness.

What is your favorite food while guiding?

Pretty hard to turn down a good bowl of lentils. But if I can find them, instant mashed potatoes and seared SPAM are my guilty trail pleasures. 

What is your favorite way to kill time? Either on the road or at camp.

Napping. Sleep isn’t always guaranteed while on the road or in the backcountry so I try to get a wink whenever I can safely. When I’m on an expedition, I’ll usually take a nap in the afternoon after I’ve set up camp or on a free day when there isn’t much else to do except relax. 

What do you think makes Epic Backpacker Tours special?

I believe that Epic Backpacker Tours really goes the extra mile to make sure there is a personal touch to every trip. 

For one thing, we insist on using a mix of both Western and local guides in order to create the most well-rounded team possible. Some tour operators will simply take guests’ money and fill places before passing them off to another company with very little interaction happening.

Also, we spend a lot of time actually speaking with people prior to trips starting. We want to make sure that everyone is as informed as possible and that they are ready for what lies ahead. It’s also a great way to get to know guests before the trip starts and to put a name to each other’s faces, which is often lost in the digital era.

How do you prepare for a big expedition or multi-day hike?

Ralph (third from right) hiking with friends in Madeira.

I make sure to stay in shape as best I can in the months/weeks/days leading up to a big hike. I started doing HIIT workouts during the pandemic and found them to be really satisfying, not to mention convenient. I now travel always with a workout mat and do a quick 30 to 45-minute workout whenever I can. I mostly use Freeletics for workout ideas but will make up my own WODs here and there.

What is the best piece of advice you can give someone who is planning on going on an expedition or adventure tour?

Expeditions and long-distance trekking always require a certain amount of physical conditioning as well as expertise in the backcountry. At the end of the day though, few things are as valuable as a good attitude and mental fortitude. Trekking is more of a mind game than it is an athletic pursuit, in my opinion, and the thing that often stops one from making it to the end is themself

Having control over your emotions and being aware of your body’s limits are extremely beneficial on the trail. Knowing when to quit because the danger is real is also equally important. If you’re not so sure about your skills, capabilities, or the lay of the land for that matter, having an experienced guide will be immensely helpful as they will assist you in unlocking all of the above.

TL;DR Be aware of yourself, persevere, and listen to your gut (or guide).

Is there somewhere or something that you are stoked to do in the future?

The Algerian Saharah has been on my list of places to visit for a very long time. The landscape there looks absolutely incredible and the potential for adventure tourism is totally untapped. Also, I’m looking for a good place to live out my Dune fantasies after seeing the most recent film version last year. Fear is the mind-killer.

Anything else you want to share before signing off?

The thought of doing something scary is often more intimidating than actually doing it. When researching a new place or experience that we might have concerns about, things can quickly become exaggerated in our minds, so much so that we start to hesitate. We’ve all “doomed scrolled” the internet for answers to anxieties and sometimes end up postponing our plans because of those anxieties. 

Of course, preparation is crucial – you need to make sure that you have all of the right equipment and are both mentally and physically prepared for what’s ahead, but don’t let fear of the unknown stop you. Just go for it. The unknown may seem frightening at first, but once you’ve crossed that threshold, it’s really not so bad once you’re there. In fact, it might be one of the most exciting things that you do.

Wrapping Up

There you have it! A little glimpse into the life of Epic Backpacker Tours’ very own COO, Ralph Cope.

If you’d like to spend some more time with Ralph or pick his brain a bit further, he is a regular guide on the following trips:

Want to ask Ralph your own question? Leave a comment below and he’ll be happy to answer!

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