Walking Alone – Further Reflections on Nepal

I have to continually remind myself that when things don’t go as expected, I need to look at them through a different lens.  

When I was accepted for the Above + Beyond Cancer trek, I prepared myself for the role of caregiver. I expected to spend my days in the company of others, sometimes in companionable conversation, other times providing moral support, encouragement and/or a helping hand.  

And so it was for the first few days.  I spent one day with a trekker who fought nausea every step of the way. Another day, I hiked with a woman who, like me, found the going tough and had to stop frequently. 

By 12,000 feet, however, the reality of the thinning air destroyed any illusion of being a caregiver … I could barely get myself up the trail, let alone help someone else. Thereafter, I walked alone most of the time, in no small measure because I found it hard to walk and talk at the same time.  

As the days wore on, my fatigue increased. Occasionally, when putting one foot in front of the other was almost more than I could manage, I wished someone would volunteer to carry my pack or stay back to walk with me. Apart from the occasional Sherpa, no one did. I felt more and more disconnected from the group. 

And then, last week, back in Des Moines at a writing workshop for trekkers wishing to share their experience in written form, a woman who’d needed considerable help from time to time, revealed her hurt and annoyance when her walking mates went on ahead without her. But as we talked, it seemed clear her companions had assumed she was now able to manage just fine on her own. No slight had been intended.

Suddenly, the lens slipped into place. Yes, I had been tired, but I hadn’t ever really been sick. Yes, the climb was harder than anything I’d ever done, but manage it I did.  I wanted someone to make it easier for me, but no could do that.  In an environment where so many were so visibly sick, I couldn’t justify asking for help. And so I trudged on, walking alone.

How many times in life do we think we have been left to walk alone, when all we need to do is ask for help?

Reflections on Nepal: Letting Go

It seems I have to learn the same lesson again and again: that when things don’t go how you expect—when you are beset by a sense of failure—you need to take a deep breath and let it go.  Buddhists call it detachment.

I learned that lesson in my forties when I gave up the frenzied and utterly goal-oriented life of a Wall Street banker to sail around the world in a small boat. During the years on that boat, where the essentials of life—wind and weather—were completely out of my control, I developed a profound appreciation for living in the moment, for a life in which failure wasn’t even an option. 

But trekking in the Himalayas in September, I forgot everything I’d learned.  I expected a challenge.  Thin air. Unfamiliar foods. Primitive accommodations. But I’ve dealt with all those things many times before. I assumed my body would cope, so my eye and my spirit could be nurtured as I climbed through the spectacularly beautiful and remote Khumbu region of Nepal.

For a time, things went according to plan. I didn’t get altitude sickness.  My personal plumbing worked fine. I enjoyed the Tibetan dishes our Sherpas prepared, especially the curried vegetables. But one day, I realized I was bone tired in a way I’d never been before.  I hadn’t actually observed anything of my environment in days. 

Why? The rough and irregular trails that never allowed me to take my eye off where my foot would land?  My age, twenty years more than when I last set out on a physically arduous adventure?

Neither. The simple fact was that I’d succumbed to the goal of reaching 20,000 feet, much as I had once succumbed the Wall Street goal of making a lot of money. Now, at only 15,500 feet, I knew I’d allowed myself to be driven to the point of exhaustion by a goal that ultimately didn’t matter. 

That realization didn’t change my overwhelming sense of failure. 

When I finally acknowledged I couldn’t go on, several others in the group admitted it as well. We renegades headed down with a Sherpa, at our own pace. For the first time in ten days, I could reflect on the beauty of the snow-capped mountains towering over us, contemplate the magic of the mid-day clouds below us, honor the ancient tradition of walking clockwise around Buddhist stupas.  

Once I let go of a meaningless goal, my trek in the Himalayas became a magical journey. 

The kind of journey it should have been all along!

Reflections on Nepal – Life in a Tearoom

No one expected elegance on our ten-day trek to Imja Tse, a snow-capped peak in the shadow of Everest and Lhotse.  Even so, when I learned we’d be lodging in “tearooms,” I imagined cozy spots with country curtains and something deliciously sweet to nibble on.

That would not be a tearoom in the Himalayas.  Think instead of a hostel, with rooms warmed only by the breathing of the trekkers snuggled into sleeping bags.  

Our first night on the trail, our accommodations seemed primitive — a truly Spartan room, not much larger than 8×10, with two beds and a pedestal toilet that did not accept toilet paper.  But each room had a “private” bath with a warm-ish shower.  The common room, lovely and bright, looked out over the roaring Dudh Koshi River.

That soon came to seem the height of luxury.  In the following days, we often had to share “elephant ear” toilets, ranging from the relatively “modern” (a ground-level porcelain frame that accepted bodily waste and water, but never toilet paper!) to simple holes in the ground.  Some tearooms had no hot water and no showers, shared or otherwise.  When we got above the tree line, the common rooms were heated with fuel made out of dried yak-dung, causing your eyes and throat to burn.

But those common rooms were the central feature of our trek.  They all offered hot tea. They often offered a sunny spot with large windows that offered breath-taking views of the glacier-laden peaks.  A common room where we all gathered for breakfast and dinner.  A common room where we could loll, often on carpet-covered benches lining the walls, to swap to war stories and sing along with Justin and his guitar.  

In retrospect, those tearooms seemed quite cozy indeed!

Reflections on Nepal – The Journey or the Destination

Given my “cast-iron” stomach and typical adaptability to the unfamiliar, I was reasonably confident I’d be at least a satisfactory caregiver, as the Above + Beyond Cancer trekkers made their way to the 20,000 foot summit of Imja Tse.   

Things did not work out as planned.  Although I was one of the few who never got physically sick from either altitude or food, I could barely take care of myself, let alone have something left over for others. 

As we rose higher and higher up the mountain, it became more and more difficult to match my breathing to the rhythm of my legs.  Many days, I was one of the last to reach the teahouse where we’d spend the night. Often, I was too exhausted to eat dinner or to join in the recapping of the day’s sights and sounds.  By the time we’d reached Chukkung, our next to last stop at 15,500 feet, packing my sleeping bag in the morning was almost more than I could manage. 

And so, on the eve of the final push to the base camp on Imja Tse, I was forced to admit that I couldn’t achieve the climb that had been our goal from the first day.  Along with Kent and Brian, who’d also reached their AARP limit, I headed down the mountain as the rest of the group headed up. 

The three-day trip down was far from easy, but our Sherpa, Pasang, was a natural caregiver, and suggested we get horses to carry us up the worst of the uphill stretches. Being on horseback allowed us to observe the magnificent scenery and life in the mountain communities, in a way we could not do on the trek up, concentrating almost every moment on the often precarious footing.  

Only when we were sitting in a Starbuck’s knock-off at the bottom of the trail, musing on our unplanned adventure, did I understand that my journey had not ended when I turned back.  My journey was seeing as much of the Himalayas as I could manage, not simply reaching an arbitrary destination.