I didn’t even realize I was going to be hiking in the Himalayas, which I acknowledge seems completely stupid. I knew I was going hiking for twenty plus days—and mountains would be involved—but I never put it all together. Between my poor planning for the trip, my lack of geography skills and my denial the trek was happening, I was shockingly ignorant about what I had agreed to do.
But there I was, in the Himalayan Mountains, doing the Annapurna Circuit. And once I was there, I couldn’t really go back. Not that I wanted to, but it meant I had to completely surrender to the circumstances. I was not in control. I was not prepared. I was not ready. But I was not turning around.
Early in the trek, I became aware that everyone was focused on one day, the day we would cross the Thorung La Pass. What that meant, I didn’t really know. But my fellow hikers knew. We had conversations about altitude sickness, mostly surrounding a particular headache, one that developed in the back of your head and could mean the signs of something dangerous developing. I never had a headache. Not one day. But I couldn’t breathe right. It started early in the trek, around Chame, 8,200 feet. I should’ve recognized it for what it was, altitude sickness, but I saw it as a sign that I was completely out of my depth and paying a price for it. I was being punished. Mostly for my ignorance, but also for a lifetime of bad choices.
I had days upon days to think about it. Because I couldn’t breathe well, I didn’t talk much, odd for people who know me. Instead, I hiked quietly to the soundtrack of my thoughts. I should work out more. I should eat better. I should go to bed earlier. I should address my mental frailties. I should listen closer. I should educate myself. I should be a better friend, wife, sister, daughter, partner, boss. I should admit I don’t know what I’m doing. I should know what I’m doing. Hours and hours, day upon day, alone in my head, hiking up mountains in silence and thinking about how my weaknesses has lead me to this moment. Failing. Ending each day by being grateful it was over and dreading how I would make it through the next, fortunate that the proof my life was a failure would only being witnessed by a few who would keep my secret.
We were getting higher, a day from taking the Pass. Conversations about the daily trekking plan took on a more serious tone. It was my worst day yet. My altitude sickness had been acknowledged two days prior at a makeshift clinic in Manag by a British volunteer who checked your blood oxygen level for a $1 donation. I was sick. But so was everyone else, in varying degrees. Yet they all seemed to be doing better than me. I felt outed for what had primarily been my internal suffering. My group had me on watch. I hated that more than anything. It was one thing to know I was failing privately, but now I felt publicly shamed, a weird feeling to have about people who love you and just want you to be well.
I had to be left behind that afternoon. The details are up for debate, but my group decided it was best I stay at the camp while they hike up to higher altitude to acclimate for the next day and come back down to join me by dinner. Honestly, I was grateful to be alone for a while. Really alone, not just alone in my head. Funny how you can feel alone in a group of people; I find myself there more often than I admit.
I didn’t know that a year and one month earlier, 39 people died crossing the Pass we were trekking the next day. Everyone else did. The camp had a nervous energy. I spent the afternoon with my new friend, Will, a Brit whose age we never determined, but was old enough to be cynical about corporate life and young enough to feel safe leaving it behind. We were joined by a Texan who’s entire life story I could give you—his age, retirement date, marriage history, and plans for his future—and we spent only a couple hours with him. He talked and talked as quickly as he could. Maybe he thought it would be the last time he would have to tell his story, but in the moment, I chalked it up to a particular white American arrogance exhibited by men of a certain age. We talked politics, particularly the Presidential primary. I was confident Trump wouldn’t be the nominee. Will wasn’t so sure. The Texan—well—he about everything, just ask him. My relaxing afternoon was a crush of new information from someone I didn’t want to meet and who I’ll never see again. It felt fitting.
My group returned, harried. It’s like they had seen our future and couldn’t bring themselves to speak of it. And they didn’t. They just asked how I was feeling and we went about our normal evening routine. Angie and Matt wrote in their books and Matt David, as he was now known, meticulously went through the hike map and guidebook. A man sitting across for us took notice of Matt David’s materials and introduced himself as the author. He asked us what our favorite parts had been so far and told us that the town we would be overnighting in after the Pass was his favorite, Muktinath. We were in for a treat. He did not talk about the Pass itself. He just told us that he had done the circuit many times, but now in his late sixties, he feared he didn’t have many more treks in him.
It was time for dinner. Our guide, Tek insisted we all eat garlic soup to guard against the altitude. We had eaten garlic soup a lot on the trek. A lot. I found having it with noodles to be a little more palatable, but only slightly. It was really starting to get cold. Everyone from the lodge was in the same room, but our body heat wasn’t enough to fight off the frigid mountain air sweeping through the thin walls. I’m certain the owner of the lodge—who we met briefly when he dined with the author—stopped throwing wood on the fire hours earlier, both to get us into our rooms and into bed and to conserve resources. Resources are in short supply at 14,764 feet.
After a final hand of Yaniv, we got our evening briefing from Tek. He told us we had to be up early. It was important to get as many miles under our belt as possible before the sun came up. We would be hiking in the dark, but the sun would bring a wind that would intensify the cold and make it that much slower. Hiking in darkness was preferred. We had to meet back at the lodge at 4am for breakfast and he asked for our order. It didn’t matter what we told him—we were all getting garlic soup.
Our room was in an annex across from the main lodge. The walk was short, but it was icy and so cold, it seemed to take forever to get there. And being from Wisconsin, I know cold. It was one of the worst moments of the trip and a sign of things to come. The Pass was the next day—and we knew it would be bad—but staying in Thorung Phedi another night seemed equally awful. We were motivated get going.
It’s hard to sleep when you’re cold and can’t breathe. My stomach was also doing flips—maybe from nerves—maybe from too many servings of garlic soup. We were awake before our alarm rang at 3:35am. The lodge was packed when we met for breakfast. It felt like no one had left from the night before. The mood was lightly more celebratory, an air of excitement replacing the nervous din. But I was shutting down. Tek sat by me with the one of the porters, Nabin. With Matt, they begged me to finish my soup. I couldn’t eat and we had to move. Trekkers, people who traveled from all parts of the globe knowing this day was part of the deal, were filing out and Tek was nervous it was getting late.
It was dark. I grew up in Northern Wisconsin and had a childhood of dark nights. I’ve seen stars no one has seen before. But that morning, I saw stars that will never be seen again and not much more.
Except for headlamps. We all had one. The lodge we stayed at was the primary source of accommodations before the Pass. There was one more town higher up the mountain you could stay at, High Camp, but sleeping was supposed to be even worse than in Thorung Phedi. There were maybe 150 trekkers leaving the lodge that morning, but as I looked around me, it seemed like there were a thousand headlamps in all directions. It was so dark, all you could see was one foot in front of you and headlamps reaching so high you couldn’t tell where their light ended and where the stars’ light began.
With every footstep, there would be a breath, and that’s too many breathes. I knew it, but it was my rhythm. One step, one breath. It was all I could do. One step, one breath. Careful to dodge icy patches, loose rocks, piles of horse and yak poop, all on a tiny trail that was no wider than your foot. One step, one breath. Follow the headlamps. Look back at those lights coming toward you. Look up at the lights that have been where you are and kept going. I was walking, and that’s all I had to do.
I was freezing by the time the sun came up. The wind was serious and I was wishing I could’ve eaten the soup. And my guiding lights were gone. The mountain was everywhere. It was overwhelming. I felt like we were getting nowhere and we had been hiking for hours. I was so cold; I couldn’t make myself drink my water. I was fading. Tek had sent Nabin to walk with me. I felt humiliated, but thankful.
We saw Will and his guide. He told me he was struggling, too. As much as I hate to admit it, I felt better knowing it wasn’t just me suffering.
And it truly wasn’t. There was a couple we saw periodically throughout the circuit. He was Polish and she was Spanish. They both spoke English, but I never talked to them. I didn’t really talk to anyone. They were everything I romanticized about being a hiker. They were gorgeous looking and seemed so free spirited. They looked like they could walk anywhere and had. Their packs were light, and they didn’t wear REI gear like we did. Instead they had a uniform fashioned from miles and miles of travels to forgotten places around the globe. Their matching faces had the same tan and weathered look to suggest they had been hiking their whole lives together. And the way they looked at each other—with such pride and accomplishment—you can’t imagine they ever loved anyone else.
He passed us. Alone. But he carried two packs. Angie asked about his girlfriend. She had talked to them numerous times. Unlike me, she talked to everyone. He told her she couldn’t make it. He was carrying her pack to the top of the Pass and would go back down and bring her up with him later.
And that’s the moment that changed the trip for me—and in some ways—my perspective on life. I finally understood that my struggles weren’t a sign I was being punished. I could’ve done all the things I was beating myself up about, and it might not have mattered. It was hard because it is hard. And sometimes that’s how life is, whether there is a reason for it or not, whether it makes sense or not. My mistake was thinking my life is about just about me. My life is just as much an extension of all the lights people have shined for me as it is the decisions I have made. We do not live this life alone, even if it feels that way sometimes. And my life impacts people in ways I might not know.
So turn your headlamp on. Be the light others need to see, the light above them and the light below. Your light might be enough to get someone you’ve never met to go a little further today and even further tomorrow. One step, one breath. Sometimes that’s all we can do, and sometimes that’s enough.