It was supposed to be a holiday, but the fog was heavy and the chill was sub-zero—not exactly my idea of a relaxing vacation. Four days into a Himalayan trek and I felt paralyzed, unable to take another step forward or turn back.
The spring storm made the snow wet and heavy. It was too misty to see, but the crashing sounds caught me off guard each time. Every few minutes: crack, rumble, crash—like thunder. Only it wasn’t thunder. It was the sound of avalanches tumbling into the vast gorge. What sort of stupidity had gotten me here?
It all started with frustration at how my husband and I take vacations. When it comes to travelling, there’s a lot of pressure. Those of us working 40-hour weeks (which we all know really means being connected 24/7) are able to take two, maybe three weeks off each year. And we’re taught to believe that’s OK.
Then there’s so much to pack into that week off: you have a few hours on the flight to switch from work to travel mode and, decompress. Then when you arrive at said sunny destination, you need a plan of attack. An agenda. And don’t even think about getting sick. Plus, you had better make the most of every sunny moment, because after a week, it’s back to snowy Canada!
Suddenly the idea of unstructured time exploring a new place seems as fleeting as the brochure you saw it on
Frustrated at returning from vacations more tired than I set out and with nothing but a bunch of ticked boxes on a list to show for it, I decided to do something different. I wanted to get to the bottom of why I travel. I wanted purpose. I wanted to find some fulfillment.
And so here we were. On the edge of a cliff mid-trek amidst snow and sleet. I thought about that so-called prescribed vacation that I had mentally turned down. The sunshine. The agenda. It suddenly seemed so attractive; so easy. Why had I changed course?
My husband and I had arrived in Kathmandu, Nepal by bus from India. After an overwhelming month on the sub-continent, we needed a break, and somehow a 16-hour bus ride to Kathmandu seemed appropriate. We clearly had no idea what Nepal would hold for us. But, we were sticking to the rules of the trip: no prepping, no planning, no pre-booking.
We quickly realized that when you come to Nepal you come to trek. By day two we were ready to start the 10-day Annapurna Base Camp trek. Map in hand, pack on back, we looked and felt like seasoned trekkers. We weren’t.
Seven hours of walking on day one was a jarring reminder that we were merely first-world city plebs with cool hiking shoes. We had the idea that “we can do anything”- including conquer an 8091m (26,555ft) high mountain.
Much like the Himalayas themselves, travelling like this has its ups and downs. And like a tall peak next to a deep valley, I learned that the highlights become elevated when they are perched next to low moments—of which there were many.
Taking refuge from a thunder storm in what must have been no more than a 10-person “village” was a definite low point. But, when contrasted to the warm hospitality we received, followed by a steaming hot traditional Nepali meal of rice and dhal, suddenly the evening became memorable.
I woke up to clear skies on day three, and I was awarded with my first unforgettable glimpse of the Himalayan peak known as Fish Tail Mountain.
Early mornings also afforded me the opportunity to watch porters (known as Sherpas) scuttling through the village loaded with supplies as they made use of empty paths and clear skies. Porters carry an average of 80kgs on their backs. These packages are delivered to the remote mountain villages the trek leads you through. With no road or easy way to communicate, walking through these villages is like going back in time, but with a dream-like quality of being unable to grasp where in the world you are.
At about 3000m the effects of altitude began to set in. Three steps felt like a mile. Out of breath and dizzy, I was slouched on the edge of a mountain not even trying to fight back the tears. I only realized afterwards that ‘mood disturbances’ are also a side effect of altitude, which explains why it felt like I had permanent PMS throughout the trek.
That and (no one warns you about this one) the constant need to pee! Scurrying from an unheated “tea house” (trekking huts run by locals) to an unheated outhouse every four minutes wasn’t exactly my idea of relaxing in a mountain village, but the garlic soup I ate to combat the elevation was worth the annoyance.
My endeavour to re-examine my purpose for travelling was an unpredictable experience. But those unpredictable moments were the ones that often surprised me the most.
One night at about 2300m, our ears picked up the sounds of chanting. Wandering through the village, we found locals dancing arm in arm as children sang. We were warmly greeted and given flower necklaces to celebrate New Year’s. In following with the Nepali calendar, the year had just turned 2072. We danced on the mountainside with the Nepalese people - one of those ‘this is it’ moments when I was glad we decided to go off the beaten path.
Sometimes hindsight is the clearest, because only after my trek did I see that out of challenge came reward. Out of frustration came relief. And out of unpredictability came the opportunity to be pleasantly surprised.
Avalanches aside, we made it to our second-last camp in one piece. At -5 degrees, and somewhere between 3300m and 4000m high, we huddled with about 20 other trekkers in a tea house watching a storm come in. Lots of garlic soup was consumed that day, and much Scrabble was played. That evening, three feet of snow landed on the ground - yet the next day we were supposed to reach Basecamp. I wasn’t convinced.
The snow had hampered my spirit. My certainty of getting to the ‘summit’ was about as strong as the possibility of my frosty socks drying. (The socks never dried.)
We woke at 3am the next morning to check the sky. For the most part it was clear. ‘Good enough,’ some self-appointed expert trekker had declared. And as if his orders mobilized an army, our small group swung into action to get to Basecamp.
Trudging through snowy twilight, it was a stark comparison to the day before when sharp winds whipped against my jacket and sleet lashed my face as we darted across avalanche trails with our hearts hammering. Other than the crunch of our feet on untouched snow, it was silent. It was as if the mountain was holding its breath.
I’m not a seasoned trekker, or someone who’s ever dreamed about climbing mountains, so I really had no idea what I would feel upon reaching those colourful Nepali prayer flags—the indication that you’ve made it to the summit. At that point, to be honest, I was ready to go to bed.
But then it happened. Standing at the flags with all my new trekking buddies, who were snapping pictures and high fiving, I stopped for a moment to look back. Behind me were the tallest peaks in the world, and I had just trekked six days to stand in their presence. What I felt was unexpected, unplanned and deep personal joy. Contrasted with my wet feet, achy back, swollen knees and foggy brain, the moment was elevated to the single greatest feeling in the world.
Somewhere between a sense of accomplishment and discovery I hit the core of why I travel. I travel to feel alive, to reconnect with myself and the world around me. But this was only possible with little bit of challenge.
By Chelsea MacLachlan