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The tallest mountain in the world is also a treasure trove of life lessons. Here’s an account of a trek to Mount Everest, and a fortnight in Khumbu, that changed how I see my life.
This post is a part of #TripOfMyLife, an exciting new travel series at Women’s Web, where women write about the trip that impacted their life most significantly.
“So have you trekked in the Himalayas before?” asked our guide, when I met him for the first time in Kathmandu. “No, not in the Himalayas, but I have done some two-day treks in the south of India,” I replied sheepishly. “Good, good. So nothing in very cold, very long?” he further pursued, to my dismay. “No. No. Nothing like here,” I said, my voice barely audible. “It’s okay. It’s okay,” he said smilingly. Now, I wondered : was it really okay?
When I was excitedly making our list of “must see” places, Everest Base Camp (EBC), Nepal figured as one of the places in Asia. At that time, I had not given much thought about the logistics or the difficulty level of this trek. Little did I know that it was a 15-17 day trek with a medium-hard difficulty level. When we (my best friend/husband and me) realized we have limited time and budget on our hands, the EBC trek slowly made it to the top of our wish list.
As though to validate our decision, we got a gift – Guide To Trekking In Nepal, a book by Stephen Bezruchka. This is when I started framing a mental picture of the places in Nepal, which was till then so obscure and inaccessible, only represented by words like Mt. Everest, Tenzing Norgay, and Edmund Hillary, which were so firmly etched in my memory by ever-persistent geography teachers.
It was my long-cherished dream to witness the tallest peak in the world. Mt. Everest stood there amongst several other peaks vying for the first place, lifting its head majestically above them all. Initially, the first human instinct – it must be conquered – did cross my mind. But the little voice inside was urging me not to.
A King deserves respect; we should be going there to show our respect by spreading our arms, kneeling down, and prostrating before Him. According to both of us, climbing mountains to demonstrate strength, to show we are better than them, was not our way of experiencing the Himalayas. It was important for us to feel a sense of gratitude towards these magnificent creations of nature, for they have been forgiving.
Climbing mountains to demonstrate strength, to show we are better than them, was not our way of experiencing the Himalayas. It was important for us to feel a sense of gratitude towards these magnificent creations of nature, for they have been forgiving.
Initially, the trek was only a means to reach my goal of seeing the Himalayan Emperor up close. Only after we embarked on this journey did I realize that it had nothing to do with the visuals, it stirred something more; deep within.
Lukla was to be the starting point of our trek to the Everest Base Camp. It is a small town situated in the Khumbu region of the Himalayas. The Khumbu region lies within the Solukhumbu district in Nepal towards the Northeast. Some of the world’s tallest peaks are situated in this region, including Mt. Everest. We decided to fly to Lukla from Kathmandu in a small dornier aircraft.
It was one crazy decision to fly on this plane, due to its notorious landing strip situated at the edge of a cliff. We had contemplated it numerous times and finally decided to go for it. If we landed safely, we could be one of the few privileged ones to have taken this up, and would have a very interesting story to tell. If we did not make it, we would become part of the statistics. We took our seats and held our breath. The take-off was smooth. Soon, we were flying over lush green valleys, flowing rivers, and after a while, at a distance, we could spot the snow-capped mountains.
I squinted my eyes to see a thin strip of asphalt, the size of a little finger, precariously hanging at the edge of the cliff. Before I could think how the aircraft would land, we started descending.
“There is the landing strip!” someone shouted. I squinted my eyes to see a thin strip of asphalt, the size of a little finger, precariously hanging at the edge of the cliff. Before I could think how the aircraft would land, we started descending. Would the aircraft align itself exactly to the thin strip? I held my breath in anticipation, it was almost unbelievable. But the pilot managed a perfect landing, and everyone in the plane gave out a loud cheer.
The trek itself took us through some of the most beautiful landscapes; we were days away from our destination but we had already realized the magnanimity of the landscape. The mountains were so large that it would take us days to go around and cross over into another. We would often realize that at the end of a day’s walk (about 4-5 hours of trek) we would have gone around only half a hill. We were aware of only Mt. Everest, but we realized there were several mountains that were nearly as high and equally beautiful and intimidating at the same time.
On the second day of our trek, we reached a place called Topdhara where we got a picture-perfect view of Mt. Everest. This image I saw will remain etched crisp in my mind; it was the first time I was seeing Mt. Everest. Thus far, I had only seen pictures of the tallest peak in the world, had heard only statistics. It looked intimidating, with its menacing peak towering high over all other mountains in the vicinity, guarded fiercely by Nuptse and Lhotse, whose edges cover most of Mt. Everest.
I had expected it to stand alone, in the middle of a plain, suddenly rising towards the sky. But there were several others surrounding, it was like an entire army dressed in white, standing guard. And there can only be one King, and he was well protected by an impenetrable fort.
The trekking got progressively tougher and it started taking a toll on my body. The physical effects were noticed at first – heavy breathing, difficulty in climbing, slower pace, tiredness, the need to rest more often. The psychological effects were more dramatic, and took time for me to identify.
We were warned about the symptoms of AMS (Acute Mountain Sickness) which is commonly noticed among trekkers in this region. The tolerance levels of individuals could vary, so some might be hit at a lower altitude whereas others might be hit at a higher altitude. People living in higher altitudes might be better at handling AMS than people from the plains.
For me, it started with extreme tiredness, thirst, and a splitting headache while we were on the fourth day of our trek on the way to Dole from Phortse Tanga. The headache got worse and I had to take tablets, but it wouldn’t go away. I lost my appetite, so I could not eat much. Since I had not experienced AMS before, it was from theoretical knowledge from my reading that I could gather that I had been hit by AMS. We decided to change our plans and stay an extra day at Dole to see if the symptoms subsided.
The next day, without much improvement, our guide suggested that we descend to Phortse Tanga and change our route. Our plans to climb further up to see the beautiful lakes of Gokyo just vapourized in a moment. It was hard for me to believe at first that we would not reach Gokyo. I had read so much about these lakes and had been keen on squeezing this in our itinerary. We had limited time and budgets, and the greed to see more in the given time drove us to have a grand itinerary.
When I sat there in Dole, far away from home, with extreme cold winds gnawing at my fingertips and with a heavy head, it did not seem very hard to make the decision to descend. At that point, all I wanted was to feel a little better and the effect of the descent was almost dramatic. As soon as we descended, I started feeling better, my headache was gone and I even felt hungry.
This whole episode taught me one great lesson – to never underestimate the power of nature’s forces.
This whole episode taught me one great lesson – to never underestimate the power of nature’s forces. All my ambitions and ego came crumbling down, and I became even more submissive towards the sublime force. I could now look at myself in a mirror and laugh; laugh at the greed I had in packing as many places as possible into our three-week vacation, without considering our mortal capacities; laugh at the way I got carried away by the impressive and tempting itinerary that our tour guides presented according to my wishes; laugh at myself drinking garlic soup religiously thinking it would help me overcome the symptoms of AMS!
We decided to let go of all our plans, throw away the itinerary, and lose control of our lives. Here started the spiritual part of our journey that would change us as people, and would empower us to trivialize the urge to reach our destination. This change in us would just let us enjoy every moment of our existence in this beautiful place, and thank nature for letting us be amidst her most precious creations.
The headaches stayed with me for the next few days. But now the psychological effects were more pronounced. A deep sorrow, hallucinations of grasslands and home started haunting me often, along with a strong feeling of being homesick and a sense of indifference or aversion to most activities. By the time we reached Gorakshep, which is the older base camp (we had already crossed the 5000m mark with this), both of us could only manage to ingest a couple of spoonfuls of soup.
The views got more and more breathtaking, the landscape changing dramatically from a dull brown to an icy white. We saw the Khumbu Ice fall, a large glacier that runs all the way separating the base camp from the rest of the path to the summit. This Ice fall is one of the most difficult stages in the Mt. Everest expedition, with many people failing to cross it successfully.
It looked fascinating, from a distance, of course. But people who crossed would have seen the deep crevices up close, and would have a different view altogether. But our journey would end here at the base camp. For people who would go all the way to the summit, it would be but a small milestone in their much larger and more arduous expedition.
Ironically, the base camp, although would bring us close to Everest, it would also cut us away from the beautiful views of the peak that we had so eagerly sought. The peak gets completely covered by the strong and protective twins Nuptse and Lhotse. We knew that it is there somewhere beyond, but we could not see it! It was an awkward moment for our guide-porter duo (Lakhpa and Dorje) as well. They just threw their bags and sat down on a rock, not saying anything, just looking away.
And we looked at each other and smiled; this was where our trip ended. No exhiliration, no high-fives, no taking photos against the peak in the background. It was a poignant moment, we just sat there in silence for a few minutes, till our condition forced us to turnaround and start our return journey. But I was far from being disappointed, my mind was completely at peace. I was overcome by a sense of humility and respect towards these mountains. I just sat there and thanked them for allowing us amidst their territory and letting us step into their magical world, at least for a few days.
I was overcome by a sense of humility and respect towards these mountains. I just sat there and thanked them for allowing us amidst their territory and letting us step into their magical world, at least for a few days.
There are several blessings in our life that we take for granted. We tend to complain about trival discomforts like a bus coming late, traffic jams, power cuts, and inadequate TV channels! But we conveniently assume that we have a fundamental right over creature comforts, and so easily take for granted what is made available to us mostly due to the fact that we were born in a certain place at a certain time.
In the mountains, we saw people smilingly endure such harsh conditions of living – extreme cold, freezing water to wash clothes, no electricity, firewood stoves that take time to light up, unavailability of fresh vegetables, unavailability of a variety of food stuff. I was humbled to see the womenfolk working tirelessly from early morning, and resting only after sundown with a hot water bath, the only luxury that they allow themselves in a day.
Sonam, one of the cheerful ladies we met at a lodge in Namche Bazar, was excited to know we were from India; she loved Indian cinema. On the outside she looked like an effervescent lady who sits and watches TV, with no worries. But as we spoke to her, she opened up and told us about the cold that she has to endure here. She fondly remembers her childhood that was spent in the plains, in much warmer and comfortable surroundings.
Dhona, another lady we met at Khumjung, was keen to speak to me and know about life of women in the cities; how we lived, where we worked. She had accepted her life and did not feel like she had to change anything, she was just curious to know how the world outside the mountains was.
It was so cold that it took great effort even to have a shower, which we so often forego in the city due to laziness, even with hot water readily flowing from the taps. Back in the mountains, getting a bath ready was a two-hour project and even the thought of slipping out of the comfort of the thermals was intimidating. After I came back, I made it a point to never say no to a nice hot bath!
What is spiritual? Is it spreading a mat in front of the mountain and meditating? Is it visiting an ancient monastery and praying to the lamas? Is it thinking of God in every step of our journey?
People go to the Himalayas seeking a spiritual experience. What is spiritual? Is it spreading a mat in front of the mountain and meditating? Is it visiting an ancient monastery and praying to the lamas? Is it thinking of God in every step of our journey? Is it standing at the foothills of a huge mountain and experiencing humbleness? I was not sure. While we were walking, we had to exert our bodies to great limits. We had to push it beyond our normal physical abilities and cajole it to move at great altitudes.
With all my senses concentrated towards trekking, I had little chance for serious, complex thoughts like “what is the meaning of life?” or “What is the purpose of our existence?” My mind was clear of any deep thoughts. It had the tranquility of a five- year old. This childlike state of mind in which I went about walking, tripping on small stones, astonished at huge boulders, trotting alongside our guide without worrying about the route, the weather or place to stay, was what gave me peace of mind. This banished any traces of doubt or fear in my mind, and retrenched the mind to way back into my childhood where I was carefree and fearless. And to me, this was spiritual.
This was an inexplicable state of mind that I longed to be in even after we returned from our trek. The feeling that made me leave behind all thoughts of family, work, environment, world behind, and pulled me from all the human flavours of envy, jealousy, sorrow, and joy to a state of stillness and calm – this was what I missed the most once I was back to civilization.
We leave our footprints, sounds, and smell in a place we visit that changes it in a certain way; But what the place leaves us with, the way it touches us can sometimes change us completely, like we have never imagined before.
Pic credit: Image of the Himalayas in Nepal, via Shutterstock.
This story was first published here.
Sharada was born in 1982 and has majored in Applied Science and Technology from Bangalore.
Sharada, what a coincidence that I just finished reading The epic of Mt.Everest by Francis Younghusband to read your piece the next day. Loved reading this. The sense of submission to nature’s larger forces, beyond anything we can imagine or prepare for, was beautiful. Thank you for sharing!
Thank you Aparna. Glad to know you loved reading it as much as I enjoyed writing about our experiences. We were constantly reminded that nature is very powerful, it can be most beautiful but can kill you if it wishes; the fact that it allowed us to survive amidst its wonderful creations was in itself the most humbling experience.
Beautiful, sensitive writing. As you have realized, journeys into Himalayas are journeys into oneself. Only few can travel both ways simultaneously.
Thank you for your kind words, Mr. Balan. Without consciously seeking, our seemingly adventurous trek turned out to be a beautiful internal journey to the depths of our beings.
Hey Sharada. Read your Khumbhu adventure in kindle. Admire your grit and determination. You have overcome extreme physical pain to experience the exhileration of himlayas. I am plannning to take the EBC trek solo in Nov 1st week. Your book is very helpful. Keep writing such wonderful travel adventures. Venky
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