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  • I collapsed again. I’d lost count of how many times now.

    The journey from Yak Kharka to Throng Pedi was supposed to be a 3 hour day, and a 400 meter gain. Since leaving Manag, our days were limited to 4 hours of trekking, but considered a significant gain in altitude each day. When we arrived in Throng Pedi, however, we found that there were no lodges available. Two large french groups (that is to say, two groups with a lot of people) had reserved everything in the tiny village. So we were forced to keep going to high camp - another 400 meters up. The trail snaked up the face of a 40 degree incline the whole way, which began at 4,400 meters, passing through a segment of loose gravel where signs indicated it a ‘Landslide Area.’

    Adding on a surprise 400 meters at what is supposed to be the end of the day would normally be a fine challenge for me. I like to finish strong. But past 4,000 meters, it doesn’t matter how physically fit you are - the thinning air presents more than just the challenge of breathing evenly and deeply. My head is weightless on my shoulders and my equilibrium is like a seesaw in the wind. My skin pulses from being pelted by wind and the intense, direct sun. My extremities shuffle like I’m wading through water. And mentally, I know it’s all normal, which somehow makes it worse.

    The putt putt of a helicopter echoed of the mountains on either side of me. I plopped down on the trail and watched as it glided by beneath me. At this point, I was seeing them every few hours. All of them were carrying people who ascended too quickly. It was always an appropriate moment to pause; a gentle, distant reminder to everyone on the trail to take it slow.

    Raj had gone ahead of me and Lal. I hadn’t seen him for about 40 minutes. To think that he was the one of us who is carrying the most weight, I was a little ashamed when he reappeared from over the crest of the hill and started working his way toward me. He put out his cigarette, held out his hand and simply said:

    “Bag.”

    It wasn’t really a question. And I wasn’t really in much of a mood to fight. A part of me wanted to struggle to the top of my own accord; if I was going to do the trek, I was going to carry at least my own bag the whole way. But the sound of the helicopter still hadn’t entirely faded away, and I knew I had to think about the bigger picture. So I handed over my bag and got to my feet.

    It’s been almost three months to the day since I’ve been back to the comforts of home. It took me about four days to readjust to this world. And about two months to regain the 17 pounds that I lost. Looking back on it, four weeks in Nepal is actually something I can refer to as a specific time in my life. It was a time that I didn’t worry about things like going to work, which dictates the majority of my time in a day; a week; a month; a year. But not my life. I’ve found it to be clarifying how the series of things that happen to me, or the things that I’ve done sort of latch on to how I look at things presently. Like everything has more to it.

    Priorities change. Time expands. My breath steadies. And more frequently I find myself frozen in the middle of what I’m doing, thinking of my life on the mountain.

    High camp was the experience that I imagined it would be. It was just two long structures of rooms, with a third structure for a kitchen and dining hall - all sitting tucked in a petite valley at the base of the final climb to the Throng-La Pass. A thing layer of snow covered the area. The view overlooked the Annapurna range from a short climb to a natural looking point atop a steep hill behind the lodge, where an assortment of stone cairns were stacked high. I stayed up there for the better part of an hour watching storm clouds swell around Annapurna. When they finally broke through, I headed back down to camp, where I watched the snowstorm from the shelter of my room.

    Something warm filled me as I watched the snow. There was a kind of quiet that settled in, both outside my room, as well as in my head. The lodge was no more than 4 walls and a roof. There is no insulation or heating. The windows and doors were all poorly sealed, so when the wind blew, it snowed in my room. By bedtime, I had a small drift in front of the door. A part of what filled me that night was fear of the unknown - I didn’t know what to expect with tomorrows final haul up the remaining 600 meters and through the pass. But mostly immediately for me, it was a period of fulfillment - the culmination of plans that had been more than a year in the making.

    I slept with my camera, laptop, water bottle, go pro and my phone in my sleeping bag so they wouldn’t freeze.

    The following morning, we rose at 4AM for breakfast. Within an hour, I was stepping back onto trail.

    “All set?” said Lal, who had been pacing or 45 minutes.
    “Let’s do this,” I said, really cooly (no pun).

    I took one step, slipped on ice and stumbled to the ground in the dark.

    A promising start.

    We were so incredibly close to the top that everyone could feel it. You could see the excitement radiating off the dozens of people making the early morning climb. But every step was a heel to toe shuffle. I only had enough energy to use one trekking pole, the other was secured to my bag. I matched pace with a group of four younger people who were all struggling and making the same noises as me. We teamed up in our agony, encouraging one another all the way to the top. After an hour, the sun rolled over the mountains and the morning fog dissipated, revealed the drifts of snow all around us. Snowy peaks snuck out from around bends in the snow, looking at us in surprise. Adrenaline coursed through me as I thought back on all the steps I’d taken that led me to this place in the clouds.

    It was the final climb. We were in the world of snow that I had seen atop the highest, most distant mountains. I thought of my first day, leaving Besishahar, seeing the snow covered mountains for the first time. I remember the excitement that jolted through me. Now, we were on the shoulders of those giants.

    Slowly the incline became more gradual. The path no longer wove through peaks and walls of rock, but rather rounded drifts and mounds. We heard it before we saw it. Around a bend in the path, the sound of cheering and shouting became clear. We weren’t the first ones there, but the path finally straightened out in front of us.

    Blue, green, white, red and yellow prayer flags were tied in a web around a wooden sign that read ‘Throng La Pass - 5,416 meters/17,765 feet’. Somehow, the air was more forgiving here, at the paths’ highest point. I took a deep breath, and it ran all the way through my chest, down past my stomach, splitting in two and piercing my feet. My legs stopped shaking and somehow I was more rooted than ever before, frozen in place.

    If it were a video game, I would have leveled up.

    We stayed as long as we could. But in another hour, the daily high winds would reclaim the pass, making it unsafe. So after a brief snowball fight and many photos with the new friends I’d made on the climb up, we made the brutal, controlled fall down the opposite side of the pass.

    Within an hour, we’d descended about 1,500 meters onto the sandy bed of a dried river. Waves of heat greeted us and we peeled off all the layers of sweaters, gloves and thermal wear that kept us warm on the mountain. Desert winds whipped our faces and forced us to pull out handkerchiefs so that we could breathe in minimal sand. Looking over our shoulder at the mountain we’d come down from, cumulonimbus clouds swirled through the pass. Where we’d stood only an hour ago was now an entirely abandoned wasteland claimed by high winds and snow.

    It was another four hours to Muktinath, where we claimed a newly built lodge with a full sized bed and an attached shower. Winds shot through the main street of the village, forcing most trekkers inside for the remainder of the day to avoid the storm of sand. It wasn’t often that I took joy out of containing myself to my room because I didn’t have anywhere else to go. I stayed in voluntarily, exhausted from the twelve hour trek, but never more satisfied.

    I left a part of myself up there. It was as much an even exchange as I could manage.

    The remaining week of the trek was spent primarily in a bit of a daze. For me, it was more of an epilogue to the circuit - two more days of wind, sand and fierce sunburn overpowered by low altitude views back up at the white capped himalayas. Passing through dried riverbeds and welcoming in the reappearance of vegetation. Eating lunches at the cliff edges of places that barely qualified as villages, they were so remote. All the while, the mountains kept their eyes on us from all sides.

    When finally we arrived in Tatopani, famous for its natural hot springs, the first two faces I saw were my card-playing friends from Chame. Only two of the six had made it this far, the other four had unfortunately been helicoptered to Pokhara because of altitude sickness. The past several days, it became unnerving to see all the familiar faces of groups I’d met along the way, many of which had greatly reduced in numbers. Not many had made it through the pass.

    I was invited to share a lodge with my friends from Chame, where the first working wifi I had in days told me that I was in the same village as Anne and her son Paul, my family from Australia who I wasn’t supposed to meet up with until Pokhara. I wandered through the village shouting their names, until I found them eating dinner at their lodge.

    That day, I bathed in the natural hot springs. I rejoined with old friends in the most remote of places. And I celebrated Passover with new friends I’d met on my journey. Thinking about it now, I can still feel that warmth.

    In the morning, I said goodbye to my new friends, and ‘See you soon,’ to Anne and Paul, who would head for Pokhara that day. I would meet them there in 3 days time, where we would relax by the lakeside, shop for souvenirs for our families, and experience an entirely different side of Nepal. I was most looking forward to some time spent standing still with familiar faces.

    From Tatopani, I made my way up and down the many stone steps to Ghorepani and Poon Hill that day, back into warmer climates (and unfortunately, the return of giant insects, which I had still not learned to accept). And finally, the last full day of trekking to Birethanti - a larger village that flanked a rapidly flowing river.

    My lodge was too hot to stay in, and I wasn’t very tired. So I decided to wander around the village until the dust became too much. Then, I went down to the river as the sun began to set and the whole place glowed orange above the deep green jungle all around.

    As I wandered along the side of the river, I couldn’t help but think:

    What comes after you’ve achieved a dream?

    What comes after you’ve set your goals, made your sacrifices, stepped out the front door and accomplished what you set out to do? What do you do after you’ve climbed the mountain?

    I’m an ambitious person, but all that means is that I’m the first person to know that it isn’t easy to have a dream. Any dream. They are difficult to achieve; they aren’t always clear from the beginning. They take a lot of time. They can be expensive. They make the people close to you worry. They come with great tests in self reflection and judgement. They are never familiar. They sometimes require an extra 400 meter gain at what you thought was the end of the day. They are almost always guaranteed to force you to do something you’ve never done before. They can take your breath away.

    They should take your breath away.

    Anne, Paul and I shared a car from Pokhara back to Kathmandu, after our flights were cancelled due to weather. One miserable, 9 hour car ride later, we arrived back at the Tibet Guesthouse, where our journeys began. Silently we ate dinner, trying not to insult the vertigo our stomachs had endured on the car ride. Being back in that lodge was strange: it felt like it had been a long time since we'd all been there last. But perhaps it wasn't time that was the reason it felt like so long ago.

    The next morning, I saw Anne and Paul to their taxi, which would take them back to Melbourne. After they left, I had several hours to say goodbye to Kathmandu, and the rest of Nepal before I would be taken to the airport, where I would begin my 37 hour trip back home. I could think of no better way to say goodbye than to climb the labyrinth of stairs to the top of the Tibet Guesthouse, and watch the day go by over the city.

    I did it.

    I followed one dream across the world.

    And it followed me back home, right through the front door.
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