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Hiking the Peaks and Valleys of Life

Ten Days of Peaks and Valleys on the Annapurna Basecamp Hike (ABC) in Nepal

Have you ever wanted an adventure but realized you may have signed up for more than you were mentally prepared for?

In June of 2004, I moved to Alaska for the summer to do some volunteer work for Americorps. In the interview, they asked if I had ever gone camping for long periods of time and I thought that sleeping in a RV camper counted. Little did I know that sleeping in a tent for nearly 3 months straight, in the backcountry of Alaska, with only freezing cold waterfalls for showers and the constant reminder that you were in the middle of bear country, was very different than pulling into a RV camper park and plugging into the amenities. While you are going through an experience such as this, you never realize the level of impact that it will have on you because lessons of endurance, grit, and perseverance can only be revealed in retrospect. Experiences quickly become building blocks for other experiences and the trials of Alaska led to so many more. 

Fast-forward 10 years later. I landed in the Katmandu Airport with a backpack ready to take on the Annapurna Base Camp Hike (ABC), which was an idea in the making for two years prior. Nature has an amazing way of humbling you in your weakest moments and creating beauty out of ashes. 

“The Journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.” Lao Tzu

Day 1 Lesson on ABC: Take the Long Way Around

The Annapurna Basecamp (ABC) hike starts and ends in Birethanti, which is around an 8 ½ hour journey by bus from Katmandu, along a narrow winding road carved out along the mountainside. Once at Birethanti, there are two main ways to reach ABC. The shorter route to the right, which is around four days, and the long route to the left, which is typically between eight to eleven days. We soon learned that the majority of the people that we met along the way that had altitude sickness, were the ones that took the shorter path to reach ABC. They wanted the views but either didn’t have the time, the energy or the desire to take the longer way. However, by choosing the shorter route, some of them climbed up too fast, without allowing their bodies time to adjust to the pressures of gravity. 

Walter Mischel’s Marshmallow Experiment from 1972 explored the concept of delayed gratification and willpower in children and how it impacted them later on as adults.

  •  Which kid would you be?  
  • Would you eat the first marshmallow or wait for the second one?
  • If you chose to wait, what would you do to keep your mind occupied?
  • What marshmallows are you working towards in your life right now? 

Take the longest way to your destination and learn all that you can.

Day 2 Lesson: Reach Out When You are Tired

Along the ABC trail, we met a little nine-year-old girl walking with her six-year-old sister to school. The older girl desperately wanted to keep up with us, so she tried to drag her sister by the hand to keep up with our hiking pace. I heard the little girl crying because her short legs couldn’t climb the mountain that fast, so I reached out my hand. The little girl freely took my hand and we pulled her up the mountain until she reached the location of their mountain school.

The little six-year-old girl had no reservations in accepting help because she knew her limitations. As a result of her reaching out, her older sister was also able to benefit from it because she could then ensure that her younger sister got to the top of the mountain, while at the same time entertaining her own curiosity about the foreign hikers that showed up that morning along the trail.

When you are tired, reach out for a hand to help you get to the top of the mountain you are climbing. 

Day 3 Lesson: The Difficulty Level of the Task is Determined by the Mindset of the Individual

On the Third Day, we arrived at Ghorepani, which is a small camp at the base of Poon Hill. After hiking for 6 hours, we decided to drop the bags in the guesthouse and continue hiking up to the top of Poon Hill, just in time for the sunset. We didn’t know this at the time, but this hike was our guide’s little altitude and mindset test for us. Poon Hill was 3210 meters, and it was the second highest peak on the climb, next to Annapurna Basecamp (4131meters). We were still early on in our 10-day journey but this hike gave our guide insight into our ability to continue to hike uphill, while already in a state of exhaustion. For over 20 years our guide had helped thousands of people get to the top of Mount Everest Base Camp (BC) and Annapurna Base Camp (ABC). He knew the points that usually break people and used these little checkpoints to determine the likelihood that the hikers would make it the whole journey or if they would need to be airlifted out by a rescue helicopter.

In Viktor E Frankl’s book Man’s Search For Meaning, he shares his life and death struggle while in a Nazi Concentration Camp. If a survivor of such inhumane conditions can create the powerful words found in his story, then it should empower us to do the same in less than ideal situations.

“Everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms—to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.” ― Viktor E. Frankl

The difficulty level of the task is determined by the mindset of the Individual in that particular moment. 

Day 4 Lesson: It Pays to go Against the Crowd 

Most people arrive at Ghorepani in the evening and are too tired to climb up to Poon Hill for the sunset so instead, they do it for the sunrise on day 4. Since we climbed up for the sunset at Poon Hill on day 3, we were open to heading to a less crowded destination to watch the sunrise at Gureng Hill. We were the only ones on top of Gureng Hill at sunrise and this provided us with 360 degrees of picturesque views and solitude. 

Some of the best views are away from the crowds.

Day 5 Lesson: Time Stretches When You are in the Zone

By Day 5 we had our hiking routines down and were immersed entirely in the process of the hike. We also learned that instead of asking how many more minutes, we started to ask how many more hours. The trek took us from sunrise to sunset but time seemed to stretch while in the mountains.

Time stretches when you are in the zone.

Day 6 Lesson: When You are Slipping on Ice, Slow Down and Look Around 

Up until day 5, we were hiking in the sunshine and along open ridges. Day five’s hike would take us through the shaded woods and along incredibly steep icy trails. The need to use hiking poles became very apparent, along with the need to slow down and concentrate on every step that we took.

Slow down and take in the views around you. 

Day 7 Lesson: Changing your Perspective Changes the Views

Most days had a good mix of ups and downs so it was easy to catch your breath and forget about how hard the “up” was as you were running “down” laughing. Day 7 was different. It was where the real test took place for me. Every night after dinner, our guide would brief us on what to expect for the next day’s hike. However, this night was a bit different. He just told us that we would be leaving at the same time as usual. 

The stretch from Dovan to Machhapuchere Base Camp(MBC) was the most difficult stretch for me personally. About 20 minutes into the hike, we started to climb up, and we didn’t stop climbing up until six hours later. There were a lot of challenging parts in this stretch of the journey. Part of the reason was that we had been climbing for over six days now, so my body was tired and my endurance levels were depleting. However, what ultimately broke me down was something that I normally have a good check and balance with. Out of mental, emotional and physical exhaustion, I made the mistake of focusing on what I had left to climb, instead of placing my focus on the next step, right in front of me or even the amazing scenes around me. 

If we honestly knew how difficult a journey would be, we might choose to take the shorter route to reach the destination, ultimately leaving us with higher chances of not making it there at all and missing the scenic views. 

If you want a simple tool to help you reshape your thinking, check out the Five-Minute Journal App by Intelligent Change. 

 Change your perspective to change your views.

Day 8 Lesson: Know When you Need to Stop and Take a Break

We arrived at Machhappuchhre Base Camp (MBC) early on Day 7, so our guide asked if we wanted to continue onward for another two hours to ABC, similar to what we did back at Poon Hill. Since I was at my lowest point of the hike, I spoke up and requested to wait for sunrise, even though we had the chance of having bad weather and not making it and also the challenge of having to navigate the early morning crowds. I needed a night to regroup from the pit of exhaustion that I fell into.

 Machhappuchhre Base Camp (MBC) had only one teahouse lobby open, and it was packed full of people. However, the views made this one of my favorite places to sit and write. It was relatively warm, and we had a view towards both the direction that we came from and the direction that we were going. This made it a perfect place to reflect on the trip and also look forward to the next day.

Day 9 Lesson: Don’t Underestimate the Value of Reframing Your Hopes and Desires

After all of the effort it took to climb to the top, we now had to come down. We climbed up to ABC before sunrise, and 6-7 hours later we were back down to the warmer altitude at Bamboo. Since we were recommended not to take a shower after day 3 due to the cool air, I was extremely motivated to make it to a warm shower in Bamboo. We arrived later than normal and the other hikers used up all of the hot water before I could jump in. After reframing my hopes, I now started looking forward to a warm shower at the next teahouse.

In David Steindl-Rast’s TED Talk “Want to be happy? Be grateful.” He shares the value of reframing your perspective and shares how to be grateful for what you have. 

Reframe your disappointments to have a fresh perspective.

Day 10 Lessons: Don’t Forget to Look Back 

We took the long way up the mountain but the short way down. On the way up, we were motivated to reach ABC, but then we still needed something to keep us motivated for the second half. We were hiking down at such a fast pace that we had to recognize and appreciate the full journey and the rest that was left to travel. When you come down from a hike, you have an amazing sense of both accomplishment and joy but also a desire to look towards what is coming next. The work doesn’t stop once you have made it to your destination. It just means that you have to create new goals to work towards and find new things to look forward to.

In Bob Buford’s book Halftime: Moving From Success to Significance, he breaks down a new way to travel through what is typically known in the Western world as a midlife crisis. Buford explains that we spend the first half of our lives trying to establish who we are, and how to get ahead but once we reach that point, we have a choice to make. We can either slowly ride the wave downwards through retirement or start climbing another mountain. The distance in between coming down from one mountain while preparing to climb the next mountain is the halftime. Buford references the Sigmoid Curve as an example of the halftime moment, which may be days, months or even years. You don’t have to ride just one wave in life. Wait, observe and paddle towards the next wave that lights your soul. 

Are you getting close to the halftime point in your life?

What mountains have you climbed in life?

What mountains are you hoping to climb next?

What’s stopping you from climbing that mountain? 

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