One month, 17 thousand feet and six lessons learned on the trip of a lifetime
What would you do if you had a month free to do whatever you wanted and knew you had your regular life to come back to? No, it’s not a party game question; it’s a question I found myself confronted with last year. My employer gives loyal employees a month-long paid sabbatical after ten years of employment. Talk about a job perk! My ten years had quickly passed and now … a WHOLE month off!!! The options! How was I going to decide?
I knew I wanted to be far away from my normal, everyday life and everything I knew. I wanted no tv, no internet, no cell phones, no computers, no advertising. I wanted a digital diet. Don’t get me wrong — I love technology but I also know that to truly appreciate something it’s good to take a break from it. I wanted to be off the grid — outdoors and active. I also wanted the trip of a lifetime – one that was on my childhood dream list AND my bucket list. I wasn’t messing around, I wanted BIG! The word BIG stuck out and made it an easy decision after all — Qomolongma. Sagaramatha. Mother Goddess of Earth. Whatever you called her I wanted to go to the BIG one — MOUNT EVEREST.
Yup. I was going to climb up to Mount Everest. Dear Reader, please don’t confuse climbing up to Mount Everest with summiting Mount Everest. Jon Krakauer’s Into Thin Air is one of my all-time favorite books. It is a great example of people being big into dreams but not so big into technical skills or experience. I wanted the trip of a lifetime – but one that did incorporate high death risk. It was decided that Everest Base Camp, at 5380 m/17700 ft, was just enough and would be my goal.
I’d found my perfect travel companion in my friend Lynette and easily convinced her to join me after a beer one night. Lynnette and I share a similar background, sense of humor and love for adventure. After months of scheduling and planning we finally found ourselves in Kathmandu at the Rum Doodle (a famous mountaineering hangout) with Responsible Adventures owner, Raj, and our knowledgeable and very friendly guide, Tikendra. He gave us the rundown of what to expect — no heat in our lodging (teahouses), squat toilets and no showering after 4000 meters. We were surprisingly still excited to go!
Miraculously, after many flight delays, we were one of only a handful of flights to get into the Lukla airport that week. In Lukla, the starting village of our trek, we were met by Khadka, our assistant guide/cook [read: the man to bring us down on horseback to the hospital if we had altitude sickness] and our always smiling porter, Sundar. We loaded up and started our expedition.
The whole trek lasted fourteen days. Sure, sometimes the days were grueling, draining and difficult — but they were always glorious. It took ten days to get to Base Camp, each day increasingly harder due to the rising altitude and decreasing oxygen. The four days down was easier on the heart and lungs but the steep decline made it tough on the knees. There are no streets in the Everest region — only dirt and rock paths connected with suspension bridges where you could easily see the rush of fast moving water far below your feet. Of course, passing traffic of yak herds, porters carrying large loads (deep freezers on their backs!) and other trekkers made the already daunting bridges even more of an adventure.
With all the time trekking I could not help but reflect on a few ideas.
Less distractions equals more interaction
I’d mentioned I’d wanted no “modern-day” distractions — no television, no radios, no internet, no iphones (though porters had them), no itunes and therefore, no headphones. There was nothing for people to hide behind. In my life in New York City, I wear headphones while running, while waiting in line at Trader Joe’s, and on the subway I am texting or emailing away. But without these types of distractions, there was eye contact and big smiles. I said namaste (hello) to every passerby and chatted with other trekkers. I was amazed that in a quick, passing conversation, I learned more about a Latvian ice climber whom I would never see again than I know about my NYC neighbors of twelve years. While huffing and puffing on the way up to Base Camp, a Spanish woman and I hugged in celebration of her reaching her goal. This would never happen to me at home. I most likely would not have even noticed her. This mountain brought out the best of me. This is the person I was genuinely meant to be — open, warm, helpful, friendly and happy.
Less stuff means more happiness
In Kathmandu, Raj had not only given us an update of what to expect but also what to bring, which was not much. He also gave us each a medium trekking bag and told us to fill it only halfway up. Sundar, all of 5’6”, would be carrying all five bags for our team. We left much of our other stuff at our hotel in Kathmandu. I was worried I would not have something I desperately needed but, in fact, with just a few items of clothes, minimal toiletries and absolute necessities like a sleeping bag and liner, life was easier. We were able to start trekking more quickly in the morning due to fewer choices and life was less frustrating as there was less stuff to look through, less stuff to lose and less stuff to pack up. (I did wish I had packed more than three pairs of underwear for the fourteen days; fine, call me a princess.)
Perfection and happiness are not related
Raj had mentioned not to expect each place or thing to be exactly like the last. If we had enjoyed momos (dumplings) at one teahouse there was a strong chance that they would not taste the same at the next teahouse. It was true and made me realize that holding expectations was much like looking for perfection. Everything has its moment in time. By letting go of expectation and not trying to control details that are outside of my control — that’s when surprises and magic happen. For some reason apple pie is popular in the teahouses and every teahouse made them differently. And I appreciated all those apple pies.
Mirror, mirror on the wall?
I’m not a totally vain person but let’s face it: I am an American woman raised in the women’s magazine-lined grocery store lanes; a lady who likes to sport strong red lipstick and dark mascara’d lashes. That said, I did not bring any cosmetics on this trip (unless you count lip balm and I don’t). Quite frankly, there wasn’t enough time or energy to expend on such daily doings, even if we wanted to, and further, there were NO mirrors. Without mirrors, Lynnette and I did not care what we looked like. We were who we were and we were happy with that! It left us both wondering who it is we’re dressing ourselves for at home …
The importance of all relationships
During those peaceful hours where all I heard were the sounds of water running, birds chirping and yak bells ringing, I found myself thinking of people during my life who helped me get here—yes my parents, my sister, my great friends, the wonderful people I work and volunteer with, my coaches and teachers but also the people who have made me question myself. Who I am and what I do. You know, the ex-boyfriends, frienemies and foeworkers — we all have them. The support of loved ones helped me get where I am and I hold them closely and cherish them. But of the relationships that haven’t continued, I appreciate the heartbreaking lessons learned. They helped me figure out who I am and who I am not. They got me here too. With every turn of a Buddhist prayer wheel along the path, I said “thank you” for all relationships I’ve ever had and sent well wishes.
The final day to Everest Base Camp. Lynnette is in front of me. Conversation is limited due to limited oxygen. It goes something like this:
Lynnette: Skipping. <thoughtful pause> I hear skipping. Are you skipping?
Camille: Yes! Oh and dancing. I’m dancing too.
People have often said I’m quirky. I have often taken offense. But after this short conversation I now accept that I am quirky. You see, in a world where “there is a time and place for everything,” I find myself trying to squelch quirky in favor of “appropriate” or “professional.” But after eating so many lentils to save money for my trip, and after all the time spent researching and planning it, the most appropriate thing my quirky self could do was … to skip, dance and sing my way to Base Camp. And didn’t Dorothy skip, dance and sing her way to Oz?
And when we finally got to Base Camp? It was uncrowded and unbelievable. It was November, past the time that those attempting to summit would be there. The tented city that Krakauer describes was nonexistent; this is exactly what I had dreamed of! Big blue skies, snow peaks, rubble from the icy Khumbu glacier that was making its way through as we watched in peacefulness. The beauty and openness all around made me feel as though I was on another planet. We got to the official rock marking “EVEREST BASE CAMP” and I cried and hugged and thanked Lynette, Tikendra, Sundar and Khadka for helping me realize my childhood dream. We then laughed, drank lemon tea, ate Nepalese trekking bars (which taste surprisingly like Rice Krispie squares with trail mix) and played in the rocks — making chotens and snow angels (well if there had been snow, let’s call them rock angels) while taking goofy pictures.
Though I didn’t want to leave, as we had travelled so far to get there, we had to start back on the long trek home. As we left, a rumble came from the direction where we had just been. As we turned around, an avalanche slid down the side of the neighboring mountain, covering the rocks where we had been with glistening snow.