I remember being very young when my dad first told me about Mt. Everest, the highest mountain on earth. For some reason, in my immature naïveté, I believed this was some secret piece of information kept between me and my father. Little did I know at the time that there had been western surveys of the mountain since the 1800’s and local knowledge of its greatness since probably much earlier. It wasn’t until I was in 4th grade that I ever heard one of my peers express knowledge of this place I held so near to my heart. I remember exactly where I was sitting in my elementary school and to whom I was talking. In that moment, I felt like I had lost some piece of myself. I had lost sole ownership over some piece of knowledge I felt distinguished me from all those around me. Foolish, I know, but it’s the truth.
This loss, however, didn’t dull my interest in Everest or the Himalaya. In fact, as my age increased, so did my intrigue. Soon enough, I developed a full blown obsession with Himalayan mountaineering. To this day, it is the subject on which I have most read. It’s characters my heroes. Forget Kim and Kanye, it is the likes of Sir Edmond Hillary and Tenzing Norgay, Reinhold Messner, Ed Viesturs, David Breshears, Paul Bauer, and Conrad Anker that most captivate me. Forget Los Angeles and New York, places like Nanga Parbat, Nanda Devi, Everest, Annapurna, Ama Dablam, and Kachenjunga are the destinations that draw me in.
In college, while focusing my studies on the environmental and social impacts of outdoor recreation and tourism, I researched further into the controversies surrounding Mt. Everest and the Khumbu Valley. I was curious to know how the elaborate tourism industry surrounding this mountain was affecting the local environment, the people who called these lands home, and the mountaineering industry itself. I researched and wrote on the subject multiple times throughout college, shifting my angle and perspective as each assignment deemed necessary. Having spent most of my life, and particularly my college years, knee deep in books, magazine articles, and Internet news on the Himalaya and specifically Everest, I began to develop a pretty strong academic opinion of the manifestation of the industry and the ever increasing commercialization going on at the banks of Everest.
More recently in my life, the few months leading up to my own personal visit to Everest were difficult emotionally. Nothing necessarily bad happened to me, but I found myself in a rut. I got rejected from most of the jobs I really wanted. Many of the things that I wanted to accomplish, of which had publicly expressed my intent, I failed to achieve. Despite backlash from absolutely no one, I was ashamed for having run my mouth and not been able to execute my grand proclamations. Despite all of that, I still had some really amazing job offers, and people who expressed some definite levels of confidence in my professional ability and value. Still, these were not my first choice options and I don’t know if I believed in myself the way they did, and therefor turned them down. I even experienced some elaborate travels (Dropping Buckets: Updates and Reflections from the Past Five Months), but that time spent traveling was only opened up due to my rejections and therefor felt like somehow these travels were second rate. Despite traveling, my inability to secure a job in a geography of interest meant my home base became unwillingly Stamford, CT, my hometown. While I have loving family and great friends there, it is generally a place where I fail to see any reflection of myself, and a place in which have a hard time expressing my main interests. Feeling a lack of purpose in life, floating around seemingly unable to navigate notions of self and complex interpersonal relationships, I could do nothing but dwell on my failures and perceived inadequacies.
When it comes down to it, I think I was placing the fate of my happiness in the hands of others. Despite my many accomplishments, I expected to feel a sense of professional validation only once I got accepted by NOLS…but that never happened. I expected to find love, but I couldn’t even find one positive attribute within myself. I decided that it was time to stop placing my happiness in the hands of others. Jobs, relationships, they could all wait. That’s when I decided I would book a plane ticket to Nepal. It was my long lasting interest in this massive landscape that determined the location. It was recent emotions that determined my action.
I don’t think I am unique by running to Everest in a time of self doubt. I think many people go to Everest to prove something, whether to themselves or the world. This mountain sets the standard for greatness. Anyone who successfully stands on its peak and returns safely is awarded some merit of elevated status, whether locally or globally. Climbing Everest is singlehandedly the greatest feat of physical and mental challenge known to man. There are some mountaineering aficionados that would like to argue otherwise, saying other mountains although shorter in height prove more technical, more difficult, and more dangerous, K2 for example. Some even appear more beautiful in shape, and offer more interesting routes such as traverses (the way Everest is done most commonly involves a long slug out-and-back from the south side). But no matter how much people try to knock it, the draw of Everest is undeniable. While I had no intent to climb, I wanted my own little piece of Everest.
By traveling to Everest, there were many things I hoped to accomplish. The first and easiest to express, is that I was hoping to see this mountain and surrounding areas through an academic lense. I wasn’t going to be doing any official research or any official writing on the subject. But I was hoping to find evidence to support or reject my heavy handed opinions about the mountain. While my opinion was based on extensive reading and research, I always felt as if I didn’t have the authority to make strong assertions about what goes on there, having never seen it first hand. [I’ll be writing a trip report and will reveal some academic observations soon].
Second, I think I was trying to take control of my happiness. There were many forces trying to prevent me from traveling to Nepal. There were thousands of reasons not to go: it’s expensive to travel, I don’t know anyone, I’d have to quit my job, my mom is pissed at me, there are plenty of good mountains in the US, there’s no good beer in Asia (I kid, I kid)…the list goes on. But the fact of the matter is that I’ve thought about the Himalayas more than almost anything else in my life. My aspiration to visit was almost as strong as my aspiration to attend and graduate from Virginia Tech, both I’ve held since I was a little kid. I accomplished one, now it was time to accomplish the other. It was dependent upon me, and no one else. I was tired of other people telling me no and allowing that to control my sense of self worth. I was in control, now was the time, and this was purely for me.
What did I find? I found that the moment my feet hit the trail in Jiri, everything made sense. It’s amazing how no matter where you are the in world, spending time in the mountains feels the same. The mountains provide clarity, purpose, and objective goals. It’s easy to reprioritize, focus on what’s necessary for the moment, and live in the moment too. My self doubt slipped away, and I stopped living in a hypothetical world where I question every decision I ever made, every relationship in my life, and relive previous scenarios wondering what could be different. I was in the Himalayas physically, but more importantly, mentally and emotionally. I was focused on the concrete tasks of trail navigation and foot placement, enjoying in the headier tasks of taking in views and interacting with locals, and cursing the weight of my backpack and the intensity of the sun. Despite living in the moment, mountains are a great place for reflection. Even when I did slip into an internal dialogue about my insecurities, I was able to ponder in a more detached way, avoiding the anxious flare ups that tend to plague me in an everyday setting where psycho-sociological pressures seem relentlessly ever present.
I’m not sure if hiking, backpacking, trekking, or whatever you want to call it, is a good remedy for times psychological trial. I can never tell if through hiking I’m addressing the issues I have through a self empowering pursuit or escaping to a safe space where I can avoid them; escaping from people, the news, and social media – places where nonstop stimuli can sometimes influence and divert your (or at least my) thoughts to a negative space. Either way, I know I found a happy place, at least temporarily, in the Himalaya; one for which I had been waiting a long time.
I also found kindness. Be assured, in today’s world, kindness is no small gesture. I saw people helping people, people encouraging people, and people forming strong bonds seemingly out of thin air. This is what the mountains bring out of people. The best people are made in the mountains. This isn’t unique to the Himalaya, but not having spent any serious time in the mountains as of late, maybe I was forgetting. The people I met along the trail didn’t seem to size me up like people do in city life, waiting for me to prove myself or fail to gain their acceptance. Yes, there were arguments, but we all still woke up and hiked together the next day, sharing in smiles or the pain of the long steep climb. In a world seemingly fueled by ruthless competition (at least from my American perspective), competition was at an all time low, cohesion ruled the day. People from incredibly different backgrounds, and even languages, sat across the table from one another, finding commonalities rather than differences. The mountains are a great leveler. It doesn’t matter where you’re from, we all still can’t breathe at 18,000 feet. Witnessing kindness, genuine kindness without pretence, amongst people who seemed to be willing to extend a hand to people they barely know was extraordinarily refreshing.
I’m sure as time goes on I’ll figure out more about what this trek has taught me. For now, it has given me a lot for which to be thankful. It gave me a focus when my mind was running wild through a maze of insecurity. It allowed me to exert my mind and body in a constructive and productive way, and push my skills. It gave me new friends. It gave me the chance to observe people at their finest…and sometimes drunkest. It gave me stories. It gave me the chance to think critically, in person, on a subject to which I have dedicated a large portion of my life and energy. It gave me the opportunity to see, with my own eyes, one of the most dramatic landscapes known to man, that I have longed to place myself within. And I gave myself this chance.
Thank you so much Nepal, Sam, Kyle, Brigitte, Tanur, Fabian, Katie, Jacqui, Rudy, Aston, Chad, Eugene, Jag, Gabe, and the countless Sherpa people I met along the way for a phenomenal trek. It is unquestionably one of the crowned jewels of my life.