Day: November 25, 2021

Adventure time: climbing my way out of a midlife crisis

Long distance image of Annapurna Base Camp in Nepal

In 2018, on impulse, I agreed to join a friend’s newly acquired adventure company on a group trip to Nepal. I’d been out of work for well over a year, time I’d spent quietly licking my wounds after the sudden traumatic end to a professional relationship triggered a nervous breakdown. After 18 months of bed rest and therapy, miraculously, the timing felt perfect.

It was time to dust off the cobwebs and move forward with my life.

A trek like this requires so much more than just physical fitness. To be honest I wasn’t that worried about my fitness; a few niggles here and there but physical challenges have never scared me. I ran a half marathon after a big night out back in the day. How hard could a few days hiking actually be? I did have some anxiety around trekking at altitude that proved to be unfounded (as anxieties so often are). The itinerary also included a few days in Kathmandu either side of the trek to re/acclimatise. So, after hitting every staircase in Sydney in the fortnight prior to departure, I reckoned I was good to go!

And boy did we climb some stairs. On some days, we climbed steps for several hours straight. One step in front of the next, literally. I was dreaming of stair climbing at night! Climbing became a form of meditation.

Stairs aside, the whole trip was a journey and adventure like no other; abundant highlights to cherish at every turn, both emotional and physical hurdles to test and which needed to be overcome, the richness of humanity to explore and absorb, and deeply personal insights to develop and reflect on. By the end of it, I had climbed my way back to reality, and life.

Emerging from despair, rediscovering gratitude

I gazed around and skywards every day and night trying to soak up the enormity of this mountain range and our adventure. I filled my flask from and leaped over waterfalls flowing into the mighty, icy Modi Khola, at one point plunging into the torrent, clinging to a jagged rock for dear life, shrieking with joy from the shock of it!

I meditated and reflected. I did yoga in mittens. I devoured every morsel of Nepali food laid in front of me along the way (also tea biscuits and orange Tang – traditional Nepalese trekking fare apparently). Together, we trudged for hours and hours, day after day, mostly in sunshine but also through rain, hail, mud, and freezing cold on our final afternoon’s climb. Almost there, we rose at 3.30am for our final 2hr pre-dawn trek to chase the sunrise at our destination, Annapurna’s Base Camp.

The trek itself was so cathartic that I actually broke down when we finally reached Base Camp, 4,130 metres above sea level, after five solid days climbing. Suddently, it felt like I’d arrived there not just from Kathmandu but from the black hole of despair from which I realised I was finally emerging.

Reaching our destination was extraordinarily rewarding and I was overwhelmed by the sense of accomplishment I felt having achieved it.

Finally, after breakfast (and lots of photographs!) and having begun our descent, I nursed a blinding headache which morphed into two days of extreme anxiety (altitude headaches are not uncommon apparently).

I cried – a lot.

I couldn’t communicate properly with other members of my group (anxiety sufferers, you know what I’m talking about), which meant nobody could comfort me, so I ended up isolating myself even further. Fortunately, our guide was the epitome of cool, calm leadership, walking alongside me for hours on end, quietly and reassuringly.

Eventually, I recovered. I always do, having clutched to the mantra Tomorrow’s a new day through the decades.

Climbing and carrying, a different way of life

A word about our porters, wow. These guys lugged our huge 20kg+ duffle bags ahead of us every day, 2-3 of them each, strapped to their heads. Every step we took, they’d each taken hours before us, waiting patiently for us to arrive before preparing meals and tea, and organising our accommodation to make sure we were as comfortable as we could be under the circumstances.

As distressing as it felt sometimes to watch them work, climbing and carrying is a way of life for many in the Himalayas. Above a certain altitude, there are no roads and virtually everything is carried in on foot. At a rest stop one day, we were passed by an elderly man (in gumboots!) with a huge washing machine strapped to his head.

We would not have completed our journey without our heroes for the week, our porters.

Exploring Kathmandu

Back in Kathmandu, we wandered the old towns and powered through mounds of lentils, chickpeas, roti, and potatoes. We got lost. We paid coins to be blessed by holy men high as kites. We visited more temples and absorbed more religious and historical information from our local guides than I would have thought possible in a lifetime.

I bought cashmere and prayer flags and North Face, and trinkets for the kids. And at Pashupatinath (another World Heritage Site and one of the most sacred Hindu temples in all Nepal) we watched and learned about the very public, traditional Hindu funeral services and cremations that take place every day on the banks of the local river that flows to the Ganges.

My head was exploding with gratitude.

Kathmandu was full-on, still very much in regeneration mode following the 2015 earthquake, which killed 9,000 and injured triple that, and razed a number of historic and religious sites and thousands of homes. Bamboo scaffolding aplenty! Also dust! Our guide was pragmatic about the aftermath of the ‘quake – after all, said Buddha, ‘nothing is permanent’.

The eternal joy of a good roommate

And through it all, I roomed with one of the most gorgeous, kind, generous, funny, intuitive, special women I’ve ever met. Her name is Ramia. We shared so much; laughs (so many laughs), tears, fears, hugs, hopes, and dreams, for ourselves, each other, and our kids. The trek was a mind-blowing experience for us both and we’ll share a special bond forever.

Ultimately, my trip to Nepal was a turning point at a time when I needed it the most. Depression can be a wicked, wicked beast. But throughout the trip, I continued to practice (as much as possible) all the small, daily rituals that had slowly amalgamated to give my life meaning – to give me a sense of purpose – during my darkest days; quiet reflection, time in nature, whole foods made with love, physical exertion, yoga practice, and journaling. Most of all it forced me to look up, and out, and around, and helped me rediscover what it means to be really, truly alive. One small step at a time.