On climbing and mantras

This is an entry I’ve been meaning to write since that very first climb on my Everest Base Camp trek. Almost a month has passed since I finished that trek, but it has been just a few days since I bagged my second trek: the Tamang Heritage Trail in Langtang National Park (as always, see future post). The steep ascents and descents presented by that six-day trek – as well as the additional challenge of carrying my own heavy backpack (my organized EBC trek included a porter) – meant this trek was physically demanding in a different kind of way. And so, while trodding through rhododendron forests and over dusty, landslide ridges, I’ve been revisiting the idea of climbing: how it makes me feel, and the lessons it has taught me. So, here we go. A long overdue post.

Sunrise over Kala Patar (5,550 metres)
Sunrise over Kala Patar (5,550 metres)

Trekking has challenged me in ways I never imagined it would. Yes, the exercise-related element was expected, but what was more surprising were the temporary visits from some mental and health-wise ineptitude – the obstacles of my mind. Multi-week treks are all about repetitive action. Sure you’re seeing different, beautiful things everyday, but in the end it comes down to the fact that your days are spent walking and walking and walking. For me, the consistency of that action, as well as the altitude, wore away at buried weaknesses with a steady abrasion, until I had no choice but to deal with them on a surface level. For me, this has always involved thoughts of not being good enough, though only by my own standards. It was also the concern that I have never really been pushed hard enough in my life, and that when the time came to overcome a challenge, particularly a physical one, I would crumble and fail. Dramatic, but bear with me.

On the Everest Base Camp trek there were climbs and then there were climbs. The first, non-italicized category, involved those first, lower altitude ascents: the 800 metre dusty switchback into Namche Bazaar, and the morning, uphill walks out of towns which always seemed to be at the bottom of mountains and valleys.

Then there were the climbs. Spread over three main days, they were a trifecta of unravelling emotions, yet eventual success.

A photo taking by one of my EBC trekking companions, Donny. This is Chris, Gopal (our guide) and I at 4:30 a.m., starting the long walk up to the Cho La Pass.
A photo taking by one of my EBC trekking companions, Donny. This is Chris, Gopal (our guide) and I at 4:30 a.m., starting the long walk up to the Cho La Pass.

Gokyo-Ri (5,360 m), climbing onto the Cho La Pass (5,330 m), and Kala Patar (5,550 m).

Each taught me something different about perseverance and my personal limits.

Looking down from Kala Patar. I get cold just seeing this photo!

The most challenging for me was Gokyo-Ri. The peak towers over the Gokyo Valley, home to crystal clear glacier lakes and Tibetan views. It was the climb we faced on day nine, just past the halfway mark of the trek. Gokyo-Ri is steep, so steep I had the sensation of climbing a ladder for most of the time.

When I look back in my notebook to the section written on this day, I am having to edit out a lot of bad words – a frustrated and exhausted entry written from our tea house window, looking up at the mountain just conquered. Spirits were high when I started out – after an altitude sickness and helicopter rescue scare the day before in Machermo, I was happy to have made it to Gokyo, another day closer to base camp. The group of us started out at around 7 a.m. Tight dirt switchbacks welcomed us to the first portion of the trail, grit blowing up beneath my feet, mingling with my saliva and crunching between my teeth. Then it was dead grass. And then, the most technical portion: big rocks, small rocks, all the rocks in the world it seemed, piled there above me. Stones were flung loose beneath hikers, rolling down the steep slope and taking the path of least resistance, which usually meant almost whacking someone in the face. I was stumbling and tired.

The thing about Gokyo-Ri were the false peaks, the half a dozen times when I looked up and saw what I thought was the top of our climb. Not so, Hilary, not so. My assumption of achieved ascent let me down, compounding on what was already a flurry of heavy breathes and aching calves. I didn’t think I could make it.

That’s when I started meditating. I had been muttering expletives up to this point, and decided to focus my muttering on something a little more productive.

And so, my official trekking mantra was born. There are three variations:

  1. You are young, you are strong, you are breathing.
  2. You are young, you are strong, you are healthy.
  3. You are young, you are strong, you are lucky.

I am not joking when I tell you that these three phrases got me through the toughest remaining days of my trek, including the following two climbs. Variation number one was recited when I started to focus too much on my shallowness of breath and the thinness of air – a time when my heart would get panicky and I could feel my pulse quicken by the second. The second was a reference to my bout of AMS at the beginning of the trip, and a reminder to be grateful that my body is fully capable and functioning. Finally, there’s the luck. I used this third mantra for days when I was feeling cranky, tired, and lazy. Because how many people get the chance to trek to Everest Base Camp, to check something off their bucket list? It’s an acknowledgement of appreciation, in the purest form.

Significant summits and points along the trek were always decorated with strings of prayer flags. Here, the view from the top of Gokyo-Ri.
Significant summits and points along the trek were always decorated with strings of prayer flags. Here, the view from the top of Gokyo-Ri. Including an incredibly happy me.

Those climbs also taught me of the amazing capacity of the human body – of my body. A little over a year agoI read a great feature in The Walrus magazine about marathon runners. Here’s an excerpt:

“Noakes proposed that the brain is wired to protect itself by pre-emptively shutting down your muscles before any part of your body reaches total failure. If your muscles are being depleted of oxygen and your heart is working too hard; or if you are becoming dangerously dehydrated; or if your core temperature is rising excessively; or if you are climbing a mountain and the amount of oxygen reaching your brain drops significantly – in all of these situations, a “central governor” in your brain acts to slow you down or stop you before you do irreversible damage. You stop not because you can’t physically go any further, but because your brain thinks you shouldn’t.”

On days when I felt mentally worn down and my mind was telling me I couldn’t take one more step, I kept this in mind. Sure enough, my body did not slump over and stop working – it trudged forward. Our brains are miraculous tools, but sometimes they can be our own worst enemy. I trust my body so much more following the Everest trek, and know that it has the ability to be pushed and respond positively.

These mantras and the idea of putting my body to the test were put on trial this past week with the Tamang Heritage Trail. Carrying my own backpack turned out to be a completely different beast, and it weighed down on my knees and feet in a way I didn’t think was possible. The extra kilogram of yak cheese that I bought and had to carry probably didn’t help, either (but cheese is always worth it).

Whereas the Evesest Base Camp trek was made up of long days of walking with varied topography, the Tamang Heritage Trail was almost a constant up or down. Both were painful in their own ways, but the uphill was particularly steep, with an estimated 15-20 degree incline grade at some points. On one day, the trail climbed 700 metres in just over an hour.

A switchback road indicating part of the climb on Day One of the Tamang Heritage Trail. We climbed up a steeper, local path.
A switchback road indicating part of the climb on Day One of the Tamang Heritage Trail. We climbed up a steeper, local path.

At the bottom of steep inclines, I would feel my body start to utter an obligatory groan. But climbing has taught me that complaining won’t get you anywhere closer to the top. One of my new friends and trekking companions, Joseph, said it best as we were staring up at the next hill: “well, it’s not going to climb itself, is it?” I loved that statement, the sentiment of taking a deep breathe and going at things one step at a time.

New trekking friends, Toncie and Nina, climbing, of course.
New trekking friends, Toncie and Nina, climbing, of course.

In the end, the last two treks have taught me things about myself that I didn’t think I needed to learn. I can only hope that I can apply these mantras and increased physical awareness to life back at home. It’s always been a goal of mine to complete a triathlon. Maybe these new lessons can help me get there.


8 thoughts on “On climbing and mantras

  1. Amazing post and pictures Hilary! You have demonstrated great physical and mental strength and perseverance on your treks. You should be so proud of yourself!!

  2. What a great post. I think you have learnt things that it has taken me many more years than you to realise! You could definitely do a triathlon if you have the time to do the training: you certainly have all the mental and physical stamina already.

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