“No, we don’t want ordinary tea. Can we have ginger and lemon?”
Yesterday we turned down tea. Or, to be more precise, I turned it down because my heart was pounding a mile a minute after our ascent, and my companions did the same in solidarity. Altitude sickness was slowly sneaking up on all of us.
“Ok, I’ll see what I can do,” said the cinema attendant, who clearly had no desire to change the established order. They always offer the audience free tea. It was not a touristic time of year; it was before the storm of peak-season visitors descended upon Annapurna, and he wasn’t expecting a group of 10 tired but happy Russian trekkers to show up.
We sat on benches, covered ourselves with yak skins, were treated to popcorn (a cinema at 3,400 metres – anything’s possible!) and got ready to watch a film on the big screen. Everest the movie, of course.
We spent three days there, in Manang. We were acclimatizing with daytime excursions around the area before continuing our ascent. Our plan was: two more nights of gradual climb; then one kilometre up, in the cold and with insufficient oxygen, to Thorong La Pass, at an altitude of 5,416 metres; then on to the Annapurna Circuit – one of the most beautiful and difficult trekking routes in the world.
My first forays into the mountains – or volcanoes, to be precise – began back home in the Kamchatka Peninsula. Then there were the mountains and gorges of China, Mount Bromo in Java, a single memorable trek to the Annapurna base camp seven years ago, which first introduced me to altitude sickness at 4,000 meters, and here I am again in Nepal. Now I am preparing for 5,416 metres.
“Why are we trekking in the mountains?” I read the next question aloud from a piece of paper I had just taken out of my pocket.
This is not just a trek. This is a retreat trek. We meditate every evening. If we are lucky, we discover ancient temples and meditate there, with the caretakers’ blessing. We are silent for an hour in the mornings (with the exception of difficult parts of the route), and after the pass we will spend an entire day walking in silence. In the evenings we discuss eternal questions. We write down questions (anonymously). We take one. We discuss it.
“What is the meaning of life?”, “What is happiness?”, “Is it worth maintaining a relationship if it changes who you are?”, “How can I find my life’s purpose?” “How can I stop feeling sorry for myself?”, “How to combat about self-sabotage?”, and today on the agenda: “Why are we trekking in the mountains?”
“The mountains remove masks, expose the core, give you an opportunity to touch reality, cleanse and empty the mind…” As the conversation goes around the table, my personal motivations for being there start to ring in my mind. I would never have asked myself this question. But this is the effect that mountains have on my life: they give answers, even when I don’t ask any questions. This is why I go to the mountains.
We’re in the cinema at 3,400 metres altitude. Watching the film, Everest. It’s a terrifying story, excellently told.
In the film there is a moment at the beginning when a journalist, one of the participants of this famous, ill-fated expedition, asks each of them the same question: “Why are you doing this? Climbing Everest, the highest point on the planet?”
And one of the heroes, the mailman, replies: “To prove that an ordinary guy can achieve impossible dreams.”
“An ordinary guy can conquer Everest”.
But the story shows that in fact he can’t. And not only can he not do it, but he causes a chain of deaths: the leader of the excursion takes pity on him and drags him to the summit when they really should have gone back down. Then he is behind and can’t get back down to the group, and they can’t help him, so in the end he dies and so does most of his group.
An ordinary guy can’t climb Everest. Nor many other things besides. Everyone needs to have a clear understanding of their own limits to avoid going through life constantly dissatisfied and risking physical injury.
In theory, yes, everyone has the potential to become anything they want. That’s the beauty of life. But, to an extent, these are just empty words. Yet, on closer inspection, there is a certain beauty in this too. Without focused training of your body, mind and spirit for every different ambition, none of your potential can come to fruition.
Miracles are possible, if you work at them really hard.
So if you are an ordinary guy or girl, when it comes to questions that require extreme strength in all spheres of life (physical, mental, intellectual, emotional, professional, etc.), it is better to be soberly aware that you cannot achieve extreme excellence across the board. Generally speaking.
Perhaps you don’t need this extremity. A happy person is someone who is satisfied with what they already have. And thank god. This is the essence of happiness. But if you do have ambitions, dreams, plans, grand visions, it is important to keep in mind that achieving the desired result depends on your ability to train your skills, and not just in one specific area, but, curiously enough, on all fronts.
So, for example, if you think that all you need to climb Everest is physical training, you are mistaken. You will also need money – for equipment, a permit, guides – which means that you need to know how to earn money (and I’m not talking about a small sum here!). You will definitely need psychological resilience, otherwise you will not be able to cope. A loving family behind you is also a great help in questions of survival. And all of this combined is still nowhere near a guarantee that you will reach the summit, or even survive. Without using up almost all of your resources, there is no way you are going to reach the top. This is a rare case when I can give you an absolute guarantee.
An ordinary guy can’t storm to the heights of his dreams – for that he must become “extraordinary”: train very hard in various areas; become a professional; develop his strength in every sphere of life. To develop through real actions. After all that, yes, then it is possible to reach great heights in business, finances, relationships, physical fitness and well-being, and create a rich life without boundaries.
“Olesya, let’s buy a thermos for you as well.”
“What for? You’ve got one. That’s enough for both of us!”
“Olesya, let’s buy you a litre bottle.”
“What for? 650 millilitres is enough.”
I’m sure you can understand my wish to minimize the weight on my back. Just as I can understand why some women try to transfer as much responsibility as possible onto their partner. We don’t want to overtire, overheat, overspend. Why not? “Because we’re only girls.”
But in reality, by transferring everything – especially essentials – to our partners, we atrophy our own bodies and minds, and deprive ourselves of abilities and opportunities. Then, if we find ourselves in a situation where our loved one is not there to help us, we might lose our balance at the crucial moment.
No matter how loving and caring your partner is, and how genuinely happy they are to help you carry your heavy load, you must not let them. The mountains teach this lesson in no uncertain terms.
The altitude started to to take its toll on me very early on. I wasn’t expecting to feel it before 4,000 metres, based on my previous experiences of climbing, nevertheless the first symptoms, such as rapid resting pulse and swelling, started to appear at 3,000 metres. One reason for this was dehydration. A lot of sweating, not much drinking. Misha was at the head of our party and I was at the rear, so we only saw each other during rest stops. I wasn’t aware of my dehydration and was drinking frugally to preserve my supplies.
By the time the group reached the Ice Lake in Manang, a world-famous high-altitude lake, I would have been without food if it weren’t for one of the participants who was there with me, a woman named Olga. We were so behind that we had become separated from the group who had set out on the expedition that day.
I had water in my bottle and thermos but it quickly ran out, and I had zero food. It was all in Misha’s rucksack. I had no nuts, no raisins, no chocolate, all of which would have been extremely helpful on the ascent. I hadn’t planned on getting separated from the rest of the group, it just happened. And I found myself in a situation I was entirely unprepared for – feeling unwell and needing my energy supplies more than ever.
We must each carry our own load, even if our partners are happy to help. Don’t transfer. In the mountains the essentials are water, food and a first aid kit, whereas in everyday life they are finances and energy.
In other words, you always have to have your own source of finances and your own sources of energy replenishment, independent of your partner. Hobbies, work, friends – whatever brings you happiness and fulfilment must be separate from your significant other. If you put all your trust in just one person, you will encounter major problems if you run out of oxygen and suddenly they are not there beside you. Not to mention situations when others might require help from you in something that you usually rely on someone else for – you won’t be able to help.
Everybody must be able to stand squarely on their own two feet, without outside help. Otherwise you will be literally disabled, perhaps not physically, but mentally or spiritually.
Imagine you have a general goal, the Annapurna Circuit. And you are walking towards it, trusting maps, guides and the path beneath your feet. You can’t actually see it – you can’t even see Annapurna at all for the first few days of your trek. But you keep walking, exhausted and with aching legs. This is normal.
So why are we so vehement that we need to have a clear vision of our goal before we set out on other journeys in life?
In reality, it’s the other way around. First you stand on the path, not really knowing what awaits you, trusting some chosen guides, both internal and external. You begin your pilgrimage towards fear and risk, with no guarantee that it will work out, or that you will have enough strength. In addition, as with any long journey, the first milestones are often the hardest to reach. Desperately hard, because the goal is not visible, and you don’t really know where you are going.
But for those who do not turn back, do not become disillusioned prematurely, do not give up and go home, but continue on their path forward (not to the top, which is not visible from lower positions, but to the beginning: the nearest village or some other small tangible goal) the universe will show its appreciation with the first viewing platform. From there you can already start to navigate somewhat. And more will come: new viewing platforms, and eventually the summit in all its glory as a visible destination. But this does not happen all at once.
The first thing that the Himalayas taught me seven whole years ago was that: “sometimes the way down is also the way up”.
Imagine. You are walking in the mountains. At a height of 5,416 metres. And the first part of your route goes down just as often as it goes up. You might even get the feeling that you are descending. You can’t get around it. But in actual fact, if you continue on the path, it is rising overall. Just in a rather winding way.
It’s the same in life. The path to your goal is a rough road with a smooth climb. It is a zigzag, with alternating ups and downs. This is normal, it is a part of the path, and you must carry on. Do not panic or lose heart. If you keep to the course of your chosen goal, even when it is not clear or visible (after all, we know that the top is not visible to begin with), a pattern emerges. And you will always be higher in your spiral of development than you were yesterday.
Either you sit at the bottom of the mountain, or it’s going to hurt. There are no other alternatives. Some people are perfectly happy at the bottom, and there’s nothing wrong with that, but people who want more need to get it into their heads that it will hurt.
The question is what to do with this pain. You can prepare yourself, and it will be easier (but it still painful); you can accept the pain, thereby significantly reducing it; you could even enjoy it as an essential ingredient in your transformation; you can just get used to it, making it less noticeable – but you cannot avoid it.
Either you sit at the bottom of the mountain, or it’s going to hurt. At least at the beginning. You get used to it as you get fitter. But at the beginning – always.
I told some fellow hikers after the film that I thought “an ordinary guy can’t climb Everest”, and they quite rightly corrected me, saying: “An ordinary guy can’t come down again”.
The fact is, our mailman climbed and climbed, and was practically dragged up by the expedition leader, but it was on the descent that the problems began. He never made it down. The descent takes no less work and strain than the ascent. Some stages of the Annapurna region are many kilometres long and gruelling .
Reaching your goal is not enough, you also have to live with it. Maintain your performance, deal with the outflow of energy that can sometimes happen after reaching a long-desired goal, and continue on your path.
Being guided by the unconscious desire to get there just to stop, you might feel like once you have achieved something important you don’t need to try any more, don’t need to strive and work hard. In this situation you will soon lose any skills you have acquired along the way and it will be a painful descent.
I learned this from Olga. She was a mother, and even grandmother, and the oldest of the female participants in our group. From the very beginning, in letters as early as half a year before our trek, Olga was worried about her ability to complete the route because hiking and exercise were not a part of her life. Plus her age can’t be ignored.
“You can do it, if you want it and if you are prepared,” we responded.
Olga wanted it, prepared rigorously and followed the route stoically. Not only that, but she literally dragged a couple of participants through some of the tricky parts. How did she do it? At one point, when she was with me in the stragglers’ group at the back, she told me a decision she had made. It was during the same climb to the lake that I found extremely difficult and painful. I was suffering from altitude sickness, I was breathless on the ascent and walking very very slowly, but Olga was behind me. We were very far behind the others and had created our own subgroup for the day.
At one of the stops Olga shared her story (and her food, by the way):
“One day at the very beginning of the journey, you said that you often walk at the back on these sorts of treks. And you said it so sadly, so regretfully,” Olga said to me.
It is true. As far back as I can remember, I have always been the last one in climbing groups and it has always bothered me. Back when I was 20 as well as now that I’m 32.
“You know, I too am always chomping at the bit to go somewhere in life. I want to be in control, be in the lead. But here I decided I would stay at the back. This was my decision. I will be last.”
I was stunned. Suddenly I realized two things that I had not been aware of before because I had been so focused on how bad I was feeling that day. Firstly, Olga could have walked faster and was only walking so slowly because of me. Secondly, having her with me had helped me so much. Olga was walking at the back but she wasn’t weak and struggling like me. And she was doing it without a saccharine sense of “helping others” or “I ought to” – without pity, which I would find very difficult. She had nothing but the pure desire to first and foremost help herself; to pacify her ego (as Olga described her decision). To stop rushing and act consciously.
By simply accepting the situation, and not fighting with it, you become capable of changing it.
“Save yourself – it’ll save thousands around you”.
Saint Seraphim of Sarov
“Save yourself – it’ll save thousands around you”.
Saint Seraphim of Sarov
And then comes the moment when it feels like you can’t walk any more. At an altitude of 5,000 metres, each step is a struggle. You have no energy. It’s cold. Strangely enough, you don’t have a headache, but you feel extremely uncomfortable. You barely recognize yourself. You don’t know what is awaiting you.
Glancing back, you see steep, sometimes precipitous, snow-covered slopes for hours down. Going forward is easier. That is the direction the whole group is stubbornly going in – upward – and if you stop, you will only increase the distance between you and them. And despite the fact that you could turn back at any moment, you are suddenly painfully aware that there is no way back.
Of course, there are devices to measure oxygen levels and pulse. There are experienced Nepalese guides who, if necessary, will forcibly bring you back if, God forbid, your symptoms go over a normal level for these places, but otherwise you need to keep soldiering on, despite the fact that your head has long since been screaming the opposite advice at you.
Feeling sick, exhausted, mood swings and low motivation – these are all completely normal in this situation. But it’s so hard to get through. You are used to stopping doing something when it starts to feel wrong. But you have no choice but to keep walking.
If you had asked me at that moment, can you reach the pass, another 500 metres up? About another 2 hours in the cold high-altitude morning?
“I don’t know,” would have been the honest answer.
I don’t know if the mountains will let me, or if my body will let me. Every 100 metres up my activity level lowers. I just don’t know.
But there is a better question for these kinds of situations: “Can you take one more step?”
“Yes, I can. I definitely can.”
And so, step by step, you conquer things that your mind believed to be impossible.
You could argue that this is risky, and you wouldn’t be wrong. Yet I assure you that all safety rules on this route were being followed. But there is no point ignoring the fact that without pushing your limits, you will never change in your core. Without the opportunity to do something in spite of your own mind, the same applies. Herein lies the essence of conscious transformation. And in this question, the mountains are the best teachers.
When the person next to you is 20 years your senior and still feels better than you, everything suddenly becomes perfectly clear. About yourself and your typical excuses, about the overwhelming doubts that try to stop you before any genuine action. About your food addiction. About your tendency towards indulgence and lack of self-control…
You are weak. At 32 (a ridiculous age ) you are weak. And grumpy. Your ability to manage your current situation: zero. Your ability to observe your emotions in difficult situations and not just blindly react: zero. Very little self-control. Sorry for such a vulgar question, but what comes next?
Work equally on your body and your emotions, learning to recognize them in your mind, instead of automatically identifying with them. This also applies to your thoughts and internal states. Learn the skills of awareness and conscious choice as the only path to continue living, flexing your wings and striving for new heights.
And there it is! Thorong La, the coveted pass that had been rattling my nerves for the past five days. I sit on a bench and watch as the other guys take pictures. There’s no tea, or ginger and lemon; the famous little tea shop at the summit isn’t open at this time of year. It’s not the season. But there is so much sunshine, so much beauty: different coloured outfits and prayer flags shimmering in the snow and reflecting on the mountain peaks. The wind, that recently had such an intense effect on me, has quietened, or I just can’t feel it.
“Will you marry me? ” Misha’s face unexpectedly appeared in front of me and disappeared just as suddenly.
I hope I managed to answer – the answer was yes of course, right?
My mind is blown, almost tangibly, after gritting my teeth the whole way, my mind now seems to want to make up for it. And yet inside I feel very quiet, completely calm. I don’t feel well, but at that moment I am not afraid.
“Olesya, can you take one more step?” I ask myself.
“Of course! As many one more steps as I like. But only one by one, ok?”
Then, off we go.
I am the first one on the way down.
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