My eyes opened after a long restless night and I could see through the yellow tent that it was morning, but the world still looked dark and heavy with rain. I unzipped the tent and looked up at the dark grey sky. Rain was continuing to fall and the ground was muddy and soggy. It didn’t occur to me that our stuff would also be wet, even though our packs were inside. Having spent the entire night sitting on the wet ground, everything at the bottom of our packs were soaked. Lovely.
We made chai and I sat shivering, blankly staring outside and fighting to hold back tears. I was terrified of the day ahead. I grabbed my pack and headed up to the dwelling where the guides were staying hoping that they had stayed somewhere warm and dry and I would have a chance to dry out my stuff before we started to trek again. The rain was furious as I approached the hut which was barricaded by huge tree limbs and branches (a preventative measure against the bears getting in). The sight was grim once I entered. Water was leaking from almost every inch of the ceiling, parts of the mud from the roof had collapsed on the ground, and the boys were huddled around a very small fire (the only dry place in the room). Everyone was scared, everyone was tired, and everyone was wet and cold. There was no warmth coming from the fire and we knew there was no way any of our stuff would dry in the shelter, so we decided to make a break for it and try to reach lower ground. We hoped to find another dwelling that was out of the rain and try to dry our packs and gear out there. I shoved a small piece of white bread with peanut butter in my mouth and got ready to go. We walked quickly out, never turning around.
The first river crossing was only a few feet from where we had camped, and I now noticed that the water was fully rushing and high from the rain. Snow was falling everywhere around us, and I watched the guides make giant leaps across the boulders. I was terrified of the jumps, feeling how slippery wet the ground was beneath me. My legs were weak and shaky from the day before and I was tired, cold, wet and hungry. I jumped from the first rock to the second, and then to the third, remembering my thoughts on strength and pushing on when you feel like you can’t take another step. The next jump was a big one and on to a thin pointed rock. I prepared myself and leaped…..and just before my foot could reach the other rock it slipped. SMACK! The sound of my face and knee hitting the granite is a sound I’ll never forget. I was stunned. Half submerged in the river, I laid in that position and slowly raised my head. I ran my tongue along the inside of my mouth. My teeth were still in tact. I reached up and checked my chin (the part of my face that got the hardest blow) and I didn’t feel any blood. I was now soaked in river water and trembling. I could barely stand my legs were shaking so terribly, so standing up was nearly impossible. Raja called behind me to come back, but the jump I had made was so big that I knew I couldn’t do it again. I was two jumps away from reaching the other side, so I reached out for a hand and carefully jumped again, but my legs buckled underneath me and I collapsed again. I settled for wading through the rest of the rushing river and trekking up to a safe place where I could sit and hyperventilate. There’s nothing like a fall to really shake you up and take every ounce of confidence you had built up the day before and shatter it. The dramatic part of me wanted to just lay on the ground and tell the guides to leave me for dead. The more rational (but still very scared) part of me knew I had at least 6,000 ft to climb down, and now that the rain was falling harder than ever, it would be a very slippery and wet descent. We continued on and walked until we met our next river crossing. The water had risen too high and there was no way to get across safely by jumping rocks. This time with full shoes and socks on, we waded in up past our knees and crossed the river, creating a human chain. The balance and composure you have to have is impeccable. One mis-step and you send the entire group into the river. We made it safely but my wounds were burning from the cold water and my bones were aching. I could feel the bruises forming already. I wanted to lay down on the ground and have a good cry. I pushed on. I tried not to feel anything.
We reached the smaller dwelling where the guides had already made a fire and had started to dry sleeping bags and tents. The smoke was so heavy I couldn’t bear to go inside. It made my eyes burn and water and my lungs choke, so I grabbed a handful of dried garbanzo beans and sat on the step outside. My shoes and socks were totally soaked… I could feel pools of water forming inside my shoes, squishing every time I took a step. I was still in all my warm clothes from the night before, and they lay heavy with water on my body. I shivered on the stoop and closed my eyes and tried to think of how I would get through the rest of the day.
Raja asked the boys if they wanted to continue on or if they would rather retreat home, and it was unanimous that we would head back. I was relieved to hear this because I couldn’t imagine that I would ever be dry again, and trekking for another 2 full days and night feeling this cold, this wet and this in pain seemed too much to handle. We packed up our stuff and continued on.
The river crossings became harder and harder, and my legs grew weaker and weaker as we continued the steep descent down the mountain. I was stumbling and losing my footing, and couldn’t seem to find balance anywhere. I tripped over rocks and slipped on stairs, further bruising and bumping my knees and shins and elbows along the way. At some points I felt like I could barely breathe, as I clung to the sides of the mountain, sometimes almost crawling on my hands and knees. My body couldn’t take another fall. My legs felt like they were crumbling beneath me. I had hit my full threshold.
The steps down were becoming steeper and steeper, and the rocks became more challenging to climb down as the hours passed. We stopped for a break to drink some water and relax and I sat in silence, tears now fully streaming down my face. Raja asked me why I was crying, and through a trembling voice I piped up “I’m so slow”. He laughed (then realized I was serious) and reassured me, saying that treks are so personal that it doesn’t matter how fast or how slow you are…the point it to make it to your destination, not to make it there in record time. You take time to enjoy your surroundings, he said, you breathe in some of the cleanest air around, and you let yourself take on your own journey. The fact that I was still standing, still had my sense of humor, and was the same girl that showed up the first day, was proof of my true authenticity. The knocks, the falls, the come-downs…if they don’t change who you are, then that means you are a true person to your soul, he explained. I started to laugh. The tears stopped.
It got me thinking about Brene Brown’s talk about the power of vulnerability. All my life I have been a sensitive person. I feel too much and I take in too much and sometimes it has the ability to overwhelm me. In my adult life, I’ve been criticized for this, having people tell me that I’m too soft, and I’m too caring, too kind. My hearts been broken open for a long time and this allows the world to penetrate into my soul. I take things too personally. But the feelings I experience, they’re always real.
“Vulnerability sounds like truth and feels like courage. Truth and courage aren’t always comfortable, but they’re never weakness.”
Too often, we try to hold onto the good feelings and push away the bad. We surround ourselves with kind people, we seek endorphins, we revel in pleasure and we grasp tightly to our tiny little happy bubbles and try not to let anything get in through to the core. We ignore bad feelings, we discourage crying, we push away pain and continue to turn our cheeks to the sadness and the loneliness of our lives. But that’s not sustainable, and it’s not real. If you can sit with your feelings, the good, the bad, and find a way to ride the waves, then everything begins to seem a little more real. Because it is.
The mountains have a way of stripping you raw. There are no pretenses, no perceptions to live up to….the makeup is gone, the clothes are for function only…and all that’s left is you. Taking off the many masks of your life can be a terrifying thing. When you get to the heart of who you really are, you finally begin the journey of self-realization, and ultimately inner peace. And that’s what we are all searching for anyways right? But the struggle to get there is a difficult road.
I spent a lot of this trek doubting myself. Wondering if I could make it, if I could keep up, what the guides might be thinking of me, whether I’d be perceived as strong or weak. It’s ultimately my constant struggle to feel like I belong. So often in my everyday life I feel that I don’t. For those of us with broken hearts, the world can be a lonely and strange place. It makes you question yourself and fill your life by keeping busy, creating facades, and trying to maintain an image that you hope the rest of the world will cradle in it’s arms. But when the approval of others isn’t enough to sustain the longing, those feelings of not belonging become suffocating.
I searched for a long time the meaning of this trek….how I could feel so ecstatic one day and so low the next? What was the purpose, the calling of this pain? Why did I have to fall so hard? Why did it have to rain? I feel like total and utter shit now. Slow, clumsy, foolish. What’s the point again?
What I’ve found, (and probably deep down always known to be true) is that it takes courage to be who you really are. And to be proud of who you are. Courage starts with showing up and letting the world get a good look at you. Naked, raw, exposed, take it or leave it. When we stop allowing ourselves to be judged by others, we stop judging ourselves. You stop throwing the put downs and you lift yourself up. You pick up the pieces once you’ve fallen and you trek on.
Taking ownership of our story is tough. Sometimes the truth is hard to face. And on occasion, we get knocked down (or in this case smash our face against a rock). But taking away any of harder the experiences I had on the trek would make the joy of reaching the top less. Allowing myself to feel vulnerable and exposed gave me the power to surrender into the love and the beauty and the magic of the nature that surrounded me. The mountain caught me when I fell. She protected me when I scrambled down her side. I left some skin on her and she left some marks on me, but it was those times when I appreciated her most. The moments afterward seemed sweeter. The victories more amazing. I finally felt a sense of belonging. I had let myself be opened, and I didn’t fall apart. I presented my most authentic, flawed, imperfect, clumsy self to the world and in the end I stopped waiting for the approval of others and ultimately embraced myself, chanting: I survived. I survived. I survived.
The final hours down the mountain were bittersweet. The jeep didn’t know we were coming home early so we walked those extra 3km that we were spared in the beginning. The moment I saw the bridge leading to the town where we first had chai, my heart lifted. That bridge seemed like the longest walk of my life….like a million miles long even though it was only a couple hundred feet. Sitting back down in the roadside stall for chai seemed surreal. Were we really here only 24 hours ago? In my mind it was as if we had been gone for a week. We sipped chai and shared a small bag of Indian spiced potato chips while we waited for the car. This and the piece of bread in the morning were all I had to eat all day. I was almost too tired to be hungry, but the stale salty chips tasted like heaven.
We piled into the jeep once again and I leaned my head against the window. Truly two of the most brilliant and harrowing days of my life had been experienced out in those mountains. My breath was soft and heavy as I shivered, still cold and wet, thinking about what I had just been through. I watched the mountains drift into the background as we drove further and further away into a golden sunset. I opened my raw heart to the mountains one more time before they disappeared in the rear view mirror.
“To be a spiritual warrior,
one must have a broken heart;
without a broken heart
and the sense of tenderness and vulnerability
that is in one’s self and all others,
your warriorship is untrustworthy.”