When my friend asked me if I’d join him on a three-week climbing expedition in the Himalayas, thrill and anxiety were the emotions I experienced, especially when I learned that the climb was graded 'extremely strenuous’.
As an untrained middle-aged man who couldn’t run a mile, I was under no illusion about my physical ability to endure such a feat. I also knew that I wouldn’t be able to change this condition in the couple of weeks leading up to the departure. So rather than working on my physical fitness, which I hoped would take care of itself during the adventure – albeit the hard way – it was my mind that needed some intense preparation. I realised that being so unfit, my body wouldn’t cope with my normal mindset of achievement, competitiveness and overcoming challenges. To survive the trek, my attitude would need a major readjustment.
Unlike physical training, my mental training routine (which consisted predominantly of mind games and visualisation exercises) could be done anywhere, anytime – even during the hectic preparation schedule that preceded our departure. So when the eight-seater aircraft was finally dropping onto the steep Himalayan airstrip from which we were to start our trek, 3,000 metres above sea level, effortless trekking was my frame of mind. That is, if it gets hard, slow down; if it’s still hard, rest.
The first day involved a mild, short walk to let the body acclimatise to the altitude and the walking. At night we met other climbers. Those who were also on their way to the mountains were boasting about their preparation, training and fitness; those on the way back were talking about how strenuous (though amazing) their experience had been. Hearing this, I knew, more than ever, that it was my mind that would make this journey either an experience of a lifetime… or a disaster.
The awe-inspiring Himalayan scenery kept changing as altitude increased. The mountains grew taller, the vegetation was replaced by ice-covered cliffs, and as the air got thinner, each move was harder than the one before. But otherwise, the days were all alike: getting up before first light and walking and climbing for the rest of the day. Step by step, up or down, I concentrated on keeping my state of mind. I had nothing to prove to anyone – least of all to myself. Other could be slower or faster, it did not matter. I was continuously conscious of my breathing: never moving too fast to lose my breath; never too fast to miss a sight, a flower or a passing bird. Climbing was not to become a routine, and there was not a single moment when I was unwilling to pause, look around, and feel astonished that I was really there.
As the days passed, fitness did not seem to matter any longer. Even the fittest of climbers were starting to feel the accumulated strain: the minor injuries that had become major irritations without proper rest and care, and the effects of the many too-cold-to-sleep nights. In some way, it seemed as if the fitter the person had been, the more they found it harder later on – as if they were not accustomed to dealing with situations in which their fitness alone was not enough. But there was no choice. With no communication or means of transportation, carrying your body weight was the only way up, and the only way back home.
However, this lack of choice was liberating, and I realised how enslaving my full-of-choice life back home really was. What should I do today? Who do I go out with? Having choices had taken my freedom away. Enslavement to choice is a curse, just like any other enslavement. But in the mountains there were no options: I was moving on because I needed to reach the night’s shelter; I was eating because I was hungry. There was no other option whatsoever.
I had always believed that choice meant control. But in the world’s highest mountains range, which emerged millions of years ago from the sea and will eventually go back there again, what meaning could the term ‘control’ have? Frequent avalanches and rockslides in the surrounding mountains made me aware that at any moment a new name may be added to the hundreds of memorial stones along the way. This, I realised, was no different in the world I left behind, only there I was too vain or preoccupied to notice that control was nothing but an attractive illusion.
Like getting used to carrying a heavy backpack, barely noticing it was there until the moment you remove it; in losing choice I experienced a similar feeling. As nothing was under my control any longer, there was nothing to worry about. My mind could roam free, and I experienced happiness I never knew existed.
All my life I had made plans, set priorities and believed that my ideas were important. But now, without plans and worries, my mind was working like it had never done before. Every sight could trigger a flood of knowledge, some of which I hadn’t accessed since my school days. I recognised the stars I saw at night and remembered how they were formed; I could recall the details of the creation of the Himalayas and the history of its people. I could also easily acquire new memories and remember every turn along the way and every flower I saw. It was as if a new mind was bestowed upon me.
And then, half-way up, my perception changed. Sensations were floating through my mind without touching me. There was no difference between the brightly coloured rose finches pecking the snow patches in search of food, or the smell of the smoke coming from burning yak manure in a nearby village. Words like ‘beautiful’, ‘magnificent’ or ‘ugly’ lost their meaning, and the bright white glacier above my head was no more amazing than the little pebble at my feet. How can I say that one is more magnificent than the other?
I was still the same person with the same body. I could feel the cold breeze biting my face; I was not immune to severe diarrhoea or sinusitis. Discomfort was still discomfort; pain was pain, but it didn’t bother me and I didn’t suffer. I still got hungry and needed food, but hunger was not suffering, it was just the need of food.
It was an experience I couldn’t find words to convey to those around me, who had noticed the change. “If it’s only the next step that is important,” they pried, “why do you insist on reaching the peak, and not simply stay here?”
Was it just another illusion that it didn’t matter, one of so many lies you convince yourself to be true? I had to know, and I decided to stop, and the very last mile before reaching the pinnacle – the ultimate goal – I had to know, maybe for the first time in my life, how it would feel not to reach my destination.
The others kept climbing up and I stayed. There was no feeling of missing out on anything when they were having the view from the top while I was looking at the rocks and moss at the bottom. There was no jealousy when they returned, told their stories. The magnificent view they saw and my sitting a few hundred feet below were all the same to me. It made no difference whatsoever.
Then we all turned back and started the long descend – one step at a time.
Time have passed and the intensity of the experience has diminished. In some sense, life back home is still as it had always been: I still make plans and strive to achieve my goals, my imperfect memory is back, and so are my old mental abilities. But something subtle, barely noticeable, yet fundamental has changed. The big ancient tree in the back yard is still beautiful, but no more than the weeds in the pavement. I enjoy looking at both just the same. I still try to avoid failing, but there is no pain when I do; there is no feeling of urgency or struggle, even when urgency is required. Yet, in some mysterious way, I now achieve more with less – more than ever before.