Nepal / Southeast Asia

Mentally Prepared, Physically Inept (or how I spent one week on the couch before hiking the Himalayas)

After spending two weeks in Nepal, I’ve finally returned to the land of western toilets and electricity–where wifi is everywhere and planned, power, and outages are not words that go together.

Before I left, I posted about my what-I-believed-to-be thorough preparations for this school funded trip to Nepal. I wrote about my reading list, my cultural preparations and my environmental considerations. I thought I had everything under control. What other college student from Massachusetts could tell you five different ways to remove a leech and the pros and cons of each tactic?

And despite all that preparation, I knew things wouldn’t go as planned and we would have to roll with the punches. Boy, was that an understatement.

We arrived in Nepal after nearly 24-hours of flying, 2 layovers, and  9 questionable airport meals. And although we were pretty wiped out from the trip, it was 9 a.m. in Kathmandu and what we thought would be our only day to sight see. So we spent the next twelve hours dodging traffic, avoiding would-be tour guides, and being thoroughly ripped off by rickshaw drivers because we were being  dumb Americans. But more on the city later…

The next day we were scheduled to begin our trek so after a deep sleep on the fourth floor of our hotel on a quiet street in Thamel (the tourist capital of Kathmandu), we headed out with our packs secured to our backs after our guide. The plan was to catch a 8-9 hour bus that morning to Sybrubesi that followed narrow roads along the edges of mountain cliffs and spend the night in the village before beginning our trek the following day.

From the moment we arrived at the bus stop, plans changed.

“We have a small problem,” our guide said after consulting the hoards of other Nepalis at the stop, “actually it’s quite a huge problem.”

It turns out, the bus had arbitrarily decided not to run on that day, so in less than two minutes, our nine months of preparations for the Langtang Heritage Trail were dashed. Since our guide knew we had to be back in the city in time to catch our flight two-weeks later we made the split second decision to do another, closer, trek: Helambu.

We let the change of plans roll off of us like rain and within two minutes we were driving in a taxi to another local bus stop, excited about our new destination and rearing to go.

DSC_3142

After a much shorter bus ride we arrived at Melamchi where we stopped for lunch. According to our original itinerary the first day was just intended as a travel day, so Ellie and I were both prepared to have lunch and settle in for the night at a tea house in town. The last thing we wanted to do was seem unprepared when our guide asked us if we were ready to begin our hike after our huge lunch was finished.

“We will climb up today,” he said. “Ready to go?”

We nodded and confidently set out for the trek, stepping deliberately and powerfully along the first gravel roads on our way out of town. This isn’t so bad, I thought. My backpack isn’t as heavy as I thought it would be. I’m so ready for the day.

6-hours, straight-up. This was the only picture I took for hours because I couldn't manage to pull out my camera on account of all the heavy breathing and nearly dying.

6-hours, straight-up. This was the only picture I took for hours because I couldn’t manage to pull out my camera on account of all the heavy breathing and nearly dying.

20-minutes in I was bent over a rock on the trail, gasping for breath, clutching my back as 6 and 7-year-old children ran past me up the hill laughing. Who could blame them? Even then, I knew I must have looked ridiculous.

One of the kids asked us to take a picture of him.

One of the kids asked us to take a picture of him when he took a break from laughing.

30-minutes in, and only slightly further up the mountain I found myself in the same position. By the 40-minute mark our guide had to stop me to empty a huge portion of the contents of my backpack into his bag. When I wasn’t desperately trying to breath or keep my head from shattering from the incessant pounding, I was internally cussing like a sailor and trying to figure out a way to tell Ellie and the guide that I couldn’t do this. We needed to turn back.

When he said, “we will climb up today,” he wasn’t joking. We walked straight up the side of a mountain (steeper than I’ve ever seen before in my life) for 6-hours.

The mantra running through my head all day became louder and louder with every step: I can’t do this. I can’t do this. What was I thinking? Who signed me up for this? But despite internal repetition, my mantra never found a voice and I kept moving up slowly, one step at a time.

I later discovered that my pacing and breathing (through my mouth) were way off and I was really screwing myself over by looking so far ahead on the trail every time we turned a corner. But it would be two more days before I figured that all out. And in the meantime I grudgingly thought up the name for this post.

When my brain took a break from cussing and trying to figure out an escape, I blamed myself for my lack of physical preparation. I was so wrong to think that, just because I’m young, I would be able to trek for over a week in the Himalayas without working out. I was so out of shape, and this was my wake up call. Because, when it came down to it, if we didn’t make it to the end of the trek, there was no other way out of the mountains. I’d be living in a tea house in the Nepali mountainside for the rest of my life.

Ellie jokes that if it weren’t for the gluten-free cookies our guide carried ahead of us in his bag, I would still be on a rock somewhere close to town from that first trekking day.

The view from our room at the first tea house, taken moments before I passed out.

The view from our room at the first tea house, taken moments before I passed out.

Maybe Ellie was right about the cookies, maybe it was sheer force of will, but somehow I made it through that day–I am not currently writing this post from a rock in the Himalayas. And as the tea house came into view ahead of us I thought I might cry with happiness and kiss the  flat ground below my feet. I’ve never done anything so difficult in my entire life and suddenly, on the trail, none of the educational preparations mattered anymore. All that mattered was your most basic body functions–breathing, moving forward and keeping pace.

Nothing was more difficult than that first day, and luckily the cookies were there for me when we finally stopped moving–just like I knew they would be.

 

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10 thoughts on “Mentally Prepared, Physically Inept (or how I spent one week on the couch before hiking the Himalayas)

  1. Wow! I was enraptured from the very beginning, dying to know how your story would end. I’ve been in similar situations, though certainly not in Nepal (yet!). Somehow Nepal has always been a draw for me. But altitude can have crazy effects on your system! Congratulations for sticking it out. I like this part: “All that mattered was your most basic body functions–breathing, moving forward and keeping pace.”
    Can’t wait to read more!

    • Thanks Christy!! I certainly feel accomplished from that day, I can’t believe I made it back to tell the tale. I’ll be slowly posting more this week, there are so many wonderful stories to tell from the trip.

      I’ll be excited to read all about it when you get to trek in Nepal someday soon =) and now you know to breath through your nose from the start!

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  6. HI Rachel, a friend and myself are doing the Helambu trek in September 2015 and looking forward to it 🙂 i am not by no means fit, and climbs and me are not friends 😦 can you tell me what kind of kit you took with you etc… thanks Paula

    • Paula,

      Feel free to reach out to me by email and I can give you some more info if you’re still interested in going to Nepal. I was so saddened to hear about the earthquake there. I don’t know if you’re still considering your trip at this point, but in any case my email is thepennilesstraveler@yahoo.com and I’d love to answer whatever questions I can!

      Rachel

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