Reaching New Heights
Three Life Lessons from Crossing the World's Highest Mountain Pass
*This article originally appeared on Thrive Global Community in October 2017.
In north-central Nepal lies the mighty Annapurna mountain range, part of the famed Himalayas and boasting some of the world’s tallest peaks, including Thorong La, the highest mountain pass on Earth (5,417m). In Sanskrit, Annapurna can be translated to “(she who is) replete with food," and during our recent weeklong trek of the spectacular Annapurna Circuit trail, we found these mountains not only provided for us physically with tasty dal bhat and freshly baked apple pies at the many guesthouses along the way but also nourished our souls with life lessons we won’t soon forget.
The Annapurna Circuit follows old walking and herding paths (now a carved-out road in some places) through many divergent climates around the towering Annapurna massif, passing small Hindu villages in the lower tropical terrain to traditional Tibetan mountain villages toward its remarkable mountain pass. The trail is popular with all levels of travelers from experienced explorers to more novice backpackers and even families, but don’t get us wrong, it is a tough climb, especially as the air thins and the path becomes amazingly steep. The trek took us seven days (including a day of rest and acclimatization) of walking more than 100 kilometres, taking some 173,000 steps and climbing the equivalent of 1,143 floors (thanks, Apple Health!). This was certainly the hardest, most challenging, most beautiful, most inspiring thing we’d ever done, and the feeling of raising our hiking poles in the arctic air as we climbed over the pass was truly breathtaking (literally). Here's what we learned from our journey up the mountain:
Your Breath Will Carry You.
The trek was often grueling, some days walking nearly 23 kilometres, most often uphill, while carrying 10-12 kilograms on our backs. In challenging times, it’s amazing what our minds will tell us based on our conditioning: “You’re not going to make it,” “This is too hard, too steep,” or “Wow, your knee sure is hurting, you better sit this one out.” But we found that the secret for powering through was to simply return to our breath, allowing it to carry us along, one foot in front of the other.
In life, our minds often do this exact thing, telling us, “You’re never going to be able to finish this project,” “You don’t deserve that promotion,” or “She has the life—the boyfriend, the apartment, the career—that you will never be able to achieve.” Unfortunately, our minds can be our own worst enemies during times when we need them to be our biggest cheerleaders and motivators. But in any situation, whether climbing a mountain or going in for a job interview, if you can return to your breath, it will surely carry you.
Everyone Has Their Own Plan. Ignore Them!
During the trek, it was so easy to get caught up in other people’s goals or ambitions for completing the Annapurna Circuit. Some started from the very first village and walked many kilometres before we’d even taken an initial step, some had plans to do days-long side treks to hidden lakes or holy temples, and others planned to take twice as long to complete the Circuit, walking only a few kilometres a day in order to rest and take in the stunning surroundings. Everyone was following their own plans and many had opinions or thoughts on how our trek should go. But given the strenuous conditions, our competitiveness and ambitions were forced to step aside in order to honestly evaluate our strengths, intentions and challenges of the trail ahead. This time in the magnificent Himalayas was ours to enjoy, and when we ignored all the noise around us, we found we actually performed better each day, not minding so much if we were passed up or left behind because we knew we were going at a pace that worked for us.
Like the trail, life can be noisy, and we tend to compare ourselves to our colleagues and neighbors in terms of success. But instead of trying to keep up the Joneses, if you set your own personal life goals and intentions (and equally important, set aside time for reflection and gratitude), you can avoid the distractions that might come up and stay focused on living your best life.
During Any Challenge, Take a Time Out.
Setting out on this trek, one of our intentions was to be kinder and gentler to ourselves, something we had to re-learn after years of living in the high-stress environment of New York City. Before we began any big stretch of climbing, we simply rested, putting down our packs, having some water and perhaps a snack in the cool shade of an evergreen tree. Sometimes even mid-climb, only a few metres up the path, we’d stop to rest on our poles or on the rock benches we’d occasionally find along the way.
In today's world, we are frequently taught to “power through," often putting work before play and rest, but because of the dramatic change in altitude, not to mention the steepness of some climbs, it was vital that we go slow and take breaks in order to complete that day’s leg of the trek. We can be so hard on ourselves physically and mentally when facing any challenge, habitually forgetting to take breaks when we’re overwhelmed or avoiding any opportunity to step away and clear our minds (or even more novel, take a vacation) during a busy period. It sounds counterintuitive, but if you can take time to recharge along the way, in the middle of it all, and come back to a task when you’re more rested and relaxed, you will undoubtedly be more productive and successful at whatever you aim to accomplish.
Our time trekking in the Himalayas was certainly scenic and serene, but beyond the beautiful images (both mental and on our camera rolls), we’ll always remember the lessons these sacred mountains fed us during our climb.