The mountain is smiling

The experience of trekking in the Himalayas was, in a word, incredible.

I am so grateful that I had this opportunity and that I didn’t let fear stop me from going for it. It was truly one of the most amazing experiences of my life.


Eva and I did a trek in the Annapurna region of the Himalayas called the Mardi Himal trek.

It took seven days, including one day which was spent sitting around the trekking lodge because the weather was too bad to bother trying to hike.

IMG_1483Eva and me right before starting our trek


We spent most of our days hiking on well-maintained trails through beautiful forests.


It did rain several times, which made the forest look magical (above) but also made the trail really muddy.


We stayed in trekking lodges along the way, like the one pictured above. In the foreground is the kitchen/dining room/common area. Behind is the building with rooms and to the right is the latrine/shower.

Our guide told us that when he first started working as a porter, about 30 years ago, he helped build these lodges by carrying stones up the mountain for days.

I thought about that a lot with all of the things we saw along the trail – the lodges, the hundreds of steps made from stone – a huge amount of effort went into getting the materials to that place on the mountain and building them. A lot of human labor went into building these things so they could be used by tourists like me.

There are roads to some of the lower points on the mountain now, but after about a day of hiking, there are no longer any roads. So the only way in or out is walking or by helicopter.


We hiked for 4-8 hours a day, stopping for tea and for meals in the lodges along the way. Our guide, Ammar, was very protective and careful with us and insisted on these frequent stops and a steady pace. He also carried a seemingly endless supply of Snickers bars in his bag, and doled them out to us when we seemed tired in between stops.

The infrastructure that exists in Nepal for trekking was really rather remarkable. I imagine my trek was a very different experience than that of someone who did this 20-30 years ago. At that time, Ammar told us, trekkers (or their porters) would have to carry in all their food and camping gear as well as all the other gear that we were carrying.


We woke up very early in the unheated lodges and saw some absolutely breathtaking sunrises.

The feeling I got when stumbling from my sleeping bag, out the door of the lodge, and being surrounded by such magnificent nature was just incredible. These mountains are definitely another example of a thin place – where the border between heaven and earth is blurred (I wrote about this concept in Greece, read it here).

I experienced such an intense feeling of gratitude on these mornings. The phrase “achingly beautiful” came to life for me here. Because that’s the only way to describe sitting in nature and seeing the sun slowly climb over the jagged Himalayas as they reach boldly into the sky. It is so incredible that it actually hurts your heart in a way.

And even though the lodges and the trails are well-developed, it is still quite a remote place. So many people will never get to see this magnificence, and I was so overwhelmed with the good fortune that allowed me to experience it.


The plan was for the trek to culminate at the Mardi Himal Base Camp – the place where alpine climbers start an ascent to the actual top of the mountain. But on the day that we were supposed to hike to the base camp, we woke at 5am to the entire mountain being covered in a cold, dark, cloud. Ammar said there was no point in hiking – we would be miserable and we wouldn’t be able to see the spectacular view at the top. Eva and I trusted his advice, but we were worried that we were missing out as other groups decided to hike, assuming the cloud cover would lift later (it didn’t, as it turns out, and everyone came back soaking wet and freezing).

So we spent a day in the lodge, sitting around a wood stove with other trekkers and their guides and the staff from the lodge as the cloud sat outside and rain and snow fell intermittently. It actually was a pretty fun day. At one point, we organized an impromptu yoga session around the wood stove. Those of us who knew some yoga each took a turn leading some poses and teaching a group of giggly young Nepali women who had never done yoga before. I also met a young Nepali man who had lived in Colorado. He had gone to college there, and then worked on search and rescue in the mountains. After ten years, he decided to come back to Nepal to help his country build the type of search and rescue capabilities that we have in the States.


The next morning, we awoke at 4:30am to discover that the sky had cleared and the mountains were visible by the light of the sun that was just starting to creep up behind them. No sooner had we seen the beautiful view than the clouds rushed over and covered it again. But Ammar said that today would be a good day to hike, so we packed breakfast, had a quick cup of tea, and started off.

It had snowed the night before and it continued snowing at intervals as we hiked through the clouds. But after a few hours, we hiked a pretty steep ascent and found ourselves on a long plateau with the clouds clearing. Before our eyes, the mountains emerged one by one as gentle winds pushed the clouds away.


“The mountain is smiling,” Ammar told us as we pointed at each peak that poked out of the cloud cover, “everyone is happy today.”


We kept hiking as far as we could go, but shortly after this point it became clear that we couldn’t make it to the base camp, another hour or two away, because of our shoes. I was wearing worn-out running shoes and Eva was wearing slightly less worn out sneakers. We had opted not to rent trekking boots because others had told us that sneakers would suffice for this trek, and that we were likely to get blisters by trekking many hours in shoes that we weren’t used to. Sneakers probably would have been fine had it not snowed the night before, but when we started to ascend near the base camp, there was a section of snow-covered rocks that was just too slippery to risk with our footwear.

But it didn’t matter. Neither of us was seeking to reach a certain point – we wanted the experience of doing the trek, and seeing the Himalayas, and we had done both of those things.

We found a few rocks to perch on and have our breakfast/tea that we had brought and we took in the surroundings.

IMG_8610Eva, me and Ammar

Soon, two Nepali trekkers appeared nearby and started playing music from a phone and dancing. Everyone was so happy to be there and to be seeing the mountains so clearly – the joy was infectious. Eva and I went over and joined them, and soon Ammar joined us as well. What a funny and beautiful moment – five people dancing out of pure joy on a mountain.


The clouds started creeping back up and we turned around to head back to the lodge. It took a lot longer going down than it seemed like it should. Mountains are always like that – the descent is tougher than the ascent in some ways.

It took us a few days to get down the mountain from the peak of our trek, and each day continued to bring its own beauty. We followed the same route out until the last day, when we diverged from the route that we took in.


This final day, we hiked through several small villages in the foothills of the mountains as we made our way to the road where we would be picked up. This was one of my favorite parts of the trek. I was so in love with the Nepali countryside, the architecture of these small houses, the farmlands and the livestock that were grazing near the houses, the laundry hanging on lines to dry, the way the people fit into the nature.


I enjoyed this part so much that I seriously considered doing a second trek after we returned from this one. I was very interested in walking through more of these villages, taking my time, meeting people.


We had been experiencing natural beauty for the past six days, and this seventh day switched to human beauty, which is something I’m very interested in. The reason I travel is actually mostly in search of human beauty, to see the way other people live, to find the common humanity between all of us, despite our differences, and to experience human connection. So I absolutely loved this day of descending slowly through villages, through farms, and alongside Nepali people going about their days.


See the picture above, where it says “Once is Not Enough”?

It’s true. Now that I have experienced the magic of Nepal, I do feel the pull to go back. That’s the problem with traveling and expanding your view of the world. It introduces you to so many new things and ideas that you return home with an even longer bucket list than you started with.

What an incredible world we live in.

Do something that scares you

Going to Nepal was outside my comfort zone.


Nepal was a place that my brother would go. (And did go – and wrote an entire book about it – you can read it here.)

Mountains are his thing.

Still, as I traveled through India, the idea of going to this small country famous for its Himalayan peaks crept into my mind and stayed.

I toyed with the idea of doing some volunteer work in Nepal, which is more “my thing.” But I didn’t really have enough time to devote to make it meaningful.

And I kept thinking about doing a trek in the Himalayas.

But that was REALLY far outside my comfort zone.

Again, hiking is Daniel’s thing. I’ve never enjoyed it much, though I’m ashamed to admit that as a Coloradan. And I’ve always thought that I’m not very good at it. The Himalayas seemed like they might be more than i could handle.

But the idea kept coming back: Maybe I should go to Nepal and go trekking.

And while it scared me, I resolved not to let fear make my decisions.

Growth is about doing things that are uncomfortable. I figured that if it made me nervous, that was even more reason to do it.

And, my friend Eva, with whom I traveled in India, happened to be in Nepal and was available as a trekking partner. So I decided to seize the opportunity.


You might remember me saying that I bought a very last-minute ticket from Delhi to Kathmandu, somewhat impulsively. Doing so meant that I left India in such a flurry of activity that I forgot one of the major things I had feared about Nepal: flying into the Kathmandu airport. It is known as a somewhat dangerous airport, located in a valley, having only one runway and lacking some of the technology that other airports have. It has seen a few plane crashes, including two in 2018. And though I do a lot of flying because I love going places, I actually have a slight fear of flying, based on an illogical belief that planes are huge pieces of metal which will eventually fall out of the sky.

So anyway, it was good that I forgotten about this. That is, until we had almost arrived and the captain made an announcement that the weather was bad over Kathmandu and we would need to circle the airport until we could make an attempt at landing. An attempt? What did that mean? My heart started beating faster and I turned up the music playing through my headphones as I told myself to breathe, that it would be fine.

Some time later, the pilot announced that the weather still wasn’t great but we were going to try to land. However, he said, we only had one chance to attempt the landing because of the location of the airport. There was that word again, “attempt.” Why was he telling us this? What happened if the attempt failed?

As the plane descended through seemingly endless clouds, bumping and shaking like we were driving on a massive dirt road, I gripped my armrest until my knuckles turned white. I honestly thought I might die that day. And oddly, I made my peace with the idea, and I didn’t regret being on that plane. If I didn’t live past that moment, I thought, I had used my time on earth pretty well. Of course I wanted more. But if it had to end there, I realized, at least I felt like I had lived. I closed my eyes, took deep breaths and went over happy memories in my head.

Suddenly, the wheels touched the ground and I was thrown forward in my seat as the plane slammed on its brakes to slow down before the end of the short runway. I blinked my eyes open, unclenched my hands, and looked at the Nepali woman sitting next to me. We both took a breath and smiled.

Still alive. One fear conquered.

When the plane came to a stop and we climbed down the roll-up stairs onto the tarmac, the air felt cool and fresh compared with the air in Delhi, where I had boarded the plane. Beneath the curtain of clouds, everything was not nearly as scary as I had imagined it to be. There were no mountains in proximity to the runway, extremely ample space for a commercial plane to land, and the actual airport was small and cozy-looking. The outskirts of Kathmandu were visible from the tarmac and it looked different than anything I had ever seen.

I felt the excited little leap in my heart that comes from experiencing something totally new and a sincere gratitude to be alive.


Eva and I spent a few days in Kathmandu after my arrival, but we didn’t leave the tourist/trekking section of Kathmandu, called Thamel, a place that I found pretty oppressive. Completely void of Nepali culture, Thamel features rows and rows of trekking agencies, stores selling knockoff trekking equipment and/or traveler clothing, and expensive restaurants featuring foreign foods.

The trekking industry in Kathmandu seemed to me like a huge monster, with tentacles reaching out and sucking money out of the many foreigners who are clogging the streets of Thamel at all times. There are so many people who fly into Kathmandu and go trekking every day that I had the distinct feeling of being an item passing through an assembly line – just one of many identical things that goes through and deposits money and leaves.

IMG_1439Paying for our trek (the Nepali rupee is ridiculously inflated, but it was also a lot of money)

It was a strange place and I was relieved when we finally had procured all the necessary gear and permits and we left the city for the mountain town of Pokhara, the launching point for most treks in the Annapurna region of Nepal.

Despite horror stories that I had heard about reckless Nepali driving and of buses plunging off the sides of mountain roads in Nepal, the 8-hour trip went smoothly and was pleasant, with a bus that stopped nearly every hour for bathroom breaks and snacks. Eva and I couldn’t believe the luxury of this after traveling in India, where buses sometimes stopped only once during a long journey for a bathroom break and even then sometimes there was actually no bathroom, just an opportunity for the men to pee on the side of the road.


That evening, we met our guide, went over our route and agreed to leave early the next morning. Eva and I were both a bit nervous as we had dinner and shared an Everest beer. The Himalayas loomed in our minds, though we couldn’t see them from the town because of cloud cover. We both took mountains seriously and knew there were risks involved in an endeavor like this, just like any time one goes into nature.

We mused about what the next week might be like. We communicated with our families, let them know they might not hear from us for a while. We re-checked our supplies and re-packed our bag. We sent some prayers into the universe for a safe and meaningful trek, and the atmosphere was serious as we went to bed early.

Our adventure would start in the morning.