When I think back on it, it was with exceedingly little consideration that I’d decided to hike the Annapurna Circuit. The decision-making process went something like this: I’m in Nepal. Should probs do a hike.
Why I was in Nepal was because I’d been in Thailand – the islands of Thailand, to be precise. Why I’d been in the islands of Thailand was because I’d been craving a holiday spot hot, beachy and full of merry-makers. And I couldn’t have picked a holiday spot better: Thailand’s islands are all of those things to a T (hence the country’s name: T-island).
In fact, so terrifically had I chosen my holidaying destination, that by day six I was terrifically over it. I was totally, utterly, excruciatingly bored of tropical bliss. And Nepal – or at least the little I knew about it: cold, high-up, full of yetis – seemed the perfect antidote. So I boarded a ferry to the mainland, railed back to Bangkok, booked a flight to Kathmandu and flew there.
Within 24 hours of touching down in Nepal, I‘d booked myself onto a guided trek around the country’s famed 18-day Annapurna Circuit. Within 72 hours, I was trekking that trek. I had 19 kilos worth of pack on my back, sweat on my brow, dust cloaking my face and aches in places I’d never known were made to ache. My water was a mixture of iodine and frozen. Dinner was rice, dal bhat, pickles and momos – tasty, but a far cry from the fresh seafood curries I’d been gorging myself on back in Ko Phi Phi. And I was happy beyond belief.
If there’s one thing that hiking in the mountains inspires – aside from aches – it’s reflection. Perhaps it’s due to the lack of oxygen or humbling mountain backdrops. Perhaps it’s the frequently encountered Buddhist iconography or vast expanses of silence. Perhaps it’s simply the inherently solitary and meditative quality of walking, of being concerned with little more than plodding along, one foot in front of the other. I can’t say. But as I slowly worked my way around the Annapurnas, the philosophical quandary I kept returning to was that I – and countless others behind and before me – had coughed up some serious dosh, essentially, in the interest of making life more difficult.
Typically, people spend vast amounts of money trying to achieve just the opposite. Dishwashing machines, microwave dinners, remote controls, tax agents, house cleaners, cars: all goods and services made to make life an easier ride. You don’t hear of folk hiring ‘un-cleaners’ to come in and mess their house up, or uploading computer viruses to their own computer for the thrill of inconvenience. And yet here I was paying good money to keep company with coldness, altitude, uppity weather, physical toil, geographic isolation, the threat of avalanches, yaks, snow leopards and yetis…. why?
‘When we are no longer able to change a situation,’ writes Viktor E. Frankl in Man’s Search for Meaning, ‘we are challenged to change ourselves.’ When I’d read this for the first time, sprawled out on Ko Phi Phi’s flawless sands, I’d met it with a yawn, turned the page and wondered whether to order just one cocktail or two. Eleven days later and 5.4 km higher, as I sweated, struggled and swore my ass over the Thorong La pass, the words suddenly recurred to me. ‘When we are no longer able to change a situation, we are challenged to change ourselves’. Approach, accept, adapt.
That more daring challenges have of course been undertaken than an 18-day wander around the Annapurna Circuit is beside the point. A challenge is a challenge only in so much as it tests the challenger. For a toddler, the trek would be a challenge pretty much insurmountable, and for a professional mountaineer, a walk in the park.
For me it was somewhere in between. At certain stages during the trek I was physically exhausted. But if you want to complete it, the only way to do so is to do so. And I’d argue that it’s this – the remarkable, take-no-prisoners simplicity of the equation – that is the attraction. When the trekking gets tough there’s no chairlift to jump on, no bus to board, no short cut to take. It’s not a movie you can walk out of or a team game you can ring in a substitute for if things get tiresome. You take a break… and then you get back to it.
Mountains can’t be moved, altitude adjusted, valleys sewn up. The environment – your ‘situation’ – can’t be changed. When feeling the burn, all that you have in your ability to alter is your attitude. The physical challenge becomes a mental one and you’re left with nothing more than the challenge of changing yourself.
Feature image c/o jbobo7, Flickr