Friday, November 15, 2013

Beyond the Northwest: Himalayan Dreams

A journey of a thousand miles begins with one step - Lao Tzu
Occasionally I stray outside the Pacific Northwest for adventures.  Today's post is dedicated to the late Mary Gales, who helped me immeasurably on this and many other journeys. I hope you read through, enjoy, and share.

I was leaving in less than 3 weeks for my lifelong dream trip to trek in the Himalayas, and my right calf was so irritated that I couldn’t even walk uphill to my San Francisco sublet.  Based on the trip leader’s guidelines, I should have been wrapping up at least 6 months of hard training by now. 
This was not good.

From the first time I read about the Himalayas in National Geographic as a girl, a passion to see the world’s highest peaks grabbed hold and never let go.  In my 20s, I heard about friends’ trips trekking in Nepal and began thinking about my own adventure there. 
But the onset of an autoimmune condition in my early 30s left me limping with debilitating Achilles tendinitis and plantar fasciitis, sedentary and depressed.  
After slowly regaining strength and stamina over several years with the help of my physical therapist Mary, I made plans to celebrate a milestone birthday:  3 weeks in Bhutan, with a rigorous trek.

I planned to spend all fall and winter hiking in the foothills and skiing in the Cascade Mountains as training for the spring trek. But crazy deadlines kept me working long hours at a desk job, with numerous Seattle-San Francisco trips.  
Didn't happen that winter!
And then my Achilles tendinitis flared again, seizing up my right calf muscles as well.
After much agonizing, I called the trip leader a month before the trip and cancelled...but I just couldn't give up that easily. The next day I called back and rejoined—I’d chill in town while the rest of group was trekking.  It wouldn’t be the dream trip, but at least I’d be in the Himalayas.

Ten days before departure, I finished the last deadline and returned to Seattle. At Mary’s urging, I scheduled almost daily physical therapy, massage, and acupuncture treatments. 
“You need to get out and walk," said Mary. “Just go walk around Green Lake.”  So I did.

Not Green Lake, but a popular sea level lake in Seattle.

Green Lake, a flat 3-mile loop in Seattle, near sea level—is not where people go to train for hiking in the Himalayas.  But it felt good to walk outside.
Mary told me to pack my hiking gear and sleeping bag, just in case.  So I did. 

When I stepped off the plane onto the tarmac in Bhutan, I shed tears of joy. After years of anticipation, there were the Himalayas! Sweet fresh mountain air filled my lungs, and the sunshine made me squint. Green forest-covered hills rose up close beyond the runway, bracketing the small airport.
For the warm-up hike the next day, our destination was a small 400-year-old Buddhist temple perched on a cliff. I tagged along, figuring I could handle a shorter hike.  Inside monks were chanting in the wood-beamed, candlelit room, where sweet incense smoke wafted upward in delicate tendrils.  I felt transported back to an earlier and simpler time, so blessed to be there.

Then the magic started to happen. 

After a couple days in Bhutan, the tendinitis stopped bothering me and my calf relaxed. I realized clearly:  There’s no way I’d travel halfway around the world to the Himalayas and not go trekking.  I had to try. And whatever happened, I’d deal with it.
With the group’s encouragement, I joined the trek.  The first day was a fairly level route alongside a river up a forested valley, past villages, occasional clumps of fluttering prayer flags, primitive farms, and rhododendron groves.  I arrived at our campsite feeling good after 9 miles of trekking.

By the third day, I hit my stride. I wasn’t lagging far behind the strongest of the group along the rugged mountain trail.
For 3 days at base camp, heavy dark clouds hovered low in the sky, obscuring Jhomolari just above.  This 24,000-foot+ mountain near the Tibetan border is sacred to the Bhutanese, who don’t allow climbers on her summit.  As I scrambled on hikes above camp, I begged her to show herself.  I’d traveled so far, in many ways, to gasp at the splendor of a Himalayan peak up close.

Jhomolari obliged on our last morning as we rose early to pack and leave.  While I shivered in fleece and Gore-tex in the shadow of lesser peaks rimming our camp, she shimmered in snow and ice, ribbed with massive rock walls and contorted, crevassed glaciers tumbling down her impressive shoulders. 

She was stunning.

As we trekked back the next 3 days, I felt fantastic and savored how wonderful it feels to hike all day in the mountains: like my best and natural self, strong and unstoppable.

On the last day of the trip, I easily hiked 3,000 feet up and down a steep trail to Bhutan’s most famous destination, Taktsang Monastery (commonly known as Tiger’s Nest) on the edge of a sheer rock cliff. As I stood quietly on a terrace at the monastery and gazed at the narrow valley below and the forest-covered mountains beyond, I felt a sense of well-being that I hadn’t experienced for years.

Back home, the tendinitis started bothering me again while hiking the Cascades. Not bad. But I figured I shouldn’t push my miracles for the year.
I can’t explain what happened in Bhutan and why I was so free of the foot problems that have plagued me for years.  Was it sheer willpower?  The oxygen levels in my blood from the high altitude? Or, simply, a magical blessing?

No one can answer for certain, although I’ve asked physicians and physical therapists.
What I do know is this:  With determination, and perhaps a mysterious something extra, longheld dreams can come true.


martha said...

I think you had 2 dreams come true....your dream trip to the Himalayas and your commitment to overcoming obstacles.
Think of climbing a mountain as leaving obstacles behind (in your wake so to speak).
I'm proud of you. Congratulations for accomplishing your dream.

peter said...

It was the pray flags that helped you to see you and Matt next year on the water.

jill said...

Ah sweet Martha, love your perspective, thanks. Yes, need to remember to apply that same tenacity to everyday life.

Peter, yes, hope to see you too! Those prayer flags were all over and very cool.

Steven Jung said...

Kuzugzangpo, Jill.

Katie Truelove said...

Wow. What an adventure and what a story! I'm so glad you were able to pull it off:)

Anonymous said...

WOW, so happy for you. You should have moved there, you continue to amaze me, Mary Lou

mab said...

Mary would have loved this.