One of the most common questions I get before a big trek or hike is “Why do people hike?” or “Why do people trek?” It’s a funny questions because why do we really do anything? The quick answer is, “I enjoy it.” But, that’s always followed by another, “Why?!” I constantly complain about how uncomfortable and difficult these experiences are for me, yet, somehow I’m absolutely in love with this weird activity of walking day after day to a random location.
I was talking to my mom in the car one day when she told me she didn’t really get it. Once you saw one mountain, didn’t they all look the same? I explained that she liked to vacation on beaches. Once you saw one beach, weren’t they all the same? Her response was that they were relaxing. So I thought, what is it that I love so much about spending time walking in the mountains?
I originally fell in love with hiking when I discovered how much will and determination could drive a person. I was in Indonesia trying to summit Mt. Rinjani when exhaustion and a pulled muscle threatened to end me. I couldn’t go on. I couldn’t do any more. But something inside of me refused to give up. If my friends could do it, I could too. Something drove me forward, and when I reached the summit, tears filled my eyes. I didn’t know I had it in me. I didn’t know how strong I was. In that moment, I felt invincible.
It was in Nepal, among the Himalayas that I discovered some of the best perspective I’ve ever experienced. There’s something truly incredible about standing between 8,000m tall mountains and realizing that you are such a tiny part of this world. We often find ourselves thinking that the world revolves around us. It’s not intentional, but we are selfish creatures, constantly thinking of ourselves. Being in the mountains has given me such a different outlook on life. A problem that once felt vast is suddenly so insignificant. In this world, I barely register and my problems are not as great as I think.
In Thailand, I did a ten day silent retreat to learn to be more mindful. I spent days learning the importance of a single step. In the mountains, it’s almost impossible not to be self aware. On my way to High Camp for Mera Peak, I was stuck in a white out for six hours. The visibility was terrible, and I could barely see ten feet in front of me. I couldn’t see how far I had to go or how far I’d come. It was purgatory. Every single step required me to think. Each lift of my foot took effort. Placing it back on the newly fallen snow felt like I’d been weighed down with lead. Each breath was a struggle with only 50% of oxygen compared to sea level. I could feel every second of every movement as if the world was in slow motion. I’ve never experienced that kind of mindfulness anywhere else.
I read a beautiful quote once, “Life is so ironic. It takes sadness to know happiness, noise to appreciate silence, and absence to value presence.” Being in the mountains has taught me to appreciate everything. Living without ‘basics’ makes you so gracious. Whether it’s a flushing toilet, someone helping you around an obstacle, or breathing in oxygen. When I come back from a high altitude hike, I’m so thankful to just be able to breathe normally. Imagine that for a second. Being grateful that you can breathe. It’s something we do every second of every single day and if we stop we die. Yet, we never take the time to appreciate how beautiful a breath of air is.
Being humbled is not always easy. I like to think I’m capable of anything I set my mind to, but the truth is, I’m not. Everyone has their limits, and this last year I’ve really grown to recognize mine. I’ve learned to let go of my ego. Reaching the top of a summit is no longer my goal. To me, pushing myself as hard as I can and being able to recognize when I need to turn around requires more strength than foolishly pushing forward.
I wasn’t able to summit Mera Peak because of altitude sickness, and while my ego told me to try regardless of my health, I was able to put that aside and descend for my own safety. On the way down, numerous people asked me with glee, “Did you make it?!” With a smile on my face, I shouted, “Nope, altitude sickness,” and continued my way down enjoying the rest of the journey.
Before setting out for my small expedition, I told people I hoped I could make it. Their response was pretty simple, “Of course you can!” The reality is that even at my absolute best, my effort isn’t the only thing that matters. There are forces so much bigger than us in this world, and to ignore them would be arrogant. You might decide to climb a mountain, but the mountain will also decide whether or not you make it. We were hit with snow storms, hail and rain, and that was just the normal temperamental mountain weather. Learning to respect something so much greater than me didn’t take long. I quickly realized that the mountain has the final say on who climbs it or not, and to think otherwise would be foolish.
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Michelle Della Giovanna
Writer at Full Time Explorer
I’m just your average New Yorker who quit her job in the fashion industry to explore the world. Come find out what it’s like to trade in five-inch heels for squat toilets.