As we are all marking the anniversary of the pandemic, I am celebrating another anniversary. On March 2, 1990 I crossed the 18,000-foot mountain pass in the Himalayas, known as the “Thorong-La.” Here’s the story:
I was 26 years old, recently married, off with a backpack for a year-long adventure. I was never an avid mountain climber, and in fact, found some of my then-husband’s enthusiasm for heights somewhat intimidating. But, I’m nothing if not a good sport, so sure, let’s go. We found some fellow backpackers heading the same way and set off… and up. We walked for two weeks, mostly climbing gently on well-marked trails. We slept in the homes of the Tibetan refugees who populate the Annapurna mountain range. We ate daal bat— lentils, rice potatoes and a few greens – at every meal. It started to get cold. We started to see snow. Then we started to walk in snow. The night before we crossed the Thorong-La pass, it was bitterly cold. We slept poorly and got up at 4am in order to make the entire crossing in one day.
Altitude sickness is a tricky thing. You just don’t always know you have it, and sometimes the first symptom is, well, death. We had done everything right, including acclimating very slowly over a period of time. But we still had to climb 4,000 feet before we could begin to descend on the other side of the pass. This turned out to be the most difficult three hours of my life. And I’ve had four babies without drugs…
As I climbed, every step became increasingly more difficult. The snow was deeper, the cold, penetrating. Each step became a new challenge as the oxygen thinned and breathing became laborious. It took everything I had to put one foot in front of the other. I had no other choice. I felt that window of possibility shut. I had to keep moving or die on that mountain, and that was not a choice. I could feel a pain in my head that could possibly mean cerebral hemorrhage. There was no way to know. And, it didn’t matter. I had to keep walking. One foot, the other foot, eyes on the snow, my shoes, the snow. The hours passed. I stopped thinking. I was totally and entirely focused on only one thing, the step I was currently taking, then the next one.
Eventually we all reached the summit, took one photo and started to run down the other side of the pass. The drop in altitude brought palpable joy, as we discovered we were still alive, able to continue, over the worst of it.
When I look back on that day, those hours, I realize that the experience of conquering that incredible challenge created something inside me. It carved out a new reality in my core, one in which I felt capable of pretty much anything. I called on that source during labor, just about a year later. I’ve reached down into that place many times over the years, and the place of knowing I can do more than I know has expanded.
Thirty-one years have passed since that day. I know that became a moment that defined me, that taught me how deep that well is, how vast the resources for strength, for mental fortitude, for focus and for healing. Now, go find your well. Everyone has one.