The morning I turned nineteen I lay awake in my sleeping bag for half an hour at two am, frost in my hair, mustering the courage to bolt outside and pee. This was Nimaling, our highest and coldest camp, and the last place we would sleep before taking on the Kongmaru La. That birthday I had three ‘firsts,’ each more painful than the last, and somehow more worthwhile.
1) My first pass
In fact this whole trip was a first: my first trek. But I’ve done day trips up mountains and gone camping with my family before; the Kongmaru La, standing at 5200 meters (a little over 17,000 feet for those of you who speak American), was my first mountain pass. Standing at Nimaling and looking up at the Kongmaru La, I wasn’t sure that I’d be able to make it. I was the medic for the day, an illustrious position that bestowed upon me the honor of carrying our med kit, so my pack was a few pounds heavier than usual; a few pounds makes a world of difference when you’re climbing up almost 700 meters. This pass, I realized, was a beast that I might not be able to tame.
I have never sucked wind so hard in my life as I did during that climb. I have never felt so weak, or so much like my legs were going to give out beneath me. Time lost meaning during that climb – what importance did seconds and minutes have? Twenty minutes tells me nothing about how far we’ve gone or how close we’ve come – so I measured its passage in steps and in breaths, each one more difficult to take than the last.Those few times I made the mistake of looking up, the end seemed no closer. It felt like one of those dreams where you’re chasing after a person or an object, and as you get closer, they slip further and further out of your reach.
And then we were there, standing at the Kongmaru La. I could look back down those 650 meters and breathe easy knowing that we had overcome this beast. Later we learned that no other Dragons India Semester group had ever conquered the Kongmaru La without having to evac at least one of their members. But we did it even though some of us were feeling the altitude in a bad way. We may have finished our trek a day early, but we’ll always be the first group to have stayed together over the Kongmaru La. Finishing that pass with our whole group intact is an accomplishment that we’ll all carry for the rest of our lives, and it was one reason why I’ll never forget my nineteenth birthday.
2) My longest hike (or my first hike that lasted longer than I would sleep at night)
They warned us that day six, October 12th, would be our longest day, ranging from seven to eight hours. With the Kongmaru La in the morning, and a descent of over a thousand feet in the afternoon, this time estimation made sense. Unfortunately, foolishly, I didn’t believe our instructors or our guides. Before this, time estimations had been both wildly overestimated and wonderfully underestimated. Doubly-unfortunate, we had two or three group members suffering from altitude sickness, and to ensure their health and wellbeing, the group took frequent breaks and kept a slow pace.
My longest hike, prior to this trip, was probably four or five hours. From Nimaling to our camp near Chuskurmo took nearly nine. My ankles felt like they had twisted a dozen times each; my calves were cramping four hours in; my backpack felt a pound heavier with each step. Each break we took felt like a breath of fresh air, and every time we kept going was like being dragged back underwater. I have never been so far out of my comfort zone for so long.
And then, out of nowhere, there was camp. Our incredible kitchen crew, who had passed us early on in the day, had set up not only our dining tent, but our personal sleeping tents as well: all that we had to do was collapse into them. The gratitude that hit me in that moment was so powerful that every ounce of discomfort we had endured in the past nine hours was more than worth it. When I look back on that day, I doubt I’ll remember the cramps or the blisters; but I’ll never forget the kindness of our crew and the pride I felt coming into camp after the longest hike of my life.
3) My first birthday away from home
I knew, regardless of whether or not I took a gap year, I would celebrate my nineteenth birthday away from my family. It was something that I had thought I had come to terms with, because even if I wasn’t with them, I knew that they loved me across the world. Then I was walking along the Markha Valley trail, over 7,500 miles from all of my friends and family, and it really hit me that I wasn’t going to be around the people who I care most about. I wouldn’t even get to email or call them, and realizing that almost hurt worse than the calf cramps.
Crying on the trail is highly discouraged: it’s not great for group moral and it’s a pain when the tears freeze on your cheeks. So I didn’t let myself cry, even though I was tired and sore and missed my mom. I just put my head down and kept walking until we were at Chuskurmo, and I could curl up in my sleeping bag in the dining tent. I realized – wrapped in fairy lights, eating momos, and cuddling with this motley crew of people who had come halfway around the globe with me – that I might be a world away from my brothers and my parents and my home, but I’m celebrating with my family all the same. The other eleven students who I’m travelling with may have only been in my life for a month, but I love them all the same. They’ve seen me at my best, and at my worst. They’ve lifted me up when I’m low, and played card games with me in the middle of the night while our instructors slept. We’ve made fun of each other and supported one another, fought and made up. Like the mountains, our group has had its ups and downs, but that’s what makes us strong.
Being away from home is hard, but having your family with you makes it so much easier. The day I turned nineteen was cold and hard and painful, but I wouldn’t have changed even a second of it.