Karen’s Search for Meaning: The Trials and Tribulations of Trek Life

A psychic once told me that I should reconnect with nature. When one of my batchmates proposed a trek, I thought I should seize this golden opportunity and act on her advice. I would never have counted myself as a huge out-doorsy kind of person. I like my creature comforts; I like to feel clean and to wear nice clothes. It was marketed as a beginner’s trek, so I thought, what harm? I had done some family hikes in Ireland. I thought this would be more of the same. All I had to do was sign up my name and show up on the day – Ambika and her next level organizing skills had taken care of the rest.

Boarding the bus to Manali, I did a quick inventory of what I had brought. Runners. Check. Raincoat. Check. Socks. Check. Water. Check. This was my first exposure to Indian buses – we climbed aboard and braced ourselves for the long journey ahead. Our bus managed to break down not once, but twice on the way, increasing the trip from 13 hours to 18 hours. Driving down into the valleys of Manali, the views were breath-taking. The Himalayan streams gushed over rocks and houses sprouted out of the hillsides. Feeling disorientated and not just a little sleep-deprived, we freshened up (which by, I mean, we put on some new socks and brushed our teeth), ate a small breakfast, united with our guides and kick-started our trek.

Deepak and Gopal were our guides and initially the terrain was decent – a gentle slope at the beginning of the mountains. The more we climbed the more it became steeper. I started to feel my calves working and the weight of my bag on my back. We took a break to have lunch after about an hour and I thought, this isn’t so bad. Look at me go, trekking and such. We took off again and that is when it all started to go downhill. Or uphill. If you want to be literal about it. I had naively assumed a beginner’s trek would consist of some minor climbing and then some frolicking in the fields. I am partial to a good frolic. Little did I know that what stood between me and the summit was five and a half hours of a solid uphill struggle. Two and a half hours in, I started to become irate. Everything was sore. My chest was heaving. Ankur kept speaking about hitting the wall and breaking through and then somehow, everything would become easier. I envisioned the wall, I envisioned breaking through the wall, I envisioned jumping over the wall, I envisioned climbing under the wall – but still no breakthrough of the wall happened.  The wall just loomed above me. Three hours in I asked imploringly of the guide how much longer we had left. “Two hours?” I said. “Oh, no, no,” he replied incredulously, “Three hours.”

It was then that I started to give up hope.

I should have been in a position mentally to handle this better. Having read about positive psychology by Michael Seligman and Man’s Search for Meaning by Viktor Frankl in our leadership class, I thought, what better a way to put these theories to the test. I racked my brains to come up with some ideas. I settled on trying to savour the small amount of food and water I had left to up my positive emotion. I had a fruit juice and a chocolate bar. I broke these up over the small intervals we took to catch our breath. It helped somewhat. Then they were gone and I felt more distraught than ever. I tried to gain some meaning in my suffering. I concluded that I could not.

Then, break-point came.

There was a moment when I just didn’t think I could go on any further. I cursed everything – I cursed the psychic for telling me to reconnect with nature, I cursed my impulsive life decision that had put me on this goddamn trek, I cursed the mountains, I cursed the heavens, I even cursed our guides for telling me I only had “15 more minutes to go” before repeating this mantra again and again and again every time we cleared a mountain. I angrily asked how anyone could do this for enjoyment – looking at one of my batchmates I shouted, “Are you enjoying this?” and he looked in to my soul with heavy eyes and said “No.” It was then that I knew I wasn’t alone. We were all struggling – I was just being more vocal about it.

I would like to tell you that I faced this struggle bravely. I would like to tell you that I looked inside of myself and took like a bat out of hell up those mountains.

But that would be telling lies.

The truth is, I started crying. Not sobbing crying – I didn’t have the energy for that – more like a pitiful whimper. Luckily, I had followed one of the other batchmates who kindly shouted inspirational things at me whilst I trudged on ahead. It had rained and the terrain was muddy. Add in a few full face-plants in mud and I felt like I couldn’t take any more. The only thing that was keeping me going was the music that occasionally reached me from people’s phones and the presence of two stray dogs that had followed us up the entire way. When we finally reached, I had expected some sort of elated feeling of accomplishment. Instead, I just felt a numb acceptance. We were given hot tea and biscuits. We stripped out of our wet and muddy clothes – I curled up in a sleeping bag. It was all I could do not to rock back and forth like a traumatized child in the corner of the little hut.

That said, once I rested and became a little bit more coherent, the views were spectacular. We had set up camp in a clearing surrounded by trees and rocks with overhanging mist. We drank ice-cold fresh water from the nearby stream. The mules which had taken up our camping equipment grazed on the greenery around us. Gopal and Deepak cooked dinner – rice and dal and chapatti. It was constantly drizzling. We curled up in our sleeping bags, some of us in the hut and some in the tent. Both mentally and physically exhausted, it is the best sleep I have had in my life.

Dawn streamed through the little window – pink skies and the sounds of nature around us. One of the group had gotten up at 4am to watch the dawn break and to do yoga. We woke, had breakfast, and started to clean up. It had rained consistently throughout the night. We braced ourselves for what was going to be a muddy descent. All I could think was that it surely couldn’t be as grim as yesterday. The modus operandi of the group had ceased to be ‘just put one foot in front of the other’ and become ‘just try not to fall.’ Each person averaged about 12 falls each I say. At a few stages, we had no choice but to sit on our bums and launch ourselves down a particularly muddy slope. It wasn’t pretty but it was easier than the steep ascent we had to do the previous day. Deepak took to telling us “No road, no problem.” Whilst coming to the end, I became hastier, bolder, surer footed and ready to take risks. One such risky move sent me careering over the side of the cliff and I narrowly avoided falling even further due to a very strategically-placed tree. I escaped only with minor grazing and a bruise to my chin. Still, I thought it was a message from the Mountain Gods telling me to go home, that I didn’t belong here. I was all too willing to oblige. I will never take cemented pathways for granted ever again.

Caked in mud and exhausted, we showered and changed in to normal clothes. I have never seen a group so silent and fixated on eating as we were post-trek. We wandered around Manali town to kill time before our bus. Thankfully, this one didn’t break down at all. Walking through the gates of Ashoka I felt that sense of victory that I had been expecting when we had reached the summit. We were warriors returned from battle. We had seen some things and we had emerged, minorly scathed and victorious.

Upon telling this story, many have asked would I do a trek again. The honest answer is, I have already made a pact with one of the original trekkers that we will do another one. Just to make up our minds. Just to make sure. It has been a long time since I have been pushed mentally and physically to breaking point. We rose above it. We overcame it. We pushed the limits. There is something intensely rewarding in that. I can’t promise you that I won’t rant and rave on the next trek. I am sure I will encounter similar struggles. I am sure that the Mountain Gods will test me. My feet and legs may be swollen, but I survived.

As Deepak so wisely said, “No road, no problem.”

I think we all could do with adopting this mantra.


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