Pneumonia could have knocked me down. Instead it led to higher trails, new connections and a chapter more dynamic than mountain weather.

This time around, Nepal exposed a deeper more intimate side than I fell in love with when we first met. Though our time together inconsistent, at times rocky with a profile similar to that of the Himalayas themselves, challenging climbs have led to blue skies filled with inspiring rays of sunshine.

Like setting off for a short run which leads my mind to magical places, as my trail in Nepal became comfortable, I wanted more. When pneumonia struck like an avalanche in the warm-up, I faced reality, took a deep breath, fueled at checkpoints, and plodded on.

The stories my mind told me were dismal. Fastpacking in the shadows of Everest, crossing three high altitude passes was not going to be euphorically fast. Thoughts of being performance based in the Khumbu Valley needed an adjustment; my lungs needed love and kindness after weeks of drowning in infection.

Blueprints are created in pencil for a reason. Respect the Himalayas, tune in, attentive to perspective, befriend my eraser and adjust. Because I accepted the games life plays, Khumbu’s mountain mecca was experienced from an unfamiliar lens. Views of Everest (8 848 m), Lhotse (8 516 m), and Ama Dablam (6 812 m) were not hindered by glances between the pace reading on my Suunto nor curtailed by comparative thoughts of what might have been. Rather than dwelling on how the massif might appear with full vision, these Himalayan icons were seen with gratitude for the people that got my life back and onto these mountains. Letting go of expectations rooted in the past, distancing myself from Rocky’s harsh voice while absorbing the gifts of Mother Nature, I embraced every step.  Each bountiful breath and every stride ahead would one day lead me back to run these trails.

From the chaos of Kathmandu to the world’s most dangerous airport, having tea with locals then hiking to Phakding, I laid my head in a surreal state of disbelief with thoughts of being in critical care, a gastrointestinal tube my lifeline, listening to Dr. Mahler speak about Everest and the mountains life presents. Overflowing with blissful disbelief left no space for thoughts rooted in the past, concern of pace or Rocky’s cruel naysaying.

Along the Dudh Koshi river over countless suspension bridges, through rhododendron forest, Tengboche’s magical monastery onward to Lower Pangboche, the heart of the Khumbu, I danced along the trail. The warmth of Sherpa villagers and the spectacular views across to Ama Dablam from the Buddha Lodge, I was living the setting I described to my medical team when begging to be released from Colorado hospital to heal in mountains. My smile rising before Chukhung’s morning sun, sky high when crossing Kongma La (5 545 m), my confidence grew with the altitude. I ran when it felt right. No pressure, only a gait powered by gratitude.

Ahead to Everest Base Camp (EBC) with strength enough to combine multiple days, I ran sections of the ridge up to Kala Patthar (5 550 m).  Circled by 360 degrees of panoramic peaks, I was child at recess, singing and skipping my way down to Gorakshep (5 164 m).

Racing around Manaslu a year earlier, post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) had a horrific collison with altitude so there I was at pinching myself at the sight of walls painted  with warning posters detailing indications of acute mountain sickness (AMS). Though pneumonia felt like an avalanche only weeks’ back, its detour set a gracious pace from which I flourished while AMS did not. Majestic miles ascending, crossing gorgeous glacial passes and embracing technical patthar descents, I was believing the unbelievable, living what had once felt impossible. On to Chola Pass (5 420m), through the Gokyo valley  and over Renjola Pass (5 420m), as my body and breath allowed, I ran sections, beaming with each stride.

My lungs humored me through Khumbu’s frigid air and altitude. The mountains of my mind are mere Nepali flats, rolling hills, in the Himalayas. I wanted more; more trails leading to more solitude, more acceptance. Following a handful of days necessary to procure a new stamp in my passport, catch up on hugs and emails, I set off to frolic in Nepal’s mountain runners’ playground.

Mother Nature serves endless options to play in the paradise of the Annapurna silhouettes. Although trail running the Annapurna Circuit was part of my first date with Nepal a year earlier, this fastpacking adventure would be drastically different. Countless lessons of the body and mind since, I was a kid in a candy store, giddy with anticipation. A thickened plot, additional backdrops, new settings, scenery and strength, this chapter would write like a new release. Adding on Tilicho, the world’s highest lake (4 919 m), the popular jaunt to summit Poon Hill (3 210 m) and the technical twist up to Mardi Himal, combined with a late season start meant trails dusted with snow, frigid nights and fireside company of warm locals.

Amending blueprints fused with low tourist season left me climbing alone atop the peak of Nepal’s most loved-to-death introductory trek. Gazing at the countless layers of the Annapurna range from Poon Hill’s summit reminded me of the infinite layers of complexity of my traumatic brain injury.  An endless journey, neither can be articulately described nor experienced the same for any two people.

The adventures of Annapurna led me back to Kathmandu feeling like a student coming home for winter break, open arms and open doors.  Kathmandu can feel like a claustrophobic nightmare though as my relationship with Nepal has become more intimate so too has the affection I feel for the nation’s capital. Accepting its flaws, and looking beyond the obvious, I find inspiring natural beauty. Peaceful movement meditation before the city wakes may not at first seem obvious even to the clear sighted.  Beyond the encapsulating Ring Road green foothills, dirt footpaths, evolving jeep roads, stone steps, and rice paddy singletrack combine to keep every run unique with beauty witnessed only by foot. Though navigation can be daunting, villagers are likely to offer warm smiles, warm tea and some direction if only in the form of an assuring indicative nod.   

The Kathmandu Valley rim hugs itself around a thriving outdoor adventure community whose enthusiasm is as contagious as their beautiful smiles. Pneumonia inadvertently catapulted me beyond the Nepal trail running community and into the trekking, mountaineering, climbing,  fitness and mountain biking scene. Beyond running trails, this chapter evolved with scenes graced with the hysterical harmony of singing Sherpas, bonfire comedy, song and dance, first ascents, rooftop squats, motorbike mishaps, lessons of language and love, and a notebook full of stories fuelled by endless Nepali tea, momo and dal bhat.

From running trails amoung the highest in the Himalayas, to the awe-inspiring Annapurnas, from becoming a welcome part of family feasts and sharing endless breakfast treats, to wheelie dancing with physically challenged youth, from Kakani fresh brew to existential contemplation and deep rooted dialogue amoung a maze of pine trees and prayer flags, belly laughs with the boys on belay, empathetic ears and a mix of tears, and from Vipassana in the jungle to dizzying circles around the world’s largest stupa, this chapter was more dynamic than mountain weather, more dramatic than a daytime television, richer than any lesson and more meaningful than any guidebook.

Having arrived for a second date with the Himalayas and to tame the mountains of my mind, I leave having weathered Shivapuri storms and the avalanche that was pneumonia yet full of inner sunshine. I move ahead with a collection of khata* symbolizing compassion along with a chapter so difficult to close with equanimity. Evading visa roadblocks, I embrace impermanence with deep rooted trust in the trail and chapters ahead.

*khata are traditional Nepali scarves symbolizing compassion. Khata are presented at many ceremonial occasions including departure of friends as seen in the final photo below.

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  1. Tom Stevens says:

    An incredible story of adversity pitted against character. New challenges face us all, but most of us start each day without the mountain before us that Jill climbs each day to survive. I am honored to call Jill my friend. She makes a difference, sets an example and helps us all climb our mountains.