Among a panorama of giants in the Imja Valley, insight was stronger than a tempting dance between doubt and dark thoughts as I climbed Island Peak.

Island Peak Summit

Shortly after midnight struck, I unzipped my tent among a panorama of giants resting in a mansion of stars: Nuptse, Lhotse, Lhotse Central and Lhotse Shar. Anticipatory thoughts fired as random as the flickering dance of headlamps in the mountains, louder than the blowing wind and darker than the night sky.

Acclimatization had gone seamlessly. Settling into life at 4 000 m, days were filled with playful runs along the popular Everest Base Camp route up to Dingboche and back before trekkers hit the trails, playing with climbing ropes and helping play host at the Tea House in Pangboche.  I am at home in Khumbu. Only hours earlier,  in the shadows of Ama Dablam, I had danced up the Chukhung valley trail to Base Camp. A final gear check before laying my head to rest, I had checked my watch, my alarm and the stars countless times. What I had failed to check was deep within. Eager anticipation, sprinting thoughts and sky high adrenaline alone, could not land me  atop 6 189m.  Rather than racing the morning sun or to catch those distant headlamps, I needed to slow down both body and mind.

The hands of the clock had hardly shifted and High Camp was nowhere to be seen yet I stopped. The crampons, the helmet, the jumar and ropes, I had all the gear for the climb but what I really needed was to tend to the missing. To be still is to nourish my mind. I needed to pause the dance of thoughts between past and future, pause all movement of my body and mind. I needed to breathe into the present, slow my thoughts and my pace. 

Pausing, a gateway to the present, I glowed by the light of the moon. Novembers’ past had seen me at my darkest, deathly frail and empty. In the here and now, that character feels fictitious. That stranger had fallen off the trail when life got turbulent. When stuck in Chapter Adversity, that protagonist believed life with 70% vision loss was not a mountain worth climbing. 

The more mindful I am the more free I become. I am free in Khumbu’s silence, my smile glows. Full of gratitude, for physical strength, acknowledgment of my needs and the surrounding sea of mountains, I begin to climb again. Approaching 6 000m, I felt physically strong, solid and unwavering like the massif that embraced me. 

Upward through the Imja valley, the darkness keeps the surrounding sea of ice, the beauty of the Lhotse glaciers, as a gift for the descent. Several hundred meters before a steep hillside, sand turns to a strewn of boulders that tempt my train of thought. Like shale and shadows, such scatterings test my depth perception and resilience from dark thoughts. My eyesight lacks binocular vision necessary to gauge distances between objects. Relying on other visual cues to gauge depth in the darkness keeps my brain busy yet I distance myself from losses. Bistārī, bistārī (slowly, slowly) as we climb  the air grows thin yet my heart remains full and smile bright.

Still long before sunrise, in the darkest of night, I remember the moment as clear as day. From atop her puffy maroon jacket her head hung heavy as she slumped forward onto her trekking poles as I trodden by. “I don’t think I can do it. I need some inspiration,” she pleaded while her guide glanced my way with a look of ke garne, what to do? He and Dawa exchanged a few words and we carried on yet I carried those scant details, her anxious voice and ailing posture, with me step after step towards the summit. 

Conversing in silence, I attempted to convince myself that her guide would have asked us for help had he feared any health risk. Surely, despite his quiet demeanour, Dawa would have stepped in if he felt safety was being compromised. Why did I not stop and share a story, a joke, a hug or high five? Was my heartfelt intention enough? Was there anything I could have said or done to ignite her optimism, find her feet and get them moving one in front of the other? Was she closed and stuck or could cheers from a complete stranger be accepted with an open heart? What did she really need

As my inquisitive conversation continued, I found myself in a space and time where there was nothing anyone could have said or done to pull me out of a darkness that lacked any inspiration. I connected to the strangers’ struggle though never did I ever seek inspiration. The despair following my traumatic brain injury served a drastically different mountain. I was a closed book that lacked any desire to seek inspiration to climb through disheartening moonless chapters. Climbing in the dark, endless months in hospitals, no summit in sight,  the connection inspires. I climb on with hope she can find light as I had back in Colorado.

Appreciating the stranger’s struggle stoked gratitude for the strength I felt, the power of impermanence and presence. When I am intimately in the present moment, my understanding of what is going on deepens. When I am not, the stories my mind creates can be deprecating, demeaning and dark.  When I drift from the present, powerful fallacies carry potential to take my thoughts on  a steep descent.

In the presence of Mother Nature and countless stars, an uttering of voices ahead broke the silence and our strong, steady pace. A new story was about to unfold.

As we approached a large number of climbers sitting on boulders atop level land an avalanche stormed in. The group, resting at Crampon Point, triggered a race. My heartrate escalated as I exchanged sticky Vibram soles for crampons. The added weight on my feet was nothing compared to the weight of doubt that charged in. Heavy boots, a drastic change in incline, emotions climbed with each uneasy step. Leaving shale for snow, the ascent began with descending thoughts. If those resting climbers catch us, I could be in their way. What if they approach from my blindside?  What if I miss their sounds for the blowing wind? What if I get startled and jump like the piercing crack of a baseball bat connecting with a ball and, having no clue about PTSD, they laugh and I crumble? What if they assume I need assistance when they see my distorted face? A storm of chaotic questions spirals me away from the present if I choose to allow them to.

Engulfed in the world’s most massive mountains yet the most challenging ones were those in my mind. When such anxiety bombardes, when face to face with a towering snow wall beyond the range of my vision, when a fixed line feels an unsteady ladder of doubt, when I cannot see beyond a curve wrapping a crevasse, stumble upon an ice bridge or miss a rope on my right, it is the mountains in my mind that are the actual obstacles. 

Though doubt distracted, I knew what I truly needed. I needed another check in. I needed to leave the what ifs behind, reconnect with the present. Unwanted and unneeded, I free myself from such constraining doubt, trusting my every sense of inner strength just as I do the picks on my feet and the ropes in my hands.  A summit in itself, having that conversation and believing it was sunshine before the light of day. 

Undeterred by the thinning air, every pull on my jumar added fuel to my tank. The only questions pulling  as the summit came into sight were ones of surreal strength. Standing atop Island Peak my inner light shone far brighter than golden morning sun and beyond the highest of the Himalayas. 

6 189m yet he peak is only half way. Summiting does not mean the most difficult is done. The power it takes to focus my left eye and gauge depth makes descending far from a graceful dance between crevasses and caverns, shadows and stones. To keep the glow from the summit on the dance of the descent was an opportunity to cast shadows on doubt. Obstacles that take me away from rockin’ descents are boulders built in tempo. When the pace is anything but high thoughts tend to fall low. Consciously acknowledging the thoughts, without grasping like a fixed rope, I simply allow the experience to be there and focus on the dance into the present.  

Checking the gauge back at Base Camp, there was plenty left in the tank. A quick stop for some pani (water) and  fuel,  we cleared our tents, packed our gear and continued on to Chukhung. With hugs and high 5s welcoming us back at the Yak Lodge, our stoke was as high as the midday sun. Again, the gauge had hardly fluctuated. Conversing while devouring dal bhat, we decided to continue the dance down valley. As the sun began to set along the ridge that hugs Ama Dablam, our pace was only slowed by her beauty. Glowing like the fireplace in Buddha Lodge, we arrived in Pangboche with only good stories to share. 

Climbing high has me slowing down.  Every sense of reaching new heights creates an inspiring emotional landscape. Like the views that Island Peak served, this match made in the Himalayas is magical. 

Ama Dablam, would you like to dance?


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  1. Thomas Stevens says:

    This is pure poetry. Proof all is possible if you have the heart of Jill W. What an inspiring friend she is to me. I’m speechless.