Finding the Good Way: How to Meditate While Trekking at 15,000 Feet

ladakh trekking
This is a story of our re-discovery of a few of life’s truths amidst a seven-day trek in the Himalayas.

“One foot in-front-of-the oth-er.”

Through my head coursed a glacial cadence whose stitched syllables represented four tiny steps, over and over, up and through the mountains of the Tibetan Himalayan cache of Markha Valley in the northern Indian region of Ladakh.

My pace was akin to that of a snail, or perhaps a determined zombie. The tempo I’d embraced kept my heart rate so low that I felt almost as if I weren’t even moving, despite the fact that I was persistently scaling a steep incline above 15,000 feet in elevation.

Why? I’d reached my trekking meditation zone.

Maybe you’ve felt something like this before. You’ve walked a long distance, even something arduous. And all the while, you haven’t lost a breath. During the process, your mind wandered to freedom, allowing you to drift into the nature around you; you absorb and feel immersed in your surroundings instead of intentionally observing them.

Suddenly (or perhaps not so suddenly), you find yourself looking to a valley below — that’s where you came from. And there you are on top of a mountain, exactly where you were meant to be.

Something really significant occurs to you. When you aren’t concerned with the pace of your movement, the pace of your progress just might astonish you.

Our trek begins. Storms build for more white caps. Markha Valley trek trail head, Zingchen. #Ladakh
On the trail in the Markha Valley, Ladakh.

That’s what rhythm will do for you.

But how?

“One foot in-front-of-the oth-er.”

The Grind

But it wasn’t always this good.

Amidst this lightness, I thought back to a conversation Dan and I shared earlier in the trek. While climbing our first big pass (16,200+ feet/4,950 meters) on the morning of the second day, we found ourselves in the middle of an hours-long unexpected snowstorm, a surprise blizzard. Dan was sick with a lingering sinus infection and fever. Top this off with residual fatigue from a beautiful but grinding two-day bus journey from Kashmir to Ladakh, and you have the makings of emotional dissonance, an anti-rhythm that adheres to lingering bits of self-doubt as to whether you are still physically and emotionally equipped to tackle treks like this.

Maybe we should have gone to the beach instead…a real vacation…relaxation…this is hard work,” I heard Dan grumble that day.

I knew what he meant.

But things improved. (After a round of antibiotics from our medical kit for the sinus infection…but that’s for another story.) A good dose of sunshine never hurts, either.

The Himalayan Tortoise, The Himalayan Hare

Not only is trekking meditation a beautiful phenomenon to experience in and of itself, but the technique effectively moves you greater distances more quickly than you’d imagine. Why? Because this slow, steady movement means you won’t require long breaks to catch your breath. Think: the tortoise and the hare.

In the earlier moments of our trek we’d acted more like the hare, tearing off, trying to keep up, slowing down, taking long tea and lunch breaks just to recover between fast-paced clips. Mind you, it wasn’t bad. Our surroundings were stunningly beautiful, but something was off. And that something was our rhythm. It was missing.

Then, on our fifth day, something snapped into place. Perhaps it was the ominous write-up I’d read weeks before of the day’s 2,300 feet/700-meter ascent that told me, “Go slowly today.” Or maybe it was simply that I needed a few days in the mountains to actually find my rhythm. Amidst all that beauty and adventure, it was tempting for us to try to keep up with the pace of others rather than to seek our own.

Engulfed in canyons. No camera can duplicate the beauty perceived by the human eye. The late afternoon close of a long Day 2, Markha Valley trek.
Engulfed in canyons during the Markha Valley trek, Ladakh

I asked Dan, “Do you want to go in front? I know I’m moving really, really slowly.”

No. This is just about perfect. It’s like my body is moving without effort,” he replied. He was in step just behind me.

Dan had hit the trekking meditation zone, too.

We were in the right place after all, moving tiny through the Himalayas, our minds opening, our bodies feeling paradoxically weightless, out-of-body.

Finding the Good Way

On one of the steep inclines, amidst a series of snaking switchbacks, I looked up to see how much further we had to go. At the top of the hill, Dorjee, our Ladakhi guide looked down at us, almost paternally (ironic, considering he was only 21-years old).

Our Ladakhi Trekking Guide, Markha Valley Trek - Ladakh, India
Dorjee, our Ladakhi trekking guide, waiting for us.

I could see him watching us, smiling.

When we finally reached him, he clapped softly: “I am very happy for you. You’ve found the good way. You’ve found your rhythm.

The Final Pass

The following morning, we were on our way up again – this time, to the trek’s highest pass, Gongmaru La (5,130 meters/16,800 feet).

This pass, too, had been cause for concern. Our previous crossing at 4,950 meters/16,200+ feet had been exceptionally challenging and a voice echoed in my head, “This is high-er.”

By now, however, the climb before me had disassembled itself into baby steps, cadence and flow.

This is doable, this I can manage, this I can enjoy thoroughly.

“One foot in-front-of-the oth-er.”

Indeed, we’d found our rhythm. We’d found the good way.

Dan & Audrey at the Top of Gongmaru La Pass - Ladakh, India
At the top of Gongmaru La Pass (5,130 meters/16,800 feet).

If you’ve never experienced this sensation before, please give the following a try. Next time you find yourself at altitude or faced with having to tackle miles of challenging, snaking, winding and ever-upsloping trails — go very slowly, even more slowly than you’d ever imagined yourself being able to tolerate. Almost plodding. And lose yourself. So long as your goal is clearly understood, it’s only one sure slow foot in front of the other.

And maybe you’ll find that progress matters more than pace.

And maybe you’ll find your way, the good way.

And maybe you’ll think to yourself, “…not bad advice for life off the mountain, too.

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Comments

  1. Daisy McKinley says

    Beautiful! Meditation can seem so out-of-reach for many people but with those words and the photos you really nailed it. Thank you.

  2. says

    @Daisy: Thank you – glad you enjoyed this piece! I find it hard to meditate when at home, but I hope I can bring some of this rhythm and pace to “regular” life.

  3. says

    Thank you. Namaste. A glorious way to reach a goal. <3 A wonderful reminder about the beauty of Pacing ourselves. (this coming from one who sometimes goes a bit too gangbusters, headlong, 1000 miles an hour.) :) Thank you also for quoting a fave childhood song, "You put one foot in front of the oth-er and soon you'll be walking out the door… 'HUGS to you both.
    PS the photos are Phenomenal!

  4. says

    Quite an inspirational post, and in more ways than one. I confess I’ve never really tackled a hike so difficult that I needed to enter this sort of zone, but it seems beautiful. As you said, great advice for on and off the mountain.

  5. says

    @Kristin: We are trying now to slow down a bit and focus, but it’s hard sometimes not to get caught up with everything circling around. That’s why it was so great to be up in the mountains and offline for a bit. Good luck with finding your own pace…one foot in front of the other.

    @Edward: Often, we learn lessons that we can apply to everyday life in unusual places :)

  6. says

    Meditation is funny that way. It can be so challenging to stop our thoughts from wandering sometimes, but other times we just fall into it while doing a slow, simple, repetitive task. Beautiful post! We’re climbing Mt. Fuji in 2 weeks, and I’m definitely going to try this approach.

  7. says

    @Jessica: It is funny how the focus on slow, repetitive tasks or mantras allows one to fall into this. It’s almost as if one mind is working on the focus so the other part can go free. Good luck with your climb up Mt. Fuji! We went in spring when the top was still closed, but we enjoyed the hike from the base/temple up to where the station close to where the buses can now go. Very peaceful.

  8. says

    I find my meditation spot when I ride my motorcycle. When I am alone with my mind in my helmet. My body goes into autopilot when it comes to the mechanics of riding and the rest goes free. It’s an amazing experience.

  9. says

    @Debra: Interesting. Never thought of getting into a meditation zone on a motorcycle, but I can see that. Just be sure that the autopilot mode doesn’t go too fast :) I find that running and biking are other activities that helps free the mind and everything else. Enjoy your next ride!

  10. MattW says

    Spot on. The first time I had to hike slowly was going up Kilimanjaro, and while it took a while to get used to, once you get into that zone its great. A comfortable, steady pace just eats up the distance

  11. says

    @Matt: Congrats on your climb up Kilimanjaro! I remember on the first day of the Kilimanjaro trek our guide told us, “If you think you’re going to slow, that’s probably the right pace.” Slow and steady really does help eat up distances…and lets the mind go free.

  12. says

    This reminds me of the sea kayaking trip I recently went on. I had never gone on such a lengthy outing before and I struggled to keep up, but once I found my rhythm (even if it was slower than everyone else’s) it made the journey so much more enjoyable. :)

  13. says

    @Audrey: It’s funny you mention kayaking. Dan and I were on a kayaking trip in New Zealand earlier this year and we never found our rhythm like you did. We could see other people who seemed to be exerting less energy and moving more, but we never got there. Next time, hopefully!

  14. says

    I am really glad that you enjoyed your sojourn to Ladakh.I also like adventures places to visit.If i get a time from my hectic schedule i will go to Ladakh for sure.Thanks for your post on to this.

  15. says

    @Edmund: We’ll be writing more about all the details to organize and prepare for this trek later. But in terms of the schedule, it went like this. To get to Leh from Srinagar it took 2 days. Then we acclimatized in Leh for 2 days. Then the trek was 7 days total. On the first day we got a jeep transfer from Leh and then trekked for about 3-4 hours. On the last day we didn’t do much hiking but stopped at Hemis monastery on the way back to Leh. So, it was about 6 days on foot.

  16. says

    Thank you for sharing this. I will be heading on a 22 day trek to Everest Base Camp next year. I have been learning meditation for a few months now. I really look forward to the experience and have new excitement after you post. Thank you.

  17. says

    @Shane: Congrats on your upcoming trek! One of the guys with us in Ladakh had recently done a similar trek to Everest Base Camp and had a great experience. Just remember, go slow, keep breathing steadily and enjoy freeing your mind in incredible scenery like this!

  18. says

    I must say youve just covered once in a lifetime experience by being to himalaya as well as covering ladakh-leh tour. These places are part of India a country with millions of people however trust me not many are able to manage to go to these places although being in the same country. Its not easy or in everyone’s ability to visit these places. I belong to India and have been to the srinagar leh-ladakh tour only once in my life but its been memorable :) hence I can relate to the fun that you may be having by doing this trip. Thanks for sharing your experience! a nice read for me and brought back those memories of my trip there about 4 years back :) Cheers.

  19. says

    Totally amazing photos and sounds like an inspiring hike. I’ve some hiking planned in the future and looking at India and Tibet now. This sounds spectacular. a very poetic account. Look forward to reading more of your adventures. Safe travels and hiking. Jonny

  20. says

    @Abdul: Glad this post brought back good memories from your own visit to Ladakh four years ago. This area is quite remote so it’s not surprising that it’s difficult for Indians to visit as well. But being remote is also part of its charm :)

    @Jonny: Good luck with your hiking planning and glad this inspired you to take a look at India and Tibet. Not sure what the regulations are in Tibet at the moment, but another place to look into for hiking would be Nepal. Also a fascinating and beautiful place.

  21. says

    Inspirational thankyou. We are attempting our first major trek next april up to Mt Everest Base camp. I will be taking your advice and go slowly. I hope i find my meditation zone.

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