This is a story of our re-discovery of a few of life’s truths amidst a seven-day trek in the Himalayas.
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.
That’s what rhythm will do for you.
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.
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).
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.
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.”
Update: You can now buy the Ladakh Trekking: A Beginner’s Guide with all the information from this site plus lots of extra details and other goodies (like packing and other preparation) in an easy ebook that you can download and take with you.