The ground spun under my feet the same way it seems to turn after stepping off of a tire swing. My vision blurred as if I were looking through a dirty windshield, and I squinted my eyes and stared at the ground to regain my balance. The dizziness came out of no where like a slap in the face.
When I looked up, I saw a group of trekkers staring back at me.
“Are you okay?” One of them asked.
“I’m fine,” I said, mustering a smile. I sat down and waited for my heart to stop pounding and the dizziness to subside.
I’ve read a lot about altitude sickness, and was aware of the sudden signs and symptoms of it. That day, I was supposed to ascend over 700 vertical meters: from 4,800 meters to 5,535 meters above sea level. Three hours into my trek in the middle of the Kong Ma pass, altitude sickness struck. Three hours from one town. Four hours from the next.
The sudden terror of being trapped in the middle of nowhere, with altitude sickness, struck me all at once. I suddenly felt helpless and alone.
I counted my breaths and tried to slow my heart rate down. My arms felt like weights as I ripped open my backpack and tore the altitude sickness pills package open, my hands shaking uncontrollably. I ate one and waited for it to kick in, praying it would be sooner rather than later. Controlling my breathing helped, but I still felt sick.
I flagged down one of my friends who had been trekking behind me.
“Leroy!” I shouted as he came over. “I don’t feel well at all, please sit here with me,” I said, feeling like a needy school child. He sat down with me as I put my head into my hands and waited for the shaking to stop.
Suddenly, it felt like there was a balloon in my chest. I found it extremely difficult to breathe.
“I need to descend,” I said, grabbing my backpack. My legs felt thick and heavy as if I were trudging through molasses. I sprinted down the mountain, focusing on each step that brought me towards air with rich oxygen. Sweet, sweet oxygen.
After five minutes of horror and a 50 meter descent, I sat down, grabbing my cold potatoes wrapped in tin foil and shoving a few into my mouth.
Then the nausea struck.
“Shit,” I said. Bile bubbled into my throat, threatening release. I descended another 20 meters or so before I finally felt like I could breathe.
Tears pooled into my eyes. I wanted nothing more than to be in any town with someone that could help me.
I looked at the Himalayas. The mountains towered over me, mocking my weakness and reminding me of how small I really am. You’re a spec of dirt compared to me, the mountains said. You’re invisible.
I sat on coal-colored rocks and stared at the vast nothingness of the valley in front of me. Silence accompanied me. I never felt so alone.
You have to get over the pass, you can’t stop here, I told myself as I stood up with wobbly legs. I didn’t have the option to throw my hands into the air and say, I’m done, life. I couldn’t stop in the middle of a pass, hours from any town. I was fighting against altitude and the setting sun. Each passing second took another moment of daylight, brought me a step towards darkness.
That realization alone scared the shit out of me.
I put my backpack on and did the only thing I could think to do; ascend 10 meters, sit, wait, ascend 10 meters, sit, wait. The only way I would allow myself to ascend was if I felt well enough. Otherwise, I wasn’t going to move and would turn around and continue descending.
My heart exploded with relief when I found my friend waiting for me where I had left him an hour before.
“You can do this,” he said. “Let’s make it over the pass.”
We still had over four hours left of the day’s trek and weren’t even at the summit of the pass yet.
I had to concentrate on each step and tell my foot where to land. The throbbing headache in my head grew with each passing second, waiting to explode. I rubbed my temples and tried to focus on the spectacular scenery around me.
A royal blue lake sat in a crevice of the glacier. Sunlight sparkled as it struck the surface of the lake in the shapes of diamonds. A massive mountain stood behind the lake, black and white with rock and snow. My friend and I were the only two people staring at this monstrous beauty. The only two people in the entire world.
No matter how much pain I was in in that moment, it was then that I realized how lucky I am.
The final, steep 100-meter ascent to the peak looked daunting. The prayer flags swinging in the breeze at the summit promised relief, and I knew I was close.
Don’t stop, Monica, c’mon, push yourself, you have to make it over the summit, you can’t stop now.
The pressure inside of my head grew like a balloon with too much helium. The world swayed under my feet as if I had taken too many tequila shots. I held onto rocks for balance as I brought each foot, one at a time, up the mountain.
I looked like a gremlin as I pulled myself towards the summit, at 5,535 meters. My other two friends, who had been waiting for me ran over asking if I was okay.
My symptoms momentarily subsided as I took in the velvet blue lake and the white mountains around me. I stared at the unbelievably beautiful view, the view that drained every single ounce of energy from my body: the view that most people never get to see in their lifetime.
“I need to descend. Now,” I said after a few moments.
“Let’s go. It’s also dangerous crossing the glacier at night,” one of my friends said as he put on his backpack.
I felt the nausea creep back into my stomach as my headache started to return, both of which had momentarily subsided enough for me to take in the view.
The steep descent took over an hour, brought us to another ascent, and then to a glacier crossing.
I felt like I was going to die as I crossed the glacier. Every ascent and descent never ended like I was stuck in Limbo. We had to go down, then up, then down again. Rocks rocks slid from beneath my feet and foreshadowed my final demise into the glacial pit that never ended.
I can’t do it, I can’t, I want to lie down, I thought as tears started to form in my eyes for the second time that day. I wanted nothing more than to sit and let my head stop throbbing. But as the sun slowly sank towards the horizon, the darkening glacier threatened danger. I couldn’t stop, not even for a second.
Get across the glacier, make it over, make it over, you have to make it over, I told myself as I dragged myself towards the next town.
Every step you take is one closer to Lobouche.
We reached Lobouche minutes before darkness covered the town in a black blanket. The altitude sickness caused me to sway more than ever before as if I were looking through a kaleidoscope.
You’re so close to a bed, so close to laying down and sleeping, I thought as we went into the first guesthouse to ask for a room.
“We’re full,” the owner said. It took all of what was left of my mental strength not to throw a fit.
One step at a time, one step at a time.
The next five guesthouses we asked were also full. We even begged one guesthouse to let us sleep in their living room, but they said no.
It wasn’t until the last guesthouse in the entire town that we found a room: the last room available.
I sprinted into bed to lie under the covers, shivering from the cold.
“You need to eat something,” one of my friends said. I had no appetite even though all I had eaten that day consisted of fried potatoes and vegetables.
I tried to shovel a Sherpa stew down my throat. Each bite felt like sand paper as the feeling of nausea grew.
And then I threw up. Altitude sickness, you won.
“What do I do?” I asked my friends, thankful I had travel insurance. At least I’d leave the adventure in style if I needed to be air lifted away in a helicopter.
“You need to drink water and sleep,” one of them said.
And so I slept. When I woke up in the morning, I felt like I could run a marathon. My symptoms were gone: I had acclimated during the night.
It was the hardest physical and mental day of my entire life.
By the end of my trip, I trekked over 200 kilometers through the Himalayas in Nepal, unguided. It was the most incredible, life-changing experience I’ve ever had, and I find it difficult even now to put into words what I saw and felt.
I experienced the hardest physical and mental days of my life, and the happiest, euphoria inducing days of my life. Both ends of the spectrum: I saw beauty and felt pain; I experienced happiness and lived in fear.
This journey wouldn’t have been nearly as rewarding had I not had to work for what I saw. There are hours of trekking and physical exhaustion behind each and every photo. Times where I didn’t think I would make it, and moments where I almost threw my hands into the air and screamed from frustration. I came to know mental breakdowns all too well.
But it’s the moments where I sat on the summit of a mountain, looking at the clouds that floated beneath me, looking at Mount Everest stained blood orange from the sun, that made it all worth it. The moments that rarely anyone ever gets to see in their entire life. Moments I pushed myself to my limit and beyond. Moments I thought I was going to fail.
Those made it all worth it. Every single second.
Watching the sunrise over Mount Everest: that made it all worth it.
I smiled as the sun peaked out from behind Mount Everest, crept up towards the sky, slowly, like a puppeteer bringing his creation to life.
The sunlight swallowed me in warmth that thawed my numb feet. The world seemed to stop as I sat above it at 5,550 meters above sea level at the summit of Kala Patthar, as a tiny spec floating above the world.
The prayer flags danced in celebration with the breeze. I made it. I completed the two-hour trek before sunrise to the summit of the mountain, two days after suffering from altitude sickness over the Kong Ma La.
And then, I cried. I cried from the pain. I cried from the euphoria. And I cried from the feeling of accomplishment that washed over me all at once.
Watching the sunset stain Mount Everest red: that made it all worth it.
The altitude suffocated me. It wrapped its massive hands around my neck and squeezed out every ounce of oxygen in my body. I wondered if this is what it was like to breathe through a tube. The summit of Gokyo Ri stood within arms reach, promising an incredible sunset and some of the best views of the entire trip. So beautiful, in fact, I summited the mountain three times in two days to see the view.
That’s a 500-meter vertical ascent from 4,800 meters to 5,360 meters.
Why are you doing this to yourself, Monica, I thought the entire two hour trek to the summit. Every time I reached the top I knew why I did it to myself.
I did it because I won’t remember the pain. I won’t remember the inability to breathe, the stop doing this and go lay down in a bed thoughts that clouded my brain.
I’m going to remember the Candy Cane stripes of the sky.
The way the sun stained Mount Everest blood orange.
The way the chill of the night slowly crept into my bones.
The change of the Himalayas from white to black, and the periwinkle, magenta, orange, light blue colors in between.
Snuggling up in the blankets my friend lugged up the mountain in his backpack.
How the clouds rolled in and covered the glacier like pillows.
The feeling of being on top of the world.
Some days I trekked 10 kilometers and ascended over 500 vertical meters at altitude. Some days I trekked over 25 kilometers and ascended and descended over 2 vertical kilometers, going above and below 2,000 meters above sea level.
I did all of this for under $20 USD a day. I could have spent less, had I not ordered so many milk coffees to thaw my body from the inside out in the below freezing temperatures in the early mornings.
My friends and I took a horrendous, 12 hour jeep ride from Kathmandu to Salleri, and spent an extra 3 days trekking to the start of the EBC and Three Passes trail. We did the same on the way back.
Because we walked in and out and didn’t fly, we saved over $300 USD. I feel as though we earned the accomplishment even more. We had to work harder for the experience. It was especially tough walking out after the trek, which added an extra three days after 20 days of continuous exhaustion.
I suffered blisters so painful I limped for a week straight. I didn’t give them time to heal, and hoped that pouring baby powder on them every night for two weeks would dry them out. They healed after 2 ½ weeks. The entire trek was three weeks.
I lived off of fried potatoes & vegetables, fried noodles, eggs, rice, and lentils. The hunger was constant, but choice of various food items was not an option in the Himalayas.
I didn’t shower for 20 days straight. My greasy hair shined in the moonlight, and my legs were darker than my black German Shepherd’s fur coat. I could smell my feet before I even took off my shoes, and didn’t bother looking in the mirror, for fear of seeing the Abominable Snowman staring back at me. My lips were constantly chapped, the skin on my face turned red and scaly from the dry air, and my sunburned nose started shedding flakes.
Mount Everest stared back at me in the crisp Himalayan air on my 23rd birthday. I treated myself to a Java coffee during the day. My birthday dinner was lentils and rice, and I was asleep by 8 p.m.
It was the best birthday I’ve ever had.
Sleeping in all of my clothes became standard, and I was freezing despite being under three thick blankets. I didn’t brush my teeth half of the time because of the cold, and held my pee in more than I want to admit to avoid exposing my ass to freezing temperatures.
I crossed two other passes, the Cho La and Renjo La, and ran around in the snow and somehow avoided slipping on my ass as I picked ice off of the ground and ate it because I was out of water.
Cold potatoes became a staple lunch, and I forgot what fruit and non-chlorinated water tasted like.
I lived without wifi, and didn’t miss it for one second.
Every single day I felt genuinely happy. My task for each day was get from point A to point B, make sure I drink enough water, eat three meals, walk along the side of a mountain, and take in the most incredible views in the entire world. I’ve never been so wonderfully happy for so many consecutive days before.
This trek was extremely challenging and rewarding. Every single moment was incredible. Every step was life changing. I learned to experience happiness with pain. I learned how much I can physically and mentally push myself, and how much I can handle when put in an extremely stressful environment.
Beautiful scenery made me cry. The feeling of helplessness made me cry. Summiting passes and mountains made me cry.
I stared in awe from the unbelievable sunrises and sunsets over the tallest mountain in the entire world. I stared in awe from the towering Himalayas and the vibrant colored lakes set beneath them.
I’ve never put myself this far out of my comfort zone before. I submitted myself to an unguided, 200-kilometer trek through the Himalayas, that included freezing temperatures, hours of exhausting physical activity every day, bland food, and high altitude.
I would never, ever trade this experience for anything in the entire world.
The views I saw and the feelings I felt are indescribable.
It’s the greatest thing I’ve ever experienced in my entire life.
And I hope you all have the chance to experience something like this.
Please check out my Ultimate Guide to Trekking to Mount Everest Base Camp & The Three Passes!