Hiking over the Himalayas helped me…

I hiked over one of the world’s highest mountain passes in a four-week journey, offline, without plans. This blog describes people I met, life in the Himalayas, altitude sickness (and rescues), and methods I used to develop mindfulness that allowed me to overcome a decade of suffering from chronic pain. It began in the town of Besisahar and ended in Beni Bazar 28 days later.
The hike was part of a longer backpacking trip through Nepal and India, where I arrived in Kathmandu, learned basic Nepali phrases, then traveled through both countries without plans, adapting each day based on people I met and lessons I learned.
I’ve traveled this way for 30 years, flying into one country and out of another. This trip was different because I had a goal to hike without pain medications. Doctors at the Veterans Health Administration had prescribed pain medications to me for over nine years to postpone surgeries that have low probabilities of relieving pain. The meds treated symptoms, but my mind became sluggish and it was difficult to make wise choices for long-term health. And, as I would later realize, something had been going wrong with my mind that reminded me of when I first started noticing symptoms of physical diseases, mistaking symptoms for being sore from exercising or stiff from sitting at a desk. Similarly, I was now noticing slips in my mental capabilities, especially with simple math and remembering details even when I made a conscious effort to do so.
I share a few techniques I used to develop mindfulness throughout blogs about this trip, hopefully helping others.
The trail

I took a bus from Kathmandu to the village of Besisahar, being dropped where the dirt road ended and a hiking trail began. I had a backpack with two months worth of clothes. I carried a day’s worth of food and water, a few books, a camera, and a Frisbee.
The trail cut into the sides of mountains, crossing rivers with suspension bridges swinging hundreds of feet in the air. Two people could not pass on the narrow bridges, so we’d coordinate who went first. Goats, cows, and buffalo used the bridges; I gave right-of-way to anything with horns, and played with anything that was cute.

Sleeping & eating
I carried a day’s worth of food an water, knowing I’d find more on the trail. The trail goes through villages, passing people’s front doors. Most families offer simple beds and dinners to travelers. Their ancestors had done the same thing to Tibetan traders for generations.

Most villages don’t have schools. Some do, and nearby villagers walk the trail for hours to reach them. There are not medical services. Poverty is common, and the area was recovering from a recent civil war that killed 19,000 people and displaced 200,000. Foreign aid doesn’t reach them. Despite these challenges, the Himalayan people are kind, industrious, hard-working, and peaceful. Himalayan people say, “what is there to do?” as a way to be present in the moment and only worry about what is within their control.

Part of what’s in everyone’s control is our kindness towards others. Nepali culture encourages compassion, shown by how kids would run into the street to greet me when I approached a village. They’d clasp their hands, bow, and say “Namaste,” the Hindu word for “I see the divine in you.” I’d clasp my hands, bow, and wait to feel the sentiment before returning the word, “Namaste.”
Feeling compassion and speaking truthfully makes everyone happier. Imagine if our culture encouraged pausing to seek compassion for a person before saying, truthfully, “I hope you’re well.”
The poorest backpacker is wealthier than these kids can imagine, and many share treats. A consequence is a that kids start seeing backpackers, most of whom are caucasian (white), as sources of things rather than as people. They don’t say Namaste, they shout, “Money! Chocolate! Sweet!” You can’t see the divine in each other with a hierarchical relationship, so I gave the most valuable thing I have, time.

Many Himalayan families had been in travelers’ photos, but had never used a camera or seen their own picture. I lent my camera to kids, letting them learn by playing with it. They’d take photos of their parents, show them, and try again with new button combinations. In return, they’d teach me Nepali words for what they saw. This is co-learning, a powerful tool for connecting with students.
Kids took many of these photos, letting us see the world through their eyes.

People

I was hiking uphill each day, gaining 400-500 meters of elevation. Each night got colder; before going to bed, I’d huddle around kitchen fires, learning to cook Himalayan food while talking with families.

Most guest houses were people’s homes, and they juggled family duties while preparing our dinners. One host, Narme Llama, was a third-generation Tibetan with newborn twins. He had a warm smile, had learned four languages, and helped take care of his new daughters while running his business.
I arrived at the end of season without tourists, so a bed was free. A meal cooked over their wood stove was 200 Rupees ($2 U.S.). Ginger tea was 60 Rupees. They saved money to send their older daughter to boarding school in the nearest city, two-days away, for $15/month. They were lucky to save $2 per month, which would have to support them in old age. There were no schools nearby, and all jobs were physical labor that didn’t need an education, but Narme-Llama valued education. He realized their government wouldn’t build roads, schools, or hospitals in rural areas, but was grateful for his family and the values installed by his grandfather that helped make their exile from Tibet and independence in the Himalayas peaceful, despite being viewed as unwelcome refugees. Images of Buddha were on the walls; the Buddha taught how to seek your own happiness, because no one else can do that for you.

Sometimes a guesthouse would have other backpackers, or travelers with a guide, and we’d share time around a fire learning different perspectives on the world.
Some travelers had smart-phones with translation apps and solar-chargers, allowing us to communicate with almost anyone. Even tiny villages had WiFi; people couldn’t get toilet paper, but could browse the internet. Our world could be moving towards a global democracy, where people solve problems rather than politicians, or we could could be moving towards replacing democracy with “dataism.” (Read “Homo Deus.”) Wherever we’re going, 7.6 billion people using smart-phones will get us there faster.

Elevation
I hiked uphill 4 to 8 hours per day. Trees became rare, and snow-capped mountains became common. Tibetan prayer-flags highlighted mountains I’d eventually cross.

At higher elevations, people from poor castes walk downhill to collect firewood each day, walking back uphill to sell it. Tourists use more firewood than the local ecosystem can resupply; to balance this, the government agency overseeing this area has encouraged gas stoves. The alternative was burning yak-dung, which isn’t as smelly as you’d imagine, but I wouldn’t try it at home.
Mules resupply villages with gas tanks and food that can’t be grown in high elevations.

Democracy
Every few days I’d walk into a town, which is larger than a village and serves as a trading center. Towns had comfortable guest houses and supplies for backpackers, such as Snickers candy bars.

In the town of Manang, we had to wait four days because all guest-houses in the region were full of people from Kathmandu, who had traveled to vote in the national election. In Nepal, people must vote in the town they’re registered, usually where their ancestors were born. This was Nepal’s second election; their democracy was new, and followed a ten-year civil war that had divided the people between the poor and wealthy.
Nepali soldiers patrolled the streets, enforcing a curfew with guns rather than logic. Nepal uses their soldiers as defense, police, and national park protection. Until the civil war, they were the only people with guns, and without checks-and-balances they abuse their power in rural areas. I believe this will change now that Nepal has a democracy; I’ve never had a gun pointed at me in a country with a functional democracy.

The curfew didn’t affect our stay in Manang because there was nothing to do at night, especially when temperatures were below freezing. We’d walk up and down the street then return to our guesthouse to get warm around a yak-dung fire.
The guesthouse where we stayed was decorated for what the owners imagined a typical traveler would enjoy. Their home look like a rustic version of a 1970’s television sitcom; for some reason, they assumed that a typical traveler expected a Tiki bar. We’d sit under the Tiki bar, heating our tea in steel mugs on the yak-dung burning stove.
Frisbees are surprisingly useful for meeting people. One of our group used my Frisbee to prepare wild herbs he had found hiking in the lowlands earlier on the trip.

We spoke with local families about the election. Most people didn’t understand the differences between political ideologies, they simply hoped for a better life. The communist party overwhelmingly won elections in rural areas. In cities, the status-quo remained. Their new democracy would share government decisions between parties. Regardless of this year’s outcome, it’s a step towards more people having a voice in their future. They celebrated with parties in the street.

Silence
After the elections, I started hiking through remote areas. My head hurt from spinal injuries, my hips hurt from arthritis and inflammation, and the screws in my ankle caused the bones to throb with pain. But I did not experience worry, anxiety, stress, or suffering. I walked silently, concentrating on being mindful.

You see more wildlife when walking silently. Some, like this yak, are not subtle. Others are easily missed; there are at least four mountain goats in this photo:

And at least two in this photo:

Altitude
Many people do not get altitude sickness. I’m not one of them.
This photo was taken from the window of a shelter, where I stayed for three nights to recover.

For almost a week, I had been hiking at over 3,400 meters (~11,000 feet), gaining 300-500 meters each day. I had a headache and craved oxygen. My body fought two needs: deep breaths to get oxygen vs. tightening my windpipe to keep out the cold, dry air. I have asthma, and my breath “wheezed” on steep sections of the trail.
When you’re emotionally detached from discomfort, you’re able to differentiate between transient discomfort and symptoms of altitude sickness. At 4,880 metres (16,010 ft, ~ 3 miles) I realized that my headaches and dizziness were signs of trouble, so I descended to a shelter at 4,540 meters.

I stayed in a small room with one window that allowed cold wind into the room. I laid awake for hours, trying to stay warm as ice formed in my water bottle. It was -17 degrees by 2am. My heart was pounding at 124 beats per minute, more than twice my normal resting rate. Every muscle in my body was tense, sending blood to vital organs. I couldn’t descend; in daylight, it was six hours down a narrow and dangerous trail to the next shelter. I concentrated on relaxing until my jaw unclenched, which led to my teeth chattering at 124 beats per minute. I had preferred a clenched jaw.
By sunrise, my pulse was down to 80 beats per minute. I didn’t move that day, and by that evening my pulse was ~ 60 beats per minute, still more than my normal resting rate, but reasonable considering I was 3 miles high.

I acclimated by hiking to higher elevations during the day, descending to sleep at night. On one of these hikes, I found an emergency satellite phone. Three years prior, almost 400 people were trapped at this location by a surprise snowstorm; 42 died, and 175 suffered frostbite. I was not reassured by the satellite phone, which was made from a coffee can and something that looked like the dish-drying rack by my sink at home.
I’ve sumitted mountains all over the world, and frequently rock-climb in the Sierra Nevada mountains, where the amount of focus for each motion makes you not notice almost all other thoughts or feelings. This requires concentration; your mind is sluggish from high altitudes, low oxygen, and physical exertion, and it wants to be anywhere other than the present moment. Hiking above 17,000 feet can require 10 to 15 seconds of focus per step, requiring 6-8 hours of unbroken concentration. For me, I also must remain aware of the nature of pain in my body. For example, the metal screws in my ankle can wear into the bone, leading to a risky situation if I can’t walk effectively, and my normal headaches must be continuously evaluated to ensure it’s not progression to severe altitude sickness.
If you think about how difficult it is to concentrate on something unpleasant, you have an idea of the real challenge of high-altitude hiking, which is maintaining that level of focus for 6-8 hours per day for several weeks.
Here’s my metaphor for being mindful while hiking, which applies to anything in life. You’re the pilot of a bus, a driver with passengers, navigating a road with other drivers. You are the pilot, and the bus is your body and the passengers are your thoughts. The road and other drivers are external situations often out of your control. In other words, you’re in control of piloting your bus and maintaining it’s well-being, and sometimes you must pilot your bus on and rough and bumpy road despite deflated tires, weak shock absorbers, pain from screws in your ankle, pain from spinal disease. Your passengers are loud and all talk at once, like kids on a school bus shouting things that may or may not help you. They constantly tell your about your deflated tires, weak shock absorbers, pain in your ankle, pain in your neck; they warn you to look out for other buses even when the risk is negligible; they worry about where you’re going or question where you’ve been; they ask about work project you need to finish, wonder what other people in your life are doing, and talk about other aspects of your life not relevant to the immediate situation of piloting your bus over a rough road with weak shock absorbers and the potential to get a flat tire. But, some of those voices are telling you when to rest, ensuring your headache is not a symptom of life-threatening altitude sickness, notifying you of potential risks to avoid such as slippery ice or a possible avalanche or another driver on the road out of control, and other things critical to your safety at the moment. Your challenge is to acknowledge the voices of all passengers while maintaining focus on piloting the bus; you acknowledge pain, worry, anxiety, fear, and even joy or elation while concentrating on being in control of your bus.
When you pilot your bus 6-8 hours per day for several weeks you begin to recognize that you can listen to passengers while being detached from them, to acknowledge without judgement, and to make choices based on what’s important for your safety and peace of mind regardless of the condition of the road, your tires, or other passengers sharing the road.

I had been focused on piloting my bus, which required ten seconds for each step, for six hours when I saw a tea shop.
Seriously. I shook my head to ensure I wasn’t mistaken.
A cheerful entrepreneur had brought gas stoves and tea to a shelter at 17,900 feet. I paid $1.50 for a cup of hot tea; I would have paid a hundred.
Over the next few hours, his hut saved someone’s life.

I reached the summit, sat down, then got up as I realized something was wrong with one of the four other people. She was suffering severe altitude sickness. Her eyes were rolled back into her head, her breathing was in brief gasps, and her pulse was more than 150 beats per minute. She was in shock, and it was likely that pressure was building insider her brain.
None of us spoke the same language; we carried her into the tea hut while her guide was trying a satellite phone to call help. Over the next few hours, we kept her warm in the tea shop while preparing a helicopter landing zone. We carried her and her bags onto the helicopter, which would prioritize getting her to a lower elevation, and then to a hospital.

The helicopter cost $10,000. It was a private service, and the patient’s guide received a commission for calling it. The tea shop entrepreneur made $1.50. Three years ago, when the storm trapped 500 people here, local people dug through snow without concern for how they would get paid. There’s no right or wrong, just facts. Mindfulness is being aware of facts, but differing judgement until those facts are necessary to make a decision.
When the helicopter left, I was alone again. I started walking down the other side of the pass.
Mindfulness & a transformational moment
I had been so focused on the rescue that I hadn’t felt pain or symptoms of altitude sickness. I started to notice the pain again. Descending steep trails is harder on your joints than hiking uphill, and my head and joints screamed with pain. People become addicted to temporary relief from pain, either from medications or by pouring themselves into their work, so more doctors are recommending mindfulness, which can allow someone to become detached from discomfort while maintaining mental clarity.
When I had descended enough to reduce the effects of altitude sickness, I stopped to eat a Snickers candy bar. It was the first food I could hold down in 24 hours; at that moment was the most delicious thing I had ever eaten. In the time it took for my teeth to break through a peanut, all discomfort faded. I had no thoughts, just awareness. The sky was brighter, the air cleaner, rocks more beautiful than before I began taking that bite. This experience lasted for a month, and, to a lesser extent, remains now that I’m home. I’ve tried to share the continued experience throughout my blogs; this one remains the most challenging to describe because few people have that experience therefore it’s difficult to relate.
I had read writings from the historic Buddha who described the feeling of Nirvana, complete peace, as “all that needs to be done is done.” That’s apt, but only for people who have experienced that before. For me, it applies because I’m a person who takes several months off at a time to backpack or travel without anything else to do. But it was more than that; I truly and deeply understand many things now that became clear in that brief moment that lasted the time it takes to bite through a peanut.
First, a little background on me: I’ve taught physics, among other topics. But, I don’t have a physics degree, I enjoy physics as a hobby, and have had the opportunity to apply my understanding in medical research and aerospace engineering, and a lot of my free time is spent trying to deepen my understanding of the overlap between theories of relativity, quantum mechanics, gravity, and time. I can pass any exam, test, or conversation about physics because the people who write exams or test or have conversations about physics are simply repeating the words, not understanding the concepts, and definitely unable to apply them. But I did not truly understand what it would feel like to ride a beam of light in the eight minutes it takes to reach Earth from the sun; what it would be like to ride the gravitation wave that recently passed through Earth and originated 130 million light-years away; why my body disintegrates as the laws of Entropy ensure will happen to all of us.
The Buddha said that there are only four truths, and that Nirvana is seeing them. One of the truths is that we all will grow old, get sick, and die. That’s entropy, which is also the foundation for surprisingly recent explanation of life on earth beginning and, possibly, the arrow of time. I wouldn’t realize that part until reading books by Carlos Revelli. But, sometime between the moment I started biting through the peanut and before the peanut broke apart in my mouth, I gained a deeper level of understanding about the works of Einstein, Hawking, and many other physicists. I also gained a deeper understanding of what the Buddha taught, and how it applies to mindfulness and wisdom. I wrote about the books I read on this trip that contributed to that understanding in another blog.
I eventually learned that mindfulness can be permanent, but takes as much concentration as hiking at high altitude. The same concentration that allowed me to hike over the Himalayas without suffering from pain, the same focus that allowed me to assist in a helicopter rescue without noticing pain or worry, is possible in our daily lives without external motivation. As the Buddha said, peace comes from within. Over the next two months in Nepal and India, and the following six months back in the United States, I’d learn that, for me, being mindful while piloting a bus on a challenging road is easy compared to piloting a bus in daily life. The moment I transformed while eating a Snickers bar allowed me to feel mindfulness for many weeks, so I had evidence that it was possible, which gave me the conviction that I could learn to make it permanent.
It happens that Buddhist philosophy on meditation and mindfulness are useful tools in a deeper understanding of what these words mean. Just like memorizing physics words or formulas doesn’t ensure understanding, using words or citing philosophers doesn’t ensure understanding, and hearing words does not mean you’ll understand what you don’t practice, just like hearing someone describe riding a bicycle doesn’t mean you’ll be able to ride a bicycle without practicing yourself.
I decided to practice the methods with an open-minded approach (ha!) to see if I could understand mindfulness on the same level I understand physics. I had an advantage, I had experienced it. The focus and concentration on my body and mind’s reactions for a couple of weeks, combined with my attempts to practice yoga and meditate for the year before, had led to me experiencing what could not be denied: I could become detached from physical discomfort and mental worry, I could understand things on a deeper level at a rate faster than words allow, and that these feelings could be maintained over weeks if not longer, including a lifetime.
This is explained by how our brain connects neuron cells to other neuron cells to form complex patterns of association, creating present experiences based on a combination of past experiences and expectations for the future. This was famously seen in the experiment with Pavlov’s dogs. Does that name ring a bell? (Ha!) Pavlov was a psychologist who noticed that his dogs began to salivate when he conditioned them by ringing a bell before serving food; over time, they would salivate with only the bell, without smelling food or being near dinner time. Mind and body, perceptions and situations, thoughts and feelings, are inseparably linked and those connections are difficult to distinguish. Our discomfort or worry in a moment are almost indistinguishable from a complex network of past experiences and expectations that combine to make us salivate at the sound of a bell. Almost. I learned to distinguish the two on a daily bases, just as I learned to acknowledge all voices on the bus in a way that was detached and allowed me to pilot the bus despite bad tires and an icy road. What could be conditioned could be unconditioned through practice.
Einstein would often talk about detaching himself from conditioned thoughts that were obstacles to seeing reality. The Buddha’s final words were, “All conditioned things are impermanent. Practice diligently.” We don’t understand physics or our minds by reading about them, we must concentrate and practice diligently until we can ride our bicycle or pilot our bus effortlessly.
I walked downhill for a few more hours, found a guest house, and enjoyed the sunset. The sunset was beautiful because of ice crystals forming in the air; the lenticular clouds coming from mountain peaks indicated pressure was building and snow would arrive. Two days later, it began snowing on the mountain pass I had just summited, and it was raining in the areas of where I would spend the next two weeks. I started hiking through the rain, going off-the-beaten-path and into the Kingdom of Mustang.

Other blogs share key experiences during this trip through Nepal and India. Too much happened to list every detail, but many come out at appropriate times with friends. One’s worth mentioning here: On the hike down the other side of the Himalayas I stumbled across a small house that advertised itself as a bed-and-breakfast and Dutch bakery. It had American wild-west photos on the walls, and images of galaxies and quotes on astrophysics. The owners were a Dutch physicist and Nepali Buddhist; the physicists had hiked this route 20+ years before, fell in love with a Nepali woman, and lived with her in this remote town. He loved American western films, and decorated the home to look like a saloon from the California Gold Rush, which was near my home in San Diego, California. Of course, I stayed there. We spoke all day and night about physics and what the Buddha taught, realizing that insights of Einstein and Buddha were simply applications of geniuses applied to the tools they had available, physics and the mind.
Many of my side-stories are interesting in the context of main stories in these blogs. If you and I meet, I hope we spend enough quality time together to share stories.
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