The trek started smoothly enough: hard wooden beds, early breakfasts with steaming cups of milk tea, and long, slow days of trekking along the scenic mountain ledge. Ah, alone with my thoughts at last. To say it was peaceful is an understatement. It was like someone hooked a vacuum hose up to my ear and sucked out all my worry and angst.
Then, on the second day, my fellow trekkers (many of whom were experienced hikers and athletes) began to report constant – albeit mild – headaches. We recognized the symptom from the numerous hand-painted posters we saw cautioning Acute Mountain Sickness (AMS), or “altitude sickness” as it is more commonly known. AMS occurs when the air is thin; the oxygen molecules are so spread out that your body cannot intake enough oxygen to sustain itself. It is one of the most unpredictable illnesses – nobody knows why it affects some people and not others. What we do know is that the only way to cure it is to get down. Fast.
Yet, we ignored the symptoms and continued onward, believing that those who were feeling ill were physically fit enough to push through.
The higher we got, the more frequently we saw other groups retreating down the paths, helping along weak trekkers who were similarly suffering. The illness clearly intensified in severity as the altitude increased. People were vomiting on the side of the trails, laying down beside the paths unable to move, and getting carried down by sherpas on makeshift mattress-stretchers. At times, even the occasional rescue helicopter was summoned.
Our group’s progress seemed to take a turn for the worst on day 6, in a village called Dengboche at 14,550 ft. When we woke up, one of my fellow trekkers – a Swedish marathon runner named Ann – slowly opened her eyes and mumbled from beneath her down sleeping bag: “I’m not going to make it”. She was nauseous, suffering from severe headaches and could hardly walk. After breakfast, we watched as she and one of our guides turned around and slowly descended down the foggy trail, back the way we had just come.
We all agreed it was the smartest decision; Ann needed to return while she could still walk. Yet, there was an unshakable feeling of sadness, of surrender. We knew she had been dreaming about seeing Everest since she was a little girl and had been planning, reading about and training for the trip for over 8 years. I couldn’t believe that she, out of all of us, was the one who had to turn back. “How senseless!” we said to one another over mounds of rice at lunch. “She was the fittest and most prepared of us all. Life can be so unfair, so cruel.” It was true of course, but then we were all adult enough to understand that life, by nature, is not fair.
“…happiness, as elusive and complex as it can seem, is actually quite simple. It is a choice. It may not always be an easy choice, but it is a choice all the same, and it is within each of us to intentionally embrace it.”
And yet, in the end, it was Ann who showed us that life, while unfair, is also wonderfully mutable. We may not be given a choice in which hand we are dealt, but we are free to play our cards however we want. When we reunited in Namche village on our way back down the mountain, we found Ann healthy and glowing with joy. She didn’t mention the unfairness of the situation at all. Instead, she enthusiastically asked us questions about the rest of our journey and recounted how her illness gave her a wonderful opportunity to get to know our shy assistant guide better. She had filled her days with off-the-beaten-path day-treks to different Mt. Everest viewpoints so she could still see and capture pictures of Everest without having made it to Base Camp.
Seeing Ann’s genuine joy was a simple but profound reminder of the power of attitude and determination. She was determined to be happy, to see the silver lining, to appreciate what she was able to do despite her misfortune. In doing so, she taught me an invaluable lesson: that happiness, as elusive and complex as it can seem, is actually quite simple. It is a choice. It may not always be an easy choice, but it is a choice all the same, and it is within each of us to intentionally embrace it.
Now, when I find myself getting upset about something, I think back to Ann, our time on Everest and that lesson. My feelings are of my choosing. If the road in front of me is not as I imaged, I can be flexible and plan another route.
I can use the opportunity to get to know the assistant guide better.