There’s nothing quite like that moment. It’s early in the morning and you’re sore from the previous day’s hike. You unzip your tent, a rush of fresh air hits you and you see a view that makes you forget how badly you need to pee. The fill-in-the-blank mountain range surrounds you and its peaks are turning orange as the sun comes up. It’s even more beautiful than you remember it being the evening before. You pull on a down jacket, walk out barefoot into the wet grass and are overcome by a sense of contentment.
There’s no eloquent way to say this: mountains rule. The thing with mountains is that they can take “miserable” and turn it into “epic.” They mess with reality, or at least memory.
A few years back Boris and I spent five days in the Tien Shan mountains of Kyrgyzstan on the Chinese border. I’d describe them as an emptier version of the Swiss Alps. We filled our packs with cheap gear we’d bought at the Decathlon in Beijing months earlier. This gear excluded a stove. Instead we brought 30 king-sized snickers and a bag of nuts, thinking that the trek would take us three days.
There weren’t many trails, but we had a detailed map and a print-out of good camping areas with estimated walking times. On the first day we learned that their six hours of estimated walking was equivalent to our eight hours. But we didn’t mind, yet. We were cutting through valleys so green they looked like they’d been colored in with crayon.
We set up camp at the foot of what we thought to be the approach to the pass and woke up the next morning surrounded by curious brown cows and white peaks. After a snickers we headed out. Sore from the day before, it took us three hours to get to the pass. The rain started as we were heading down the other side. Sheets of rain. By the time we got to the river, we had no chance of making the planned crossing. We tried and failed and tried and cursed and gave up. (Later we would meet an 84-year-old Austrian man in Bishkek who’d managed to get across on his own). So we walked on, hoping to find another way over. It was impossible to hear anything over the rain.
At one point I slipped and slid down the side of a hill so now the seat of my pants was literally flapping in the wind. We laughed because we were so miserable; then the thunder and lightning started. It was tempting to want to sit down and cry, just for a second, but we kept walking.
The strange part is that when I search for specific details of that trip all I can really remember is how wonderful it was. The glaciers, the aqua lakes, the herds of horses, the frozen waterfalls, the mountains illuminated by lightning, the stars…I remember how great it felt to soak in a natural hot spring on our last day, not how freezing it was getting out.
I don’t remember the cramping that forced us to make camp in the middle of a field because we physically couldn’t walk anymore. I don’t remember how it felt to put on wet, frozen shoes the next morning. All the details of those “miserable” moments are fuzzy because they are overshadowed by everything the mountains offered us in return. I even might be ready to try a snickers again.
The next morning after our stormy night, we woke up, put on our wet shoes, caught a glimpse of the glaciers behind us, took a whiff of fresh air and were good to go – so much so, that we extended our three-day hike to five.
Though the cities I have had the chance to visit were eyeopening, from Istanbul to Ulaanbaatar, it’s hard to call a trip complete without some mountains – at least a glimpse or a romp through the foothills. I’ve been asked why I waste my time on hikes while travelling, that they don’t offer any culture or diversity. All ranges — whether the Eastern Sierras, French Alps, Himalayas, Kuen Lun or Tien Shan — have something unique to offer. I can’t remember ever thinking, “meh, been there, done that. It’s just another mountain.”
Each one creates it’s own moment, demanding your time, attention and, if you choose to get a closer look, your effort. In return it gives you a sense of pure freedom and awesome perspective.
A few months ago Boris and I were trying to come up with a plan for our two-week summer vacation. We reverted back to our non-planning strategy and waited until a few days before our departure to make a decision. Our reflex, I’m happy to say, was to head to the Alps with a tent (and a stove this time). We weren’t disappointed.
* Photo props go to Boris for all of the photos I’m in. Thanks!
The feature photo was taken in Ladakh; the rest are from the Tien Shan range