I slept like a baby last night at the Cottonwood Campground. From inside my tent, I could see the star’s shining bright up in the unobscured night sky: It was magical. I woke very early and watched as twilight started and a blue silhouette arose above the red rock cliffs all around me. The sky turned slowly from black to blue and then the sun came up with beaming rays of pink and purple, before turning to an unobstructed blue sky over Cottonwood and the Grand Canyon.
After our grilled bacon, egg and hash brown breakfast, we packed up and set out at 6 a.m., for another day of hiking along the Bright Angel Creek. The only way I can describe the cathedral like red-rock walled canyons surrounding Bright Angel Creek is spiritual. The area is known as “The Box”. Being in The Box felt like attending a mass or sermon in a beautiful natural cathedral. I felt as if the rock canyon was speaking to me. Being here reaffirmed my belief in a power greater than myself. Some call that a higher power, others call it God and still others call that the Creator. For me, I spent many hours communing with the Creator as I made my way through this spectacular place. Towards the end of our hike, we pass the world-famous Phantom Ranch as we arrived at our next campsite: Bright Angel.
We anticipated a 90+ degree day and lots of sun. It turned out to be 106 degrees! The heat was exhausting but both Cottonwood and Bright Angel are near creeks with ice cold water. I got in the creeks as frequently as possible to avoid overheating. It’s an all-natural form of air conditioning and cooling and worked perfectly well.
I’d always heard of Phantom Ranch and was thrilled to finally have the opportunity to see it in person. The Ranch is a 1930’s retreat with cabins and dorms. The Ranch has become an icon of a bygone era. It’s like going back in time. It’s limited number of accommodations are in high demand. The only way to stay at the Ranch is to win a lottery or like us, stay at the nearby Bright Angel Campground along the creek. The camp is full of adventurous, sunburned, outdoor enthusiasts, most of whom are having the time of their lives. No alcohol is allowed in the camp-sites so the environment is not loud and crazy. The lack of alcohol also has a lot to do with the fact that you’d have to pack it in and pack it back out. Carrying alcohol adds lots of weight to your pack so you’d have to be a real alcoholic to bring a large amount with you. The Campground is peaceful and contemplative. I’d describe it as an oasis of serenity surrounded by breathtaking natural beauty. \
Some in my group decided to head to the Phantom Ranch. I decided to turn in early and enjoy the relaxing sound of the creek, review my amazing photos from the day and put together my gratitude list. Here it is: I’m grateful for: the natural beauty of the red-rock canyons that mesmerized me today: my wonderful guide Julie and fellow hikers who I laughed with continuously throughout a challenging day; getting to visit Phantom Ranch, which I’ve heard so much about and never thought I’d get to see; the cool water of Bright Angel Creek that made 106 degrees bearable; my lungs which have now permitted me to hike many miles from the North Rim to Bright Angel Camp without difficulty and a fifty-pound back on my back; the twelve steps and sober activity community which has inspired me to push myself and always do more rather than less; overcoming my fear of heights and not letting fear keep me from hiking here; the absence of internet, text messages and emails that would distract me and take me out of the present; and, a willingness to live a life outside my comfort zone.
As I climb into my tent after one of the most rewarding days I’ve had in my entire life, I get excited to put self-care first. I went to bed at 7 p.m. rather than heading back to Phantom Ranch to hang out until late. I’m also excited to look for the Big Dipper through the screen on my tent and enjoy looking at all the other stars without city lights or pollution. I’m excited to wake up tomorrow which wasn’t the case when I was in active addiction. I’m truly blessed and smart enough to know it. I’ll have sweet dreams given the beaming gratitude emanating from my heart. Good night!
Tom Shanahan is the author of Spiritual Adrenaline: A Lifestyle Plan to Strengthen & Nourish Your Recovery. You can purchase Spiritual Adrenaline on Amazon or at Barnes & Noble.
Ignite Recovery, based in Wisconsin, is the latest sober active group that has successfully integrated a healthy lifestyle into an overall addiction recovery program. I interviewed the founders to find out how Ignite came to be and to learn about Ignite’s mission. Here’s my interview with the founders of Ignite.
What are your short-term goals and long-term goals for Ignite?
Our short-term goals are to increase the capacity and membership of our sober active lifestyle community. We are also involved in community outreach to reduce the stigma around addiction and recovery. We are accomplishing these short-term goals by increasing our class offerings and expanding Ignites’ reach. This has been a grassroots recovery movement and we have been building partnerships throughout southeast Wisconsin. Through these partnerships, we have been able to find new locations to offer our classes.
Our long-term goal is to start planting recovery outreach centers through Wisconsin. Our plan is to start small, but we are striving to create the Ignite model for these recovery outreach centers. Our dream would be to have space with a warehouse-style gym, yoga studio and cafe that serves healthy foods. We want to create a space where people can connect with one another and grow in physical, mental, and spiritual wellness.
The inclusion of Mixed Martial Arts (“MMA”) is unique. I am not aware of any other similar type program here in the United States! How does MMA fit into an overall recovery program? People think of yoga and meditation when they think of recovery but not MMA. So, let’s enlighten them to the benefits since what you are doing is unique.
All of our offerings are about serving, mobilizing, and empowering the local recovery community. When we launch a class or group it is really about what the local community wants to do. Offering MMA classes came about because a person in recovery reached out to me about being of service. He is certified as a personal trainer, he trains people in jiu-jitsu, boxing, kickboxing, etc. and he wanted to give back to people in recovery. For Ignite, it is really about us being able to empower himto help others. When we talked more, MMA is about self-discipline, embracing pain, and becoming a better, stronger person. Before we launched the first MMA class, “Fight for Recovery”, we started asking our community what they thought and if people would be interested in attending. The overwhelming response was yes!
For us, Ignite Recovery is about creating opportunities for people to connect and find their tribe. Nobody is pressured to do anything they do not want to do. If you want to do MMA – do that, if you want to do yoga – do that, if you want to train for triathlons – do that. As long as it is about creating community and growing in recovery together, we will probably support it.
Shari is the mother of someone in recovery. I asked her how a sober active community can benefit the families of people in addiction recovery?
For almost 4 years I’ve been co-facilitating a family support group for those with loved ones who are either in active substance use or in recovery. My sole credentials for first working with families was that of being a mom of a person in recovery.
Ignite embraces both harm reduction and the ideology of the evidence-based CRAFT (Community Reinforcement and Family Therapy) approach. There are three things at the core of this: First, is a need to pull families out of their unhealthy entanglements with their loved ones — yes, we get too close and try to micromanage everything. Second, we share with them some of the best strategies for moving their loved ones toward treatment (no, you can’t force them to do anything). And third, we teach them some of the best ways to support a family member in recovery (lean in when you can, step back when you have to). So, those who embrace CRAFT, also embrace the idea that there is value to understanding as much as they can about their loved one’s condition. For many families, these basic concepts are game-changers and Ignite plays a part at in each.
Having a sober active community is the first line of defense when your loved one is using, and you need self-care. Take a yoga class. Go on a Sunday morning hike with people who are journeying toward recovery (and see what possibilities are out there). We also provide a valuable resource. Family members can sit in an open meeting after a class. Listen and learn from the experience of others Finally Ignite is a useful tool for reconnecting with a family member once they’re on their recovery path. For example, at one of the Ignite classes, I met a mother and daughter who were doing just that. They were taking one a yoga class together because they had been looking for a place where they could just “be” together. Ignite provides a neutral space where people can be safe just being themselves.
Given the reality of so many student athletes getting hooked on opiates for sports-related injuries, I wanted to know how Ignite could benefit this growing demographic within the addiction recovery community.
The benefit is enormous. Many young people struggle to connect with the treatment world, particularly with AA. While all of us at Ignite are huge proponents of the program (for family members, of course, t’s the community of Al-Anon), we know that many struggle with the feeling that AA was the only community for addicts. So, if you’re not sitting in a church basement somewhere talking about your issues, you’re not healing. Often, a person is scared or uncomfortable to open up in a small room filled with chairs in a circle. It’s difficult to develop relationships, true relationships with individuals that way. For an athlete, it’s easier to work out, sweat, feel pain together and at the end there is this connection over something common you did together. And, after a few times, it grows from a “Hello”, to a “How was your weekend” to knowing intimate details about another person. It’s funny, because it’s almost like dating. There is a fear of opening up at times, specifically in the meeting rooms. But once you do, it changes your life. And if that connection you made at Ignite reaches out and goes to a meeting, that person may feel stronger to open up because they have support with them. There’s a lot of healing that can be done in experiential communities — a lot of bonding that can happen while hiking, climbing, working out at the gym.
Adam lived in a sober house for a period of time and that experience helped him stay sober. I asked Adam about how he benefited from that experience and how others could as well.
When I first found recovery, I was a mess. Living in a sober house help me learn how to live life again. I got connected to 12-step recovery groups and I launched myself on a path spiritual progress. Being active was also a big part of that early journey that has continued for the past now 8 plus years. I began going to the gym with another guy in the sober living and working out became a consistent part of my life. I also got connected with a recovery softball team (where I met Tim), got back into rock climbing, and started playing beach volleyball. It was really about doing all the activities I loved to do, and the disease of addiction had gotten in the way of. Working the steps, sponsoring guys, and being active has always been a huge part of my recovery. I was always trying to grow and be a better person. I am also pretty competitive, so I spent a few years training for beach volleyball and competing in tournaments. The importance that being active has had on my journey and my physical, mental, and spiritual growth is what led us to launch Ignite Recovery and create an inclusive active lifestyle community. We just know how important fitness has been to us and we want to help others find fitness in recovery.
Ben has shared publicly in the past about how his addiction to pain-killers began at the dentist. I asked him what advice he has for others about pain killers for dental visits or other routine medical procedures?
I work in the medical field as a Veterinarian and have many friends on the human medical side as well. The government is doing a great job at restricting the access of prescription pain medications. Most practitioners are starting to avoid opioids as a first line of defense for pain management and opting for other, non-addictive substances. But, more than likely, there will be a time in almost every child’s life when they will be prescribed opioids. And rather than blindly doling them out without fear of consequence, parents should educate themselves as much as possible. The same care they give to what their children eat, and what they watch on TV really needs to be given to what medications they allow them to have — even more so. They will need to research addiction and understand its causes and causalities.
The first Vicodin (Hydrocodone) I ever took was prescribed for my wisdom teeth. I remember it vividly: Sitting in a living room chair, staring at the wall, thinking this was the greatest thing ever. But, as stated earlier, education is key. Because of this experience I definitely had a genetic component in me that would have reared its ugly head at any time. The next thing to consider is that while my prescription was only for 5 days, I had easy access other opiates. The problem arose when I realized my mother (who had a significant medical condition and has had many operations), had a cabinet full of Vicodin (hydrocodone) that she never finished. I had direct access to something that my parents never in their wildest dreams ever thought was a problem. It was not locked up, not thought about, or ever checked on. I stole that medication for months with no one being the wiser. Herein lies the larger issue. Potentially, if these unused prescriptions were disposed of correctly, or accounted for in a lock box or safe box, itmayhave slowed my progression. But as an addict, I would have found a way. I would have bought them or lied in the locker room to get them.
Most parents think, “never with my child” and I had a white collar, privileged upbringing. That is how my parents thought. But addiction doesn’t care about income, race, sexuality or any defining factors you can think of. Its all-encompassing and can affect anyone. So, if there are controlled substances in the house. Lock them up. Keep track of them! Do not put them under the bathroom sink and forget about them.
I asked Tim about how got started and why CrossFit has become an important part of his program personally and at Ignite…. Here is what he had to say.
A good friend who I met through a co-ed recovery softball league came to me with an idea about a community non-profit that was based around fitness. He showed me what The Phoenix (then known as Phoenix Multisport) was doing and how it was centered around CrossFit. I thought that idea was great! I have my CF-L1 and I also coach classes at CrossFit Waukesha which is where Ignite holds its functional fitness classes right now. I’ve been to prison twice which is where I found time to do correspondence courses through ISSA. Ultimately, I received my personal trainer certification. Almost seven years later, with a lot of work by a lot of people, we’ve launched interest meetings doing CrossFit and it has blossomed.
Why is CrossFit so popular in the addiction recovery community? How does it benefit members of that community?
So many reasons! In general, CrossFit is about fitness. Our physical, mental, and spiritual health are all interwoven. I love how CrossFit talks about fitness being beyond wellness. Where wellness is normality, being healthy, and the absence of disease. Fitness is having a heightened defense against disease. When we look at our physical, mental, and spiritual wellness we actually want to be FIT. We want physical, mental, and spiritual fitness to provide a heightened defense against the disease of addiction. Like you would say, we want to supercharge our recovery – and CrossFit enhances our fitness.
CrossFit naturally creates community. Tim, Shari, and I along with some others in our community all belong to CrossFit Waukesha and the structure of classes create opportunities for people to connect. It is not like going to some chain gym where everyone is listening to music on headphones, their face is in their phones, and they just want to work out and leave. At CrossFit, people are talking, connecting, encouraging each other. They connect with those who work out at their box and they notice when somebody misses a class. CrossFit’s ability to build community and relationships is perfect for the recovery community.
CrossFit is both a physical and mental test. Physically it’s about the sport, there is infinite room for improvement and growth. Everything is measurable so you can really see where and how you are getting better. Nothing feels better than a new PR – hitting a big lift or smashing an old time. At the same time, CrossFit is just as much about the mental aspect of the sport – the sports psychology. It’s about embracing the pain and knowing what your body can do. So many times, it’s about a mindset. My legs, arms, and lungs will be on fire and my mind will tell me to stop, yet when we embrace the pain and keep pushing a breakthrough is often waiting. Nothing feels better than physically doing something your mind tells you that you can’t. This carries over into our recovery journey. We are going to deal with pain and things that are uncomfortable and being fit helps us overcome adversity.
CrossFit is often referred to as “functional fitness” and many of us in the recovery aren’t just looking for something that helps us tone or look good — for many of us ‘fitness’ is about being able to function in the world and to do the work that has been given to us to do. So, the term “function” takes on a whole new meaning. It really fits us.Ultimately, CrossFit enhances our physical, mental, and spiritual fitness so we can have resilience in recovery!
Meet Sean S., he’s committed to follow the program in Spiritual Adrenaline: A Lifestyle Plan to Strengthen & Nourish Your Recovery for a period of six months and to share his experience with you. Here is his background and reason for accepting the Spiritual Adrenaline Challenge. Pick up a copy of Spiritual Adrenaline: A Lifestyle Plan to Strengthen & Nourish Your Recovery, available at Barnes & Noble and on Amazon.
“I moved to the New York area 7 years ago to, among other reasons, live in a more racially/ethnically diverse environment, and to avoid ever having to drive an automobile again. With me, I carried a severe alcohol use disorder that I have had since the age of 17, but thankfully, for over 5 years now, I have been successfully in recovery from alcohol addiction.
Growing up, substance abuse wasn’t noticeably present in my family, or at least not noticeably present to me, being a child with parents that were very adept at keeping up appearances. My parents, who met when the lived in Los Angeles, later moved to Colorado where I grew up. I became painfully aware of feeling different and being uncomfortable in my own skin as a child. Living in a predominantly white town, predominantly meaning all white with the exception of my family, I stood out, and from an early age sought mental escape. I just wanted to be inside of my head where I could feel comfortably cordoned-off from the outside world. In early adolescence, before I had access to alcohol, music, specifically bands like The Cure and The Smiths, spoke to me and took me took me to a world where I belonged.
As I moved past adolescence, a time when a “normal” person seeks financial security, a mate, and an education,. I studied business media and communication, on my 1st go at higher education, and won an audition to co-host an alternative music video show on an awesome PBS affiliate in Denver in the late 90’s. I sought the things that “normals” seek, but my strongest ambitions were for escape and comfort. Alcohol provided that for me. Like seeks like, and I liked to keep the company of those who liked to escape with alcohol.
Alcohol may give, but alcohol most certainly will take away. Everything I managed after my drinking I lost. Eventually everything I managed before my drinking went away too. Recovery, as people say, is about getting those things back. IMore important, one learns in recovery to get a fulfillment and a peace in life one has never had. I am so grateful to be in recovery in New York. There is a huge community here, and so many people and resources to help.
At this moment I work for a British travel company, but my goal, my purpose, and hopefully my future life will allow me to give back all of the support and sobriety that has been given to me, and to help another person break free from addiction”.
One of the fun events at the Gay Sober Men’s Conference in New York City in 2018 was Rooftop yoga held at a Times Square area hotel. Check out this video for a peak at the fun. For more information on the conference, visit http://www.gayandsober.com.
What goes up, must come down, so after achieving our goal of reaching the Everest Base Camp, it was time for the long trek back down to Lukla and then Katmandu. Our route back tracked our route up. We hiked five hours to Periche where we would stay overnight and retrace our steps back to Lukla. It’s a slow trek down to avoid injury and because it’s the final opportunity to enjoy the natural beauty of this place. I used these days to reflect on the trek. I focused on what I learned, how I can integrate this knowledge into my life and also how I can share it with other members of the Spiritual Adrenaline community
Smoking & Recovery: I am proud to report my lungs functioned amazingly during the trek. I had no issues getting up steep inclines and hiking through difficult terrain, often times in exceptionally cold weather. After five years smoke free, my lungs functioned exceptionally well and past the “Everest Base Camp Test”. I remember when I was trying to quit smoking, reading materials that explained how lung function improves after one year, two years, three years, etc. I am proud to report that what I read back then has come true for me. My lungs have the capacity to heal and they have. The good news for people in recovery is this is also true for the heart, liver and kidneys. Cutting off toxins and integrating a healthy lifestyle can aid healing in the lungs and other critical organs. Throughout the trek, all the way from Lukla to Everest Base Camp, cigarette butts littered the pristine natural beauty of the trail. Tourists, porters and Sherpa’s alike smoked to get their fix and more often than not, threw their butts on the ground, contaminating the very natural beauty which drives the mountain economy. Like any addict, the only thing smokers care about is getting their fix. The damage to their health and the majestic beauty of the mountain country in Nepal matters not. The only thing that matters is getting their fix. I am glad I did not contribute to the cigarette butts littering the trail. I could not have completed this trek if I still smoked. I’m glad I quit and did not contribute to the destruction of the natural beauty of the Everest region. If you are trying to quit, visit our smoking cessation page at spiritualadrenqline.com.
The Benefits of Community: This trek was challenging for two reasons. First, we trekked more than thirty miles over some really tough terrain. A couple of days we trekked for hours at a time up steep mountain passes with inclines exceeding forty-five or fifty degrees. Second, the weather was 20 degrees Fahrenheit or thereabouts during the day and as cold as -10 to -20 Fahrenheit at night with the wind-chill. Dealing with the cold became a major emotional challenge that at times exceeded the challenge of the actual trek. I don’t think I would have continued up without the support of my five fellow trekkers. I raised the issue at breakfast one morning and they all confirmed the same was true for them. There is a power in being part of a community, whether it be a group fitness class at the gym, your home group, a class or club at an educational institutes or group therapy, that make challenging and sometimes down right unpleasant situations more palatable. Research has confirmed that people are far more likely to continue to participate in activities when they are part of a group. I think it’s fair to say I would have turned around and headed back to a warmer environment had I not been part of a group of trekkers. The same is true for my recovery. If I hadn’t had an amazing sponsor and home group in my first year, I am not sure if I would have hung around and succeeded. In so many ways, being “part of” increases the chances of success in so many areas of life.
Life Off the Grid: A wonderful part of this trip was living off the grid for almost two weeks. By “off the grid” I mean no access to cell communication, Wi-Fi or any other type of social media. Given the demands constantly placed on me (I bet you can relate), I am rarely present in the “now”. I am multi-tasking, constantly receiving texts and messages on my social media sites. So even if my body is present, my mind is often not. It’s off in other places thinking about other things. It took me three days to fully “withdraw” from the toxic effects of my electronic devices and social media. Once I did, I felt a profound sense of happiness. I am actually in Nepal, without any outside people, places or things to obstruct connecting with the Nepalese people, my fellow trekkers, and nature. My anxiety went away, I feel so “one” with the people and my surroundings. I truly feel like I am living, rather than trying keep up with the demands being placed on me by others back in New York. Working is not living: It took me almost fifty years to learn that. For most of the last two weeks, I’ve truly been alive.
Gratitude for the Little Things: One thing that becomes unmistakable in Katmandu, and even more I the mountain culture is how difficult life is here for the average person. This is not unique and true in many developing counties. However, up above the clouds in the mountain country of Nepal, it smacks you right in the face. People carry heavy loads of goods on narrow mountain passes for miles and miles for the equivalent of $1.50 a day. Women wash cloths in mountain steams barefoot in high elevation. Most live without running water and heat even though temperatures can -20 with wind-chill at night. Whenever I return from a trip like this, it grounds me and reminds me that on my worst day in New York City, I live in better conditions than so many people around the world. It reminds me to stop bitching in the morning when a train is late, or a waiter takes to long to deliver my food at a restaurant. It reminds me to stay in gratitude for all the blessings I have been given. This trek reinforced that I have no excuse but to maintain an attitude of gratitude for how fortunate I am.
Comfort Zone: This trek has been hard. Many times I considered turning back. Waking up in the freezing cold was jarring. Endless hours of trekking up steep inclines, sucks no matter how beautiful the surroundings. However, as the days passed and I successfully cleared physical and emotional hurdles, the sense of accomplishment pushed me to continue on. I developed an attitude of gratitude for my recovery program, my lungs which have been restored to health, and all the other blessings in my life. Accomplishing positive things can, in and of itself, become addictive. Addictive in a good way! It makes me want to challenge myself and push myself further. I am not looking to hide in what I know and makes me comfortable, but rather to learn new things and continue to grow, even if it makes me uncomfortable. That’s where life and recovery begins. Think about this: If you weren’t willing to step out of your comfort zone, you would have never stopped using drugs and alcohol? Probably not! So you’ve done it before and benefitted with a whole new lease on life. Why not try it again, in sobriety, and see where it takes you? That’s my attitude about life. When I step out of my comfort zone, even if it doesn’t take me where I want to go, it takes me where I need to be.
The Power of Nature: I was born, raised and live in the concrete jungle of New York City. It’s a place I love but also a place that makes me feel disconnected from nature and the natural rhythm of things. For the last two weeks I’ve been almost completely disconnected from the concrete jungle I know and have been almost exclusively surrounded by nature. Not just nature, but probably the most majestic and grand natural preserve in the world: Sagamartha National Park! which includes the Everest region, in Nepal. I was not only surrounded by nature but lived within its rules and in concert with its rhythms. I awoke when the sun came up, went to bed when it set, hiked during daylight and avoided trekking at night given how dangerous it is in the dark. I ate primarily foods gleaned from the land or animals that can live at high altitude, for example “yaks”. I lived as one with nature rather then apart. It took me back to my instinctual roots. I feel like this is how I was meant to live. Most of the time, I am in a city with de minimus green spaces, where most of the social events happen after dark and most things I eat have no connection to my local community. Although I love where I live, I’ve felt much less stress and anxiety living within the natural cycle of things. It’s made me start thinking about how I can make changes to my lifestyle back home to try and keep a closer connection to nature. I think it’s easier to stay sober when you live within the natural cycle of things rather than an environment where man manipulates nature.
Active Sober Lifestyle: I could have gone to a beach resort as my vacation. At various times during the trek I wished I had. However, for all the reasons I already shared, this trek was where I wanted to be and what I wanted to do. Whether I went to a beach resort or on the trek, I think it’s critical to vacation in a manner consistent with my desire to stay sober. it’s self-defeating to put myself in a “party” like crazy environment when I purport to want to live sober. I say this because this is my second go round at sobriety. The first go round, I refused to leave the “party like crazy environment” and thought I’d be the “sober guy” surrounded by partying and all the decadence that comes with it. Guess what? I relapsed badly. However, I’ve learned from my past mistakes and now make sure to vacation in a manner consistent with my goals in sobriety and life. I place great emphasis on being surrounded by nature and by showing my gratitude where appropriate. For example, in addition to the trek I visited the spiritual birthplace of Buddha. Lastly, I try to incorporate an active sober component into the trips I take and places I go. All of theses things make it not only easier to stay sober but so much more fun. This trek has been a blessing and in some respects, life-changing in a positive way. I won’t be returning home the same as when I left. I’ve grown exponentially from my experience. Come with me on an adventure. Check out the “adventures” page at spiritualadrenaline.com.
Today we set out for the goal of our trip, to reach the Mount Everest Base Camp at 17,600 feet. This is what we all came for, to see this place, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, so full of history of great success and tragic failure. On the way up we passed memorials to climbers and Sherpa’s who have died on this mountain. We trekked for hours, a total of eight, to get to the remote Base Camp location. Along the way, we passed majestic snow-capped mountains that encircled us in every direction. The mountains continued as far as the eye could see. To me, I felt like I arrived in God’s Cathedral. His home up above the clouds that is too beautiful to describe.
The mountains did more than bring a tear to my eye. I was outright crying at various points. When I shared this with my group at dinner, others confirmed they also broke out crying from the awesome beauty of this place. The majesty of the place needs to be balanced by the effort to get there and the toll it takes on the body. Sherpa’s have genetically adapted over the years to live in these altitudes. I am not a Sherpa and neither are the majority of the people who come here. The price paid to enjoy this natural splendor is exhaustion, altitude sickness, digestive problems from contaminated water and the effects of many days of not sleeping (it’s difficult to sleep at this altitude where the oxygen level is 50% of sea level). However, it all seems worth it to see this beautiful place. A couple of times I said to myself “My eyes have seen the glory”. So balancing the good and not so good, we trek on.
You cannot miss the summit of Everest as you approach the Base Camp. It’s the only mountain that creates its own weather and has constant clouds surrounding it and snow blowing off of its summit. Simply put, the awesomeness of Everest cannot be missed or overlooked. It’s the king of all mountains even here at the top of the world. At 29,000 feet plus, it’s summit is the same height as the cruising altitude of 747 and larger aircraft. It’s nature at its most awesome and most dangerous.
The Base Camp is much smaller than I expected. It’s amazing the history of this place and the people who have passed through it. To be honest, the size of the physical space is puny to compared to the hero’s and legends that have come out of it. As I perused the site, I started to imagine what the Camp must be like in prime season when it’s packed with climbers, Sherpas and other support personnel. It must be quite a scene indeed. I said a prayer for all those that have climbed in the past, will climb in the future and those who have given their lives trying to summit. With clouds coming in, it became very cold. It was time to leave and head back to our tea house before the weather turned for the worse. Our group had dinner that night and while we were all exhausted, we collectively shared about how awesome it was to be here, even if it was so cold. For many of us, this was an item on our bucket list that we could now check off. That night, I slept in my heated tea house bed as the temperature outside went as low as -20 degrees Fahrenheit with the wind-chill. Even with the cold and exhaustion, I pinched myself that I was here and told myself this was “a gift of the program”. But for my sobriety, I would not have been here!
We woke up at 14,600 feet and trekked to Lebuche at 16,175 feet. We also officially entered what I refer to as the artic zone of our climb.
The cold Is really beginning to impact me and the others. When the sun comes up during the day the temperatures reach 15 to 20 degrees. At night, the temperature goes down to -15/-20 degrees with the windchill. Thankfully we are in tea houses and not in tents. However, the tea houses this far up have no heat and very flimsy construction. I can feel the wind blowing outside. I just stay completely covered up in my sleeping bag and as warm as possible. However, it’s wearing me down as well as the others in our group. I told the group at breakfast
The morning hike was hard. It was a 40-degree incline for about two hours. When the sun is out it’s warm, when it goes in it’s cold and when the wind blows it’s really cold. So all morning long I was taking off layers, then putting them back on and repeating this over and over.
However, the view all around was spectacular. Soaring snow-capped mountain peaks including, Socholotse, Tbuchej, and others in every direction. We also crossed the glacier runoff field which is full of water in the monsoon season and early spring. It’s full of huge boulders thrown around like pebbles from the force of the water coming down from the glacier. If I was standing in the same spot I stood today in rainy season, I’d be carried off and be killed for sure. Thankfully, it’s the dry season However, seeing this is a reminder of the awesome power of nature and why we as humans need to show nature great respect.
Our afternoon hike took us up a winding zig zag trail that was very challenging. It reminded me of the ascent to the summit of Kilimanjaro. The big difference is the Kilimanjaro zig zag trail goes on for almost six hours. Having experienced the hell of zig-zagging for six hours on Kilimanjaro, this seemed like a piece of cake.
Around 2 p.m, we arrived in Lebouche. This little town only exists to cater to trekkers and mountain climbers. I felt sick and had no appetite. I became very concerned that I was coming down with a big from the water. I got a couple of hours sleep and felt much better. I attribute my feeling sick to sleeping in sub-zero temperatures for days at a time and not sleeping well. The tea house we have here in Lebuche is quit warm in start contrast to the freezing cold shit hole we stayed in the last two nights.
I’m hoping to get a good night’s sleep and be in top shape for the eight hours of hiking tomorrow to the Mount Everest Base Camp.
After six days of trekking, it is becoming crystal clear that the physical challenge of hiking is taking a backseat to the mental challenge of living in freezing temperatures for days at a time. Yesterday was 19 degrees and overnight reached -15 degrees Fahrenheit with the wind-chill. The tea houses we are staying in are definitely warmer than a tent, but not heated and quite cold at night. This morning when I woke up my water bottle which was outside my sleeping bag was partially frozen. I slept with my phone, head-lamp and charging batteries in my sleeping bag as otherwise the cold would drain the batteries! If the cold can do that to electronic devices you can imagine it’s impact on the human body.
Increasingly, the challenge we face are mental rather than physical. Part of the altitude acclimation process is for the body to slowly to adjust. I’ve experienced many of the usual symptoms which include flatulence, difficulty sleeping, intense dreams, difficulty breathing (especially at night) and loss of appetite. My fellow trekkers have all experienced similar effects from altitude and cold. As someone who tries to be as respectful as possible to my body, given I abused it for so many years, trekking seems to be completely inconsistent with self-care. However, this type of short-term challenge to my physical and mental limit is a very healthy thing. It gives me the opportunity to test the limits of my abilities and pushes me further and further out of comfort zone. It’s a form of physical, mental and spiritual growth that empowers me to continue to grow as opposed to staying safely in the comfort zone I know. To me, that’s a form of death. Slowly expecting less and less from myself. That’s the opposite of growth. I am fully committed to aging optimally, rather than gracefully. To do that, I must continue to push myself.
Everyone in my group went for an acclimation climb today. I decided to stay behind and give my body a rest. My back is staring to hurt and my feet need a break from being in my hiking boots. So I decided to stay back, stretch my back with yoga poses like up and down dog, journal, tape some videos for Spiritual Adrenaline and just relax. I bring my morning spiritual reading with me. In Just for Today, my morning reading included this passage.
“We inventory our lives in great detail, and discuss our inventory with our sponsor. We ask the God of our understanding to remove our character defects, the shortcomings that are the source of our troubles. We take responsibility for the things we’ve done and make amends for them. And we incorporate all these disciplines into our daily lives, practicing these principles in all our affairs”.
I skipped the acclimation climb today to have a “me” day full of introspection. The reading this morning brought a smile to my face as I believe it’s a message from my higher power confirming my choice for today was the right one. It’s my higher power’s way of signaling his or her approval. I’ll put the day to good use and be ready for the tough days to come.
Today wake up at 13,500 feet and trek to Pheriche at 14,600.
It was a beautiful morning once again. My trek took us past yak farms and that’s about it. I didn’t see much else except stunning views of snow-capped mountains and an increasingly spartan landscape. The entire morning, I enjoyed the roar of the Dudhkosi river below me. A fierce and beautiful river that roars very loudly. I could hear the roar all the way up where we were trekking and I’ll bet up to the top of the mountains as well. It’s a beautiful sound to hear as you slowly make your way along narrow mountain trails on the way to Pheriche.
What starts to set in as I made my way along the narrow mountain trails was just how far away from civilization I truly am. This place is like being on a whole different planet. I was aware there were small mountain villages up here but not aware that such a strong mountain culture existed. There is an entire civilization here that lives completely differently from the way we do. Everything is a struggle and only achieved through hard work. Clean drinking water takes work. Heat takes work. It’s impossible for me not to reflect on just how much I take for granted.
Another thing that becomes crystal clear is just how far off the grid I truly am. There’s almost no cellular service and minimal Wi-Fi. If you want to get online, you have to pay for the privilege. For the first time in a really long time, I feel completely present right here and now. I’ve got no email to check, no texts, no social media just the present. It’s an awesome thing, but in some way scary thing, to be in the here and now. For me, it’s an opportunity to turn completely introspective. Tomorrow is a rest day and I plan to inventory where I am in my life, both in positive ways but more importantly in areas where I need to improvement and prepare a gratitude list. I will also do a detailed tenth-step inventory.
Waking up in Tashinga was an experience. When we arrived at this small village the evening haze blocked the view. The weather here is pretty consistent with clear morning skies and overcast and foggy afternoons and late evenings. After waking up I went outside to check out the scenery and my jaw literally dropped. In each direction you could see tall snow-capped mountains. The view was one of the most beautiful I had ever seen. I am not exaggerating when I say the view brought tears to my eyes. This is what I came to see! I felt so alive and excited to get back out and trek higher. Like any addict or alcoholic, one gorgeous mountain vista is not enough: I want more. I want to go higher, see bigger mountains and more of them. I just finished my morning spiritual program, reading Just for Today and Daily Reflections. So I tell myself easy does it. Pace yourself. Stop chasing more and enjoy what is! Stay in the present and breath deep.
Today we wake up at 11,500 feet and when we arrive at our destination, Pongboche, we will be at 13,500. Off we go….
We hiked for two hours on a forty-five-degree angle straight up. Right at the beginning of our trek we came to a suspension bridge. Not as high or as long as some of the others we encountered. Having gone over so many yesterday, I took Deep breath, said to myself “fear is not my friend” and “fear is not a fact”. I kept my eyes on the other side and made my way across. It was a little less challenging than the day before. When you confront fear, it loses its power.
Our two hour forty-five-degree incline climb was hard. To say this was a challenging is an understatement. There were a couple of times I thought my heart might pop out of my chest it was pounded so hard. I needed a lot of breaks as did everyone in our group. Once again each of us was supportive of one another and slowly but surely we arrived in Tambuche.
Tambuche is the location of a stunning Buddhist Monastery with a breathtaking view of the valley, including Mount Everest. No matter what direction you turn, snow-capped mountains take your breath away. You can see a number of peaks, including Themacrku, Khonde, Amadablam and of course Everest. The place has a surreal and almost magical feeling to it which is hard to explain. Prayers have been carved into rocks all around the town and prayer flags also adorn the hilltops. I will never forget the beauty and peacefulness of this place. I will also never forget how it sits so perfectly in the valley and seems like it belongs there. As if it was meant to be by the design of some higher power.
After Tambuche, we began another two hour hike up to our final destination of Pangboche. I think it’s worth pointing out that we don’t just go higher, but drop down hundreds or thousands of feet and then have to re-climb back up to the altitude where we started before going higher. We have to follow the natural contours and that means often going down and then back up. Both the morning and afternoon hikes took us way down in altitude before we began our ascent. It’s frustrating but part of the trek and everyone has to do it and you kind of get used to it.
When we arrive in Pangboche, the skies are still somewhat clear but clouds have rolled in. The clouds give the mountains an eerie, almost ominous feeling. The landscape becomes so much more dramatic when the clouds role in. On our hike up, we passed massive prayer rocks high up the cliff face. We passed rolling fields with mountain yaks grazing, lots of Sherpa’s carrying heavy loads up to the villages in the higher altitudes and of course fellow trekkers.
Our tea house for tonight is the Everest View Lodge. True to it’s name, we have a view of the summit of Mount Everest with the snow and wind blowing flares of snow off of the summit. As we go higher, the tea houses become increasingly basic and quite cold. Not like sleeping in a tent kind of cold but all the luxuries from lower on the mountain are slowly disappearing, Aside from the cold given the building has no insulation, the lights flicker on and off. As I laid in my bed, I started to realize that this altitude isn’t really meant for people. We as humans are able to master nature to some extent, but up here nature is showing us who the boss truly is. It’s not us! By recognizing nature is in charge, I avoid the mistake of my ego not showing nature and the mountains the respect they deserve. Mountains show no mercy! So it’s good for me to remember this and keep my ego in check as we begin our final days of trekking into much higher altitudes.