There are Many Kinds of Mountains
Walking up a mountain, above 2500m altitude, is a constant negotiation. You need to ask your lungs and heart to work with a progressively lower concentration of oxygen in the air, which is basically like asking your car to go the same distance, at the same speed with less fuel. Our bodies have been much better engineered than anything we have ever built though, because amazingly, most people find that within a day or two of being at high altitude their bodies are using the available oxygen more efficiently and they are breathing easier.
However reduced oxygen levels is only one challenge of high altitude atmosphere. The other is low air pressure, which causes fluid to leak in the capillaries of the lungs and brain – and can be as seriously not fun as it sounds. Yet again the body is phenomenally adaptive; if ascent is not too rapid it can repair and adjust so that there is no build up of fluid in the brain or lungs and no serious damage occurs.
Knowing this, I ascended to the crown of the world, the cradle of Everest (or Chomolungma according to local Sherpa people and Sagarmatha to Nepalis) with lots of rests along the way. What I didn’t realise then was that sometimes I would need to keep resting even if I didn’t feel like it, not so much because the body-machine needed more oxygen-fuel, but because my lungs and brain needed time to heal and repair some leaky capillaries.
Altitude sickness is a notoriously fickle malady. On first meeting 4000m almost everyone will feel it to some degree. Some people may not feel symptoms until days after, even after descending. Others will feel fine in the morning and rubbish by lunch. Euphoria is listed as a symptom (which I imagine is difficult to distinguish from the feeling of having just summitted a mountain). What is generally agreed upon is that slow ascent is vital prevention and fast descent the only guaranteed treatment. If not treated immediately mild symptoms (dizziness, nausea, breathlessness, headache, fatigue) can rapid turn into not-so-mild-symptoms including (to quote my Lonely Planet) ‘the production of pink, frothy sputum… unconsciousness and death.’
On the plane from Sydney I read this sobering information aloud to my brother and cousin, and we all agreed it sounded like something to try and avoid. Oh irony.
Because here is the fine print. Physically pushing yourself up a mountain and constantly checking back in with yourself for the tiny warning signs of altitude sickness is the easy part. The difficult part is looking up at the mountain of Ego that is inside of you, picking up your Higher Self and deciding to summit that Ego.
While on the plane I also read this in the Lonely Planet and thought it was written directly to me: ‘Remember that the victims of altitude sickness are often the fittest, healthiest people who foolishly overextend themselves.’ Of course I did remember this but thought it didn’t apply when Ego drove me up 1200m in one and a half days to reach 3880m. It took me another four days and a rapid descent to breath comfortably again.
Last night, tucked up in a warm cosy bed at a safe 2880m, I was reading a book called The Tibetan Book of Healing. In the Eastern way of thought my constitution is predominated by Air (instability/creativity) with some Fire (aggression/self-will) and less Earth (resistant/structured). In this philosophy we are all some combination of these three elements, just in different degrees of balance. So Dr. Lopsang Rapgay of The Tibetan Book of Healing calmly revealed to me that for people of my constitution ‘Egotism is often the main feature of the psychological make-up, owing to a sense of threat from others whom he or she may envy and consider stronger and more mature.’
BAM. Dr. Rapgay might as well have leapt out of his Book of Healing and slapped me in the face. He saw me on that mountain and he knew exactly what had happened inside my head. Why did I walk up so quick, in particular the last 400m, when half of our party was sensibly resting (acclimatising) in bed? Partly it was because I genuinely didn’t feel in need of rest when I started that morning. But once I had gotten a little way, Ego’s muscle men, pride, competition and fear of embarrassment, pushed me harder. I didn’t want to appear weak in front of the others. I didn’t want to be the slow one. Ego envied the strength and power of those who could easily continue striding up the mountain and it hissed at me: ‘Why can’t you be like them?’
That particular day I did actually get to the top of the summit I was trying to mount, but Ego won in the end – and it’s never pretty to see how Ego takes its winnings. Though I made it to the peak my Higher Self was left staring up from the bottom of a mountain of Ego wondering how in the *bleep* s/he was going to tackle that. That’s the thing with Egos, they grow. You feed them, they grow. They are insatiable too, so nothing is ever good enough. The finish line today is not good enough tomorrow. So what’s to be done?
I am discovering that the only way to summit Ego is to take your Higher Self on the long walk up it. The walk up is fraught with constant negotiation, checking back in with yourself and whether you have had enough rest, lost your path, are competing with yourself or others… the list goes on. Along the way you might start to see the difference between achievement that feeds Ego and achievement as a by-product of the Higher Self (though they might look the same externally). It’s also good to remember that there are many, many ways up a mountain, and some are longer or with more ridges and valleys than others. But once you and your Higher Self summit the peak of your Ego I imagine the view of where you have come is better than anything anyone has ever seen on earth.
If I hadn’t walked that extra 400m so quick, would I have developed altitude sickness later down the trek? Probably, as a little more understanding of my physiology now leads me to believe. Would I have had the same opportunity to learn about conquering Ego? Possibly not. After that the fact that I didn’t quite make Thame (3800m) or Khungde (4250m) pales in comparison to knowing that I have the Best Big Brother in the World, who walked with me down the mountain when I couldn’t keep going up – despite this being his sixth high altitude trek and his own body-machine operating fine. (I’m sorry if you thought you had the Best Big Brother in the World, you were mistaken.) Today I have clambered through a powerful lesson on curbing Ego, which is unfortunately far from the summit of the Ego mountain, but has taken me over a high, rocky ridge and I have a much better scope of the landscape than I did before.
Posted on April 6, 2012, in Meditation, Philosophy, Reading, Writing and tagged Altitude Sickness, Buddhism, ego, Nepal, Travel, Trekking, Yoga. Bookmark the permalink. Comments Off on There are Many Kinds of Mountains.