What Matters from the Trail

November 22, 2011 |  by  |  Dispatches

I started jotting down these thoughts several days ago while nestled in the ruins of a rock fortress at Jangotang camp in the eastern Himalaya range of Bhutan. Protected from the chilly mountain breeze by ancient crumpled drywall, I gazed directly up at 7,000 meter Jhomolhari peak outlined by the cobalt blue sky. As our “staff donkeys” gathered around to snack on grass and share my sunny spot, I reflected on the challenge and unique intimacy of our journey thus far.

Though our initial trek through the mountains of Bhutan with our film, expedition and Bhutanese teams plus 10 guest trekkers has been filled with deep and rich sharing, stealing away from the group for a solo moment on day four has been key for me.

After much discussion and meetings and at the suggestion of our host, His Royal Highness Prince Jigyel Ugyen Wangchuck (whom we had the honor of meeting on our first evening in Thimphu) our route had been changed from the standard Jhomolhari Trek to the Naro Six Pass Trek, the latter of which has never been done in total by tourist trekkers in Bhutan due to its difficulty. This trek involved eight days of hiking over high passes, 10-15 miles per day, and a total of 42,000 feet of elevation gain and loss.

Our first couple days we ascended through rain, mud, rocks, snow and wind to emerge into the crisp sunshine and my perfect view of Jhomolhari from 13,000 feet. We would trek and sleep between 13,000 and 16,500 feet for our journey, and within the pristine beauty the conversation, interactions, and shared reflections among our group were easily inspired to ride large and high. Five to eight hours of trekking each day at high altitude was followed by hearty meals of rice, vegetables, and various types of meat. With full tummies and ensconced in down in the cold night air, we’d either share song and dance around a bonfire or ponder the question as a group—what did you notice today?

With our group of motivated, successful, big thinking seekers, what did you notice today? evolved into what matters to you, what are you struggling with, or what is the meaning of life? Surrounded by the type of natural beauty that allows the head to clear, our group easily and immediately dove deep into these raised questions. The depth of connection that normally takes adult groups several days to attain, we achieved in seconds.

Thomas Ermacora, an urban planner, shared how engaging in nature at this magnitude has allowed him to realize an even deeper importance to creating living environments for humans that allow for the daily touching of nature. Nature not only feeds the soul, but the daily lives of satisfied humans, and being in this environment cemented that notion. Fueled by challenging and beautiful days of trekking, warm and open Thomas would continue to add nightly to our substantive discussion as time on the trail nurtured our peeling layers away.

Thomas’ partner and Grammy Award winning musician Imogen Heap and I shared repeated rich trail conversations surrounding the role of the strong, independent woman in today’s society. Imogen shared choices she’s made to build and maintain an authentic sense of self in an industry that can sweep one into oblivion. We discussed intimate relationships, the requirement to be passionate about our work, our childhoods that molded our current lives, marriage, and what it looks like to mute society’s standard view of woman and create one’s own. We were athlete and musician—from vastly different walks of life—sharing wildly similar views of the independent woman. Amen.
As terrain rolled by all inquiries continued to delve deeper and longer. As the dirt collected on our cold skin, each of us peeled layers of our psyche away—trusting, sharing, hugging, seeking—together.

But as the thick, substantive conversations now float in my head while we prep to leave tomorrow from Thimphu and head east on mountain bikes, one particular discussion of ‘What Matters’ sticks in my mind. Entrepreneur Joe Gatto, shared at one of our evening group chats a moment that he, Tony and I shared on the trail. The few of us had stopped to interact with a local mountain man. Joe spontaneously asked him, “Are you happy?”

“Oh yes, I am very happy,” declared the villager.

“What are you happy about today?” probed Joe.

“I ate!” he said with a large, warm grin.

Written by Terri Schneider