It was 8 a.m. and my shirt was already saturated. With nowhere else to go, the sweat flowed down my back and chest, soaking the pads of my pack. I could feel my feet sliding around in the swamp of my boots, my hard-earned calluses sloughing off in the inescapable humidity.
I hadn’t seen my alleged “hiking partner” in an hour. We’d met a few months earlier through a travelers’ message board. Both of us were interested in doing some hiking in Nepal, and both of us were leery of trekking on our own. Our first morning on the trail, she told me she neither wanted to be following someone, nor did she like the feeling of being followed, and so she would prefer that we walked separately.
I ended up in Nepal as much out of chance as on purpose. Following a season of working in the Canadian backcountry planting trees, I found myself looking toward an autumn with no place to live, no prospective employment, and a replenished bank account. I had a long-time friend living in Japan who I was itching to visit and it seemed like the right time. But if I was going to travel to the other side of the world to visit her, I reasoned that I should see as much as I could while I there.
With this decision made, I planned a stop in Nepal to hike the Annapurna Circuit.
I tried to pump myself up for the trip but couldn’t shake the feeling that I was only going because I couldn’t think of anything else to do with my time. My reasoning always fell back to “If I’m traveling, at least I’m accomplishing something.”
Back on the trail, it wasn’t until the end of the day when I finally saw my hiking partner again. She announced that her boots had fallen apart and her heels were so blistered that she couldn’t endure anything more substantial than flip-flops. She said she felt like crying; I actually did cry.
I didn’t want to be here.
The thought ate away at my mood and ego. The night before we left the trail, I weighed my choices. I wondered what the heck I was even doing there: I wasn’t fulfilling a lifelong dream or checking something off a bucket list. How much was I willing to endure for something I’d only decided to do on a whim?
Anxiety crept in as I contemplated another week of climbing endless switchbacks in the tropical heat without even the consolation of a supportive trekking buddy.
What if I couldn’t do this?
Or, worse, what if other people didn’t think I could do it?
We decided to leave, and I was relieved. I was no longer obligated to rise from an uncomfortable tea-house bed and haul myself up and down dusty roads, overgrown jungle staircases, and flooded paths in the airless tropical heat.
But despite the prospect of a hot shower and parting ways with my mismatched partner, I felt deflated and irritable. I’d set out to complete the trail, yet turned back three days into the 12-day trip, and — originally — I had every confidence that I was capable of completing the journey. I hike and climb, and I spent seven years working as a tree planter in the Canadian bush, an occupation widely acknowledged to be one of the most physically and mentally challenging jobs. I’ve been lost in the woods and — briefly but memorably — stranded in the Kalahari desert. I’ve been pummelled by whitewater, beaten up by rocks, endured 100-plus-degree-Fahrenheit temperatures working on exposed ridges, survived snowstorms, and laid awake in frozen tents, listening for suspicious noises in the woods.
I considered myself a fairly hardy person — so why had I balked at what was essentially a long walk?
I realized my identity was wrapped up in being strong, tough, and capable — and proving the same to others.
Failing in this one endeavor felt like I failed in being the person I wanted to be. By turning around, by not finishing this one hike, it seemed I’d negated everything else I’d achieved.
Failure is uniquely personal. We’re more likely to view our successes as a group effort, but our failures are all our own. It doesn’t matter if others have failed in those same endeavors — we’re far more sympathetic with the experiences of others than we are with our own. We expect more of ourselves.
The next morning, the owner of our tea-house flagged down a passing Jeep and arranged a ride for us back the trailhead. We spent our morning bouncing over barely-existent roads, retracing all those painful, sweltering miles we’d fought through already.
The trip back didn’t allow time for reflection. Along with my hiking partner, I was squished into a single seat of the Jeep with Nepali and Western pop music blaring on the stereo. We crawled our way down steep valleys on roads so rocky that they were little more than closely-packed boulders. The ride was spent trying to keep our heads from smacking the roof and gritting our teeth through washouts and landslides.
When we were a kilometer away from the nearest town, the route became totally impassable, forcing us to ford the river to reach our destination.
After a week in the lakeside town of Pokhara, I flew to Yorkshire, England to hike familiar landscapes and try to clear some of the funk of insecurities I’d built up. I’d once before ended up in Yorkshire after another trip that was cut short by sickness, and now it again offered consolation — and a delay to returning home to Canada full of defeat and frustration.
It wasn’t until after a few months of being back in Canada that I started processing my trip and its effects. Back on my Vancouver Island home trails, I began to reclaim my sense of “toughness” and the recognition of trails offering freedom and possibility rather than frustration and self-doubt. With every hike and climb, every mountain and trail successfully navigated, the sting of my failed bid at the Annapurna Circuit faded a little more.
I’d be lying if I said I was completely at peace with my experience on the Annapurna Circuit. I still hesitate to tell people about it — especially the friends with whom I discussed my hiking plans prior to the trip. When they ask about it, I steer the conversation to other parts of my trip: the terrifying roads and decked-out buses, the amazing food and stultifying heat.
Leaving the Circuit compelled me, with the generosity of time, to consider some things I hadn’t previously let myself consider:
I don’t have to redeem my failures.
I don’t have to prove myself in every trek or hike or mountain.
Having weak times, doubts, and second thoughts aren’t a declaration of my worth as a hiker, climber, or even as a person.
And the best way to deal with an adventure gone awry is to get back on the trail.
. . .
About the author
Currently based on Vancouver Island, British Columbia, Emily Galley works for a non-profit and dreams of escaping into the mountains. Self-described hiker, climber, camper, and recovering treeplanter with no sense of direction and a insatiable appetite for picking up rocks on the beach, she was once told that the most appealing smell a person can have is of campfire and salt water. She’s inclined to agree.
Find her online