How to get your kid above 4000 meters

Irena Bartolec
Nov 27 · 12 min read

“Actually, the best gift you could have given her was a lifetime of adventures…”

Lewis Carroll

Alice in Wonderland

More or less, the above quote was the advice I got from a dear friend of mine when I became a single mom. She, with 30 years of experience in raising two children by herself, and still wearing a smile on her face, managed to calm my fears during critical moments of motherhood.

“Life will get tricky,” she told me. “It is not easy, but whatever happens, just make your daughter feel like she is in an Alice in Wonderland book. Keep her curious and excited about everything “

So I took that advice as a guidance, and while dealing with many daily parenting tasks, we transcended the dull mundane into the fabulous fantasy. We were drinking magic potions instead of medicine, eating soup cooked by Shrek when trying to feed her broccoli, being invisible when waiting in the line, or running after fairies when late for a bus.

We traveled a lot together. By the age of 2 she traveled in planes, buses, tuk- tuk’s, boats, trams, trains, subways, cars, bicycles and rickshaws.

We moved to Bali in 2014, and were happy to call this Island of The Gods our second home. People in Bali are soft and kind in their nature. They consider kids angelic creatures, and for toddlers it is an amazing place to grow up. Most of the year there is warm, sunny weather, and kids spend most of the days playing outside. Chasing geckoes, frogs, cats, dogs. Running on the black sand beaches or playing with the ocean waves. Often running barefoot and wild.

In November we decided to take off for another adventure and visit Nepal. We wanted to spend 2 weeks in the high mountains, walk in the Himalayas and sleep in the woods. After our online research and consulting with a dear friend who owns a reputable guiding agency in Kathmandu, we decided to trek on the ABC trail for 10 days, and climb to the legendary Annapurna Base Camp, to enjoy the fresh air and mountain views. A welcomed change of scenery from our beaches and ocean.

Nature always has a profound effect on me. A few hours spent in nature and all of my anxieties are erased with her magic wand. I stop worrying about the rent, school fees, and other dramas that often occupy by mind. Mother Nature always hugs me, and she whispers that everything is just fine.

Vision Adventure Nepal organised the trip for us, and supplied a responsible guide, himself the father of two kids, hence used to children’s moodiness and tantrums, which we predicted with my 7 year old kid on the trail.

For me, traveling with my daughter is always a special gift. It makes our bond stronger. Exploring new places and cultures with her, and observing the world through her eyes full of wonder and excitement is precious. She makes me less serious, and keeps my spirit young.

While on the road, in her enthusiastic opinion, everything is “the best in the world!!” Food, that if prepared at home she wouldn’t touch, suddenly becomes the best food ever. Squatting over smelly toilets where you need to hold your breath not to faint are fun because we are practicing our free diving technique. Slow dripping showers offer fantastic massages. The whole world becomes like a circus, full of colours and magic.

We packed all the winter clothes we own, which is not much since the coldest days on our tropical home are around +21 Celsius. We made our own trail mix, packed the playing card for evenings at the tea houses, and after a few flights and airport snacks we were in Kathmandu.

Our flight landed at midnight. The city seemed quite apocalyptic during those wee hours. Dusty roads, Christmas colour blinking lights hastily strung along crumbling buildings, stray dogs and empty streets.

We over slept the next day, and arrived late for the breakfast. Our first night we spent in the Bouddha district. Our breakfast terrace overlooked the stunning Bouuddha Stupa, one of the larges stupas in the world. People were steadily praying and walking clockwise around this massive shrine. We could smell strong incense and watched hundreds of pigeons flying overhead. The sound of chanting and prayer bells filled this vibrant square; the Buddhas peaceful eyes watching over us from every corner. Tibetan refugees, monks in orange robes, tourist, street vendors, lazy dogs and restless birds jubilantly occupied this sacred space.

Our hunt for trekking gear in Katmandu was an adventure. After gearing up with sleeping bags, walking poles, thermal underwear, headlamps, rain jackets, gloves, batteries, and a critical Unicorn hat for my daughter, we were ready to embark into the mountains.

Following a lengthy eight hour car drive that included motion sickness pills, many curves, inordinately giant holes in the road, and wild accelerating buses, we reached Pokhara, a picturesque small town on a lake that is the popular starting point for trekking in the Annapurna region.

This would be our last night in flip flops and comfortable beds. After establishing our Team Unicorn, and instituting some crucial social engagement rules between our members, we were excited to finally begin our mountain adventure.

Our guide Ramu arrived early the next morning, and we drove up to Nayapul, where we had spicy masala chai at the bus stop and started our trek.

Soon we entered the Annapurna Conservation Area, and officially registered for our trek. The weather was sunny and warm. The trail appeared manageable, easily passing over rivers and through small villages, abundant with butterflies and tea shops. We were lucky to be there at the time of the Diwali festival, when young girls dance in the streets and request small donations for their performance.

All seemed very cheerful and entertaining, until we reached the stairs.

We read about these notorious stairs online. Since I’m often uncomfortable with elevators, and prefer using stairs whenever possible, I didn’t pay much attention to the fact that there will be some stairs on the trail. Perhaps that was the better strategy. Perhaps ignorance is bliss.

In front of us rose an endless cascade of stairs. You climb for hours, and it seems like they will never end. They are steep and thick. You can ascend 20–30 stairs, but then you need to pause, catch your breath and calm your pulse. Many others on the trail were also huffing and puffing. We staggered in unison, while watching the local porters, with minimum twenty kilograms of haul on their backs, passing up and down with ease.

In the middle of this stairway hell local entrepreneurs offer donkey rides. $75 to Ulleri, our destination for the day. While I was considering whether to treat myself with a donkey ride, my kid was out of sight. She went flying up those stairs with our guide.

At the village where we were scheduled to spend our first night I couldn’t spot her. I asked the local women if they saw a small girl and a guide, and they all pointed up to the next village. I was sure that she was just playing hide and seek with me, sitting out of sight with a cup of hot chocolate, laughing at me.

My legs were giving up. All I wanted was to sit down with a hot ginger tea when she came running towards me, shouting that I needed to hurry up and see Yak poo.

“It looks like a birthday cake!” she yelled. “It even has holes for candles!”

It is remarkable how much excitement a 7 years old can have with poop. By the end of the trip she was an expert in detecting animal feces. Yak poo, buffalo poo, goat, horse, donkey poo, all endless sources of entertainment.

On our first day we climbed 3280 stairs. The next day to Ghorepani there were around 2000 more stairs. This steady landscape of stairs and hills would be our norm for ten long days.

Our days on the trail were very simple: eat, walk 7–8 hours per day, eat again, sleep, and repeat. That simple schedule become our existence while we traveled through different land scapes and encountered new challenges every day. A simple daily routine for the next weeks.

Traveling, changing environments, and dealing with uncertainties is a great way to build resilience, for kids and grown ups. Usually, when at home, we have certain schedules. Our family routines. Though traveling challenges us with unexpected situation, especially when spending time in nature, in the mountains, where every day is a new adventure. Our adventure became about building resilience, and learning how to stay calm when something unpredictable pops up.

Trekking the ABC trail is physically and emotionally demanding. Lots of stairs, endless walking, blisters, tired legs, constant changes of weather from hot to cold, large gains in altitude, different food that your body is not used too, then labouring into sleeping bags at night instead of under warm comfortable blankets, without much privacy or hot showers.

It is also one of the most beautiful journeys I’ve done with my daughter.

Wandering amongst these magnificent Himalayan mountains, watching waterfalls lead into crashing rivers from massive snow covered peaks while delicately crossing wobbly suspension bridges was breath taking. Burrowing into sleeping bags with jackets and hats on, sharing masala chai and playing cards in the early evening, away from the anxious distractions of wifi, screens and traffic, was glorious.

Walking side by side with your kid, holding their hands and witnessing them doing such an amazing journey is worth every soreness. Somehow one opens up to that pristine energy around you, and you keep going.

I believe that kids are very sensitive to the energies around us, and watching my daughter ingest the clean power of forests, clouds and mountains was priceless.

When she felt tired she’d hold my hand and say “lets talk.”

We would talk for hours while walking, about fairies, about baking cookies, about mountain spirits, about climbers, about poop, school, love, or whatever else was on her mind.

We ate Oreos and popcorn to recharge our sugar levels when needed.

My daughter likes to be in charge. At breakfast our guide and her would draw a map forecasting the day ahead. She would keep us on route, and safely guide us through the Himalayas, relishing in her assumed role as Captain Unicorn.

At our lunch break she would take a cup of hot chocolate and play a few rounds of high altitude poker. She likes to gamble with popcorn and Oreos.

Often she would repeat phrases like “I believe in myself!” Or “I can do it!”

At the village of Shimla, a few days into our journey, a white fluffy dog started to follow her up the trail. Suddenly she had a pet. We named her Snow white. This sweet creature accompanied us all the way to Base camp. She slept in our room and hiked next to us.

On the final decent, at Machhauchhare Base Camp, Snow White nestled herself under a big rock, and prepared to birth her puppies. We thanked her, left her food, and waved good bye.

The final 2–3 hours before we reached Annapurna Base Camp was difficult for all of us. The air at that altitude is very thin. The landscape was covered with clouds, and cold winds were relentlessly blowing. Every step seemed so heavy, and we could not see much through the thick fog that surrounded us. We felt like Hobbits on their way to Mordor.

It was the first time in 7 days on the trail that my daughter sat down and said “I can’t walk any more, and Oreos are not helping.” She looked sleepy. I was also tired, and could not offer to carry her.

Sitting on a large black rock, trying to catch our breath, I remembered our “Make Up A Story” game, that we occasionally played on long car rides. We started to play, spontaneously creating a halloween story that included zombies, monsters, butts, poops, pee, cannibalism, and other nasty things. My kid laughed endlessly, suddenly on her feet again and driving upwards.

Our zombie love story was fully enthralling, when just like that our guid pointed at a small out crop of low houses ahead.

“Just a bit more,” Ramu told us. “We have reached the Annapurna Base Camp.”

We almost cried out of happiness, excitement, and a sharp sense of accomplishment. Enthusiastic about finally taking our walking shoes off and having some hot soup. But my daughter was disappointed. There was no snow on the ground where we walked, only higher up on the looming 8000 meter peaks, and she had been working so hard to touch the snow.

At the tea house she received a special big portion of popcorn and hot chocolate from our guide. That quickly fixed her mood. While all the hikers were discernibly tired at the communal dining table, my daughter was full of energy, sipping spicy soup that burned her mouth, and maniacally laughing about everything. At night we snuggled in our sleeping bags, and read passages from “No Short Cuts To The Top”, Ed Viesturs mountaineering autobiography, that had become our nightly bed time story.

“Pain is fleeting,” he wrote, “but glory is forever.”

The following morning, we woke up early to see the sunrise over the 8000 meter plus Annapurna peaks. The Mountain Gods had provided a thin layer of snow during the night outside our camp, and the kid was enthusiastic. We watched a spectacular sunrise, silenced by this rare beauty.

We hung our prayer flags along a small stupa and payed our respects to the adventurous mountaineers who lost their lives on these mighty mountains above. A humble reminder that we are so small under the stars. That there is a great intangible force in the Universe looking after us all, since the beginning of time.

After our breakfast at 4130 meters we started our descent. It would take us a couple more days of walking to reach a car, and eventually our hotel room back in Pokhara, where we would finally enjoy a well deserved hot shower, and a clean bed. But we felt only joy for achieving something so significant, together.

My daughter was greeted with great admiration from trekkers and local communities in the villages on the way down. People took photos of her, and made videos for their children. Word spread out on the trail about a brave young girl, successfully trekking up.

“You are strong” they will tell her, then pinch her cheek…..

There is no official record of a child under 7 years old trekking to the Annapurna Base Camp, as our guide and other locals on the trail informed us. There is a great possibility that she is the youngest kid to achieve this accent.

I am very proud of her, but most importantly she is proud of herself. She achieved something unique and momentous. She faced many difficulties, various challenges, and did her best to patiently solve them, and continue upwards. She hiked amongst the tallest mountain in the world, crossing a rugged 115km in 10 days. She believed in herself all the way up, and she learned that there are people around her that she can count on, and reach out to in times of trouble.

She learnt that there is a sacred source in each of us, that we can access, like a waiting pool of energy deep in our soul. That last Oreo cookie or Snickers bar which can help you going for one more extra mile. She learnt not to give up when life gets difficult. She miraculously found that elusive switch deep in our hearts that transforms doubts into challenges, and fears into adventures. She learnt that life is adventure. She learnt to appreciate simple, small things. That happiness exists in sharing. That spending time in nature is joyous. That getting out of our comfort zone is challenging, yet endlessly rewarding. That being brave and kind can get you many hot chocolates, and priceless new friends.

Just prior to our trip to Nepal my daughter was bullied by an older girl at school. She was sad and confused about the situation. We talked about it during our walk. Hiking those high mountain gave her strength and confidence to face a bully with compassion. The first thing she did when school started was to sit with this bully kid and talk about her feelings. She bravely stood up for herself by peacefully voicing her emotions. This bully apologised to her, and they reconciled with each other.

She told me “I feel much older after this trip. Maybe I even look like a teenager!”

Although she still looks the same, a wild 7 year old with a relentless spirit and recklessly curly hair, it is beautiful to watch her grow into a confident, strong minded, kind human being.

In the Himalayas I learned that sometimes as a parent we just need to take them on adventures, and let the journey itself teaches them about life. These lessons are deeper than those in the glossy parenting manuals, and ultimately we need to believe in these adventures more than we believe in our fears and anxieties. Let them grow, and trust the process.

Irena Bartolec

Written by

Yoga teacher. Single Mom. Peace seeker.

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