Beauty scale

Amanda Westwood on grieving and healing after her husband’s death

No one can prepare you for the twists and turns of life. One moment I was living a contented life, then a shocking event turned everything upside down. My husband, Graeme, had an unexpected and violent heart attack. I did CPR for 20 minutes in front of my kids and he died in my arms.

As a numbing emptiness threatened to overwhelm me, my children insisted that we walk together along the beach at sunrise. Watching the waves roll towards the shore, with billowing clouds in a pink sky, I realized that the beauty of nature rekindled a sense of joy within me. So two years later, at the age of 58, still searching for answers and harboring grief that I couldn’t control, I decided to visit Nepal and climb the Himalayas.

I went with a friend who ran an adventure group and who, since Graeme’s death, had taught me to do things I had never thought of, like scuba diving, rock climbing and hiking for days with everything I needed on my back. My friend was experienced in trekking, but I was a novice.

Now, here I am, in Kathmandu, Nepal, at the start of a two-month trek that we were both going to do without help.

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Over the past two years, often blinded by crippling emotional pain, many questions have crossed my mind: Why did this happen? Why did Graeme die so young? Why did I feel so alone? What was my life for? Were there lessons to be learned? Were there things about me that I needed to change?

My life had changed due to circumstances beyond my control, but I was beginning to realize that there were new choices to face. The mountains and valleys of the Himalayas, I decided, would provide an arena in which to recalibrate myself.

For the trip, we took with us everything we needed. Because my small size could not carry more, my bag had to weigh a maximum of eight kilograms. I sorted ruthlessly until I had the bare minimum: a sleeping bag and a goose down jacket, two pairs of gloves and socks, a change of underwear and thermal clothing; a hat, a cap and a balaclava. A map, a small medical kit, money, hand warmers, a solar charger, a Kindle.

We begin the trek with a short flight from Kathmandu to Tenzing-Hillary Airport in Lukla, with its 400 meter runway carved into the sides of the mountains. Shaking as we land in the middle of nowhere, we collect our backpacks and begin the hike. There are no roads anywhere, only rough hiking trails for people, yaks and mules.

Amanda decided that the mountains and valleys of the Himalayas would provide an arena in which she would recalibrate.Credit:WESTWOOD DESIGN GROUP

As we can only walk during the day – the night is too cold – we walk to a nearby village and find a tea house where we can rest. A night in a room usually with two single beds, a small window and plywood walls only costs a few dollars. The owners make money by providing hot meals and selling toilet paper, lemonade, chocolate bars and thermoses of hot water.

Hot water is expensive because it must be heated with gas, with gas cylinders carried on the backs of porters or yaks. It’s the only way to drink water or brush your teeth, because bottled water freezes. The higher you go, the more expensive the raw materials; it costs to transport goods to these isolated outposts.

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The next morning, we depart early for the 700 meter ascent to Namche, located in the Khumbu Valley, which is the gateway to Mount Everest. Her Nepali name is Sagarmatha, which translates to “Goddess of the Universe”. To me, it’s an apt name for a peak that overlooks a vast desert. I embarked on the steep and grueling climb up to 3440 meters above sea level, where the oxygen is only two-thirds that of sea level.

Hikers generally acclimate to the clearing air at higher elevations by ascending the surrounding slopes and then descending to sleep. Most hikers spend a day acclimatizing, but we spend three nights in Namche while I learn the ropes.

The clouds that swirl around the peaks in the morning meander through gorges and valleys… I often find myself gasping.

As Namche is the last village where I will be able to enjoy luxury, I sit in a small cafe with a frothy cappuccino and watch the amphitheater around me. Clouds that swirl around the peaks in the morning meander through gorges and valleys as the day progresses, retreating momentarily, then surging forward. I often catch myself panting.

On the way to Thame, along an ancient trade route that leads to Tibet, the vastness of the valleys and the dizzying heights of the mountains often leave me speechless. Everywhere I look there are ice-dusted mountains hovering above the clouds, mist swirling in the valleys, and intense aqua-blue rivers gushing beneath the long suspension bridges we cross, the bells of yak trains providing often a comforting accompaniment to our efforts. It doesn’t take long for us to decide that we must reach our lodges by 4 p.m. every day or risk freezing to death.

The things she sees and experiences make the difficulties of the trek insignificant.

The things she sees and experiences make the difficulties of the trek insignificant.Credit:WESTWOOD DESIGN GROUP

It’s always a relief to reach a lodge where I know a belly stove will be on around 5pm, and I’ll finally be warmer. At these high elevations, dwellings are well above the tree line, so there is no wood to burn. Instead, locals collect and dry yak dung.

The dung burns hot and fast, only lasting long enough to warm up hikers while dinner, which is usually rice, potatoes or pasta, is served. The bread is stale and the vegetables rare. Everything is flavored with curry powder and the milk is powdered. The only protein is yak cheese, which tastes better than expected, and the best staple is eggs.

Once the fire is out, the only choice is to climb into sleeping bags and try to stay warm. Because the windows of the lodge are not waterproof and the walls are thin, even the temperature inside is below zero.

Sometimes the moisture from my breath collects on my pillow and freezes. I am often jerked awake when I turn around and my face cracks a layer of ice!

The nights drag on for hours, and I endlessly relive my life with Graeme and our children.

The nights drag on for hours, and I endlessly relive my life with Graeme and our children. There were countless moments of family hilarity, none louder than when we gathered around the dining room table and cracked up at everyone’s antics. I can’t help but laugh again when I wake up to find my drink bottles frozen, my face cream solid, and my toothpaste turned to powder.

And then I leave again in the immensity of the valleys and the vertiginous heights of the mountains. I sit and gaze out at the landscape, catching my breath, often surprised at how difficult it is to accomplish the simplest task, like putting one foot in front of the other. Experiencing the effects of less oxygen at higher altitudes is more difficult than imagined.

Much of the journey involves long and difficult trekking and on the way up it is impossible to speak. I count as the steep climbs overwhelm me and turn me to the alphabet when counting no longer works, conjuring up words to match different letters. After a few weeks, I adjust and start spending time differently. I’ve never had so much uninterrupted time to think.

The weather is beautiful when I leave on the 21st day for Gokyo village. To get there, I have to walk from one valley to another, passing through Renjo La Pass. I stand at the foot of the mountain, unable to see the pass as it is over 1000 meters above me. It’s like climbing a 300-story building on half the oxygen while climbing over scree, slippery glacial dust and boulders.

I take color photos, but many appear in black and white, the landscape is so austere at times, writes Amanda.

I take color photos, but many appear in black and white, the landscape is so austere at times, writes Amanda.Credit:WESTWOOD DESIGN GROUP

This day challenges me both physically and mentally, pushing me to my limits. It amazes me that a simple slope – a slope that I would climb easily with a pack on my back – exhausts me after 10 slow steps. I sit down, again, to catch my breath.

Then I resume my steps, stop, catch my breath and continue. I am overwhelmed with the relief of reaching the summit, but also surrounded by an awe-inspiring panorama of Mount Everest and its surrounding sisters.

Far below, at 5000 meters, is Gokyo Lake, one of many glacier-fed lakes, and on the other side is the village of Goyko.

As I stare at this breathtaking sight, the light quickly shifts from fiery reds to soft pink hues and then to inky indigos. The day has faded and I still have hours ahead of me. Feeling my hands lose circulation, I slip my hand warmers into my gloves. I have to descend 600 meters and travel about six kilometers.

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Weary beyond words, I make my way through glacial rubble and icy streams. Too tired to dig up my torch, I use my iPhone to light my way. Three hours later, I finally stagger into the dressing room and collapse in front of the belly stove. It was an epic day, 11 hours of trekking. I fall into bed too tired to eat, sleep soundly for 12 hours and wake up to crystal clear skies.

The landscape changes every day, but some things stay the same. The air is rarefied and icy; monotonous meals; almost non-existent washing. The things I see and experience, however, make these difficulties insignificant. There are times when I burst into tears at absolute magnificence. I take color photos, but many appear in black and white, the landscape is so austere at times. I feel very small in this desert, but not insignificant.

Putting one foot in front of the other, I feel surrounded by the pulse of nature. Being able to step back from my life and absorb a new reality eased the unrelenting pain of losing someone I adored. I don’t know where my life is taking me, but I know it’s good.

Edited excerpt from A step by Amanda Westwood.

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