Over the years, our parents have helped shape and mold us into the people we are today. It’s also likely that they embarrassed and pushed us a fair bit along the way. Many of us spent a significant part of our lives with our parents, but there is often one moment or trip where the character of our parents was revealed.
In this edition of Therm-a-Rest Explore, contributor Ola Krol relives her experience getting to know her dad in the high alpine of Nepal.
When you’re little you have a certain picture of your parents. As you grow through life this image stays with you. Eventually- if you’re lucky- you actually get to know your parents. The thing about my dad, that I’ve recently discovered, is that he’s the coolest human. Not that it’s something I’m about to admit to him any time soon. I guess you hit a point when you realize that life doesn’t just slow down and wait for you. I think my dad saw this with absolute clarity. He knew how to get busy living.
At the ripe old age of forty, he taught himself to paraglide. He’d practice on windy fields, “like flying a kite” he’d yell before launching himself off of a cliff a few weeks later. It’s a sport no one should ever attempt learning on one’s own. He lost his hearing from the wind as a result and now yells instead of speaking. When that ceased to provide enough adrenaline- he started running. Really running. Like the mind-boggling running you read about in magazines. A year ago, I was supporting my dad during a major French 100km race at 4:30 in the morning. I was sitting in a cafe complaining about the dry croissants and the early wake up, when he neared the end of his 26 hour run. I watched with disbelief because as he appeared on the horizon he was running in a hardware-store sun hat I had given him partially as for good-luck but mostly as a joke.
My dad’s not a man of many words, but once in awhile I’ll get one of those infamous calls he makes while he’s on a run. The kind of calls where the words are separated by heavy breathing and you have to guess a lot of what he’s saying. “We’re going to Nepal,” he yelled in his thick Polish accent, a year after his run in France “I booked your flight. Hope you don’t have anything planned!” he concluded before running out of cell-reception. For a long time my dad’s mid-life “reinvention” didn’t make much sense to me. I saw the man who raised me change, grow in a way I don’t think many children ever do. He was chasing life, chasing really living. He invited me- told me we were going- at a time where I felt stagnant myself. Picking up a camera, making time to play outside were things that my anxiety had completely forced me to part with for the better half of a year. I was struggling finding inspiration for what I wanted to do next. I didn’t have to cancel anything to spend three weeks in Nepal, that scared me.
Our sherpa’s name was Karma. Of all names, Karma. Like the spiritual belief of cause and effect, or the reaction to my every questionable decision. I couldn’t think of much else every morning as I tried to drag myself out of the sleeping bag and into the inhospitable world around me. Every morning when he unzipped our tent I remembered all the times in the months leading up to the hike I had hit the snooze button for training. Seriously. Karma.
Everyone has had cramps- hamstrings, calves and the other usual suspects. I had no idea your butt could cramp until we got up to some proper altitude. That’s all before the cold. Even in the comfort of my -20 bag I could still feel icicles forming on my eyelashes. My dad tried telling me time and time again- pack warm, bring twice as many wool socks as you think you need. As I’d rub my numb from cold feet during the climbs, I thought of my dad’s words and I thought of Karma.
The mountains and weather stood against everything my dad and I battled those three weeks- battled and withstood. It was cold, but when the sun briefly glimmered from behind a wall of clouds my dad would meet it by unzipping his utility cargo pants (embarrassing enough without mention of the outrageous pastiness of his thighs). The worst of smells was coming from me and the result of about three weeks of eating Dal Bhat, a traditional, curry-based and pungent dish.
Regardless of the many struggles dad always put the experience above his image. He cared about the goal, about us doing it together, about everything except what anyone thought. The Dal Bhat sweat didn’t matter to him. The bad pants never registered. He just understood our mission.
Out of everything, I think I learned most from his outlook on life. For a long time, I’ve struggled with self-doubt, worried about other’s opinions, concerned myself with things that were probably best ignored. My dad worried about none of that. I envied it. I hoped to learn from it.
Every so often he asked me to take his photo in the sun hat. It was that genuine lack of pride that made our trip matter. Not matter to everyone, maybe not matter to him even, but matter to me. When we ran out of toilet paper mid-trek, he challenged trekkers to a game of Uno for their own stash. Despite his color blindness- regardless of the fact everyone would’ve donated- he always won. The pasty thighs, shown by his unzipped no-good-very-dad pants did end up getting tanned. His top-of-the-line, carbon trekking poles supported his long strides and left me in the dust, hunched-back and wishing I hadn’t called them lame. His offbeat dancing with children from small villages deemed him a legend among our crew of travellers.
I think going into the trip I wanted an answer, an existential enlightenment that seemed natural in the Himalayas. Maybe I thought it would just fall in my lap, that we would get up to the Island Peaks and it would hit me.
It turns out that my dad, the same dad who jumps off paraglides and runs for exorbitant amounts of miles- couldn’t deal with the altitude. He rolled off his mat the night we made it basecamp with a waning beat in his chest and a defeated wheezing in his lungs. His hallucinations had kept us up in the nights leading up to the top, but it was my dad. I thought, he was fine. He was always fine. Until now.
The panicked look told me we had to make way down the mountain at first sunlight. He was not fine.
I was using my camera again, not because I had to, but because around every corner there was a view or moment that left me feeling like my heart was about to fly out of my chest. Inspiration didn’t come from forcing it, it came because every day of the trek brought more hilarious stints than the last, and I wanted to preserve every second of it. I still don’t know what I want to do when I “grow up”, if that is even something to be learned all at once. What I learned is the value of contentment, in a roundabout way, I learned about confidence and authenticity. My dad never asked for anything more than to spend time with me, and even on the worst days he was happy because we were doing this amazing thing together. Everyone we met loved my father- he hardly noticed- but I did. They loved him because he was present, he was excited, he was unabashedly himself, they loved him- at least in part- because he loved life.
In some years I’ll look back on Nepal, and I’ll think about the laughs, the people, the culture, the incredible views. But I think most of all I’ll look back at the time spent with my dad. The time getting to know a man who’s always been there, but hid behind his appalling fashion sense and stubbornness to outdo himself. Nepal couldn’t have come at a more perfect time, and in making plans to go back and re-tackle Island Peaks, I know the second time around to pack more toilet paper and the not-so-lame trekking poles.