Lesson 11: Break a mountain stone by stone

Berlin 2015: Easter Weekend.

I was in Berlin for the Easter holidays. I remember, being in my hostel, deep in thought about my future. I was addicted to cigarettes smoking about twenty a day. I was obese, broken, overeating, mostly unhealthy food and drinking large quantities of alcohol. I was far ahead on the path of self-destruction, and part of me was ready to accept death at an early age.

But there was another part of me that wanted to live. That part of me did not want me to give up.

I decided to quit smoking as a first step and immediately did as soon as I reached London. In the past, I had tried to stop only to succumb five days later or a couple of weeks later. This time was different. As of now, it has been almost five and a half years since my last cigarette.

To date, I don’t know how I just stopped. I can only conclude that the willingness to live overrode any sort of addictive behaviour. I started to take my health seriously. I drank less and ate better. However, I was very unfit.

In July 2016, on a trip to Namibia, we reached the dunes for a sunrise hike. Dune 45 is the sandhill which the tourists are allowed to hike to the top at sunrise. I started the walk but found it incredibly hard. I sweated profusely. My heart pounded hard, and my heart beat faster. I thought I was going to die with every step. I gave up, about 30% into the hike and headed back. I couldn’t do it.

On that day, I was the only one in the group of eighteen who couldn’t climb Dune 45 in Namibia. In July 2016, I struggled to walk a short distance, let alone hike a dune.

But I wanted to be fit so that ‘willingness to live’ part of me sprung into action. I gave up drinking alcohol regularly and treated myself to a beer every few weeks. I gave up on fast food and replaced my unhealthy diet with salads, vegetables and pulses. I took every opportunity to walk to regain some fitness. A one km walk was better than not walking at all.

In November 2016, I reached Ushuaia, Argentina. In Ushuaia, I challenged myself to complete two hikes. The first one was to Glacier Martial. On the first try, I walked from my hostel in town to the foothills of the glacier. It was about a 14km return trip. I thought I had reached the foothills. Unfortunately, I had taken a wrong turn and got to another part of the woods. I saw the Glacier, but it was quite a distance away. I had no idea that I had made a mistake till I reached my hostel and found out.

The next day I tried again. This time, I took the right path and made it to the foothills of the glacier. The hike to the glacier from the foothills was challenging. I found that gravel on the trail quite slippery and the grip was not the best. But I persevered. After an hour or so, I made it to the glacier.

A few days later, I hiked the path to Laguna Esmeralda. Most of the trail was flat, and the hike was much more comfortable than the walk to the glacier. However, I did find this hike hard too. My knees were hurting, but I took inspiration in the fact that I had completed the hikes.

A few months later, in early 2017, I was in El Chalten, Argentina, where I completed the Lago Del Los Tres hike. It was a long ten-hour return hike with the last hour being the steepest incline I had ever encountered. Again I was delighted that I managed to complete the hike, and I rewarded myself with a couple of beers and a fantastic burger.

Over the next few months, through 2017, I continued to progress and eventually finished a multi-day hike in Colombia called the Lost City Trek. A few weeks later, I completed the Inca Trail in Peru. These were the first couple of multi-day treks I had done, and for most of the time, I did not enjoy the experience.

I continued on my path to a better and healthier version of me, and in August 2019, I embarked on my biggest challenge: The Camino Frances – an almost 800km route from St. Jean Pied to Santiago. It was a real struggle in the first couple of days, and by the time I was on Day 20, I was much fitter and healthier. I walked faster and covered distances at a faster pace. I was thrilled with my progress, but my feet and my body still hurt.

After the Camino, I ended up in Sri Lanka in February 2020. There I attempted the Adam’s Peak hike. The ~6000 steps leading to the peak tested my knees, bones, muscles and lungs. It was also a hike to see the sunrise, which meant I started at 3:30 am.

I completed the hike in 2 hours. More importantly, I did not feel pain a day later and walked 5km on the day. I didn’t feel as if I was about to die. My heart did not pound fast, and my knees and ankles did not hurt under the stress of hiking. That nailed the milestone. It felt like I had achieved something remarkable.

A few years back, I was too unfit, accepting early death as a real possibility. Four years later, as I travelled, I got fitter, and the hard work eventually paid off.

I reached this point by taking small steps, building habits, rewarding myself for progress and making sure I celebrated the little wins along the way. Since then, I have incorporated this learning into my life.

Many people face significant adversities in life: whether it is a career change or losing your job or losing weight or giving up an addiction. Many see the scale of the challenge ahead of them and give up before they take the first step. I was one of them. Many are scared to fail and then give up along the way. I did the same on numerous occasions when I tried to stop smoking.

Today, you cannot scale the mountain ahead. It requires time, but today, you can step on the stone that makes up the mountain. For me, the idea of a healthy life was that impossible mountain. It took a long four years, but now I am at a place where I feel the hard work has paid off. I had conquered the impossible mountain by breaking it stone by stone.

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