Editor’s Note: Stephen Mullaney, NCOAE’s lead instructor, recently returned from our first-ever program abroad — an expedition to the Federal Democratic Republic of Nepal. Stephen led a group of South Korean high school teens on a six-day expedition through portions of this mystical and spiritual country. Below are his reflections on what he describes as a triumphant trek.
It’s five in the morning and students participating in The National Center for Outdoor & Adventure Education’s (NCOAE) first-ever international expedition are all still asleep in their tents. I sit on the trail in the village of Pothana and look toward the horizon. A local villager named Chimay is blowing incense my direction — to bring me luck, he says.
Off in the distance, what first appears to my sleepy eyes to be clouds reveals itself for what it truly is: a vast stretch of snow fields and rock. Time to retrain my brain and the way I see the sky. My eyes follow the snowfields up, up through the clouds, to what seems like an absurd height, finally resting on the summit itself.
Machapuchare — “the Fish Tail” as it is interpreted in English — is a sacred mountain honoring Shiva (one of the main deities of Hinduism). The mountain is off limits to climbers and only one known attempt was ever made to summit its massive peak. Those climbers (three of them in 1957) stopped just five hundred feet from the summit, not because they couldn’t go on, but out of respect for the local culture and beliefs of the native people.
Viewing Machapuchare is how I kick off my first day on the trail for NCOAE in Nepal. A holy mountain that is pristine, respected and an earthen barrier that turns back explorers out of respect and sensitivity — not fear. Details about the mountain were provided to me by a local woman, a guide named Sita. She saw me drawing a picture of the mountain in my journal and volunteered to share its history with me.
We are in Nepal where I am teaching students to be leaders, problem solvers, and self-sufficient explorers. We have come to Nepal for the beauty and the culture. And one of my objectives is to remind these students that within each of them is a leader, thinker, explorer, world changer.
The students are carrying everything they need. They have packed deliberately to ensure accessibility and balance, and that their gear is compressed and comfortable. We call that the ABC’s of packing — accessibility, balance, compression. The weight feels daunting the first day, but as the body and mind adjust to the task and the leisurely pace of trail life, the burden lightens.
As I write in my journal, I smell milk tea being brewed and my mind relaxes. My bag is packed. I am always up and ready well before the students begin to stir in their sleeping bags. Once they’re up, I remind them that they have the knowledge and skill to break camp and lead another day.
These days, most Nepalese trekking companies carry the tourists’ gear up into the mountains. These porters carry an incredible amount of weight on their back while the visitors wear light daypacks or carry nothing at all. There is an entire industry that encompasses trekking. And it does provide jobs for the local people. It also enables many older visitors the opportunity to see the sights without being encumbered by heavy backpacks.
3 Sisters Adventure Trekking company sent along two guides with my group in order for them to observe NCOAE’s teaching techniques, outdoor skills training, site management skills and other aspects that they are adopting within their own trekking enterprise in Nepal.
To be sure, our group of hikers are showstoppers. We see guides, porters and trekkers alike stop and watch us as we walk by, carrying all our gear neatly on our backs. On an island, the “coconut telegraph” is the term used to describe how information travels quickly by word rather than cell phones, television news or other modern-day medium. And we had ample examples on our trek as to the speed of such organic communication.
At one brief stop, the clouds parted and the summits treated us to breathtaking views. While my students were sitting in quite reflection, taking in the view and writing in their journals, a Nepalese guide pulled me aside.
“Are you leading the group of students who are learning to be leaders”?
I responded proudly, “Yes, this is the group. Why do you ask?”
“I have been hearing about you for days from other guides and trekkers.” was his reply.
He went on to tell me he had never seen a group actively participating in education while trekking on these trails or any others he had guided in Nepal. He thought it was amazing. I thought the exact same thing.
I brought a pack of handmade journals that I handed out to people in Nepal, including both Sita and her co-guide Kiran. By end of the trip, both have given me back the journals with beautiful writing, reflections and drawings. I explain the journals are a gift, theirs to keep, but they insist I take them back. So it is myself that receives a gift — custom-crafted artistic memories from the minds and hands of the people who shape this land, culture and beliefs.
On the last two days the students are guiding the trip under our watchful eye. I walk well behind them and a guide is well ahead. We meet them nightly at camp, for our processing and reflection time, but they are on their own. They didn’t make the summit they had planned to, but each of us has our own summit and it is the experiences, encounters, opportunities triumphs and obstacles that shape those summits and who we are.
At the Kathmandu airport we say our goodbyes. I head back to the States, my students to Korea, and Sita and Kiran from 3 Sisters Adventure Trekking home to sleep. I order a milk tea, close my eyes and see summits, relax my brain and remember the smell of incense and luck. We are all healthy, happy, renewed and ready to go “Search and Enjoy” everywhere and anywhere.