I CAN’T STOP STARING at my KEEN hiking boots.
Not because they are brand new. The salesman at REI told me to break them in before my trek in Nepal, and I did. Together, my boots and I soldiered through about thirty hours of hiking on the trails back home in Northern California. The boots have faded a little, and they’ve accumulated a thin layer of dust.
It’s not the shoes’ beauty that makes me unable to tear my eyes away. They are nondescript: brown and tan, with just a trace of light blue.
Our group of thirteen women has started the first day of a trek through the Sagarmatha National Park in the Khumbu region of Nepal. Forests of blue pine, fir, and rhododendron trees line the mountains to our right. To our left flows the bright turquoise Dudh Kosi River.
I can’t take my eyes away from my boots because if I look up, even for a moment, I might trip on a rock or an uneven step. I could chip a tooth. I could fracture an arm or leg. So I keep my eyes trained on my feet.
I asked the salesman if these boots would be comfortable enough for a 21-day trek. I asked if they were waterproof. I did not ask if they were stumble-proof.
On the first day of the trek, our group learns the etiquette of the Khumbu. Right of way is given to the porters, the men and women who carry materials up and down the trails on their backs. We say “namaste” to nearly every person we pass. Sometimes the blessing gets caught at the back of my throat when I see men carrying loads that weigh more than they do. Some wear flip-flops, or shoes without socks.
When dzokyos, a hybrid of yaks and cows, approach us on the trail, trekkers lean into the mountain and warn others that the animals are approaching. As we reach higher elevations, we make way for yaks and nyaks, which are bigger than dzokyos, and have longer hair.
The dzokyos and yaks are critical to the Khumbu. They heft loads up and down the mountains. The nyaks’ milk is used to make po cha, Tibetan butter tea. Their dung is scooped up and flattened against stone fences and the outside walls of homes. Once the patties have dried out, they are used for fuel.
Yak poop is inescapable on the trail. Everyone will step in it, it’s just a matter of time. I did not ask the salesman back home whether my boots were yak-proof, or what I should do when it was my turn to step in a big pile.
I learn that when it happens, the only thing to do is laugh and keep on walking.
At 14,000 feet, the air is noticeably thinner. Our breathing is labored. We walk in slow motion, as if traveling through water.
On our way to the town of Dengboche, we stop to rest. One of the women in our group unearths a hacky sack that resembles a miniature soccer ball from her bag. She tosses it to me.I did not ask the salesman how my boots would handle games of hacky sack.
I kick it with the instep of my right shoe and send it flying toward a group of Sherpa boys. A teenager stops it with his right thigh and sends it skyward with his toe. The young boy beside him blocks it with his calf, kicks it sideways with his foot. Sometimes we miss, and laugh at our own clumsiness.
Our group arrives early the town of Phortse, and we get the entire afternoon off. We challenge the Sherpas accompanying us to a game of touch football.
All of the other women in my group have played touch football before. Neither I nor the Sherpas have ever played. We will attempt to learn the rules as we go.
We square off – six women against six men. We dodge and run and bolt toward the makeshift end goals. The porters are fully acclimatized. The Americans pant and gasp for breath.
I discover that my boots are good for quick sprints. Every day, these shoes – and my feet and body – surprise me.
We cross the Renjo La pass. With a maximum altitude of nearly 18,000 feet, it is a challenging leg of the trip even in mild weather. On our ascent, it begins to snow.
I did not ask the salesman if my boots were snow-proof. I stare down at my feet as we begin to climb the rocks, which are covered in powder. Every move is measured, careful. I realize that any misstep at this point could be very dangerous. If I slip and fall, my only option would be to hobble on to the next town.
When trekkers reach the top of the pass, they hang Tibetan prayer flags, adding bursts of color to the black-and-white landscape. It is quite cold at the summit, and my breathing is labored and raspy.
I normally prefer descending to climbing, but this time it’s trickier. The rocks are slippery and dangerous. I concentrate so hard on my feet that I have a headache when we reach the next camp.
By the time we’ve finished dinner, my boots are dry. Our group of Sherpas and trekkers play several games of spoons. We sleep well that night.
On the last four days of our trek, we’re carefree and easygoing. We are circling back now. We know what we’re up against: we have been on these trails before.
The temperature rises as we make our way down from the mountains. The snow disappears; the rocks gives way to forests. But we can’t keep our eyes off our boots until we leave the Himalayas. We could still fall.
The sun is shining when we stop for lunch. I sit on the ground with my legs stretched out and my feet crossed in front of me. My boots are dustier, dirtier. They are beautiful.
I did not ask the salesman if these boots would give me enough confidence to test my endurance and strength. But we–these boots and I–have done it.
[Note: This post brought to you in partnership with our friends at KEEN.]
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Jennifer Anthony works at a not-for-profit organization to support her travel habit. Her most recent adventures include sojourns in Nepal and South Africa and a week of hiking in Point Reyes. Her recurrent dream of flying inspires her to try all sorts of shenanigans like bungee jumping, ziplining, and learning to fly planes. Find out more about Jennifer on her website, jenniferanthony.net.