On the morning of April 7, 2014, Mark Boyd stepped up onto the Thorung La Pass. He was deep in the mountains of Nepal on the Annapurna Circuit, a grueling 145-mile trek through the Himalayas. Just five days earlier, Mark had set out from the trailhead to reach this very point on this very date — the highest mountain pass in the world on what would have been his wife Amanda’s 43rd birthday.
After Amanda was diagnosed with breast cancer, she and Mark sold all their possessions to travel to Thailand, Cambodia, Laos and India before the cancer began to spread. They returned home to the Isle of Man in January of 2013, and Amanda passed away in August. Months later, Mark decided to pick their journey back up where they’d left it, and he carried his grief back around the world and all the way up here, 17,769 feet above sea level, to take it for a very long walk.
Even the Himalayas can’t cure grief. The Annapurna Circuit won’t bring back the people you’ve lost, or make you miss them any less. But as Mark discovered, time alone in the outdoors — no distractions, no agenda other than putting miles behind him — is what started the process of healing. Just like getting to the top of the highest mountain pass in the world, the path to recovery can be slippery, rocky, dangerous and lonely. But if you breathe deeply and keep on putting one foot in front of the other, you’ll get there.
HOW DID IT COME TO BE THAT YOU BEGAN YOUR TREK ON THE ANNAPURNA CIRCUIT?
After Amanda passed away, I stayed at home for about six months. Then I went back to India and worked my way up to Nepal. I wanted to get back to the Annapurna Circuit to try to get up to the pass on Amanda’s birthday. I went and spoke to the guides and asked if it was possible for me to get to the pass within five days. They seemed to think what I thought — if I was willing to walk eight or nine hours a day and be careful [of altitude sickness], maybe I could do it.
WAS THIS A SPUR-OF-THE-MOMENT DECISION? OR HAD YOU BEEN THINKING ABOUT IT FOR A WHILE?
When I was in Nepal, I was thinking about it. I had gotten stuck in the west of Nepal, but I hadn’t given up on it. I wanted to try and do it. I got delayed because I had a scarf of Amanda’s I used to carry with me when I was traveling and it got left at one of the tiny little farmhouses I stayed in. I was in a bit of a panic and got in touch with the guide to see if he could get in touch with the farmer. So I ended up waiting a day in another town to see if the farmer could get the scarf onto one of the transports to get it back to the town. And he did. I was absolutely blown away. I got a call to come into this tiny shop in this tiny town and they had the scarf for me. I got very lucky. I met lots of very kind people.
HAD YOU DONE ANY LONG TREKS BEFORE THE ANNAPURNA CIRCUIT?
No, nothing like that. I’d done little treks for a day or so, but not one that was going to be 18 days. Well, I did it in 10. But it was meant to be 18. And I didn’t want to do it in an organized group. I wanted to do it on my own, so I just went ahead and did it. There are so many things we can do, but we just worry about things too much.
WHAT WERE SOME OF THE HARDEST MOMENTS ON THE TREK, AND WHAT GOT YOU THROUGH THEM?
I think the hardest moment was getting up onto the pass and realizing that I was taking stupid risks. At one point, I took a bit of a shortcut — or what I thought was a shortcut — and ended up at a very rocky pass with a huge drop down to the right-hand side. I either had to crawl across some rocks to cross over, or traverse back about five miles and do this steep ascent, and I didn’t really fancy that.
Had I been sane, I wouldn’t have crawled across the rocks. If my hand or my leg had slipped, I would have tumbled about 200 meters straight down into a river. But I got to the other side and I was just furious with myself. I thought about how I’ve still got my parents and friends that love me, and I’m taking stupid risks. If Amanda had been with me, I wouldn’t have let her do it.
I noticed my state of mind, I suppose. There was no fear. I wasn’t worried about dying. I was still cherishing life, but there wasn’t any fear about losing it. And when I actually got up onto the pass on Amanda’s birthday, I thought, “Well, I’ve done it.” I sat there. I went around the back, got a hot chocolate, and just cried.
WHAT WERE SOME OF YOUR BEST MOMENTS?
On the third or fourth day in, I met a girl and a guy who were having a rest so I stopped and chatted to them. She was from Ireland, and I asked her boyfriend where he was from, and he said, “Oh, you probably won’t have heard of it.” “Go on,” I said. And he says, “The Isle of Man.” No way. Turned out we lived about eight miles from each other. We had two years’ difference in age, so we knew loads of people in common. It was unbelievable. We met up again and walked a couple days together. On Amanda’s birthday, we decided to celebrate after getting up to the pass; we went to one of the little tea houses and had a few beers, and Daniel — the boyfriend — wouldn’t let me pay for anything. He said that we were celebrating Amanda’s birthday as well as getting up on the pass. So I made a best friend.
Imagine bumping into someone from the Isle of Man in the Himalayas!
THERE’S A LATIN PHRASE, SOLVITUR AMBULANDO, WHICH MEANS, “IT IS SOLVED BY WALKING.” HOW DID YOUR TREK HELP YOU WORK THROUGH YOUR LOSS AND YOUR GRIEF?
It gave me so much time to think and to appreciate the beauty of nature. I love being outdoors anyway, but it was incredible, being up in the Himalayas and being alone and walking and not seeing people. Just spending time and thinking and walking. I didn’t have many distractions. I spent a lot of time on my own, which was great. The outdoors are a healing place to be.
HOW HAS YOUR GRIEF EVOLVED SINCE YOUR TREK?
Losing someone brings an awareness of your own mortality and you realize that everybody around you is going to die, unless you die first. I’m kind of pragmatic now. I think about life and death. I know it’s coming for us all at some point, so I want to make the most of everything. That means spending time with family, friends, doing things I can do to help people, and still going on adventures for five or six months of the year, if I can get away with it. Obviously you always miss your loved ones, but now I’m at a point where I’m just enjoying life again to the fullest and all the memories are just good memories. I don’t dwell on the pain that she went through, or the fact that she’s not here enjoying her life anymore. I mean…cancer’s a dog. There’s so much of it. So many people are suffering. But like I said, we’re all gonna go at some point. So it’s all about how much we make of our lives while we’re here.
To learn more about Mark Boyd’s work and story, visit www.mbimagery.co.uk.