There was a time in my life, not so long ago, that I thought I was destined to walk a clearly marked path. I’d met a man in his early twenties, we’d dated, we’d moved in together, we’d gotten engaged and married — all the steps I thought I had to take.
So when after 10 years together, my then husband announced he was leaving, I saw that path dissolve before my eyes.
I was thousands of miles from my closest friends and family, my young adult writing career was at a standstill, and I didn’t know what to do with myself. I was at a crossroads, with no signposts to show me the “right” way to go. My initial instinct was to stay put and bury myself under my duvet. But instead, I wanted to do something good for my mind and my body, while I struggled with the debris of my future. I googled “long distance walks” and came across the Kerry Way – the longest marked footpath in Ireland. The next day I was on the plane across the Atlantic to Dublin.
The next day I arrived in Killarney and started walking.
Walking was the only thing I could really do at that time. It helped ground me in my body, revealing a strength I didn’t know I had. I walked around the beautiful Iveragh Peninsula every day, soaking up the incredible views, writing bad emo poetry and shouting at the sheep I encountered along the way. I collapsed in my room every night, too exhausted to stay awake and overthink: inevitably what I would have done if I had stayed home.
I fell in love with the ever-changing countryside – the waves crashing against the shore, the green fields so intense I thought I had wandered the Wizard of Oz plateau, a dense forest with bluebell-carpeted floors . I was following the advice of another famous walker before me – Cheryl Strayed – to get on the path to beauty. It helped me realize that the world was big and full of magic that I might have missed if I had stayed the course.
After Kerry, my marriage never recovered but I found new love in the walk. I wanted to see where else my feet could take me. My next trip was to Nepal, where I rode the famous Annapurna Circuit solo. During this hike, I saw my first 8,000 meter peak: Manaslu, the eighth highest mountain in the world. I was moved by the beauty and majesty of the Himalayas, and a spark of wonder ignited: could I go even higher?
I decided to test myself. I joined a trip to climb the highest mountain in Morocco, with no hope of reaching my goal. Yet when I summited Mount Toubkal on New Year’s Day, I watched the sun rise over the Atlas Mountains, the Sahara Desert shimmering in the distance – and I was hooked.
My new question to myself became: can I do a little more? For my next mountain, I chose Aconcagua – the highest mountain in the Americas. The leader of the trip was a former Gurkha turned mountain guide called Nims Dai.
I approached my first big expedition with great apprehension. Only a third of those who attempt to climb Aconcagua reach the summit. And it lived up to its fearsome reputation. I remember huddled in a hut nearly 7,000m above sea level with my eyelashes – the only part of my face that was exposed – completely covered in frost, shivering, thinking I had to turn around. But we kept pushing – putting one foot in front of the other. Despite some of the toughest conditions imaginable (-40 C temperatures, 90 km/h winds, driving snow), we pushed all the way to the top.
I thought reaching the summit in these conditions would end my mountaineering journey. But then again, life had other plans. Nims impressed me with his ambition: he wanted to be the fastest man to climb all 14 mountains in the world over 8,000m. One of them was Manaslu, the first big mountain I ever saw. Would I come with him to climb it, he asked me?
I couldn’t say no. It felt like an opportunity to witness something truly amazing. His feat was going to be recorded in the Netflix documentary 14 Peaks, and I was right there on the mountain, watching history be made.
On September 25, 2019, I achieved my own ambition by becoming the youngest Canadian woman to stand at the top of Manaslu. Still, it was more than just a climb for me. This is where I finally found inspiration for my writing. I realized what a base camp was a perfect place for a thriller: isolated, miles from authority, riddled with dangers from the natural environment, and with a cast of ready-made characters with stories fascinating.
Thus, on an icy glacier in the Himalayas, Breathless was born. I even sat in the death zone to write a few words.
When I look back I think of those first steps I took on the Kerry Way and how I came back from Ireland a changed person. I still didn’t have all the answers, but the walk made it clear to me what kind of person I wanted to be, what kind of life I wanted to live from this moment on.
Perhaps it is no longer such a clearly marked life. But I was going to have an amazing time leading the way.
Breathless by Amy McCulloch is published by Michael Joseph