What Nikki Chiaven has accomplished in a few short years has been nothing short of extraordinary.
Starting back in 2016, she developed a deep affinity for hiking, so much so that she has braved all kinds of weather and circumstances, across several different countries, to hike (and even climb) her way up to places like Copper Mountain, Half Dome, Mont Blanc, and Island Peak.
Her adventurous nature kicked into full gear after Chiaven decided to join a gym in 2015. She had been working as a dentist for over a decade, and the many hours spent hunching over people had taken a toll on her body.
“My back was always hurting,” said Chiaven. “And I wanted to build core muscles to help support my back, so I joined the gym.”
Little did she know that the simple act of joining a gym would open the door to a wide realm of possibilities…
As Chiaven began to strengthen her body, her backaches started to dissipate.
“And since I’ve started to hike and train, I don’t have any back problems,” said Chiaven, a Milpitas resident for the past 10 years.
In 2016, one of Chiaven’s friends suggested that she and another friend join her for a 68-mile hike in Sweden, through Abisko National Park, to an elevation of 11,000 feet.
Although she had never really hiked before, Chiaven agreed, and spent 6 months preparing for the journey by hiking at Mission Peak in Fremont.
In August of 2016, Chiaven and her two friends embarked on their journey to Sweden for the Fjällräven Classic hike. The hike was to go for 6 days. Aside from checkpoints along the way, all hikers were on their own. No guide would be present on the trip.
As soon as the trio of hikers set out, they were confronted by a series of setbacks. The high elevation led to them experiencing headaches on the first day.
“It was very hard. We were not prepared,” said Chiaven. “The weather was bad. We walked in rain and snow flurries…in negative 3 temperature.”
At the end of the first day, Chiaven’s friend, the avid hiker who had initially invited them on the trip, decided to quit. She had a bad feeling that she would die on the hike, and refused to go any further. A helicopter came out on the second day to bring her back down.
But Chiaven and her other friend continued. On the second day of the hike, a brutal storm occurred, and Chiaven was struck with hypothermia. They had to stop at a volunteer shelter so that she could recover.
The next day, after resting up, Chiaven was ready to continue on. They took the third day a little easier. But on the final day, they pushed themselves, walking 27 kilometers (just over 16 miles) nonstop. Both friends completed their journey, only 4 hours behind their intended schedule, having lost time after helping their friend to organize her departure, as well as stopping to rest in light of Chiaven’s hypothermia. They missed the welcome party at the end, but still got awarded a medal.
Although that initial hiking experience proved to be challenging, a passion that Chiaven had never known she had was awakened. Soon she began planning other hiking expeditions.
In June of 2017, she ventured across a couple of mountain ranges at Copper Mountain in Colorado, which stands at an elevation of 14,000 feet. It was a 4-day hike, encompassing 45 miles. “This one was easier to do but the challenge was in walking up the hill in the snow…that was tricky…” said Chiaven.
A month and a half later, she hiked to Half Dome in Yosemite.
Then, in June of 2018, she hiked to Mont Blanc in France over 12 days. But this time, she decided to book a special trip through a travel company. “This was more like ‘luxury hiking.’ We hiked and stayed in hotels in the evening,” said Chiaven. “We had good food to eat, and had 2 guides for a group of 9.”
Earlier this Spring, Chiaven amped things up a notch.
She flew out to Nepal to hike up to Everest Base Camp, then continued on to Island Peak, which stands at an elevation of almost 21,000 feet. The total hike took 16 days. And it was one of the most challenging experiences of Chiaven’s life.
“You can feel the altitude change. The air is so thin, as you get higher,” said Chiaven. “You’re gasping for air and get exhausted within 10 minutes of walking. Every 4 steps you have to stop and take a breath.”
Chiaven was one of three hikers on the journey; they had 2 guides leading them through.
“When I signed up for Island Peak, I didn’t know what I was signing up for,” Chiaven admitted. “I was thinking we were hiking around it, I didn’t know we were actually summiting it…”
Although Chiaven felt as if she hadn’t sufficiently prepared to summit Island Peak, she approached it with an open mind — and a ton of willpower.
The day before the journey, at Island Peak Base Camp, she and the other hikers were taught some basics, complete with how to use the rope and ascender to climb the mountain. That was about all the preparation Chiaven had.
But the limitations did nothing to deter her.
Summoning all of her determination, Chiaven braved the peak. She was tied to a rope, along with several others. As they climbed, Chiaven recalled how exhausted she was. Her breathing was labored. Her legs were cramping. Her entire body was cold and full of pain. At one point, she felt as if she had gone numb, and could no longer feel the cold and pain…though she knew it was still there…
At times, she had the thought of forgetting it all, of going back down. But with another guy below her, also tied to the rope, she knew that wasn’t a possibility. So she kept pushing herself.
“Climbing up, I almost felt like I was going to die,” said Chiaven.
She reached in deep, kept moving.
One of the guides kept saying, over and over: “Push the jumar, pull yourself up…push the jumar, pull yourself up…”
As if it was the easiest thing in the world. And so Chiaven kept repeating the motions, using the jumar, a tool to help with ascending the rope, over and over…
Push the jumar, pull yourself up…push the jumar, pull yourself up…
Until they finally reached the top.
When Chiaven made it up, she laid down and looked up at the sky. Relief consumed her.
It soon begun to snow. The group decided to head back down, after spending only 10 minutes at the top.
For a few days after that tough climb, Chiaven kept asking herself: What’s wrong with me?
She couldn’t comprehend just how and why she’d even attempt such a climb, let alone push herself to finish it.
But after that initial shock wore off, she sat back and realized what a tremendous feat she had accomplished.
Next year, Chiaven has plans to climb Mount Kilimanjaro in Africa, and also Annapurna in Nepal.
For these last several years, she has worked with a Personal Trainer at the India Community Center in Milpitas. During her times of training for hikes, she’ll go through a rigorous schedule of training for 4 days a week, which consists of working on endurance, strength training, weightlifting, running, spinning, and cycling. On top of that, she’ll do two days of hiking on the weekends.
Chiaven’s husband has been incredibly supportive of all her adventures. And her two kids, ages 9 and 7, are also proud of their mom and all she has achieved.
Hiking has brought Chiaven a profound new view on life. She realized that in order to live, one truly doesn’t need much; just the simple things, like food to eat, a roof over your head, and a bed in which to sleep. That realization changed everything for Chiaven. She stopped looking at things outside of herself to find fulfillment. With every hike, she’s gained more and more confidence. Nowadays, she isn’t caught up in playing the game of pleasing anybody, or worrying about what anyone thinks of her. She’s more focused on the bigger picture of life, the deeper meaning shimmering below the surface.
And in the meantime, she has a strong message to share: “There’s nothing in this world that you cannot achieve,” said Chiaven. “If you set your mind to it, you’ll get it.”