Finally a room with a bathroom that’s not down the hall, not a hole in the ground, and comes with actual hot water since Kalopani some 30 miles ago, and in no time at all it resembles the soles of our shoes.
I stand under the faucet fully clothed, lathering away layers of dust, mud and sweat blended by rain into tattoos on my skin. It’s another good day along the ancient Nepalese trade route from Pokhara to Mustang in the Annapurna Sanctuary.
Hanging laundry on the tea house roof with a Buddhist temple behind me, my colleagues are on the terrace below sharing afternoon tea while watching flocks of horned sheep bleating their way down main street.
We arrived here, above tree line, by way of five days trekking through rice terraced farmland, dense forests of rododendron, acacia, chestnut and blue pines. Above the forest came the wide slate-gray river valley, devoid of any color tones but Earth.
Walls, paths, steps and roofs of impeccable masonry strategically bordered manageable springs below neck-craning waterfalls in the Modi Khola Valley. People descended of the Magar and Gurung tribes populate this valley. They look up from their looms or wheat harvesting to watch us pass on our caterpillar-speed climb to reach respectable elevation through towns named Ghandruk, Tadapani, Ghorepani Tatopani, Ghasa, Marpha and Kagbeni.
High above us are the clouds. And above those clouds are the Dhaulagiri Mountain range, the Annapurna peaks I-IV, the giants of the Lamjung Himal, Hiunchuli, the Churen Himal range, Gangapurna, Mt. Nilgiri, Tukuche and Thorung peaks.
We came to Nepal to walk among these giants. For months our gang of veteran hikers trained with long day hikes and backpacking trips to the Sierras and Mt. Rainier. We packed and re-packed for the three week Annapurna Circle Trek with Ang Phuri Sherpa and his Sherpa Journeys operation that would have us topping Thorong-La Pass at 17,765 feet, a mere footstool to these majestic masterpieces of tectonic dancing between the Indian and Asian plates.
No panoramic stills or documentary films can prepare the uninitiated for that first in-the-flesh sight of an Annapurna Range peak accepting the blush of dawn.
Say it with me: Machhapupuchhare. Affectionately known as Fish Tail, she steals the show from sister peaks Annapurna I and IV throughout our first few days while we struggle up slate steps in sunshine then rain, dodging squirming puddles of worms among roots in the rainforest, while plucking leeches from our ankles. These centuries-old trails are living organisms transformed daily by the rains, the sun, the goats, rock slides and inveterate mountain springs.
giving the kitchen a head start. But in the morning, no one remembers what they ordered. Tony’s meal is easy: toast. Usually. New York John’s is equally predictable: everything no one else is eating, and then what’s left. My vote eventually fell to the Nepalese tsampa (toasted barley) porridge. Fruit was hard to find above 12,500’ elevation, as were any vegetables for vegetable curry or minestrone soup at lunch or dinner. Tea and coffee were the same color (pale caramel) once our supply of Starbuck’s Vias ran out. Note to self: never run out. We learned that anything can be saved with yak milk and honey.
But here, at 13,000’ in Muktinath, most of us were losing our appetites: to altitude, and to anxiety over the next day’s goal: rising at 2 a.m. and hiking to Thorong-La Pass, the midway point in our 145-mile journey. It would also be the high point at 17,765’.
It takes us only a few hours to gather our stuff and hike three miles to West Base Camp where the crew has set up classy, tall tents for us rather than have us squeeze into inadequate rooms in the tiny tea house. Some of us buzz up the trail a half mile to test our legs and lungs in the thinning air after another carb-heavy lunch, and return in time to beat the afternoon rain.
We watch hikers coming down from the pass. They looked haggard, sunburned, stumbling tired. They tell us we’re insane to hike up the slope they just walked down. A sign on the restaurant tells us this is the world’s steepest ascent/descent at elevation.
Our crew is quiet, humming over hot tea, soup and rice by candlelight as the rain fades to fine mist. It is warm and dry in the tents until a ripple of sound shatters my deep forever sleep: the heavy wooden door of the tea house closing, the horses’ bridle bells clanging, tent zippers, hushed voices. By candlelight metal spoons demand more from the bottom of empty porridge bowls. At 3 a.m. the chunk-chunk of leather boots finding purchase in dark muddy ground sets our day in motion. Two members of our crew, determined to make the pass despite several days of illness, braved the narrow trail on horseback.
Grateful for the palette of stars above rather than rain clouds, and only a mildly chilly breeze, we each followed the boots in front of us till daylight somewhere revealed Thorong-La peak.
Pausing after two hours for hot Nescafe capucchino that Pemba and Lapka toted in thermoses, we watched a tidal wave of fog follow us up the valley. We were not going to be able to look over the black hills behind us to the northwest leading into the forbidden Upper Mustang Region of Tibet. But we could feel it. Thousands of refugees now live in this part of Nepal. The harsh contours of the land, the Buddhist faith and the risks people take to support the exiled Dalai Lama, paint a dramatic picture few outsiders can understand. One can’t help but think of the vagueries of borders in regions like this, or Afghanistan, Pakistan, India, Kenya, or other vast spaces where political nations draw lines in sand they never see. We turned and cast our souls to the east where Thorong-La was once again concealed by clouds and the breeze was delivering a light snow in our faces.
Daylight began to reflect off the frozen ground. Trekkers were starting to appear heading down. We paused to imagine what would upset the massive glaciers precariously packed into rock overhangs on Thorong-La miles wide, miles away. After five hours and forty minutes, two false summits and another round of Nescafe, we fell into the arms of our two horse-back companions at the pass, snow lingering on windy tears as we gathered for group photos among the hundreds of prayer flags strung between monuments.
There were moments here for each of us; our own private summit reverie. Ashes to be strewn, physical goals attained, spiritual moments cherished. In the gathering storm, we collected our ragged selves and left with a glorified moment that was worthy of the hard work, and also representative of the laughter along the journey.
Things were different on the other side. East Base Camp was cold and barren. Jane didn’t track cow dung into our shower. There was no shower. We quarantined her by herself with packets of vitamin C for the night. Maybe she was the only one who slept through the noisy night of trekkers and horses coming and going.
We trotted through a drizzling rain next morning down the narrow path carved across a hillside of the loose slate we affectionately call “despicable scree.” Not a good place to lose one’s footing. Waterfalls were the only life we saw in the scree for half a day till scrub and tall shadows became patches of trees growing at impossible angles in this steep valley below three peaks were couldn’t yet see: Manaslu, Gangapurna and Annapurna IV.
At the Yak Hotel in Manang we were easily placated over the lack of hot water (solar heating doesn’t work in the rain) with popcorn and Gorkha beer, yak burgers and the best veggie burger I’ve ever had in my life. Marigolds in #10 cans, prayer wheels, thrashing wheat: we were back in civilization.
It is day 13, we are huddled in fleece over breakfast and I am in triage holding my right boot together with pilfered super glue and duct tape. It holds up through the muddy 15-mile day to Timang, where we witnessed the mixed fortune chicken crossing the road in front of a jeep, which careened to the side and spared it, only to have the ignoble destiny of becoming our dinner several hours later.
We are back in the land of butterflies and bamboo. Enormous waterfalls plummet from dark crevasses on the canyon walls and vehicles can access the roads we are now travelling. Melons dangle from tin roofs, and children wearing Angry Birds tee shirts ask for chocolate and pens as we pass. After dropped down 2,200’ of elevation by lunch, Ang diverts us down a goat path, across a narrow suspension bridge then up the other side on steps, steps and more steps through rice fields and a gain of 1,700’ in two miles to the town of Bahundanda. The final insult to aching quads is the 60 steps to our rooms at Splendid View Motel, where the bathrooms are downstairs. The town’s children came to perform Nepalese dances for us just as the lights went out all over town. But of course, with candles, flashlights and a pot for a drum, the performance went on a planned, and we cheered the kids one more time the next morning as we met them on the trail passing by their homes next morning.
My boots survived surgery, enough to be retired with dignity in the town of Bhulbhule. Ang thoughtfully sweetened our sadness on this last night with a cake, decorated in our honor. We served the porters first.
It’s impossible to sleep here, in my corner room above the street. Metal shop doors pulled down, then up. Dogs barking incessantly, tractors driving by, roosters, monks playing music at 5 a.m. The chubby Russian guy from across the hall walks by my balcony window in his underwear. There’s two men playing badminton in the street by 6 a.m.
We were left to our own thoughts on the five-hour bus ride to Kathmandu, past the wide river with glacier-blue waters.
There’s a reason so much of the land in Nepal is designated as sanctuary. To be among these peaks, even at our meager elevations, is humbling. Clearly the inspiration for meditation among the mountains influenced the isolated sites of Buddhist temples built on dramatic cliffs next to nothing but atmosphere. We have only glanced the experience of those living here. Over the course of our journey we gained 30,153 total feet elevation and dropped down 18,182 feet from the pass: higher than Mt. Everest as the raven flies. But I’m happy to leave summiting the giants to mountaineers. For me it is grace enough to walk beside them.