The week began with a cremation. Well, three cremations actually. I was walking with Jennifer and our new group of friends around Swayambhunath complex in Kathmandu- home to the famed Monkey Temple. We were walking counter clockwise around the perimeter of the Buddhist temple trying to find the secret free entrance. Like us our new friends were tired of paying the foreigner price for every experience in the country.
“Bhaktapur cost me 15 euro. Just to set foot in the city.” Andrea from England complains looking around for validation. “You know what locals pay? 100 rupee. Less than a dollar!” She continues to herself out loud.
Ahead of us, our newest compatriot and unofficial guide was squinting into his palm as the Maps.me buffered in his phone.
“I swear it was right here,” Mitch insisted shaking his head confused.
“How long since you’ve been back?” Kelly asked bounding ahead of the group.
“Ah, I mean it’s been ten years, but I studied Tibetan Buddhism here for almost six months.”
“Well doesn’t Buddhism teach that nothing is permanent?” Kelly pointed out.
“Now that you mention it, that’s a really good point,” Mitch admits.
“Wasn’t there an earthquake here recently?” Andrea from England asks.
“In 2015, yes.” I offer. “I think that’s why foreigners are paying such a high entrance price for things in this country.”
“That’s right,” Jennifer says supporting my claim. “Our money is helping rebuild their temples and cities.”
Something around the next turn catches my attention, and I hear the bustle of voices ahead. We jog up to the commotion and are surprised by what we find.
“Look at that cloud of smoke,” I said pointing to sky above us.
Across the street a crowd has gathered and is walking around a small temple complex. Pillars of dove colored smoke curl into the air, and a sulfuric odor pinches my nostrils. The sound of prayers and crackling logs fills the air.
“I’ve never seen a cremation, ” Kelly says in awe as he moved closer for a picture.
“It’s a lot less somber than a western funeral, wouldn’t ya say?” Mitch asks.
Jennifer notices two other gazebo-like stupas also hosting cremations, and points them out. Witnessing this on the eve of a long hiking trip is certainly auspicious.
Destruction precedes rebirth, I think searching for the deeper symbolism.
Shortly after we find ourselves at the main entrance to Monkey Temple. We resolve to enter, regardless of cost- especially if the money is going to pay for earthquake repairs. We each part with 200 rupees and are happier to have entered honestly.
The facility at Swayambhunath is impressive and is swimming with activity. Young Tibetan monks circle the central stupa clockwise, spinning prayer wheels and chanting under their breath.
I jump in the back of the line with them and pray that our departure for Langtang tomorrow goes smoothly. As the sun sets Kelly, Mitch, and Andrea feed monkeys and try to extract free information from tour guides peddling their services.
“Sir, where are you from?” a kindhearted voice asked from behind my shoulder.
“Texas,” I say, forgetting for a moment if Nepal and the United States government share a friendly relationship.
“Ah, George Bush!” he says. “And now Donald Trump,” he continues, lowering his tone as he mentions the latter.
“Yea, no affiliation” I say. “Sorry about that.”
“No problem brother you are good person, I can see,” he says relieving me of my responsibility as American apologist. “Can I give you some information, maybe a tour?”
Ah, the sales pitch. I could sense it coming. “No thank you, I’ve already finished my rounds.” I point to Kelly who is playing with an aggressive monkey and decide to have some fun. “I think I heard him asking for a tour though.”
In Nepali fashion, the man wiggles his head as he takes his leave. Kelly looks over at me with a look of betrayal from across the square, as he is confronted by the salesman I have redirected to him.
“Why would you?” he mouths to me.
I laugh at the thought of Kelly squirming his way out of the tiny man’s sales pitch.
Kathmandu as an economy is an ocean of direct-salesmen. If you want information, be prepared to pay. If you need a taxi, be ready to negotiate. If you need hash, well… you never actually need to ask for hash. It seems everyone in Thamel is selling, and you need only walk outside for a moment before being offered a gram.
Back at our hotel we make final preparations and each of us weigh our bag with Mitch’s digital scale. We all fall short of the 7kg we are aiming for, but I’m satisfied with my 7.9kg (17.38lb) and it will be the lightest pack I have ever hiked with.
After an anxious night sleep we all meet at Trishuli bus stop at dawn. I throw my bag into the suspicious looking bus that will take us along the Himalayan highway for nine hours to Langtang National Park. The ‘deluxe’ bus looks weary and beaten down. A far cry from the chariot we were led to believe it would be by our booking agency. These buses are legendary for traversing the most perilous terrain in Nepal, and despite the appearance the driver reassures me that he’s made the trip every day for the past five years.
That may have been true, but five hours into our journey and awake to find our bus skirting the edge of a 6,000 foot cliff. Outside my window is a casual 10,000 mountain peak, and below at the river, certain death awaits if our driver looses focus for even a second.
Across the chasm a vulture burial is about to reach its pinnacle. A spiraling cone of floating opportunists fly above a large rock, where a small procession of Tibetan’s have laid their elder to rest. The body will be recycled by the vultures, and the spirit will find a new home.
The thought of a recycled body gives me a sense of peace that makes the jarring bus ride from Kathmandu a little more manageable. At least we’ll feed the vultures if one of the loose rocks on the single-wide road decide to crumble under the weight of our over packed steel coffin. Perhaps then, unbound by body, our spirits can travel freely to Lantang Village without bumping across this terrifying terrain.
“Final stop Syabrubesi,” our attendant yells to the back of the bus.
I relax my choking grip on the seat in front of me and make my way out of the bus. I’m not the only one who has glimpsed death, as I look around and see matching wide-eyed expressions from the other members of the trekking party. They stand huddled close together trying to remember how to breathe.
Looking around, we find the first tea house advertising a hot shower and book two rooms for the six of us. The showers are solar-heated, and because our bus took over nine hours to arrive, we have all missed the window of warm water for the day.
We settle in and enjoy a lukewarm dinner of dahl bat, and are are immediately surrounded by tiny flies entering through the screenless door. Each of us has prepared to rough it in the wild for a week, and nothing can break our spirits this early on.
“Everyone eat all of their garlic,” I prescribe the group as I smash and peel cloves for everyone.
“Whats this supposed to do anyway?” Jennifer asks for the group.
“Garlic is supposed to help prevent altitude sickness,” I answer definitively.
Each of us chews the spicy root desert, hoping it will prevent the dreaded symptoms of Acute Mountain Sickness that we all fear might end our adventure early.
We are in the bosom of the Himalayas now, and after the sun sets there is nothing to do but sleep in preparation for a long day of hiking.
At 7am we rise, eat, pack and make grand predictions of our pace for the first day on the trail. The terrain is supposed to almost exclusively follow the glacier fed Lantang Khola. The wide dirt road that leaves town quickly becomes a narrow foot path that archs up and down across the lower valley.
Suspension bridges crisscross the river as the mountains overlap and disappear beyond a rising horizon. In the distance a snow capped peak teases us from behind rows of other mountains towering along our path. Impossibly steep gradients disappear behind us as we leave Syabrubesi for the week.
Overhead the thwap-thwap-thwaping of helicopter blades reminds all of the sobering consequences of AMS. We each complain about the $15,000 rescue price, and talk about all the things we’d do with that money instead.
“I could travel for over a year,” I say.
“Two years if you lived in India,” Kelly says.
“You’ve been to India?” Jenn asks hopefully. “Thats where we’re headed next.”
“No, but I heard its way cheaper than here, and the food is better,” Kelly offers.
Travelers are usually obsessed with budget, and nothing makes for more annoyingly gleeful chatter than the topic of how cheap everything is in whatever country they’ve taken up residence. Usually this conversation happens in the middle of the city in front of locals who live off a yearly wage less than the cost of our plane ticket to their country. My stomach turns every time I hear someone laughing at the cost of their food, or accommodation. Luckily this far out on the trail, there are fewer natives to take offence to the tactless price comparison of our invading adventure group.
In the mountains the veil between thought and form is about as thin as the air, and an opportunity for me to make a point has just crested the hill. As we arrive at the first tea house village, we are greeted by the soft melody of chiming bells. At first the sound seems carried by the wind, and we stop to appreciate the ethereal ambiance. Chimes quickly turn to clangs and are accompanied by the clip-clap of hooves.
A line of donkeys appear from the other side of the hill. Their driver in the back yells and keeps them in order as they pass us. The leading donkeys have hand knitted adornments covering their head that distinguish them from other owners’ lines.
Around each of their necks is a thick leather strap with a heavy bell attached to the end. Together as they walk the driver and the donkeys sound like the percussion section of a young orchestra; hammering out their instruments in an off-tuned performance for the village.
I shake myself out of the musical trance and inform the group, “I heard that porters make around 35,000 Rs. a month.”
“Woah, thats a lot!” Andrea responds.
“That’s barely $300 actually,” I correct, hoping to emphasize the social and economic polarity from our previous conversation.
“Hmm,” Andrea shruggs.
“Oh look we’re here!” Mitch says looking up from the Maps.Me on his phone.
“Lets see if we can get them to give us a free room since we’re a group,” Andrea says parismonisly.
“And a free hot shower!” Petra chimes in.
The small village labeled only ‘Lama Hotel’ on the trail map, is a modest collection of six or seven tea houses nestled along the Lantang Khola. We choose Jungle View Guest House. The sign advertises “delicious and healthy food, handicraft, and solar shower available.”
“I call first shower,” Andrea says and runs up to the stairs to set her bags down.
“I’ll see where we can refill water,” Mitch says.
As we settle into our rooms the air temperature drops and reminds us that the sun sets early in the mountains. Even at 7,800 ft elevation, we are surrounded by peaks that tower over our head and block out the warm afternoon sun. Even though the hike up was strenuous, the weather this far from Kathmandu carries with it a glacier frost that gets blown down the river valley and sends a chill through the camp.
At dinner Jennifer checks her step counter and reports that we’ve walked 32,000 steps today- about eight miles. We decide on another endless serving of Dhal bat for the group. The unlimited refill of dhal lentils, rice, potatoes, and fresh greens is a diet curtailed to trekkers for is complete calorie nutrition. Locals exist almost exclusively on the dish, and early in the trek we are determined to share the most authentic culinary experience.
For dessert we share a large pot of masala tea, and another fresh helping of garlic to boost our immune systems. The pairing sends complaints through the group, but I insist that a healthy body is more important that a happy palette.
Soon cold clouds settle in over the camp, and we rush from the warm fire-stoked heat of the common area, and retreat into -10 degree sleeping bags. I throw an extra blanket over Jennifer and tuck in her legs and toes just how she likes. I make sure to plant a warm kiss on her icy nose, and one one the lips for good measure. I throw on an extra pair of hand knitted handicraft-socks and jump into my own sleeping bag in the second bed.
As I lay in the dark waiting for the reprieve of sleep, I feel my breath quicken and my heart rate accelerate. It must be excitement, I tell myself. But in the back of my head, I am reviewing all the symptoms of AMS and checking off the ones I’m already experiencing.
I’ll be fine, I think again, coaxing my mind to sleep.
During the night my heart works double time to circulate oxygen to my starving muscles. Gravity compounds the issue and floods my heart with an inefficient excess of blood volume- creating an even greater workload to clear out. These physiologic stressors coordinate a brilliant crescendo at exactly midnight when I wake up, gasping for air as if I had just swam the length of a pool underwater. Ten deep breaths later, and I finally catch up.
The morning sun is a godsend at 6am. I sit up before my alarm and take a full deep breath for the first time in eight hours. At breakfast I find the others have also shared sleepless nights.
“I think I’m feeling the effects of the altitude,” Mitch offeres first.
“I had the most vivid dream that I was a mother,” Jennifer shares.
“I was a Yak,” says Kelly.
“You were a Yak?!” Andrea cracks.
“People have reported vivid dreams at altitude,” Mitch says reading from his guide app.
Not to be left out of the daily report I alerted the group to my troubling experience in the middle of the night.
“I couldn’t breathe,” I say direly waiting for the gravity of the news to sink in.
Nods of understanding circled the table, and we finished our breakfast in silence.
“Well maybe we should go down,” Petra reconciles.
“Ha!” Andrea exclaimes
“No way,” protests Jennifer.
“We just started,” I remind her.
I knew that Petra was being helpful but there wasn’t a chance any of us were going to turn around on the first day for the sake of some weird dreams, and a bout of shortness of breath. I wonder for a moment if she’s hiding something, but she’s wearing the same calm look she always does.
“How are you feeling Petra?” I press.
“Me, oh I’m fine.” she says shifting in her seat.
“Let’s just keep an eye on each other,” Mitch prescribes. “And we’d better get going anyway, its gonna be a long day.”
He was right. We have over 3000 feet of elevation and 10 miles of distance to cover before we reach the next major outpost. I’m relieved that we have at least one person who is a seasoned mountaineer in the group. Mitch lives in Seattle back in the U.S. He told me he spent his free time trekking and roaming the mountains of the Pacific North West. His attention to logistics and sincerity when regarding trek precautions imbued in us a sense of trust that helped put the group at ease early on in the trip.
Today his accurate time keeping on the trail proves to be the only thing that keeps us ahead of the impending storm.
After shaking off the morning cobwebs, we fall into a quick rhythm on the trail. Switchbacks are paired evenly with long stretches of slow rising paths and moderate elevation change. Along the way we begin to notice the forest changing around us. Instead of heavy wet foliage, there are more dry rocks. Even the trees were beginning to spread out more than they were at lower elevation.
Around midday we encounter another caravan of donkeys carrying bags of cement mixture up the mountain. It’s incredible to think of how deliberate the process of development must be up here; when roads are inhospitable to heavy construction equipment. Every single element of the infrastructure supporting the adventure tourist vacation must be hauled uphill by a resilient porter, or a weary donkey. We used this moment of introspection to rest our legs and the reflect on our western life of automation and convenience.
Around the corner just as the last donkey tail flickered out of sight, a warning sign on the trail grabs our undivided attention.
“Danger. Frequent Rock Falls. Keep Away From Base of Cliffs.”
Beyond the sign, the landscape emphasizes the message painted on the large trail marker. Instead of a groomed dirt trail, the valley is exposed and barren. On either side of us, we see boulders smashed down into river pebbles. Megalithic breadcrumbs have spilled into the river upstream, redirecting it’s flow and creating violent churning hydraulics.
“Look how pretty the color is,” Petra remarks of the now turquoise river.
“Yea but if you fall in, you’ll freeze in a minute,” Mitch replies stone-faced.
“Lets keep moving, I don’t want to stay in the valley long,” Kelly calls out motioning to a small path ahead.
Most of the overlapping folds leading to Lantang Ri bare the same chiselled profile. Most mountains here tear through cerulean sky with unabashed defiance- bisecting the atmosphere with their razor peaks. But in this valley, evidence of nature’s brute disdain for permanence is clear. The same force that impregnated the topography eons ago, was now tearing it down in broad strokes.
Four years ago, mountain faces were scarred and cracked by an earthquake that shook from Everest to India. On April 25th2015, a 7.8Mw earthquake ripped monuments and mountains alike. In Lantang Valley alone, 250 people were reported missing. Aftershocks continued to tear apart the country for almost a month, with one as late as May 12th, measuring 7.3Mw.
I move hesitantly at first across the basin as my feet sink into the uneven ground. The stratified layers of dirt pull me deeper and I feel as if I were walking through a giant flour-sifting pan.
”One, two, three, four, five, and six,” Jennifer counts out as we clear the perceived danger zone one by one.
For the next two hours, we walk in silence; each of us contemplating our mortality and minute significance in the enveloping landscape. By 1:30 we find ourselves approaching the famed Hotel Tibetan in Ghoda Tabela. The valley is flat and wide, and provides an excellent panoramic view from outside the large tea house. Ghoda Tabela itself stands alone for miles as little more than a name on a map for people to stop at lunch before pushing higher. At an impressive elevation just under 9,900ft we’re amazed to spin around and see the himals continue to tower high above.
For perspective imagine having lunch on the top of Heavenly resort in Lake Tahoe at 10,040ft. Instead of looking out at the horizon or down to the cold blue waters separating California and Nevada, picture the Sierra Nevada mountain range towering an additional 6,000ft to block your view. This is lunch in Ghoda Tabela.
Unfortunately for us we are the last group to reach Hotel Tibetan, and we must scramble to find an empty table inside away from the howling winds. After an hour and a half wait, my thin optimistic veneer is dissolving with the last bite of porridge I had for breakfast.
“We’re not going to make Langtang tonight,” I mutter, spinning the spoon in my empty tea cup.
“We’ll be fine, ” Petra encourages. “Besides we can stay at any of the other places before we get there.”
“Dude Chia please!” I order loudly to a shadow in the kitchen.
Jennifer places a warm hand on mine that thaws my chilling heart. After six years she knows that my hangry outbursts aren’t uncommon, but are best curtailed early.
“Petra’s right,” Mitch confirms without looking up from his pocket map. “We’re not going to make Langtang tonight.”
“The weather looks like its getting worse out there too,” Kelly reports from the window.
I know that everyone is correct, but the only thing that will console me is a dhal bat set with another hot cup of milk tea. Luckily before my sugar metabolism turns my mouth into a megaphone, our food is served.
The ingredients for a happy life should include good food, plenty of mountain air, and a small helping of meaningful conversation. None are in short supply, and even though we are two hours behind our target, the group is happy and talkative as we stretch our legs on the last push to Lantang village.
“I can’t believe you don’t know your Hogwarts house,” Andrea chides playfully poking Mitch in the side with her trekking pole.
“I think it’s bullshit,” Mitch counters. “How is a survey about your favorite owl or toad supposed to tell you what personality you are?”
“It’s surprisingly accurate you know,” Andrea replies. “I think you’re a Slytherin.”
“I don’t even know what that means,” Mitch rebukes.
“It means you’re crafty, and you look out for yourself first,” Jennifer offers. “Now Myers Briggs-”
“Also bullshit!” Mitch laughs quickly.
“-I think you’re an INTJ,” Jennifer finishes. “A planner and a strategist.”
I try to stay out of the debate because I have my own reservations about profiling a personality based on a forced-choice questionnaire. But the conversation is heating up and I am after all, a qualified armchair-psychologist.
“You are the one checking the map every 20 minutes,” I say supporting Jennifer’s theory.
“How would you classify yourself then?”
“I don’t know,” he shrugs. “Just, organized.”
With that we fall quiet and let Mitch’s answer hang on the thin air that carried it.
Ahead Kelly peers down into the valley and looks from a distance, like a late 50’s mountaineer. I grab my camera and switch to my fixed 85mm lens. The whir of the automatic shutter pulls Kelly out of his thought-space, but a smile replaces the tense stare he wore moments before.
“Do we have time for a photoshoot?!” he asks hopefully.
Following Kelly’s gaze to the clouds moving in from below, Mitch turns back to the group, skeptical that his advice on encroaching weather will have any power to stop the impending photo-fest.
“Someone get up on that rock over there!” I say, directing a now eager line of budding adventure models to the side of a precarious cliff.
“I’m next,” Andrea calls throwing her poles down and pushing her way to the front of the line.
Twenty minutes and 100 photos later and we are laughing, and betting on who’s picture will make Instagram’s explore tab.
Just as we finish our photo shoot, the sun gets blocked by a thick blanket of clouds. Immediately the clouds begin to drop in unison like an avalanche of gas and water, and tumble end over end upward through the valley. Never in my life have I ever witnessed something so sublime. The sheer hydrostatic pressure of that much synchronized water volume was diffusing a wall of wet air up the gorge toward us at an astonishing speed. We didn’t know it, but we were been standing on the edge of an atmospheric thermocline at the precise moment when the temperature shifted.
“I know a storm when I see one, and that doesn’t look good.” Kelly says from the rock outcropping.
“Lets get out of here before that thing gets us,” Andrea said flipping up the hood on her jacket.
The group turns up hill, but I decide to stay with my camera for one more image. With my camera I try to preserve the silent proof that when left untouched, nature always finds balance.
Within thirty minutes we are blown from behind by an icy wind, and soon after are engulfed entirely by an amoebic wall of white gas. Just ahead we spot what looks like the edge of Langtang village. A few tea houses are strewn across the landscape and we quicken our pace.
Generally it’s difficult to decide which tea house to choose from. Not because they are all created equal, in fact they are not. It’s difficult because each smiling Tibetan face that greets us at the trail, beckoning us inside, is so genuine and kind. Saying “No thank you,” to anyone out here feels like the betrayal of a great friend. Despite the warm welcome, we press upward to a tea house overlooking the small village.
“Is this Lantang?” Jennifer gasps, out of breath.
“This Langtang View Hostel,” a short, sun kissed man replies with a wide smile. His brilliant white teeth illuminate the cobblestone courtyard we are standing in. A full set of teeth is rare this high in the mountains, and his youthful energy is beaming with anticipation as he talks. “Lantang is up there,” he says waving his arm still farther up the trail. “I don’t think you make it tonight, best stay here.”
I look around at the faces of our troupe. The girls have pink noses and cheeks and are already peering through the windows of the common area with curiosity.
“There is a fire, isn’t there?” I ask, with an ounce of presupposition.
“Yes, yes hot fire! Please come in.”
The sting of missing Lantang Village by a margin of about forty five minutes dissolves after we settle in around a well stoked iron stove in the center of the dining area. Bags are thrown down in the corner, and wool knit socks replace soggy boots as playing cards are dealt out across the room. We are the only guests in this brand new tea house, and we quickly transform from a band of burly mountaineers to a group of cozy sleepover friends.
Our host is alone tonight because his wife is still a day away; off on a grocery run back in Syabrubesi. Usually we’d order a round of Dahl Baht, but tonight we break down and enjoy the breadth of our hosts’ menu. We fire off a complicated dinner order and I hope silently he can manage on his own. Remarkably a barrage of plates comes flying out of the kitchen much faster than we expect, and to our surprise they are all warm.
Over dinner we share highlights of the day and laugh at old jokes we’ve recycled all our lives. A few of us lick our wounds from blisters that are already forming, but other than a few nicks and bruises our group looks strong.
Night falls and in this small encampment in the middle of the Himalayas we add to centuries of stories that the mountains have recorded before our time.
“It’s snowing!” Petra cries out.
Just outside the panoramic glass-wrapped common room we see the first sleeting globs of snow begin to fall. And within seconds when the air cools even further, sleet turns to soft flaky snow.
“We’ll have a hell of a time tomorrow if we can’t find the trail,” Mitch grunts.
“Aw, relax,” I say from the brim of my steaming tea, “let the girls have their fun. Besides the rest of the trail is a straight line. We’ll be fine.”
“Oooh, lets have a meditation with yoga here in the morning. It’ll be so cozy with a fire and the snow outside.” Jennifer’s excitement is overflowing, and being scooped up by everyone in the room. A guided stretch would do wonders for our body, and we all agree to let Jennifer lead the morning yoga class.
Altitude continues wearing away at my body through the night. We are much higher than yesterday, and I am awoken at midnight by the sound of my own breath gasping for air. Tonight my lips are cracked and my throat and tonsils are bone dry. Due in part to the extra caffeine in my tea, no doubt. I quickly lurch to a high seated position- mimicking one of the tripod positions I remember from a CHF flashcard in school- and breath slowly through pursed lips.
I check myself for pulmonary edema by forcing a cough and listening carefully in the silent night. Nothing. Satisfied by my crude review-of-systems, and relieved that I’ve caught my breath, I slowly lie back down. This time I pull the sleeping bag up over my face in attempt to humidify the air around me. Luckily this beings to work immediately. I don’t want to descend at this hour but the clinic, who’s office holds the only stethoscope on the mountain is an hour hike downhill. Somehow the freezing snow and night sky make the thought of wheezing myself to sleep seem like the best alternative. Puckered between less than ideal options, I try to trick my analytical brain into falling asleep instead of constructing more what-if scenarios.
Dawn comes in a blink, and aside from my second midnight attack of the trip, I feel wonderful. Peering out the window reveals a completely changed landscape from the hawkish world we arrived in the night before.
A full night of snow has covered the ground with a crisp white dust. Yesterday’s barren rock faces are now iced peaks. Icicles hang from the aluminum roof above my drafty window. As I soak in the new world, I hear a familiar clang out in the pasture behind the hostel. Trying my best not to wake Jennifer beside me, I unpack my down jacket grab my camera rush out the front door.
I knew If I was going to capture an image of a snow covered donkey train, I’d need perfect timing. These beasts-of-burden aren’t fast, but they also don’t stop often. Especially for tourist photographers with altitude sickness.
Trudging my way up through the pasture, I hear bells clang again. I follow the sound around snow covered hedges but stop short, frozen in my shoes. In front of me are two beautiful Himalayan yaks.
The one closest to me is standing motionless and eyes me steadily as I approach. As he rocks his body letting me know I’m in his territory, he frees his thick coat from the weight of a full nights snowfall. The second yak sits quietly in the powdery frost disinterested in my musings.
Their size and strength are impressive but it’s their gentleness that invites me into their morning world. I move closer and sit with them for an hour as the sun rises and they chew steadily on the grass buds under the snow.
Moments before my knees freeze over, I see the smokestack warming up through the roof of our tea house. I give my new yak brothers a thankful goodbye, blessing them and thanking them for tolerating me.
“You’ll never guess what I saw outsi-” I said barging through the inner door of our hut.
“Shhhhh, ” hissed a circle of closed eyed yogis sitting before me.
“Oh right- mediation.” I whisper.
Sitting down crossed-legged I close my eyes with the group and visualize yaks guiding me along my spiritual journey into the mountains. Wheels of yak cheese spin and melt into a warm sun that makes snow rush down into the Lantang Kohla. Snow melt tumbles freely over a waterfall that pours into the valley and feeds wild monkeys with nutrients that they use to strangle pine trees on the mountain side. I peek one of my eyes open to make sure I was in fact, still in the room.
A side effect of excitement that I identified during Vipassana months ago, was a hyperactive visual imagination. Rising, falling, sitting, I remind myself silently as each new breath calms me down.
After meditation Jennifer prepares our sore muscles for a day of hiking by leading a yoga session in the middle of the dining room. Our host, unaware of our take-over, accidentally walks in to take breakfast orders just as we were moving into downward dog.
“I think we can end here,” Jennifer said laughing.
Breakfast is quick for a group of six indecisive hikers, but the gravity of the group is taking longer than I like, and I start my hike without them. I don’t want to delay my departure, so I leave alone to take on the day with nothing but my thoughts and the sound of crunching snow under my feet. Jenn gives me a farewell glance through the window as I leave. Her momentum is with the comfort of the group; a feeling I might share on a different day.
The trail is easy to find as I predicted. I follow the village ‘sidewalk’ up the hill, and once the small homes feather out behind me, the trail unfolds under my feet. Yesterday’s vibrant sky and deep valley are replaced by an exoskeletal moonscape. Pale grey light filters through dense clouds, and a morose feeling of isolation takes me by surprise. I don’t feel watched, I just feel so solitary and alone that I could finally see myself.
Bad weather has that affect on me. A brutal storm can consume all of my senses and my energy moves inward to fortify itself. In the same way, today’s silence is deafening. My ears ring like microphone feedback- a testament to the low frequency echoing from my thoughts to the mountains and back. I click photos, trying futilely to capture feelings.
“Two days of walking, and I am finally alone,” I say out loud to myself.
This peace is priceless and I look over my shoulder to make sure the group isn’t catching up. Safe for a moment longer.
Ahead of me on the trail, the sound of footsteps spoils my serenity. I look up to see an otherworldly sight. A porter walks downhill at a half trot, with a table strapped to his head. I can barely believe my eyes. I know the table must way a ton, but he carries it with ease. He skips past me and offers a pleasant morning, “Namaste,” as if nothing were out of the ordinary. For him, nothing is. I however am living in a world of infinite flow.
My introversion demands attention when it flares up, but usually doesn’t last very long. A half day of solo hiking on a straight trail is all the time it takes for me to crave company again.
Ahead is a curious tea house. I wait for the group with a smiling Tibetan woman in a village no bigger than four houses across. I have assured her that when my people arrive they will be hungry. She seems to understand and permits me to roam about her property taking photos of her yaks. The bureaucracy of one group decision is enough to drive an ordinary man insane, and I hope that my choice for lunch will go over well with the others.
I see Kelly first, leading with his 6’2” frame. He makes trekking seem like a Sunday stroll.
“Petra is sick!” he shouts. “Really, sick.”
Inside the dark room of a house that is not run by my Tibetan friend, Petra lays holding her stomach.
“Severe nausea, ” Jennifer reports back to me.
Immediately I fire off a battery of medical history questions to rule out problems, and come up with several differential diagnoses. None of them are pleasing, and I have almost no power to help anyway.
The remaining five of our cohort meet outside and settle on a diagnosis of Acute Mountain Sickness.
Nausea is a terribly feeble way to be cut down, but Petra’s symptoms are strong enough, and we can hear her moan from outside the tea house.
“What do ya’ll want to do?” I ask cautiously. Not wanting to incite an end to our unfinished trek.
“Well she has to stay here,” Mitch says definitively. “She can’t go farther.”
“Of course, but who…” Andrea catches herself before asking what we are all hesitant to address.
“I’ll stay with Petra,” Jennifer says finally breaking the silence. “Let me go talk to her.”
Our reluctance gives way to relief as he goes into the small infirmary to discuss plans with Petra.
While she is gone the group speculates about Petra’s well being. It’s hard to watch a friend fall behind, but in my heart I wonder if anyone is truly prepared to turn around this close to Kyanjin Gompa.
Several minutes later and Jennifer comes bounding out of the back to relieve (at least me) of my guilt.
“Petra is gonna rest here for the night, but she doesn’t want us to stay,” she delivers to thankful ears.
“Does she want helicopter?” A voice from the doorway inquires. The tea house owner has been waiting anxiously for a verdict on whether or not he will be having a guest tonight.
“No she doesn’t need a helicopter to take her down,” I tell him. “She’s not really that bad.”
“So, helicopter?” he asks again, unclear what I said.
“NO helicopter,” Kelly says. “Helicopter no,” he repeats in inverted grammar.
We painstakingly secure a ‘no helicopter’ confirmation, shout our condolences to a moaning Petra, and make our way up the hill to my friendly Tibetans house where she is waiting to meet her daily quota on our lunch order.
“Petra said she’ll sleep off her symptoms and if she feels better, she’d meet us in Kyanjin tomorrow, ” Mitch tells the group as we sit down to lunch.
Fifteen minutes into an orgy of chow mein and ginger tea, we hear the unmistakable sound of helicopter blades tearing apart the air outside. Instinctively I grab my camera and make quick moves to the door.
“We said NO HELICOPTER,” I shout pointlessly at the pilot as he circled the LZ.
Kelly grabs his iPhone, cues up the camera, and joins me enroute.
The pilot sets down in a small field surrounded on all sides by a three foot stone wall. He is 200m from the house that Petra is trying to sleep in. We cut through fields of yak and donkey shit, snapping pictures of the scene as it unfolds in front of us. Moments after the engines shut off we watch as supplies are quickly unloaded from the helicopter. Up the hill, a tall man is helped to his feet and shouldered down the grass to a crew waiting to receive him.
“My back gave out,” he shouts as the props whir down.
Obviously this commotion has nothing to do with our friend Petra, but the timing could not have been more confusing. By now Mitch, Jennifer, and Andrea surround me in front of the helicopter. We wait anxiously until it takes off again, shielding our eyes as the wash kicks up grass, shit, and dust. The steel bird skims expertly over the low stone wall, and drops immediately into the river canyon below us. The action is wild, and the snow-capped scenery lends a perfect backdrop for the climactic moment.
$10,000 to $15,000 is how much the ‘rescue’ companies charges for an air evac from Lantang National Park. Everyone’s been told that most travel insurance companies will foot the bill, but the steep ticket price prevents most trekkers from making the call- even when they need it.
“I heard a story about helicopter pilots committing fraud,” Mitch announces to the room. “They transport people who aren’t even injured, and then bill their insurance companies for up to $35,000.”
He pulls up his phone and passes around the story that he pulls up to corroborate his claim. “Here’s the link”, he says.
“Holy shit,” Jennifer exclaims.
“That’s scandalous,” I say challenging the room.
We finish lunch and push the remaining four hours north east toward Kyanjin Gompa. The group inevitably splits. The girls simply have shorter legs. We check on them from time to time, making sure their colorful outlines speckle the horizon behind us. But eventually we abandon the thought of them keeping pace, and the men walk with steady determination uphill. The beauty of the landscape continues to increase exponentially with every mile. Yaks and their smaller cow cousin the Zomo become ubiquitous to the landscape.
At 17:30 as the sun sets, another thermocline shift dumps pewter clouds into the valley behind us. This time the magical moment is overshadowed a different drama. In our neglect, the girls were making excellent time and were gaining on us. Judging by the slope and series of switchbacks ahead, we guess they were still about twenty minutes behind us. Their tiny frames are hurriedly trying to stay ahead of the cold front that threatens them from below.
“They’re not gonna make it in time,” I say.
“I think they’ve got it,” Mitch bet.
“I don’t know,” Kelly said skeptically.
We decide to wait a kilometer before Kyanjin Gompa. Partly because we dont want them to get stuck out in the snow alone, but mostly to see who’s prediction would come true. My money is on complete snow-storm-obliteration. It would make for a better story, I justified.
Ten minutes later and we are throwing on our down jackets and rooting on the girls from high on our perch. The cold front is blowing snow flurries into our eyes, and the cloud has already passed overhead. The girls are indistinguishable.
By the time the girls climbed up to our stupa, the sky is dark grey and the snow is blowing in sideways. We are cheery upon their arrival, but the girls are hardened by their cold journey.
“Let’s keep moving,” Jennifer orders.
We fall in line and made quick work of the last kilometer. An icy suspension bridge is the last obstacle before the protection and warm accommodation of a Kyanjin fireplace. One by one we slip across the metal bridge and crest the last hill. Stumbling through the windswept village was not what we’d been picturing for the three days of our ascent. Instead of smiling faces and warm embraces like we’d become accustomed to, the doors of all the tea houses are closed and lights were off. Twenty minutes of searching and I’m standing now on the fringe of the village- facing the abyss of more virgin mountain side. Suddenly behind me I hear Andrea’s voice shouting over the wind.
“I found one back here!” She howls. “A hot shower and a fire already going.”
Salvation! We bound up to the dining room on the fourth floor, and quickly execute our post-hike routine of shedding, redressing, and thawing by the fire. Camaraderie is high, but everyone is tired, and we are thankful to call it an early night.
Vivid dreams plague my sleep again. A helicopter piloted by a red panda is chasing a snow leopard through the Himalayas. The leopard is running from an overdue debt. I am the copilot shouting desperately at the the panda that we are running out of fuel.
Midnight arrives on cue, and I am to wake up and catch my breath again. The mountains are having their way with my subconscious, as another night cycles out of my control.
The silence of morning wakes me up. I must have slept through breakfast, I think to myself. I gather my clothes and camera, kiss Jennifer on the forehead and make my way to the roof to assess the town. To my surprise, the morning sun is just starting to glance the highest peaks. I yawn looking down at my watch. 6:15am.
As a photographer I’ve gotten used to chasing the sunrise around the world. Something about morning light feels more ‘earned’ than watching the sunset. Today’s sunrise on the top of our tea house fills me with an incredibly pristine connection with the natural world.
As the sun breaks from under towering cliffs to the east, mountains to the west begin to roar to life. The sun’s heat triggers small avalanches at the peak of Lantang Lirung nearly 24,000ft in the sky. Snow tumbles in a panorama of release as solar-fire forces the bonds of ice to break above me.
At 12,700ft I am still tucked into night’s shadow; a mere witness to the extravagant performance before me. Slowly however, a sharp line descends onto the valley and lights up the Kyanjin village with a brilliance that blinds me. I reach into my jacket for my glasses, and close the aperture on my camera to f22.
Until now, daily doses of fresh garlic, ginger lemon tea, and dhal bat have been keeping the team in fighting shape for our climb to the peak of Kyanjin Ri at 14,435ft. For the sake of perfect immune systems, we have battled pungent garlic breath, tenacious gas, and a few urgent stops at less than reputable outhouses. When the rest of the group meets for breakfast, the truth of our our hidden self deceptions are illuminated with the rising sun.
“I have a splitting headache,” Jennifer complains.
“My toe has grown an extra toe,” cries Andrea waving her exposed blister around the room. Her pinky toe had indeed sprouted what looked like a bubblicious blister bubble on the inside of her fifth metatarsal. “Should I pop it?”
“No! It’ll get everywhere,” I say shielding my porridge from her bulging bubble.
“I feel pretty good,” Mitch confesses.
I nod, not ready to confess to regular midnight terrors. “I feel alright.”
“You guys,” Kelly called ominously from the corner of the bench seat. “I think I have pink eye.”
The room falls silent.
“Lets have a look,” I say skeptically.
Kelly peels open his right eye and rolls it around in his orbit for us to see. The sclera is crimson with telangic veins rising out of the corner of his eye like a topographical map of infection. Kelly’s thin conjunctiva is sticky and inflamed.
I step back, giving myself distance from the infected. “I’m not a doctor bro, but that’s definitely pink eye.”
“What does that mean?!” Kelly asks me as plaque phobia spreads through the room.
“It means don’t get near me, you’re highly contagious.” I tell him dryly.
I recommend that Kelly sit out for the day, isolate himself, and lubricate his eyes as long as he is awake. Unfortunately for him, he had also been fighting a chest cold for the last few days, so a day of rest was an easy prescription for him to follow. Leaving yet another person behind in the tea house to wallow is truly upsetting. I don’t want anyone to miss out on today’s hike, but I remain adamant that Kelly steer clear of human contact. If his cough or pinkeye spread, the whole group would be out, I justify. I felt like a bit of an ass and I came across pretty cold, but the stakes are too high for the few healthy people remaining.
In the excitement of a pinkeye outbreak, I remember to ask how Jennifer is coming along with all of this elevation. We just spent the night at 12,700ft. and she is uncharacteristically quite for a big morning.
“How are you, boo?” I ask tenderly switching gears between her and my last patient.
She pauses, long enough for me to know what she is about to say is serious.
“My chest is really tight,” she relented. “I cant take a full breath without stabbing pain.”
“What, are you sure?” I ask hoping she is joking. “When did this start?”
“Before, when I volunteered to stay with Petra.” Her pursed smile and furrowed brow tell me she is not faking. “My body felt weak even then.”
“Jesus! Anything else?!” I ask her, shocked at all of this new information.
“And… I have like a burning pain on both sides of my back at my shoulders.”
This raises all the flags I have, all at once. Stabbing chest pain, shortness of breath, and symmetrical high back pain. I fear the worst and slowly reach down to check Jenn’s pulse. Regular rhythm, but her rate is 120bmp at a rest. These are not good signs.
“Babe, we have to go down immediately,” I tell her.
“No way! I don’t feel that bad,” she protested.
“Boo, let me put it this way, if you were my patient back in Austin, we would be going straight to the emergency room right now.”
“Well it’s just worse when I take a big breath,” she pleads hoping to change my mind.
She starts to tear up a little bit, but her strength and composure hold. I know the last thing she wanted was to quit on this trip. I don’t want to scare her into thinking she is presenting like an early heart attack, but that’s how she looked– and I knew she was reading my mind. If she were at sea level without AMS disguising her symptoms- that’s exactly what I’d think.
“Love,” I implore. “We need to go down.”
“Well I’m NOT going to!” she shouts in defiance of me and her body. “What else could it be, ” she pleads to me as a tear betrays her granite composure.
“You could have bronchitis, emphysema, or pulmonary edema. You could have fractured a rib…” I rattle off. “You don’t have a cough so most of those things are kind of ruled out for now.” I reassure her and myself. “I don’t have a stethoscope so I can’t listen to your lungs either- which would help tremendously in this situation. ”
I try earnestly to listen to her lungs with my ear pressed between each of her ribs. I don’t hear a wheeze, rattle, or rale, but then I didn’t expect to this early. Between Jennifer’s determined pride, and my own inclinations to explain her symptoms as AMS, we agree to ‘wait and see’ if she gets better by morning.
“So I’m fine,” she concludes buttoning her shirt with a wince.
“No,” I chuckle feeling a bit defeated myself. I know that she’s made up her mind about an immediate descent. But I still need to find a compromise to prevent her symptoms from getting worse. “You’re on bed rest today too.” I order, hoping the prescription sticks. “No activity at all.”
“I can do that,” she agrees with no fight left. “I’m feeling a bit tired anyway,” she confesses to me. “I didn’t sleep very well last night.”
“You don’t say?”
The arrangement between us makes me sick. I know for certain she needs to descend to alleviate symptoms but I can’t make her. The problem was that I always played good cop on the ambulance back in Austin. I needed my work partner, Pete right now more than ever to…strongly persuade her that she had no other option. Ultimately my own selfish desire to climb proved more powerful than my ability to reason. I would climb the mountain outside her window.
Thirty minutes into a 2200ft ascent and I’m focused solely on my next step higher to the peak of Kyanjin Ri. My first 14’er would be an accomplishment that balanced equal parts triumph with reluctance. Mitch and I are ecstatic to make the summit in just over an hour from base. Prayer flags whip up a sputtering chorus as we make the last effort to the top.
At the moment of my greatest achievement I feel like a king. Kyanjin Gompa village was a pale smear of pixels in the center of the valley. The highest peak across to the south of us, Dshabu Ri is almost four miles away. We have a perfect view of its’ gorgeous 17,000ft summit. Behind us and to the northwest Langtang Lirung towers at a monstrous 23,710ft. The valley is almost 8 miles wide and scarcely a cloud stands between us and the most expansive view either of us had ever experienced.
I think of Jennifer. I always do in moments of unlimited beauty. I mentally pull her out of bed for an instant to stand in awe with me. Together at the top of a 14,000ft mountain we are dwarfed in all directions by titans.
There’s a phenomenon that I believe humans experience when they search for and obtain a moment of ecstasy like no other. An epoch in their life occurs. Gravity and the universe time-stamp their life back to zero, so that whatever is experienced will be regarded as the beginning.
In this moment of rebirth and re-calibration, a certain innocence glazes over me. I think maybe from all the way up here, there was an extra world above me that I was just growing into.
I take a few deep breaths and sit down. “The altitude must be having its way with me again,” I think from inside the dizzying sanctuary of my bliss. I welcome the feeling- whatever it is- and look forward to the start of what is to come.
Back at Viewpoint Hotel, the bustling energy from the morning is gone and the tea house feels like a ghostly shell. The common area is empty and only ashen smoke lifts from the iron stove. A knock on the private room doors falls deafly. In the kitchen the eldest owner is making himself an omelet with onions. “Where is everyone,” I ask slowly, looking perplexed and confused. He understood enough English to answer me without even looking up to see my over arching eyebrows. Sometimes my best efforts to wear theater-sized expressions when talking to non-fluent English speakers can backfire.
“Everyone on the roof,” he reported, hoping I’d join them and leave him in peace.
“Oh, dhanyavad,” I thank him in my best Nepali.
“Werchet,” he corrects me in Tibetan.
I follow his gaze to the stairs behind me and opened the door.
The contrast between the warm kitchen and the drafty stairwell is refreshing. I plunge myself into the icy tower and climb the stairs by two. My momentum is jolted upright when I get slapped in the face by what feels like a cold wet rag. Wiping myself out of the tangle, I pick a few bits out of my beard. In my hand are small strings of congealed fat. “Gross,” I protest. Looking up, the obstacle that I charged into wasn’t a dirty rag at all. Hanging from the support frame of the crude staircase are a dozen strips of fresh yak flesh. The taught fibrous muscle from one length pulls under its own weight and swings like a hinge after I recoil away from it. Under my foot, the step nearest the top is slippery with oil. The fat from a whole family of yaks must have dripped here over the years. I slide my boot across the waxy wood trying to clean the surface. “Ugh great,” I said getting more on my shoe than off of it.
Reaching out for the door I lean past the last step evacuating myself onto the roof . I’m happy to find the others smiling and waving me over.
“Hey you made it,” Jennifer calls over. “How was the summit?”
“It was great,” I tell her. “Hey did anyone else just get hit by yak meat?” I ask still bewildered.
“Ha, were you rammed by a yak,” Kelly joked, laughing at his own pun.
“No, it’s just.. didn’t you see the meat hanging in the stairwell?” I ask again.
“Uhm, thats crazy,” Jennifer said. “The only yak is up there,” she said pointing up the mountain to a group of Yak high above us on the mountain.
They must have just hung it up, I think.
“Hey come look at my eye, I think its getting better,” Kelly said changing the subject.
I walk over to inspect Kelly’s eye and notice that the average intensity of red had decreased, but in the corners of the sclera his veins were still protruding. A flash of sanguineous yak meat floods my mind.
“Damn man, what the hell have you been doing?” I demand.
“Well it itches, so I’ve been rubbing them,” he says sheepishly.
“Ok, so stop doing that,” I order.
“And do what?” he asks.
“Put on a hot compresses or something,” I prescribe.
“Hot water is 400 rupees a pot though,” Kelly counters.
“I don’t know man, you need to flush them out with something. Try the creek water.” I offer.
“But that’s got yak shit in it,” he protests again.
“Ugh, shit, you’re right. Maybe we can find eye drops in town,” I conclude.
The saga of Kelly’s symptoms always seem to work through an external process that he has carefully worked out, and found rebuttals for, prior to bringing up his questions. I can’t help but think that he’s already gone through the same conversation arch with everyone else before I got there.
“See, thats what I said, you need eyedrops,” Jennifer chided confirming my suspicions.
“Well, I’m headed up to the peak,” Andrea announced. “I’ll see you all later.”
“You’re going up,” I ask surprised. “Now?”
“Yea, I mean I don’t want to waste any more of the day,” she said heading out of the door with little fanfare.
We watch from the roof as she begins her ascent. Our tea house is well positioned for a spontaneous climb to 14,000ft, and in minutes the rim of Andrea’s knitted Kushi beanie disappears into the landscape.
“Hey guys!” A distinctly German accent called out from the ground. “I made it!”
In unison we walk to the bare edge roof and leaned over. Below us is a cheery smiling face that we weren’t sure we’d get to see again until Kathmandu.
“Petra!” we cried out in chorus.
“You made it!” Jennifer exclaims.
We rush downstairs and embraced Petra one by one in a warm welcome. Kelly held back reluctantly; aware of his contagious pink eye status. Petra had checked into the neighboring tea house by chance, early in the morning while most of us were either hiking or sleeping. We invite her into our accommodation and all sat around the fire exchanging stories of the past 24 hours. Petra tells us that she was feeling nearly 100% better after having a night’s sleep at lower altitude. “The hike up to Kyanjin Gompa was effortless,” she remembered.
Hiking alone has certain advantages. Speed and efficiency are among the most favorable perks to hiking without an indecisive group of chatterboxes. That said, it feels wonderful to have most of us together again to share stories from the trail. Andrea would be delighted when she came down from her hike.
The evening at Viewpoint with all six of us sitting around the fire felt warm and lighthearted. Andrea took out cards and taught us a new game called Cambio. The strategy requires a player to remember all the cards dealt to the table. The longer I incubate in the firey room, the more difficult it is for me to pay attention, and soon the thought of my sleeping bag replaces the memorized cards on the table. I excuse myself early, hoping for a restful night of recovery.
For the first night of the trek, I sleep soundly. I finally achieve enough of a workout to send me into a silent abyss that lasts until 9am the following morning. I stretch and yawn, and see that Jennifer is also laying in bed peacefully next to me. In all the excitement, I forgot to check in with her about her own altitude issues. She heard me stirring and turned over with a smile.
“How are you feeling?” I ask concerned.
“Much better, ” she said “My chest is still a little tight but everything else is gone.”
“I was really worried about you yesterday,” I tell her protectively. “We should have gone down.”
She retreats behind a self-conscious smile. “I know, but I’m almost better, and I would have felt like I failed.”
“Well do you think you’ll hike today?” I press.
“I guess maybe something easy,” Jennifer reveals. “Petra told me about a walk to the lake that doesn’t change elevation.”
I’m reluctant to imagine Jennifer heading anywhere but back down the mountain. But since she reported improving symptoms, and I believe her, there is nothing more I could do.
The group meets for breakfast and are surprised as the eldest female owner was up early performing dedication prayers to Buddha and the Dali Lama. A rhythmic chant of Om Manii Padme Hum reverberated off the walls of the fourth floor dining room as pine smoke and incense billowed out of her swinging metal censer.
I love the smell of fresh incense and consider the fragrance one of the most charming sentiments living in Asia. Today however the atmosphere is outweighed 2:1 in favor of smoke, and the other guests in the dining room are looking on with apprehensive expressions. A few stifled coughs trade timing with our host’s practiced prayers. No one will complain openly, as we are privileged guests and lucky witnesses to this authentic ceremony.
After an auspicious blessing to our day, we gather our gear and leave together. Half a mile from town and the trail splits. To my relief, Jennifer and the others take the low road. During breakfast I pledged to walk with them, but here at this crux I am being called higher. Above me I see the outline of a large winged raptor soaring on pockets of warm air. Peaks on peaks disappear above me, and I remember the serenity of yesterday’s summit view. Solitude is a dangerous addiction.
“I think I’m going up,” I announce and turn left uphill.
I expect a protest, but the group seemed interested in a river feature ahead of them, and I disappear before being noticed.
Icy turquoise waters rush directly from the snow melt of the glaciers that tower over me. I hop from rock to rock across the river. It doesn’t take long before a narrow foot path appears, leading me up to the first viewpoint. Above stretches a long ridge that is decorated at the top by a few strings of prayer flags.
From my perch I can see a few yaks clip-clopping up to the flags. I’m ecstatic to see that I had the whole trail to myself, and set out at once to walk the ridge. As I straddle the crest for the next hour, I get whipped from the west by icy winds that shoot up the snowy side of the mountain. When the wind becomes too fierce, I hop down to the eastern side where the five foot snow embankment protected me from the gales.
An hour and a half of this rhythm and I’m well out of breath. I can’t take more than ten steps without squeezing my lungs for more air. Sitting down for a drink, I can no longer see flat ground below me, and the angled slopes on all sides remind me that progress uphill is possible. A troupe of hikers come down the hill, and encourage me forward. I watch them for twenty minutes as they disappear down the ridge line.
Looking at my provisions, I realize that today’s spontaneity would be my downfall. I only have a half-litre of water remaining and no AquaTabs to purify the bounty of snow around me. Not one to abandon a challenge, I press on to the prayer flag peak despite knowing the steep risk of dehydration.
My ‘gas light’ came on about thirty minutes ago, and my body is moving forward solely on fumes. Reaching the flags, I’m unnerved to discover that the carrot I’ve been so enthusiastically chasing all day is not at my summit waiting for me. In fact, the prayer flag oasis that I finally reach is merely a stop on the way to Tserko Ri- the 5000m peak above me. Distraught and out of breath, I collapse for a long break. Above me I can see the freckled silhouette of climbers descending from the peak.
“They must have gotten a hell of an early start,” I think begrudgingly.
I sit comparing their view to mine for several minutes, before realizing I was still quite a measure higher than I was yesterday. Looking across the valley I can see the back of Kyanjin Ri below me, and surmise that I must be currently sitting around 15,000ft. With no food, and my last drop of water splashing around my bottle, I decide to enjoy the moment for what it is.
With remarkable speed the thin mountain-veil of thought-to-matter lifts up, and as I’m having my satisfactory revelation, a large shadow blocks the sun above me. Soaring with ease just beyond my reach is a young Himalayan griffon! Even as a juvenile, the bird is the largest living thing I’ve ever seen flying in the wild.
We share a curiosity for each other that lasts for several slow minutes. I position my manual 85mm lens, roll the smooth focus ring between my fingers, and track the vulture as it circles around. After a few revolutions and I stumble back to a sitting position. Up here a trip could send me sliding straight down the slope. I laugh aloud at my clumsiness and my lips crack and bleed from my delinquent water intake. It’s time to leave.
With a silent thank you to my airborne friend, I make quick work of the long descent back to Kyanjin Village. The hike down is much less strenuous but I have already burned through caloric reserves wastefully on the way up. Without water my body fights to find free fuel to cushion the shock of my thunderous strides. By the time the village appears on the horizon in front of me, my head is splitting. Hands and poles hanging loosely at my sides, the final mile isn’t the salute of strength I was hoping it would be.
Back in town waves and cheers greet me from the rooftop of Viewpoint Hotel. Did they know of my trials? How could they? My group sat near the edge engaged in what looked like guided yoga. Their enthusiasm was just good-natured fun but I wouldn’t be able to match their energy upon our reunion. I shuffle upstairs exasperated and dizzy, and find Jennifer walking down past the hanging yak meat.
“Can I please… have some of your water?” I choke at her.
She hands me her canteen and I gulp greedily from the bottle.
“Woah, you ok?” she asks.
“I need to make some more water,” I reply handing her back the bottle.
AquaTabs recommend waiting thirty minutes before drinking from a litre treated with one of their tablets. Usually if I’m on a trail I can time an overlapping cycle between two bottles and never have to wait for my water to chlorinate.
Today on the way down I was preparing myself for this moment. I fill up my bottles, deposit the tabs and stare helplessly at my watch. A neck gaiter serves as a humidifies over my mouth. The same trick that helped soothe my throat in the middle of the night was going to keep me alive until the chlorine could kill the bacteria in the bottle. Certainly I think, there could be nothing dangerous in the pristine glacier waters pouring freely from the taps here. I was probably right, but risking pain and debilitating diarrhea for ignoring a thirty-minute window seemed an expensive gamble. Only at the panoramic summit of Kyanjin Ri has time ever moved so slowly.
The group was surrounding the fire upstairs when I joined them. “Hey, you’re alive,” Mitch joked.
If they knew.
We exchange stories and compete in ‘who got the best picture of a yak’ by swapping devices. Kelly won the yak trophy, but I win the day with my griffon picture after inventing my own photo category to suit the shot.
Conversation on the last night is heartfelt and sincere, and everyone lingers in the sentiment of a wonderful trip. We would begin our long descent back to Syabrubesi tomorrow, and no one wanted to say goodnight.
“I guess I’ll do it,” I say reluctantly. “Goodnight everyone, see you all in the morning.”
“I’m coming, love,” Jennifer called after me. “I didn’t want to be the first.”
A small cascade of bedtime wishes flush the room free of those who were too stuck in the warmth of their chairs. By 10pm the climax of our trek in Langtang National Park is over.
The alarm surprises us both and Jennifer and I slap for her phone wildly at 7am. We can hear shuffling through the plywood walls that tell us that our friends in the group room are already awake. Mitch, having a renewed purpose of trail manager and time keeper, was already making predictions on our downhill pace.
“We should be able to make it all the way to Lama Hotel,” he says through a muffled wall.
I looked over at Jenn who has the covers pulled up to her nose. The creases of her smile arched over the lining of her sleeping bag. I’m smitten. She could look angelic wrapped in a bag of rice.
“I guess we better get moving,” I offer against my will, hoping she’d pull me into her warm cocoon for a long morning snooze.
“Bleh!” she shouts, jarring her blankets and lurching up. “Lets go then.”
Usually Jenn loves days where covers and clouds keep daytime ambitions in bed. But today she bounds out of bed with a tenacity that surprises me. “I feel great!” she exclaimes beginning to pack her bag.
“Are you ok?!” I ask surprised
“Yea, I think I’m better,” she reported. “I slept all night and there’s no tightness in my chest.”
“Well damn, that’s really good news.”
Mitch’s original projection of Lama Hotel was a bit ambitious. I knew this from the moment I heard his murmuring prediction through my wall. What he, and it seemed no one ever took into account was how long it took a group of six to settle a bill.
For the last three days, we were all writing our food orders into a little balance book provided by the nice Tibetan woman who owned the building. I had the foresight to star everything I ordered as I went along with a little asterisk – so I could tally things up easily on the final day.
After breakfast, while everyone was either waiting for a shower, or looking for their misplaced beanie, I counted out exact change to cover my bill. Lodging was free thanks to the size of our group, so I only needed to pay for meals.
Things got expensive this far from the civilized world. There were no shipping routes to permit volume trading here in the mountains. Every food item was either grown outside, or hauled up on the back of an overworked donkey. For three days of high mountain living, I pay out 4900 rupee. Just under $45USD. I throw in an extra note as a tip for the incredible service and I’m ready to go.
I realized later that I did myself a disservice being ready so fast. Five other people came tumbling through the door in a frantic whirlwind, trying to decipher what they ordered from the scribbled mess in the balance book. Generally my patience doesn’t flare up in situations like this, but something in the way people were complaining about the cost of a pot of tea, or the price for a hot water bottle rubbed me the wrong way. So I gathered my things, tipped my hostess, and waited outside. I didn’t want to leave anyway, and I wasn’t going to be disturbed by a few short remarks.
When we began this trek we all knew that it wasn’t going to be a circuit. Meaning we’d be going down the same way we came up. Everyone reassured us that the view would be different. “After all, you’ll be facing the opposite way,” they said. Luckily they were right, and the descent didn’t feel repetitive. Sometimes when we passed a memorable landmark, we would relive the memory of escaping a storm. Other times as we walked through the forest, new wildlife would greet us on the trail. So the descent was unique in its own way, and we enjoyed it, mostly in silence as our thoughts lingered in Kyanjin Gompa.
On the way down I notice many more small details that I missed going up. I wasn’t fighting for air, or trudging uphill with my head down. I saw flowers beginning their spring bloom. Lichen were growing in new places that just five or six days before were bare logs.
Even rhododendrons were blossoming as we descended through the treeline again. I was worried that the walk back would be a sad and monotonous mission, but I was surprised to find the exact opposite. Days ago I was happy to walk ahead of the group, but now I lagged far behind, collecting all the wonders of the mountain for my mental scrapbook.
These transformations weren’t just missed on the way up. They were unique to the warming climate of a new spring. During our ascent, the mountains were still shuddering tight. Now the flora was opening up to us as we descended, as new as the spring itself.
The beauty of these observations came after a hard earned climb through this landscape a week before. Myself and others battled altitude sickness, diarrhea, and other trying ailments that tested our resolve. Despite our large group, I was able to isolate when needed and recharge my wild spirit. The thought of a gas heated shower and warm bed excited me though, and I wasn’t going to pretend that I could have stayed too much longer where I was.
After all, the journey is the goal- not the destination.
We didn’t make it to Lama Hotel like Mitch was hoping, but the alternative was even more appropriate. A small creekside tea house called Riverside Hotel sprung out in front of us on the trail just as the sun was setting. A young Tibetan family greeted us and made an easy case against us descending farther.
“Lama Hotel is too far. The sun will set soon,” says our would-be host.
Mitch checks the Maps.Me in his pocket, and nodded in confirmation. “He’s right, we cant make it.”
“Perfect! Lets stay here,” I say enthusiastically.
The smoke billowing from the kitchen chimney and the sight of the winding river reminded me of an idyllic Ozark camp out. I don’t want to risk hiking at night, or landing at a busier village. We were after all, the only people at this stop on the trail.
In the morning as we continued our hike, the mountain continued its drastic transformation around us. This time the trail surprised us with a guest. Laying down on all fours in the middle of the empty road was a frail donkey. His saddle was removed and cast to the side of the trail. His owner was nowhere in sight. We approached him cautiously, trying to get his attention but his sunken eyes barely raise as we got closer. Finally close enough to touch him, I notice a weeping wound at the base of his neck on his back. A gouging saddle mark had broken his skin. I looked over at his saddle and cursed the load. On the ground next to him were several 50lb. bags of cement tied to his coarse saddle. Spots of blood lined the underside of the leather.
The girls immediately withdrew handfuls of trail mix from their bag and tried to coax the donkey back to his feet. Kelly sat with the animal and eased it’s nerves as the flurry of women moved about him. Twenty minutes later a local-looking man came sauntering down the hill, and stopped short when he saw our team of animal rescuers working.
A few short yells cursing his treatment of the donkey flew from the direction where the girls were seated. Having an animal rights fight with this man in the middle of the mountains would be futile, but tempers were understandably high. After an unavoidable burst of emotion, we were back to work encouraging the donkey to its feet. Judging by the whip scars around the animal’s body, it probably knew when self preservation meant standing up again. As soon as his owner made a motion toward him, the donkey leaned sideways and leveled himself to a standing position.
My heart ached as I watched him walk away up the hill. I thought of his open sore bleeding freely on his back. I thought of how heavy my own pack felt at just 17lbs. I thought of the scores of other donkeys who’s lives of slavery were dedicated to sustain the booming adventure tourism lifestyle. The feeling of bliss and peace that I spent the last week nurturing was soured thinking about how I most certainly contributed to the exploitation of these peaceful creatures. Previously I had boycotted elephant sanctuaries that offered riding and I stopped eating meat to prevent animal murder. But today still I found myself culpable of animal abuse. The air was thick, and I spent the next few hours lingering in my thoughts.
Is using human labor the only pure answer to the issue of animal rights? What about water buffalo, or cows that plow farms and help provide crops for hundreds of villagers. Centuries of growth and development can be attributed to the broken backs of four legged work animals.
My mental tangent was spiraling out of control.
Was I prepared to sow and seed my own crops to sustain my life? Certainly not. We have industrial, diesel powered machines in America. But what does that do to the environment, and how do industrial runoffs affect natural water quality in farming communities? What are the cancer rates in neighboring towns from that industrial runoff?
The tangent has upgraded to a full blown cyclone. The echo chamber in my analytical mind was firing off questions faster than I could think them. I needed a distraction.
I ran ahead and caught up with Jennifer. The rubber sole on the bottom of her discounted hiking boot had sheared completely off. The soft foam shell was still tied firmly to her foot, and she had her sole stuffed into the side water pouch of her backpack. In her hand I noticed she was holding some kind of flower. She turned around as I caught up to her, and raised the bouquet up to me.
“Look, I found some weed!” she exclaimed.
Overflowing out of her grasp were two handfuls of male marijuana plants.
“They’re everywhere!” She said pointing ahead to the others, who like me were fascinated by the thick blanket of…weeds growing an inch above the soil.
“Its growing like grass,” Kelly called out running ahead. “It’s incredible,” he said laughing.
All around us, and for the next hour, we found thick patches of inch-tall marijuana plants growing as wild as weeds all around us. At times when the sun would shine, a faint but unmistakable smell of pot would waft through the air. I remembered my own youthful prophecies of retiring on a pot farm some day. All we needed in this wild field was a few female plants to start a burgeoning pot business.
“Too bad we’d go to jail for the rest of our lives if we sold any.” Kelly said reading my mind.
“Yea, we’d be able to overstay our visa, but I’m not sure they’d let us keep our passports,” I joked.
As the trail flattened out, we passed an almost ironic tea house named ‘Bob Marley Hotel’. It sat in proper form above a small meadow that was filled completely with foot-tall marijuana plants.
“How did we miss this on the way up?!” I asked, astounded.
“I have no idea,” Jennifer answered.
One day ago we left a snow globe, and today we were hiking through a terrarium. Bamboo grew wild again as and covered the underbrush of the forest. Wet patches of lichen were host to other opportunistic families of forest species. The smell of fresh flowers filled the air once again.
Around 4pm we could see Syabrubest coming into view from the trail. I was reluctant to arrive but set my mind to relieving myself of the task ahead with efficiency. We needed to book a jeep for the ride back to Kathmandu. We all agreed that a bus was uncomfortable, unsafe, and out of the question. I stopped at the first sight of transportation. Kelly went ahead up the hill to double our search. The girls went up the hill to find a hotel that met their requirements.
Within the hour we had secured a hot shower for the evening and a jeep for the morning. Despite our quick work, I was noticeably more crabby than I anticipated having to be back in civilization. I was thankful for the luxury that this larger town provided, and retreated to my private room for a hot shower. “Solitude is a dangerous addiction,” I reminded myself.
The town of Syabrubesi had also changed dramatically since our arrival one week ago. Before when two or three tea houses were open, now the streets were packed with travelers and vehicles to support them. People came in and out of our hotel as we ate. We were the most weary looking lot in the foyer, and most people leaned over to ask us for recommendations on the trail.
“Skip Lama Hotel in favor of Riverside if you can make it,” I said.
“Tibet House for lunch on day two, and then sleep at Langtang View before you get to Langtang proper.” I recommended expertly.
“But more than anything, when you get to Kyanjin Gompa, take as many extra days as you can afford. You wont want to leave- and you shouldn’t.”
My opinionated reviews are given freely to people who who inquire, and I think for an instant about starting my own tour guide service.
It’s impractical, I think, and then I’d have to deal with all those…people.
But the real problem I know, is that I’d never leave if I went up again. It was too peaceful.
The valley is steep near Syabrubesi and night blows in quickly. I excuse myself hastily and turn in for the night. I would have slept until noon had our jeep not left so early. By taking a private jeep we were able to shorten a 9 hour bus ride into a 5 hour cross country tour. The idea almost sounded romantic. It would have been as well if our driver hadn’t oversold the jeep after we booked. When we crossed the street to load the vehicle with our bags, we saw two strangers in the back seat.
In an SUV built to transport six people comfortably, we were now going to be nine including the driver. There would have been more room on the bus. A short sleep cycle, a growing sore throat, and a completely blindsiding dehydration headache were conspiring to tip my patience way over the edge this morning. I tried to stifle my protests but I heard my mouth make them known loudly. The steam that built up needed to run its course apparently. I called a seat at the window and tried to remind myself of the impermanence of the situation. My mental mantras weren’t helping today.
Being sandwiched in a dusty car after a week of therapeutic hiking felt like being back in a cubicle after a week lounging on the beach. I knew this contrast would be great material to pull from creatively later, but the now I was living in, sucked.
For me the most important perk of taking a jeep instead of a bus was safety. There was a moment a week prior when our bus from Kathmandu was rocking up the high side of a hand scraped road, and I thought with definitive clarity that we were about to fall.
It was around then that I imagined how a vulture burial on the rocks would be a pleasant way to reincarnate. Ethereal visions of the afterlife can be comforting in the face of peril that is out of ones control. However if a few extra rupees could prevent a 5-ton landslide, then I was okay sitting on an oversold jeep back home.
We crossed the first waterfall with ease. Everyone laughed and took pictures as we splashed through a little creek left under the small snow-melt falls. At the second falls we were not so lucky. The jagged river in front of us looked impassable. From my window view I could see straight down the cliff to my right. The bottom was invisible because of the whitewash, but the land sloped away and down far beyond my sight. We trudged forward slowly, to tense speculative protests from the passengers. Halfway through the falls, we heard a loud clang as the jeep bottomed out on something in the water.
We were stuck.
The driver got out and looking back at the line of vehicles behind him, threw his hands up for help. The nearest driver got out and helped him assess the situation. Together they rolled a large rock through the water and shoved it under the back wheel in question. An emphatic count of 1,2,3 from our driver and he slammed the clutch and bounced up and over the river rut.
We thought we were out cleanly but one of the strangers from the back shouted for us to stop.
“We lost the window!” he yelled. “The back window fell out.”
We all looked back and let out whelps of nervous laughter at the sight of the back left window, completely missing. A metal, parallelogram shaped cavity remained, the only evidence that glass once rested there.
“Well, it was a clean break,” I said optimistically.
The driver yanked on the parking break, pulled up his pants again, and went fishing for the window in the wash of the waterfall. He retrieved it triumphantly and threw it into the small boot behind the back row.
“I fix this later,” he said.
With no further ceremony we were off. I pulled out a dust mask that I kept in my jacket for public bus rides, and squinted my eyes as our jeep quickly filled with particulate from the road. If nothing else, today was already memorable.
Hours later my head lurched forward and the dream I was clinging to gets ripped away. Our driver parks at a mechanic shop and gets out. Most of us are sympathetic to his window repair pit stop, but the two strangers in the back seat start yelling incomprehensibly.
It’s remarkable how contagious frustration is, really.
I climb down from SUV and saunter over to our driver who is laughing by the corner of the garage.
“What are we doing here?” I ask rhetorically. “Why don’t you fix this after you drop us off?”
My questions fall short of his understanding, so I try my theatre-sized expressions and repeat the question. Still nothing. I’ve tried to convey customer service shortcomings to people before when language and cultural barriers are present, and every time I come across like an asshole. I’ve been awake for two minutes and clearly the sleep hasn’t worn off long enough for me to stop myself. I try again louder, and the two strangers from the back chime in to keep this man on his promised timetable of a five hour delivery.
These are the moments I need to work on. I hate myself right now, but if I backpedal there’s no telling when we’ll leave. So I press on. Thankfully our driver is able to secure a quick repair for the back bumper that cracked during our waterfall crossing, and we make way down the road- an hour behind schedule.
As we arrive in Kathmandu, the dusty charm and mystique I once admired of the city is lost. I try to see the city for what it is- an international wonder full of rich cultural history. But all I can see are a lack of trees, sepia toned river water, and shouting merchants. Men with guns walk the streets upholding and defending civilization from the threat of corruption.
My reintegration into city life is in full meltdown.
Every faculty I have is working to get me to the end of this trip and safely inside a quiet room.
“Where do you want to get dropped off?” Our driver shouted back at us.
I grab Jennifer’s phone and point, “North of Thamel, at Naya bazzar.”
“Ah, any more is extra cost,” he says, falling into the classic rhythm of a driver looking to stir up some extra fare. I lack the patience and the empathy to even contemplate bargaining with him and offer nothing on the rebuttal.
“Bring us all the way into town like we paid you for, damnit.” I shout like a soldier I see in the street. The negotiation seems to have worked to my favor and I follow his progress toward our destination with Jennifer’s phone map awake in my hand.
“I can just get down here,” someone said in my ear.
“Don’t worry, he said he would take us,” I replied blindly back to the voice.
A block from our final turn the driver turns back around and asks again, for our destination. I point, and he grins saying, “No, no, I cant go near Thamel. Police and checkpoints. Big trouble for me. Need extra money.”
We drive past our turn and head north of the city again. I recognize classic taxi stall tactics and call him on it immediately. A flurry of shouting erupts from within the SUV as everyone realizes we are being taken for a ride past our turn.
“Where are you taking us?!” A frightened voice cried from the back.
“Turn around, its back there,” Mitch said from the front seat.
The driver grabs his cellphone and punches in a call, “We go to see my friend.”
“Ooooh Hell no,” I say in his ear. We are not getting the run around from some guy who wants to introduce us to his cousin who runs a run shop. We are two miles from our hostel, and now our driver is on a phone call with his friend ignoring our protests.
Grabbing at his phone I tell him to stop and turn around. Only part of that message gets through, and he pulls into the local taxi stop and shuts off the engine.
“You can get taxi,” he told us pointing to the row outside.
“We paid you 5600 rupee, take us two more blocks!”
“I’m uncomfortable and I want to get out,” a voice in my ear cried out.
“Look,” said Mitch “We’re here, and we want to go here.” He tries to translate to our driver using his trusted Maps.Me.
“Lets just get out, and take a cab,” Kelly said trying to diffuse the situation.
“No, we’re two blocks away and he’s trying to squeeze us for more money,” I remind them.
“I want to get out,” Andrea says from the corner of the SUV.
“You’re by the door, Andrea, if you want to get out, get out!” I tell her bluntly.
Andrea starts crying and climbs out of the suv. Jennifer and the rest of our group follow her. The driver looks back smirking, “So you get down here then?”
“No, we go to Naya Bazzar damnit!” I yell.
“Ok! Ok!” he relents finally. He starts the engine and releases the brake.
“We’re leaving guys, get back in.” I tell the group.
By now the scene we are causing has attracted the attention of several taxi and rickshaw drivers nearby and they flood the area with offers of cheap rides into Thamel. Compounding the issue is the fact our group has dispersed into the parking lot. Hearding Himalayan yaks would be easier at this point.
“Get in the fucking jeep, we’re leaving!” I yell hoping to penetrate the chaos.
Mission status: Meltdown.
Mitch blows his lid yelling about how only his father talks to him like that. Andrea is wailing from never being exposed to a heated taxi argument before. Jennifer is fuming because she hates when I negotiate, and she blames me for separating the group. The only two people unfazed by the situation are the strangers in the back who look as cool as cucumbers.
When I turn around and ask them if they are staying, one replies calmly, “Yes, yes, we go.”
“Where are you from?” asks the other stranger in the back.
“Texas!” I tell him.
“You see,” he says leaning to his friend, “I told you the strongest Americans come from Texas.”
Graciously, the driver engages first gear and the SUV jumps forward. In a last second decision, Jennifer rushes for the front seat and climbs inside before our ride leaves for Naya Bazaar. I look through the back window and see the rest of our group arguing with a new taxi driver. As we drive toward Naya Bazaar there are no police and no checkpoints like our driver feared. Buses, taxi’s, and other jeeps navigate the road freely.
Although we are finally going to be dropped off near our hostel, I cant help but feel my victory is bittersweet. I know that I could have managed the situation a dozen other ways.
After eight days of trekking in the mountains, we could have walked the extra two miles to our hostel. But for some reason, the flaring determination to overcome our driver’s subversion has overwhelmed my sensible nature.
“Thank you brother for dropping us off,” I encourage our driver when he pulls over at Naya Bazzar.
“Thank you,” Jennifer says.
The two strangers thank him as well and with a nod, and we go separate ways. On the way back to the hostel, I mull over what one of them said earlier. ‘The strongest American’s come from Texas.’ After living in the mountains for one week, I saw many true examples of strength. None of them included fighting with a man over a few hundred rupees. Stubborn maybe, but I know better than to measure strength by results alone.
The next day in the deafening comfort of a thunderstorm, I open my laptop for the first time in weeks. The solace of sifting through thousands of photos becomes a therapy to my mind. I didn’t write out a daily journal like many of the other people in our group- I wore mine around my neck for seven days and captured moments as they happened.
I finished editing and checked the weather report. Rain for one week. Somewhere the thin veil of thought-to-form was conspiring in my favor. Rain would provide the refuge I needed to recharge and prepare for the next adventure. But until then, my heart would remain in Langtang.
If you enjoyed the read, feel free to leave a comment on the page. Thank’s for scrolling.