During a difficult hike in the Himalayas, a traveler reconnects with nature while also trying to reconnect with herself.
This is how I die, I thought: On a road in Nepal so riddled with potholes I could probably sit with a bowl of milk on my lap and find it had turned to butter by the time we arrived. Clenching the seat in front of me, knuckles bone white and face a faint shade of gray, I turned to face the porters sitting next to me. I suppose I was searching for some sort of community of fear but found only serenity, and, vexingly, boredom.
As we hurtled around the mountainside at full speed, the driver sounding his comical horn into the unknown, I glanced out of my window to see the edge of the road quickly disappearing from my line of sight. The bus began to slow down, awkwardly mounting a hump in the road and tipping uneasily towards the abyss before rolling back into relative stability. Gradually, the road widened again, and it was only then that I realized I had been holding my breath. Twenty minutes left. Of the trip, or my life? Either I am going to meet my end in the ravine below or forget to breathe, I thought.
I had not done a lot of hiking before I visited Nepal. In fact, the most strenuous walk I had probably done was the hike to Arthur’s Seat, a hill in Edinburgh that rises just over 800 feet. But for some reason, that gave me the confidence and ambition to venture to Nepal and attempt a hike there. I was looking for something rich, varied, and challenging.
The Himalayas certainly delivered. Starting in Nayapool, a short drive from Pokhara, I joined a team of strangers for a ten-day hike to the Annapurna Base Camp, a humbling 4100 meters above sea-level. And that was only the base camp, halfway to the summit of Annapurna I, at 8091 meters. Situated in the Gandaki province, north-central Nepal, Annapurna I is a member of Annapurna Massif, a mountain range encompassing thirteen peaks, three of which surpass the 8000-meter mark.
I remember the first hours of the hike clearly, and with a deep sense of humility. Day one began in the foothills – dense forest, dusty roads, those first, probing conversations with the other hikers on the walk. We stopped for lunch at a teahouse, the first of many, ordering cool drinks and egg fried rice, and snickers bars, too, served elegantly on bronze plates as though they were some local speciality.
A few yards from our table, an old man was lying on his side, his shirt hitched up around his chest and his hat askew on his head. His face was small, weathered, with deep-set grooves and large, shining, sunken eyes. Every now and again, he would lift a leather swatter and hold it steadily above a fly that kept landing on his wrist. But he would always miss, and something told me that this was deliberate. That way, he could lie there just a little longer. Time moved more slowly in the mountains; I was sure of it.
We reached Ulleri late in the day. The lighting was dim in the teahouse; it blinked and flickered nervously. It was almost preferable to sit in the dark. Happily letting the rucksack slip from my shoulders and sinking into the chair, I felt twice as heavy as I did in the morning. The porters spun around the room with hot mugs of ginger tea and great, ear-to-ear smiles. “Well done!” they cried, leaning jovially into each weary face and inviting a fist pump. The meal passed in a blur of hunger and exhaustion, and before long, the teahouse was lightless and quiet, and everyone had retired to the warmth of their sleeping bags. For me, it was a night of curious, unsettling dreams.
Not surprisingly, the days felt long because they began so early. In the fresh morning light, Ulleri was almost unrecognizable from the night before. In the distance, nestled perfectly between the foothills, Fish Tail Mountain heralded the new day, the sunlight elegantly catching the snow as it scooted off its forked summit.
This was the Holy Mountain, explained our porter, and climbing it was absolutely forbidden – by the government, by nature, by God. Hearing this, I buried the hubristic, childish thought brewing in my mind (I bet I could climb that).
A breakfast of pancakes and more ginger tea, and then we were off, bodies and minds already more delicate than the day before. When did people begin hiking for fun? I wondered as we began the ascent. It turns out hiking for hiking’s sake emerged in the Romantic era, a time that prioritized self-actualization and reconnection with nature. I was certainly reconnecting with nature, scraping the donkey dung off my boot. Self-actualization? To be confirmed.
Leaving views of Ulleri behind us – a scattered, enchanting archipelago of blue rooftops – the landscape began to open up. In my journal, I wrote: “They’re elusive, the mountains. Even though it is the mist that moves, one gets the feeling that it is the mountain that hides, pulling the curtain in front of itself and then drawing it almost imperceptibly, revealing its majesty and grandeur.” I think I rather fancied myself a poet, but there is truth in my attempt, at least, to describe the mountains: they are a uniquely awe-inspiring part of Earth. Their vastness and obstructive design mean that each mountain community, like Ulleri or the villages to come, came to feel like its own island, almost hermetically sealed, were it not for the hikers and tourists passing through. To be born, live, and die in the same place and to be inextricably connected to the fabric of the landscape, to its air, vegetation and climate was not something I could imagine. Their sense of union with the natural world must be far greater than ours, I thought. Then again, there is equally this sense of cultural, socio-economic confusion and semi-connection with the Western world: small children in mountain villages wearing Disney tops, despite potentially never having seen a movie and not knowing what a flushing toilet looks like.
Day four – the path to Sinuwa. The morning began well, bright and warm trekking through rhododendron-dense woodlands. The pink flowers almost appeared to shine from within, and against the backdrop of the mountains Dhaulagiri, Annapurna, and Fish Tail (formally, Machhapuchhare) – stark, white and strong – I was waiting for someone to pinch me. It was heaven, surely.
But by lunchtime, the sky had become pregnant and gray, and before long, the heaving, dark belly split open. Donning a bright yellow poncho, I followed the porter briskly down the hillside, my head down and water dripping off the tip of my nose when, suddenly, there was electric white light everywhere, followed by absolute darkness. A clap of deafening thunder overhead shook me to the core. The sound was pure and resounding; metal on metal, glass on glass, every hard sound in the world all at once. The whole team ran for the nearest shelter, and it took a while for us to laugh. I felt like getting down on my knees and kissing the earth, but I refrained and breathed a few deep breaths instead. A lucky escape. By the time we reached Sinuwa, we were soaked through. No electricity. No Wi-Fi. Candles and conversation were all we had that evening.
Day five, the day before the ascent to Annapurna Base Camp. The landscape began to change from thick forest to open scrubland. Walking turned to scrabbling as we trekked through the center of the ravine. Occasionally, we crossed the river, fierce in its springtime torrents and a brilliant, icy blue. Eagles flew above, soaring slowly and purposefully, unperturbed. I began to feel the creeping onset of delirium as we approached Machhapuchhare Base Camp, 3700 meters above sea level. The need to sing, tell a joke, dance on the spot, and take all my clothes off.
The teahouse emerged almost out of nowhere, and it reminded me of a secret headquarters, all shrouded in mist and a long, expansive, one-story building. I spent the free afternoon that we had there journaling, sharing riddles with the porters, and hanging my innumerable wet socks between the bed frame and the mattress like smoked mackerel. It was a disappointment, albeit expected, to find they had not dried the next day.
Gurung bread (a puffy, greasy bread the shape of a neck rest) and masala tea for breakfast. Every one of us were wearing our sunglasses. The morning light bounced almost cacophonously off the white mountains. Even with shades on, I found it easier to look down into the cool darkness of my lap than at the table. The aches of the hike seemed toned down that morning; all I felt was a buzzing excitement in my stomach. Today was the day we were to reach Annapurna Base Camp, abbreviated as ABC (but not as easy as 123, I thought, rather pleased with myself).
Before long, we set off towards Hiunchuli mountain. The air thinned out quickly – we were not at much more than 60% oxygen there. As we turned the corner, scrambling over the heathland and planting our poles in the snow on either side of the path, the base camp came into sight – a small, even underwhelming, teahouse complex that was much further away than it initially looked.
For the next two hours, it felt as though we were on some sort of conveyor belt; the camp was like a mirage, staying exactly the same size, tauntingly, for a very long time. But the last few steps were magnificent, like walking on air. I remember thinking, before I set off on the hike, that there might be some discretely competitive push in these final moments, that individualism would triumph over team spirit. But that was not the case. The mountains bonded us to one another in a uniquely and primally selfless way. Everyone reached the base camp together, if not exactly at the same time.
We settled in the teahouse, sipping ginger teas and silently enjoying the panoramic views of Annapurna I and her gargantuan neighbors. Annapurna I is revered as a Hindu goddess, and the name translates as “full (purna) of nourishment (anna)” in reference to the many life-giving streams that descend from her slopes.
With another member of the group, I headed to a bench that looked out towards Fish Tail, that holy, forbidden mountain, and sat quietly with my eyes closed, back straight, hands curled to fists in the cold. In the distance, I could hear the occasional crack of an avalanche followed by the unnerving sounds of rock and ice tumbling down the mountain face.
Snow had begun to fall gently. I could hear it settling on the tops of my ears, feel it melting down the back of my neck. Neither of us said anything, the silence between us a mutual understanding, even enlightenment. Those mountains were very young, only a mere fifty million years old or so. And we were but snowflakes, passing through, inconceivably little in every way.