Leopards of the Moon
© Copyright 2020 by Tom Mattson
As we gravitated toward India’s northern border with Nepal, slowly but steadily as though pulled inexorably by a great magnet, whispers of a disturbance, some terrible new conflict, trickled down out of the north. There were rumors of a bombing. Then reports of soldiers opening fire on civilians in the capital city of Kathmandu. Ominous tidings of a new unrest, of war breaking out, found their way to our ears long before they hit CNN. The restive situation caused most travelers to cancel their plans of entering the country. Foreign embassies put out no-travel advisories. The US foreign-travel advisory instructed all Americans in Nepal to leave the country immediately and everyone else not to enter. I refused to change my plans and thumbed my nose at the US foreign-travel advisory by going anyway.
The origin of the war was the long-standing hostilities between the Communist Maoists, a persecuted constituency representing large swaths of Nepali citizens, and the authoritarian government. The conflict had already killed more than seventeen thousand people over the last decade, including gruesome executions such as rebels being hanged from trees while their families were forced to watch. All of this was happening out of view of the world stage but can easily be learned about with a few clicks of a mouse.
The long-festering conflict bubbled over just when I was about to enter Nepal. A full-fledged civil war broke out when the people, having suffered one butchering too many at the hands of the king, finally rose up as an entire nation against him. It was an autocrat’s worst nightmare: the people getting united, strategic, and brave all at once. I spent a month in Nepal during the country’s shutdown and violent buildup to overthrow its ruler, King Gyanendra, which finally happened the day after I managed to leave the country.
King Gyanendra had dismissed Parliament eight months earlier and seized total power after the globally publicized mass murder of his brother King Birendra, the good king, and almost the entire royal family. Most analysts believe Gyanendra was behind the murder of his brother and his family because he was the only member of the royal family not present at the massacre, and everyone present was wiped out except Gyanendra’s wife and son, the only other royal survivors, a coincidence that’s hard to lie away. Gyanendra’s ascension to the throne was only made possible if both of his nephews were eliminated too, and they were. You may vaguely remember hearing about this in the news because, although Nepal is a small country, the Shakespearean bloodbath was so brutal in scope and nature that it had no antecedent in the monarchy since Russia’s Romanovs were shot on Lenin’s order in 1918. If you type “worst monarchy massacre” in a search engine, nearly every result is about the Nepalese royal massacre.
There had been two public strikes before March to test their efficacy but nothing lasting longer than a week. As news spread that the Nepali people were about to undertake the final strike—one they vowed not to end until either the king was overthrown or the entire nation fell victim to Gyanendra’s power-grabbing and the violent bloodshed that would mean—nearly all travelers changed their plans to avoid entering Nepal.
I got in just in the nick of time.
One day before the Nepali people began the final strike, the one they would continue until either the king was deposed or they were killed, high stakes for civilians indeed, I crossed the border into Nepal on a forty-eight-hour bus ride from Varanasi, India. I was lucky to get in because the very next day the border was closed once and for all and no one could enter Nepal overland anymore. I was just one day away from being turned around at the border and sent back to India.
Always good to be early!
The day after I entered Nepal the populace dramatically escalated the strike by shutting down the country’s entire public transportation system on the ground. All buses, trains, taxis, rickshaws, bicycles—anything with wheels or a motor or a squawking chicken in the back was grounded and mothballed. Only planes flying out of Kathmandu and Pokhara—Nepal’s second-largest city in the country’s spartan west—continued to operate.
Massive protests were happening across the country. In response, the government imposed a curfew lasting twenty-four hours a day, all day every day, meaning no one was allowed outside on the street anymore. Since the curfew was now permanent and the Nepalis could no longer go outdoors, Nepal’s cities and streets were emptied and laid bare like some tumbleweed-strewn abandoned railroad town. Kathmandu looked like postapocalyptic nuclear winter. Rickshaw drivers were no longer willing to drive tourists anywhere. All shops and storefronts were boarded up and closed. No one in one of the world’s poorest countries was going to be making money anytime soon.
In Kathmandu’s tourist district of Thamel, guests needed to go outside in the streets to hit the ATM and eat though, so within this tiny corridor only, where nearly all remaining Western tourists were, we were allowed to walk around a tiny warren of alleyways with three Western-catering restaurants.
As foreigners we were not part of the conflict, and the government, which relies almost exclusively on tourism for Nepal’s entire GDP, had no interest in harming their only industry. Westerners’ greatest danger of being bombed, stoned, or shot was if we got caught in crossfire at a protest or violated the strike by bribing a Nepali taxi or rickshaw to drive us somewhere. If the Maoists saw a driver working during the strike, they would kill him without hesitation. It was very much in their interest to murder any of their own people seen breaking the strike. Nepal is one of those third world countries where human life is cheap. Very quickly there was no amount of money you could offer a Nepali with wheels to take you anywhere.
Political upheaval, potential for heroism, the thrill of risking one’s life, and the very real possibility that life could be cut short—all played into the collective tumbling feeling of feeling alive, being alive. The intoxication of revolution was what we were swept up in. The tides of history.
Many, particularly hippie types, were especially swept up by the irresistible appeal of a proletariat rising up against a tyrant king, and they threw themselves into aiding the war effort by everything from printing pamphlets fomenting revolution to painting their faces blue in Braveheart fashion and participating in protests along with the fiercest insurgents. It was these protests that were most dangerous and most likely to get a Westerner killed, because after a week of escalating tensions the police started firing into crowds and killing Nepalis by the score. Public executions in town squares, firing squad shootings, and hangings in trees all increased dramatically over the next two weeks. But by then I was high in the Himalayas on Annapurna, the world’s tenth-highest peak, in thin air under a liquid blue sky.
had come to Nepal to hike the famous Annapurna Circuit: a 131 -mile
-long trail that begins at 2,500twenty-five hundred feet and climbs
gradually until it eventually crests over the world’s highest
mountain pass, Thorong La, buried in snow at 18,000eighteen thousand
feet. The trek takes two to three weeks depending on how fast you
walk. Ever since I’d first heard about what is routinely voted
the world’s best trek, I had wanted to experience the famously
pleasurable lifestyle of “teahouse trekking”—hiking
over the Himalayas on foot without having to carry any tent, food,
or cooking gear. Nights are spent in teahouses that dot the trail:
primitive yet charming huts with beds, a fire, and full menu of
Nepalese food of dal baht and Wwestern items such as pizza and eggs
on toast. It is a deliciously blissful and convenient way to travel
in the most beautiful country on earth.
I posted a notice on the public message board at Kathmandu Guest House seeking trekking companions for the Annapurna Circuit. When I checked back the following morning, two slips of paper had been pulled off my ad. Soon after, two notes appeared on my door, and at eleven o’clock that morning I met the two interested parties in the hostel lobby over coffee.
They were Sion, a blond thirty-seven-year -old Welsh home builder who was lean and fit: he had the wiry frame of a free-soloing rock climber, the kind of person you envy because they have the almost mystical ability to eat carbs without getting fat; and Emma, an 18 eighteen-year -old girl from England. Emma had a plump but firm—like springy, spongy turf—creamy-white Rubenesque body, the same body type all young English girls seem to have from Downton Abbey to Pride and Prejudice. The three of us decided to pull this off together—the complete three-week Annapurna Circuit, the world’s highest mountain crossing—without any guide or Sherpas to carry our packs for us. We couldn’t afford the expense of hiring Sherpas, but we wouldn’t have it any other way. We would do this ourselves.
To hike the three-week-long Annapurna Circuit one begins near Pokhara in a place called Besisahar. Since buses were not running during the strike, travelers were forced to shell out sixty dollars for a short thirty-minute flight from Kathmandu to Pokhara. Getting to the airport became a complicated affair, however, because only designated airport vans—employed by the government so continuing to drive during the strike—were picking up tourists in front of select large hotels and ferrying them to the airport and vice versa. This soon became a dangerous ride, because while the Nepali people did not want to target tourists, they did want to target any Nepalis working during the strike, especially ones driving for the government and thus still earning a paycheck while everyone else had to tighten their belts.
So if it wasn’t exactly a deadly ride to the airport, it was definitely deinitelfraught with a stimulating amount of tension. Neighborhood militias and roving packs of civilian vigilantes, determined to enforce the strike and attack any vehicles on the road, set up makeshift barricades blockading the arteries to the airport with tires set on fire, ropes of broken glass shards strung across the road, and angry mobs brandishing rocks, crowbars, and other crude implements. When our van reached an obstacle on the road such as a tire set ablaze, we reversed course immediately and traveled by a longer, alternate route instead.
Sion, Emma, and I passed the streets-on-fire obstacle gauntlet to arrive at the airport. We took the short thirty- minute flight to Pokhara, now the only way to reach the start of the Annapurna Circuit. From here a government bus took us to Besisahar, about half a mile from the trailhead. I felt relieved to be escaping the war in the cities by climbing high into the Himalayas.I had walked only thirty minutes with my backpack and was already sagging under its weight like Atlas. Since I would have to carry this load by myself for the next three weeks over the world’s highest mountain pass, I realized I wouldn’t make it unless I lessened my burden.
I’d brought hair conditioner, and unfortunately, another trekker on the trail named Dave saw it. We made eye contact—his furtive, mine naive—and he watched me try to palm the bottle of conditioner behind my back and hide it.
“Everyone!” he called out, “this man has brought a large bottle of conditioner to the most rugged mountainous region on earth.
waved over Sion, Emma, and a group of people he was trekking with to
view the offending item. He waited patiently until everyone had
walked over, and then loudly started mocking and berating me until I
threw it away.
Oh, but what a dream Nepal is, especially the Annapurna Circuit. It ranks right at the top of my most indelible experiences. It had a lasting impact on me, and there are reports I’m not the only one. The trail begins near sea level, and for the first several days we climbed through leafy jungle. It felt more like a rainforest than the world’s highest mountain range. I didn’t even see any mountains for the first week of the trek because they were still so far away. Trees and vegetation at the lower elevations were lush, the soil moist. Gradually the trees became drier—deciduous, conifers, pines—and the earth became drier too.
One day I rounded an innocuous-looking bend in the trail, and all at once the scenery changed dramatically. Gone was the lush vegetation. Before me lay a long, sweeping, grassy plain at high elevation that I couldn’t see to the end of. Towering above the deep plain, the upper Himalayan peaks rose over me like Titans, in full view for the very first time. The moment you first glimpse high mountains is spellbinding, and for me, life changing. I had seen the Rockies and Alps before, but never anything like this. The Himalayas are so jaw-droppingly high that they dominate the skyline like a fleet of spaceships hovering above you. That first sight of them was so staggering that it knocked me backward. The effect was as though I were looking up at them from underwater: I was a finger of coral at the bottom of a fishbowl looking up through the water at a much larger, far more miraculous world in the room outside the bowl.
“That’s where we’re going?” I gulped. Dave looked at me and shook his head in annoyance, not replying. Dave crushed people with his bare hands for breakfast. Such talk to him was nonsense.
The long, grassy plain was a plateau at thirty-four hundred meters, and it’s here where the Annapurna trek really begins, really becomes exciting and remains so for the rest of the journey. It was the start of the really exotic scenery: the bleak high plains. Our goal that day was to reach Manang, a picturesque town nestled between two mammoth peaks at thirty-five hundred meters, where we would spend the next two days acclimatizing our bodies to the high altitude.
We didn’t make it to Manang that night. Darkness fell, and so we ducked inside two primitive huts that emerged on the beginnings of the long plain. Here we decamped and unfurled our sleeping bags for the night.
I was buzzing, feeling jazzed from reaching the high green plain and seeing the awesome scale of the world’s highest peaks for the first time. That night was a magical one. The rudimentary hut’s owner cooked hot porridge in a black pot over an ancient blazing fire that was straight out of Ivanhoe. When the others went to bed, I stayed up, staring into the fire for a full four hours straight. I couldn’t tear my eyes from it. It had been many years since I’d been camping and sat next to a tall, blazing fire. The ancient pleasure of a crackling fire, deeply embedded in the DNA, was satisfying down to my bones, a residual joy left over from our ancestors. The fire danced as I continued feeding it wood deep into the night. Eventually the wood ran out, and I only stopped staring at the flames when my eyes closed on their own.
I awoke in a room that was dead dark and bitingly cold. The fire had burned out. I stood up and fumbled outside into pitch blackness that was so complete and so empty and forbidding under a star-filled sky that it looked as though I had stumbled out onto a foreign planet.
We arrived in Manang before noon the next day. Manang was the last big town on the trail, and it even had a small movie theater. That evening Dave, his wife Shelly, son Bruno and I bought tickets and ducked inside a room that was the size of an outhouse. We were treated to the movie Everest: Into Thin Air in which eight people die slow, grisly deaths from high-altitude cerebral edema (HACE), succumbing to hypothermia, hypoxia, and drowning in their own pulmonary fluid on the indifferent face of Mount Everest, which was in the same direction we were heading. Ha, ha, the staffers must have enjoyed their inside joke—give the trekkers a preview of how they’ll die a week from now. Before he died luridly of exposure to the cold and a brain aneurysm, the lead guide in the movie kept turning around to his group and whining, “I’m dragging ass today …”
That rattled around in my head for months, if not to the present day.
“I’m dragging ass today.”
Yeah … Me too, I thought. I’m dragging ass too.
I swallowed and the phlegm went hard down my gullet like a stone, leaving my throat sore. We had a long way to go and a lot higher left to climb. It was only going to get harder from here.
The following day we took an acclimatization day. To help our bodies adjust to the altitude, we climbed to a much-higher elevation during the day and then descended back down to Manang to sleep at the same elevation two nights in a row for the first time. Dave and Shelly took a three hundred-meter hike up to Praken Gompa, a small shrine above Manang.
Sion and I did the maximum-elevation hike available, a relentless four hours and one thousand meters straight up to Ice Lake (Kicho Tso) on top of a lonely spire that looked as though it hadn’t seen a human visitor in a long time. It was on a windswept face of that dramatic spire that Sion and I had a mystical experience—No, I don’t mean of the Brokeback Mountain variety.
Sion pointed at the ground.
“Look,” he said. Small paw prints dusted the snow. “Snow leopard,” he whispered.
Sion was a distinctly cool customer and nonemotional person, but a rare note of mysticism had entered his voice. You may have heard: snow leopards rank right at the top of the world’s rarest animals and are even more expert at never being seen than the Loch Ness monster, the yeti, and of course that dinosaur stomping around the center of the earth.
“Let’s follow,” I said.
The tracks, paw prints printed cleanly in the snow as if they had been stamped by a cookie cutter, were clear proof that snow leopards really do exist. We followed the tracks to the edge of a cliff where the paw prints, and the ground, abruptly disappeared. I gazed out over a cavernous ravine into a gaping sea of space.
“There,” Sion said, impressively natural as a mountain man. I followed his finger. On a slope on the next peak over, a furry little yellow animal was streaking alone across the snow. It was a beautiful, indelible image.
“Ah …” said Sion, smiling.
In Manang we had our first casualties from altitude sickness. A strapping young Dutch couple who had been trekking with us on the same schedule for the past week had to turn around because the man, a robust, healthy-looking blond Dutchman of twenty-six, had suddenly come down with a debilitating case of altitude sickness—splitting headache, nausea, vomiting, inability to stand, the works. We were staying in the same lodge in Manang, and I poked my head into his room to have a look at him.
The Dutchman lay bedridden. He was raving like a mad dog. He was so far gone that he was completely incoherent. When he opened his mouth, foam spittled out like bacon grease flying off the pan and dribbled down his chin like the last dregs of a cashed beer keg. I watched him convulse violently—he looked like he was being fried in the electric chair.
The next day I watched as he went down the mountain slung over the back of a donkey like luggage. I cringed when I looked at him. He trended down the trail and out of view. I inhaled the sharp, crisp air, and turned around to face ahead to where we were going. The old dread suddenly returned, fear of the altitude sickness that had felled the Dutch. It could happen to anyone from now on, and there was no telling how vulnerable you are to altitude sickness until it clobbers you like a sledgehammer. It’s an invisible, indiscriminate killer, a mysterious alchemy.
On Everest the conditions are so severe that they don’t even bother to bury the dead. The bodies are left right out in the open like signposts to the underworld. Some two hundred bodies lie in the path in a lurid high-elevation graveyard and you have to step over their ghoulish faces on your way to the top and an uncertain future.
The demise of the Dutch couple, a fixture on the trail with us for over a week, was a grim reminder of the perils we faced as we climbed to ever-higher elevation, sowing a seed of doubt in our minds as to whether we would suffer a similar ignominious fate at the hands of the mountain gods.
We finally reached Thorong Phedi, where we’d spend our highest night at 4,500forty-five hundred meters—a very high altitude for anyone to sleep at, with night being the most common and dangerous time to discover how vulnerable one is to altitude. People who die from it usually do so in their sleep. You knock on their door in the morning because they didn’t show up for breakfast and find a corpse lying in their bed.
That afternoon at Thorong Phedi I continued up the trail, hoping to climb two or three hundred meters higher to acclimatize before returning to camp. As I climbed another hundred meters, I turned to look back at camp and was greeted by the massive vista of the upper Himalayas from an elevation usually reserved for jet airbuses. I stared down into the fathomless depth of the microscopic valley below. The bottom was inconceivably far down, miles down, the floor just barely visible. The scale of the distance of the valley was incomprehensibly deep. Suddenly the sunken floor retreated away from me at an astonishing speed like an arrow loosed from a bow. It yawned away like a 3-D effect, and suddenly I felt like I was perched on the top rung of a ladder teetering high above the earth on the precipice of space. Then I was reeling. The ground reached up from below and smacked me hard in the face like a boxer’s punch. The next thing I knew I was lying on the ground and my drool-flecked lips were resting against the cool earth. I had passed out or something—I wasn’t sure, since nothing like that had ever happened to me before. I think I had fainted briefly, though I’m not sure for how long.
As I sat up slowly, I had to stare intensely at my shoelaces and at tiny granules of dirt on the ground just to stop the world from spinning. The world was spinning around my head like the walls of a hotel room after drinking a fifth of tequila.
Panic swept into me. I crawled back down the trail to Thorong Phedi on all fours like an animal, staring at my shoelaces the whole time. If I so much as glanced up at camp, let alone the hulking mountain range and sunken chasm below me, I swooned into nearly passing out again. This sure felt real. I was scared.
That night I went to bed scared out of my gourd. I knew by now that other trekkers were also having trouble drawing enough air into their lungs to sleep at night, but tonight my lung capacity was so insufficient that even when I inhaled as mightily as I could, my lungs didn’t inflate a millimeter beyond 50 percent. I couldn’t breathe, couldn’t drag enough air into my lungs. I was literally suffocating—there just wasn’t enough oxygen in the atmosphere this high up.
My eyes watered. I began to panic. I felt like crying. Here I was in my down jacket, wool hat, silk undershirt and three fleeces, every single piece of clothing I’d brought with me, stuffed inside my sleeping bag like blue cheese in an olive, gasping for air like a fish mouthing on dry land.
At least my room in Thorong Phedi was pretty, I thought, looking around. The room was spacious. It had a high ceiling. It was full of light. I had a nice Western bed. I wasn’t lying in the mud somewhere.
Not a bad way to go …
I knew that part of my extreme trouble breathing was that I was lying flat on my back, so although I needed to sleep, I sat up and got out of bed. I crouched down on the balls of my feet on the cold stone floor and concentrated all my effort on calming myself, trying to ease the strain on the alveoli in my lungs and just take in oxygen. I knew that if I panicked, things would only worsen.
I was scared that the same thing would happen the next day that had that afternoon—I’d pass out again and wouldn’t be able to get over the pass. And then what? I’d climbed ten days to get to Thorong Phedi. I didn’t want to go back down the way I’d come, past all the excited trekkers coming up. I would feel awful, ashamed.
I opened the door and stepped outside into frigid night air. I looked up. The stars were far too numerous to count. There must have been more than one hundred million stars in plain view, easily more than I could count over a lifetime.
The distance of the sky threw me backward. I saw how much deeper the celestial heavens reach than I had previously been aware—layer upon layer, ring upon ring like the rings inside the trunk of an ancient tree—and I saw that we were just one of many worlds. How extraordinary that this many stars could be seen with the naked eye. They were silver ballast slung out from the primordial birthplace, gingerbread crumbs leading one by one back in time to the origin of the universe, some sacred place. I was too scared just then to fully enjoy the stars and the road leading backward to the dawn of time. So I went back to my room.
I glanced at the time and groaned. It was eleven thirty. I would have to be awake in two hours and walk for the next fifteen. I needn’t have worried because I never quite made it to sleep. My breathing was slightly better, slightly deeper than before, but still enough of a struggle to keep me from passing entirely into sleep.
I had finally half dozed off when a loud crack split the door. I leaped up and yanked the door open. Bruno was standing outside with a wide smile and a teeming cup of hot tea in his hands. He’d made it for me. I was touched and, since I had only just met him, exceptionally moved by this unexpected act of kindness from an all but total stranger.
“Ey, Tom, mornin’, mate,” Bruno lilted cheerfully, his eyes dancing even at two in the morning on the far side of the world.
Bruno was the apex of enlightenment, the embodiment of how to live. What do you do when you’re suffering at two in the morning? Why, you make a cup of tea of course!
Bruno was also wearing a T-shirt and shorts in subzero temperatures, but he didn’t appear cold.
Bruno, Dave and Shelly’s son, was mentally handicapped and utterly delightful. His heart full of love and his innocent approach to life instantly endeared him to me, and me to him. He did charming things like this—knock on my door in the morning and bring me things I didn’t know I needed, like a teeming cup of hot Nepali tea when I couldn’t breathe. The tea, and the tenderness, did have restorative powers. Bruno was like the beloved Mr. Dick in David Copperfield. With his lack of understanding of universal social norms and self-protecting mechanisms, Bruno had a disarming charm that was incredibly touching and even heartbreaking. I wouldn’t be surprised if my eyes misted when he arrived with tea for me that morning.
After a rushed breakfast, everyone fell out of the teahouse onto the parched earth at the same time and started up the trail at three o’clock by flashlight. With a fifteen- hour day of walking ahead of us and the mountain darkness impenetrable, everyone ran ahead pell-mell into the night in a loose scramble, moving as quickly as possible to reach the High Camp before dawn. I hurried after them, struggling to catch up. In all the commotion I temporarily forgot about my fear of altitude and difficulty breathing. I found the chilly darkness strangely bracing. It seemed to support my lungs like an inflatable toy in water.
Our flashlights were so feeble in the inky darkness that I couldn’t see a thing beyond a single footstep in front of me. Beyond the tiny sphere of light from my tepid headlamp was nothing less than oblivion—pure darkness, the absolute blackness of the universe before God breathed life into it.
Our group was quickly swallowed by the consummate darkness and separated from one another like runners in a marathon. Before long only Emma and I were shambling along at the back like two pachyderms in an Arabian caravan. Two others fell behind us, and we never saw them again. Emma always walked slower than I did, and I always walked slower than Sion, which usually went down like glass in my throat, but on this particular night I was happy to just inch along at Emma’s glacial pace. Simply placing one foot in front of the other, we climbed the steep grade slowly but steadily, wordlessly moving through the chilly night air. It was quieter than usual—quieter, in fact, than anywhere I’ve ever been my entire life. This was the true primordial darkness—pre-Genesis dark. There was absolutely no light. As I walked, my breathing felt full and fine. Could I thank the darkness for that? I didn’t know, but I was too scared to do anything but just keep going.
I knew from climbing this particularly steep stretch the previous afternoon how little space there was between the trail and a sheer drop into oblivion on my left, a chimney with no flue that plummeted five miles straight down to the bottom. You’d fall through space a full minute before you hit the rock-strewn valley floor and your skeleton exploded on impact. I had to trust the narrow strip of path within the tiny sphere of my headlamp to steer me clear of a deadly fall on my left that was nearby but I couldn’t see.
However, the velvety darkness proved to be an unexpected boon. Not being able to see anything, even my own hand if I stretched it out in front of my face, did not allow my brain to register the incredible height I found myself in relation to the head-spinning depth of the valley floor below, the sight that had sent me reeling the day before.
The tomblike darkness enveloped me, cocooned me, took my world away, causing me very much to forget where I was. Gradually my fear subsided. What remained in its place was the most amazing feeling of pure bliss I have ever known in all my life as I just kept placing one foot in front of the other within the tiny circle of lamplight that was like the dim glow of a Victorian candle in a second-floor hallway. One step at a time, repeated over and over for hours, was Zen-like—chop wood, carry water.
The curious elixir of blackest universe and unobstructed open space that stretched from that mountain face in the Himalayas to Saturn in a straight line and back, that silent march upward through the night that I had been dreading, instead shifted and slid into something altogether different, melted into one of the most mysterious, purely enjoyable nights of my life. We are distracted, manipulated, controlled, deceived by what we see. Our eyes do not always present the truth of things. When you can’t see, darkness becomes like God’s hand guiding you. In darkness, the truth reveals itself.
Emma and I floated on in silence, unmoored in this great black ocean. The only thing I was able to make out in the darkness were tiny pinpricks of flashlight from other trekkers who were moving faster high up on the mountain face. They were so high up that they looked like wobbling stars set against the backdrop of the cosmos.
At around six in the morning, after three hours of walking, we reached Thorong Phedi’s High Camp at 4,900forty-nine hundred meters. We’d completed half the day’s elevation already, and I felt fine. More than fine, , I felt invigorated.
The steepest section of the ascent now behind us, Emma and I ducked inside High Camp for predawn tea, hot soup, and bread. Bruno, Dave, Shelly, and Sion, who’d already been here thirty minutes, were just finishing as we arrived. The sun was about to rise, and it was necessary for time that we press on. We needed to get over the pass before midday when the sun becomes hot enough to melt the snow and cause avalanches. A troop of thirty Indians was wiped off Thorong La a few years ago by an avalanche.
After High Camp the snow layer began, and for the first time I found myself walking through a fine pewtery dust of snow. It was dark, and Emma and I hurried along inside the fragile halos of our headlamps. Neither of us knew our precise whereabouts. We raced along through the wintry darkness, struggling to catch up with Sion, Bruno and the others who had left camp just a minute or two ahead of us.
It was then that a powerful confluence of forces, quite frightening, literally dawned on us. As the sun edged up between a cleft in the peaks, a powerful beam slashed down through the darkness and suddenly our location was bathed in a spindle of pale orange light.
All was revealed. Emma and I were standing on an extremely narrow pirate plank-wide strip of trail. The mountain face was on our left and a particularly fatal right-angle drop was on our right—a ginormous pit like Jabba’s sandpit in Return of the Jedi, except with no bottom. We were tight-roping a veritable chasm of death around a bowl that plunged straight down to hell. I was shocked that we were hiking next to something so perilous without any guardrail set up to protect us. I love the lack of protection in developing countries—life is much more exciting.
It can also end a lot sooner.
I was about two meters out on the plank, and I danced back off it to safety. Emma was farther out on the plank than me, and as soon as she saw where she was, she froze, and like a good robot she shut herself down. Rooted to the spot, she began to sob. Emma’s loud, mournful wails rose up on the uncaring morning air. She would neither move forward nor back, and I didn’t know what to do to help her. If I went out there and tried to pull her backward we might both fall off. I was none too comfortable out there myself, remember; I have a complicated relationship with heights.
Sion, however, was fearless at heights—an experienced Himalayan hiker and a home builder by trade, he was accustomed to walking on rooftops and high beams. But he had gone on ahead of us as usual. Dave and his family were all carrying hiking poles, which they had used to brace themselves across. They were on four legs basically, like arachnids.
Just when Emma was at her most distraught, her crying reached the ears of Sion and Dave and his family, who all rushed back out onto the ledge from the far side. Dave underhand-tossed one of his hiking poles to Emma like he was pitching an old women’s softball game. Then he swanned away from the ledge like an exiting geisha. I realized Dave was no fan of heights himself.
Sion was most impressive. He strode out onto the plank like a cyborg, fearless, like a Saint Bernard on Chamonix. He took Emma by the hand, wrapped his arm around her shoulder, and briskly marched her across the plank. Sion walked side by side with Emma so that he was walking between her and the abyss. There wasn’t enough room for two people to walk side by side so Sion’s right foot inconceivably fell just over the side on the sharp, sheer beginnings of the wall that plunged straight down to hell. Only the inner third of his right shoe made physical contact with the slope, sort of half on, half off it. I was stunned. He did this naturally without even thinking about it, like a billy goat.
Someone tossed me a ski pole. I caught it heavily with a great show of force as though my life depended on it, and then stiffly began making my way across, leaning heavily into the rock face of the mountain on my left, not daring so much as to glance to my right.
We stopped for hot tea and bread again at the last Nepali outpost before undertaking the final ascent to the pass. As we left the outpost to start the final leg—a steep three-hour climb to Thorong La—a couple of Nepalis were standing outside the front door like cowboys cooling their heels in front of a saloon. They had four yaks—great yellow, brown, and white-haired beasts with natural-forming dreadlocks like reggae-loving buffalo. Their yellow hair corkscrewed down in hemplike rings, twisting in helixed volutions into cornrows. Yaks are marvelous animals to see.
As we started out, the Nepalis began to follow us with their yaks. They maintained a respectful distance of about two hundred yards, waiting—hoping—that one of us would fall prey to the altitude and enlist their services to get them up over the pass. For a substantial fee one could ride to the summit bundled across the back of a yak like nuclear payload fitted to the head of a rocket. Perhaps they’d noticed Emma’s corpulent frame and thought she might fold like an origami swan under the barometric pressure. If so, they had badly misjudged her deceptive strength. Emma was as slow as grass growing but had more lasting power than Stonehenge. And still the Nepalis stalked us, haunting our footfalls with their beasts, tracking our movements like vultures waiting for us to expire in the desert.
At this altitude, with the exception of Sion, we were all moving extremely slowly, needing to stop every three or four steps just to catch our breath. The steepness of this final stretch, combined with the thinness of the air above five thousand meters, made going even a few meters exhausting, and several hours passed as we slowly wended our way through a now- alien landscape that was completely blanketed in snow. It was a giant whiteout up here. It looked like we were marching across the moon. No birds flew at this elevation; they had given up and were cresting much farther down. We were now nearly eye level with the tops of most of the peaks. There was nothing up here but snow, ice, and a brilliant sapphire blue sky. This strange white world was in sharp contrast to the dirt and roaring rivers of Thorong Phedi we had left behind this morning. Still the path climbed relentlessly.
And just when some of us thought we couldn’t go on much longer, the ordeal was suddenly over and we had reached it. Thorong La, at 5,416 meters supposedly the highest mountain crossing in the world, emerged from behind a rocky outcrop with a huge Tibetan flag-spackled banner greeting us with congratulations and a description of the otherworldly elevation we had reached. We were ecstatic and spontaneously came together in a moment of pure pleasure. Dave cried out with joy, and so did Shelly and Bruno, Emma, Sion and me. Then we crested in front of the banner and snapped a few photos.
We had done it, and now that we would be going down the other side, there would be no more business with that insidious specter that had dominated conversation the last few weeks, altitude sickness. It’s not possible to have it when you go down—descending you can only feel better.
The cold set in quickly the longer we stood still. “Let’s go!” bellowed Dave with the smile of a man who has achieved a goal. We all bundled up as fast as we could and tripped along after the English barrister down the faint slope of the other side.
After fifteen -hours of walking we finally arrived at the far outpost of Muktinath in Nepal’s Mustang region at a comfortable thirty-seven hundred meters, far below Thorong Phedi’s elevation the night before. In fifteen hours of walking we had ascended one thousand1,000 meters and dropped down another 1,700seventeen hundred, a spectacular distance and change of landscapes in one day.
The Mustang region is Tibetan while narrowly falling within the border of Nepal.
Mustang’s people are mostly Tibetan. It was my first time to see Tibetan people. Their faces are carved and chiseled, like out of birch wood, exquisite, and they have an elegant, regal majesty.
The town of Muktinath was filled with prayer wheels—large wooden cylinders engraved with Buddhist prayers. Spin the prayer wheels with your right hand as you pass them, said to bring good luck to the traveler.
Thousands of eye-popping bright orange, yellow, and white prayer flags festooned the upper landscape in long rainbows of brilliant color on strings that whipped and fluttered in the wind. These rainbows of prayer flags, which can stretch more than five hundred meters from a prayer wheel beside you up to a stupa on a mountain face high above you, are visually arresting and intensely, wildly beautiful. The bright popping colors of the flags stand up starkly and harshly against the piercing blue sky of Nepal’s upper elevations and go a long way toward creating the magical world up here.
The Mustang landscape is vivid with Martian-red packed clay and red rock. The earth is bloodred, cracked and caked in red dirt like sprinkles on Christmas cookies. Street stalls selling Tibetan wares on the cobbled roads of Muktinath evoked the childhood magical allure of the Arabian marketplace. Perfumed spices, fragrance, and incense, and the bustle of the high-altitude marketplace was like some distant fairytale kingdom in Shangri-La.
Sprawling red mountains swept up above the plain backstopped by the great eight-thousand-plus-meter snowcapped peaks of the upper Himalayas from whence we came. Those towering peaks stretched all the way up to the sun. The challenge we’d faced and overcome, ascended and descended. Behind us in the rearview mirror now, it all felt like a fever dream. The climb was so intense that when it was finally over there was almost the sense it didn’t happen—it was too unlikely to have happened, too unreal when you look back at those peaks rising up so high behind you.
“We couldn’t possibly have climbed over those mountains, did we?” I asked Dave. “It looks impossible.”
This time he didn’t shake his head at me. “Yeah,” he said, smiling. “I reckon we did.”
The Himalayas aren’t easy, but they are the perfect escape. They are the ultimate escape, I would say, better than anything or anywhere else. If I were to imagine heaven looks like anything we would recognize, I’d have to say it looks like the Himalayas. I could almost say I’ve seen it in my dreams.
After we completed the Annapurna Circuit, Sion and I spent an additional four days hiking to the Annapurna Sanctuary, a 360-degree panorama of two of the world’s fourteen eight-thousand-plus meter peaks, including Annapurna herself. After we descended from the sanctuary, Sion went on ahead as was his usual wont, and I never saw him again.
Eventually I came all the way down the last three thousand 3,000 steps until I touched asphalt, the bottom of the highest mountain range on earth. When I arrived I was starkly reintroduced to reality, which while in heaven I had forgotten is not always a nice place. It’s full of war, power-grabbing people, and other horrible things.
There was a solitary guesthouse in Birethanti where the trailhead met the road. I walked in and learned that the strike had not ended during the three weeks I had been in the mountains. In fact, both sides had dug in and the fighting had intensified. After three weeks without income or, in many cases, food, the Nepali people were hungry. I found out that many of them were starving.
No public transportation meant that I would have to walk the forty-one kilometers from the trailhead to Pokhara. That’s the length of a full marathon.
That evening I met a Nepali at the guesthouse and we made a plan to walk to Pokhara together in the morning. Even at the blistering pace he set, walking briskly without ever stopping once, it took us nearly eight hours. Again, with no transportation running, what at any other time would have been a prosaic bus ride from the trailhead into Pokhara, the walk turned into a surprising joy. The joy of travel is foremost the joy of the unknown and the unexpected. We walked past native villages that received no visitors. They came out and watched as we passed. The air was cool, crisp, fresh, and sunny. Trail-hardened from walking 170 miles the last three weeks, walking one more marathon today was a breeze.Tension over the struggle to bring down the king had reached a fever pitch, and throughout Nepal now, not only in the cities of Kathmandu and Pokhara, the populace was embroiled in a large-scale civil war against government troops. Protests were happening across the country everyday. Police were firing into crowds when demonstrators failed to disperse and were killing civilians by the score. The Nepali walking with me insisted I walk with him because he said the roads were unsafe at the moment: the Nepali people were hungry from the protracted strike and desperate enough to attack anyone on the roads, perhaps even a fair-skinned tourist, as the lines had blurred on what was considered acceptable.
As we approached the city outskirts of Pokhara, we were met by heavily armed guards at police checkpoints and cement barricades that had been erected on the roads. Each time I was stopped by the police, my good Nepali companion intervened on my behalf and, speaking the local language, persuaded them to let me pass. And so by his help I arrived safely in Pokhara.
Here I did the only thing I knew to do, which was to go to the Butterfly Inn, recommended to me by someone on the trail as a good place and the name of which had instantly given me a good feeling.
When we arrived at the Butterfly Inn, the proprietor informed us that the airline pilots had joined the strike that day and now there was but one way to fly to Kathmandu—in the army’s plane, which flew once per day at a hugely inflated price for people desperate to get back. I said I certainly fit that description. There was one hang-up. The thirty-minute flight cost $120, and I only had $50 left. I had miscalculated how much money I would need in the Himalayas and had nearly run out. I had fifty dollars left in combined US and Nepalese money, with no ATM card and no credit cards on me. It hadn’t been smart to leave my ATM card behind in Kathmandu, but I had been warned that Maoists were patrolling the lower trails of the Annapurna Circuit, robbing tourists at gunpoint to finance the rebellion.
In the end this proprietor who had opened an orphanage in the building next to his inn to take in the hungry, abandoned children of Pokhara, of which there are many, lent me seventy dollars so I could take the army plane back to Kathmandu. This goodly man of the Butterfly Inn, Govinda was his name, who cares for about a hundred orphans who depend on him completely in order to eat and have a bed to sleep in at night, gave me seventy US dollars, a not insubstantial sum in Nepal. I promised to pay him back, he said to see that I did, and I thanked him heartily.
As we walked together, he strolled hand in hand with his daughter—not actually his daughter, but one of the little orphans he had rescued off the streets of Pokhara. She turned around, looked up at me, and smiled. Govinda bid me farewell, and we parted ways. Since no transportation was operating, he instructed one of his employees to walk me to the airport, as it was a good hour away on foot. The inn employee deposited me at the airport and left.
In Nepal, the domestic airplanes have yet to implement the basic invention of radar. That means if it is a cloudy day, they literally cannot see and so cannot fly the plane.
On this day, the army’s plane was scheduled to take off at two thirty in the afternoon, but it was late arriving from Kathmandu. The plane had taken off, we were told, was in the air, but by the time it crossed over the mountains that hold Pokhara in the low part of the country, a cloudbank had swooped in with its usual preternatural intelligence to block our escape. A few people in the terminal even claimed they had seen the plane fly over the mountains just before the clouds rolled in. Officials told us that the plane was circling Pokhara and waiting for the clouds to disperse so it could land. That didn’t happen, so after another hour we were informed that the plane had returned to Kathmandu because it was running low on gas. We were ordered to leave and come back to the airport at six o’clock the following morning. The guards said that no one was allowed to sleep in the tiny airport. They waited by the door, fingering the triggers of their machine guns, motioning for us all to get out. I was screwed again.
I had not one red cent on me, having given everything of monetary value I had to Govinda for the plane ticket. I reached into my pockets. Zilch. I was really floating now. Govinda’s employee and I had walked a long distance from the Butterfly Inn, over an hour, and I had no idea how to get back. It was pitch-black outside—there were absolutely no streetlamps—and it was possibly dangerous on the streets. I had no money to hire someone to show me the way back. I looked around; there was no one to hire anyway.
As everyone filed out of the airport, a nineteen-year-old Nepali girl noticed I looked lost, I guess, and she asked me whether I had a place to stay for the night. I told her I did not and that I had no money at all, not one cent, literally nothing. Light laughter tinkled from her pretty face. She turned to her mother and asked if I could spend the night with them. The mother gave me a nearly imperceptible scan that was faster than any Deep Blue supercomputer, and promptly agreed. I thanked them profusely in the little of the language I had picked up in the mountains. The mother spoke no English at all, and the girl’s was extremely limited. As we walked … and walked and walked —they turned out to live over an hour away, there are no short distances in the countryside of Nepal—I tried to have a conversation with this Nepali girl who had just saved me in a big way. But it proved too difficult for either of us after a while, so we stopped trying and just walked in silence.
The next morning we headed back to the airport through darkness. The walk turned out to be mystical and beautiful as the sun rose giant, a harvest sun, closer, paler, and larger than usual, sending soft hues of orange and pink light skating across the same streets that had been buzzing so vibrantly the night before, now so still and silent that I could hear every stone crunch beneath my shoes. The street was wide, and after we left the village, the area was completely uninhabited. The sun’s first touch prickled the skin on my left forearm, giving me warm goosebumps of pleasure, and the soft dawn light blushed everything in an ambient grace.
Although the army plane was scheduled to depart at seven o’clock, it didn’t arrive from Kathmandu until after one in the afternoon. The army plane had no passenger seats, just a single seatbelt–strap that ran the length of each side that people could sort of half sit on. There was a steel bar like a pull-up bar above our heads.
Somehow there wasn’t a seat for me. There were no other foreigners on the army plane; they were all Nepalis flying, I learned, at one-tenth the rate I was paying. Perhaps they had sold me the ticket just to get my $120 (the Nepalis were charged $12), knowing there was no seat left. So I stood the entire time the plane stormed down the runway, took off, was in the air, and landed. I laughed thinking how illegal this would be in America. It’s great fun to stand during takeoff, actually. Woohoo! It’s no problem at all. It made me wonder why we have to sit. I did five pull-ups on the bar above my head during takeoff and generally enjoyed my army plane experience very much.
In Kathmandu I took an airport shuttle back to Thamel and once again had the pleasure of navigating streets terrorized by burning tires and strips of broken glass shards lain across the road. At Kathmandu Guest House I picked up my ATM card and laughed out loud, feeling exhilarated by essentially being homeless, literally penniless, and being saved three times by three extremely kind Nepalis. The girl and her mother I could do nothing for—I had not gotten their address as sensed in some way it was futile—but I would get Govinda his seventy dollars back with plenty of interest. The only problem was that all the banks were closed due to the revolution, and there was no easy way to get money to Pokhara.In the end I just stuffed cash in an envelope and mailed it to Govinda from the New Delhi post office. When I phoned Govinda to tell him I had simply mailed him the money, he bemoaned my stupidity and complained bitterly that the money would never reach him.
“What are you, stupid?” he said. “Don’t you know we are a corrupt people?”
“Yes! I know you are!” I shouted back.
“Fool!” he said. “Either the Indians or the Nepalis will steal it.” I heard him snuffling on the other end of the line.
“I have a receipt,” I said.
Click. He’d hung up on me in disgust.
I didn’t hear from Govinda for a while after that. In typical Indian fashion it took twice as long as the six weeks the post office said it would, but one day Govinda wrote to say that indeed he had received the money. Excitedly he asked me to call him right away.
“Hello!” he cried when he picked up the receiver.
“Hello Govinda! So you got the money?”
“Yes! It’s a minor miracle. Listen, do you remember the little girl I introduced you to the day we had lunch? Just before I saw you off?”
“Yes, I remember.”
Govinda had walked hand in hand with her. She was three years old, just able to walk, and cute as a button. She had twinkled up the street, a twirl and a skirted step, and looked back around at me and smiled. It touched my heart. Auyshma was her name, and she was unimpeachably adorable.
“I have decided to name you Auyshma’s godfather. She will be your goddaughter.”
“Thank you!” I gushed. “I’ve always wanted a daughter.”
“Of course, the privilege of having a goddaughter does not come for free,” he went on. “You would sponsor her. For a very small amount, just $300 a year, she could be fed, sheltered, educated, and given every opportunity in Nepal until she reaches adulthood. You can speak with her on the phone anytime you like, and I will send you pictures of her throughout the year so you can see her growing up.”
“Govinda, you’re both a benevolent humanitarian and a shrewd businessman,” I said. “You have a good head on your shoulders.”
“Of course my head is on my shoulders, where else could it be?” he snapped. “The head must be on the shoulders. Good or bad, I have to carry it around!
“But I’m glad it’s a good one,” he added with a whimper.
“I would love to sponsor Auyshma,” I said, “when I get a job again. But who knows when that will be? I’ve been traveling the earth for years now.”
“Hmm,” Govinda grumbled. His mood seemed to have suddenly soured.
The day after I left Nepal for New Delhi, King Gyanendra finally bowed to the pressure of the entire country clamoring for his removal. The killings had begun to be covered by the global news networks, and the international spotlight may have been what really persuaded him to change his mind. Gyanendra agreed to divert some of his power to a council of formerly elected officials he had abolished, but now reinstated. The people at first accepted this olive branch joyfully, but quickly rescinded, saying it was not nearly enough. About a week later amid continuing turmoil the king agreed to reinstate Parliament, and shortly thereafter he was deposed completely when Parliament announced free elections.
The Nepal monarchy ended permanently when Gyanendra, the last king, abdicated the throne to no one. Maoists, in open war with the monarchy for over a decade, were for the first time elected to Parliament in numbers. In government now, the Maoists ended their long-running war. For the first time in seventeen years Nepal was at peace.
I do not make my living by writing I assure you. I am nobody important with no published pieces to my name.