Tuesday, March 31, 2015

Nepal ~ Trekking the Annapurna Circuit: Part I

In mid-December, 2014, I set out with a group of nine others, friends, co-workers, students and family from six different countries, to trek the Annapurna Circuit across the Himalayas of Central Nepal. While I trekked, I carried with me a journal and pen, and when I could warm my fingers sufficiently to write, collected bits and pieces of the journey. This is the story of this adventure...

December 8th, 2014

As the fall term draws to an end, I head South to Bangalore with a group of faculty for India's first Experiential Education Conclave. The EEC is hosted in an outdoor-adventure retreat centre, complete with outdoor pool, high and low ropes courses and luxurious tents, set up especially for us MUWCI folk—whose budget is too low for the rental cabins—pillows, duvets and all. For three days we sit in on workshops and stay up late networking/socializing furiously with the people of India's experiential education (EE) scene. Our workshop, presenting UWC Mahindra's story of Outdoor Adventure (Arvin), the Triveni project/service based learning program (Oscar and Ben) and the up and coming Project Based Diploma (Cary), was one of the hits of the weekend; we couldn't resist spicing up the presentation with some role-playing, quick digs and funky music. The aftermath: meeting young people working across India in prisons, volunteering in public schools, delivering heart-felt alternative education pedagogies, forsaking traditional working fields for something they believe in. Some of the seasoned experiential education gurus have devoted followings and I am reminded that we are in India.

From there, Arvin, Marija and I fly North from Bangalore to Delhi where we pick up Arvin's mum, Zeena (Warrior Princess) and then fly across the border, leaving India behind for the first time since I arrived in August, and touching ground in Kathmandu. And so we enter another world altogether.

Where's Waldo?     Kathmandu: Photo credit: Wikipedia MediaCommons

Seldom have I so quickly felt like I could stay in a place for seasons. The narrow crowded streets are full of beautiful women and smiling men, the ubiquitous smell of incense. Tiny shops alternate between traditional basket weaving, tourist trinkets and a mix of top-notch alpine gear and cheap imitations, depending on your budget.

We stay at Yala Peak Hotel in Thamel—the tourist hub of Kathmandu. The place houses Rosemary, a restaurant that lists as no.4 in Kathmandu dining: lovely jazz music by day, candlelit by night, all run by lovely young lads. Here we meet up with our group of five UWC Mahindra College students from Venezuela, Cambodia, Poland and Canada/Netherlands.

Our stay in Kathmandu is restorative. After four days sleepless in Bangalore I sleep for a solid eleven hours and begin anew, ready now for the adventure that lies ahead: the Annapurna Circuit: _____km of trekking that will take us across one of the world's highest mountain ranges, climbing some _____ meters in altitude to the infamous Thorung La Pass, at 5,416m: ___ days. Enlivened with push ups and crunches in the wonderfully crisp air, we set out onto the streets of Kathmandu to explore. At Shona's Alpine, a family run shop that specializes in particularly well made gear, I drop skrill on a new duck down jacket and a goose down, extra long sleeping bag: the likes of which would cost an arm and a leg in Canada, and here amount to some 200 CAD. Then I allow myself to drift from the group and get lost in the stunning array of faces, smells, streets, impossibly small shops that is Kathman, until I am several neighbourhoods away, strolling through swarms of giggling school children breaking from class, playing hacky-sack with bunched up wires, while I catch glimpses between rickety alleyways of the valley that is home to this city of eclectics. A setting sun and a strong breeze cut through the dust that otherwise sits at nose level. Dazzling gold and fresh air come in gusts, reminding me of the nearby mountains we will soon discover.

I make my way back as it turns to dusk, asking and eating my way along streets cluttered with intricately carved wooden balconies that are a living relic of –to me—medieval streets. All back together at Yala Peak by 18.00, we set a 19.00 dinner date. In the hour between, I strike back out in my new jacket to find some Tongba—hot Nepali beer. I find the place I've been told to go, K2, named after the mountain, and join two Nepali lawyers who teach me how to drink the stuff—served in huge cuts of bamboo that serve as mugs, filled to the brim with fermented barley grains and topped up by a thermos of boiling water, Argentinian mate style to produce a hearty, head twisting insta-beer. We dip our heads into the rising steam and drink deep—three fills is the best, they teach me. They also teach me a fistful of Nepali—enough to compliment the food and initiate flirtatious conversation.

I meet the group back at the hotel and we set out for dinner, joined now by Ramesh—our guide-come-porter who has worked with Arvin for three years now on treks, and who will be our guide on this trek, as well as another Nepali man who has helped us in getting our trekking permits. We cross town to a spot that Marija has scouted out online: “Places”. We climb a creatively painted stairwell and suddenly find ourselves in a world apart form the city—and country—outside. Black painted walls with wild, Gordon Auld like art; foreigners on smartphones sitting on cushions at low down tables; a high-priced but totally on-spot vegan menu; and the freshest house-chill-step beats of summer 2014 in North America. For one evening, the eve of our departure into the mountains, we indulge.

Dec 16th, 2014

In moments of stillness, whether away from the group or while the bus/jeep stops for gas, I pull out a small brown booklet, decorated with hand-drawn sunflowers and dragonflies: “21 Days of Gratitude”. A gift from a dreamy young woman I met at the Conclave in Bangalore, who lives in Pune and has the depth of wells in dark, distant eyes. I tell her when we part to let me know if she has any friends half as lovely as her, or, alternatively, if she ever has any trouble with her boy—a Bollywood director living in Mumbai. As we set off into this trek, I wonder if my mind will remain fixated on all that is feminine or if, with the mindfulness that such landscapes as this require, my mind will relax and release, and realize that there is peace to be had even for an irrevocably single young man on the road. I suppose only the passing of time and waxing moon will tell.

Day I: Dec 18th, 2014:  Besi-Sahar --> Siri Chow

And indeed it passes. Today we begin trekking. It feels wonderful to use our legs after so many hours being slowly mashed together on the slow-motion roller coaster ride that is The Jeep: pure muscle manifest in an automobile. After hours of terrifying corkscrewing along sheer drops and impossible sections of loose-boulders-for-road, we dismount and hike, into snow... only to hear that a few hours later the jeep's breaks fail and the driver and Ramesh nearly go off the road, saved only by Ramesh running out of the still-moving vehicle and putting rocks in front of the tires. We hear of this gathered together, at day's end, sitting post-dinner around a huge metal bin of coals—an indoor heater that is less explosive than the propane tanks often used in these parts.

Growing white.

Day II: Dec 19th, 2014: Siri Chow --> Chame --> Upper Pisang

Today we walked entirely from Autumn to Winter. It is such a magical thing, to walk from season to season; from soft gold light, a bed of pine needles and smells that bring me back to October in Ontario; to a trail, hard-packed with snow, passing through shoots of blue ice and a different smell altogether, one that brings with it memories of winters past: a crispness that wakes one up like nothing else. The snow, at first scattered in pockets on the sides of the trail, soon becomes a white backdrop and we follow the footprints of birds, beasts and other people, who we glimpse through the woods, gathering firewood in anticipation of a fast approaching, long, cold winter. These women and children smile and return our namastes, hands together, one palm open, the other holding a sickled blade for chopping wood.

As we hike, brown hillsides give way to steep white slopes and I feel my feet itching for a pair of skis. Our path follows the Morshandi River, as it snakes its way through the Manang Valley, feeding off the snow melts of the surrounding mountains—and an esteemed cluster of snow-covered faces they are: Langjum Himal, Annapurna II, III and IV, Gangapurna and finally, Tilicho Peak (respectively from S-NW).

The Annapurnas

Every time we stop to break, we have come visibly deeper into this range of mountains, some of which, such as Annapurna II that dominates the sky, remain unclimbed. Others have a 40% death rate for past attempts.

With spurts of mild nausea and headache scattered amongst the group, we gradually acclimatize. Arvin, having spent enough time at high altitude, is fine. Somehow, inexplicably, so too am I, perhaps thanks to my aggressive hydrating and daily, deep breathing yoga which not only keeps my body limber, but embodies the mountain-breath that Arvin teaches us: forceful exhales, clearing the lungs of the residual air that settles in the bottom, and deep inhales. If not audible to one's neighbour, you aren't breathing hard enough. Some porters achieve this by leaning vigorously over their ice-axes, physically ejecting the air, so as to allow two full lungs of oxygen to rejuvenate the body. It works powerfully, clearing one's head and providing a surplus of oxygen to the muscles and brain, enabling one to trek on seemingly indefinitely.

But I wont fully appreciate the benefits of this mountain breath until a day later, when it will power me through a 300m climb breaking trail through untrod snow, racing to beat the cold that comes with the quick mountain sunset, speeded by the walls of rock and ice that reduce the horizons to a stone's throw distance.

Prayer Wheels - Despite cold hands, we pass on the left and spin these hand beaten wheels spinning, in doing so joining the age old practice of keeping the wheel of the Dharma turning.

Day IV: Upper Pisang --> Ghyaru

We are now coming deep into the mountain range. Setting out from Upper Pisang, our speed is slowed by a collective need to stop, and look. Even ever-eager Arvin's steps are punctuated as we take in the other worldly views around us. We descend close to a tributary of the Morshandi River, and single file, cross over a hanging wire-bridge, suspended across some eighty meters of sky.

Bringing up the rear, I walk this sky-line alone, stopping halfway across.

A gentle wind sweeps down the gulley over which I am suspended. The prayer flags, some rich in colour, others made a common white by the passage of many years, are suspended in ethereal motion: prayers kept alive by the wind off the hills, spilling their blessings in all directions. Beneath me, crystaline-blue water gushes bellow ice, to meet the river below. Ahead, seventeen year olds from around the world, some of whom have never seen snow until now, trek on into the white.

In sudden stillness, I breathe.

Sky-bridge. Bridging one realm with another.

That night, we arrive to a lodge run by family of Ramesh. They make us welcome with a roaring fire and lovely food. I go exploring. In this place, deeply spiritual in its rawness, I feel at once close to and at once thousands of miles away from my home in Easter Turtle Island, and the community that, led by Emmett Peters, Mi'kmaq elder, comes together once a week to sweat, to smudge to breathe. I wander away from the students as they make home for the night. I miss the cedar smoke, the old hands performing older ritual over burning sage. As if memory has come to life, I suddenly smell a familiar smell, and follow my nose around a corner of the lodge only to come across a cedar smudge puja being carried out for two local elders who passed away the day before. I am invited to join. Not knowing the local custom, I do what comes naturally. I kneel down, bend low over the burning cedar boughs and let the smoke curl up through my face, my hair, my open hands. I smile my thanks to the wrinkled faces around me, bringing my hands together in the universal symbol of thanks.

All my relations.

Day V: Ghyaru, December 21st, 2014

While each day we rise and fall in altitude, gradually acclimatizing, this day's trek brings us some 300m higher than we've yet been. We stop amidst pine and cedar trees to snack, drink and listen to Zeena sing songs she learnt as a young girl in an Indian Sacred Heart school. The familiar Christian tunes bring a smile to my face, as well as to Sara's: a young Venezuelan woman with a sense of compassion and a work ethic that would put most Protestants to shame. 

Coming down from a steep ascent, I stop to chat with a solitary hiker, coming the other way: our projected route. With a bad knee and after multiple days of breaking trail through knee-deep snow, he left his friends, turned back and made for home. Pierrot, a Norman and the essence of the French Man, is overjoyed to speak his mothertongue and we are soon hugging between Norman slang. His home is some 50km from Evreux, where I spent three months when I was fifteen years old. We exchange simple gifts from our packs and part ways with a quick hug, good wishes and smiles. Little do we know we will meet on the streets of Pokhara a fortnight hence.

Our destination for today is Arvin's favourite spot on the entire trek: Ghyaru, an ancient mountain village set high on the hills, facing Annapurna II straight on. As we appraoch the cluster of houses, I foresake my instinctive position at the back of the group and make my way to the front, arriving with Ramesh before the rest of the pack.

The buildings here are stunning. Unlike the unfortunate pink and blue painted guest houses that characterize most of the circuit—a local trick to attract foreigners perhaps—these buildings are almost invisible against the rocks from which they are build. If the people of Tolkein's Rohan were to flee to a hidden mountain abode, this would be it. The entire place speaks of another time, before the advent of roads, the arrival of Europeans and much less a culture of pleasure-trekking. This is a place of hardy survival, simple means and a precarious marriage to the barren mountains that cut Ghyaru off from the rest of the world.

I meet our host for the night: Raju. A man apart from other Nepali mountain dwellers, he has dreads that fall below his nipples, a wily smile and spot on english that he has learnt from years of watching what films and shows make it to his mountain television set.

Raju: Mountain Sage of Ghyaru

Tucked away in the dark, smoky kitchen, I share a quiet moment with Raju, as he explains to me some of the history of Nepal, united from a cluster of kingdoms into a single nation by a royal man from Jaipur, Rajasthan, some two hundred years ago. The recentness with which this place has been exposed to the modern, western world is stunning and all too tangible. Especially here in Ghyaru.

Meanwhile, the rest of the gang slowly arrives.

I put on my sunnies and step outside into a 
golden world of snow capped summits receding in endless chains 
and a universe that makes me reconsider my own 
existence in this world.

I am now cooled down from my hiking, and at risk of loosing precious body heat. In perfect timing, I slurp down a hearty bowl of noodles that Raju has whipped up for me and, looking around, breathing deep the cool air, I feel myself finally here.

It has been a long day, and nor is it over. After settling in those of us who have not fallen ill with altitude sickness set out against the setting sun, our packs left behind, on a trek that will bring us another 300m up to a stupa nestled higher still on the mountainside above Ghyaru itself. With more energy than the students, I lead the way and break trail; this path has not been walked since the last snowfall(s). After a strong initial ascent we find ourselves in Old Ghyaru: a now abandoned cluster of even simpler stone buildings that tell a story of older times, before trekking brought the wealth of foreigners to these parts. The homes are single rooms, six foot tall at most. Here is one so well preserved we slow as we pass its entrance. I utter a quiet Namaste, half expecting to hear a response: a sun-leathered face and ashen hands, clothed in the rough yak-wool that has kept people alive here for centuries.

But there is nothing, no one.

And the rest of the buildings are only half in tact: what was once a kitchen, now open to the sky, shows us the shelves that once held spices, yak oil and barley flour. Stories from the past told eerily through a windswept present, of a people who left for more a forgiving living, hundreds of meters below.

The trail is hidden beneath the snow, which between the stone walls of this once-village accumulates into three foot troughs. Half the group turns back, boots full of snow and unable to continue against the strain of the altitude. We see them safely down the path we came up, and then Arvin's enthusiastic resolve pushes the rest of us onwards, and upwards. He is sure the stupa is near and we have twenty minutes before our decided turn around time. With a fast setting sun and December cold quick on its heels this is no place to tempt fate. We push Thule and Dang hard—the only students still with us—carefully balancing philosophies of Challenge by Choice with the decidedly Kurt Hanian tough love that Arvin so naturally embodies. And soon enough we hear Arvin, who is scouting up ahead, hoot and holler. With the last rays of sun peaking over the slopes of Gangapurna, he has spotted the stupa.

With a final heave of mountain breathing, we make it to the great white and gold monument and the wild web of prayer flags that mark its holiness. Looking out some 4,200m up, our jaws drop, and we fall silent. In this stillness, hearts beating hard, all there is is sky and mountain.

In the Heart of the Upper Pisang Stupa, Buddha Eyes look out over the land. The quiet guardian of a valley lost in time.

The following day, we hike back up to the same Stupa. This time, everyone who sets out makes it—Ula pushes through walls and Dang has officially mastered the mountain breath, marching ahead: a new man. The change can be seen on his face. I reflect, it is this sort of transformation—and seeing my own leadership style evolve—that makes me wonder how adventures such as this can shape a person in their forming.

I quietly realize: I feel myself growing more into the man I aspire to be.

Day VI: December 22nd, 2014. Ghyaru --> Manang.

The following day we depart from Ghyaru, with warm farewells to our kind host Raju, and make for the next set of mountains. After a quick hike, we reach Manang. Manang is the midway point in this half of the circuit and the last outpost of any vaguely city-esque before the final three-day ascent to Thorun La Pass. A small outpost of all things modern and city in this mountain wilderness, this place is full of the stimuli that feed the Other Wolf.

A story of two wolves: told to me just before setting out on this trek
and something that returns to me all the while trekking.

There is no THING i can get,
no Adventure to go on,
nor any Way to be,
that will provide an easy way out of the interminable cycle.

So what to do?
Feed both wolves?
Live in denial of one?
Find ongoing sustenance for the other?

Mountain Dreams

The Life I am Living:

I am living in Pune, but not working at MUWCI. On a forray into the country, I meet a rasta man. He lives alone in a house in the woods. And makes music. Soul music. He is happy. He reminds me that there are many ways to live one's life; to serve the world. Follow your passions. Live simply, directly in touch with the Spirit that moves you, that feeds you. It is a story of a lifestyle outside of the norm, the safe, the easily understood. And a refreshing reminder of what I set out to do upon leaving Halifax, seven months ago. How am I living my life? For whom?

A Humble Gathering:

I am preparing to leave, moving away from Pune. I plan a small, humble gathering in my bedroom. Its a Sunday evening. People gather, small in numbers and lovely, in the low lit, sparsely decorated room. But soon I am telling tales of Dub Kartel—the Hali-famous band I left back in Canada. A boy from that world joins in on my reminiscing and calls up the rest of the East Coast b'ys and gals. The quality disappears and the quantity increases. Now I am downtown, in some big city in India, in an exclusive party at a fancy hotel. I am indulging in the elitism of having powerful associations through Mahindra College. I meet women and work for their attention, their affection. I am in no way interested in them. I feel cheap.

Day VIII: December 24th, 2015 Christmas eve: Thorung Phedi, Yakarka

For hours and days we trek, each sunset finding us deeper in the hills: the old, quiet mountains that are the horizons of this land and for now, our lives. And on this day, this Christmas Eve, we come to a place with warmth and colour. Bright tablecloths spread over long tables, endless portions of Dal Bhat and a dusty old, nearly forgotten guitar. Thule plays and sings and an entire world appears, just as the last rays of the sun disappear from the surrounding cliffs.

We live in a world of rock and snow. One is falling in love; another trying to find home; another contemplating a life of service; another growing into a man to make his mother proud. Hundreds, thousands of miles from home, we come together on the eve of Christmas to make a space that feels just like it.

After setting up our space for our Christmas eve celebrations, before inviting everyone in, I sneak away from the group, steal into the frigid night air—thin and clear above 3000m—and walk outside of the walls of the village of Yakarka. I sit, inches from the snow and lean against the stone wall, face to the wind.

It is cold, and keeping one's heat is important. But some things are more important still.

Here I take a moment and send my thoughts some 12,000km West of here, to where my family is gathered together for Christmas in Toronto. Its morning time there. Lake Ontario is slowly freezing. Tonight, Mum and Dad will lead their church services after a few glasses of champagne, rosy cheeked and heart warmed, two of their three children at home. Tom and Kate will go into the basement and go through our boxes of childhood memorabilia: a tradition of ours on Christmas eve. They will all go to bed in warm beds, with the dogs happily dosing below. Maybe, as they head to bed, they'll wonder: where is Ben right now?

And then I return to this place: high in these mountains, mere feet from the stars, about to make the most of a Christmas away from home—the first for many of these students and for me as well.

Back in the dining room, Arvin, Marija and I pull out all the stops. Snickers rolls for all, triple servings of dinner and three heaters keep us warm as we sing carols and share Christmas stories and traditions from our homes. Wrapped in blankets and down jackets, bare flames warming us from below the table, we indulge in our little bubble of heat and community.

In the heart of the mountain cold, a circle of warmth over Christmas Eve dinner.

Day IX: High Camp, December 25th, 2015

The next morning, Christmas morning, we mark the end of an arduous three day approach and reach High Camp. All the luxuries of the previous night gone, this place makes little facade of its true nature: a final place to rest before the mountain pass: Thorung La.

After a simple dinner of Tibetan bread and daal, fourteen people shiver around a small, smoky fire: Australian trekkers, Brits, our MUWCI group and Nepali guides. We are all doing the same thing. Planning for the following morning. Due to my Wilderness First Responder training I will supervise one group, led by Ramesh, and as Arvin knows the way while I don't it is logical for me to go with the early group, departing at 04.00(am), while Arvin and Marija follow a few hours later with the faster hikers. We go to bed still shivering—our coldest night yet at 4850m. Even tato pani, boiling water, at two hundred Nepali rupees (2.50CAD) a bottle freezes quickly at this altitude. Cozied into my down bag I ask my roommates, Dang and Ula, the time. Not yet 19.00. 18.50 to be exact. Perfect. Soon, I am asleep.

... Until approximately midnight. The rest of the night is more or less sleepless. Between the billiard games played by the mice in the walls, I lie imagining what lies ahead with a mix of excitement and dread, fairly waiting for Ula's alarm to sound and with it the summons to the most daunting walk I have ever contemplated, much less executed. Thorung La Pass is the highest point in the Annapurna Circuit and reaching 5416m, it takes the trekker onto a plateau from which many have not returned. Either disorientated by the endless hills, exhausted by the climb and altitude, caught in bad weather or a combination of all of these, many trekkers have simply shed their packs and sat down: the last decision they would ever make. Others have been caught in landslides on the far side of the pass, with civilization in sight. Only a few months ago dozens perished in such a slide, their bodies still lost in the rubble. For better or for worse, my thoughts are cut short by a lovely, familiar sound from a different place and time: a Yann Tiersen song from the soundtrack of Amelie.

Comfort in a dark hour. Ten points to Ula. It is, of course, her alarm and thus time to move.

The stars are our sole source of light as we set out. I am feeling slightly nauseous and headachy: along with my sleepless night, these are symptoms of the altitude. We eat a quiet breakfast and fill our bodies with warm water, joined by another dozen or so trekkers from different groups. We all set out together, led by our respective porters, away from the camp and up a nearby ridge. Underfoot everything is snow and ice.

At Manang, on a whim, Arvin bought a handful of metal cramp-ons: enough for all the students and Zeena. Arvin, MJ and I abstained, confident in our ability to grip the snow we had been treading until then. Although I tread carefully, I slip more than once and wish I had been less sure of my sure-footedness. It is pitch black, save the lights of our headlamps that mark our slow-moving caravan, snaking single file into the night. The usual conversation is silenced by a collective understanding. This is no fool's game, and every step counts. We cut across a steep slope, steep enough to reach one's arm out and touch the ground to one's left without difficulty. To the right, the world disappears into all consuming black, perhaps a gradual slope to flat ground, perhaps a sheer drop. Its impossible to say. I think now of what my family must be up to.

They are sitting around an electric fireplace at home, heating turned up, drinking wine and asking themselves, Where is Ben right now? And then I see and feel what lies before me through their eyes. A lunar landscape, a strong, cold wind and the piercing points of light in the nearby sky that are the stars, not yet touched by the light of pre-dawn. We walk,  always keeping within arm's reach of each other, just in case, each treading exactly in the others' footsteps, perfect steps, the path not wide enough to allow for improvisation. Perfect steps.

And then I slip.

Suddenly my arms are where my feet were, crossed over, grasping at the ice and snow that is the ledge we walk along, while my feet try to puncture the slope below me to self-arrest and prevent my sliding, to no avail. I feel myself slowly sliding down, my arms inevitably straightening as I move inch by inch off the ledge. I know that there is nothing I can do to prevent this gradual descent until I loose contact with the ledge entirely. Something kicks in and I straighten my arms, holding out my gloved hands to either side, releasing my last purchase on the flat path as my chest slides ever more downwards on the sheer snow and ice below me. Its not a thought-out act, but a desperate act of instinct. And I feel my arms being grabbed, my body moving back up. I dig my toes in and, pushing and being pulled, I'm back on the path, on my feet. I look to see who grabbed me. In front of me, Deu, the porter of another group: a quiet man with a kind smile who we have crossed paths with a few times now, and a seasoned guide in these mountains. Behind me, Dang, the first-year student from Cambodia. I thank them with my eyes and we continue on into the night without a word nor a moment's wait. 

Gradually, the stars slip away into the coming dawn, the cold air warms ever so slightly and we leave the sheer-slope path behind, surrounded now by hills that gradually climb their way to the pass itself: ever elusive until you're right on top of it. I try a radio check with Arvin's group. They ought to have set out by now. Silence on the other end. With the surrounding hills there is no chance of connection. The sun finally makes its way over the wall of rock that surrounds us and Ula, who has been quiet until now, focused on the ascent, begins her usual, merry chatter, stopping to take photos until our group is left far behind the other trekkers. I stay close behind her, urging her on with disciplined mountain breathing and occasional loving prods. We are all feeling the altitude and the air holds little oxygen for our starved limbs.

My toes are wet from my thawing insoles, but only when Dang turns to me to complain of cold 
toes and I see an icicle descending from his nose, do I call a stop to double up with dry socks. 

Ula unpacks the contents of her bag, placing her sleeping bag on the hard crust of snow. Halfway through changing my socks—a procedure one does not want to draw out in such frigidity—I watch helplessly as the bag begins to slowly roll downhill. Good, I think, with a wry sense of satisfaction, pleased at this learning moment. Ula will have to run after it for a moment and never again will she make this mistake. My smile disappears when Ula fails to catch it and the rolling bag picks up speed. By the time I'm up on my feet, boots back on and one sock left behind in the snow, the bag shoots over the edge of the path and disappears down a ridge, barrelling down some forty meters into a bowl of powder between two hills. I turn and tell Ula and Dang to keep moving—at our slow pace we cannot afford to loose any more time in this exposed place. Then taking note of the lay of the slope and where the rocks are, I lay down on my back and push off. The crust takes my weight and with my slick jacket its a fast ride. I shoot down thirty meters in six seconds and roll out of it just in time to avoid the rocks. Wading into the powder, I grab the sleeping bag, turn and crunch my way through thigh-high snow, back the way I came. By the time I reach my pack and socks, I'm thoroughly warmed up, and despite the worrying loss of precious energy spent on the retrieval mission, quite chuffed with myself.

Ramesh and Zeena are off ahead, out of line of sight. Dang, Ula and I continue, continuously meeting the endless lines of white that refuse to reveal the summit, until finally a dash of colour. Prayer flags. Across the Himalaya, these merry things are a sign of arrival or at least of place. And sure enough as we crest the hill we see the Pass: a stupa enveloped in prayer flags, an abandoned hut next to it and Ramesh in his usual sweater and down vest—not once on this trip has he donned anything less or anything more—merrily clapping away, celebrating our arrival. Zeena is laying on a mat he has set out for her. A well earned rest. We stop and capture the moment together.

Ula standing tall at 5416m. From this height, breathing is light and the Universe is a stone's throw away.

A map that shows our route from Manang across Thorun La and down into Muktinath... along with some happy reminders of past avalanches.

A charming description of the perils involved in crossing Thorung La...

But there is still a long descent before us. After a quick snack I send them all on, staying behind to wait for Arvin's group.

I have been doing radio checks all this time with still no response. Now I hear my radio sound, and Arvin's voice, but when I reply there is nothing. Nor can I make out what he has said. Thinking back to the perilous first section of the ascent, I worry that they have not yet caught up with us. Leaving my pack at the pass, I pack my radio, whistle, compass and a protein bar and set off back the way we came. Travelling light and shortcutting across ridges and valleys I cover ground fast and soon come across other trekkers. They say they have seen Arvin and the gang, not far behind. At the next ridge I spot them and let out a loud, relieved, Kweeeeeeyoooo! Those who have the energy wave up at me. I run-slide down to meet them, and taking the pack of an altitude-sick MJ, walk with them to the pass, where we have a proper celebration with the last of the Christmas goodies—its being Christmas Day after all!--and taking many silly photos. I pull a few sticks of the loveliest incense from my pack and, digging though the snow to find the heart of the stupa, stick them in as an offering and set them alight. The smell, combined with the view, is heavenly. All accounted for, I relax now and nibble away at chocolates and nuts with the rest.

Before loosing too much heat, we begin the long trek down: a solid five hours of descent across slopes of shale, snow and ice: the remnants of the landslide of three months ago that claimed the lives of so many people. Only later will we learn that one group's porter urged them on, the fear of god in him, when a dog that had been following their group for days unearthed from the rubble a torn pair of jeans. The group is exhausted, especially Sara and Andres whose Argentinian upbringing did not equip them with the ski-walking skills that make such slippery inclines easier going. We decide I should go ahead to catch up with the others and let them know everyone is OK. To avoid travelling alone I pick a student to come with me, and so Thule and I—the two Canadians of the bunch—set out ahead at a slipping, sliding, halting jog. We come down from the scree hillside and hit the road to Muktinath. Gradually we leave the grey and white of the Pass behind us and find ourselves looking down into a valley of browns, reds and even patches of green. Just in time for sunset, we have reached Muktinath.

This place is one of the Himalaya's holy pilgrimage sites, home to one of only a few temples that is both Buddhist and Hindu, and has been here for some eight hundred years. Muktinath itself is the first settlement North of Thorung Pass and the doorway to the Mustang Kingdom that reaches across this valley—a stunning high altitude desert of barren hills and rust coloured rock—to the distant mountains. From there it is a four mile trek to another, almost forgotten world high up in the mountains: Tibet. 

The Road to Jomsom.

The Mustang Kingdom, largely untouched by the last centuries...

To be continued....

Photo credit to: Ula, MJ, Arvin and the Internets.

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