“Chasing angels or fleeing demons, go to the mountains.”
― Jeffrey Rasley, Bringing Progress to Paradise: What I Got from Giving to a Mountain Village in Nepal
I wake up cold. It is dark, so dark, and as I pull my arm out of my thick sleeping bag I can see my watch: 3:00 am. As my brain comes around to this morning hour, I wiggle out of my 0 degree bag, cursing as the frigid air hits the small patches of skin that aren’t covered in fleece or down. Jeff, stirring next to me, reaches out and unzips the tent. Outside, the sky is black and the mountains rear up, all white-blue ice. They are taller than a skyscraper, taller than God. Today is the day. This morning, we are finally crossing Larkya La Pass.
Twelve weeks prior and 9,000 feet lower I had been sitting on a concrete patio in Ecuador, drinking nescafe and chatting with the students I was traveling with. My little nokia phone buzzed. “Tickets bought. We’re going to Nepal!” It read. I jumped up, startling the students as I danced around the yard. It appeared that as soon as I got home from one trip, I would begin preparing for another.
It was going to be nearly a month long: two and a half weeks trekking in Nepal, four days in Malaysia, and the rest of the time dedicated to the plane flights it takes to get around the world. There would be four of us: myself, Jeff, Skip and Matt. Jeff, Matt and I spent the summer of 2011 exploring Oregon and climbing peaks, leaving work every Friday at noon to see what trouble we could get into. They both run ultramarathons. I met Skip through Jeff in 2010. A tall, blonde, barrel chested guy, Skip is always wearing a flannel and drinking a pabst. We bonded quickly over 90’s music and IPA. They are all some of my very favorite people.
On October 25th, we landed in Kathmandu. We had just survived an epic 15 hour layover in Guangzhou, China where we explored the parks and playgrounds of the city and ate whatever we could point to on the menu. It was 10pm, and the streets were quiet as we drove to our hotel. Out of the corner of my eye, I see a group of street dogs running down the street.
“Doggies!” I yell, like the animal loving weirdo I am, “Look!”
“Nope.” Jeff says, as the animals start climbing up a wall. “Monkeys.”
We spent two days in Thamel, the tourist district of Kathmandu, doing as tourists do. Exploring the city, drinking beer, eating local food.
Kathmandu is a small city with a large, diverse population. Most of the people in Kathmandu are Hindu, with a smattering of Buddhists. It is the birth place of Buddha, and the “eyes of buddha”-seen in the above photo- are the national symbol of Nepal. Visitors were banned from entering the city until 1950, but after a government change people from all over the world started flooding into the valley, either for a religious pilgrimage, or like us, to climb.
We were going to do the Manaslu trek. Jeff had set the whole thing up with Peace Nepal Treks. They are locally owned and employ Nepalis to guide. We met our guide, Autar (we pronounced it Oh-ta) the day before our trip. He was short, with black hair and eyes that crinkled up when he laughed. To our delight, he laughed at us often. His English was broken, but much better than our Nepali.
The next day, we left for the trek. Before we would hike, we would drive. Autar took us to a bus station where we boarded a colorful, crowded bus. Six hours, one bus breakdown, and three near death experiences later, we arrived in Arughat.
Then, we hiked. And hiked, and hiked. down into the river valley and up the cliff sides. Our destination was Larkya La Pass, 17,000 feet in elevation, and the highest point you can get to if you’re not trying to summit Manaslu.
For days the only companions we had were each other and the mighty Budhi Gandaki, a river that crashed and raged through the mountains. We hiked through green forests, pasts fields of marijuana plants (native to the area, everybody), everyday getting higher and higher. Along the way we met a couple from New Zealand (Hey Nicole! Hey Durand!) and an American who unfortunately was an Alabama Fan (Hi Tyler!). We all merged into a group, much to the enjoyment of our guides. At night we slept in tea houses. Tea houses are villager run, very basic sleeping structures. Wooden structure, wooden bed frames, one toilet for everyone to share. Basic, but just fine. Usually we would arrive, play a few hours of presidents and assholes, eat a big pile of Dhal Bat, and pass out early.
The hike became like a conversation with a best friend, comforting in its rhythm, the familiarity of packing up your bag and heading out on the trail. The trail was often a place of silence, the only sounds were the roar of the Budhi Gandaki and the gentle bells of a donkey trains. But, like a good friend, the hike challenged me. Pushed me. The boys were stronger than me, and often I lagged behind, walking slowly up a steep hill, the waist band of my bag digging into my hips.
When we began the trek, we had walked in shorts and t-shirts. But as the days passed and our elevation increased, so did our layers. As we approached Dharmasala, we started wearing our base layers to hike in, except for Skip who climbed nearly the whole thing in shorts. I drank pots of lemon tea, ginger tea, black tea, masala tea, all in desperate attempt to keep myself hydrated and warm.
In Samdo, the last stop before Base Camp, we started running into lots of other groups of trekkers. Most of them were going to attempt to cross the pass the same day we were. We were all a little nervous. Bad weather can close the pass or strand groups at base camp. Then we would have to do the unthinkable, and turn back around. The weather in the Himalayas in notoriously fickle, one minute it’s beautiful and the next a massive storm can roll in. This is why climbing peaks like Manaslu, Annapurna, K2 and Everest are so dangerous. Not only are they technically difficult, but the weather can change on a dime. As the trip continued we would all find ourselves obsessed with the 1996 Everest Disaster, two reading Into Thin Air by Jon Kraukauer and two reading The Climb by Anatoli Boukreev.
I want to speak beautifully about the mountains. I want to write sentences that somehow capture the sheer size of the Himalaya, how dwarfed you feel. How traveling in their midst feels like something sacred. Monasteries are tucked into the hills, prayer flags wave in the wind. Tiny, bent old women walk the trails; no shoes and a pile of sticks on their backs. It would be easy to spend the whole trek in silence. Just marveling.
And now it is time. 3:30 am and we are gulping down hot tea and muesli, then throwing on our packs, turning on our headlamps and begin our ascent to Larkya La Pass. The sky is clear, the weather should hold. We are quiet as our line of people snakes up the mountain. It is cold, so cold that even with two pairs of gloves my fingers lose feeling in five minutes. The sun begins rising behind the mountains. We keep walking, and the dirt path turns to snow. My boots are in shambles, and I am sliding all over the place. Our kiwi friends (thanks guys!) suggest putting socks over my boots. I do, and we continue.
I am breathing heavily. We have been hiking for three hours, and at 16,500 feet, the altitude is getting to me. My head is down and I am focusing on every step, willing myself not to slip and fall, willing my self to keep going. When I do look up I keep thinking I see tea houses in the distance, but as we get closer, they are just rocks. I keep hiking.
Finally, we see the prayer flags, and with whoops of joy we reach the pass. We hug, we high five, we get ready to take pictures.
And then Nicole says, “Hey guys, we need to take these pictures. Durand is throwing up blood.”
And so we did.