April 2nd, 2011
“Wake up. We are arriving.” Someone’s hand gently nudged my foot, and I blinked into consciousness. Through the sliding curtains of my berth near the ceiling, I glimpsed Gaurav, the first of our instructors I had met, calling for us to gather our belongings. The rolling motion of the train had kept me in the deepest sleep, curled safely into that little corner, soaking up each possible second of rest. I sat up, calm and euphoric, relishing the feeling of waking up in a new place, ready to go. I mumbled a cheerful “good morning” to Seth, waking up on the berth across the train car, and carefully lowered myself to the floor, trying my best not to step on Catlin. The faint light of dawn speeding past the tiny window filled our car with a subtle blue glow. Gradually, the rocking movement of the train slowed, coming quietly to a stop as we gathered our gear. Far from the chaotic roar of Delhi, our train had stopped in complete silence. Seth and Catlin, Southern gentlemen that they were, insisted on helping me don my backpack.
We stepped off the train into a quiet, peaceful world. The gentle chirping of birds filled the cool, fresh air; the dawn sky glowed vivid hues of the brightest blue. Silhouettes of mountains surrounded the train station, where large, healthy trees grew thick around the parking lot, rustling gently in the breeze. We drank in the fragrant air, alive with oxygen and moisture, and divided ourselves into the Jeeps that had been waiting for us. I climbed into a car with Chris and Megan, and we began a bumpy, swerving drive through extremely winding roads, through tiny villages, valleys, hillsides and forests. Cows, dogs and monkeys passed by the roadside as villagers began opening their shops, collecting water, starting the day. Someone gave us a bag of oranges and bland Indian cookies that we munched on hungrily as this foreign world blurred past the windows. Small talk blended with the honking of jeeps and crunches of gravel under the wheels.
The jeeps came rolling to a final stop in a quiet, wooded area atop a mountain, blooming with fragrant wildflowers and overlooking a landscape of terraced hillsides. The first word that came to mind, gazing up at the giant pines and eucalyptus that surrounded us, was “exotic”. We had arrived in Ranikhet, the NOLS base in India, where we would spend a few days resting and preparing for our expedition. The facility had initially been a sort of guest house or inn, I believe… spacious white buildings surrounded by gardens featured a stone veranda overlooking the hills. The atmosphere was incredibly peaceful, beautiful, exotic – very restorative, somehow. The air was fresh and cold, smelled good, and the warmth of the sun felt welcome instead of oppressive.
We spent the day packing. When our turn came, each of us would find a quiet, empty area to dump out the contents of our backpacks, look through our existing gear with an instructor, and be issued rentals as needed. I was outfitted with a puffy synthetic parka and pants, climbing gear, windpants, gaiters, boots, a sleeping bag, ice axe, and a giant pack to fit it all in. We met our instructors, TJ, Alexis, Gaurav and Deev. We got to know each other better, learned some Hindi, some natural history. At mealtime we would file through a small building and help ourselves to the local food prepared for us, usually rice and some sort of dal, served on metal plates that grew so hot when in contact with hot food that they were almost impossible to touch. Unaccustomed to Indian food, I struggled through the first few meals, forcing myself to eat mysterious foods that were often uncomfortably spicy, but found after a few days that it became normal. At almost every meal we drank chai, steaming hot tea rich with sugar and cream. We carefully held the little metal cups by their uppermost rims, trying not to burn ourselves as the steaming drink heated up the cups.
We visited the marked in Ranikhet in the pouring rain, wandering from vendor to vendor to shop for chocolate bars and baseball caps. We discussed toilet issues openly, we ate strange unidentified food and slept under the brilliance of the stars, all together, sleeping bags lined up on the cool stone of the veranda in the moonlight. It occurred to me that I had never really slept outside before, and it quickly became one of my favorite things.
As darkness overtook the sky, people would begin to quiet down, put away their things, drag a sleeping bag out next to whoever was already there. In the moonlight you could barely see the silhouettes of the nearby mountains and the treetops rising into the sky. The stone was cool beneath our bare feet, the air cold and fragrant. We would burrow into our sleeping bags on the hard ground and stare silently up at the blankets of stars that swept the sky, smiling at each other and whispering kind good-nights before slipping away into the deep sleep that only the freshest of mountain air can provide. Crickets chirped and the soft, distant laughter of other expedition members faded into the night.
I awoke early to the light of dawn and music of birds, feeling alive and alert. Sleeping young people covered the veranda, a few of them gently stirring in the morning light. Near the door to the building I could see Sam sitting up, tying her shoelaces. Zach was already awake, reading. I looked at the people around me and was struck by the realization these were the people I would be living in close quarters with, in the Himalayas, for forty days. We would probably become closer, endure more hardships together, than anyone else I would ever meet in my life. Here, we slept so peacefully, so easily.
Gaurav appeared from around a corner, and Sam and Megan silently gathered their jackets. I remembered that they had spoken about going for a walk at five o’clock, which had sounded so early that I hadn’t imagined joining, yet here we were, awake with the sun. Gaurav led us into the nearby forests, beautiful in all their shades of green, all the floral smells, the occasional sleepy local wandering past. He told us gentle stories of growing up there, and we listened and watched this foreign world thriving around us. It was a beautiful morning. When we returned, we drank chai with the rest of the group and watched the sun rise.
That day, we were assigned our first tent groups. These were the people we would spend the first eight days of the expedition with, learning to live and function as a group, learning to cook and camp fast and efficiently, learning to deal with each other. I remember looking around, wondering who I would end up with, hoping slightly that I would tent with Sam, who was experienced and laughed a lot. TJ read aloud from a list. Jon, Zach, Acacia. I smiled. Those two were hilarious and easy-going, but Jon had never even been camping before, let alone backpacked at all, and Zach seemed incredibly spacey, and confused me to no end. It was going to be an interesting start to the trip.
We spent the day packing our packs, dividing up group gear and food rations. For safety’s sake, our packs were supposed to be below a certain percentage of our body weight, which was difficult to attain given the extensive quantities of gear and food. I set my pack on the scale – too heavy. I approached Zach as he stuffed the last of the food rations into his pack, and asked him if he wouldn’t mind carrying a bit more of the weight. He replied that it was my own fault for insisting on bringing a large camera and several liters of water at once, which I found annoying, but not as much as Sam did, who proceeded to yell at him for not respecting the lighter carrying capacity of his tentmate. Jon, when asked the same question, cheerfully took some of my heaviest items. “No problem,” he smiled in his thick Boston accent. These were my first impressions of my tent group.
When our gear was finally packed, my backpack weighed a solid 52 pounds, or 24 kilos. We were ready to begin our trek the next morning. I called my parents. My mom wished me luck, said she hoped I had a great time, learned a lot, made new friends, and made the most of everything. “Keep an open heart,” she had written in a surprise card she had snuck into my bag as I left. All my dad had to say was that I should never assume my own safety; that he’d had NOLS students injured on courses and known of some that had died.