April 4th, 2011
At the crack of dawn, only the faintest shades of blue illuminating the stone patio where we slept, we were hurriedly awoken by our NOLS instructors, encouraged to wolf down a bowl of cereal and cup of scalding chai before rapidly loading the jeeps. Ranikhet grew further behind us as the sun rose higher into the sky, briefly breaking through the haze just enough for us to glimpse a distant, snowy mountain range on the horizon as the cars crested a hilltop. Sleepily, we gasped at our first glimpse of the world’s highest mountains looming through the atmospheric haze, realizing them, with near disbelief, to be our destination.
We drove over hills and through valleys, past flowing rivers and terraced fields where women worked in the most brilliantly colored attire. We passed forests of towering pine trees that shimmered like gold in the sunlight, stopping briefly to stretch our legs among the sweet, spicy scent of fallen needles. We talked and slept and stared out the window in awe, stopped for lunch by a giant river, ate on a balcony while we watched children playing in the cold water and women washing clothing. Rice and dal, like always. It didn’t bother me anymore.
After what seemed like an eternity of bumpy maneuvering on precarious mountain roads, we arrived in the town of Song in the late afternoon. A small collection of buildings at the end of the road, Song stood at the base of steep, terraced mountains, green and lush in the overcast light. Our packs unloaded, we set about fastening our ice axes safely to our packs, securing our raingear and ever-so-carefully leveraging our backpacks onto our backs. This was it – the beginning of our 40-day trek, starting now. Shopkeepers stared quietly from their doorways. All 18 of us finally prepared, we divided into groups and left Song one by one.
It wasn’t a long hike to the guesthouse in Loharkhet, our destination for the night, but our first hours on the trail were nevertheless intimidating. I had only recently recovered from a hamstring injury, and remember cringing as my tendons tweaked and tensed with each laborious step upwards under the immense weight of my pack. I remember relying heavily on the single trekking pole I had chosen to bring, hauling my weight up the mountain with my arms and one good leg, in awe of the surrounding world. The air was hot as we ascended steep steps created from slabs of shimmering grey stone. Low-angle light beamed golden from the sun’s sinking position between two hills, casting a luminous glow over the landscape. Fields of white flowers blanketed the land beside the path, lush green terraces like patchwork over the hillsides. Around us, the air stood still and quiet, save for the muted jingle of mule bells in the distance and early chirps of crickets as dusk rapidly approached.
We arrived Loharkhet to stay outside a government-owned guesthouse, an ancient building featuring primitive toilet facilities and a wide stone patio covered by an awning – far above and beyond our needs for the night. I breathed a sigh of relief; my leg had survived the first hour’s climb. Uncountable more to go. Dusk fell on the valley below us, and we were soon served a hot dinner by the local shop across the street. I wandered the area as people set down their packs and began to decompress, pulling everyone aside individually to take portraits that I envisioned being part of a “before and after” series later.
Our group, from the top left reading across: Wells, Chris, Sam, Megan, Acacia, Ellie, Catlin, Jade, Devon, Andrew, Seth, Zach, Jon, Tully.
Clear skies and comfortable temperatures allowed us, once again, to spread out our sleeping bags next to each other in the open air. Snuggled into my sleeping bag, I wrote by the light of my headlamp:
Mountain air. Lush, terraced fields, a rainbow gradient of thriving green, bushes of white wildflowers, stone walkways, higher and higher. Distant snowy peaks, the tallest in the world. We now lay side by side on the stone patio of an ancient guest house, its paint chipped and floor rippling. Tucked into our sleeping bags, full stomachs, warm bodies. This is the cleanest we’ll be for over a month. Heavy packs. High spirits, high mountains. Blazing stars. The music of donkey bells and distant local drumming. The soft Indian accent of Deev telling Zach stories, telling him, when the mountain cannot come to God, God comes to the mountain. Seth’s southern drawl as he tells Sam that a spider will lay eggs in her ear. We laugh. We’re quickly becoming family. Tomorrow will be a long day.