Sunday, 17 August 2014

Ocean of Milk 4

                                   “At the top of the mountain, we are all snow leopards.”
                                                                                       Hunter S. Thompson

The day’s ascent, on the route to the pass, rose almost two kilometers in altitude, northwest up the Jarsang Khola.
We climbed through scrub juniper, into meadows of yaks and horses, past clusters of flat mud roofed herder huts, into alpine grasses and desolation. I remember a broken down stone house with a rusting biscuit tin of a roof, blowing back and forth in the wind.
Dan and Bert were in the lead with Robyn and I behind, and the porters and Julie trailing. She had developed another bout of dysentery, that or the first one had been only playing possum. She was taking a breath for every step. It wasn’t a good sign. The Israelis caught up with us at a makeshift little chai shop halfway. They were asking a lot of questions, like Israelis do. I told them I didn’t know the answers, and we would all find out together, something that ran counter to their experience with me, up until this point in the trek.
Along the massif, the last of the vegetation was replaced by streams of snow, and the bluegray icy river by sand-colored switchbacks up the slope to the lone ruin we would spend half a night in, before our final push over the Thorong La.
It was called Phedi which, in Nepali, meant the ‘bottom of a long climb.’ It should have meant the rock bottom of a long climb. The lone dwelling used to be a teahouse, but had deteriorated to the point you couldn’t tell.  The metal roof had long since blown off, the wooden door frames had been burned as firewood, and the toilet, repulsive as it was, was even more repulsive than that. The space inside the outside-exposed inside was noisy, crowded, smoky, and freezing. The French that arrived later had a loud rakshi party, until they finally slammed the corrugated tin door into place, and the remaining light and oxygen was extinguished.
Our porters woke us at three am, but we had been awake all night. After a quick bowl of tsampa, we walked into an immediate series of steep switchbacks up the moraines.
There was only just enough reflected moonlight to distinguish the trail from the snow. We placed our boots in front of each other up the rocky ridges, in and out of canyons, and over the many false summits that seemed to go on forever. I stayed behind Julie for encouragement, but her diarrhea was worse, and she was forced to dip behind rocks at shorter and shorter intervals, as the moon dropped off to our left, and the dawn diffused through the cracks on our right. Finally, she sat down on the trail, and cried.
Robbie had returned from above to prod her on a little further, but I finally said what was necessary to say. Julie’s breathing was labored to the point I could sense her starting to develop pulmonary edema. She needed to descend, and soon.
I hurried to catch up with the porters, waiting at the top of the pass. Bert was waiting at the stone cairn and chorten at the 17,800 foot summit. Its flags were whistling in the winds, and the views of the entire Great Divide, with the Annapurnas and Gangapurna to the south were breathtaking, if there would have been any left.
I paid the porters, and gave them instructions to return Julie to Manang, and ensure that she join another party to take her back to Pokhara, where we would hopefully meet up once we trekked down the other side of the Circuit. They went down one way, Bert faded off the other, and I sat at 5500 meters for an hour, waiting for Robyn to catch up.
When Destiny finally called, Chaos was still on the other line. Maybe it was the altitude. We were both quiet, and upset with the situation, the loss of Julie, and each other. She walked on over the pass, and I hiked into oblivion, stuck in knee-deep snow. The guttural sounds of Hebrew behind me finally propelled me onto the right path, and down onto the knee-punishing 1600m descent through the wind, to a teahouse halfway down the other side. I would win my race with Destiny. She had caught up with Bert and Dan. We ate spicy potatoes and drank herbal tea. I wondered how the owner could have survived, but it was now too powerful a word to be used in a simple commercial context.
The snow turned to switchbacks to and back to moraines. There were excellent views of Dhaligiri, as the grassy slopes merged into meadows. Our spirits rose as our lungs descended into more solid air. We dropped into a ravine that was the start of the Jhong Khola, down, down into the autumn-splashed arid valley that took us finally beyond a grove of trees to the small sacred temple of Muktinath.
Sacred to both Hindus and Buddhists, Muktinath was the only place on Earth where all five elements from which everything was made came together. The sky of heaven, the earth of saligram riverbed marine ammonites necessary to establish any other temple to Lord Vishnu, the rarified air of the Dakini goddess Sky Dancers, the freezing water from the 108 sacred streams, issuing from as many bullshead-shaped waterspouts, where devotees took their frigid baths, and the fire from the natural gas jets that produce the holy flame, inside the gompa. Here was a near naked mystic Sadhu, smeared with ash and carrying Shiva’s trident, worshiping beside a Tibetan woman adorned with such an elaborate headdress, as if she were, herself, made out of turquoise.
It was a crossroads. To the north was Mustang, the former Kingdom of Lo Manthang. To the south was the Kali Gandaki, and the way back home. Muktinath was Muki Kshetra in Hindi, the ‘place of salvation.’ Yes, it was.
The Tibetan trader who sold me an ammonite outside the sanctuary didn’t realize he was giving me the means to construct my own Lord Vishnu temple wherever I choose. It still sits on my windowsill overlooking the lake, preserving the universe against seemingly insurmountable odds.
“Look. There’s John.” Robyn said. And it was. And we checked into a 20 rupee double at the Hotel Muktinath, and went over to his Hotel North Pole for vegetable fried rice and Tibetan bread. After a couple of pulls on a bottle of Marfa apple brandy, John told us of a young European girl, who had died in her sleep here the previous night. She had made it over the pass. The Ocean of Milk sparkled against the black sky and white snow on the Himalayas. We were alive.

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