“The good shine from afar
Like the snowy Himalayas.
The bad don't appear
Even when near,
Like arrows shot into the night.”
The light had changed so slowly we hadn’t noticed. Gradually, in under a week, with just a few hundred meters of elevation every day, the edges sharpened. The lowland glow crystallized into altitude glint. Clarity infected every experience. Climbing hearts pumped the sludge out of the deep white matter of previous existence. The new light ether brought us into the present, leaving the grist of guilt and shame and worry far behind.
Robyn had discovered the pleasures of that cloudy beverage known as chhaang, in the late Chame night. The Nepalis consider it a cure for a range of maladies, including alcoholism, a little like decapitation, as a cure for headache. The revelational enthusiasm Robyn woke me with, was repaid with the gift of a morning migraine. This was apparently the cure for Chhaang. Ama and Tushi sent us off with eggs and coffee and Tibetan smiles. My morning ablutions had taken place with Annapurna II in the foreground. It was like God watching you shit.
We crossed a sidestream and the Marsyandi on a cantilevered wooden bridge, through barley fields to Talung. Past an apple orchard, we dropped across a bridge to a steep and narrow trail through deep forest cover. Another bridge in space took us up a near vertical path to our first views of the Paungda Danda escarpment, a colossal slab of curved rock rising almost two kilometers from the river. Over the ridge, we began a steep ascent to the upper Marsyandi valley into the lower portion of Pisang.
A yak, laden with baskets and household goods, walked by us on the path, alone. We crossed wooden canals, used to power the two mills in the main village and, on the other side of the bridge, found a rooftop to camp on for the night.
There were two new recruits to our company of adventurers, sunning themselves on their sleeping bags. Dan was a law student from Florida, and his buddy, Bert, an Albertan roustabout. They were lighthearted fun.
What John brought back for me from the upper village was not. He took me through the rock walls of a narrowing path, into a sickroom. A woman lay dying from, as far as I could see, a large tumor ulcerating into her throat. It may have been a thyroid cancer but, whatever it was, it was winning. The family looked at me, and then to me. I had nothing but some kindergarten painkillers, and compassion. In their world, despite my own feelings of inadequacy, it was enough.
There were six trekkers in the Company that left Pisang next morning- Robyn and Julie, Dan and Bert, John and I. We had a gorgeous day, hiking through pine meadows, with intermittent views of Annapurna II and IV, climbing onto a spur, to find views of the drier upper portion of the Manang valley. The sentinel of Tilicho peak stood at the end. After a short descent into a forested valley floor, we passed a herd of yaks and horses into a broad valley with the two Annapurnas in the distance. Across the Marsyandi, through kani entrances and exits, were the stone houses of Bruagu, stacked one on the other, behind a large rock outcropping.
A massive white chorten, decorated with rust-colored swirls and swastikas, a platform, and the sun and the moon, dwarfed the Company walking below it. We didn’t know about the five hundred year old thangkas inside, or we might have stopped. The arid scenery was dominated by bizarre cliffs of yellow rock eroded into imposing pillars, and by the soaring peaks of the Himalaya, across the valley to the south.
We trekked along the adjacent stretch of waist high mani walls, and their phalanx of tall tattered prayer flags, rippling forward of the wind at our backs, across a stream with several mills, and onto the plateau of Manang village. Here we would need to stay for two days to acclimatize, before attempting the climb over the almost 18,000 foot Thorong La, to the other side of this side of Nepal. One of our Company wouldn’t make it over. One, not of our Company, would make it over, but not beyond. Like arrows shot in the night.
Manang was a collection of medieval flat roof houses, and poles and waving flags, hoodoo hanging on a northern slope. Below were terraces of buckwheat, barley, potatoes, and beans. Two hundred years earlier, King Ranan Bahadur Shah had declared the place a free trade town. Yak tails, sheep skins, herbs, and deer musk were transported on yaks and horses over the Thorong La, in exchange for gold and silver and turquoise. Trade occurred as far away as Korea.
In 1950, Maurice Herzog came in a futile search for food for his party, only to return empty handed and starving to his Tilicho Lake base camp. He eventually went on to be the first to summit a peak over 8000 metres, Annapurna, in exchange for the loss of all of his toes, and most of his fingers, in emergency amputations in the field.
We were more fortunate. Following the Israeli mental map through narrow alleyways, we ascended a steep notched log onto the rooftop of Michung Gurung and Tshering Dolma’s house. Robyn and I dropped our packs in the room with the single bed, while John and Dan and Bert and Julie remained transfixed at the panorama of the Annapurnas and Gangapurna summits, less than eight kilometers away.
The ceaseless noise of the huge icefall rumbling and crashing on the flanks of the peaks sent cracking chills and grinding shivers into our marrows and up our spines. It would wake us in the night, as if to warn us of the dangers to come.
I found a Nepali sarangi stringed instrument and, tuning it to a major chord, gave a minor concert on the rooftop. The Company ate good soup and salty chow mein, and came together under a full moon to watch the ceremonial dancing below. Every four years there was a fertility festival in Manang. We had arrived in time for prom night.
It was just the opening ceremony. The next afternoon, after a rock climb up the north face for views of the Glacier Dome and Annapurna II and IV, we descended into the main event. White vertical rectangular flags whipped furiously on long poles in the wind, above the cube shaped Tibetan rock dwellings on the edge of the high desert field. Throngs of locals crowded the rooftops to watch the festival. Old women in colourful costumes and headdresses, danced in slow motion to drums and cymbals.
All the eligible males of Manang had been blindfolded, packed together, and encircled with a long thick rope. Clusters of blushing girls teased them from different compass points, until the pandemonium of the body of blind bound bucks, pulling in various directions, tumbled them all over the rocky ground. If they could grab and hold the damsel they were chasing, she was honor bound to accept his advances. The festival occurred every four years, and we counted ourselves fortunate to have seen it.
There had been a more ominous festival every three years, called Badhe, during which everyone slept outside, and twelve virgins were sacrificed to the gods, to free the village from enemies, evil spirits, disease and natural calamity, and to ensure security, peace, and prosperity. I suspect the supply of virgins hadn’t kept up with demand. The surrounding snow covered mountains watched over the spirits of the exposed, taking the shame out of the shamanism. It was innocently beautiful.
The din of the afternoon left quietly. In the gas lantern miasma of Michung’s cellar dining room, we ate our fried potatoes in silent solemnity. Even the Israelis were as subdued, as I have ever seen Israelis subdued. We were all aware of the risks of crossing over the Thorong La. We knew about the strong winds that would come if our timing was off, the cold, avalanches, frostbite, the physical demands of the ascent, the chance of wandering off the trail into deep snow, and the possibility of Acute Mountain Sickness. We didn’t know that over thirty percent of trekkers were afflicted, and the only reason more of them didn’t perish was because of the rapid descent on the other side. The driest rarified air on Earth would do its unlevel best to quickflood your lungs and brain with water, and maybe kill you. Our next three days would be fueled with Tibetan bread, lactic acid, exhilaration and tears. We hardly slept.
The two porters, that Robyn and Julie and I had hired to carry our packs, descended into the cellar at six next morning. They were late, but it was just as well, as we had to wait for the Israelis to finish their tsampa, before we could get ours. We had met them on the rock climb the previous day. They were reserved and a little withdrawn, and I could see how they could be taken advantage of by the less scrupulous. I remember reading an article in which a Bavarian climber had stated that his party ‘hadn’t suffered any losses, just one porter was killed.’ I remember how angry it made me feel, that the death of a porter was no loss at all. The greater loss is what had died inside the Bavarian while his porter lived. For a hundred rupees, ours would prevent the loss of one of us.
Thirty years after we trekked the epic ten glorious days to the base of the Thorang La, they built a dusty road to Manang over where our footprints used to be, cutting the time to two industrial days, and the Annapurna Circuit in half. The gain of eight days and three vertical kilometers, came in exchange for the livelihood of village tea houses, porters, guides and craftsmen on the way, trekker acclimatization and most important, their formation of an irrepressible emotional attachment to this land and its people.
But the death of a porter was no loss at all. Like arrows shot into the night.