“He who climbs upon the highest mountains, laughs at all tragedies, real or imaginary.”
Amongst mountains has always been a special place for me. When things seem confused or out of order, a walk in the mountains has always helped me to calm down and realise the insignificance of my man-made problems.
Looking up at the high peaks piercing the clouds, their sheer beauty and grandeur make me feel like a small part of an awesome natural order that is slowly unfolding out of my control. To think that those mountains have been there for millions of years before I was born and will be here a long time after I have gone is a comforting, almost spiritual thought.
Walking the hills of the Lake District in England as a child and the summits of Scotland, I was brought up with a love for high places and I am ever grateful to my parents for that. So this is why, when I embarked upon a year’s solo backpacking trip, I knew that my first destination would be to visit the highest mountains in the world; the Himalaya of Nepal.
After landing in the craziness of a thousand different vehicles that is Kathmandu, it was a whole week before I would see the mighty peaks that had drawn me here. Exploring the magical city, I wandered down alleyways and was met with fascinating bric-a-brac shops, shanty houses and barefooted children flying kites, I peered in alcoves and came across hidden Hindu shrines emitting sweet incense into the humid air and intricate temples overrun with brazen monkeys.
This was my first experience of Asia and the culture shock was intense, yet I was so enthralled by the exotic atmosphere and hectic pace that I was already on a permanent high. But the best was yet to come…
After surviving a hair-raising eight-hour bus trip from Kathmandu to Pokhara on windy roads with daunting 1,000-metre drops on either side, we began our 12-day hike into the mountains. I had chosen to trek into the Annapurna Sanctuary – a high-altitude basin which boasts the base camps of the mighty Annapurna South and Machupuchare peaks and has 360-degree views of the incredible Himalayan scenery.
My mouth was watering at the prospect of being so close to the legendary mountains I had read so much about when I was a kid, and at first, I resented the regular ‘masala chai’ tea breaks as I wanted to climb faster! ‘Slow and steady steps like a shepherd’, my Dad had always said. Later, as the gradient and altitude increased and my pace became slower, I was thankful for those chai breaks!
Not even out of the first valley, the views were already spectacular. Neat rice terraces carved out of the hillside, thatched cottages clinging on like magnets, every now and again a waterfall gushing from a great height providing us with a cool way to freshen up in-between trekking. With the crisp air and clear sunshine, this was nature at its best leaving your body feeling healthy and alive as you awoke at 6 am each morning with the rising sun and fell fast asleep by 9 pm after a day full of exercise.
Trekking became your daily job, a far cry from my usual day’s work which just weeks before had been hunched over a computer in an office or running around to stressful meeting after meeting; artificial lighting, stuffy rooms and miserable colleagues. Sleeping in basic trekking huts on wooden planks that were surprisingly comfortable, I wrote in my diary by candlelight the rather dramatic; “this is really living”.
It was October and the time of the Hindu, ‘Dassain Festival’ which is one of the most auspicious events in the Nepalese calendar, which commemorates the victory of Gods and Goddesses over demons. It is a time for family, community, fun, games and laughter. For the visitor, Dassan Festival meant to see hundreds of kites flying in the sky (to remind the Gods not to rain anymore) and notice bamboo swings, known as ‘ping’ in Nepali, which are constructed all over the land during this time in the spirit of community and fun.
Whilst trekking, we saw families get together to ritually slaughter animals such as buffalo, hens and goats in an attempt to give penance to the Gods. For many poor families, it is one of the few times during the year that they get to eat meat and huge feasts are organised with great enthusiasm and joy.
Each day, we followed a windy upward path that changed from cobbled steps to woodland staircases, over rickety bamboo bridges before dipping down into atmospheric misty valleys or opening up into vast panoramas of the Himalaya. We weaved through tiny mountain villages passing by other smiling trekkers who would say a cheerful hello in a variety of different languages or Sherpa’s with donkeys carrying eggs, chicken, bread and other goods from village to village.
As we got higher and higher, the temperature fell and we were getting closer to the lofty peaks, yet nowhere near their summits. Only serious climbers were able to attempt such a daring, and some would say crazy, feat. At one point, we passed by a misty area where a pile of stones, or a cairn, lay surrounded by Tibetan prayer flags. Our guide explained that we were passing through an avalanche warning zone and this was, in fact, the site where trekkers had died in an avalanche just a few years ago. Much as I adored these high places, signs such as these remind you of how much respect you should pay to the mountains and the unpredictable force of nature. This is no place for man.
On the fifth day, after a breathless climb through a mist-laden gorge, we reached Machapuchare Base Camp, at 3729 metres. Our guides had warned us about the effects of altitude sickness and during the last stretch to reach the trekking lodge at Machapuchare, I had really felt my body moving slower and my breath getting shorter. I was relieved to receive a hot plate of Dal Baht, (lentils and rice with an assortment of vegetable curries) in the kerosene-heated trekking lodge for the night. Until this day the smell of kerosene has the magical power to transport me back to those days trekking in Nepal!
That night, it was a Full Moon and I tried but failed to take photos of the bright white sphere next to the impressive two-pronged jagged peak of Machapuchare (or Fish Tail in English) against a navy blue sky. As we drank hot chocolate and our breath made clouds as we chatted in the cold night air, our guides told us about the legend of Machupuchare. Every person who has tried to climb the mountain has failed and have either met their fate or something has forced them back down the mountain, leaving the summit unclaimed until this day. In 1957 it was declared a sacred mountain and is now forbidden to climbers. Nepalese people believe that a God lives up the mountain and is angered when climbers try to reach the top… Up here with the thinning air, intense silence of the night and awesome beauty, it was easy to understand why people have thought of the mystical mountains as homes for the Gods.
The next morning at the crack of dawn after a hearty banana porridge, we began our final ascent to reach Annapurna Base Camp, the highest point that we would trek on this trip at 4,130 metres. It was a stunningly ‘glad to be alive’ morning and I took it easy up the path to the base camp so that I could take in the most incredible scenery that I had ever seen in my life.
Everyone was in fantastic spirits; hikers grinned and took photos incessantly whilst the porters sang a famous Nepalese trekking song, “I am a donkey, you are a monkey, resham firiri” referring to the load that they carry for the trekker who is able to prance around like a monkey without any weight… sad, but true.
Reaching the camp, you just couldn’t take your eyes off those amazing pinnacles all around and I was in mountain heaven. The Annapurna Massif on one side, dominated by the immense south face of Annapurna, (8,091 metres) the satellite peak Hiunchuli (6441 metres) and the incredibly beautiful Machapuchare on the opposite side.
Up here, if you tilt your neck back, at first you think that you are looking at a mountain shaped cloud far up in the sky, but it is, in fact, the very tips of the mountains penetrating the heavens. We wandered around the base camp exploring and taking photos before settling to watch a high-altitude game of volleyball that was taking place amongst the porters and trekking guides on the most scenic court known to man.
Annapurna Base camp was the starting point for Chris Bonington’s famous 1970 British expedition and the subject of the book ‘Annapurna South’ that I had been reading during the climb. Walking up to a high ridge which sunk down into an enormous cavern, I found a precarious cairn gripping to the lip of the earth. Tibetan flags fluttered in the strong, cold wind around the cairn and I noticed the names of climbers carved into metal plates that had been nailed to the stones. I recognized the names of one of the climbers that I had been following the story of in my book. I wasn’t yet up to the part where he had obviously lost his life during the climb and I shuddered at the realization. The evidence once again confirmed the fact that these mountains deserved ultimate respect by humans; the atmosphere was daunting, almost spooky and surreal up here.
That night we lay in bed, fleece; leggings, trousers, jacket, coat, three pairs of socks, hat, scarf and an enormous puffer jacket and still couldn’t get warm. Off in the distance, I could hear the spontaneous crash of an avalanche and at one point I thought I heard footprints of an Abominable Snowman or Yeti – but I’m sure that was just my imagination getting the better of me.
Rising at dawn, we were just in time for the sun to greet us with an incredible light show across the peaks. Shafts of sunshine hit the peaks at different angles causing patterns and beams of white, blue and pink across the mountains.
It was a five day walk back to civilization and much as I adored being so close to the peaks I could touch them, I was pleased to be heading down to a warmer clime and a few simple home comforts – the first hot shower I had back in Pokhara is still the best shower I have ever had to this day!
My journey in the Himalaya had been incredible and during the trek, I had cultivated an even deeper respect for the mountains that I love and the courageous ‘fools’ who try to conquer them. As always after time spent in high places, I felt that once again, my life had been brought into perspective and order by nature’s magnificent peaks.