Landslides, Summits and the Slavery of Death: Part I

LandslideArea
We were warned about the landslides, the potential for falling rocks on this segment of the trail leading to Tilicho Lake, 2-3 days off the main path of the Annapurna Circuit. It was a side excursion that would help us acclimatize to the altitude, ascending to nearly 5,000 meters before we made our way to our summit for the three week journey – Thorong La Pass.

“Don’t worry,” a teenage son of a restaurant owner told us at lunch the day before. “Someone was injured and airlifted from that area last week. It only happens once or twice a year. And it already happened last week, so you should be fine.”

Can’t argue with that logic.

We weren’t too worried. By this point we were expert trekkers (you know, 10 day experts) and we had a little advice from our guide, Francois (we downloaded an alternative trail guide from the internet and couldn’t remember the author’s name, so we called him Francois). We just needed to be smart.

Leave in the early morning before the sun heats up the rocks. Take it slow. Pay attention. Walk 20-30 meters apart in case of falling rocks. No big deal.

30 minutes into our walk we cross a streaming waterfall on a small wooden bridge and look up to a brief, but steep ascent. Slowly we climb up the narrow path of gravelly rock moving and sinking under our feet, careful not to fall to the plunging depths below. We pass a few Nepali men widening the path with a shovel and pickaxe. Ali daar laagyo malai I say to them. I feel a little scared. A few minutes later we reach the top.

Was that the landslide area? I wonder optimistically and, it turns out, foolishly.

Our trail skirts the hills, a small path – two to three feet wide – with hills above and steep slopes below, passing by horses and yaks grazing lazily. Beyond us we see the path continuing in the distance, a thin snake of dirt and rock winding through the wilderness.

“That path looks narrow,” Becca points out.

“It’s far away,” I say. ” Maybe it’s more like the one we’re on; it just looks narrow from a distance.”

“Yeah. Maybe.”

We cross another bridge and spot a small sign that reads, “Landslide Area.”

Landslides 2

Above us, a steep slope of scree sits waiting for the sun to stir the hillside, when stones will shake loose and skip down to the peril of trekkers. Below us – far below us – is the river. It isn’t a 90 degree drop off the edge of the trail, but steep enough to make me wonder if I would survive a fall. The path narrows dramatically, no longer 3 feet of comfortable walking space. In most places the trail is less than 10 inches wide. In other places, there is no trail. That’s what I said, there is no trail.

“Francois told us the path would pass through a landslide area, not that the trail is a landslide!” Becca exclaims with irritation.

At points on our way the 6-10 inches of space to place our feet disappear, leaving only a slope of small, loose rocks, giving no differentiation between the path, the rocky hill above, and the plummeting depths below. Occasionally a few rocks slide, creating a domino effect that push more and more rocks slowly down the hill in front of us. We wait for the trickle of rocks to settle before stepping onto those same rocks, the ground shifting under our feet.

“Andrew, stop!” Becca shouts as she waits 15 meters beyond me, a hint of fear in her voice. I look up and see small rocks sweeping down the hill, one the size of my fist flying toward me. Swiftly – and carefully – I turn toward the depths below me, sink to a low crouch, stab my poles into the gravel on the slope and wait with my backpack shielding me from falling rocks. Seconds pass slowly as I stare at the depths below, rocks sliding around, breathing, breathing – focus on your breath Andrew – praying, breathing.

The rocks settle and I stand; my arms and legs are trembling.

Every 10, 15, or 30 meters we find relief from the terrifying depths – a wider section of path, an outcropping of cliff where rocks will not fall from above. But again and again the trail continues back onto the narrow path on a dangerously steep hillside.

Each step is a mental hurdle. I am afraid of moving forward; I am determined not to turn back. I try various mantras to strengthen my steps.

Breathe. Inhale. Exhale. Breathe.

Root yourself Andrew. Root yourself in this present moment. Root yourself.

Center. Find your center. Go deep, deep into your center and find the spirit of the living God there. Root yourself.

I am the wind. I am the rocks shifting below my feet. I am the breath. I am the earth.

Soon I turn to songs to bolster my courage, to keep me walking, trying to ignore the depths to my left and keep an eye on the rocks to my right.

“When peace like a river attendeth my way, when sorrows like sea billows roll. Whatever my lot thou hast taught me to say, ‘It is well, it is well with my soul.'” Until I get to the later verse: “And Lord, haste the day when my faith will be sight…” I know it’s referring to the return of Christ, but it sounds a lot like death right now.

Root yourself. I turn to prayers.

“Lord make us instruments of your peace, that where there is hatred, we may so love…” Until I get to the end: “It is only in dying that we are born to eternal life.” I could do without thinking of death right now.

To scripture.

“The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want…Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death….”

Center. Breathe. Root yourself.

Just – don’t – fall.

I remember a little orange-haired girl who earnestly prayed that we would not fall off the mountains. I feel a little comforted, hoping that even if God does not answer my prayers, God cannot ignore hers.

An hour later I approach Becca, waiting for me. She is stopped by a sign that simply says, “Thanks.”

“Thanks for not falling to my untimely death?” I wonder aloud.

On the other side of the sign it reads “Landslide Area” warning travelers from the other direction of the danger ahead.

“Well thank God that is over,” I say to Becca. “You know I’m afraid of heights, right?”

I turn to watch Kim still making her way down the last stretch of the ‘landslide area.’ My eyes scan the path I had just taken, the thin trail snaking through the steep slopes.

“I can’t look anymore,” I say, feeling nauseous. “I can’t believe we just did that.”

“That was crazy,” Becca replies. “I can’t believe we have to do that again tomorrow.”

The trip to Tilicho Lake is not a circuit – unless you have a tent and camping gear and food for cooking, which we don’t. Tomorrow, before sunrise, we will depart Tilicho Base Camp for the ascent to Tilicho Lake. We will return to Base Camp by lunch time, and cross the landslides – in the heat of the day and hopefully, before the afternoon storms come – back to the guesthouse we left this morning.

One might think having successfully crossed the danger zone once would make the idea of doing it again easier. That one would be wrong. I suddenly have visions of tensing up, declaring that I can’t do it, knowing that I will have to.

We continue past the ‘Thanks’ sign only to discover the trail continues on an only slightly less terrifying trail.

Landslides3

30 minutes later we glimpse Tilicho Base Camp – 3 different lodges with grey cinder-block walls and royal blue corrugated tin roofs – and descend the hill into the valley, past the slopes and the falling rocks and the fear.

We look up to see an enormous Himalayan Griffin gliding away from the mountains toward the place where we stand. Swooping in descending circles, cutting a path against the bright blue sky, it lands 20 meters from us. And for the hundredth time since leaving Minnesota I recite a creation poem from Ursula Le Guin:

Only in silence the word
Only in darkness the light
Only in dying, life
Bright the hawk’s flight on the empty sky

We sit down on the rocks to admire the majestic creature, unwrap aluminum foil and split a slice of apple pie we saved from a lower altitude.

 


We took a pilgrimage, not to a church or shrine or temple but to the mountains. For 23 days we walked in the presence of some of the world’s most breath-taking scenery in the Annapurna region of Nepal, completing the full Annapurna Circuit and a few side-treks. These are a few reflections written along the way, after hours and days of walking and breathing and sometimes contemplating.

 

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