Landslides, Summits and the Slavery of Death: Part II

Sillohuettes

How do I tell you about the most beautiful place I have ever been? How do I describe what can’t be captured in photos, what words cannot do justice?

We set off with headlamps on our heads, bundled in all of our layers, wool hats, muffs around our necks, and knockoff North Face and Mountain Hardware mittens covering our hands and half our arms. For the first time on this trek, we pulled the rubber caps off our poles, exposing metal tips, and screwed round, plastic saucers 3 inches from the bottom of the pole to keep it from sinking deeper into the snow. At 5am the stars were dimming and the sun had begun to do its work of sending away the black night, replaced first by a dark blue. For a short time, lights shone from our foreheads to reveal the path of frozen mud before our feet.

The going was slow, but steady. It was not the hardest climb we’d had. Our trip to Ice Lake a few days before was a steep and painful ascent – more than a kilometer in elevation over 4 hours, and another 3 hours down the same way we’d come. It was brutal on every part of our body.

Tilicho is higher than Ice Lake – about 400 meters higher – but we were making our way from 4600 meters at Tilicho Base Camp (the same altitude as Ice Lake) to about 5000 meters. The path inclined gradually, but continually. We followed it, one foot, then another, breathing in the cold morning before the sun broke over the mountains behind us and warmed up the path.

Grande Barriere

An hour and a half in we sat for breakfast, the only people on the path except for one lone trekker following in the distance behind us. We put down our packs and sat in the sun to stay warm. The menu entailed boiled eggs and cold buckwheat pancakes we had ordered at dinner the night before, stored in the same tinfoil that previously held our apple pie. Cold, day-old buckwheat pancakes are not good. Like, really not good. But buckwheat is grown a little further down – one of the few crops grown at higher altitudes – and it gave us the sustenance we needed to get us to Tilicho and back. We gulped water infused with our faithful lime-flavored Glucovita – a sort of electrolyte energy powder – and put on our packs, grateful for a break from the usual weight. We were wearing most of our layers by this time, and the rest of our gear – besides water and some snacks – was back at base camp to be gathered later that morning on our return.

We breathed deeply, as deeply as possible as the air thinned with each meter we climbed. It wasn’t the steepness, or the weight of our packs, but the air that kept us moving slowly – the air and the caution of altitude sickness that forces the occasional trekker to turn back to lower altitudes.

Later the trail zig-zagged straight above us, leading us one direction for 15-20 meters, then turning around the opposite direction, back and forth and back and forth, 10, 12, 15 turns before the path leveled out again. We rested at the top, watching the lone trekker far below, cutting the distance between us.

“Is that the crazy guy?” we wondered.

Throughout the trek you pass other trekkers – on the trail, in guesthouses and tea stalls. Sometimes you get to know them a bit before moving on. Sometimes you see them again and sometimes you don’t. You name them by what you know of them – usually their state or country and maybe a descriptor: Canada, Florida, Colorado, the cute Argentinian couple, the hard-core Czech mountaineering trio, the chain-smoking Australians, the Indian downhill skier, the whiskey-tour-helicoptered-halfway-into-the-trek-entitled-North-Americans. Those kind of names.

We didn’t know the crazy guy, but we’d seen him several times already. Most recently this morning, when we were departing in the dark, he sat up on a wooden bench that he had apparently slept on outside in the cold all night. He had thinning gray hair that hung to his shoulders, held back by a groovy technicolor headband. Each time we passed him he gave us a slow and intentional Namaste. I guessed he had come to Nepal in the ’70s – when hippies flocked to the country, drawn by it’s eastern mysticism and cheap pot – and never left. There is a street in Kathmandu called Freak Street where western hippies continue to congregate.

It wasn’t fair to call him the crazy guy, but we did. Anyway, we soon learned it wasn’t him.

Beyond the zigzagging trail the path cut across short landslide areas covered with snow. We followed the footprints left by trekkers from days past, digging our poles into the snow to steady our steps.

We heard a shout behind us that sounded a little like a name. We turned to see the trekker who then gave a loud, exuberant cheer and thrust a fist into the air. Confused, I gave him a weak wave and carried on.

At our next break he caught up to us. “Oh sorry, I thought you were my friend,” he said with a thick accent. “He has a big beard and hat just like yours. And you look just like his girlfriend,” he continued, turning to Becca.

“No worries, man.”

He was young with impressive dreadlocks that hung below a big  brown moose hat with flaps that flopped over his ears.

“This is incredible. It’s so f@#$ing beautiful,” he exclaimed, his chapped lips breaking into a huge smile across his face. “The climb is not so bad, but the thin air is so f@#$ing hard for me, man.” His evident joy bubbled over into his words, perfectly juxtaposed with his cursing.

“That’s a sweet hat, man,” I complimented him. “Where did you get it?”

“Oh, thanks! I got it in Kathmandu. Actually, I bought 5 of them,” he said excitedly. “I got this moose, a giraffe, a lion. Oh, and do you know Baaht and Ahnie?”

“Burt and Ernie?” we said, smiling.

“Yeah, I got them too.”

There was something strange about this guy. He exuded happiness the way few people do – happy to meet us, happy to be on that path on the way to Lake Tilicho, happy to be alive. And more, to be with him was to share in that happiness, that joy for life. We couldn’t help but smile contentedly when we were with him. We liked him immediately.

“Where are you from?” we asked him.

“Belgium.”

We followed Belgium through footprints on the snow until we came to a body of water – river? lake? frozen over. The footprints we saw seemed to go over the water and continue on a ridge above us. We crossed carefully, the ice breaking below our feet. Kim, the last to cross, broke the ice through, her foot fully submerging into the water before she could scramble out onto the snow. The same would happen to me on the way back as the sun melted the ice in the morning. Thankfully, both our boots sufficed to keep our feet dry.

Path to Tilicho

We were in it now. Our feet and poles crunched in the snow with mountain peaks towering above us. We felt hardcore – this is the place where mountain-climbers in the movies go; not just in trails around the mountains but in them, through them, on them. The sun shone brightly, reflecting blindingly off all the snow around us. Behind us were the valleys through which we had walked, thousands upon thousands of steps for the last 10 days. We continued deeper still into the mountains. Between the contagious joy of Belgium and the breathtaking scene around us, I felt content and happy. Happier than I have felt in a long time. A well of joy settled in me.

Around a couple curves we came to a small lake covered in ice.

“Is this it?” We asked each other. It didn’t look like much, but we didn’t know what to expect. The way to Ice Lake a few days before was beautiful, but the lake itself was kind of anticlimactic. Maybe Tilicho would be the same.

But soon we noticed the footsteps continued on the side of a large hill and around another curve.

I walked quickly behind Belgium, paying little attention to the steepness of the slope on which we walked, the path that was barely a path – clumsy footsteps on hard snow still shaded by the hill above.

When we rounded the bend a laugh erupted out of me – something that had happened several times on the trek already – when turning a corner, greeted by the beauty that overwhelms. I couldn’t believe what I was seeing. A large lake spread before us, frozen over but clearly defined. Mist rose from the lake as the sun collided with the icy waters. Far beyond the lake more and more mountains stood majestically against the cold blue sky.

Lake Tilicho. This is the most beautiful place I have ever been, I thought, tears welling in my eyes.

I can’t describe the beauty more than that. If you want to know more, you will have to shoulder a pack and brave the landslide area.

Andrew at Tilicho

We sat to take it in, sucking in the thin air. Belgium poured cashews into our hands and we reciprocated with almonds.

“I can take your picture,” he offered.

Kim, Becca and I stood in front of the lake and mountains.” Should we sit or stand?” we asked.

“Both! I can take many pictures – three, five,” he said buoyantly, tapping the screen on our phone. “Now put your fists in the air,” he directed his models.

We obeyed, laughing gleefully.

Tilicho Lake

We didn’t want to leave, but we couldn’t linger. It was 8:30 am and we still had to go back to base camp, pack, eat lunch, and cross that damned, dreaded landslide area – hopefully before the usual afternoon storms.


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.

 

 

A Pilgrimage Within A Pilgrimage

This morning we left for our Pilgrimage Within A Pilgrimage. For 3+ weeks we will be walking up, down, around, and through the Annapurna range of the Himalayas in Nepal. We will be[...]

 

So Full it Hurts

“Nobody is going to understand this when we get home,” I whispered.