Monday, April 11, 2011

Going Down to Tsokha, Why I Won't Climb Everest

We made another attempt on The View, this morning. Another early wake-up, another round of pulling on dampish boots in the dark and struggling out of sleeping bags and pushing up the hill. None of us expecting much, this time, although it wasn't raining outside. The clouds were coming over. I walked about halfway up the hill and the clouds were still there, and I wanted breakfast. I was demoralized. Kiran kept pushing upwards. I stayed about halfway up and debated about going all the way up, if I hadn't given up hope. Then, the whooping started. THEY'RE THERE THEYR'E THERE I could hear people yelling.

And there they were, the mountains, the View of Views. A whole 15 minutes of them, I guess. I heard the shouting from up the hill and got committed and then I started running (like a damned fool) right up the side of the hill through the thicket and missed the trail entirely, I just wanted to get up their and see. And I did, one way or another, crashing through all kinds of native vegetation, and I made it to the ridge and I looked. I had a lot of stickers in my pants but I didn't much care. And that was the view. The clouds closed again, and the weather closed in again. It looked like it could go eitherway, but I had made my call. I was going down, Kiran was staying.

Kiran lent me 1000 rupees, or around 25 dollars. We stood around as the porters loaded up the horses and got everything together for the journey to Goecha La. The mist and the general attitude of the thing reminded me of the Breaking of the Fellowship. I said something about this. Kiran laughed. At least we were both nerds. "We'll see each other in Darjeeling," I said, confidently. And we waved goodbye and headed in opposite directions. I went to meet the porter who was going down with me.

The porter and I regarded each other with polite interest. We were stuck with each other for the next couple of days. He was probably my age, thin and lanky and not much taller then me with long hair, like most Sherpa boys. He spoke no English and I spoke no Nepali: this was going to be a relationship built pretty much entirely upon walking.

I like to think I surprised him with how fast I moved but I probably didn't - but in any case, we kept up a good clip. We both had a single goal in mind, and that was Yuksom and the comforts (such as they were) of civil society. We wanted to get there as fast as possible and damn anything that got in our way.

The next couple of days would turn into a bit of a game between us, I guess. Kumar would choose the safest way to get up the trail or avoid a yak or cross a waterfall: the Sherpa kid would choose the fastest, and that was the way I liked best myself, a habit that (I could tell) drove Kumar ever forwards into madness. Kumar took the clearly defined and cut trail: We took switchbacks, hopping over roots and twisting our ankles just so to land on rocks in just the right way. We cut through lines of horses and cut slightly more delicately through lines of yaks. Mud was a minor annoyance and so was the occasional mist of rain. We trotted instead of walked, and people going uphill or downhill laughed at us and waved.

I stopped for a bit at the small shrine I'd walked to, dejected, in the rain the day before. The sun was coming out and the prayer flags had dried out and were blowing, just a little, in the sun. It was very beautiful and you could see the plains stretching out for God knows how far below. I turned around and took a few photographs of the mountains behind me, which looked gentle and almost European in the easing, morning light, projecting the illusion of pistes and sky shacks somewhere over the next horizon. (Maybe someday. But it will not be for a long time.)

We made Tsokha fast. It was, after all, pretty much all downhill. (Should I add here that I hate going downhill? Going uphill means you're pretty much grounded in one plain, it's easy to keep your balance, your knees don't jam up. It's you and your windpower, that's all, you against a welt of mud and slime. It's simple. Going downhill, especially in the shocking steepness of the Himalaya, requires a great deal of attention, flexibility, and coordination - you're jumping as much as you're walking, you're carefully gauging the weight of your pack and what your shoes can take, you're considering the relative slipperyness and pointiness of the rocks around you, all these things are matters of great releavance when going downhill. It tires my mind out. And my knees.)

Tsokha again, that little medieval village, and the rest-house again. It looked the same as we had left it, except the mud had dried up a little as the rain was not bad that day. I even had my own little cell to myself again, complete with all the empty beer bottles and the thing that approximated a mattress and a small, hopeful pin-up of a view of the mountain range. I laid out my things and debated what the rest of the day would look like it. It was only around noon.

The Indian men were laying out lunch on the lawn in front of the hut, and I wandered down to talk to them. I was technically to take my meals at one of the village's two habitations, or that was the arrangement I think Kumar had explained to me, but they were feeling friendly. "No, come sit with us," they said. "We have got lots of food."
They had freshly made papad and curries and daal and eggs and stir-fried spam (good at altitude) and a lot of of hot tea and coffee. We all ate voraciously, with our hands, as one does in India. It felt terribly civilized.

We went up to the little tea-shop after and drank chang, the region's beloved millet beer. It is drunk out of wood sections and is made of fermented bits of millet, as one would expect, and is drunk with a straw jammed to the bottom because the millet is still in there. It is intermittently topped up with lukewarm water out of a jug. It is not a drink for those with an aversion to dirty water.
"My, you made it fast," the Kashmiri man said. "No one should ever say a beautiful girl is not strong." They were from Pune and had brought a selection of regional snack mixes along, which we were all sharing.
"Yes, strong like Sherpa," Sanjay Sherpa said, grinning. I thought this was among the best compliments I had ever recieved.
"Sanjay saved my life, a couple of times," the Kashmiri man observed. "He did it on Everest, and he also did it on Annapurna." Sanjay demurred modestly, but he went on. "Yes, I was very tired and very cold, and had twisted my ankle. It was after I had summited Everest. He supported me, and got me down the mountain."

"Yes, he did," the oldest man said.
"But that was long ago, of course, when I was younger. Now, this is all Sanjay and I are up for. We have got fat." He said this in Nepali to the Sherpa too and he laughed long and hard. "We had our adventures."
"This is a pretty good adventure, even if you consider yourselves old men," I pointed out.
"I suppose so. Maybe you could try Everest sometime. You seem strong enough."
"Oh, no, I wouldn't do that," I said. "Even if I could, I don't think I'd want to."

(This was something I had debated often when I was younger, when I spent a lot of my free time reading books about mountaineering. The allure of people throwing themselves up against the unstoppable power of nature has never been lost on me. But you get older, you contextualize, you do your thinking. My mom and I were both avid watchers of that National Geographic show a couple of years back, which followed a group of people on a commercial Everest expedition.

I lost my taste for the thing then, I think. It was a bunch of people with a lot more money then sense (as in Into Thin Air), all on some sort of bizarre quest to test themselves against an inanimate object that didn't care about them, would eat them alive, and they would do this in front of the pleas of their loved ones and former-lives NOT to do it. They were immovable objects, and they didn't much care about anyone else around them, either - only getting to the top. Of course, I like dangerous things and I like living a (somewhat) more dangerous life then is the norm, but I'm not sure I'd pay 50,000 dollars for a canned chance at killing myself. If that makes any sense. Also, my mother would beat me to death.

A little after, the Dutch boys and the Pole showed up, having started a little later in the afternoon. In lieu of anything better to do, I sat with them and watched as they drank chang - I was trying to save my money, and did not partake - and we talked about nothing in particularly. The Pole was in high spirits. Somehow we got on the topic of Poland's notorious alcoholism. He did not confirm or deny. He noted: "I've only had vodka for breakfast once. When I was going to meet the former president of Poland, because I got an academic award. Apparently he was an alcoholic."

"Didn't most of your politicians, well, die in a plane crash last year?" I said.

"Well, this was the former-former president of Poland," he explained. "This one isn't dead."

"I see," I said.

"I met the man in his office, and it was quite early, and I hadn't eaten yet. 'You have done a good job,' he said. 'Have some vodka.' We did shots and talked some. I was very drunk with the former President of Poland and it was before breakfast."

I considered this. We all did. The Polish man, for his part, looked up conspiratorially from the chang, as if relating a dark secret. "Ahh, it's so good!" He repeated this action every five minutes or so. It was awfully endearing.

Dinner time rolled around. We were, to my chagrin, going to eat in the other shack in town, instead of the fierce chang-lady's house, the one who had an electric light powered by something or another. This was the shack that was occupied by a 14 year old boy and his dementia-affected grandmother. There may have been other family members in the picture around, but they were not in evidence. I was lumped in with the three boys, so we all filed into the small and smoky shack, and watched as the silent and somewhat startled looking 14 year old cooked us scrambled eggs and daal. I wished I could have just cooked since I am a better cook then the kid was, and I felt incredibly sorry for him. To be 14 years old in a medieval village, having to shoo your touched grandmother away from precipices, only a tabby cat and chickens and an occasional stream of trekkers to keep you company. It was a sad thought. The men were all drunk on chang and were not doing much thinking. I wished I had money for chang.

"We go down slow tomorrow," the Dutch guy said, sipping on his chang. "Maybe smoke a few joints in the woods, yeah?" He directed this at their guide, Bob the Sherpa. I thought of him as Bob the Stoner Sherpa because he was rarely without a joint, and was always inquiring if I wanted some whenever the conversation got quiet.

"Okay," Bob said, "We go down slow and smoke, that's cool." He was wearing pink pajama pants, and had the red eyes of the constantly stoned that I always see in my college friends. He had a Bob Marley t-shirt. Has weed overtaken chang as the young Sherpa's favorite past-time? It's not like it doesn't grow by the side of the road around here.

We adjourned to the chang lady's shack to hang out some. There were a few British people there, and I was happy to see another woman beside the chang lady in the general vicinity. We sat and talked about scuba-diving, for some reason, which seemed awfully incongrous at this altitude. Night-time was dark and bleak and muddy outside: I just wanted to sleep, mostly. I excused myself and flicked on my headlamp and tried to avoid the cow (out there in the darkness somewhere, with pointy horns) and got back to my little room.

The Indian men were having dinner inside the hikers shack when I walked in: they called me into the room. "We've got chicken," they said, laughing. They were referring to spam. It still tasted good. That was my second dinner. I sat with them for a while and listened to them talk about Indian politics (as is inevitable), and then I really did adjourn to my small room. It was quiet as hell outside, and less musty then Dzongri had been. At least I was getting somewhere.

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