Saturday, April 2, 2011

In Which We Sit in a Hut And Do Nothing, And Maybe Nerves Fray Slightly

This is approximately when things got off the rails, up in Sikkim. A little. Not that we got eaten by yetis or that one of us fell off a glacier or lost a leg, or something of that nature. More that we ended up spending two days in a hut at very high altitude with absolutely nothing to do, other then watch with some curiosity as the altitude affected our minds and the functioning of the human organism, and how awful a small and leaking hut can smell when 40 people are living in it. This was all part of the Learning Experience. I do not know how interesting these next two days will be for you to read about, unless you are interested in the particular kind of delirium that comes from high-altitude boring. But no one went insane. We played cards, and looked at the wall, and timed our lives around meals.

Kumar shook us awake that first morning in Dzongri at the proscribed hour of 4:30 AM, and Kiran and I groggily got out of our sleeping bags, switched on our headlamps (finding them somewhere in the human effluvium the hut had become), and we put on our shoes and we headed towards the hill, the hill outside of Dzongri that theoretically offers the best possible view of the Kanchendenzonga and her sisters. It was a steep and rocky climb, right up the top of a ridge. But it was short, and we were still half-asleep and slightly shocked by the suddenness of our waking: Walking was as if walking in a dream, and as we walked the light grew stronger, and stronger. The German boys and the Israeli boy were walking with us too, and we said little to each other, because we were not awake. It was mostly about going upwards, and keeping our eyes on the narrow and spiky path the trail took.

We reached the summit of the hill, eventually: We could see across what was a great valley, and we could see the dim and ghostly outlines of the mountains behind a large and slowly lightening stand of clouds. And at least it was not raining. The View, the View of Views of the Kanchendenzonga range and its sisters, as we had been told, would come when the sun was well and truly up. We trudged over to the viewing area, which had a stupa built of rocks and prayer flags, decaying and multicolored around it. Here we were going to wait. Kiran eagerly pulled out his one legged tripod and mounted his camera on it and began grimly twiddling away at its settings.

As for myself, I wanted to sit down, except there were almost no rocks to sit down on up here (which was strange), and a lot of dampish moss and gravel besides, and so the Israeli boy and I ended up sharing a small one. We were both, I think, a little cynical about the whole thing. "The clouds don't look like they'll move," the Israeli boy said.
"The clouds don't," I agreed. We both put our chins on our knees.

(Kiran, standing with his tripod and looking intently at the horizon: They Will, he was saying to himself. They Will.)

The clouds began to part, a little, and grow less dense - a patch of fresh blue sky could be seen in between them. The clouds were blowing faster now, as the morning broke, and the Israeli boy and I both were looking up now, considering getting to our feet.

Then a moment, a single one. The clouds diminished just enough and there it was, the whole thing. The Great Mountain, that terrible and jagged pyramid and covered in snow, and its black and snowless sisters arranged around it, morbid and tough. I said "Wow" and so did the rest of us. Kiran snapped photos, over and over, in a state of pure aesthetic bliss.

This lasted for approximately one and a half minutes. Maybe two.

And back the clouds came, darker then before, and you could see nothing again, other then a dark shape that might have been a mountain.

"Well, fuck," the Israeli boy said.

And we walked down the mountain again. I chatted with the Israeli boy as we walked downhill, watching our feet carefully. "I wanted it to last longer, you know," he said. "I wanted to get a picture of myself naked in front of it."

"Naked," I repeated.

"I like to take photos of myself naked in front of things," he said. This was apparently fairly normal. (I would learn later that young Israelis, post military service, are indeed very fond of taking naked photos of themselves in front of the world's great wonders, and here he was, living out the dream! Or, trying to).

By the time we had had breakfast, it had begun to rain again. This was our Rest Day. And that was exactly what we did. We enjoyed the resting at first, being able to lean against the cabin walls and stare off into space and feel our muscles un-tense a little - that was good.

But the air was thin and I could barely focus enough to read, and our conversation was lagging - all of us in the cabin ended up in the Israeli boys quadrant, after a while, nattering on about not-much, Kiran and I watching them play endless rounds of cards. They made us popcorn. We ate it. They made us lunch. We ate it. We weren't cold, not exactly, but the mist outside was all pervasive, and seeped under your skin, and made you think of sunny days and beaches. The Spanish had decamped to a dining tent set out outside to do whatever it was they were doing, and I was too embarrassed to creep around the side and beg off some wine and Manchego from them, again. So we sat. I napped, a lot, and I enjoyed the feverish high-altitude dreams again. Sometimes I think they explain Tibetan art, the colors and the whirl and thrust of it, the way people dream at altitude.

Kiran took this one. This is what cooking in a tent looks like!

Around 4:00 PM, three more boys came in. A tall, bearded Polish scientist who resembled Abraham Lincoln and grinning a lot, and two Dutchmen, and all of them soaked to the bone. They stumbled in the door, and appeared to be led by a Sherpa I had seen around in Yuksom a little before. His name, or what he told us his name was, was Bob.

Kumar came up and looked them over, smiling a lot. "Ah, it full," he said. (Which the room was). Kiran and I intervened. "No, no, we can make room!" we said, gesturing expansively over our little kingdom of bedrolls and slowly molding socks. "We can make room!"

The Polish guy set out his bedroll in a small and tentative corner not big enough for his 6'6 frame, and the two Dutchmen went into the other room. They joined the conversation soon enough: like everyone, somewhere in between or in the middle of Higher Education and off to see the world and shake the academia off of themselves.

The Pole was especially voluble and friendly, always grinning a lot: the altitude agreed with him, he'd done some mountaineering. They served us dinner and tea, again. We all drank a lot of tea but we regretted it, because that meant a trip to the outhouse, which was a few yards away and down a squishy and horse-shit strewn trail.

The outhouse was equipped with a small running creek that performed all sanitary services and made a pleasing rushing-water sound, but it was getting there that was the bitch, and so was the toilet paper. At least Kiran and I had packed enough. We tried to hide it from everyone else. The mood, I felt, was growing a little too outcasts-stuck-in-a-raft. "You hear anything about the weather?" I asked Kumar.

"We know tomorrow," he said, carefully.

"I wonder if the bridge is still washed out," I said, mostly to myself.

"I'm going up," Kiran said. "To the Goecha La." This was a statement and not a question.

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