Tuesday, April 5, 2011

Sitting in a Hut And Doing Nothing: Here's Some History!

We had intended to set off for the Goecha La pass that day after our day of luxurious resting, and then we woke up, and it was raining. It was raining resolutely and in gray tones; it was raining as if it had been raining all night and had been raining since approximately the beginning of time; it was raining such that the yaks and horses had their heads down and looked shaggy and remorseful, and the paths outside the trekkers hut ran with little muddy creeks. "Fuck," I said, when I looked out the window. Kiran repeated something similar. We went outside in our boots and stood on the porch with holes on it and watched the rain come down on the horses fetlocks. We said "Fuck" again.

"So we stay another day," Kumar said. I think he was trying to sound positive but I wasn't really sure.

We went back inside, and Kiran and I looked around our habitation, which was sweaty and (as we suspected) beginning to mold, and we considered another day of being damp and chilly and playing card games we were not very good at, and reading books our brains were too addled to allow us to recall much of, and mostly, sitting around and staring at the wall. And we sighed. And we stayed. I had begun my own addition to the graffiti wall. It was a drawing of an angry yak, and my name. It was beginning to get very detailed. We had breakfast. We talked to each other about nothing in particular. We had lunch.

The Spanish would wander into the room occasionally to get something and cluck about our living situation. They all had what seemed to be an endless array of stretchy trekking clothing. "Ah, these huts are awful. Here - we, we live like gypsies. It is ridiculous!" one woman muttered to me, as she dug through her damp gear. I lay back on my mat - slipping in and out of sleep was what I'd done all day - and thought of what we'd been told back in Gangtok, by the man who owned the trekking company, who was kind enough to warn us. "Tourists say...anything can happen at altitude. To sleep at altitude, it's 100% difficult. When the hut is bad...it's 110% difficult."

I went for a walk after lunch. I went for a walk not because it was a good day for a walk - it was an awful one - but because I had not walked anywhere much then to the bathroom in about two and a half days and felt I was going insane. The rain pelted on my rainjacket and ran down my back, and turned the gravely path I was walking on into a little stream. The rhododendron forest was red and moist and foggy, and looked like no landscape I'd ever seen before, which was something.

Small and dampish birds occasionally flew from tree to tree, and about a half a mile from camp, I couldn't hear anyone or see anyone at all. For some reason, I found myself at the crest of the peak we had walked up to reach Tsokha, the one with the little rock stupa and the prayer flags on it, which were sodden and still in the wet. I stared at it for a bit. I got rained on. There was a view to break the heart out there in the mist, but I couldn't see it. No epiphanies came.

I began walking back.

To my surprise, I saw the Indian men, the older group, and they were all kitted out and going in the opposite direction, and their pack animals were with them. They had been camping a half-mile away from us or so, at the Kanchendenzonga base camp, and I had not seen them in a couple of days. "

"Are you going back?"I asked, surprised. The Kashimiri man with the sharp grey eyes was out front, like always, so I addressed him.

"Yes, we are going back. The weather is awful."

"Our guide told us that one of the bridges has washed out. And he thinks the weather isn't likely to break anytime soon," the oldest man, with the white hair and glasses, added.

Sonjay Sherpa, the guide, nodded in agreement and looked amused. He didn't speak English.

"You're giving in?" I said, amazed. I was thinking of their experiences on Everest.

"There's no point in waiting around. If the rain gets worse, perhaps more bridges will wash out. And then we will really be trapped here," the Kashmiri looking man said. "That's no good for anyone." (I recalled the only-recently repaired and rickety suspension bridge I had walked over a few days before, and the raft of debris and shattered, huge trees caught up against it. This worried me).

"You'd better turn back, too," the oldest man said. The other two came up the trail behind them in their slickers.

"We'll consider it, " I said.

I walked back down the trail considering it. I was bored, that was the main problem, damned bored, and I didn't want to sleep in a creek bed either, not for another day. We had tents, that was true, but I was bored with sitting in tents. I liked walking, and I walked the challenge and the pain of it, but the sitting around in tents - it was driving me up the wall. What if we made for the Goecha La, and it just kept raining? What if we made the Goecha La and the view, and there was mist all over it? And I thought of weird and rickety Darjeeling too, a city I'd always wanted to see, and knew that we had to be in Calcutta by so-and-so-day. We might only get a day in all to see Darjeeling. And we'd spend it staring at rain, and canvas. And what was there to prove? A lot, of course - my honor, my strength, my ability to endure the scent of molding socks. I couldn't be a coward. But I could be logical.

And how the hell could I talk Kiran into it? I was pretty sure I couldn't. I'd have to go down myself. And I was out of money, too. About $30 bucks to my name.

Though that would also be an adventure.

They brought us popcorn again, around 4:00 PM. This was the absolute highlight of our day. Kiran and I didn't talk to each much, but I think this was more a result of our ever decreasing-brain function and less one of social tension. My thoughts had become small, and stupid, and concerned primarily with mud.

I read a little bit, or tried to, of a book one of the guides had brought up. It was about the mythology and traditions attached to the Kanchenzonga mountain, and it was fascinating stuff.

Aleister Crowley looking curiously like certain friends of mine in Facebook photos.

The truly bizarre Aleister Crowley, a British occulist, mystic, and "magician" headed a 1905 first attempt on the famously difficult mountain. The attempt was unsucessful but makes for mighty good reading. Three men were killed in an avalanche during that expedition: although one local noted, "The demon of Kangchenjunga was propitiated with the sacrifice" and urged Crowley to turn back, he decided not to risk it. He headed for home.

The Crowley account of the ascent, as I read this (a bit belatedly) mirrors pretty much all of my own opinions. Crowley on leeches: "A single leech will kill a pony. It works its way up into the nostril and the pony simply bleeds to death. Hence the Anglo-Indian proverb. "A jok's a jok [Hindustani for leech] but a jok up your nose is no jok."

On the dampness: "On getting into a dak baghla and standing stripped in front of a roaring fire, one expects to get dry. But no! the dampness seems to be metaphysical rather than physical. The mere removal of the manifestations of the elements of water do not leave one dry. But one used to obtain a sort of approximation to dryness by dint of fires; and of course we were provided with waterproofs specially constructed for that abominable climate. One morning I timed myself; after taking every precaution, it was eight and one half minutes from the door of the baghla before I was dripping wet."

Things don't change much up here.

The mountain was not summited until 1955, in an expedition led by Joe Brown and George Band: according to a request by Sikkim's king, they did not actually set foot on the very top of the mountain in deference to local religious belief. (I'm incredulous about this, mainly because, who exactly was up there to stop them?)

FUCK yeah.

Naturally, Kanchenzonga has a healthy array of yeti or "demon" myths - though the beasts are referred to as "sokpha" here, in the native tongue. One of the Western world's earliest yeti accounts from the mysterious and independently wealthy N.A Tombazi, a Greek photographer and geologist who supposedly spotted one in the area near to Dzongr in 1925, and also viewed its tracks. The natives told him in no uncertain terms that they had come across a "demon," but Tombazi, for his part, was not convinced, suspecting he had seen a traveling and poorly attired hermit instead of a bona-fide mythical beast- though he apparantly had misgivings later in life.

A yeti was supposedly seen around in Sikkim in 2004, according to this blog, in a remote region known as Zaluk. Rev your engines, cryptozoologists.

I spent most of my time asleep because my dreams at altitude were surrealist horror-shows, and they were much like watching television. The repeat of all I'd been or had ever been or will ever be played as if on a tape recorder, and conflated together, and the smell of hut-funk in my nose. I would imagine having long conversations with family and friends that I loved. They would ask me why I was here and I would say "Well, it's a long story." In one, I am in the sitting room in Tampa, where my grandparent's live and looking around the room, which is about the same as always but with the minor structural differences implied by dreams. My grandparents are there, or maybe it is my mother. "But wait," I say. "This has to be a dream. How did I get from Yuksom to Florida so fast? Also, I left my computer in the hotel there. I need that computer." They look at me, as if to say, "Yes, you got us."

And I woke up on the hard floor of a trekkers hut in Dzongri. A victim of my own incredulity.

It was a nice dream, too.

"If the weather doesn't break - soon - then I'm heading back tomorrow," I told Kiran, in one of our moments of mutual awakeness.

"You don't want to see the Goecha La?" he said, surprised. Everything that Kiran was at the moment, or at least it seemed that way to me, was entirely committed to seeing the Goecha La.

"I do, but not if it's being rained on. I mean - I want to see Darjeeling. More. Or, longer. I don't want to spend all my time being rained on."

"A little rain..."

"But still. I met the Indian guys, you know. They said their guide didn't think the weather would break, and that more bridges would wash out. It might be prudent." I knew this wouldn't work on Kiran, who had got the mountain madness thing going on, right down to the core of him, but I threw it out there.

"No, no, no. I'm going up. I don't care." He was thinking of setting up his camera, and getting the perfect shot. I was thinking of Darjeeling and weird little alley-ways to nowhere and dumpling shops, and tea plantations. We were on diametric courses, and had opposite goals. Something had to give. I decided that I would give it one more morning - and I was holding little hope - and then down I'd go again.

I arranged it all with Kumar. "Okay, so I send one porter down with you," he said. One guy to (embarrassingly) carry my big backpack. We'd put up at Tsokha for the night, and we'd get our meals on credit one-way-or-another from the terrifying village lady who served up millet beer to whoever came in the door. It would probably be simple enough. Kiran lent me some more money. We spent another night at altitude, and we played cards with the Germans (or observed, for me, who could never bother to learn), and I think we finished off most of the Charteuse booze Kiran had brought up in lieu of anything to do. I was ready to be gone.

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