The Face of a Goddess. The Roof of the World.
“The mountains are a force to be respected. Only if you obey her will she will show you her face.”
Nar sat across the table from me in a run-down attic off Kathmandu’s legendary Freak Street. A few beams of dusty sunlight crept in through slatted walls and cast lines across his face. Nar was a head shorter than me even while sitting, but the robust, athletic man seemed much larger based on the size and confidence of his smile. He had climbed Everest basecamp with my uncle years ago and the two had remained close friends ever since. I’d received a yak-wool pull-over from his wife one Christmas and been told if I ever made it to Nepal I had to get in touch.
“I want a challenge.” I told him when he asked which mountain I’d come to Nepal to climb. I’d seen Nar analyze my walking pace en route to the café —the seasoned guide probably knew exactly what I was capable of but still asked about my experience at high altitudes. He picked my brain about an adolescence of snowboarding and mountain biking and was intrigued by the 21 days I’d spent camping in B.C’s coastal mountains at 16. What I didn’t tell him—I couldn’t bring myself to tell him right away at least—is that I planned to tackle the ascent alone.
There are countless reasons travelers choose to forego tourist services. The most common I’d encountered over the last four months were financial (especially with those travelling for longer stints) or a lack of trust in local touts (which seemed to be the case with just about everyone arriving in Nepal via India.) Although both these decision are fair, they can generate varied reactions—from disappointment to hostility—in a staggeringly poor country such as Nepal were the recent influx in tourism is seen by the local economy as a long-overdue breath of fresh air. While finding words to explain my decision to Nar, I was taken back to Myanmar one month earlier, where I’d harassed a Japanese-Australian photographer atop the sunset temple in Bagan about his experiences over two decades in the field. As we watched the blood-orange sun sink into the dry grass he told me about Cambodia in the 90’s—a cheap and dangerous place I hardly recognized as the staggeringly commercial country I’d visited only three weeks before. His eyes glazed over as he sketched pictures of a hauntingly empty Angkor Wat and markets packed with cheap narcotics and genuine artisanship at bargain prices. Then, noticing my gaping jaw, he tethered me back to reality.
“But the Cambodians were miserable then. I passed through in November and I think the country is the best off it’s been in a long, long time.”
Part of me wished I had a better reason for declining Nar’s services. I liked him immediately and had no doubt that his chosen guide would be a fair and honest climbing partner. And although my bank accounts were running low, I saw my dwindling balance as a welcome incentive to look for work.
No, my prerogative was the result of something different—the result of a lifetime of fantasies spurred on by heroes like Mallory, Norgay, and Hillary himself. Of course I wasn’t summiting Everest, or any mountain for that matter—I opted to trek to the basecamp of Annapurna I: the smaller yet more dangerous peak perhaps best known for killing Anatoli Boukreev, the legendary Kazakhstani mountaineer made infamous due to his slight vilifying in John Krakaeur’s ‘Into Thin Air.’ And basecamp of the world’s tenth largest peak is hardly something to brag about (accounting for a mere 4,130 meters of Annapurna’s 8,091 meters. Everest is 8,484.) But when faced with an increasingly domesticated planet, we lash out by courting what few vestiges of danger we can. My choice to attempt the climb alone, to reach the camp in three days rather than the suggested five, to carry my own equipment, and to assault the trek without even a partner for safety, as Nar suggested as a last effort once he sensed the fire in my eyes, was foolish, selfish, and the result of ego alone.
My first impression of the mountains was hardly the harsh Himalayan range described by those aforementioned heroes of exploration. Although the ascent was rapid—after six hours of walking I’d gone up 1,800 meters—the majority of the climbing was done via a shale staircase cut out from the terraced hillside by Sherpa and funded by the increasing price of permits required to visit the Annapurna Conservation Area that runs from Eastern Nepal to the Mustang region of Tibet. Small farmhouses with their corrugated tin-roofs painted blue appeared every hour or so. Chai and Yak cheese stands had been set up to fill the voids between the tiny towns. Rather than the aggressive ice faces that the tallest mountain range on earth has embedded into our minds—most notable the chilling onyx pyramid of Everest—the pathway I chose to follow rose and fell along the tree-line of oak and rhododendron forests. In the blossom-choked sunlight, the day was literally a rose-tinted jog.
Destined to cover between 20 and 30 kilometers per day I moved quickly. And with each tourist I passed, I learned that I wasn’t the only one skimping on local labor. Although the region’s trekking authority claims to inforce a harsh 15 kilogram limit on what each porter can carry, hardly an hour went by without bumping into a young man glistening beneath the weight of three or four bags—none of which would pass the 20 kilogram limit at the weigh-in in the Kathmandu airport. These were strong climbers—it was with them that I paced the majority of my trek—yet unconsciousness I’d always pull ahead or fall behind whenever another tourist appeared on the path. I couldn’t bare the thought that they might mistake the weight upon those men’s shoulders as my own.
The Annapurna Conservation Area covers roughly 6% of Nepal’s total land area. Launched in 1986, it is the first and largest conservation area in the country and is home to roughly 1,226 species of plant, 101 species of reptile and various endangered mammals, including the snow leopard that remains the obsession of many naturalists around the world. Roughly 100,000 Nepali and Tibetans call the Annapurna Conservation Area home—and its governing authority, the Annapurna Conservation Area Project is founded on maximizing these people’s role in the conservation and development of the region. The Annapurna region saw its first trekker in 1957. Since then, the area has drawn over 60% of the trekking population visiting Nepal. Aside from the required permits, the majority of income generated within the region comes from hospitality services, guiding and portaging, and the occasional donation by the more generous tourist. Although I certainly wasn’t the only solo-trekker, my motives for ascending alone were questioned every time I stopped to speak with a local guide. Although most were open minded—many encouraging when I described my personal goal of the 4,000 meter solo ascent in three days—I couldn’t help but feel guilty each time I walked away from a conversation. I deposited a neatly folded note in the donation box of every school-house I passed.
It took until the morning of day two to reach 3,000 meters. The thinning of the forest canopy marked that milestone. By mid-day the rainbow prayer flags that crosshatched the pathway began to tear and snap. Oaks and rhododendrons gave way to bamboo. Eventually even the heartiest shrubs were overcome by lichen-coated rock. Although anything above 1,500 meters is considered high altitude, it’s at 3,500 meters that the air density has decreased to the point of having notable affects on the human body. Less oxygen finds its way to the lungs; arterial pressure falls, electrolyte balances fluctuate, and blood pH levels spike. Symptoms of altitude sickness may include anything from pins-and-needles to pulmonary or cerebral endema—the often-fatal swelling of the lungs and brain due to a build up of fluids in the body’s tissue. Although below 5,500 meters descending to lower altitudes easily solves this problem, the rapid judgment required is difficult as the brain blurs with a decreasing intake of fuel. It was for this reason that the few other climbers I encountered in the early morning of the third day walked in pairs. It was for this reason that Nar had warned me about making the ascent alone.
I reached the summit by pre-dawn of the fourth day. 70 hours after my departure, I decided I was within my self-imposed time limit. My right arm tingled and my breathing was heavy. I flopped down next to a shrine erected in honour of Anatoli Boukreev and subconsciously raised the Balinese-silver Ohm that hung around my neck to my lips. As I caught myself mid-way through the superstitious gesture, I remembered the first words Nar had uttered – the mountains are a force to be respected. Up ahead, the golden rays of sunlight kicked-off Annapurna’s 8,000 meter crown. I was still only half-way to the roof of the world but I imaged how she looked from the top.