We are moving higher yet – moving into ‘higher than highlands’ on a sheet of ice that is perhaps 2 km’s wide. It blankets the valley with its wide, white grace giving the landscape a clean and almost clinical beauty. Winds run wild, streaking happily across these worn down valleys picking up minute shards of ice and snow and hurtling them around.
Nighttime temps plunged the night before and even fast rushing glacial streams are in the midst of thawing themselves out in the punishing neema (sun). We are making our way through the Aron Mu valley with the Aron Mu River slicing beneath the ice we are now treading upon.
It is a day of plodding and grinding with real distances and our impressions of how much terrain we are covering being at odds. In these vast spaces judging distances has become a daily deception. Following Gamzon’s rough pattern over the ice as she plods along the path it is obvious that she ‘knows’ not only the route, but the nature of the route. She is choosing the path with the least risk of plunging through crevasse or ‘hole’. The yak seem to ‘smell’ or sense intuitively the portions of disguised ice to avoid. At one point the yaks, who are leading, swivel their powerful frames left and circle a portion of ice for no apparent reason. As I pass over the portion they’ve steered clear of my walking stick plunges into to a mini abyss that spirals metres down.
Mountain-‘scapes’ have always held the power to impose themselves upon the will, burrowing into the psyche with power and just a tinge of the ominous. Punishing and soothing, these spartan heights have their own soundtracks and have that rare ability to provide an environment by which to edit the mind’s errant wanderings. Mountains can still the mind like few other places.
We once again pass the 4,500 metre barrier. Our days have at times been an unending series of ascents and dips – climbing up only to descend around the next desolate bend. It is in this way the land dictates the pace entirely.
A laser-like sun is bouncing off of the ice, ratcheting up the heat. We haven’t seen the colour green in a week – all that we have seen is coming out of its dry winter shell.
The grinding of our past days has taken relatively minor tolls on us. Michael’s feet are in dire condition, though, with his nails falling off in his socks and an entire layer of his sole slowly peeling off, but he has been powering through the constant discomfiture with stoic tenacity. It is only one night when I see the extent of surface damage that I marvel.
My single ailment was ‘received’ this morning while loading the yak. My four-legged friend twice cracked the identical spot of my left ankle within four minutes with a solid blow from a hoof. They were shuddering blows that resonated down into the frozen earth below me. There is a strange twinge in the left foot just below where the hoof hit, though nothing that affects motion (yet). It has given me cause to be wary of the massive hooves of our black and white friends.
We haven’t yet glimpsed the Amne Machin range on this day as there is layer after layer of mountains that obscure or long view but at one juncture Gamzon shouts something that gets taken by the wind. She repeats, “Nom’sho” pointing further northwest.
Moments later, while trudging through melting snow, she looks over to Michael and I nodding…and there it is.
A numbing view of a valley (Nom’sho) that is so vast that it seems to continue to expand as we take it in. I need to swivel my head back and forth to take it in, to fit it in to my mind’s eye. To the left a powdering of snow rests on stone peaks, between which are shimmering rivulets that wink with the sun’s blaze upon them. Another valley to the left – massive and flat careens off west. What holds us is the great funneling valley and passageway ahead with Amne off to our right. There is that ever-present urge in me to flit across to its base and begin the long ascent up its cloaked flanks…it is an urge that has been fulfilled many times, but will never cease. A friend once termed this “the eternal hunger”, this often tunnel-vision desire to climb.
Michael quietly pads up beside me and speaks of this space. “There is nothing at all here to muddle this space, besides us”. While he contemplates this stunning vastness I’m dreaming about ascending a not so distant crest on the mountain, but knowing that to do so will be to offend the deities that the locals hold dear – akin to a kind of sacrilege. The two tongues duel it out in my head, one a desire that courses through every vein, another of enormous respect for the locals and their precious animistic mecca’s.
This is Amne Machin’s southern empire, Nom’sho the valley where all things shrink into some kind of insignificance. Off to our right is the glorious shoulder of Amne Machin caked in thick snow and glaciers. While rounded in shape the mountain bristles with ice edges that ripple with wind. My eyes are still becoming accustomed to this vista as we literally turned a corner and were presented with one of Mother Nature’s true bastions. It is an amphitheatre of space for the senses.
In time we move further into the valley with distances again proving deceptive. On the south side facing the great snow belt of Amne Machin is a range called Mor’do, a series of kindly stone peaks and faces that serve to provide a scale for the greater range that they face.
A miniature stone forest sits abruptly in the midst of the valley at one point. Hundreds upon hundreds of piles, created by the human hands of pilgrims over the course of years. A tiny world created for the gods…whether these gods see them or not, it is a physical tribute by people who have toiled and worked to arrive here in this landscape which demands so much of the spirit simply to arrive intact. Here there is a residue of all that came before us and left something of themselves here; their efforts, their stone piles and their motives.
Moving deeper into the valley a path becomes visible and we are told that nomadic pilgrims, migrating families and trade caravans have been moving through here forever.
Michael and I wander almost aimlessly at times to peer at the land, the sky, the snow and the mountains – the mountains, which continue to beckon to me with almost hypnotic power.
Soon our caravan body disappears as they continue to plough forward with their mindless, unceasing journey forward…and home. The flatlands are illusory as ridge after ridge undulates down disappearing into deep wedges of valley.
Hours pass and we seem to be no further…nor have we sighted our caravan yet. We are starting to worry that amidst all of this space that somehow we have missed our valuable Gamzon and our juggernaut yaks.
Michael and I convene in the centre of this vast space to talk “what if’s”. We have covered almost 30 kilometres, most of which was between 4500 and 4700 metres with a sun that has taken more energy to deal with than previous days of snow.
Our sun is beginning its arc into the horizon and temperatures are subtly dropping already. In front of us there isn’t a moving thing within view – nothing but more glorious mountains that will see nighttime cold touching them within an hour. Off to our left, in the shadow of an overhang is a tiny meditation hut jammed into stone. As a last resort, if need be, we can shelter there but we decide that continuing on is the only choice…and then a tiny body that we know well appears, somehow, from behind us – though there is nowhere to hide it appears as though our terrier has simply erupted from the earth behind from where we have just come.
After a brief love-in between us (terrier and I that is) – though it has to be said that Michael is delighted with our little guardian’s sudden and very welcome appearance. With his presence we know at least that our camp cannot be far. Shortly, Ripper (who has been called various names by this point in our journey – names that are only getting sweeter) leads us down to a vision of glory. Our camp, tent already erected, sits below the southern face of Amye Machin. Gamzon is buzzing around preparing the camp, the yak stand with heads bowed as they chomp and there is the realization that this is as much as we could ever want…a sky of receding fire, silence, and that bulky snow-covered beauty on the horizon.