Mornings, and particularly bad one’s can be down to simply being unable to shut off the mind the night before, or too much cold, maybe the tent location is off, or sometimes they can simply be down to an unknown. Waking below the Parang Pass I’ve got the somewhat deadly condition of an ugly mood with no apparent reason. With all of the excitement in me that is generated by mountain passes I’m confused. There is no reason for the mood…it simply is there, like the vapid grey above our valley. Sometime in the night a fog moved into my mind and simply installed itself like a piece of bad furniture. We’re all up and moving about well before seven as we’ve got a long day ahead. The intention is to make the pass and get well off of it and into the Parang Chu valley and set up camp, but the day will likely be at least nine hours.
I avoid everyone and know what I must do to ‘cure’ myself: double the morning tea intake and stay away from everyone as long as it takes to get the irritability whisked away. Normally I simply drift off without much worry but for whatever reason the engine was somehow short-cicuited. I have cakes with me of great tea and this morning I get into the Lao Banzhang – a special tea for special times. I sit as Michael chats about the morning and his excitement of the upcoming pass.
We’ve done many of these mountain ascents together and I make no mention or word of my dangerous feelings of explosiveness in the fear that even whispering the feelings will somehow break a code, or ruin the first daylight hours when all is kind and anticipated. This feeling isn’t towards him or anyone in particular. It is simply like some sort of power has me by the throat and has lodged in the being. I simply sit and sip tea and eventually, the tea and my silence do their work and I begin to feel vague little shards of my ‘other me’. One worry too, and there is always this little mind-game going on is that if I don’t mention it and particularly to Michael – who knows my moods well – that he will simply pick up on it, and this will disturb him as well. I simply clam my mouth shut and pray that the tea’s potent stimulants that I crave will evaporate the murkiness and vague sense of edge.
These moments happen to all on the trail in slightly different ways and for slightly different reasons. What goes on in the minds of the team, no one really knows until it is spoken, or ‘if’ it is spoken. Michael has his moments, epic Sadanand also has them, and maybe even Karma – our resident sage – has them, though I seriously doubt he allows such trivial thoughts to enter his sanctum of a brain. Me, I simply refer to them as my ‘Hungarian Moments’. It is akin to having a relative over who doesn’t like to call or announce their arrival, nor can they quite keep a lid on their inhibitions or inappropriateness. You deal with them because you know that they will always show up and that they will hopefully always depart. The faster they disperse, the better, but there is nothing to keep them at bay really. When they show up they show up. This process of exorcising the dark tinges is always and has always been aided by tea, so I keep the sips ‘sipping’.
Breakfast is wolfed down by Michael, who has a remarkable ability to simply inhale calories within minutes of jumping out of bed. I take much more time and need tea to prompt the grumblings of hunger, while he can dig in with a vengeance with seconds notice. Breakfasts down, we deconstruct our camp and we are ready to head for the pass by shortly after 7 am.
Tashi lets me know out of the blue that he has not slept well. I look at him and he too seems to look like I felt when first waking up: as though our minds had been altered by some filter colour for the day and camp. There is no disguise for this as the eyes look like they might jump out of the sockets and the muscles of the face feel as though someone has moved them around under the skin. These moods or whatever they are, are better simply put behind us. “Trekking and climbing” (I’m sure someone has said before) “is a kind of meditation in itself”, and in time the dark will go with the pressing of the feet on stone.
Every morning without fail it is the same for me. Once the mules are loaded and we are packed I feel an exhilaration, and a kind of glorious triumph that the day has begun with movement and that our caravan of bodies (however moody, odd shaped or otherwise) has once again found its direction and that the neurons are firing. Movement is in many ways vindication for all things and thoughts.
The day’s first hour or two do not go smoothly though. The loads on the mules’ backs need tightening, shifting, and the mules themselves need soothing. On ascents a load not perfectly secured will cause the animal pain, and grief as the weights wiggle their way to becoming looser still causing friction and sometimes sores upon the bodies of the mules. This drives the poor animals completely mad to the point where they will either bolt or simply stop and refuse to budge.
Descents are not such an issue, but when ascending on an angle the mules will practically curse you within minutes if all is not well upon their backs. In our case this morning three mules decide to go on a walkabout as if in rebellion. Karma, Kaku and Sadanand patiently tie and retie the loads. Sadanand’s eyes are little diamonds of fire and he isn’t pleased, grunting and looking particularly livid.
After a few muttered threats from Sadanand at the mules, and a few returned muttered threats from the mules to Sadanand, all is well, and we begin to make good time. Ochre and taupe seem the colours of the season as the stone ridges, piled like layer cake where the subterranean techtonic shifts lifted them, surround us. The sky remains a stoic coloured mess of grey, and not even an interesting grey at that. The tea in my blood has taken over and Michael and I – as we often do – stride ahead of the caravan to wander at will at our own pace.
Karma shows his worth again and again, with him and Tashi urging the mules to continue to move forward rather than lounge too long at grazing. One mule, a bit of a naughty piece of work I’ve christened simply as “Purple” has a routine that is both clever and maddening all at once, though the beast entertains me continuously.
It will veer off course to munch on these mighty thistles that grow sporadically along our route and then feign ignorance when whistled at or screamed at in frustration. Then, it will try to create pandemonium by nipping at the other mules as though trying to distract the other mules and somehow escape notice.. It is the chaos theory or agent-provocateur perfectly enacted and put into practice. Purple seems to take particular pleasure in winding up Sadanand, who takes the bait every single time, and drives him to near hysteria at times. Once Sadanand seems ready to burst a blood vessel in a rage because of Purple’s intransigence, only then will Purple – in a perfect vision of good behavior – move on in orderly conduct. I decide that this mule is a neurotic genius.
Passes in the Himalayas are not things of macho indulgence. They are necessary entry points and exit points for zones. They are informal borders that mark a successful passage over a ridge of mountains onto another side which might be the equivalent of walking from one climate zone into another, so different can these ‘up and over’s’ be in. They are also numerous. Passes, summits, peaks…these aren’t places for long hushed moments of meditation, but rather they are places to be treated with a tad of mortal trepidation, they are to be inhaled in a few deep breaths, and then they are to be said farewell to. Indecision upon their backs doesn’t end well.
Our ascent up the nearly 5,600 metre pass is an exercise in breathing, in pace, and in the odd bit of wonder at what continually marks our passing. More than super human moments of effort the ascent is an act of ‘finding the ability to find the air’. A steady consistent pace, and a steady consistent breath, along with a discipline to avoid racing or stopping, is what makes it possible.
Shards of stone that split that miserable grey sky into sections mark the horizon like a series of gothic headstones. Winds tease with power before disappearing, leaving a surprising and rather depressing amount of dead-aired heat in the valleys that we make our way up. Sadanand is a man possessed, saying no to food or water and continuing to lead the mule team upwards. His pace – a hobbled grinding that is never ending – would annihilate many who tried to keep up.
Michael treats many of these ascents as personal tests as he pushes himself to move beyond limits and thresholds. Tashi is surprisingly strong and can keep pace with anyone, his short muscular legs churning through terrain.
Around us the tight valleys give way and begin to open up, though the air stays a dull tone and nothing seems to move. One aspect that is often disconcerting to people when in the high mountains is the lack of ‘obvious’ life forms and the inability to properly judge distances. One senses that there is much life but that it chooses to remain locked in or hidden. Peaks that seem “just over there” might be twenty kilometres away.
The pass looks like a soft line that simply curves into the sky. The tight ‘V’ shape of the valley becomes a cup-shaped dome of open space, and I continually wonder and hope that the winds will begin to sing soon?
They do start picking up, but only gently. Sadanand is his relentless self, grinding upwards in his green knit vest trudging in front of the mules. Bent and green, he has himself become a moving landmark for us and when he’s visible, all is well. Karma and Kaku pull up the rear and Tashi walks off to the side like an insurance policy. Michael is continuing his climb; this is the highest he will have ever been and therefore a kind of sacred passage for him and it is not lost on him. His breaths are deep but he is unrelenting. He will ascend! Here, it is worth noting that altitude has that ability to find the weak link in the body (and by extension the mind) and start to whittle away at it. I’ve known people to be reminded of an old injury that they had long forgotten. Joints, organs, blood and tissue all kneel down before altitude and its accompanying air-pressure systems that can bludgeon, depress, and make leaden in weight…but the heights can also stimulate like nothing else. Bodies react differently to its power.
Parang Pass doesn’t disappoint, for as we individually make the pass the winds begin to shriek and howl. Our path has been earth, dust, and stone thus far, but on the north-facing side a hardened crust of snow and ice carpets our descent. Finally, the white makes its appearance. A little celebrating from all of our team at the pass – including Sadanand who at long last dons another jacket…but not yet any boots – and we move off. There has long been a tradition that while a brief show of gratitude at such times is necessary, dallying and unnecessary celebrations are simply asking for trouble. The skies character can change in seconds and change the very world we occupy.
A string of prayer flags snap in the winds, issuing out their song and piles of stones rest immobile, having been put up by successive waves of travelers, pilgrims, and wanderers. Passes carry few scars or signs of the centuries of use. It is the paths themselves that are most significant. The paths still exist, however vague.
The flags – little tributes of colour – and stone always move me, regardless of if I completely understand their meaning. I understand the idea and celebrate it…they are more than simply photographs. They are little icons and trinkets that contain the efforts of their makers.
Mules are sliding, skidding, righting themselves upright upon the snow-ice combination…it is the time of descent. Even with grey skies the ‘warmth’ and intensity of the light is biting. A glacier river off to our left, having burrowed its way through ice, gushes off to our left.
It will be another 3.5 hours before we camp. The pass has passed but like most passes leaves an impression embedded in the body and mind. It only takes minutes to cross but the feel is left inside. It is always the way with passes….
Entrances, exits, humps, delirious hurdles, sacrosanct windows…passes are all of these things, but they are never camps. Our own camp is a place of groans as we set up. Bodies are less supple and pliant than they should be. The day had taken a little more from us than usual and to provide a backdrop for this, black muscular clouds make their way from the pass towards us. Rain hits camp with a slap….