Expedition Update: The Glacier’s Breath

Karma has gotten into the habit of preparing popcorn for us at night. We’re not sure when it began but it is welcome and it always comes as an ‘appetizer’. He has (as all characters in life do) begun revealing himself in small increments. His tent, which is always first to be erected is a kind of sanctum and worshipping centre for his abilities. Upon ‘his’ tent being erected, he quickly – regardless of temperatures – whips off his pants and dons a pair of long striped shorts, which are effectively his work clothes. Then he begins his nightly culinary meditations sitting cross-legged and issuing out soft instructions in bare feet. Even the mighty Suresh is sent on errands, which he attends to. In the camp set-up time, I come to refer to these moments as ‘Karma Time’. He doesn’t bask in any spotlight but he is very aware of every aspect of his little kingdom. He is the one person who, when speaking, is entirely listened to. His power only seems more complete when it is considered that ‘his’ tent – the kitchen tent – is also the sleeping quarters for himself, Kaku, Suresh, and Dharma.

Remarkable and at times inscrutable: Karma at work (left) in 'his' tent.

Remarkable and at times inscrutable: Karma at work (left) in ‘his’ tent with loyal Kaku aiding

Outside of the world of Karma’s lentils, rice, popcorn and magic the world around us is one that keeps the mind working and often silent for extended periods. Not even the moon in its nocturnal glory can distract from the ice and its erratic pathways down. Ice has carved, shaved, and scrubbed this landscape so completely it seems a kind of workshop or salon for its abilities. And it has been doing so for a long time.

The ice breathes upon the glacier

The ice breathes upon the glacier

We have days to spend in this valley of ice, using the base-camp to return to as we use our time to look at ice, wonder about it, and push further up the valley further into it. It allows the team to rest while Michael and I wander at will with Suresh and Dharma joining us. Camps are like envelopes. They are not much but they contain, host and provide a shelter, however simple. There is a feeling of glee that the valley and its mass of ice-affected terrain are there for our senses to take in.

Dharma 'the phantom' and his new-look to protect against the sun

Dharma ‘the phantom’ and his new-look to protect against the sun

We’ve deliberately inundated ourselves with supplies so that we can determine and customize how much time we have in each location. We want what I always want when engaged with the mountains: autonomy and time. Our porters, who are all from Nepal are enjoying being in camp and not having to move.

The 'leader' of our porters gives one of those camp smiles that tells you all is right with the team. When he pouted, we knew there could be an issue

The ‘leader’ of our porters gives one of those smiles that tells you all is right with the team. When he pouted, we knew there could be an issue. Keeping the team happy is always a ‘crucial’.

Their salaries here are higher than they would make back home and in a way I am happy seeing them relax and cut eachother’s hair, change, and wash clothes in the frigid streams. Amongst them there are three absolute titans: one who looks the role with broad shoulders and powerful legs, another who is the leader and is always smiling and the last (a man I refer to simply as ‘mountain’) who is wire-thin and a man whose ability to haul huge loads and carry them fast is nothing short of remarkable.

A valley of ice and stone offers up one of the mountain's gifts for the senses

A valley of ice and stone offers up one of the mountain’s gifts for the senses

I’ve long admired mountain peoples’ unthinking abilities in the arts of movement and strength. There was another level that they occupied in the pantheon of power. This particular gentleman whose name was Daku and his abilities and his threshold to deal with balance, pain, and strain move me. To add to it all, he is one of the most social of the porters who is always there for everyone, regardless of his state. He is always too, the first one to camp on long trek days.

Dharma looks down into a crevasse that had literally formed and opened up in the four hours since we had passed it in the morning

Dharma looks down into a crevasse that had literally formed and opened up in the four hours since we had passed it in the morning

Nights are filled – though I remain contentedly ignorant due to oro-pax in my ears – with the groans, cracks and spilling sounds of ice and rock. The world around us is in a state of flux day and night, converting from solids to fluids and recreating itself because of heat. Walls of ice 25 metres high split the valley diagonally into a kind of maze. Ice tunnels ripple as they deepen with water gushing through them, while daunting crevasses literally shudder and gape while we watch.

Massive and inviting, an ice-tunnel digs deep beneath the glaciers above it

Massive and inviting, an ice-tunnel digs deep beneath the glaciers above it

What is a stable route one morning will have become a lethal death hole by our afternoon’s return. Beauty here is in a state of perpetual change, and change here comes in a number of lethal and wonderful forms. Michael and I are both using solar chargers and there is sun a plenty to keep all of our intrusive but necessary equipment charged up. That orb of light though can only shoot into our valley for a few hours a day but when it does it steams in with a vengeance.

One of the great dangers upon the glacier is the penchant for crevasses to simply yawn open...and swallow up whatever might be lurking above

One of the great dangers upon the glacier is the penchant for crevasses to simply yawn open…and swallow up whatever might be lurking above

There is never enough time in these places and that is their challenge. It all beckons for one to stay longer and take more in. The valley that charts a course further beckons, the mountains in every single direction beckon, and of course the mind and body in turn beckon. High above our camp…Michael knows the altitude and time it took to get there, calories burned, etc…we come to what is simply a massive diagonal wall of ice.

One of the massive walls of ice that erupts out of the floor beneath us

One of the massive walls of ice that erupts out of the floor beneath us

The difference is that it is the height of a small apartment complex shorn and covered in dirty ice, and cuts our entire valley into sections. It is so complete and large that it literally divides our world into two parts. Compressed into perfection it leaks rivulets of water that make sounds as they plunge down the wall. Soft sounds but they rarely cease and this megalith of ice before us next year will be considerably smaller than it is now. Suresh, powerful in his own way, respects and fears these walks we take along the ice, at one point saying “We cannot play too long on this floor”.

The camp within the breath of the ice

The camp within the breath of the ice

The “floor” he refers to is the ice below our feet. He in his own way believes in the fates’ and nature’s powers surpassing his own. I like this aspect about him: regardless of his own feelings of strength, he is able to immediately see the folly in underestimating one single aspect of the mountains and these glaciers’ moods. Dharma is his phantom self, disappearing amidst the ice and stone sculptures and reappearing looking as though he has been hunting. I’ve learned to not worry about Dharma in his absences as he is, in his lithe and competent way, part of the very earth we walk. His eyes never rest and he’s now donning a kerchief around his head to ward off the sun with only his dark smoldering eyes visible.

I enjoy a rare wash, which was as startling as it was enjoyable

I enjoy a rare wash, which was as startling as it was enjoyable

I enjoy watching our team members as each one of them is becoming less conscious of Michael and I and more prone to being what I imagine to be more purely ‘themselves’. Dharma and Suresh offer up a contrast that only real-life can. Suresh is easy in his power and suggestions, while Dharma is more hesitant and curious – great teams always do have these ‘conflicting strengths’, which reinforce balance. Dharma has our lunch stored in his bag and we sit on a giant patch of dirty moraine and take in spiced rice, lentils, and some curried cauliflower. Amidst ice we take in Karma’s minute masterpieces. One massive ice block, only visible from our tent is now accessible. It is a great swath of ice that comes from high above in a two-kilometre wide tongue.

Breaking camp under Suresh's supervision - not surprisingly - goes remarkably smoothly

Breaking camp under Suresh’s supervision – not surprisingly – goes remarkably smoothly

Upon it, boulders sit paralyzed. It is ominous and utterly beautiful. Across its great width melt-water streams in turquoise paths. Everything from mere trickles to torrents sweep down and it feels like the entire mountain is being funneled through these little channels of water. Traipsing along boulders that are held – no, welded – together by ice, we have a near mishap. Furious sun rays work at melting the ice every single day. I wonder at times if the thick ice fields will even make it through the year, so relentless are the rays from above. Sun has obviously eroded the boulder’s ice base and as Michael lands on a patch there is the sickening sound from beneath his feet of rocks giving way. There is always a split second where reactions kick in, a little luck takes hold (or doesn’t) before the results are in. Michael catches himself just as another boulder loosens and he must once again catch himself, which he does, and then we all simply wait saying nothing. It is a time when the subject usually doesn’t want to hear – nor utter – a word. A fall would crack bones, shattering our journey in a few brief uncaring moments.

A kind of reoccurring fantasy of mine from days earlier...a foot wash

A kind of reoccurring fantasy of mine from days earlier…a foot wash

Michael takes a few breaths and simply nods. We move on. It is an understated fact of life in the mountains that it is often the ‘little’ things that do the most damage. Around us, massive slabs of rock and ice pay us little mind. They could plunge down and crush us…or they may simply stay where they are for a few more months before crashing down with no one to hear.. They will continue on heaving in their big breaths of ice and air for as long as their base of ice holds. Their ‘health’, if one chooses to use that word appears to be that of intense and spectacular change. Locals agree, and it is again Suresh that sums up this speed of change so concisely saying, “The mountains that I know as white, my children will only know as grey or brown”.

About JeffFuchs

Bio Having lived for most of the past decade in Asia, Fuchs’ work has centered on indigenous mountain cultures, oral histories with an obsessive interest in tea. His photos and stories have appeared on three continents in award-winning publications Kyoto Journal, TRVL, and Outpost Magazine, as well as The Spanish Expedition Society, The Earth, Silkroad Foundation, The China Post Newspaper, The Toronto Star, The South China Morning Post and Traveler amongst others. Various pieces of his work are part of private collections in Europe, North America and Asia and he serves as the Asian Editor at Large for Canada’s award-winning Outpost magazine. Fuchs is the Wild China Explorer of the Year for 2011 for sustainable exploration of the Himalayan Trade Routes. He recently completed a month long expedition a previously undocumented ancient nomadic salt route at 4,000 metres becoming the first westerner to travel the Tsa’lam ‘salt road’ through Qinghai. Fuchs has written on indigenous perspectives for UNESCO, and has having consulted for National Geographic. Fuchs is a member of the fabled Explorers Club, which supports sustainable exploration and research. Jeff has worked with schools and universities, giving talks on both the importance of oral traditions, tea and mountain cultures. He has spoken to the prestigious Spanish Geographic Society in Madrid on culture and trade through the Himalayas and his sold out talk at the Museum of Nature in Canada focused on the enduring importance of oral narratives and the Himalayan trade routes. His recently released book ‘The Ancient Tea Horse Road’ (Penguin-Viking Publishers) details his 8-month groundbreaking journey traveling and chronicling one of the world’s great trade routes, The Tea Horse Road. Fuchs is the first westerner to have completed the entire route stretching almost six thousand kilometers through the Himalayas a dozen cultures. He makes his home in ‘Shangrila’, northwestern Yunnan upon the eastern extension of the Himalayan range where tea and mountains abound; and where he leads expeditions the award winning ‘Tea Horse Road Journey’ with Wild China along portions of the Ancient Tea Horse Road. To keep fueled up for life Fuchs co-founded JalamTeas which keeps him deep in the green while high in the hills.
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