Chandra River Valley
To fuel and propel our team we’ve had to enlist another team. Seven Nepali porters await us in this valley of the Chandra River. They wait in flip flops looking gentle but being tough beyond most concepts of the word.
Gentle faces, supine legs and a kind of raw power courses through them. Their work is thankless, hellish stuff at times but they have eachother and they demand respect. Suresh is everywhere at once showing a talent for starting many projects without necessarily completing them. It is his ability though to command and initiate which radiates: it is his gift.
Our routing is to cut back over the Chandra River and head west towards the Bara Shigiri glacier along a wind blown valley floor. As much as this journey is about the shepherds and trade routes, it too is a special opportunity to witness first hand one of the barometers of mountain health: glaciers. The Bara Shigiri is close to 30 km’s long and weaves amidst peaks of white. It doesn’t simply rest within the valley…it is the valley and every single thing pays homage to it. It is off the grid for all but climbers and the entrance to its curving, moraine-covered length is via a treacherous series of shale-pebble-boulder blankets. Here, paths are not paths but rather hints.
We start out as a line of bodies, each with its own load, its own thoughts, and its own pace. Suresh leads while Dharma hovers like a shadow off to a side of our bodies in motion. He is a gazelle, taking in strides with smooth steps needing not an instant to figure out how to negotiate streams or other natural barriers.
A worn shepherd with lines of sun and wind and wrapped in wools marks our passing with a smile. Along the valley, stone huts – the shepherd’s camps – are the only structures. Often alone, these men and their dogs keep vigil over their sheep and goats for the precious couple of summer. Precious wools around the globe can find their origins in these valleys of shuddering natural forces….amid stone, wind, and scant vegetation.
Hitting a glacial stream emptying its cloudy glacier waters into the Chandra, we must zip-line over the powerful currents. Suresh tells me the tale of one recent man who had decided to forgo the zip-line and try his balance; he was swept away and drown. Whether he is warning me to listen or simply passing on gossipy news I don’t know but this bit of information is delivered with typical Suresh force.
It takes over an hour to get supplies, bodies, and minds over the swill of water and rock. We have that gift of time though, and keeping all beings content and safe is part of any wise long-term strategy. The commodity of ‘time’ in the mountains is the golden gift. When you have time you have possibilities and you have time to consider options.
Karma seems a face and spirit that I continually look to for gauging all things. Suresh is the dominant force, and Kaku and Dharma are loping figures of strength and agility but Karma is somehow the fulcrum and center-piece of it all. He is unafraid of assisting with anything and is competent and strong in all elements, without making a fuss of anything. He is smooth water. It is he with the power and I think that he does in fact know it.
The breadth of space here and its width make judging any distances difficult so there is an understanding immediately that any kind of real control is automatically assigned to the natural world. We will simply react. We trudge along having spaced out into small figures and there is no longer in any discernable line. Kaku stays close to Karma as though he too needs the wise one’s guidance. We all have our thoughts, lack of thoughts, and this glory around us and we are to some degree in little shells. Once in a while our bodies convene and chat, informing and listening and then break off to be alone. It is one way of assessing mountain people…they listen. We have eachother as well, though we are dispersed over a space of two kilometres. Winds shimmy, recede and then return with a vengeance. Michael is off on his own, deep in thoughts as he inevitably is on long grinding hauls. I suck in winds that carry the tang of snow content to feel the impact of them as they drive into me.
An absence of visible life around us isn’t quite accurate as where there are goats and sheep there will be the elusive master predator, the wolf, nearby. Snow leopards too also occasionally remind locals that they are around with a masterpiece kill, before they head back to their ghost-lands of the heights.
Glaciers run like dribble down valleys in every direction and we are covering an ever-widening swath. Our valleys are immense and they do feel like ours…or theirs-whoever ‘they’ might be. Powers, four legged animals, spirits, or simply the frozen water particles that glimmer and melt whatever is up there must look down upon us with a smile. There is the impression that everything is above us looking down at us somehow, though we are at four-thousand metres.
The long tongue of the Bara Shigiri glacier finally rises up before us though we take a day and night to get there. Streams provide our water, imperturbable Karma providing lentils and rice and a succulent pile of treats from his ‘kitchen chest’. We have food for two weeks with us as we will wander at will and where we wander, our food supply too will wander. Autonomy, that ancient concept of old is at once both a natural fit and entirely necessary for this tracing of landscapes and memories.
The valley of Bara Shigiri is immense and it is dry. Sounds of streams deep within the ice below us emerge through gaping crevasses and rocks tumble from high above as their ice shelves melt away. As much as sun is an enemy of sorts, it is the lack of precipitation that is seeing an ever-quickening of ice melt away. A shepherd we have met says that he now sees mountains as dark where as there was a time when the mountains were only white. The snows are disappearing and the ice is melting. Groans are heard and things change – we’ve arrived to the empire where the cousins of stone and ice rule in harmony.
Our porters have powered up to a base-camp of sorts where we’ll rest at 4,600 metres. Our resting point is lodged between rock slops, clear ice-covered slopes and a clay wall which seems to be disintegrating before our very eyes.
Setting up camp follows the same ritual every day. First the unloading, then the kitchen tent – Karma’s magical abode – goes up and then and only then do other camp items get sorted up. Water is boiled for our inevitable thirst for tea.
As we set up our tent a series of black mountain clouds race in disturbing the sun’s rays, before racing off again. They are merely reminding us that they are there.