Expedition Update: The Ice Cometh and Porter Power

 

Chandra River Valley

Mountain smiles are best. In the middle of literally nothing a small tea shop run by this woman selling goods to those thirsty, lost, broken down, or simply on a walk-about.

Mountain smiles are best. In the middle of literally nothing a small tea shop run by this woman selling goods to those thirsty, lost, broken down, or simply on a walk-about.

 

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.

Kaku in his habitual mountain 'look': a kerchief tied over his baseball cap. On the right stands Karma as we have an impromptu meeting about supplies

Kaku in his habitual mountain ‘look’: a kerchief tied over his baseball cap. On the right stands Karma as we have an impromptu meeting about supplies

 

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.

The force of nature that is Suresh within the natural power of the Chandra River Valley

Two Powers: The force of nature that is Suresh within the natural power of the Chandra River Valley

 

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.

Moving through the winds. Myself and Michael take our own routes

Moving through the winds. Myself and Michael take our own routes

 

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.

Two of our porters methodically make their way up and through a world of rock

Two of our porters methodically make their way up and through a world of rock

 

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.

Shepherd Wisdom: The elements rule so learn to bend...and don't forget the odd magnificent smile

Shepherd Wisdom: The elements rule so learn to bend…and don’t forget the odd magnificent smile

 

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.

Michael makes in across intact

Michael makes in across intact

 

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.

Karma (right) and Dharma (left) have a look...

Karma (right) and Dharma (left) have a look…it was inevitably Karma’s decision on most things though he knew well enough how to not seize leadership overtly

 

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.

What ends up encasing us on either side...peaks that themselves are encased in white

What ends up encasing us on either side…peaks that themselves are encased in white

 

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.

Where glaciers still rule...

Where glaciers still rule…

 

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.

Mid-flight....

Mid-flight….

 

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.

Basecamp 1 in Bara Shigiri at 4600 metres

Basecamp 1 in Bara Shigiri at 4600 metres

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.

 

 

 

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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One Response to Expedition Update: The Ice Cometh and Porter Power

  1. Steve says:

    What an awesome trip! Good luck!

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