Assembling a team that is about to enter into the mountains for a prolonged period of time is part art, part availability, part luck…and perhaps some providence. We have known our team’s names and that they have worked together before. Some times this is enough. Together they have weathered snow passes, eaten in blizzard ravaged tents, and just walked underneath the great skies. It is as much about the little things as it is the big, so the meeting of a team is always something curious. It is a time to imagine how things might work and how the pieces might fit…or not.
Our informal ‘meeting’ of our team lasts 30 minutes in Manali and is helped along by a sipping of tea – me sipping really – at a round table while we all briefly introduce ourselves and while Michael and I explain our motives for being on this journey. There are head nods but I know that their own personalities will come out when it matters most or they may not come out at all.
Karma our cook is calm personified with features that remind me of the formidable Khampas of eastern Tibet (it turns out he is of Khampa blood). It is his calm that is in every movement and nod that brings with it a sense that he is entirely good for this journey. His manners assure me as does a kind of ability to keep himself inward. This is – in my eyes at least – a true strength. High-strung bulls are always necessary, but there must always be calm energy forces on mountain teams.
Cooks have long been in my books as the linchpins of expeditions. They calm and tend with care, warmth, and competence…or they don’t. If they don’t, a day (or days) can unwind in short order. A stroke of impetuous genius with a meal on the road can wipe a brutal day from the mind and put the stomach to bed with a smile. The feet and stomachs are the portions that need to be happy on mountain journeys I’ve found and if they are in rebellion one’s days are in peril.
Kaku is a sharp-eyed handsome man-boy who will be the “do-everything” character on the team. Lean with low-slung baggy jeans, and a baseball cap, Kaku has eyes that never rest, as though somehow movement and action settle him. His hands are clasped in front of him the entire time and he often looks to Karma as though somehow making sure he is correct in all things. Both he and Karma will be with us for the next month every single day.
Suresh is our mountain man. Big and handsome with an immaculately trimmed beard, it is he who is the alpha male. He isn’t at all worried about showing it either Even as Michael and I meet him for the first time, Suresh emanates power and authority and he is unafraid of letting his paunch poke out of his shirt. He is a man who is unable to rest still, and when he speaks he must make an attempt to keep his tone down as he splays his arms wide to emphasize everything. He is a man who takes big bites out of life, and I suspect, who’s had big bites taken out of him. Such are leaders. Suresh will be with us for the first segment of our journey only.
The fourth of the team is a long lean gazelle of a man whose features perfectly describe the mixed DNA of the region. Desert eyes, a beautiful nose and cheekbones and a long hunter’s body make Dharma a bit of an enigma. He strikes me as someone who’s likely to be a kind of point man wandering off into the distance alone.
It is a team that reflects the vibrancy of cultures that trade and mountain corridors brought together. Manali in its present incarnation is our departure point and mini-logistics hub but it will soon be a place of the past.
This expedition, like any, is a route plotted to follow the trail of pashmina, wool, salt, and gems in this northern portion of sub-Himalayas stretching into the high Himalayas. Like any ‘route’ in the mountains, there isn’t in fact one definitive route but rather a series of pathways that buzz off into the heights, over the snow passes, wandering through every corridor and along every waterway. Speaking to five people of these lands will bring five passionate pleas to take “that route”, see “that person”, or “head over those passes”. We’ve come up with a route that will take in some of the more remote routes
Heading north out of Manali, which long served as a collector point for gems and trading families, we’ll enter the remote wind-blasted Chandra River Valley where glaciers and ancient shepherds await.
Suresh signs off our meeting with one of those impromptu mountain comments I’ve come to love, “tomorrow we’ll see how the mountains are”.