Debra Tan’s lungs and ligaments are strained still but she is learning the mountain way: ‘dirè dirè’ (slowly slowly) and all will pass. She has undergone a titanic effort to simply commit to a month of uncompromising living as winter settles in at a world of +4000 metres in the Himalayas. Whether a month or an hour the efforts at altitude play differently in every metabolism.
We have long discussed the need for those who legislate, dictate, and influence (or simply care) to come to these wondrous water caverns in the sky that provide water for so many who simply turn a faucet. For me it is a good feeling even if it means putting her through more physical exertion and cold than she’s ever likely to have felt.
She is here and can take and absorb it even as she may struggle to simply be here. My ‘work’ – if it can be called such – is simply to guide this journey upwards and act as a kind of reference point and facilitator in my beloved ‘hills’. There are sections of ice want her to see first hand and to take in.
Days have passed since our ascent onto Bara Shigri and with the days the mountains’ and cold skies have reminded why they remain so idealized. They dictate entirely what is done and when. Solid cold waves grip the valley, our camp and our bones, and only release when tea is served or the sun sets down into our tight little world.
Karma’s worth is immeasurable. Even our durable porters consult with him within the tent. Purun and Kamal are titanic and seamless in their abilities to assess and execute but they too defer to the guru Karma. In short it is one of those rare and wonderful things: a brilliant team with a kind of revered head of command (though Karma would never say such a thing). This is something rare but essential in any foray into the mountains.
We are wrapped on two sides by rising stone. One side is layered with sheets and shards of ice separated by tight shadows and stone. The other is an ever disintegrating wall of sand and shale. Always, there is there are the cracks of ice, the deep moans beneath us of Bara Shigri’s constant shifting. Rocks fly down, ice sheets collapse, and the rivulets increase as the sun’s heat touches all surfaces.
Raju the porter, grunter, jokester and keeper of light feelings in these desolate spaces is proving a touch of comic and joyous energy despite suffering with the cold. He is utterly fierce in his desire to keep the mood light he has become a favorite of mine among the rugged porters. He has the jester’s nobility in his every movement.
By day I will leave camp either alone or with either Purun or Kamal higher into the upper zones to get a closer feel of the ice. A lunch of cashews, raisins, chocolate and tea spent watching an ice cave casually disintegrate reminds that all of this ice that we are upon, all of these non-vegetative spaces may one day be sluicing down into the Ganges one day.
Debra remains at camp either watching the mountains, taking cooking lessons from Karma, or making small inroads into the ice. Altitude acts as a firm restraint upon her rather than deterrent. Still, she has remained upbeat and this acts as a kind of panacea upon the entire camp.
Winter is coming though and nothing; no amount of sun nor hints of warmth can hide this fact. Returning to camp one early afternoon the sky and wind turn. One end of our glacier valley has disappeared in swirling white winds. Snow is being pushed up by fierce winds and the temperature is being anchored down.
One half of the valley has disappeared in grey and blasting snow and very briefly all thoughts of the ice up high and its struggles (and temporal beauty) disappear. The ‘now’ is suddenly front and center vital once again. Getting back to camp before whatever kind of storm this is takes over the entire valley becomes an urgency.
At one point the world is cut into quadrants. Angled sun hits one small expanse of slope while the snow and wind do their best to annihilate the sky. Another portion has a dust storm whipping down from the other end of the glacier while in one little middle portion that I occupy it is as though everything is simply waiting to see which force will hit first.
It is the driving snow and wind that arrives first. Arriving back to camp tents are billowing and zipped and not a body to see. I make for the kitchen tent and sure enough Karma (my guru in so many things) is there with a pack of porters with Kamal and Purun on either end sipping tea and Deb entrenched in her regular spot.
Comfort in the mountains is down – as most things are – to basics and the time to take tea, be communal and simply together with other bodies in this isolated world of vital resources is a perfect break. I wedge myself into the tent ready for Karma’s fluids.
“Drink tea”, says Karma in his soft voice that travels through all sound. The snow falls but no one sees it…not for awhile at least until we head back to our respective tents. Karma will hold court for now.