The soft flapping sound of a thousand prayer flags fill the air around us as we approach Shey Monastery. My mouth is dry; a constant irritation since arriving here three days ago. Most evenings, in an effort to hydrate, I drink until my stomach is full, and still it somehow never feels like enough. Today is our third and final day in the city of Leh, the capital city of India’s state of Jammu and Kashmir. My climbing partner, Tess, and I have been busy exploring monasteries and ancient palaces, while our bodies attempt to acclimatize to the oxygen-deficient air of this Himalayan city, located at almost 4000m.
Even at our incredibly slow pace, we cannot help but to huff and puff our way up the hill, totally unable to catch our breaths. The sun feels strong on my skin, unaccustomed as it is to such unrestricted rays. At last, we reach the monastery’s white stupas and take a short break. I notice that the stupas, much like the entire surrounding mountainside, are showing signs of slow degradation. Thin, grey cracks, like threads, can be seen covering the Buddhist shrines upon close inspection. My observations are interrupted as a plastic water bottle is thrust in front of me. Passed back and forth between the three of us, (Tess, our guide Tsephel, and myself) we take small, courteous sips of water that do little to quench the thirst caused by the high desert.
I’m feeling nervous. Well, not nervous exactly, but my senses are on high alert. Everything around me is new, and my mind and body are trying their best to keep up. For the last half-dozen hours Tess, our local companions, and I have been slowly hiking our way along a hillside, each step taking us further into the uninhabited Rangtik Valley of Zanskar, India. Our hike had begun in the village of Tungri, where we had spent the previous day sleeping off our 36-hour 4×4 jeep journey from Leh. Nestled further up the valley among the boulders is today’s end goal, our basecamp spot: a small, flat patch of dirt located at an elevation of 4900m, in the heart of the Great Himalayan Mountain Range. We travel along yak trails, past vacant stone shepard’s huts, through small plains filled with spring grass, and across large, steep bands of broken rock. Our guide, camp cook, and assistant cook lead the way, having been there once before, two years ago, on another team’s climbing expedition.
Down the hill, hiking through the remnants of the spring snow, is our group of porters. Each of the dozen or so men are loaded down with 20kg of food or equipment that one of us had deemed indispensable for our month in the mountains. I shudder at the sight of them carrying such monstrous loads, packed in seemingly the most uncomfortable and inconvenient ways. Metal crates carried by nothing more than a strap across the forehead, duffel bags as backpacks, large stoves carried in bare hands. Even those with proper backpacks refuse to use the hipbelts, having the burden resting entirely on their shoulders.
In an effort to befriend the porters, I “brake bread” with them and share in their meal; a mix of yak yogurt and barley flour. The taste of soured dairy linger around in my mouth long after our break ends. It was true that the yogurt was possibly not the freshest, and that, along with the drastic altitude change, will prove too much for my body to adapt to in such a short time. The next two days will be miserable.
We both lie on our backs, soaking in the sun like cold-blooded animals, perched on a small slab of exposed granite 50 meters out from the base of the wall. Our spirits are slowly rising from the depths of failure and self-despair, and we are beginning to once again acknowledge the beauty that surrounds us. We bask in the silence, the overexposed whiteness, the freeing, momentary feeling of realized insignificance.
It starts as a whisper as light as a feather, only detectable due to the stillness of the air around us. Slowly, the whisper grows into the familiar sound of an ignited white gas stove, before its eventual crescendo into that of a jet engine. We know the “what”, or at least have a good idea. It is the “where” and “how damn big” that concerns us. The thunk, quickly muffled by the surrounding snow, signals an end this lone stone’s symphony. Maybe the size of a bread loaf, it lands about 20 feet to our right. We freeze, and after a tense momentary panic (it is unusual that a single stones falls on its own, without bringing with it some companions), we look at each other with wild eyes, chuckle with relief, and begin to vacate our stunning rock island with haste.
A big, old thank you to the American Alpine Club’s Live Your Dream grant for the support and helping to make my journey to the Zanskar a reality.