Sunday, 12 January 2014, 11:45 p.m., Golden, Colo.
The four of us stumbled out onto pavement at the Sundarijal bus station after nearly eight hours of walking, knees and feet just on the verge of giving out. That was how 13 days of trekking came to a close, and yet Dawa, Henrik, Ad’le and I were all grinning as we high-fived and enjoyed a celebratory coke in a grungy food stall.
I had met Dawa over breakfast a couple of days before we set out. He is Lhakpa’s stepbrother, and while it might do well to be suspicious of recommendations between family members, I couldn’t have had a better guide. It’s funny how things play out sometimes. Dawa had spent three years working as a chef at Sherpa House in Golden, overlapping my first year at Mines, but it wasn’t until I was traveling into a remote valley of Nepal that we crossed paths, or rather shared one for two weeks.
My final bus ride in Nepal got the two of us to Syabrubesi, a small town at the mouth of the Langtang Valleyand about nine miles from the border with Tibet. We set out the next morning following and followed by a number of other trekkers, including Michael and Kevin, a pair of young Frenchmen on a tour of Asia; Larry, a South African living and teaching English in Taiwan; and Frank, a recently divorced German taking his first real vacation in 20 years.
Because of the nature of a reasonable pace and the spacing of lodging, you end up traveling alongside the same people for days at a time. The common sense of purpose among the travelers resulted in many a long evening sharing meals and stories around the wood-burning stoves in the common rooms of the lodges. It crossed my mind a dozen times that the Nepalis may be befuddled by why foreigners arrive in droves from all corners of the Earth and pay large sums of money to escape or rediscover or recharge or find solitude on the arduous and unforgiving trails of the high country. Then again, it may be just as likely that the Tibetan peoples of Nepal know full well what makes their home so special, despite its challenges.
At the end of the third day I experienced the first of those moments you only hope for. The strenuous journey up the valley through old-growth forest along the roaring Langtang Khola, which works incessantly to carve a steep V out of the gorgeous classic glacial U of the upper reaches, only made the reward at the top that much sweeter. I was sitting in a boulder field at 13,600 feet and gazing up a further 10,000 feet at the enormous upward thrust of rock named Lantang Lirung, which is the icy finale of the Langtang Himal range, forming the northern wall of the valley. I could hardly imagine that that incredible view might get better, yet two days later I was 2,000 feet higher and staring at the east face of Lantang Lirung again when, within 20 minutes of each other, two massive avalanches let loose with thunderous cracks and tumbled nearly a mile down the mountainside.
Down the valley and up another ridge, I was back on fresh trail when I met Henrik and Ad’le, a Swedish couple on a quick Nepali trek before heading south for several months in India. As it happened, we enjoyed each other’s company enough that we stuck together for the following five days, all the way back to Kathmandu. By this point I had met almost exclusively Europeans on the trail, and not ones on holiday for a week or two, but for months. They’ve got it figured out. Americans could definitely benefit from getting out of the house more often; maybe we as a country would be more interested in international goings-on, and the rest of the world might see us in a better light. All it would take would be an extra week or two of vacation.
On day nine, the Swedes, Dawa and I made our way up the ridge toward the holy lakes of Gosainkunda, unexpectedly passing Frank, whom we had lost sync with back at the top of the Langtang Valley, on his way down. I knew for certain that I would not see him again after that, so it was nice to make a proper good-bye. By the time we reached our destination for the day, the cold wind was whipping fiercely, driving us into the lodge for most of the afternoon. But about an hour before dusk, the air calmed and I chose to climb up to a chorten about 800 feet above the lodge.
The winter sun was beginning to cast even the upper reaches of the surrounding valleys into early darkness by the time I arrived, despite remaining sharp and white in the thin atmosphere. The view was already stunning, with jagged snow-bound peaks stretching all the way to the Annapurna massif over a hundred miles west, but what I then began to witness was the single most incredible natural spectacle I have ever seen. It started slowly, with the sun making steady progress toward the horizon, imperceptibly stretching the shadows of hills and peaks out across a veil of clouds gently brushing the shoulders of the mountains 2,000 feet below. The peaks began to take on a golden glow. I stood transfixed. The air had acquired such a perfect stillness that the only sound in the whole world was the heartbeat in my ears. I would not have been surprised if the Earth stopped spinning, hanging forever in that one moment. Yet it was only an illusion of a single moment; the gold deepened into fiery orange, quickening. The sun reached the horizon, and as dusk swallowed the landscape, the Himalaya shone out in dying brilliance, an intense climax of color that made me shiver in awe. Then, just as quickly, the snowy ranges reddened, and I became lost in the umbra of the world. One by one the peaks faded, casting their shadows higher, out into space, until they too slipped into darkness.
Four days later we arrived footsore and exhausted in the Kathmandu Valley. Dawa, being Nepali, could not allow us to go our separate ways without first subjecting us to Nepal’s legendary hospitality. Henrik and Ad’le got away with dinner two days in a row, at which point we parted with invitations to visit each other’s home countries and an offer to me for a place to crash in Stockholm. As for myself, I spent two lovely days with Dawa and his family, where I couldn’t have felt more at home, before I returned across Kathmandu to the Jha house.
On December 14 I had the pleasure of greeting Caleb Whitehead ’14 and Brandon Tortorelli, another couple of Mines students, at Tribhuvan International Airport as they arrived ready and raring to spend their winter break in the service of Eejot, continuing where I had left off. With one day left in Nepal I traipsed around Kathmandu with Caleb and Brandon, pretending like I knew the place and taking in that once-mythical city of my mind one last time.
That evening, in an unsatisfactory gesture of thanks for all they had done, I treated the Jhas to dinner. I tried but couldn’t express my gratitude for their endless hospitality, ability to make me feel at home, and effort to accommodate me in Kathmandu, Sisautiya and in my adventures elsewhere. As I sat on the runway waiting to depart, a wave of thoughts flooded through my consciousness: What an incredible journey these past three and a half months have been. Nepal is a fantastically complex and diverse country for one so small. Will I ever truly understand what it is like to live here? I definitely have a better start than most people could ever dream of. I do hope to continue working on the challenges Eejot faces. It sure will be something to try to explain everything I’ve seen and done to everyone back home. Home, I’m going home! But I’m coming back.