body. week 3.
September 1, 2023 - 5:30am
The taxi zigzags through the tight Kashi alleys, slicing its way through the pre-dawn haze.
I’d been up since 2:30. I just couldn’t sleep.
Gosh, Varanasi is gorgeous at this hour. She really knows how to put on a show.
I’ve never been out this early. But the time I usually wake up, the streets are jammed with the usual gridlocked traffic, blaring horns, hawking merchants, and scorching sun; the unmistakable imprint of Indian life.
But at this hour, Varanasi is an entirely different city. It’s as though a veil has been lifted, revealing a softer, gentler side of this eternal city. Like a cosmic Russian Doll. I’ve always believed that it’s impossible to truly know a city. But, if you’re very lucky, the city may come to know you. A truly great city will even help you to know yourself.
At 5:30, the dogs and cows still rule the roads. Small groups of people congregate beneath the looming banyan trees. They scrape their teeth with small twigs (one sadhu pointed out that toothpaste has a poison warning on the tube. Why would you want to brush your teeth in poison, he asked me. He makes a good point.)
Pious worshippers gather calmly outside the roadside temples, beating the crowds which will soon overrun them. (Actually, many of Varanasi’s roadside temples are more like drive-through temples, as the highways are forced to divert around them.)
Morning yoga asanas respond naturally to the rising sun.
But this story is not about Varanasi. It’s not even about India. Today, I’m traveling to Nepal on a bit of a last minute whim. I couldn’t convince anyone to join me (they kept talking about this thing called ‘a job’), so I’m going alone. So be it.
Ever since I watched Netflix’s 14 Peaks, I’d been dying to go trekking in the Himalayas. Now that I’m living in Varanasi for a year, and classes have been delayed for a few months, I’ve been given a golden opportunity. No way in hell I’ll let this pass.
So one morning, about two weeks ago, I opened Google Maps, navigated to Nepal, typed “Trekking guide” into the search, and hit Enter.
One young guide, Praveen, stood out. He had excellent reviews and when I WhatsApped him, he was super helpful, friendly, and calm (the latter being something I’ve sorely missed these past couple months in India).
So, next thing I know, I’m boarding Buddha Air (yes, that’s the real name) Flight V4162 with non-stop service from bustling Varanasi to that idyllic Himalayan oasis of Pokhara.
The plan is simple. We’ll be linking together two famous treks - Mardi Himal and Annapurna Base Camps. It should take a total of 10 days. But with the lingering monsoon and a rapid gain in elevation, anything is possible.
We’ll pack clothing for the heat, clothing for the wet, and clothing for the cold.
Needless to say, I don’t have any hiking gear, but Praveen assures me we can rent everything we need in town.
I’m so used to researching and planning all my trips from start to finish. It’s a wonderful feeling to just show up completely clueless this time around.
The Himalayas - Sanskrit for snow-dwelling - are sacred to several religions and countless cultures. And it’s no mystery why.
Even growing up in swampy Brooklyn, these peaks have cast their spell over my boyhood imagination.
The Himalayas! Just saying it sends a tingle through my body. They represent something mysterious, sublime, even spiritual.
And so, this trek - part adventure, part pilgrimage - weaves together so many of the gifts that travel offers. So many of the gifts of life itself.
I’m so fucking excited.
I arrive in Pokhara in the early afternoon and spend the day browsing the many fabric and clothing shops that line the lakeside road.
Toward evening, Praveen pulls up with his motorbike and whisks me to a cafe/bar that his friend owns. In the psychedelic light of the setting sun, we go over the trek itinerary and Praveen fills me in on his plans for our trip.
Praveen presents me with a traditional Khata - a ceremonial scarf common in Tibetan cultures - and I suddenly feel right at home. But that kind of home which is brand new and full of discovery.
It starts to drizzle, so we head back to the hotel. I’m fast asleep by 9.
Awake again at 5:30. Again, not by choice. The birds chirp loudly at my window, eager for attention.
The sun presses down heavy, moistening my hair.
I go down into the garden for breakfast and then wait for Praveen to arrive.
We’re doing a sort of mini-hike up into the hills that surround the city. Around 9, we reach the Peace Pagoda that the Japanese built after the war. It, along with 80 others spread around the world, is in commemoration of those who died in the atomic bombs and is meant to inspire non-violence. I suppose that the only way to deter war is to plant visions of suffering all around us.
Once we arrive back in the city, we visit Bindhyabasini Temple, the city’s oldest temple, where we light candles for Shiva and pray for a safe journey (or at least that’s what I pray for).
In the afternoon, I took a small wooden row boat out onto Phewa Lake. I bring with me a large can of Gurkha beer and a copy of Tulsidas’s great epic, Ramcharitmanas.
I push off and slowly drift across the still waters. Dark green jungle spills down on the far side of the lake. Large stupas loom overhead. The Himalayas stand shrouded in their cloudy solitude.
After a month in India, and a busy few days, it’s great to be back alone with myself and just soak everything in.
This glittering stream of elegant poetry flows on,
Swollen with the waters of Ram’s unblemished glory.
The supreme spirit, all-pervading, passionless, uncreated,
Who is unitary, without desire, without duality,
Which even the Vedas cannot comprehend—
Can it take on bodily form as a man?
Wherever she looked, she saw the Lord enthroned,
And attending upon his wise and accomplished holy men and munis.
She saw innumerable Shivs, Vidhis and Vishnus,
Each more splendid than the others in their boundless glory.
She saw the gods in many and various forms,
All paying homage at the Lord’s feet.
Wherever she looked, she saw Raghupati.
There, too, were all the gods and with them were their Shaktis,
And all created things that are in this world—
She saw them all, in many shapes and forms.
Assuming many guises, the gods worshipped the Lord.
But of Ram, she saw no other guise—
He did not assume different forms.
It was always the same Raghubar, the same Lakshman, the same Sita.
Her heart trembled, and losing all perception,
She shut her eyes and sank down upon the path.
When she opened her eyes and looked around again,
She saw no one there.
Bowing her head again and again,
She returned to where waited her lord of the mountains.
There’s a temple out on a tiny island in the middle of the lake. I paddle my way over. I love the blend of Hinduism and Buddhism that occurs here. Between drama and comedy, action and serenity, South and East.
On our hike this morning, Praveen and I passed a small Japanese monastery. I peaked inside and was struck by its gentleness. Just outside its doors lay some of the most striking scenery on the planet. But inside? Absolute calm.
I told Praveen that there has always been two sides to my personality. The side that wants to explore the world, go on adventures, experiment with everything, and feel every high and low that life throws my way. Sex, drugs, and rock & roll.
But there’s another side that just wants to let go of it all, become a monk, move into the hills, and spend my life in solitude and peace. Wouldn’t that be so much easier? Are all my efforts really worth it? Does life ever really pay off? Why not just choose happiness? Why continue to chase things that I know don’t really exist?
Praveen immediately agreed. He said that we aren’t meant to choose between the two. All we have to do is find that balance between the world outside and the world within. He said that he always encourages his trekking groups to meditate periodically out on the mountains. To locate the calm that exists, always, within the adventure.
The truth is that this trip coincides with a year-long project I’m doing that relates to my body. (Or, supposed to be doing. I’ve been distracted.) so I’m especially excited to have this opportunity to explore my body in new, challenging, and wonderful ways during my time in Nepal.
Even today, out on the lake, rowing along, I feel the tension that runs through my muscles, down the oars, and into the water. Where does that energy come from? It seems limitless, yet totally invisible. It seems to come from inside me, but I can’t locate its source.
Let’s see how limitless it is after 10 days of high-altitude trekking lol
By the time I make it back to the hotel, I’m exhausted and just collapse into bed. Of course, I immediately receive a text from Praveen asking if I’d like to come smoke weed at his friend’s cafe.
Well that’s a no brainer.
Spent the day buying souvenirs and renting gear.
We’ll set out tomorrow morning around 6.
Just before sunset, the guesthouse manager rushes excitedly into my room and drags me up to the roof. The monsoon clouds that have lingered for months on end have suddenly disappeared.
The towering Annapurna peaks step out over the city.
September 4 - Day 1 of Trek
I think I woke up every 30 minutes last night. Nervous excitement pours through me.
Praveen sent a taxi to pick me up and bring me to Hemja, where he lives.
From there it’s an hour by car up a bumpy twisty road to Dhampus, something of a jumping off point into the Annapurna Range.
As we turn off the highway, the road quickly turns to gravel, before disappearing entirely. Runoff water from the rice patties streams across the path, filling the air with its soft melody.
We’re dropped off in Dhampus, sit for a five minute meditation, and then we’re off.
The truth is that trekking season in Nepal hasn’t really started yet. The truth is that we’re still in the monsoon. Rain is inevitable. We’ve packed ponchos, but no one seriously thinks that will be enough. When I asked the owner of the gear rental place if my shoes are water proof, he responded quite frankly, “A little water is fine, but if it really rains, you’ll have a problem.” I glanced at Praveen, he smiled back shyly. They both shrugged their shoulders. For some reason I trust them. I don’t really have any other option, right? Anyways, I’m looking for an adventure and here it is. I can handle whatever comes my way, as long as I stay open-minded and positive. (In fact, the boots tear on the second day of trekking, and will remain moist for the remainder of the trip. But okay, I’m skipping steps here.)
The good news is that in return for braving the periodic downpours, we’re handsomely rewarded with vibrant jungle life brimming with deep green vegetation that spills down all around us. Plus, there are basically no other tourists, so we have the place to ourselves!
Speaking of which, at our very first stop, one of Praveen’s friends quietly comes up and stuffs a bag stuffed with weed into his jacket pocket. We weren’t planning on smoking during the trek, but okay. At this point, the weed is just asking for it.
As we sit waiting for our food, angry clouds gather overhear. ‘Gather' isn’t the right word. Neither is ‘overhead’. They sweep through the mountains and swirl angrily in the valley. A strong wind joined the party, and I just sat back with my jaw gaping as the dark clouds twirled against the majestic slopes. Thunder claps loudly. Birds take to the skies. I’m in awe. Such an ordinary scene, and yet absolutely extraordinary. How has the rumble of the subway become more familiar to my ears than the rumble of thunder? I watch the natural elements throw themselves against each other and go to war. Or are they making love?
Today, we climbed for about 5 hours, arriving at Rest Camp in the late afternoon.
After dinner, I grew dreadfully sick and went to bed around 7:30.
Day 1 Altitude
Wake up in Pokhara - 1000 meters
Begin trek at Dhampus - 1600 meters
Lunch at Lobely Hill - 1700 meters
Sleep at Rest Camp - 2600 meters
September 5 - Day 2 of Trek
Wake up around 6, feeling a million times better. Praveen’s advice to me last night: “Just sleep. Don’t think. Just sleep.” It’s paid off.
We’d be returning back this way, so we left most of our clothing at the rest camp, just taking what we’d need to make it to Mardi Himal Base Camp and back.
We’d be gaining another 1000 meters today, most of it rather steeply, so we take it slow and easy.
Last night, before my head exploded, I talked to Praveen about the mountains. I asked him simply: “what do the mountains mean to you?”
He responded simply as well. “When I can see the mountains, it means that everything is okay. It means the world is happy. When they’re lost in the clouds and I can’t see them, I don’t feel so good. Something feels wrong. I wake up and I look for the mountains. Then I know how the day will be. The mountains present strength. Endurance. Calm. No matter what is happening in the world or in my life, the mountains give me hope.”
As he spoke, another guide sitting nearby nodded along. I understood that Praveen did not only speak for himself, he spoke for a community.
I told him that in NY, we call our buildings sky scrapers. And just like the real sky scrapers here in Nepal, when I see our buildings back home I too am filled with similar emotions. I’m excited to see them in the sun, in the rain, in the morning, and at night. I love the way they reflect the sun, and twinkle in the light. I love to walk up close and feel them. I love to run out on the bridge and stare from afar. To me, they possess a kind of invisible power, an ineffable energy. They show me how far we’ve come, and point the way toward a new and bright future.
About an hour before we reached High Camp, where we’d rest tonight, the clouds swooped in and drenched us. No more short-sleeved t-shirts. Now we’re wrapped in windbreakers, mufflers, plastic ponchos and a warm beanie. Rather than cutting me off from the trek, though, they simply transform it. Rather than staring up into the skies, I now gaze down at the path, noticing the special way the water splashes across the stone, the way my feet search for stability in the slippery mud, or how my breath quickens as we pursue our rapid ascent.
Around 3 in the afternoon, we arrive at High Camp. We spend the rest of the day relaxing at the tea house. I go to bed at 7:30.
Day 2 Altitude
Wake up at Rest Camp - 2600 meters
Tea at Low Camp - 2900 meters
Lunch at Badal Danda - 3300 meters
Sleep at High Camp - 3550 meters
September 6 - Day 3 of Trek
It was absolutely frigid last night. Even though I slept in a thermal top, sweat pants, and thick socks, I wouldn’t stop shivering.
On top of the chill, Praveen warned me before bed that the altitude will make it difficult to fall asleep and that I shouldn’t worry. Well that’s exactly what happened. I laid there for two hours, trying not to worry. Okay, ‘laid there’ is not the best description. Besides for making it hard to sleep, the altitude also makes you pee a lot, so I ran to the bathroom several times and then back to my now-cold bed. I was worried that all the peeing would dehydrate me, so I kept drinking water after each visit, which of course simply prompted another visit.
All this is to say that when my 3am alarm went off, I was only too happy to head out.
We’d be making our final push up to Mardi Base Camp, and were leaving early to catch the sunrise.
As we departed from High Camp, taking only the barest necessities, a stray dog decided to tag along for the hike. I was glad he did. In the pre-dawn darkness, with only a single dim headlight to light the way, and the bitter cold wind whipping me in the face, it was comforting to have that additional warm presence walking beside me.
We walk very slowly, careful not to break a sweat under our down jackets. At this altitude it's difficult not to lose your breath. I can feel the blood pumping through the veins on forehead.
After the racking headaches I suffered the first night, I take heed of these warnings and rest until my heartbeat slows.
We're lucky. Several groups back at High Camp were experiencing altitude sickness and weren't able to make the final ascent. In fact, Praveen estimates that only 10% of his groups reach base camp.
At one point, as we were tracing a narrow route along the top of a steep mountain ridge, a few yak blocked our path and began to threaten us with their sharp horns. They were far too cranky to be reasoned with, so we circled around them by climbing along the steep slope. Our walking sticks dug deep into the moist ground, keeping us from sliding a thousand feet down the icy slopes.
I don’t know how to describe the experience of treading along the Himalayan mountain ridges, 4000 meters high, as the sun rises above the horizon turning the glacial peaks to molten gold. So I won’t even try. But it was one of the most powerful encounters I’ve ever had with the natural world.
About an hour before we summited to base camp, we came upon a flock of sheep being guarded by a very aggressive, very large watch dog. He had his eyes glued on us - because clearly we’d climbed for three days just to steal his precious sheep. By this time, our own friendly canine had turned back, perhaps indicating a change of jurisdiction.
It brings me no pleasure to recount that Praveen was scared completely shitless. He told me to walk veryyy slowly and not to make any sudden moves. The dog came down from his perch and trotted down to inspect us. Apparently we didn’t smell like thieves, and he reluctantly let us pass, staying close in case we made a wrong move.
Finally, after what felt like an hour, his owner came meandering up from his hut and called off the operation. We passed safely to the other side.
Base Camp itself is a small plateau that sits close to the base of the main Mardi peak. There’s a collection of colorful tents arranged in a semi-circle. A group of seasoned climbers are preparing to summit. To do so, they’ll climb another few thousand meters through ice and snow. Not going to lie, now that we’re here, I’m kind of jealous.
We stay for about 20 minutes admiring the views, soaking in the exhalation, and taking way too many selfies.
On our way back down, we stopped at the shepherd’s hut for some fresh sheep milk tea and so got our revenge.
Even better, we bumped into some of Praveen’s friends who are yak herders. They invited us into their low shelter lined with warm sheep skin and smelling of stale hash. We crouched around a smoldering fire, sipping piping hot yak milk.
Back down at Low Camp, the teahouse owner even gave us some smoked yak meat to chew on. It’s very tough, but very tasty. I guess we’re on a roll today.
Finally, around 3pm, after 12 hours of hiking, we made it back down to Rest Camp, where we stay the night before beginning our 7 day assault toward Annapurna Base Camp.
Before bed, we sat very close to the wood over and massaged mustard oil into our sore muscles. A local cure, I’m told.
Day 3 Altitude
Wake up at High Camp - 3550 meters
Reached Mardi Base Camp - 4550 meters
Returned to High Camp for breakfast - 3550 meters
Lunch at Low Camp - 2900 meters
Sleep at Rest Camp - 2600 meters
September 7 - Day 4 of Trek
Today is pretty straightforward. We descend rapidly from Rest Camp, reaching all the way down to New Bridge at around lunchtime.
On the way, we stopped at a small village named Landruk where the locals host hikers and harvest cannabis.
There were more leeches than usual. We both suffered 4 or 5 bites.
New Bridge is a magical place. There’s a towering waterfall that plunges down into the rushing river that flows through the valley. It sits at the bottom of the valley, with great 1000 foot walls of green jungly mountain framing it on either side.
As we waited for our lunch, we took off our hiking boots and waded out into the shallow pools at the base of the falls.
After eating, we began climbing up toward the Annapurna Base Camp trail, colloquially known as ABC.
The trail begins just beneath Jinhu Danda, with a long thin hanging bridge that spans the entire valley. It’s pretty iconic.
After a quick tea break in Jinhu, where we wait out a rain shower, we climbed another hour or so to Chomrong where we’d sleep that evening.
They have hot water and wifi here. The height of luxury!
From my window, I gaze out at the mesmerizing mountains that surround our protected valley. Jungle slopes rise up in every direction, punctuated by misty waterfalls, lonely huts, and roaming buffalo.
I’ve spent the last year trying to experience my body. I’ve tried meditation. I’ve tried drugs. I’ve tried nutrition and fitness. I’ve just felt so far away from my body and all I’ve wanted is to have some sort of paradigm-shifting experience which would allow me to experience myself in an authentic and immediate way. A bodily way. I’ve even struggled to formulate to myself what I’m really searching for. I just have some idea that there must be a better way to experience what it’s like to be a body.
But, over the last 6 months or so, I haven’t been making much “progress”. I wasn’t really learning or feeling anything new. So I just stopped writing about it for the last few months.
Cut to today. After lunch, we continued our hike. And then, in the space between two steps, I suddenly understood. My body has no interest or need for understanding, communication, or experience. My body, like all bodies, does not speak any language that can be deciphered by the mind.
My body just does.
I use my body. I don’t become it.
And in return, my body uses me.
I do my body. And my body does me.
My body walks. So I direct its steps to the Himalayas.
My body eats. So I feed it delicious and healthy food.
My body fucks. So I build intimate and tantalizing relationships.
My body moves. So I dance.
My body sleeps. So I build a comfy bed for it to lay in.
My body exercises. My body smells. My body listens and shits and cries. My body does.
The best way to be my body is not to inspect it, but to use it. The only way to understand my body is to recall the history of all that it’s done.
So, no more contemplation. No more meditation. No more speculation or admiration. Now is the time to do.
Day 4 Altitude
Wake up at Rest Camp - 2600 meters
Tea at Landruk - 1600 meters
Lunch at New Bridge - 1000 meters
Tea at Jinhu Danda - 1750
Sleep at Chomrong - 2200
September 8 - Day 5 of Trek
It’s around this time that the exhaustion begins to set in. Where is today’s energy going to come from? There’s only so much dal bhat a man can eat.
At a certain point I finally smell like an animal. At a certain point I finally smell like a human. At a certain point I finally smell like myself.
There’s something very mysterious about pain. We fear it like nothing else, yet relentless seek it out in new and creative ways.
How many times can I describe the ever-changing scenes around me? Doesn’t each shallow stream that spills across our stone path deserve its own poem? Doesn’t every waterfall that careens down the green-grey cliffs deserve its own story? Every twisting heroic tree its own story?
Even on its worst days, Nepal never ceases to be the most beautiful country I’ve ever seen.
Want to hear a Nepali joke? Imagine hiking for three hours in the hot afternoon sun, laden down with the a heavy backpack, only to arrive at the foot of a thousand-step stone staircase.
You just have to laugh.
Today we hiked from Chomrong to Himalaya Camp, passing through Sinua and Dovan.
We hiked down steep slopes, across narrow bridges, up even steeper hills, around a dozen waterfalls, and climbed an unimaginable number of stairs.
“Ten minutes to Himalaya Camp,” Praveen calls out from just up ahead.
Just 10 more minutes. We’d been hiking since 7am. It’s not almost 3pm. Right foot. Left foot. Up. And down. I can barely feel my feet. My legs are jelly. Back straining against my heavy load.
Just 10 more minutes.
Suddenly, inexplicably, a new spurt of energy rises up through me. Just 10 more minutes. 10 more minutes in Nepal. 10 more minutes in the Himalayas.
My heart beats strongly, sending fresh oxygen through my bulging veins. Lungs expand faithfully, replenishing their supply of pure mountain air. My legs carry me across rocks and up and up and up and up. My ears fill with the gentle trickle of water streaming down all around me. My eyes deftly follow the path, always directing me to the perfect spots. My hands brace against the poles, balancing my weight and keeping me from tipping off the ledge. My chest, core, and back shoulder the backpack crammed with everything I’ll need to reach ABC.
I am functioning at maximum capacity, carrying myself wonderfully, kindly, joyously for just 10 more minutes.
While reading the Ramcharitmanas today, I came across a discussion about why god turned into a body:
It cannot ever be precisely said
That the cause of Hari’s descent to earth
Was ‘this’ or ‘that’.
Ram is beyond discussion or speculation
through intellect, mind, and speech.
Such, wise one, is my opinion.
Yet as the saints and the munis, the Vedas and Puranas explain
according to their respective understanding
In the same way, O lovely woman, I will now explain to you
The cause as I have understood it.
Whenever dharma is diminished, and vile demons increase in number,
Committing such injustices as cannot be described,
And Brahmans, cows, and gods becomes distressed,
and the earth itself is troubled,
At such times the all-merciful Lord assumes diverse forms
and removes the pain of the good and the virtuous.
He destroys the demons, reinstates the gods, protects the bridge of sacred knowledge that he himself revealed,
And spreads his pure glory across the world—
This is the reason for Ram’s incarnation.
Day 5 Altitude
Wake up at Chomrong - 2200 meters
Tea at Upper Sinua - 2300 meters
Lunch at Bamboo - 2305 meters
Tea at Upper Dovan - 2550 meters
Sleep at Himalaya Camp - 2900 meters
September 9 - Day 6 of Trek
We’d set our alarms for 6, hoping to making the 7 hour push straight to ABC.
As soon as we wake up, though, we know this won’t happen. It’s raining in that steady sort of way that never lets up.
Instead, we enjoyed an extended breakfast (a rare occurrence) before donning our neon ponchos that Shana thinks look like Hazmat suits, and head out into the freezing rain.
As this point I’m sore all over, all my clothes are damp, I have a half dozen leech bites, and my left hiking boot is literally falling apart.
But we keep moving.
Our first stop will be Deurali. It’s only two hours away, but the cold rain makes the steep ascent challenging. We stop often to catch our breath, which allows the chill to seep in.
By the time we reach Deurali, I’m completely soaked, shivering, and tired. We agree to have lunch and see how we feel. We can always stay the night here, even though it’s still only 10am.
Deurali is perched on a rocky outcrop overlooking yet another series of waterfalls, a raging river, and an unobstructed view through the Annapurna valley. Definitely not the worst place to spend an afternoon. Or two?
But no. The rains slows. Our bellies fill. And the clothing dries. Well, a bit.
So we push on toward Macchpuchhare Base Camp. It should take around 3 hours, but nothing is predictable in this weather and altitude.
Often, during our hike, I remark to Praveen about how each day on the trek is always the best day. Each day presents its very own, completely unique set of discoveries, challenges, experiences, and beauty.
But I really really want to say that today’s hike was the most breathtaking. While the rain hides the snowcapped peaks, it offers its own rewards in return. By redirecting our gaze back down to earth, we constantly meet with the small everyday wonders of a shallow stream running over smooth colorful stone. A wisened old tree, twisting and turning to find its own patch of sunlight. A delicate leafy plant glistening with diamond beads of teardrop rain.
And then the mystical cliffs poking through the eery grey mist. The rushing river tumbling over great slabs of fallen silvery stone, as it dashes down from its glacial home.
I am not particularly poetic, but I don’t know how else to convey the majesty and divinity of this precise corner of our planet.
Praveen tells me that maybe we will be lucky and the clouds will move on. I respond the we are already the luckiest people in the world. Or at least tied for first.
On a somber note, we pass an avalanche zone where a Korean group and their porters died last year. We pass an ice cave where two of Praveen’s friends were killed.
Death and beauty intermingle. I dart across the slippery stones. On one side a waterfall, on the other a cliff. One wrong step, one loose rock and it’s all over. An icy river eager to catch me is crossed by tiptoeing across a few logs.
Praveen tells me that most people in Pokhara know someone who’s died here. For the people of Nepal, the mountains are never just mountains.
When it comes time to order dinner, I ask if they have any chicken. Praveen looks at me shyly. “I’m sorry. No meat is allowed to be eaten here. This mountain is a sacred place.”
The Hindus have a habit of kneeling down at the entrance of a temple to touch the stone floor. As we make our way through the Annapurna Range, I find myself occasionally doing the same.
The Earth grew afraid and uneasy:
‘Mountains, rivers, and seas do not weigh as heavily
Upon me as does a single evildoer who harms others.’
She saw all dharmas reversed,
But terrified, she could not speak.
After much consideration, she assumed the form of a cow,
And went where the gods and munis were hiding.
Weeping, she related her woes to them,
But none of them could help her.
The gods all sat and pondered.
‘Where shall we find the Lord so that we may put our plea before him?’
One said they should go to Vaikunth.
Another said that the Lord resides upon the Ocean of Milk.
The Lord always manifests himself in accordance with the devotion and love in one’s heart
In that gathering, I, too, was present,
And finding an appropriate moment, I said,
‘Hari pervades all places at all times equally,
And I know that he becomes manifest through love.
Tell me any place or time, any corner of the universe,
Where the Lord is not present.
He pervades all beings, inanimate and animate, yet is separate and detached.
He is revealed by love as fire is revealed by friction.’
Hearing me, Brahma rejoiced.
His body trembled with delight as tears of joy flowed from his eyes.
Then he of the steadfast mind composed himself
And, folding his hands, began sing a song of peace.
Day 6 Altitude
Wake up at Himalaya Camp - 2900 meters
Lunch at Deurali - 3230 meters
Sleep at Machhapuchhare BC - 3700 meters
September 10 - Day 7 of Trek
We were chased through the valley this morning by an angry cloud.
It had rained all night, but the weather finally cleared around 10am. So we took the opportunity to attempt the 2 hour push toward ABC.
Unlike Mardi Base Camp which is perched on the top of a towering peak, MBC and ABC are both nestled in protected valleys created by Mounts Fishtail, Annapurna South, and Annapurna III (the 10th highest peak in the world). It gives me the sense of being in the center of it all, not unlike standing in the Financial District of NY and gazing up at the mammoth towers.
We had only just set out when a pitch white cloud structure rose up from the valley and began to march toward us, swallowing up everything in its path. What otherwise would have been a leisurely stroll was now an epic footrace across this 4000 meter high basin.
We traced our way along a bumbling mineral-grey river, occasionally stopping for a photo or to catch our breath.
Today is bittersweet. We’ve reached our goal, but like all peaks, the only way is back down. Tomorrow we’ll gather our stuff and retrace our steps back down, down, down. Down to Pokhara. Down to civilization. Down to that deafening reality which never fails to drown out the perpetual silence that envelopes places like this.
It makes me consider how I’d ended up here. Everything here is just so beautiful.
And I’m not just talking about the mountains.
How did it come to be that I live a life so generously heaped in beauty?
I've done nothing at all to deserve this. Yet… here I am.
I cast my thoughts out to the people in my life who’ve made moments like this possible. My friends, family, teachers, the thousand nameless individuals who’ve inspired me become more than what I was. To become what I already am.
To the sun. To the earth. To the artists, thinkers, and athletes.
To those who let me in, and those who’ve held me up.
To the shareholders of Boeing and Delta.
And finally, to that mysterious thread within me that connects me to them all.
After lunch, Praveen guided me along a dark precipice opened up by the avalanche-prone terrain. A mass of fallen boulders creates a small hill just outside Base Camp. As we pick our way through this stone graveyard - hunks of Annapurna that have broken off over the years - I pocketed a few small rocks to take home with me.
After a few hours, the clouds finally cleared, revealing the great humbling peaks.
Celebrations broke out all around us. The dozen or so trekkers and their guides all spontaneously gathered in the main clearing in the center of camp. Everyone was beaming, twirling to capture this impossible beauty.
We stood like this for an hour or two, bewitched, watching the sun set as the clouds closed back in, enveloping us in their white cloak.
Over tea, I chatted with two businessmen from Singapore. I shared dinner with an architect from Shanghai, watching a group of Europeans playing cards. Nationality means nothing when you meet at ABC. A shared thirst for discovery is greater than any patriotism.
Day 7 Altitude
Wake up at MBC - 3700 meters
Sleep at ABC - 4130 meters
September 11 - Day 8 of Trek
Last night was the first time in my life that I slept above 4000 meters. While this may not seem that important, I’m a firm believer that ‘you are where you sleep’.
I wasn’t taking any chances this time. I slept in thermals and layered two blankets over me. Still, I couldn’t quite escape the chill. Even simple things like going to the bathroom or arranging the room would leave me out of breath.
But in a good way. ABC keeps you breathless.
Praveen tapped on my door around 6, calling me to come watch the sunrise. We spent the next two hours darting around the stony slopes, capturing as much as we could.
At one point, we even got to watch an avalanche roll down Annapurna III, throwing tons of ice, snow and rock down into the ravine.
ABC itself is now crumbling. Piece by piece it slips down into the valley. From avalanches it was birthed, and to landslides it returns.
As we descend back down from ABC, I’m reminded of a European startup that harvests energy by first piling cement blocks on top of each other and then lowering them down to release the latent energy. All of the energy we’d invested over the last few days ascending toward ABC feels as though it’s been released back into our bodies as we descend. We skip, sing, and dance our way down, stopping only for the frequent selfies that demand our attention.
After lunch, though, things grow quiet. Even somber. I spent a lot of time today thinking about Praveen. This guy beside me every moment of this journey. Taking care of me. Accompanying me. Being my friend.
A guy I hadn’t met until a week ago. And then suddenly we’re spending 16 hours a day together, through some of the most physically and emotionally challenging experiences of my life
Through it all, he’s always been there to offer a helping hand, an understanding ear, or even giving me the space to be alone with it all.
One of the most powerful 10 days of my life, and it’s shared only with an absolute stranger. But a stranger no more! I’m excited to watch our friendship grow over the coming months, years, and decades.
I got to try two uniquely Nepali foods tonight. One was wild honey and the other is called local ruxi.
Among the tall cliffs around Nepal, a certain kind of bee (or is it a certain kind of honey?) exists that is said to make you hallucinate. Just one spoonful will do it. It’s sometimes called Mad Honey. What makes this honey even more special is that in order to harvest it, you must climb to the top of a cliff, throw a rope ladder over the edge, and then dangle a few hundred feet in the air while you cut the combs and fight away the hoards of angry bees. A bottle of this honey goes for $100. I tried a small spoonful.
The other local delicacy is the ruxi. A wine brewed from maize that goes for $2 a bottle. What they don’t tell you, though, is that the wine actually has an alcohol content of somewhere between 30 and 40% and is served by the glass.
We had a fun evening :)
Day 8 Altitude
Wake up at ABC - 4130 meters
Breakfast at MBC - 3700 meters
Lunch at Deurali - 3230 meters
Tea at Upper Dovan - 2550 meters
Sleep at Bamboo Camp - 2305 meters
September 12 - Day 9 of Trek
Our final day of hiking, we take it one step at a time. Which doesn’t stop Praveen from tripping and twisting his ankle on some nasty stairs.
Today’s task: make it to Jinhu Danda. What stands between us? 3000 stairs up to Chomrong.
What’s waiting for us when we arrive? Hot springs, our bag of weed, and as much cold beer as we can drink.
The day dawns bright and blue. I can see the white peaks from my bedroom window.
Out on the hike, Praveen asks me how I’ve changed during the trek. We talk a bit about ‘sensitivity’.
Over the course of the trek, I noticed how my sensitivities toward smell, touch, feeling, and taste all grew dull. Normally, if I don’t shower and put on fresh clothing in the morning, I’ll suffer from it the rest of the day.
But here, I went several long hot days without showering, rewore my sweaty clothing multiple times, and barely even noticed. I no longer cared what I looked like, smelled like, and in many ways felt like. You just get up and go.
After 8 hours of climbing, every bed is comfortable. Every meal is delicious. And all appearances, smells, and feelings become irrelevant, mere distractions. I haven’t slept this well in a decade. While the work was hard, it wasn’t unrewarding. It was simple, unanxious work. Each night brought with it those two sweetest of balms: satisfaction and exhaustion.
I wouldn’t describe this loss of sensitivity as a good or bad thing. However, it did feel incredibly relieving to let go of all those concerns and needs, plus it made me feel like a kid again.
Those endless summers filled with adventures out in the forest with my friends, with no pesky adults around to make us shower, change, or clean.
At the same time, though, as my physical sensitivities decreased, my social sensitivities skyrocketed. Now, after being alone with Praveen 95% of the time, each social interaction seems so full and heavy. Even the presence of a nearby animal brings company. (Unless, of course, it’s intent on killing us.)
3000 stairs to Chomrong.
I’d say it was difficult if it wasn’t actually impossible. Luckily, at this point I’d grown accustomed to the impossible. One step at a time. Almost to the end. Almost to Chomrong. I invent a series of mantras to repeat in my head.
When we arrive, we celebrate with pizza, beer, weed, and a short nap out on the terrace. Simply heaven.
But the day isn’t over yet.
After a couple hours, we pull ourselves together for the very last hour of our trek. Chomrong to Jinhu, where we’ll get to relax in the hot springs for hoursssss, something my sore body is longing for.
Now that we’re back in the lower altitude and somewhat remotely back in civilization, we just want to let go and celebrate.
And so, tonight in Jinhu, the weed, beer, and cigarettes flow. I sit quietly in the evening shade, watching the happy faces and soaking everything in.
My final night in Annapurna.
Day 9 Altitude
Wake up at Bamboo - 2305 meters
Tea at Upper Sinua - 2300 meters
Lunch at Chomrong - 2200 meters
Sleep at Jinhu - 1750 meters
September 13 - Day 10 of Trek
Trekking— like pursuing many intense experiences — can start to make you feel invincible. Okay, not quite invincible. But capable.
So when I heard that the second highest bungee jump in the world was only an hour away by jeep, what else could I say but, “hell, yeah.”
I’m terrified of heights, so why would I not want to free fall 750 feet off of a bridge in rural Nepal? Can’t be any more difficult that reaching ABC, right?
To get there, we walked down a few hundred stairs, crossed the long hanging bridge that spans the Modi River, and hopped into an old Mahindra jeep which bounced, banged, and splashed along the narrow mountain roads.
I’ve never had faith in any god the way that I had faith in my driver today.
At one point we literally drove through a waterfall that splashed down on our right, streamed across the 'road', and then continued falling down the other side. Then we drove through another. Then another. Then I began to realize that this was standard practice here.
But a foot of gushing water was the least of our issues. You known those signs that say ‘falling rocks’, but you never actually see any rocks falling? Well, in Nepal, the rocks are falling. Entire sections of mountain crumbling down onto the road, and just gathering there in growing mounds. We passed a single tractor trying to clear the road, but it could do very little to stem the tide. So the jeeps would find little paths over, between, and around the rocks, making the narrow treacherous road all the more narrower and treacherous-y.
To be honest, I’m pretty calm about the whole thing. Well, until we arrive at the bungee site and look down into the ravine with its far away river down below. The great Kali Gandaki River. It looks tiny from up here. Praveen informs me that this is a holy river. Okay. That helps a lot. I’ll be plummeting hundreds of feet toward a holy river. That changes everything.
I walk out to the center of the bridge, get strapped up, and next thing I know I’m being led out on a literal plank, legs shackled together.
The man tells me, “Whatever you do, don’t think. Your body will know what to do. Don’t think. Just do.”
He tells me to walk forward slowly.
If I walked any slower I’d be moving backward.
I don’t know how much plank I have left. I take a microscopic step forward.
The tips of my toes leave the platform.
I promise myself that no matter what, I will not scream.
“Farther,” he said. Okay, another teensy step. Half my foot is off. “Farther.”
I take the smallest, hardest step of my life.
“Ready!” I lie.
“3, 2, 1.”
I take one more glance at the beautiful world all around me, push off, and…
I’ll admit it. I screamed.
Falling, falling, falling. Still falling.
My brain shuts down. All I experience is the pure energy of 160 pounds of human flesh falling through the air.
And a rush like I could never imagine.
Even before I bottom out, I understand why people do this. I feel a huge rush of dopamine instantly flood my system.
I don’t think my body quite understood what was going on until I was airborne.
When you reach the bottom, the rope drags you back up 200, 300, 400 feet. You think it’s all over and then….
You drop again.
‘Don’t think. Just do.’
It’s not the first time I’d been given this advice in Nepal. Praveen would often say the same thing. Before crossing a dangerous river. Falling asleep in the high altitude. After 6 hours of difficult climbing.
It’s somehow fitting that the birthplace of the Buddha should have embraced the ideal of a life best left unexamined.
We arrive back in Pokhara around 3. I take a steaming shower, change into fresh clothing, order a massive plate of Kima noodles, drink a large beer, and collapse, totally spent, into my soft hotel bed.
Day 10 Altitude
Wake up at Jinhu - 1750 meters
Bungee at Kushma - 1300 meters
Sleep at Pokhara - 830 meters
Rocked in my stretcher, I meditated on our adventure now drawing to a close, and on our unexpected victory. One always talks of the ideal as a goal towards which one strives but which one never reaches. For every one of us, Annapurna was an ideal that had been realized. In our youth we had not been misled by fantasies, nor by the bloody battles of modern warfare which feed the imagination of the young. For us the mountains had been a natural field of activity where, playing on the frontiers of life and death, we had found the freedom for which we were blindly groping and which was as necessary to us as bread. The mountains had bestowed on us their beauties, and we adored them with a child's simplicity and revered them with a monk's veneration of the divine.
Annapurna, to which we had gone empty-handed, was a treasure on which we should live the rest of our days. With this realization we turn the page: a new life begins.
There are other Annapurnas in the lives of men.
-- Maurice Herzog