By the Sides of the Deep Rivers

Going Alone - Women's Adventures in the WildPublished in Going Alone: Women’s Adventures in the Wild, Anthology by Seal Press, May 2004

I planned to walk solo to the Gokyo Lakes to see Mount Everest. After reading The Snow Leopard, I would get out of bed, leave Kathmandu, and climb about 13,000 feet. I imagined the trip would take four weeks.

Meanwhile I was appreciating Nepal from between the sheets. A fan whirred overhead. From my open window I could smell simmering dhal. Bright saris on laundry lines spanned the alley like prayer flags. Carts clacked on cobblestone. I had six weeks’ vacation from my job teaching English in China, and I’d been pining for uninterrupted rest.

“A lot of expats get depressed,” my American roommate in Beijing had said, noticing my after-class naps.

“I’m not depressed,” I said. “I’m just tired.” She was a marathon-running Californian about to begin med school, not qualified in my eyes to judge normal levels of energy.

“Twelve percent of all foreigners in China have nervous breakdowns,” she said. Later she told me she’d read an article in the Utne Reader. “This guy in Berkeley cured his depression by getting daily foot rubs. You should read this.” She handed me the magazine.

I looked at the healed man’s picture: trimmed beard, Birkenstocks, sensitive eyes. I handed it back. “Someone should light a match under his foot.”

But Beijing had taken a toll, the biking on the gray ten-lane roads teeming with cars and cyclists, the haggling, the hassles, the back and forth to class. I’d just learned a Chinese word that meant “to drive around the road,” which applied to the Beijing taxi drivers’ habit of taking foreigners on long, pricey detours. It also described how I felt about myself two years out of college: driving around the road of my life.

After a year in Beijing, I missed mountain air and the absence of man-made sound. Most of all I missed fresh water. Though I’d grown up in the suburbs of Washington, D.C., I’d never forgotten the times I plunged into blue lakes in Montana, into my aunt’s Ozark creek, into the rivers of Australia, and into the cold and rough waves off the California coast. I’d never forgotten swimming in the wild, even the times that were cold and scary. There was something about weightlessness and open space, about the constancy of water’s character, even if it differed in temperature, salinity, or speed.

The sound of water, even rain on a roof, silenced the jabbering of my mind. On a raft I’d discovered pond warp, the fading of time and worry. Water bugs weren’t trying to be the best. Turtles weren’t swimming until they collapsed. In Beijing I’d tried unsuccessfully to sneak into a hotel pool. I even lingered in my shower, trying to get a thin lukewarm trickle to loosen the knots in my back.

So a journey to the sacred lakes of Gokyo to glimpse the world’s highest peak seemed just the thing. The Gokyo Valley of Nepal with its emerald-green water was the less-traveled part of the Everest region. I could see myself standing at the edge of a lake, serene with the sense of arrival. I imagined the locked feeling in my limbs replaced by the lean, loose ache from so much walking. I could imagine myself content, in another country. China just wasn’t my place. The Himalayas, Buddhist country, was more my speed. Gautama sat under a tree for forty days; no one accused him of being depressed.

I would get out of Beijing, walk until the tired feeling wore off. Seeing Everest from the shores of the Gokyo Lakes would be my mission. I announced my plans to my roommate, and to others, spoke them too many times to change my mind.

After finishing The Snow Leopard and a slim volume about yeti sightings, I forced myself to wander Kathmandu’s web of narrow lanes to prepare for my journey. I walked past the rows of shops selling beads, books, bowls, Buddhas, carvings, sweaters, socks, and scarves and felt myself sucked in, drawn by a force like the excess gravity of my bed.

I knew I was stalling. I half hoped a hiking companion would materialize, despite it being the off-season. Traveling solo was part of my plan, but I hadn’t ruled out meeting someone so wonderful that I’d be forced to change my mind. At the same time, I felt sick at the sight of the other Westerners in Kathmandu, getting stoned in cheap saris, devouring lassis and granola in front of common-room TVs, talking dharma. China may not have been my place, but I clung to the idea that living there made me different, that I wasn’t like them, that my search was different. Besides, I’d always needed silence to hear myself think. It would be better to hike alone.

I bought two wool sweaters, then four embroidered Kashmiri shawls. I didn’t need the shawls, but I couldn’t stop fingering the intricate birds and branches stitched on the wool. I bought a singing bowl. I bought a red cashmere scarf, imagining myself in an American city, at night, flinging it over one shoulder. I bought new hiking boots, a new fleece jacket. The jacket I had seemed suddenly worn. It was as if I’d owned these things already but lost them, and the kindly merchants were just giving them back.

I finally left my Kathmandu neighborhood for a day trip. I rose at dawn to walk to Boudhanath, a stone temple with a giant arched eye painted on its dome-shaped top and hundreds of prayer wheels. I walked for miles, breaking in my boots. You came here to trek, I reminded myself, not to buy every fucking textile ever made.

I passed Nepali women and girls with baskets, a buffalo hitched to a wagon. A river thinned to a creek. Cows loitered in and around the road. After four hours, I found a temple run by nuns, girls in white robes with shorn heads. The white pagoda rose from a hill overlooking green terraced valleys, the tops of trees, a horizon of jagged peaks with white snowcaps. These peaks were visible from anywhere outside the congested center of Kathmandu. The afternoon light moved in bright shapes over the tops of the mountains, glowing against deep blues and purples. For a moment the sight stunned me into sudden peace.

The little girl nuns showed me where to leave my muddy boots and led me inside a painted sanctuary. One girl held my hand. Every inch of column and roof and wall was muraled in bright red, gold, blue. A gold Buddha sat draped in flowers, cross-legged and tranquil. I imitated his pose and began to pray. Please, help me be a better person. Let there be a point to my existence. I felt unworthy of the place, but I didn’t move. I wanted so badly to absorb the sanctuary, scorch it into my mind. I wanted to acquire it. I lost track of my prayer.

When I left I stuffed rupees into a donation box.

On the way back to my guesthouse, I stopped by the stone stairs of the Pashupatinath Temple leading down to the Bagmati River, a tributary of the Ganges. Nepali Hindus came there to pray, to bathe, to be healed, to die. At the edge of the water, a body beneath a sun-yellow drape had begun to burn. This was part of the Hindu funeral tradition, the floating funeral pyre. The belief in reincarnation meant the body in death was a meaningless shell. The family stood ankle-deep in the water, watching the raft. The flames were bright in the dusk. I felt an urge to set the whole scene in reverse, the raft floating upstream, the fire shrinking until the human shape returned, the body carried home to wake up in bed. The family would look on, eyes moist, as the first breath returned. Visitors would gather to welcome the body reborn as him- or herself. But the pyre continued to drift outward, the flames growing, the form beneath the drape visibly collapsing in the middle, caving.

The next day I stowed my belongings and set off at seven in the morning on a bus to Jiri. From there I walked and walked, steadily climbing, scurrying up and over rocks and traversing steep switchbacks. I exchanged namastes and smiles with women with long black hair, in blue-gray skirts and embroidered aprons, and with men carrying enormous baskets of wood on their backs. Many of them were climbing in flip-flops. I gazed over the green valleys so lush they seemed to sparkle in the morning. The brown patchwork squares of terraced fields and the human figures moving down the rows seemed to grow smaller and smaller. On narrow, upward paths I moved aside for yaks with tinny bells.

I was careful to stay hydrated, to monitor the pace of my ascent for proper altitude adjustment. I dripped iodine into my water bottle to stave off parasites.

The steady motion of walking reduced sensation to the weight of my backpack on my shoulders and the burn in my calves and thighs with each upward step. For hours I looked only at my boots, which had lost all signs of newness. I stopped to absorb the view: the sloping sky over mountain peaks, the steep jagged edges, the snow in the distance. I understood how people believed the mountains to be gods.

The trails got steeper, and I stopped keeping track of the days. Rhododendron forests glowed green, and mists of clouds moved through the trees faster than I could walk. One morning a white fog thinned from the forest trail and the sunlight fell evenly in pale-yellow columns. I stopped and put my hands on the white bark of a tree, feeling its smooth aliveness as if it could feel me back. This was my reward for trekking alone. With people, I would not have stood there for as long as I did.

Through the next week, the rhododendron forests gave way to juniper scrub. My pace slowed as the air thinned. I took three-hour breaks, drinking yak butter tea, chatting with teahouse proprietors. The monsoon rains pounded the footpaths into slippery fudge. The upward scrambles required my complete focus. I didn’t mind the rain; I stuck my tongue out to catch the drops. I’d purposely chosen this season to avoid crowds, and after sweating in long pants and long-sleeved shirts, I found the storms a relief. I’d packed everything in plastic bags. I liked the thunder, the bleak swelling feel of the air, the thick ropes of rain unfurling. I liked how the rain darkened the color of the stone buildings and stone prayer walls. Solitude sharpened my senses: I saw a shade of gray that actually glowed. Even though the damp made my bag heavier, sometimes I’d burst into a run.

One rainy day of hiking, I crossed a wide river on a footbridge made of old wood and ropes. I pulled my hands out of the dry shell of my jacket to clutch the swaying rails. I looked at the bridge for a long time before crossing, picturing myself on the rocks below, a bright pile of Gore-Tex and pale skin. Another Everest seeker turned anecdote for guidebook warnings. White water rushed below, filling a pool downstream.

On the far side of the bridge, I decided to stop for the day. I entered a guesthouse, unloaded my backpack by a fire in a stone fireplace, and held my chilled fingers out to the warmth of the hearth. A Sherpa woman greeted me with the standard “Namaste, tidi.” “Greetings, sister.” She was probably my age, late twenties, but she looked as if nothing in this life surprised her. She wore a thick wool sweater, hair in two braids, an apron. The scent of momos, boiled dumplings with potatoes and beans, filled the room.

Without looking at a menu I accepted her offer of momos, and before she left the room I learned her name was Dalma. I untied my bootlaces. When she returned I’d peeled off my socks. Five small black leeches clung on my ankles and pruny feet. My hands shaking, I burrowed through my backpack for a lighter. Dalma put down a steaming glass of yak butter tea. The metal wheel of the lighter scraped beneath my thumb. The tip sparked but wouldn’t light. Meanwhile my ankles seemed to throb. I was afraid I might be offending Dalma’s Buddhist sensibilities in my apparent desire to singe the leeches to death, but she pulled a pack of matches from her long apron and knelt in front of me.

“Be still,” she said, gripping one ankle. With one strike, she lit a match and carefully raised it to my foot. The leech fell off, arching its body in protest. Dalma seized it between two fingernails and threw it into the fire. It sizzled. She lit another match. The flame was hot, and I yelped, curling my toes.

“Be still,” she said again.

From the village of Gokyo, I made my first attempt to reach three of the Gokyo Lakes in one long climb. From the third lake I would be able to view Everest, assuming the weather stayed clear, and return to my guesthouse by the afternoon.

At the first lake, the urge to sit and sleep grew so strong I knew I would have to turn around. This was typical at oxygen-thin heights. At about 11,250 feet above sea level, my breath became short. I felt dangerously light-headed, but since I was already there, I forced myself to gaze at the emerald-green water. It was the stillest water I had ever seen, and it reflected upside-down mountains in the rock-strewn surface. Clumps of ice dotted the green, and I kept thinking I could walk over them like stepping-stones. I stood right at the edge. As I hiked back, the rumble of ice shifting echoed in the distance.

Two days later, I made it to the second lake. I hiked with a teenage Sherpa, Pemba, who was scouting on behalf of his family’s trekking business. He spoke elegant English, wore jeans and hiking boots.

“Amazing,” he said.

“Yeah,” I said. This time, a vise-grip headache squeezed the sides of my face. I wanted to see Everest and be done with it.

“How cold do you think that water is?”

“Very, very.”

“I could use a nap,” I said.

“That’s the altitude,” Pemba said. “Keep drinking water.”

The next morning I finally made it to the third lake, breathless but clear-headed. Pemba was already there. We stood in a field of boulders with residual spots of snow, the green lake, a sharp drop-off to one side, a snow-filled canyon one hundred feet below.

“There it is.” He pointed to a sloping peak that angled through the clouds.

“That’s Everest?”

He nodded, and I felt terror. It was just a mountaintop. It was blue-gray, almost more rounded than peaked. It didn’t look different from the neighboring peaks, only slightly higher. Snow whitened the top: typical mountain. In my daypack I had only four quarts of water and clothes for a flash blizzard, but the straps seemed to cut into my shoulders. I shifted it around on my back. I needed to care about Everest. I realized how foolish I’d been, that just below the level of words, I’d thought the sight of Everest would change me. I tried to stifle the feeling of disappointment. Against my will, my face hot and my breath short, I kept thinking, that’s it? I turned away, afraid of what Pemba might see in my face.

“That’s the glacier, Ngozumpa,” he said, pointing to the canyon of snow to our right. It looked like brown and white sugar. It seemed to groan occasionally, trying to move.

On the way down, I stopped again at Dalma’s guesthouse. There was one other trekker–a Frenchman turned back from Everest by an expedition doctor. The climber spoke only a little English, but through pantomime and little French clucking noises, he conveyed that his irregular heartbeat disqualified him. He said his heart was broken in more ways than one. I envied him his love of Everest. We shared a dormitory room with about ten bunks, a hay floor, cedar-smelling walls.

That night I awoke so nauseous that I could barely turn over before throwing up. Finally I got outside and continued vomiting violently on a hill in the freezing night. When I tried to return to bed, I couldn’t steer through the door, and without warning, I threw up on the dormitory wall.

I sat down in the mud.

The Frenchman appeared and sat outside with me until sunup. He swabbed my sticky hair, covered my convulsive body with two sleeping bags, and tilted a glass of water to my lips. Though I never learned his name, this stranger washed my foul hair in a pot of boiled water. By midmorning my stomach was finally calm, and I was falling asleep when he came to say goodbye. I thanked him, but I never got to say how much his kindness had to me.

I stayed several more days, recuperating. It was sunny and almost warm, and Dalma set a mattress and blanket on the south-facing hillside, on a steep slant above the valley. I felt how high I was, looking down on the narrow paths with yaks winding up the switchbacks I would soon descend.

Though later I’d tell people I’d seen Everest, this hillside was the place I would return to in my mind. The grass was luminously green–not only were there shades of gray, but shades of green. The sun was pale yellow. I could see the trail where I had come, could see the rickety bridge and its twisting ropes. There was the river, twenty feet down the slope; I napped in the day, soothed by its ceaseless shush.

“You can bathe in the river,” Dalma told me, “you just wear clothes.”

She lent me a sarong, and I wore my own T-shirt.

The river was warmer than I’d expected. The afternoon was humid but I’d expected the water to be icy. The stones at the bottom were gray, brown, and mossy. Water rushed over them, leaping, holding its course. As I dunked my head, rolls of thunder outlined the steady rushing sound, and droplets of rain broke the surface. I splashed around and reclined, water to my chin, cradled in a curve of rock beneath me. As rain soaked my face, I closed my eyes. I placed my hands on the bottom, pretending I was a lizard, pretending I was a creature about to evolve. I opened my eyes and, turning over, let the current move me.