HIMALAYAS, NEPAL – Nature has a sick sense of humour.
The world’s grandest mountain ranges are surrounded by rocky paths — look up from the one you’re on for one millisecond and you could fall.
“I’ve seen every pebble in Nepal,” Australian trekker Paul Mulgrew says, smiling. “No mountains.”
On three weeks’ notice, I’m on World Expeditions’ 12-day Ultimate Annapurna Dhaulagiri trek, a quieter and less expensive alternative to the Mount Everest circuit. The peaks are lower — still reaching more than 8,000 metres — and walking is done at lower altitudes, meaning warmer nights and less risk of altitude sickness. Annapurna’s moderately steep paths are also more forgiving on calves uphill and knees downhill.
Most of all, says lead guide Romi Tamang, “Everest has lost its charm. It’s too busy. You get people wanting to get married on it now, people trying to climb it at 70 or 80 years old, gimmicks like that.”
The Annapurna trek trails are for people like me, who prepared by plotting the shortest distance between two pints.
I could be sinking into the sofa, checking my phone, and watching the Himalayas in high definition.
Yet on our first day’s trek, passing Nice View Guest House and its neighbour and marketing superior, Excellent View Guest House, I see a vista no camera can fully capture.
A flaring red sunset dances with shadows on the Annapurna range, a bristle of 7,000 metre-plus jutting peaks, like peaks on a polygraph chart.
Guide Birkha Magar, like a kid imagining shapes in clouds, says Annapurna Two is a thumb. Annapurna Four is a Gurkha’s knife.
“No,” says Tamang definitively. “It’s Tintin’s hair.”
By night, sky that’s free of pollution overshadows the summits. Stars reduce my world to a diamond canvas. My brain resets, fading to black the latest political result that supposedly spells the apocalypse. Maybe this is why vagabond dogs bark all night like timber sawn by hand. Merciless mutts just want me to know about the handsome sky.
Perky shouts of “washy washy” announce the delivery of our morning shower, in a silver bowl.
No commuter commotion exists off-piste. Instead, leaves crunch like the potato-chip packets our group collects for World Expeditions’ cleanup initiative. Kimrong Khola waterfall’s gentle thunder floods the valley.
On more popular routes, schoolchildren drown the serenity, bellowing the Furious 7 soundtrack, “It’s been a long day. . . ”
Trekkers want to throttle them but they are correct.It’s been a long day. Paths snake more than politicians.
I don’t complain aloud because a blind man passes us, providing more perspective than any mountain.
That’s what trekking, and life, is really all about. Perspective. Decide to do it, and you can. By Day 5, my legs are almost limber. I’m dumbstruck by how high we rise each day.
Growing confident, I look up while walking. Nature sniggers. I drop, scraping my elbow and ego, and bruising my posterior to the colour of a young purple cabernet sauvignon swirled by toxic hot-dog mustard.
Black vultures circle at the top of our toughest climb yet, sensing an easy meal.
Porters speed on, carrying our bags. Mine is numbered 667. Almost Satan, they probably think, clambering upwards.
By night, we decry a disco’s loud music at the ungodly hour of 8 p.m.
Azaleas’ scent lingers. Yellow butterflies flutter. We pass red-barked rhododendron, Himalayan blue poppies and wild strawberry bushes.
We learn phrases like hello —“namaste” — and thank you “dhanyabad” — for the smiling inhabitants of sparse villages, who sell pashmina and dry fresh vegetables on corrugated blue roofs.
We reach 3,000 metres, where the air is thin. A plane flies at eye level. I jump at the sound of a jet engine taking off. It’s a flying rainbow, the Impeyan monal, Nepal’s national bird.
Half our group opts for the optional day trek, rising from 3,600 metres to 4,600 metres, to Khayer Lake.
Snow whisks from threatening peaks.
Chest heaving, barely breathing, altitude hits at 4,000 metres.
Magar explains the lake is sacred. Tell me later, I say crudely. Let my heart explode in peace.
It’s the highest I’ve been while sober and I feel 12 vodkas deep. I’m queasy, the ground spins, my head pulses.
“Doing OK?” Mulgrew asks.
“Aye, great. I think I might die.” I wheeze like Darth Vader after a cross-country race.
The lake is a glorified puddle. I could drain more sweat from my socks.
We leave quickly, craving oxygen, stopping lower down for lunch. Our cooks ordinarily prepare banquets. Today, it’s a boiled egg, rubber cheese and steadily freezing bread.
Even our guide, Ramesh Magar, flails like a crime-scene victim.
Deadpan, his face red, Mulgrew turns to me and says: “It’s a long way for a picnic.”
My laugh becomes coughing barks like never-hoarse, sleepless dogs.
Hard tasks build character and stronger calves but no lift back down the mountain.
Gravity helps. At the halfway mark, cotton-ball clouds disperse and the 8,167-metre Dhaulagiri, the world’s seventh highest mountain, emerges. Its sharp triangular inclines are disarming, magnificent and terrible.
My head clears of trivia, like when I’m next getting Wi-Fi.
Maybe nature doesn’t have a sick sense of humour. Maybe it just rewards endeavour.
Finally, back at our lodge on Kopra Ridge, a knitted hot pink message above my door welcomes me to “here.”
Not the ridge. Not Dhaulagiri. Not Nepal. Here. Forget the world.
Just remember to stop and plant your feet when you look up.
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