across three himalayan passes
Crossing a bare common, in snow puddles, at twilight, under a clouded sky, without having in my thoughts any occurrence of special good fortune, I have enjoyed a perfect exhilaration. I am glad to the brink of fear. —Ralph Waldo Emerson, Nature.
Abhishek must have noticed something in my expression. He asked if I was happy, but I couldn’t speak. I turned my face into the wind and my tears hardened into ice.
In a childhood effort to avoid the appearance of feminine weakness at all costs, I trained myself not to cry for most of the usual things — sad songs, film endings, injuries, or real-life tragedies like my mom’s cancer or my grandma’s death. The expanse of a mountain face, however, never made the list.
In May, I walked for twenty-four days across three Himalayan passes — Goechala, Kangla, and Thorungla (la means pass in Nepali). First was Goechala, where I trekked with a motley crew of Indians and ex-IDF recruits. We shared sickly-sweet chai and Diamox in the mornings and passed hours in the quiet rhythm of boots on till.
When the alpine glow began to suffuse the valley on our ascent day, I felt the tight, familiar anxiety of missing sunrise. I abandoned our group and Abhishek, our guide, and ran, stripping layers without stopping until I stumbled into a line of furiously flapping flags and the vast face of Mount Pandim. I looked up at the sheet of rock and snow and started to shiver.
I sat against a large boulder and watched the valley ripen into a slow gold. The till field was a sandbox for giants, full of sediment piles with snow leopard pawprints. A steady spout of snow billowed off Mount Kanchenjunga, which looked deceptively approachable. My hair whipped out of its messy ponytail and spiraled into the wind.
My first taste of this kind of awe was on my first hiking trip, three years ago in New Jersey’s Harriman State Park. Though I’d never so much as unzipped a sleeping bag, I set out to prove that I could guide college freshmen through a section of the Appalachian Trail. I spent days fixing fake first-aid incidents and wrapping tortillas, bowlins, tarps, and ankles. One evening, I caught the sunset in the hills.
I dropped everything and sprinted, as fast as I can remember, Mamma’s voice in my mind, be careful, don’t slip on the rocks. It felt like I was flying — nothing else mattered — I knew I’d be gasping for breath but I didn’t care. I climbed the last few rocks and though the sun had vanished and only its glow remained, I felt like I hadn’t missed a thing. I don’t know if anyone gets it, and I don’t know if anyone can… I need to be in the mountains again. It’s all I can think about. — June 11th, 2014. Harriman State Park, New Jersey.
My teammates started to call me sunset chaser. That summer, I slept on the balcony every night I could, dreaming about mountains under airplane lights and the hum of our air conditioner.
Soon after my first hiking trip, I shipped off to New Zealand’s Otago peninsula, where I putted off to a different mountain each weekend in a $200 Honda relic. I climbed scree slopes and swam in alpine lakes with people I’d never have met at my shrouded Ivy-league : a tree-climber, a D1 football player, president of a large frat. They got it. It frustrated me when the people closest to me — my parents, sister, some friends— didn’t.
I’m looking down Hooker Valley from the Sefton Biv, where Aggie and I are lying in the sun. The hut is bright orange and only sleeps four. Every now and then we hear a thundering ice fall behind us. Last night we all sat leaning against each other and watched the stars — so many that the sky was clouded with whitish dust, our fancy wine and Tom’s port. Behind us are glaciers, the closest I’ve ever seen — the ice sweats in the sun, pockmarked and rolled in sheets against the rock. — May 2016. Mt. Cook National Park, New Zealand.
In How to Change Your Mind, Michael Pollan writes about what happens in the brain during situations of awe—whether tripping, meditating, or walking through the mountains. Activity in the Default Mode Network, associated with self-related thinking, plummets, which engenders a subsequent sense of oneness. I felt the buzzing undertow of this awe throughout my hiking in the Himalayas. If I just let myself go, I thought, I could fall back into the expansive prelinguistic mind space I slipped into at Goechala. This, however, proved unexpectedly difficult.
I often hiked alone but rarely felt alone, at least in the way I wanted. As the fastest of my companions in Sikkim and the slowest in Nepal, I overanalyzed my pace and fitness. I felt exuberant when I sped past our pot-bellied guide at the beginning of Nepal’s Nar Phu valley and sour when I started dragging behind his machine calves. My heartrate was low, but my lungs heaved. I ran through excuses for why I was tired, from altitude sickness to my female muscle ratio, while wizened Nepalis in skirts and fake Converse lugged beams up the mountains besides us. I stared down at the rocks under my feet during climbs to minimize distractions and maximize my speed. My mind was a steady stream of self-doubt and Top 50 pop. When I lay down to sleep in the small stone guesthouses long before sun set, I felt oddly empty.
The sole day I took advantage of my solitude was the one I remember most. It was no peak-lined stunner, but rather a rainy descent through the woods. I stepped to the side of the trail, waited until I couldn’t see or hear anyone for a stretch, and walked by myself. I stopped to pick yellow flames from the ground, to press my face against moss on rocks, and sometimes for no reason at all. I siphoned water off leaves and saw spiderwebs smaller than my fingertips sag with the weight of dew. I brushed trees fat with rhododendrons, their branches smooth like waxed limbs. Hours later, when I reached into my pack for water and realized my fingers were so numb that I couldn’t open my zipper, I ran the rest of the way to camp.
“[It is] a failure of language…to try (to render in words) is necessarily to do some violence to what has been seen and felt, which is in some fundamental way pre- or post-linguistic or, as students of mysticism say, ineffable. Emotions arrive in all their newborn nakedness, unprotected from the harsh light of scrutiny and, especially, the pitiless glare of irony.” Michael Pollan, How to Change Your Mind.
After chasing the sun around the Rockies, the Himalayas, and the Southern Alps, I returned to my own backyard in Secaucus, where it all started. My home looks west over the Hackensack River, across phragmites patches where sunsets range from pinks on gray to fires that ripple on water like thick, knifed oil paint. The first thing I did when I got home was lace up my sneakers and take a long run.
Today’s a gray day, the river, trains, and sky all the same color as the water. It’s still the air I can’t get enough of here, standing on the porch filling my lungs as much as I can with that rain-flavored morning sustenance.—June 10th, 2018. Secaucus, NJ.