Tuesday, August 7, 2012

We almost gave up - Annapurna, Nepal

Memories of spring 2003
My initial plan was to do it all by myself: if one has to embark on a foolish adventure, I was thinking, it's better to do it in style. Well, foolish, so to speak. Maybe just for me, as I'm not really a fanatic for mountain trekking. Actually I feel more like a city animal: I do like a trip in the country now and then, but only when it's not too long, and venturing into a Himalayan trail that will take about ten days to complete, well, it is a bit of a foolish thing for me. Generally speaking though, it is a rather safe experience. The track that from Pokhara leads to the Annapurna base camp (ABC) is very popular, long stretches of it are paved with stone steps, the next village is never more than two hours away on foot and if someone is suffering from altitude sickness he can always turn back and rest at the nearest center.
I was planning to take it easy, look around, read, write, talk with someone met at a hut, maybe proceed together for a while but then getting back into the intimacy of the little group formed by myself, a backpack, a novel, a pen and a notebook.
In Pokhara though, when I am about to shop around at the mountain gear rental stores (nothing too advanced, just those few items needed by someone who is only equipped to travel at the tropics), I meet a German guy who is planning to tackle the trip with the same spirit. The only difference: a beautiful camera instead of pen and notebook. Franz (I've made the name up as the real one, after all those years, escapes my memory), is an amateur photographer. To me, a very poor judge, he seems very competent, but he insists he only does it for fun. He makes a living working in some factory instead. Franz is a nice guy, quite taciturn, with a long mop of dreadlocks and a little ring on the left side of his lower lip, but he's got nothing to do with the self-centered, banal, noisy and boring youngsters who sport the same symbols that I've met recently in South East Asia and India. A fatal encounter with an ideal travel companion: it was inevitable for us to team up and climb together this colossus of rock and snow. After we've rented our gear we put what we need in our backpacks and we leave everything else with the guest house owner. Then, on day 1, before sunrise, we get started. Every day we'll walk through dozens of villages, the altitude will always be different, the scenery varied, we'll meet people of all kinds but the only things that will never change are the lunch menu and the schedule: wake up shortly after 4, start of the walk by 6 and end at around 2 in the afternoon. I will never understand why we have to start and end the main activity of the day so early - I wouldn't mind waking up at 6, which still seems to be a bit of an early rising for one who is not in a hurry at all - but as this is not my natural habitat and everybody does it that way, I just comply with it without complaints.
I'm not a fanatic but honestly I would like to make it to the top, without major physical or mental issues. Still I am afraid that I might suffer a crisis: I have been walking a lot in the last few months but I haven't done any serious exercise in years.
On the first day we surprisingly reach the two-o'clock-in-the-afternoon-village in a pretty good shape, more hungry than tired. And our first dal bhat lunch, although made of a single course, seems an Italian New Year's eve feast to me. We have our plates refilled with steam rice two or three times and we never fail to clean them up to the the last grain, along with the lentil dal. Always the same dish, everyday, prepared at different huts, sometimes following slightly different recipes, always longed for during the last two or three hours of walk, always delicious, always wolfed down as if we hadn't had it for months, always effective in supplying carbohydrates and proteins. Dal bhat: a monotony of taste that becomes an addiction for the mouth. Who could expect that?
On the morning of the second day (well, actually it's still night) our troubles all show up at once. It's very hard to get up, our legs are stiff, our movements hindered: all signs of what will turn out to be a long ordeal for us.
Instead of a single break for a tea halfway we stop every hour, then every half hour and finally we stop everywhere we can. Our last leg is epic and ridiculous at the same time. And we are already settling for a shorter distance then planned. We walk bent under the weight of our backpacks on the plain stretches and we struggle on all four through the steeper ones. Fifty meters to the end, after having spent two minutes to climb a single step, we collapse on the stairs, in the middle of the track. We're purple, drenched with sweat, we've troubles breathing, it'd be even hard for us to raise a finger. Actually, we would refuse to do it even if we were tortured. Those who need to walk past necessarily have to climb us. Some people are worried about our condition. Our replies are soundless: just a glance and a nod that can be detected only with very advanced instruments. It means "we're fine", we're not dying, that is, we're only exhausted, don't worry.
Some minutes later I think that I'm feeling a little energy wave fluttering around the central kernel of my body, still very far from my limbs: maybe it is useless, but I am afraid that if I let it go I'll remain here until night comes, and I will fall asleep on the ground, preferring a consoling surrender to a fight for survival, a little like those unlucky climbers who yield to the temptation of sleep induced by frostbite. I get hold of that wave and scraping together every available bit of force I manage to stand up, as if I was carrying on my back a 200 kg load, even though I have carelessly thrown my backpack on the grass at the edge of the trail as soon as I stopped. I grab it, I put it on my back aslant and, like the invalid Terminator approaching the hydraulic press, I creep along the last few steps. Every little advance costs me percentages of energy that I am not able to calculate over the total left. Because I don't know how much energy is left. If there is any. I am afraid it's a two digits share to fuel each single elbow or knee movement. Miraculously I reach the top and throw my bag to the ground. I call Franz who answers me as we both answered to those who were climbing past us a short time ago. Then I close my eyes, I take a deep breath, I loosen up the muscles of my back and legs and I start the descent with the same state of mind of a novice who is diving for the first time in his life from a cliff in Acapulco. I reach Franz, take hold of his backpack, help him to stand up and then we walk together to the hut. We fall on two chairs. They serve us hot tea and dal bhat. The smell of food brings us back to life. With the first few spoonfuls we try to make our body absorb all its energy, fibers, proteins, minerals. Then we melt on the backs of the chairs, exhausted.
We are considering giving up, but it's a decision that can be postponed until tomorrow: we'll spend the night here anyway.
The following morning we are surprised by an unhoped-for vitality. How different it is from yesterday. We spring around self confident, flexible, nimble and invincible. Every movement is an omen of a glorious day. Better said, of glorious days. Up to the top and then back. And it will be exactly that way. Getting over that last effort, perk up and rest was enough for our bodies to understand that they need to face it, get used to it and adapt: we won't give up. And they will be wonderful days indeed - three more uphill, for a total of five, and four to get back - amid moist woods, cliffs, ice, crystal clear air, streams, the first snow, preindustrial villages, gatherings in front of a fireplace, children with snot dangling from their noses who look like they are weeping when they are actually laughing, cold that pinches you in the morning and sun beams that start to massage your skin during the first tea break, pancakes and pizzas that would seem totally out of place but become almost essential if they are seasoned with the hut kind of talk. We won't suffer from altitude sickness and once arrived to the base camp we will enjoy the 360-degree panorama of the massif peaks. We'll eat dal bhat for lunch every single day and out of place junk food at night, when sipping a tea we'll laugh at the other climbers' foolish talk, stories that wouldn't be worth a dime in the plain.
Once back in Pokhara for some days I'll have the impression to be stuck in a big city traffic with a powerful Ferrari (not that I really know what that feels like, of course). I need some speed, I have to move my feet up or downhill, to have a load on my back. What is this slow strolling about, without a goal, lanky, light on thighs and calves, on paved roads and sidewalks, among cafes, restaurants and bars?
But I've already said it before: I'm a city animal. And in less than a week I've forgotten everything: it's not the memory of my brain that vanished - in fact after so many years I can still remember everything and write about it here - it's the one of the slack muscles, of the sweet habits, the soft vices, the slight addictions. Reading a book at a cafe table, writing notes in the shade of a tree in a park, the sunset walks, the varied menus and the beers in the evening. 
It's true, the Annapurna trekking was a foolish thing after all. A stirring, surprising and fleeting foolish thing.

Photo by MikeBehnken (CC)

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