It’s the beginning of September in Kathmandu. Ten climbers are having early breakfast at the cosy courtyard of a boutique hotel in Thamel. Only a few of them know each other and the rest are strangers – the eight men and two women who form the Manaslu expedition team.
They have a long day ahead of them, with a bumpy truck ride to Arughat Bazaar, where they will spend the night before starting the trek to the base camp of the world’s eighth highest mountain, Manaslu. The hot and humid walk through the post-monsoon Manaslu Conservation Area will take the team from 300 metres above sea level to, they hope, 8160 metres – the summit of ‘The Spirit Mountain’.
September 2nd They arrive in Arughat at night and sleep at the local lodge where pink and yellow neon lights shine lazily on dusty electric fans, old TV’s and plastic flowers growing out of concrete walls.
I spread my mat on top of the damp linen and beg myself to fall asleep as soon as may be: I am desperate to start climbing in cold, cold snow, which, breathing in this heavy air, I can only dream of.
September 3rd They wake up to a lovely breakfast prepared by the expedition cook. While the team leader and the sirdar hire porters, the climbers take pictures of the town which was no more than a hot black hole when the truck dropped them off at the lodge the night before. Now, in the morning, it looks less surreal and mysterious.
I go for a short walk. Kids wave at me, heavy mud sticks to my trekking boots, and the trees are ridiculously green.
Porters leave Arughat for Soti Kola and the climbers follow. They cross a river and several streams; this requires taking their boots off. The inhabitants of the villages they pass ask them for things or simply stare – this area in contrast to the Annapurna and the Everest regions sees relatively few foreign visitors.
I don’t recall Soti Kola very well but it must have been small, hot and humid – like all the other villages we’d passed that day. All I remember is that my tent there was full of all kinds of insects. Normally, it would bother me but after a day of walking under the glaring sun on dusty trails I didn’t care about who/what I was sharing the tent with.
September 4th They cross three rivers on the way to Machchekola – without taking their boots off or even rolling up their trousers anymore because the last of the monsoon showers has been following them all day long, and they are all soaking wet anyway. Late in the afternoon they arrive in the village and wait for the porters with their duffel bags, tents and food at a tired little lodge. Rain water drips from their clothes onto creaking wooden floors; quiet conversations start to flow, damp books emerge slowly from shapeless backpacks.
I don’t want to talk and can’t read. The warmth my body is trying quickly to generate is not enough to dry the clothes I am wearing. I dislike the sick, tepid feeling this weak warmth is giving me so I leave the lodge and stumble down the trail to the river. The water is fast, and loud, and cold, and I step into it with pleasure, then, lie down behind a large rock which hides me from the current. The sky is grey and heavy above me and the river’s deafening voice makes my own quickened breathing barely audible. For this brief instant I am just another rock in this river – with a pair of eyes.
I return to the lodge with wet clothes sticking to my pale skin. The porters had arrived and our tents have been set up. I change into a dry jacket and trousers and join the rest of the group for dinner. Except, I am still a rock in that roaring river which now somehow runs through me.
September 5th They walk up and down following the river for hours towards Jaghat. They day is unbearably hot. Today the group enters Manaslu Conservation Area. The villages here look cleaner and the air is more transparent due to the region’s relatively high elevation.
Jaghat is famous for… leeches, which I dread. I’d spent the previous couple of days worrying about the night in Jaghat: in my imagination, I wake up in the morning with leeches, black and plump, sucking on the veins on my arms and legs.
I can’t help smiling when after dinner I take my sandals off in my tent and discover a tiny leech trying to make itself comfortable on one of my toes. I pick it up carefully and lower it onto the wet grass outside my tent. Then, I point my headlamp at my foot and notice a thin streak of blood on it. It doesn’t hurt – not unless you look hard enough.
September 6th Deng – that’s the name of the town the group is trekking to today. They cover 24 kilometres of very steep terrain in just over six hours. The going is very tiring still but less so than during the first days of the trek: at 1800 metres above sea level the air is noticeably cooler and the path underneath their feet is drier than at lower elevations.
Tibetan influences make themselves apparent to the team the moment they arrive at Deng as instead of the usual Nepali ‘namaste’ the villagers welcome them with the Tibetan ‘tashi delek’. Prayer flags, almost entirely discoloured by the sun, decorate the entrance to the village. There is no lodge for the group to have dinner at – instead, there is a small wooden building with a long and narrow table near the camping field where the climbers’ tents would be set up for the night.
I can hear the river far down below the village. I rummage through my duffel bag for shampoo, soap and a towel and begin searching for a path towards the water which I find sooner than expected: the raging mountain river has a quiet sleeve for me to hide and bathe in. I undress and lie down in the clear ice-cold water, looking at the green slopes of the gorge I’m in. I am not cold – I am the cold.
September 7th Namrung at 2700 metres above sea level is the team’s destination for the day. To reach it they will travel through what their leader calls ‘The Enchanted Forest’, where there’s monkeys, deer and even, apparently, unicorns. The path is truly beautiful, and the lack of encounters with unicorns and fairies doesn’t make it any less so.
It is quiet in the forest; I can hardly hear my own footsteps. I don’t see any magical creatures but to me their absence is magical. Although I still can’t see Manaslu, I know I’m getting closer to it, and that feeling of anticipation, this quiet before the storm, is magical, too.
September 8th and 9th The last stop on the team’s trek to Manaslu Base Camp is Sama Goan (3500 metres). They will spend two days in the village to allow them to acclimatize to altitude: their bodies will start to produce more red blood cells to help carry the oxygen, scarce in the thin air of the mountains, to their organs and muscles.
Sama Goan is quite large for a mountain village: there are several lodges here, a helipad, a monastery… Manaslu, up high, is hiding behind the thick clouds of the retreating monsoon.
I am exhausted. Gasping for breath with my mouth open wide, my mind in blank, I keep climbing and descending, climbing and descending up and down relentlessly steep slopes between Namrung and Sama. I arrive at our destination second, behind a Finnish marathon runner, the other woman on the team. Together we settle into the room we’ll be sharing for the next two or three days.
Our 170 porters carrying more than 5 tons of gear and food it total arrive later in the day. We unpack our duffel bags, eat, talk and read at the lodge.
I can hear the river again. I bathe in it the day after our arrival at Sama Goan, looking up towards where I think – hope – the summit of Manaslu is: the clouds are still hiding it from me.
September 10th The group is still acclimatizing at Sama Goan, while their sherpas and porters establish base camp on the mountain a thousand metres higher.
I have seen the mountain at last. At dawn monsoon clouds parted for a few minutes, and it was there – tall, beautiful, and distant. Manaslu was looking down on me, and I knew that I would never reach its summit, that it would always look down on me.
September 11th The day is grey and rainy. They have to climb over a thousand metres higher, to 4900 metres above sea level, to Manaslu base camp. Impatient, they don’t take long to ascend the moraine following a path between low clouds. Sleet and colourless stones welcome them to their home on the mountain for the next month.
I arrive at base camp first. Yellow and orange tents of climbing teams from all over the world are the only bright spots on the horizon. There must be about a hundred western climbers on Manaslu this season; climbing sherpas and base camp staff are many more.
I crawl into my spacious three-person tent, spread out my sleeping bag over the foam mattress and sink into the warmth of its light, puffy down. There’s a cold mountain spring running outside my tent which I listen to, lying motionless… nowhere. I know nothing about the people I will be climbing with: there has been much talking and joking but little has really been said; I can’t see the mountain I feel I must – but won’t – summit and I know it is not the clouds that obstruct the view, it’s something inside me; I can’t understand what I am doing at Manaslu base camp listening to this mountain spring, staring at the orange tent fabric over my head, thinking these thoughts. Yet, I still hear the river running inside me, and I whisper to myself:
‘I am merely a shadow, born of sunrise
And my touch to you, I know, is nothing…’