Walking with Yaks

When I Left India, I knew that I would be back soon. I needed to take a hiatus from this crazy country, and a shiny, new visa for Nepal was my way out. This month long expedition away from the crazy and smelly crowds of India was strategically planned. The strategy was straightforward: get out alive. Now. But of course, India didn't let us go so easily and before arriving in Nepal, we had to escape the spiritual labyrinth of Varanasi: a city of death, drugs and, of course, dirt. Feeling sickly and a bit shell shocked, we made our way North towards new frontiers: Nepal. A tiny country (when compared to India almost anything is) with some of the biggest mountains in the world. Everest. Annapurna. Langtang. For anyone who likes the mountains even a little bit, Nepal is a place to get up close and personal with the giants. People come from all over the world to trek these renowned peaks, and regardless of your reason for coming, these mountains do not disappoint. Majestic, soaring, they are a force to be reckoned with. They dominate the landscape, a reminder every step of the way that man versus nature is really a very silly idea anyways. There is no contest: these mountains take all every time.

Nepal opened its borders to foreign tourists in the 60s, and tourism has been a smashing success here ever since. Taking a look around, its clear that things have moved quickly since the good old days when Kathmandu's infamous 'Freak street' was at its best and weed was legal. Today the streets of Kathmandu are a testament to this phenomenon. An explosion of flashy signs and bright new imitation gear line the streets: it is a trekker's Disney-world on crack. Needless to say this stimulation overload had the unfortunate side effect a sort of a deep desire to consume, as Remi and I ran around the city preparing for our trekking debut. Lots of grub and a new sleeping bag later we felt prepared. We walked a lot in India, right?

The first phase was Langtang, the first and much needed, taste of pure mountain air in months. I was transported through time and space to home sweet home: Vermont, another haven for mountain lovers on a much smaller scale. Here the mountains were larger than life, as my lungs and thighs were reminded every step of the way. Finally it was time to bring out the tent, our faithful mountain companion, shelter from all elements: cold, rain and snow. And cold it was! Three days into the hike and we had reached 4,000 meters (13,120 ft). We came into a little village and monastery which marked the end of the map, from here on out the landscape was untouched, unmarred by human settlement and touched only rarely by hikers' boots. We made camp for the night with high hopes, setting up our tent into a little shelter normally destined for yak-use only. Yet to our dismay we realized this shelter was no protection from the snow that fell steadily into the windy evening. To the great indoors it was. We marched, with sweet resignation, to the adjacent guest house, windows glowing welcoming us to the warmth of the fire that was burning inside. Camping relinquished for the night, we snuggled into the cozy guest house enjoying the luxury of a warm bed. The next morning we woke renewed from a night of exceptionally good sleep, feeling motivated to tackle a summit that looked out over the village. With just a bit of encouragement for my achy muscles we were off, upward bound, struggling against the altitude. The yaks had forged an ambitious path for us and we took on the challenge. It was essentially straight up. Leaving the tourist trail behind I wheezed and gasped like never before, only now gaining true enlightenment as to the meaning of Tibetan prayer flags- the top! They mark the top, it dawned on me, to give you just enough hope to convince yourself that you really will make it... One... Step... More. And then, glory hallelujah! Angels we have heard on high! We reached the top, victorious, our muscles at long last relaxed and our lungs gasping to recover. Ecstatic, I took in the view in a sort of haze, feeling the raw power of these mountains with all my being.

From these new, hard-earned heights we rejoiced at leaving the noise, pollution, insanity and sewage smells far, far behind. Every day that we climbed my body adjusted to this new, physical challenge. We rose everyday with the sun, quickly packing away the tent and walking to warm our stiff bodies. The mix of adrenaline and high altitude was intoxicating and we rushed the return, eager to take on the next objective: the famed Annapurna peaks. My knees had halfway recovered from the first trek when we began our second, hungry for more.

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From where I write now, it has been over two months since I was perched, high in the Annapurna mountains. Two months later and for forever, I will remember this trek: the seven days I spent in these awesome, awe-inspiring mountains, scrambling behind Remi and our friend Antonin, another French friend that we had met along the way, bumbling along with a bum knee and (most of the time) a big smile. My knees will remember this trek as well, perhaps with a little bit less fondness. The details will become blurry as time will inevitably leave its watermarks on my memory, but I one moment remains crystalized in perfect clarity in my mind: the culmination of our week long trek, when we crossed the epic pass at an impressive 5400m, 17,710 feet reputed to be the highest in the world. It was our sixth day, everyday we were getting up early, our bodies increasingly achy but our minds clearer. We set out at a reasonable 6am (compared to most of the camp who was out by 4 at the latest), still early enough to avoid heavy winds later in the day. The expedition was on. We headed up, up and away, fields of fresh snow surrounding us, and soaring up into jagged peaks that marked the horizon's limit. The sky was perfectly clear, the sun harshly bright overhead; my legs kept working away, step after step unchanging, but I was suddenly, somehow free. I felt the presence of loved ones, friends and family that had been far away for months and yet in that moment they were all there with me, reveling on the top of the world.