When I get together with my old trekking friends the stories (and wine) flow and we are easily transported back to those heady days of mountains, remote trails and extraordinary people. The doors to old recollections open wide and we all remember things we thought we had forgotten.
Since my trekking days I have also done much by way of reading, lecturing and leading historical tours to the Himalaya and the great sub-continent. Enmeshed in all this are wonderful characters, exceptional events and periods in history and endless tales of magic and mystery.
Rather than storing all of this in my head, letting it loose only when people or events call for it I decided to write this blog, so that I can share some of it with like-minded souls who might appreciate a random tale or two from this extraordinary part of the world.
I hope you enjoy the occasional read. I will certainly enjoy the telling.
Take one pale-skinned, bookish girl from the western suburbs of Sydney and send her to work as a mountain guide in Nepal. And what happens ?
I don't remember walking anywhere as a child, unless it was to get to the train station, the shops or to school. My parents did not drive nor ever own a car, so we walked everywhere we needed to go. However, to walk for fun or exercise or relaxation ? Never. So, when I came home from town one day in my 20s , having just returned from a trip to India which I had organised with Australian Himalayan Expeditions (now World Expeditions) and informed my family that I had been offered a job as a Himalayan trekking guide in Nepal, they simply stood stock still – in silence. I might as well have been speaking some remote dialect of Swahili. Dad just wandered off into the garden – it was all too much for him. He had never been out of New South Wales and this was beyond alien to him. He told me once that he thought they'd gotten the tags mixed up at the hospital where I was born and they'd brought home the wrong baby! Mum, on the other hand, was surprised then curious, then interested – but it took some time. She had travelled abroad only once but her horizons, at least in her head, were vastly broader than Dad's. My older brothers were simply bemused.
So, a few months later, I was off to Kathmandu. I thought I had best kit myself out for this walking gig but as I had never even bushwalked (hiked, tramped) I really had no idea what to buy. I thought boots or walking shoes might be a good start. So off I went to a gear shop. I tried to appear as if I knew what I was doing but when my eye was drawn to a beautiful emerald green pair of shoes, I caved in. They had hard plastic-lugged soles – I think they may have been some kind of sporting shoe. But oh, the colour! Now, a day pack. Having overspent on the green shoes I could only manage a small, nasty pack with no waist strap or padding on the shoulder straps. I was to learn my lessons the hard, and very painful, way.
My first trek was to Machapuchare Base Camp, the "Fish Tail" mountain just east of the main Annapurna range. Never heard of it but how hard could it be? A house-mate in Kathmandu, Himalayan climbing legend Lincoln Hall, told me it was a piece of cake. Mind you, this was the man who later told me a 28-day Annapurna Circuit trek which crossed the 5416m Thorong La pass, was just "up one valley, over a bit of a pass and down another valley". I had much to learn and it would not be from Lincoln! My trek went from Pokhara at 1400m to Machapuchare Base Camp at 4040m – all numbers on a page to one whose only experience of walking uphill had been the railway steps at Rockdale station. But, as they say, ignorance is bliss. I was told I must go out to our store-shed in Kathmandu and meet the Sherpas who would "help" me run this trek. I should check all the gear and ensure all was in order. Well, that must have been entertaining for them as clearly I had no idea what was meant to be there. Tents ? Check. Sleeping bags ? Check. Cutlery ? I have no idea what possessed me but I felt I should count the cutlery. To the utter bemusement of Ang Phuri, my Sherpa Sirdar (Head Sherpa) I sat and counted all the knives, forks and spoons – then the kitchen utensils. I vaguely remember being told that they were what was most easily lost and would have to be paid for by the staff if that happened. I suppose I thought I was looking out for them. In later years Ang Phuri and I had a good laugh about that day (well, perhaps he was laughing more than I !)
The group arrived, the day came, we boarded the old Tata bus which was loaded to the brim with kit bags, food, tents, food etc and headed off to Pokhara – a 9-hours drive away. Thank the gods that the Sherpas were a well-oiled machine and everything just "happened" like clockwork. A night's camp at the roadhead in Pokhara then we were off into the remote hills of the Annapurnas, towards Machapuchare.
The next few days nearly killed me. Many times I prayed for a single avalanche to take me out with some kind of honour. On the second day I slipped between two boulders and broke a toe. No hospitals or doctors – just the standard medical kit and my rather short First Aid training. I basically strapped that toe to the next one and carried on. I realised I actually had quite a high threshold for pain. I needed it ! The Sherpas were simply marvellous. One of them, young Nima, took it upon himself to sort me out. "Your walking not good Didi", he said, using the endearing "didi" or "older sister". And as for my green shoes – he just inspected the sole and shook his head. In the next tiny hamlet we managed to buy a pair of khaki Chinese army-issue sandshoes – like the old Dunlop Volleys. Soft-soled, flexible and light – if rather slippery on ice, but there again I was taught to take my shoes off and walk on sheet ice in socks ! I'd never had to face that in Sydney ! And he taught me how to walk downhill – zig-zag and use small, light steps – never plod. I have never forgotten and my knees remain forever grateful for that lesson. For a non-walker, I quickly came to really enjoy it. Deep, Tolkien-esque forests, high windy ridges and oh those mountains. I grew fitter by the minute – and happier by the day. The awkward, underconfident child who had rarely stepped off a concrete path found a new "self" – one that was physically strong, mentally even stronger and open to this vast and wonderful new world. Some hand of fate had pushed me to this place and I was and am eternally grateful.
Of course, what my fellow trekkers made of my efforts on that first trek I had no idea. I think I successfully camouflaged my inexperience with my academic knowledge of Nepal and, especially, of Himalayan mountaineering – specifically Everest. I had read much on the region and they lapped up whatever I could tell them. Many nights were spent around campfires (we had them in those early days though later the company wisely changed its policy as we all became more aware of deforestation) as I regaled them with tales of Everest, Tenzing and Hillary, Shipton and Tilman, Herzog, Messner and more. My sins of physical inadequacy during the day were forgiven by my anecdotal evening ramblings. And the wonderful company of our Sherpas and local folk simply bewitched us all. It was a happy time and it was where I knew I wanted to be – perhaps for the first time in my life.
The trek was a great success. We had all made it to Base Camp, which in those days was ultimately a bush-bash through magnificent rhododendron forests and up steep, high ridges. That mountain is still very special to me – because of its unparalleled beauty and stunning location, standing alone high above the great Phewa Lake of Pokhara, and also because it is one of few mountains where foreign climbers (in this case British) stopped short of stepping atop the summit out of respect for the sanctity of the peak. But more because it was where I learned that I had a whole person inside me who I'd never known, who had strengths beyond what she had ever imagined and because it forged a bond between me and the great Himalaya which is now as deep and passionate today as it was back then on that first of so many big walks in my decade in those magnificent mountains.