Into the Silence

Commended in the Bradt New Travel Writer of the Year Competition 2022.

I love hiking! But I’m not a hiker. I’m more of a stroller, a moper. a dawdler…. 

At least that’s the way I felt as I trudged up the lower slopes of Annapurna in central Nepal. I’d only set off a few hours previously with Sal, a very fit Australian woman I’d met at the trekking permit office in Kathmandu a week before. I had always preferred trekking solo but I thought that in the harsh climes and high altitudes of the Himalayas, I might be wiser to walk with a companion by my side.

While Sal was planning the route, buying provisions and kitting herself out appropriately, I hung around Thamel’s hippy pie shops, chillin out and getting stoned. I did manage to ramble through the bazaar and bought myself a multi-coloured wool jacket and a pair of glittery mittens. Both items were rather snug, but they were too groovy to pass up.

When we hit the slopes Sal left me for dust around the first bend. She would stop occasionally to let me catch up, a look of disgust tinged with pity on her healthy, rose-tinged countenance, but as I got within shouting distance she’d yell, “get a move on mate,” then abruptly do an about face and continue her effortless ascent of the steeply winding track. 

When Sal did allow me to catch up she’d talk at me:

“Are you drinking enough water?”

“Are you sure you put iodine in it?”

“How did you ever manage to hike the Inca trail on your own?”

“Did you spot the Satyr Tragopan scavenging beneath the Banyan Tree?”

I often stared at her uncomprehendingly, trying desperately to catch my breath. Or I’d stare off at the snow-covered mountains in the distance with a far-away, wistful look in my eyes.

Not that Sal wasn’t a good person. She carried more than her share of the chocolate (and she’d bought kilos). She provided plasters for my rapidly forming blisters. (I’d already eschewed my rented hiking boots for my trusty Converse All Stars). She’d even carved me a walking stick because I had complained that I kept sliding backwards on the loosely packed soil.

By the end of the first day my legs were jelly, my shoulders were rubbed raw and my sense of humour had turned sour. While Sal got out her Primus stove and cooked us up a pot of dehydrated slop I stretched out on my sleeping bag and stared up, shivering and awe-struck, into a sky so full of stars that there was little space left for space! After supper Sal got out her ordnance survey map and pointed out the highlights of the 10,000 foot ascent that lay ahead. What had I gotten myself into?

As the days progressed our walking speeds varied even more. Sal had acclimatised and was bounding with ever increasing strides while I often trudged one step forward and slid two steps back. Barefoot Sherpas pranced by carrying 50 kilo loads on their burly shoulders. I ‘kindly’ offered them chocolate and clothing to lighten the load of my modest-sized backpack. 

At times I felt bereft. But more often, I realised, despite my pain, that I was unlikely to ever walk the Annapurna circuit again, and that it was my duty to slow down, soak up the mountain air, meander down the tempting side valleys and stop in the village tea shops for leisurely bowls of spicy dahl-baht.

By the fifth morning Sal declared she needed to be back in Pokhara in a week; I still needed time to move at my own more leisurely pace. And so we parted.  I gave Sal all the remaining chocolate. She gave me half the contents of her first-aid kit. She kept her maps. I took the hash. She told me to look after myself with a worried look on her face. I promised I would━━. 

And suddenly I was free. 

I took the first sidepath I came upon and deviated off the main trail in search of Shangri-La. Then it began to snow. At first, it was a light dusting that made the now treeless landscape starkly beautiful. As I climbed higher the snow began to fall more heavily. I eventually clambered up to a sheltered ridge and hunkered down for the night. The snow fell thick and fast. The wind howled. I was scared shitless.

But come morning, the storm had passed and the wind had died. I popped my head out of my tiny tent. A landscape of virgin snow stretched toward infinity. The Annapurna peaks shimmered in the distance like enormous jewels in the cloudless sky.

I carefully stepped out of my tent. The silence was absolute. I had to be the luckiest man alive!