Foolish But Lucky

Posted on: April 23, 2008

Paul Mahler

Much to Athene’s relief and my chagrin, after a hair-raising journey on a narrow track high above the river, the jeep descended and ground to a halt on a dusty flat near the riverbed. It was not going well. We unloaded all our gear and set out for a two-hour hike to our “starting point”.

At least we were on the trail. Athene and I were exhilarated to be back in the Himalaya. We kept to the flat above the river for a couple of hours, then descended and crossed to our supposed starting point. While waiting for the rest of the crew to catch up, an old man walked by and asked where we were going. When I explained our journey to the source of the Seti Khola, he asked why we wanted to go up there. “No one goes there. It snows every day.”, he informed us, a puzzled look creeping onto his weathered face. I smiled and said we realized that, but beyond was a place of glorious beauty. He shook his head uncomprehendingly and walked on.

The valley closed in on us as we journeyed further the next day. We reached the last settlement, stopping to wait out a rain shower by a water-powered grinding mill. The place was exotically lush and picturesque. The rain stopped and a local led us to the river. The trail continued on the other side, but our porters looked at the three saplings lashed together as a bridge and refused to cross. Our local guide was pressed for an alternative and he reluctantly indicated another trail.

We should have twigged right away. The trail started by hauling ourselves up a cliff by the roots of trees sticking out of the face " and kept going up. It was tough going, and in retrospect, quite insane. Eventually the “trail” levelled out, becoming but a sliver of earth carved from the cliff, horribly exposed and hanging over the river far below. By this time we had committed ourselves to the route and it started to rain. Hard. Harder. This sliver of earth was the only place vegetation could catch as it fell from above and when it rained, the leaves became slippery banana peels. The rain brought out the leeches and they flung themselves from above if they couldn’t hop on from below. We were covered in leeches and soaked like drowned rats on a slippery, slim trail with horrible exposure to the river far below. I couldn’t ignore that our situation was becoming ripe for disaster.

I remember being amazed no one spoke up to say they were freaked by our situation. Stupid pride and a stubborn refusal to lead “on my vacation” kept my mouth shut. The metallic taste of fear tingled my tongue and numbed my mind. By that time all of us were concentrating for our lives and it was unspoken that ahead couldn’t be worse than where we were and where we’d come. We were afraid to go back.

The rain came down in torrents, hitting us with physical force. It was like being in a car wash. No shelter, no space to put the packs down and wait it out. Nowhere to go except onwards or over the cliff. It was insanely dangerous and it was about to come to a head.

I heard an enormous crash behind me. Time slowed down. I was already turning my body when, a moment later, far below, a rending impact like metal against rock erupted from the thundering river. I remember spinning around and seeing a clump of bamboo clinging to the cliff, still shaking from something falling through it to the river. Oh god. I saw Nima through the rain, the personification of Munch’s painting, The Scream. Crouched, his hands cupped near his ears, mouth agape in a soundless scream, his pupils were wide as saucers. He looked like he’d seen someone die before his eyes.

“Ke bayo!” (What happened!), I yelled. Nima was speechless with horror and couldn’t answer. We stared at each other through the streaming rain. It didn’t look good. No one would survive the fall, let alone the clutches of an icy Himalayan river crashing through car-sized boulders. While Nima found his voice, I found myself wondering which porter had just died.

“Ke bayo?” I asked again sharply, and Nima came running awkwardly towards me through sheets of rain, waddling like a duck. I wondered why he was running like that and why his hands were cupping his ears. His face was a mask of fear and he almost slipped over the side in his carelessness as he waddled my way. When he reached me, I shook him to his senses and demanded to know what happened. He stuttered out in Nepali that in mid-step, a rock the size of a basketball had whizzed by his face at sonic speed, then ripped through the bamboo before shattering into the river. Nima’s eyes were glazed and he was unresponsive. I shook him again, demanding to know if anyone had fallen over the cliff. When he shook his head negatively, I yelled out “Pahiro! (landslide!)”

An ominous rumble accompanied the chorus of screams linked like a chain as each porter down the trail yelled “Pahiro!” Then rocks, boulders and mud joined the rain falling from the sky.

When the mountain stopped moving, we gathered together in the lee of a large boulder, counting heads, covered in leeches, sodden with rain and shaken by the close call. Everyone accounted for, we slipped and slid, up and over a saddle, then down to a lovely campsite at a bend in the river.

Camp was pitched next to the forest. It stopped raining and everyone gathered around a huge bonfire to dry out, appreciative of the bond formed amongst us that day. I stood for a long while before bed watching giant shadows of us projected on the cliffs above camp, keenly aware we’d been both foolish and lucky.