I breathe in the Nepalese Himalaya, from the earthly to the sublime. In Kathmandu, I snort, trying to rid my nostrils of the olfactory assault on the streets. Rotting garbage, small fires, burning rubber, dogs, sweat, incense, hot, sticky blood that pools in small rivers on this special slaughter day of Dashain. In Thamel, reefer wafts and mixes with saffron and cumin and garam masala and dirty dreadlocks. Asan Tole market cows bump my legs and leave their sweet hay-dung smell, an instant memory of fresh mown fields and summer days.
A stomach-lurching flight later, I inhale the freshest air I’ve ever breathed. The crisp blue air smells of ancient glaciers and fallen snow not yet touched by living feet or polluted clouds. There are hints of fresh earth and grass and water, mountain flowers and rhododendron leaves, and the dusty oxygenated smell that rises off a sidewalk after a long-awaited spring shower.
Eyes shut as I pull the alpine freshness into my lungs, my ears engage. Yak bells jingle and dzo bells jangle, prayer wheels chime and temple horns bleat. Monks chant and nuns murmur, brooms whisk and fires crackle. The Dudh Kosi swishes and tumbles, gathers strength and roars over the river rocks. Hanging bridges creak on their cables, and feet – both human and beast – clump and clop across from bank to bank.
Senses blur further on the trail. I feel the steep climb in my calves; they shriek with tension that is soon relieved by the soft squish of pine needles on loose earth. At higher elevations I curse my ragged breath rasping through my airways; my lungs burn and my throat tightens and my head throbs. And then I am fairly skipping downhill, fresh-headed and light on my feet, bouncing and floating from boulder to boulder, root to root, humming a song, thinking of childhood happiness in the woods.
My eyes focus sharply when I’m not fighting to climb and breathe. A close examination of a tiny red spindly flower growing right out of a rock, an open-mouthed awe at the layering of myriad mountains in the distance – from the tiny to the vast, my vision is rewarded over and over again. We pass through vibrant Sherpa villages whose colors are an illumination of the Buddhist soul. Grounded by black, richened by red, blue, purple and green, heightened and lightened by sunny yellow and crisp white, their houses and temples insist that man lives here in the farthest reaches of the earth.
As the days progress, brown and green trails lead to gray rocks and gravel, barren escarpments and pale lichens. As we climb ever higher, color weakens; the sky fades from cerulean to lightest blue. The tundra changes to a more frozen, snow-covered zone. In the calm and almost featureless landscape at our feet, the peaks grow ever more impressive. They knife toward the sky, their serrated ridges jagged against the heavens. They are massive from this close – huge blocks of granite and limestone hulking into the atmosphere. The thinness of the air clears the mind of all but this sight. There is nothing to smell at this altitude, and any noises seem dampened and muffled inside my headband and hat and fuzzy head. I still feel an exertion, but I am on autopilot now. I plant one foot in front of the other and just see. I watch the narrow path, the boots of the hiker in front of me, the tiny holes made by his poles, the slight kick of wispy dust or dandelion snow. When I can, I raise my gaze to the giants and simultaneously shrink from their stony faces and lean into their mother-earth embraces.
At base camp near the top of the world, we collapse and succumb to a final sensation. Our sherpas pour sweet hot chocolate from steaming thermoses into cups we clasp in clumsy, gloved hands. We fall silent as our salivary glands engage and the rich, sweet aroma fills our noses. The wind swirls, a rock ledge digs into my back, the multi-colored tents at base camp glow in the late afternoon sun. My senses are filled …life is good.