Remembering Nepal: On Fear

PHOTO: On the Way to Yak Kharka

It’s terribly sad to read about the death of a number of guides and trekkers in the Annapurna region of Nepal. For those who have missed some of the coverage (see here and here), a sudden blizzard during the region’s busiest travel season blanketed the region’s highest, non-technical trails—Thorong La on the main route and Tilicho Lake, a popular, yet difficult, side trek to the south usually undertaken before crossing Thorong La. A survivor in one New York Times video describes embarking through the snow as the blizzard abated with the feeling that this moment was it, she was going to die.

The survivor’s tangible fear and thanksgiving reminded me of the feelings I had in April 2013 when trekking with my friend Rich near Tilicho Lake during a similar but far less unruly storm. Even if warned about the dangers of trekking in Nepal, these sorts of experiences are not what one expects when passing young and old alike along these popular trails. I can only compare that kind of fear and the suppression of it to stories of soldiers who prepare for battle by accepting that they are already dead. Or the Hagakure:

“Meditation on inevitable death should be performed daily. Every day, when one’s body and mind are at peace, one should meditate upon being ripped apart by arrows, rifles, spears, and swords, being carried away by surging waves, being thrown into the midst of a great fire, being struck by lightning, being shaken to death by a great earthquake, falling from thousand-foot cliffs, dying of disease or committing seppuku at the death of one’s master. And every day, without fail, one should consider himself as dead.

There is a saying of the elders’ that goes, “Step from under the eaves and you’re a dead man. Leave the gate and the enemy is waiting.” This is not a matter of being careful. It is to consider oneself as dead beforehand.”

Rich published a harrowing and amazing account of the storm that stranded us above 13,000 feet with more than a foot of snow and a trail wiped away—a trail already stupidly difficult in good conditions with a 1.5 mile landslide area. (A video of this trail on YouTube without snow is a good shorthand for the experience.) There’s no reason for me to rehash the whole story. However, one part of the tale that stays with me far more than each narrow step in the snow was the debate and decision to leave the teahouse where we were staying—especially when I hear the story of this survivor for whom sheltering in place meant life and moving forward would have likely meant death.

You might think in extreme situations that decisions will always be made quickly, with no time to spare and no time for regret. I think of film with its compressed view of time. Indiana Jones realizes a penitent man kneels before God moments before a blade would strike his head. Fiction doesn’t prepare you for the extreme situations that play out over a far longer “present.” The hours that morning before we left the teahouse were spent debating what I call the most vital of questions, “should we stay or should we go?”

In a state of insomnia caused by altitude and cold, I held the need to pee for as long as I possibly could. I wondered if the smell on my blankets wasn’t yak urine after all, as I steeled myself to go to the outhouse. It was probably before 5, and I stepped my flip flop into a foot of snow, still falling around me. Without glasses on or contacts in, the snow blurred more than ever, giant flakes glancing through the light of the headlamp. No one else was awake, and I wasn’t sure what to do. Again, trained by temporal emergencies in both real life and fiction, my first thought was, “Shit. We are going to be snowed in. Do I wake everyone else in the lodge up?” Otherwise known practically as “When in danger / When in doubt / Run in circles / Scream and shout!” At the very least I could wake up Rich to whom I remember saying upon my return, “Hey Rich, I think we kind of have a problem. Look outside.” He had been holding it as well.

We dressed and packed to prepare for the eventuality of leaving—again more slowly than you would think, deliberately, and with hope that others would begin to stir. Because your mind races in two different directions and constructs narratives: First, the story of how the group stayed together and survived, or second, the story of how you beat the odds by taking the landslide path less traveled. You assess whether the situation is getting more or less difficult to delay that decision… snow covers the path already, the snow collects more slowly, the lodge owners will have experience with this sort of thing, etc., all the while reflecting whether delay is its own type of wrong decision.

As others woke up, this internal debate became external. The young man with the most trekking and climbing experience gave voice to our inner debate. Right now you are safe. You are inside. You are, well, kind of warm. As soon as you move, you open yourself up to… death, injury, suffering. Like all of us inside, he wasn’t arguing for staying, but he would at least play devil’s advocate. A more urgent voice came from the one Nepali guide among us, an easterner far from the trails that Sherpas usually guide; he said only “Get down now,” as he ate breakfast with his two woman clients and prepared for the trek down. “Now” apparently still meant deliberate preparation: breakfast, packing, and time for regret. Often my regular day job had a greater sense of urgency.

Upon pulling a few more words out of the Sherpa, we learned that the danger now was getting down in any reasonable period—days, weeks. More snow meant more chance of avalanche along the landslide area. A cessation of the storm at this time of year meant quick melting, again causing avalanches. And once melted, the dangerous landslide area would be that much more unwieldy. We had a window of time—small in the big scheme of things, infinite at this moment eating a fried egg.

Once on the trail, we would learn how right he was—how the snow congealed the pebbles into a walkable mass, how the snow gave some confidence in one’s ability to arrest if falling in a way the sheer rock face never did, how we might only break bones if the worst came to pass.

Once on the trail, staggering along the landslide area five or ten minutes behind the Sherpa, we only had to step into the footprints in front of us, slowly, deliberately, and constantly. To quote another movie, “Movement is life.”

Once on the trail, we said little except to organize ourselves, and I thought of nothing but the present. The internal and external debate was over, and any fear turned into action, like alchemy. You know what to do, to borrow the excellent advice of Rich: Just don’t die.

Sadly, what was the right decision for us then may not have been the right decision for the guides and trekkers crossing Thorong La last week. I pray for them and the Nepalis for whom we are guests and who take their duty as hosts, the virtue of Xenia, seriously. But when I think of fear, I still won’t think of making that hike down. I will think of that time of debate and deliberation before moving forward, and then, to the Hagakure again:

When one has made a decision to kill a person, even if it will be very difficult to succeed by advancing straight ahead, it will not do to think about doing it in a long, roundabout way. One’s heart may slacken, he may miss his chance, and by and large there will be no success. The Way of the Samurai is one of immediacy, and it is best to dash in headlong.