My trek through Nepal was one of repeated moments that hang viscerally in my memory, and there were probably several that could have made this list, so although this is the second I’m mentioning, in a way I’m showing terrible restraint.
Five days on from the photograph taken of Macchapuchare at Dawn, we found oursleves in the Annapurna Sanctuary, at the Annapurna Base Camp, sitting at 4,300m beneath the yawning face of Annapurna I. As places go, the Sanctuary is up there as in the top two or three most spectacular pieces of scenery I’ve visited anywhere. Ringed by peaks six, seven and eight thousand metres in altitude, it is staggering in scale, in drama and in wild, unrelenting beauty.
Atop a cliff carved by the glacier at its feet sits a shrine (actually a chorten). It has been erected a short walk behind and above the base camp proper, on an outcrop of rock overlooking the glacier, Annapurnas I and South, Tent Peak, Macchapuchare, and a host of other peaks less well known but every bit as dramatic.
The shrine honours mountaineers who have fallen on Annapurna I. Some names are engraved on brass plaques on the side of the shrine. Others have their names on rocks placed at its base. Among the more prominent is that of Anatoli Boukreev, controversial hero of the 1996 Mt. Everest disaster, whose actions both saved lives and, argued by Jon Krakauer in his outstanding tale of that tragedy “Into Thin Air” (one of the best mountaineering books ever written in my opinion), placed them at peril.
As one who loves the mountains (though I would never refer to myself as a mountaineer) I found the shrine deeply moving. A more beautiful setting for a memorial could not be imagined.
Sitting there, the quiet was overwhelming. I was alone. I hung my feet over the edge of the cliff. The sun was warm but the November air was bitterly cold. A wind gusted up the valley, and the streaming prayer-flags snapped and rustled. The belief in the flags is that as the wind moves through them, the words written in prayer on the material are carried to heaven. The tips of Annapurna I and some of its companions are so high that they protrude into the jetstream, and to accompany the fine streams of ice-crystals I could see blowing from their summits, I could hear the deep roar of the high-altitude winds like the rumble of a jet’s engines. Beneath the warming gaze of the sun, ice melted and crumbled, and rocks frozen into the jagged surface of the glacier beneath me were released, where they tumbled with sharp clacks that echoed to where I sat. Far in the distance, hidden somewhere on Annapurna’s vast flanks, a giant avalanche released, an unmistakable noise that sounds like a distant train and shakes the air.
It was a magnificent moment, a place that blended the sheer natural beauty of one of the world’s most spectacular landscapes, with the pathos and energy of human endeavour and its cost. It was at once sensual and spiritual, and in some way, greatly hallowed. Places like this I feel I can reach out and touch God with my soul. I don’t cry easily, but sitting for a few minutes in that place, I found tears stinging my eyes.
A quote from the late Boukreev is inscribed on the base of the shrine, and the words ring true for me and, I’m sure, many others who enjoy the mountains. I still find them moving:
“Mountains are not Stadiums where I satisfy my ambition to achieve, they are the cathedrals where I practice my religion… I go to them as humans go to worship. From their lofty summits I view my past, dream of the future and, with an unusual acuity, am allowed to experience the present moment… my vision cleared, my strength renewed. In the mountains I celebrate creation. On each journey I am reborn.”