When I decided to go to India this summer, my parents, naturally, were worried. I originally attempted to assuage their fears by telling them a small white lie: India is not dangerous, only the Kashmir region is. I didn’t realize at the time that I was only making things harder for myself when I called, three weeks into my three-month-long trip, to tell my parents that I was going trekking in Kashmir for a week. And though I said Kashmir was “dangerous” because of the frequent incursions and insurgencies in the area, it was not, ironically, a band of Kashmiri freedom fighters that threatened me … it was Kashmir itself that almost took my life.
I flew with three fellow students to the city of Leh during a five-day break from our language program, intending to escape the busy day-to-day of Jaipur. And that we did. We arranged to take a five-day trek from Lamayuru to Chilling, two small villages in the Ladakh region of Kashmir. The trek came complete with a guide, a cook and a “donkey boy,” who, in turn, came complete with a fleet of five miniature donkeys.
It started off with more clean air and scenery than I could have imagined. The first day we crossed a peak at about 16,400 feet and learned a valuable lesson: There is a reason people don’t live there. It’s high … really high. Like, stand up, get dizzy and sit down kind of high. And, it turns out, that was the easy part.
We all thought we were really stretching ourselves, hiking six to seven hours a day over the Himalayas. Then, on our next-to-last day, one of the girls in our crew woke up with a horrible headache. It had finally caught up with us: altitude sickness. After crossing (another fucking) mountain and finally reaching our mountainside camp after six hours of trekking, her headache started to worsen. According to another trekking guide also perching for the night in this precarious campground, she needed to be moved immediately to a lower altitude. Not an easy task.
We aren’t talking about the hills of Vermont here. This is not an area where we can just hitch a ride back to civilization. Or get a cell phone signal. Or call Medivac. But not to worry, according to our new friend, there was an easy, two-hour walk down an easy path to a “village” that was at a much lower altitude. So, thinking we were really sticking it to the Himalayas, we left our camp at 5 p.m. to strike out for salvation.
Wrong. We didn’t stick it to the Himalayas … no one does. They are Big Ass Mountains (with a capital M) and they kick peoples’ asses all the time. That’s just what they do, and we were stupid to think otherwise. Turns out that while our guide had been to this “village” before, he hadn’t come from the direction we were. So a “two-hour easy walk” quickly became a very different animal. Leaving a relatively safe camp at 5 p.m. was not the smartest idea, granted, but we figured that we should arrive by 7 p.m., just as the sun was going down.
Again, wrong. Darkness fell hastily upon us, and we soon found ourselves skirting along 8-inch-wide, cliff-side trails with nothing to separate us from a 500-foot drop into a rushing river. Oh, and it was dark. Black. And we had three flashlights for seven people. That’s a problem. Because it was DARK in the HIMALAYAS. It finally hit me, when we asked our guide for the umpteenth time how much longer we had to go and he gave up the illusion and just shrugged, that I had no right to be there. The word “inhospitable” took on a whole new meaning. Webster defines it as “unfavorable to life or growth.” I disagree. My definition: “These mountains don’t like you and want you to die here.”
In the end, we made it. To the “village.” Which, apparently, in Ladakhi, means “a house with a tent outside, no car, one girl in extreme altitude shock, one severely sprained and torn knee, and four crushed spirits.” It seems like a dream now, but ever since, things look a little different. I always read “life-changing” stories with a skeptical eye, but when it happens to you … it’s real. And those mountains are really big.