It’s early April, the dusted desert sands of Rajasthan in March have long since been washed from our hair, and after a few more long train rides, a quick stop to visit the famed Taj Mahal, and another long bus ride from Delhi into the windy foothills of Himachal Pradesh to the small mountain settlement of Dharamkot, I am wiping the sweat from my forehead and breathing heavily as we are once again climbing up, this time along with three of our friends, Eric, Venus, and Nicola, to a pristine location high above the densely populated India below. It’s Sunday, and fortunate for us, because as we climb we pass the thousand plus domestic tourists descending the mountain after their weekend getaway, but with that many people coming down from up there, I can’t help but wonder how they were actually getting away from anything at all. The five of us each carry our backpacks, stuffed to the brim with warm clothes and various picnic items ranging from crispy crackers, crunchy cookies, mouth-savoring cheeses, fresh sourdough breads, pickled olives, hard-boiled eggs, juicy tomatoes, herby pesto, and thirst-quenching wines. About halfway up, through forests of rhododendron and set on a ledge overlooking the surrounding green Himalayan lowlands, we lay out our spread of food for our first picnic of the day. As we feast, we watch the hoards of weekend tourists making their descent on the trail nearby, and almost every person that passes is blaring rackety music from their portable speakers. “Turn it off and listen to the birds, the symphony of nature” we want to say to each of them, but alas we don’t, because we know this is a lesson that we can only hope these newbie nature tourists learn on their own someday. We turn our attention back to our appetites, and then clink our cups together, full of red wine, as we toast to our Italian friend Nicola, because today is his birthday!
With our bellies momentarily full, we continue our ascent, eventually coming to the saddle point (and popular stopping point for most weary travelers), known as Triund. By this time, the sky is full of clouds, and looking out to what should otherwise be a stunning landscape above surrounded by snow-capped mountains, we see nothing other than a thick gray mist.
As we peer around Triund, we note at least a half a dozen tea stalls (shacks with tarp roofs and walls that provide tea and basic food items), and the green grass under our feet is almost entirely covered in litter, left behind from all those tourists we passed on the way up. What had begun as an intended break from the crowded India below, only to find ourselves after three hours of climbing surrounded by trash, and possible inclement weather to boot, momentarily leaves us in disheveled states of mind. Even the birthday boy looks grim. Thankfully, we still have the momentum of Nicola’s birthday extravaganza, and after a few minutes we pick up our packs and continue our ascent, past the litter ridden Triund.
Within ten minutes, the litter has now cleared, and there is practically no one on the trail except for us. In our final hour of climbing, we reach our destination, known as Snowline, appropriately named for the elevation where dry ground ends and snow begins, at about 3300 meters (10,826 feet). In perfect timing, the clouds suddenly part like a curtain during the opening of a great play, and then swiftly recede into the valleys far below, while sharp alpine peaks glazed in snow and ice appear before our eyes, only a few hundred meters away, under a clear blue sky and late afternoon sun. We make snowballs from the melting snow mounds in the open field, throwing them and laughing at each other like we are schoolchildren again. In our giddiness and renewed hunger, we remove the remaining crispy crackers, crunchy cookies, mouth-savoring cheeses, fresh sourdough breads, pickled olives, hard-boiled eggs, juicy tomatoes, and herby pesto from our backpacks, and once again raise our wine-filled cups to toast to Nicola’s birthday, as we feast on our picnic items for the second time on this gloriously epic day with amazing friends. With smiles on our food-stuffed faces, we are filled with excitement and triumph: our hard day’s climb turns out to be worth much more than the weight than was on our backs on the way up!
We are soon joined by another four friends who started climbing later than us, and after a spectacular alpine sunset, day slowly turns to night. With a fire now lit and warm food being served to us from the only tea stall at Snowline, we continue this epic celebration for our friend Nicola under a now starry-filled sky. We gaze upwards to the streak of the Milky Way, awestruck by constellations such as Orion, Taurus, and the Big and Little Dippers. As we are thinking to ourselves “Can this day get any better?”, a full moon rises beyond the massive mountains behind us, (yes, this was an actual picture taken by our point and shoot camera) and it’s moonbeams reflect off the snow-capped peaks, illuminating the entire landscape! The crackling fire adds an orange glow to the setting, and as we huddle in closer to its warmth, the riddles start to fly like the fire’s sparks. As we go around the circle, we wonder why jeeps and buggies can go through the Green Glass Doors but cars and trucks cannot. In a different riddle, we scratch our heads as to why I can kill my dragon with a dagger, rat poison, an axe, a gigantic gong, an octopus, or even a nerf ball, but certainly never with knives or bombs. The laughter and banter are amplified for the few of us who eventually figure out these seemingly simple riddles, while those who remain stumped on the solutions cannot hide their frustrations, and we laugh even harder with them. Eventually the night becomes late as the fire dwindles to coals, and our yawns signal the end to a perfect day.
My father always said that the only real treasures we have in this world are the experiences we accumulate. As I lie in the tent, my eyes heavy just before sleep, I review the events of the day in my head, and am so grateful that we get to enjoy life’s rich tapestry of simplicities. Not only are we fortunate to be blessed with the opportunities to adventure to beautiful places and feast with special friends, but these are the experiences that we sacredly value and passionately seek. The wonderful joy of friendship, the multitude of tastes from that magnificent spread of foods, the thrill of that unknown journey with the sun at your back and the wind in your hair…these things add the depth, character, color, and spirit to life. Most importantly, they inspire us to continue to transform, evolve, and create change for ourselves and for our communities.