When we arrive in Manali in the Indian Himalayas, it’s a lovely day, cool with sunshine – a relief after the humidity of Delhi where we landed at midnight five days ago. Even at that time Delhi was 37degrees centigrade and teeming with people.
India is exhilarating; sensual delights and surprises at every turn. Delhi was noisy, full of people and utterly fascinating. And surprisingly familiar. Maybe from novels and films. A bit overwhelming as well, I’m glad to be heading to the hills.
Tomorrow we climb a small peak, well small in terms of the surrounding mountains that stretch high into clouds. I’ve been in the Alps but the size and number here take a while for my eyes to see, to take in. I’m apprehensive as we’ll camp in the foothills and climb up to 4,000 metres (13,400ft).
When we walk out to dinner at eight o clock, we see stars like sequins on a one of Liberace’s jackets, more than I’ve ever seen before.
Our guide, Askok, meets us later and says we must get up very early as snow is expected tomorrow at 12.45. He is so precise and I smile as I think of our weather predictions of changeable with a chance of snow! I tell him I have asthma, well controlled but uphill is hard.
No problem he says, cardamom tea!
Next morning, we set off, head to the foothills, a straightforward walk he says but I already feel my chest tight and my body heavy. I take short steps, right then left, head down. After two hours we take a break and I see the expanse of mountains. Like the Manhattan skyline but with mountains of varying shape and huge peaks that jut up past my eye line.
The air is lighter and while it’s clean and fresh, I feel dizzy. My body’s caving in. I remind myself to take tiny steps on the steep track. My head’s fuzzy, chest is gasping and my face’s burning pink like a new-born. We reach our camp at five o’clock. It’s beautiful, beside a wide river that races down the valley. I’ve a fitful night, the proximity to water makes me want to pee more. Will the morning ever come!
Breakfast is at 7 and we leave at eight. We need to be on the top by midday because of the weather. I set off fresh despite the night but remember to keep a steady pace. My partner has gone ahead with the other guide and a fit looking German couple.
Ashok is kind, ‘don’t worry lady, I’ll get you up.’ I love the mountains, the physical effort, the beauty, stillness and even the scale. But I am not hell bent on the top; the wonder of where we are is enough for me and I don’t want to die just yet. I smile and say let’s see.
I would love to catch a glimpse of the even bigger peaks behind our mountain, to see the Annapurna range. On we go step by step, head down only looking up when I pause for breath. Magnificent. At 3,600 metres, I can see much higher peaks – mountains as far as the eye can see. No townlands, roads, settlements, like the Arctic vastness I have seen on documentaries.
The last 200 metres is rock with a dusting of snow. Big boulders trip my weary legs – lift high Ashok says don’t go in between. I pause for water, look around and the height scares me. I start to cry, blow my nose to cover the tears and sit on the edge of a rough boulder. It’s fierce cold. My shoulders are above my ears, I can hardly speak, I just want to go down.
I’m hungry as well but we can’t stop to eat until later. I wonder is this what death will be like, so tired that I can hardly breathe and feeling as if I’m a sumo wrestler despite my trim frame. I waddle side to side, lift up my foot, decide not to look and I keep going. I feel I’m on a ledge or a precipice although the way up is broad and well protected by the rocks.
At the top I can hardly move. There’s no elation yet. My head aches, it feels as if a herd of buffaloes are picky-backing on my chest. I take a careful look, almost overwhelmed by the height and number of the mountains.
They are beautiful – majestic, moving and absolutely terrifying.
We make our way down to our camp, weary and spent. Only when the chef brings a plate of fresh pakoras and fried potatoes do I begin to thaw. First course he says and hot tea. I lie down to rest, wake hours later. My chest has eased and my head is clear.
Next, the walk down the valley tomorrow.