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Authors: Robert Macfarlane

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Jon’s plan for our expedition was simple but fallible. We would travel light, and count on good weather. ‘Sometimes, weather windows open up in the depths of the Himalayan winter,’ he said. ‘If we’re lucky, it’ll be dry and bright and fearsomely cold. If we’re unlucky, it’ll be blizzarding and overcast and fearsomely cold.’

We’d take the paths as we found them, but always with the aim of curling up and round to the western face of Minya Konka and the monastery that watches it. Climbing the mountain was out of the question, but I began to wonder if this might become a reconnaissance trip for a later summit expedition. Jon quickly scotched such thoughts. ‘You’ll never get up Minya Konka, and you wouldn’t want to try. When we’ve set eyes on the mountain, I’ll tell you a story that will absolutely convince you of this.’

There would be two tents, two ponies and four people. Jon, me, a Tibetan horseman, plus a young Canadian climber, Erik. Erik was rigging-thin and taller even than Jon. At just under 6' 2", I was the shortest member of our trio. I felt like a Scots pine who had entered a grove of redwoods. Erik’s obvious potential for physical action contrasted appealingly with his air of languor and sweet temper. He was only twenty-four years old but already a well-known climber on rock and ice. He had grown up on the Canadian plains, and had cut his teeth putting new routes up frozen waterfalls near Lake Ontario. Some of his friends were into climbing the sides of icebergs floating in Baffin Bay. His dream was to summit an ultra-hard mountain such as Minya Konka.

Jon had been a tough climber in his day, leading multi-pitch big-wall routes in Yosemite and pioneering climbs of Himalayan peaks. He had also lost several friends to the mountains. ‘One of them,’ he told me as he stuffed gear into rubberized bags in a corner of the apartment, ‘disappeared only a few months ago, killed by an avalanche not far from where we’re going. I heard the news, and after the initial shock and sadness, I understood that it was exactly how Charlie would have wanted to die. He couldn’t ever have been happy growing old, I don’t think.’

So many mountaineers and explorers have Peter Pan fixations, a desire never to age, and a dark fulfilment of those desires can come when death occurs in high altitudes or high latitudes. Extreme cold slows the process of decay and confers a cryogenic immortality on the body – George Mallory’s corpse found seventy-five years after his death on the upper terraces of Everest, the skin and muscles of his back still standing strong as those of a marble sculpture; Captain Scott, scribbling one of his last letters to J. M. Barrie as he froze in his little tent on the Antarctic plateau, a few miles short of food, safety and warmth; and the bodies of the Franklin crew at Beechey Island, exhumed from the ice 138 years after their deaths, their glassy eyeballs and grinning, startled faces looking as if they had just been roused from a deep sleep. Barrie himself, lecturing on the theme of ‘Courage’ in 1922, explicitly connected Peter Pan, Scott and the eerily preservative powers of ice. ‘
When I think of Scott
,’ he told his audience, ‘I remember the strange Alpine story of the youth who fell down a glacier and was lost, and of how a scientific companion computed how the body would again appear … many years afterwards. Some of the survivors returned to the glacier to see if the prediction would be fulfilled; all old men now; and the body reappeared as young as on the day he left them. So Scott and his companions emerge out of the white immensities, always young.’

We drove west from Chengdu under a dishwater sky of low cloud, out along the flatlands of the Sichuan Basin.

‘The sun almost never shines on the Sichuan plain,’ said Jon. Erik, who had lived on the Sichuan plain for the past year, nodded feelingly.

‘There’s a missionary-explorer’s account from the 1870s,’ Jon continued, ‘in which he describes how, when the sun did come out around here, the dogs all barked at it because they didn’t know what the hell it was.’

Karim, our driver, wore a black leather jacket with an Eagles escutcheon embroidered onto its breast, and sang Tibeto-pop in a heliated voice. The landscape streamed past us. Terraced rice fields with intricate irrigation channels. Bamboo groves with individual stems spindling up like antennae. Tea bushes in rows as neatly managed as the box-hedging in a Renaissance garden. Karim drove exceptionally dangerously, playing chicken with oncoming lorries and passing slower vehicles on the inside, bouncing along the rough verges of the road. His game-theory logic of driving, when questioned on the matter by Jon, was that he hadn’t yet died and this fact was proof of his ability behind the wheel. He explained this to us at some length while glancing back over his shoulder, and gesturing with both hands to underline his subtler points. Eventually, my heart thrumming as yet another lorry dopplered past, its horn blaring, I took to looking backwards, out over the hump of the spare wheel. There was never any trouble to be seen out of the rear window.

So we peeled off the miles towards the mountains. Fat flies smacked like spit on the windscreen. The roadside poplars
sha-sha-shaed
through the open window. Grey road, grey sky. The ground rose and the road fell into line with the Dadu river, a tributary of the Yangtze. Its silty waters had carved a gorge into the sandstone. The gorge sides blocked out the sun and we drove in damp shadow, looking up to the hammer beams of sunlight that roofed it.

‘When the first American expedition came in to try and climb Minya Konka in 1932, they rafted
up
the Dadu,’ said Jon. ‘They were shot at from the banks. Warlordism was rife here. There were no casualties. But to come under fire before they’d even reached the mountain …’ He gazed out of the window and blinked happily, imagining a time when such adventure was still possible.

Images flashed past us. A pig hung by its ankles from a tree branch while a man drew a knife down its belly and yards of blue intestines slithered over his arm. A woman moved through a rare shaft of sunlight, a baby slung on her front. After five hours’ driving we entered a tunnel from which we emerged, several miles later, into flaring sunshine and ringing skies, and there was Minya Konka, roaring white on the horizon, far higher than I had imagined. Karim pulled to a halt on the verge, and we got out. A plume of ice crystals and cloud unfurled from the summit like a silk blessing-scarf.

The tunnel had taken us through the weathershed into a new world. It was as if we had stepped into Kodachrome from sepia. I thought of what E. M. Forster had said about railway termini: they are ‘
our gates to the glorious
and the unknown. Through them we pass out into adventure and sunshine.’ The tunnel felt like that: a gateway into a brilliant realm, entirely unimaginable from the other side. The light that fell here was hard and silvery – what Matthiessen called the ‘
sword-light of the Himalayas
’.

‘There’s a Sanskrit word,
darshan
,’ Jon said as we gazed up at Konka. ‘It suggests a face-to-face encounter with the sacred on earth; with a physical manifestation of the holy.’ I hadn’t known the word, but I was glad to have learnt it.
Darshan
seemed a good alternative to the
wow!
that I usually emitted on seeing a striking mountain.

We drove on and up along switchback roads, through valleys whose steep slopes were forested with pines. The sun burning through the frozen air; a bright halo of ice crystals; pine needles glinting in the sword-light.

At six that evening we reached the town of Kangding, a centuries-old hub-town for the tea routes to Lhasa. Tea grown across Yunnan and Sichuan would converge there and proceed by armed caravan to Batang, Chamdo and at last Lhasa.

Jon met a Taiwanese climber who told us which passes were still viable at this stage of winter. He also told us to head for a remote village called Yulongxi, and look for a man called Batso. Batso had good horses and was trustworthy. Later, we ate noodles with a young man called Kris who had lived in Kangding for a couple of years, running a Christian guest house. Born in Sri Lanka and schooled in the Indian Himalayas, he had eyes as wet as a seal’s. He spoke Sinhalese, Hindi, Chinese and Tibetan, as well as English.

‘I’m not a missionary,’ Kris said softly, ‘but my faith informs everything that I do here.’

‘He’s a missionary,’ said Jon as we left the noodle shop.

The next morning we drove again. Hairpins from Kangding to the pass of Zheduo, at nearly 16,500 feet. A
chorten
, and prayer flags lashing in the wind. Porcelain snow. Beyond us to the west was a wide river valley, dry and lunar, through which ran a river of white ice and blue water. Long hours through bare brown land. Snow lying in lines in fields, thawed from the summits of the plough-lines but holding white in the trenches. Groups of dung-tailed yaks. The distant hollow sound of boulders being rolled by the current along the riverbed. Solid stone-built Tibetan houses with elaborately painted eaves. Patties of ice on the river’s surface. Prayer flags twined around bridges and gateways, bright against the landscape’s close tones.

For seven hours we drove, as our route dwindled from road to track to path almost to nothing. Once, down in that seemingly endless valley, we stopped at a holy site: a low, lozenge-like mound, the size of a small croft, layered and tiled with hundreds of
mani
stones: slabs of rock with prayers chiselled into them. Several tall wooden lances spiked out of the
mani
heap, from which fluttered prayer flags printed with more texts. At one end was a cairn of white stones several feet high.

‘White stones have a particular force to the Qiang people of Northern Sichuan,’ said Jon. ‘They gather up white quartz and marble shards and heap them up in these cairns, some of which are vast! I’ve seen ones dozens of metres in diameter. The cairns mark the landscape’s most sacred points.’ I took two of the white stones, both triangular blades of white quartz laced with pink.

For the last two hours of the light we searched the valley for Batso. ‘A bit further up’ was always the answer. A nod of the head or wave of the hand north. Just as dusk was settling, we found him. He was Jatso, not Batso, and he lived in a clutch of houses beneath a flash of red rock at over 13,000 feet. He sauntered down a beaten earth track to meet us, entirely unsurprised at our appearance in his valley. He was younger than me and preposterously good-looking in a Johnny Deppish way. A stockade of thorns marked out his arable field, and his family’s homestead faced Minya Konka, the peak itself hidden by a high range to the east.

The five buildings of Jatso’s settlement were wide-walled and heavy-tiled, hunkered close to the ground, ready to see out winter after winter. Lines of prayer flags flapped from the ridges of the house. Each of the wooden shutters that covered the small windows had been intricately carved and coloured with blues, golds and reds. Decorative lines of orange rock had been built into the walls like strata. The late-day light gleamed as gold on the edges of the roof tiles, and shone as silver on the tall grasses that shook in the wind. A bird I couldn’t name flew across the valley to the south. Two
lenticular
clouds hung above snowfields to the west.

That night we pitched our tents in Jatso’s yard, just out of reach of his leashed dog. The sky was cloudless and speckled with more stars than I had ever seen. The laughter of children came from inside a building. I gazed up, neck cricked back and mouth bashed open by the beauty of it all. The snow-topped summits caught and returned the moon’s tint. Jatso’s dog barked and barked through the night.

Horse bells, the crunch of feet, my own ragged breathing: pedestrian life at 15,000 feet. Pace after pace, patiently, exhaustingly, following the bare trace of a path. The world dwindled to the next step, then opened out at an upwards glance. The sun gold in the sky, pouring down its heatless light; hard snow, high
albedo
.

We’d left Jatso’s house early, as two ravens wandered the blue air above the stockade. We crossed a river by an unsteady wooden bridge, the water frozen at the river’s margins, flowing deep and green in the centre. Up through a trackless rising valley, scrubbed with juniper, with vultures wheeling overhead, and unclimbed peaks – triangular mostly, granite all – lining the northern sky. The snow over which we passed bore the slot marks of fine-footed
ungulates
, as well as fox fonts and the scat of unknown creatures. Bird-feet printed it like tiny arrows or route-markers:
this way, this way!

Four hours’ work brought us to a pass. And there before us – two miles away and nearly two miles up – was Minya Konka, far closer than I had expected.
Darshan!
I sat down in the snow under a rope of weathered prayer flags, gulping for breath, astonished by the mountain, trying to make sense of its architecture.

The summit split away into three main ridges, each branching into subsidiary ridges with crenellated peaks, each of which then branched again. This
dendritic
principle created a structure of immense complexity. The flanks of the main ridges were heavily serrated, the
fluting
visible even at this distance, and from the vast south-western face a white glacier cantilevered out. Simple at the heart of this maze was the main summit, sharp as a shark’s tooth, biting into the sky.

Seen from the west, from that pass, Minya Konka resembles a child’s sketch of a mountain: a pyramid of white ice and black rock. In this respect, it is familial with the world’s other great pyramidal mountains: Ama Dablam in the Nepal Himalaya; Mount Assiniboine in the Canadian Rockies, which my brother had climbed, returning with the arches of both feet broken; the Matterhorn – up which my grandfather had been in a tweed jacket and hobnailed boots – and Khan Tengri in the Tian Shan mountains of Kyrgyzstan, a 23,000-foot pink marble peak that glows mauve in certain evening lights. Pyramidal mountains fulfil a Platonic vision of a mountain, a dream of what one should resemble. Their purity of form heightens the encounter. Approaching such mountains, you feel as though you are stepping into a fable or an epic poem. ‘
The effect of this strange Matterhorn
upon the imagination is indeed so great,’ John Ruskin wrote in 1856, ‘that even the gravest philosophers cannot resist it.’ Historically, these have been the mountains that have compelled the most votaries and claimed the most lives.

BOOK: The Old Ways: A Journey on Foot
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