Outside the snow crystals danced in spirals, as if stirred by an invisible angry force. Some eventually came to rest on the ground, blanketing the landscape. Others returned to the sky, becoming lost in the infinite white that had now become our world.
My two Nepali guides and I had taken refuge in the ruins of an ancient stone hut. It was one of a number of huts, in varying degrees of collapse, that must once have been part of a great village, though all other signs of human habitation had disappeared. We sat in silence on the frozen dirt with our backs to the wall, looking out through what would have been a doorway but was now just an empty space, while listening to the mountain winds exhale. Towers of ice and rock as high as seven thousand meters surrounded us like a fortress. They held the authority out here. The three of us, IC, Ngawang and I, were deep in the remote Himalaya of northern Nepal, isolated not just from the rest of the world but from our companions – my wife, our three friends, and the other members of our team – who had remained behind. They were in a village not far away, but at the moment they might as well have been on the other side of the world, our aloneness seemed so complete.
Some might have wondered why I had gone through so much effort, time, and money to venture into this desert of ice and rock in one of the most far-flung, inhospitable and even dangerous places on earth. I know my parents had asked me the question enough times. I could never really give them a reason. The mountains called to me, and I went to them. I’d been answering that call in many places over many years, though never in a place as remote as this one.
Chantal, who was further down the valley, waiting for us to return, had tried her best to support me on this expedition, as she had on so many others. She understood how important it was to me and she had wanted me to climb my mountain. But I never imagined this journey would take such a severe toll on her. Although she had gone on a number of these expeditions with me, including a recent one that she herself had suggested to Mount Kilimanjaro, trekking through these mountains in the thin high-altitude air had been much harder for her, both physically and mentally, than either of us had anticipated. It was my ambition that had brought us here, and now it had taken me away from her, away from what mattered most. A shiver ran up my spine. I pulled the collar of my jacket over my mouth and breathed into it, feeling the warmth for a moment against my neck.
“What is this place?” I wondered aloud, speaking to no one in particular.
Ngawang’s eyes narrowed, studying the wall in front of us, as though each of its stone had a story trapped inside. “This place is empty. Villagers left long time.”
Our hut was no more than four walls of rock stacked about six feet high, bound together by caked mud, with a roof also made of stones, which was supported by wooden beams. The stones were rough and cold to the touch. The whole place smelled of ice and earth. It smelled old. A single ray of light reflecting off the snow outside lit the dim room through the opening at the front.
My eyes traced a crack in the rock wall that ran from the dirt floor up to the beams above me. The beams were also fractured, some of them nearly split in two and caving in from the weight of the large flat stones of the roof. The whole thing looked like it was destined to collapse on us at any moment. But it wasn’t the thought of being buried by the rocks that bothered me most – it was the possibility that no one would ever find us here, amidst the many other piles of rocks in what was left of this Himalayan ghost town.
The remnants of the village appeared to be centuries old. The rocks of which the houses had been constructed were reduced to rubble, weathered and faded, covered in red lichen, and inscribed with Tibetan etchings unlike any we had seen before, as though from another era. These few human-made markings would soon become invisible, time and weather erasing all traces of the people who had lived here under what must have been extreme hardship.
The only sign of life we had encountered nearby was the print of a snow leopard. We had discovered it just before getting trapped by the storm. I took comfort in thinking about the snow leopard – a creature who had somehow managed to live within this barren, isolated place. I had imagined it watching us as we fumbled our way forward through the blizzard. How very different it was from me – a living being as fluid as a mountain stream, and as ghostly as the summit we sought to climb. Yet for all our differences, I felt a kinship with it, a sense that both of us had been called to the mountain that loomed above us, that this was where we were both meant to be.
And it wasn’t just any mountain. It was the mountain. A perfect pyramid from its southwest aspect, with sheer faces and a striking ridgeline that snaked its way to a spear-tipped summit piercing both cloud and sky. It was a mountain out of a storybook. I yearned to feel it beneath my feet. To climb it. To experience it. To learn from it. To be part of it, even if only for a brief moment. It had won my heart and beckoned me to come to it. It was a jewel of the earth, buried deep in the Himalaya. And I had found it.
From the moment I first saw it – in a photo a friend had shown me in a restaurant some months before – I couldn’t stop thinking about it. It was a place I seem to have imagined in my dreams, one I felt I had to find in real life. The Pyramid Mountain drove me into a fit of mountain frenzy – one that consumed me, forcing me on a mad quest into one of the most inaccessible corners of Nepal, where we had come up against a wall of mountains called the Lugula in the upper Manang district, a distant subrange of the Himalaya that formed part of the border between Nepal and Tibet. Thrust up from the Tibetan plateau, the chain of 6000-7000 meter jaw-dropping peaks formed a serrated horizon so high that even the clouds gazed up to it.
Yet for all the awe I felt in the presence of these Himalayan peaks, there was something equally powerful about the valley where our companions were now sheltering. I had felt something there that I had never experienced before – a sense that I had traveled into another world, but also that it was a world I’d been to before. It was as though I was a time traveler from the future who had stumbled my way back into a different epoch, one I had somehow known in an age long forgotten, and was meant to return to.
The few mountain dwellers we had come in contact with over the previous days had reinforced these strange sensations. I’d seen them only briefly, as we passed each other on the mountain paths. But I’d felt drawn to them, as if they possessed some deep wisdom that I’d lost but could learn again if only there were time. Yet we had forged past them, driven by my compulsion to keep moving, venturing ever deeper into the mountains, until they became mere dots of colour against the barren landscape, and then disappeared entirely.
They left my sight, but they did not leave my heart. Who were these Himalayan wanderers? What pulled me to them? I had so many questions. Questions that seemed destined to go unanswered, for my focus on the Pyramid Mountain was absolute, and I was determined that nothing would get in the way of my ambition to scale it.
We’d been trekking for nearly two weeks by then with our companions, and then venturing out on our own, on this mission to find the Pyramid Mountain, for the last two days. During these two days alone my Nepali guides and I had crossed many unknown rivers and explored distant valleys and ridges, had covered thirty kilometers and ascended nearly 1850 meters. I had spent over fifteen years training in the mountains to be in a place like this, to climb that mountain that lay so tantalizingly before us – only to find myself caught in a snowstorm.
As I contemplated our next step, the snow crystals outside began floating their way across the exposed threshold, turning to frost on my face and numbing it. Even with my Merino wool base layer, microfiber fleece, 800 goose down-filled jacket, and wind breaker, I was cold. My body was starting to feel fatigued, partly from the chill, which was sapping the energy out of me, and partly from the 5030 meter elevation, which was making me feel short of breath.
The longer we stayed here the worse it was going to get. We had to leave. I peered outside. Our plan to wait out the storm had failed, for it was clear that the snowstorm was not going to let up.
I looked over at IC and Ngawang. Their faces, once ablaze with mountain fever, were now weary, anxious. We didn’t speak, but we knew what we had to do. Lifting ourselves from the frozen earth, we brushed off the frost and shouldered our backpacks. We fastened our jackets and cinched our hoods around our faces. And then one by one, we ducked through the doorway and into the whirling whiteness. With luck we could make our way back to the village before night fell. I felt defeated, but I also felt we had no choice but to return.