Coming down off the Thorang La, the eighteen thousand foot pass that tops out on the Annapurna circuit in Nepal, I think of the tea stall just an hour or so below the crest. There is a young woman there, stocky and money minded, who carries a doko of wood up the bare mountainside and builds a small fire in the dry wind, every day, more or less. I’ve been there before.
I think of the thick Assam tea, blended with sweet fresh milk and I’m ready long before I get there. My hands are wind burned and I lost my hat. Damn that hat. I could have retrieved it if I’d worn crampons, which I did not.
I am reminded of a day in glacier school, when I was lowering myself down so I could practice jumaring up. Not quite paying attention, I managed to get a braid locked into the pulley system. I was stuck. There wasn’t any use yelling, the wind along the surface of the snow above would drown out anything from this far down. So I hung there for half an hour.
Later, Jeff, the instructor, lowered himself down beside me. “Ehhhhhh,” he said in his thick Australian accent. “Got a problem?” I showed him the hair, tangled in the pulley system. “Lost your hat, eh? Well now, I can fix that.” He pulled out a Victronix knife and cut off the last 4 inches of the braid. I pulled myself up on the rope and he removed the hair. “See you up top.”
I was mad. But losing your hat on a glacier proved something, he was right. It proved you were not ready to be part of team that who’d trust their lives to you and a thin Perlon rope. I never forgot. This, in part, explained why, four years later (three after Jeff died in a fluke avalanche on a solo climb in Oregon) I was crossing Thorang La by myself. Again.
I ambled down the dry side of pass and tied my handkerchief over my head to prevent my scalp from getting sunburned like it had in Lhasa. I drank the last bit from my water bottle. I could see the tea stall in the distance. Finally.
I sat on a wooden box in the tea hut and rubbed my hands while the sauni made tea. She talked in Nepali and I followed, more or less. I drank three glasses of tea and she told me about a hot springs, just a day’s walk downhill.
The next night I arrived at the spot she described and set up my tent, out of site. One thing I’d learned in my first two years in Nepal was to hide my tent unless I wanted visitors all night and before sunrise. I read by lithium lamp and slept a bit. Full moon.
I woke up to the sound of dogs barking. First one, then two, then a dozen. I sneaked out and made my way down the hill to the hot spring with a towel.
The hot spring was a stone paved rectangular space, about ten feet by ten. There were three, one-inch pipes that protruded from the stone. From each pipe came the hottest water imaginable.
I slipped out of my dusty clothes and undid my braids. I stood under the water in the full moon light. This was my first hot shower in about a year. Since the water was running whether I was there or not, I knew I could stay as long as I liked. I did. I stayed and stayed and stayed.
The soap was slippery and the stones were slippery and I was slick as a seal. I washed off months of dust and months of effort in that water.
A water buffalo ambled by, loose and on the lookout for an unfenced garden. I could hear his heavy breathing as he passed on the paddy above. A dog came down, sniffing, but retreated when he felt the hot stones under his feet.
The moon set and I dried off and walked up the hill to my Powderhorn prototype tent. I slipped into my down bag and lit a candle lantern. I unzipped the sky light and blew out the lantern. I fell asleep to the sound of jungle bugs and a few porters, jostling each other, drunk and singing songs about girls they missed in the village at home.