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Sensing the Himalaya

March 19, 2019 by Lexie Klein

I breathe in the scent of Nepal, from the earthly to the sublime. In Kathmandu, I snort to rid my nostrils of the olfactory assault on the streets. Rotting garbage, burning rubber, dogs, sweat, incense, hot sticky blood that pools in small rivers on this special slaughter day. In Thamel, smoke wafts and joins more fragrant traces of saffron and garam masala. Asan Tole market cows bump my legs and leave their sweet hay-dung smell, an improbable memory of fresh-mown fields and summer days.

A stomach-lurching flight later, I’m inhaling the freshest air I’ve ever breathed as I step off the tiny plane in Lukla. The crisp blue air hints of ancient glaciers and snow not yet touched by human feet or polluted clouds. There are whiffs of fecund earth and grass and stream, mountain flowers and rhododendron leaves, and the dusty oxygenated smell that rises off a sidewalk after a long-awaited spring shower.

Eyes shut as I pull the alpine freshness into my lungs, my ears engage. Yak bells jingle and dzo bells jangle, prayer wheels chime and temple horns bleat. Monks chant and nuns murmur, brooms whisk and fires crackle. The Dudh Kosi swishes and tumbles, gathers strength, and roars over the river rocks. Hanging bridges creak on their cables, and feet—both human and beast—clump and clop from bank to bank.

My senses blur further on the trail. I feel the steep climb to Namche Bazar in my calves; they shriek with tension later relieved by the soft squish of pine needles on loose earth. As we climb ever higher, I curse the ragged breath in my airways; my lungs burn and my throat tightens and my head throbs. And then I am fairly skipping downhill past Tengboche, fresh-headed and light on my feet, bouncing and floating from boulder to boulder, root to root, humming a song, thinking of childhood happiness in the woods.

My eyes focus sharply when I’m not fighting to climb and breathe. A close examination of a spindly red flower growing right out of a rock, an open-mouthed awe at the layering of myriad mountains in the distance—from the tiny to the vast, my vision is rewarded over and over again. We pass through Khunde and Khumjung and other vibrant villages whose colors are a manifestation of their Buddhist souls. Grounded by black, enriched by red, blue, purple and green, heightened and lightened by sunny yellow and crisp white, their houses and temples remind us that man is here in the farthest reaches of the earth.

As the days progress, brown and green trails lead to gray rocks and gravel, barren escarpments and pale lichens. As we climb beyond Pangboche, color weakens; the sky fades from cerulean to lightest blue. The tundra changes to a more frozen, snow-covered zone. In the still and almost featureless landscape at our feet, the peaks grow ever more impressive. They knife toward the sky, their serrated ridges jagged against the heavens. They are massive from this close—huge blocks of granite and limestone hulking into the atmosphere. The thinness of the air clears the mind of all but their presence.

There is nothing to smell at this altitude, and any noises are muffled inside my headband and hat and fuzzy head. I still feel an exertion, but I am on autopilot now. I plant one foot in front of the other and just see. I watch the narrow path, the boots of the hiker in front of me, the tiny holes made by his poles, the slight kick of wispy dust and dandelion snow.

At Ama Dablam base camp near the top of the world, we collapse and succumb to a final sensation. Our Sherpa helpers pour sweet hot chocolate from steaming thermoses into cups clasped in our clumsy, gloved hands. We fall silent as our salivary glands engage and the rich aroma fills our noses. The wind swirls, a rock ledge digs into my back, the multi-colored tents at base camp glow in the late afternoon sun. My senses are sated…life is good.

Lexie Klein, MT Sobek Guest

MT Sobek Trip: Everest Lodge-to-Lodge Trek, 2012

About the Author Lexie Klein

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