A stunning trek in one of earth's most famous adventure destinations comes with a message about how we should be managing our precious places.
Humankind exists within an eggshell-thin band of gas and pressurised conditions extending upwards about two-and-a-half thousand metres above the surface of Earth. Beyond this, the delicate balance of barometric pressure and organic gasses become steadily toxic. The side effects? A potential unripening flux within the soft tissue of the diaphragm and cranium, triggering debilitating headaches, hacked-up blood-speckled phlegm, hallucinations, blindness and, if ignored, death.
Our five-day adventure from Jingchan at 3370m, via Rumbak, at just under 4000m, before going up and over GandaLa Pass, at a tick over 5000m begins in the shadow of this knowledge, but more on that later. Reminders about the impermanence and tempestuous balance of life on Earth are everywhere in the Himalaya: like the relationship between the human body and atmosphere, the world’s climate is also delicately poised.
It’s seen in the rarity of the snow leopard, the evolved peculiarities of the highland hoofed animals like the bharal, the drought afflicted yet beautiful hillsides and valleys, and also, in our age’s great challenge: evidence of dramatic climate change. The effect it’s having on the economic livelihoods of local people as it exerts potentially calamitous consequences upon their homelands is alarmingly widespread.
Trekking in the region obviously helps generate tourism dollars, but it also helps foster a relationship between the local Himalayan people and those who visit, allowing visitors to return home with increased knowledge, and perhaps — even if it’s in a small way — helping them become committed advocates for the well-being of the Himalaya.
The quiet advantages of a nomadic life Adventure travel writer, Bruce Chatwin, in much of his writing, proposed that people living a nomadic existence are closer to the truth of life than any other societal group. That a nomadic routine: constantly breaking camp, wiping the slate clean then resetting somewhere else, revitalizes a core purpose of existence.
It’s an interesting concept; that walking somewhere new, carrying nothing but essential kit in a tote bag of some kind, is actually the acme of happiness — wake-up, ablutions, find and prepare something to eat, move onwards when you fancy doing so, settle for the night, then reproduce a variation of the same the next day. Uncomplicated and boundlessly interesting because everything changes with every move.
“Diversion. Distraction. Fantasy. Change of fashion, food, love and landscape. We need them as the air we breathe. Without change our brains and bodies rot. The man who sits quietly in a sheltered room is likely to be mad, tortured by hallucinations and introspection, ” he says in ‘It’s a Nomad, Nomad World’.
“Children need paths to explore, to take bearings on the earth on which they live, as a navigator takes bearings on familiar landmarks. If we excavate the memories of childhood, we remember the paths first, things and people second – paths down the garden, the way to school, the way round the house, corridors through the bracken or long grass. Tracking the paths of animals was the first and most important element in the education of early man.”
Setting out on a trek in the Himalaya, walking for six or so hours, stopping to eat, making camp and recuperating, sleeping, then arising at dawn to do the whole thing again is to transport yourself directly into the mind of Chatwin’s nomad.
But the local people I spoke with were concerned about the lack of rain, increasing temperature and the effect this was having on their crops. They were nervous that the water they were coming to rely on more and more came from melting glaciers — not the most sustainable of water resources.
As it was, we arrived in Leh, 3500m above sea level, ready for our stint as temporary nomads. Jagged white mountain peaks lined the airport runway, standing like sentries along both sides of the strip. Despite the abundant snowbound evidence of moisture cloaking the mountains, the earth around Leh was arid and desiccated, all precipitation encased high-up in the surrounding mountains above the permanent snowline or encased in glaciers, frozen solid for centuries, but now slowly melting.
The effects of altitude began almost immediately...
The full feature appeared in the July/August 2018 issue of Outdoor Magazine. Subscribe today for all the latest outdoor adventure, travel news and inspiration.