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A tell of travel

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01st-Jan-2018       
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Stephen Alter  :
Climbing the steep, winding trail to Kala Pathar before dawn, my path is lit by a waning moon, three-quarters full. The high snow peaks that encircle us - Pumori, Nuptse and Ama Dablam - reflect the lunar glow with a ghostly luminescence. Daybreak is still an hour away but there is enough moonlight to see the Khumbu glacier with its white pinnacles of ice. During the first part of our climb, the summit of Mt Everest is hidden from sight but as we get higher, the dark, striated pyramid begins to appear, silhouetted against a cloudless sky.
Kala Pathar is a viewpoint directly opposite the Everest, overlooking the base camp. The altitude here is 5,500 m above the sea level. A lack of oxygen in the freezing air makes me pause every eight or 10 steps, so my lungs can catch up with my legs. The slow progress of our ascent and the gradual transition from shadow into light seems impossible to measure. Because of the pale aura of the moon, I cannot tell exactly when night has ended and morning has begun.
Reaching the crest of the ridge at last, I settle myself on a rock and blow into my woollen gloves to warm my frozen fingers. Somewhere to the east, the sun is about to come up behind Everest and the first rays form a chevron against a brightening sky. The moon is now a faded phantom sinking westward. Anticipating the sunrise, I count each second, trying to gauge the precise moment it will appear. But then, as a blazing ball of light breaches the South Col, its blinding radiance illuminates an eternal instant that transcends time.
In science fiction, the fantasy of time travel is a popular cliché, which is symptomatic of our modern imaginations, sparked by Einstein's theory of relativity. The desire for instantaneous journeys that take us back into history or forward into the future, comes out of a pervasive sense of urgency that has plagued our planet since the advent of rapid transport. Today, everybody seems to be in a greater and greater rush to go places. As a result, the journeys themselves have become foreshortened and virtually inconsequential, while we race from Point A to Point B to Point X, without any concern for what lies in between.
If I were to choose to travel back in time, I would probably pick a point in history when no motor roads had penetrated the Himalayas, so that I could hike from my home in the foothills of Garhwal up to the highest ranges without any acceleration other than the length and frequency of my stride. Walking is the most natural means of self-propulsion and there is nothing more satisfying, for me, than covering distances on foot. Though I have to admit that I also enjoy motorcycles and four-wheel drive vehicles, it is only when I put on my boots and shoulder a pack that I feel the true exhilaration and freedom of a Himalayan journey. A large part of my enjoyment comes from the solitary pursuit, wandering diversions and unhurried pace that leave behind everyday routines, deadlines and professional or social obligations.
In many ways, the Everest Base Camp Trek, which I completed in October 2017, is not my favourite kind of walk. Though motor roads have yet to intrude upon the Khumbu Valley, this has become one of the most commercialised tourist adventures in Nepal.
While the paths are congested with trekkers, porters, yaks and mules, the skies swarm with helicopters ferrying people back and forth to the Gokyo Lakes and base camp, or taking aerial sorties around Everest. The mountains and glaciers themselves are spectacular but the trails and lodges are overcrowded and at times it feels like a relentless stampede in slow motion.
Usually, when I go trekking, I try to explore less-travelled routes. I am fortunate to live in the first range of the Central Himalayas, which provides easy access to higher, remote elevations. But the distance and duration of my journeys is unimportant for I can take as much pleasure in an afternoon stroll through the forests surrounding our home as I would on a 12-day trek above the tree line. In a strange way, walking in the Himalayas can be a form of time travel. Before departing on a hike, I leave my wristwatch and mobile phone behind, freeing myself of the nagging persistence of seconds, minutes and hours. Setting off into the mountains is like stepping out of time or entering a different temporal dimension, synchronised to the pace of the earth.
Geological time in the Himalayas marks the slowest and most ancient tempo. Though the vertical terrain may appear immutable, these mountains are constantly moving, as tectonic plates continue to collide through continental drift, pushing peaks and ridges skyward. By some calculations, the elevation of Everest is increasing at a rate of 5 mm every year. Simultaneously, erosion cuts away at rock and soil, cancelling out these altitudinal advances. Yet, inevitably and inexorably, the Himalayas slide forward and upward by infinitesimal increments. Even as I ascend a steep ridgeline, the mountains, too, are climbing with me, set in motion aeons ago, long before any form of life evolved on their slopes.
Glaciers travel at a much faster speed than the uplifted slabs of rock through which they pass, though these rivers of ice also appear to be motionless. On an average, most glaciers move forward at the rate of one metre per day. Their progress ends through a process of ablation, when chunks of ice calve off to feed the swift melt-water that form the source of rivers. Held in check over centuries, the frozen moisture is finally released and rushes off down the valley in a turbulent current that seems to be making up for lost time. Crossing a glacier, I can hear the creak and rumble of hidden crevasses opening and closing beneath my feet like the steady pulse within a giant artery of ice.
Trees, too, have botanical clocks, which are set to the seasons. Arboreal time is quicker than geological but slower than a glacier. Each species of tree has its own, organic drumbeat, from the hurried growth of pines and birches that can gain as much as half a meter every year to the stately spreading of an oak that inches upwards much more slowly. Forests also migrate, advancing and retreating according to temperature, climate and human intervention. Walking through a wooded valley in the Himalayas, I'm conscious that I am moving much faster than everything else around me. The earth that holds the roots of trees may be spinning on its axis and rotating around the sun but in the stillness of an alpine forest, I am aware of only my momentum.
Time travel in the Himalayas is all a matter of relativity. My passage through the mountains can be measured against the slower rhythms of rock, ice and trees. But when I finally reach my destination, such as the top of Kala Pathar, looking across at the sunrise over Everest, it often feels as if my journey has taken me out of the present and into another realm of nature where time becomes irrelevant.
(Stephen Alter is an author, most recently of Becoming a Mountain: Himalayan Journeys in Search of the Sacred and the Sublime. Courtesy: Indian Express)

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