I went up the Mountain

I’m bewildered by the degree of self-assuredness and bursts of invincibility that three days of solitude on a mountain pass can elicit. “Your life could change!” the bearded, hair-matted, top-knotted man on the mountain had said during our first encounter.

A recluse, a seasoned meditator, and unlike formally robed monks who are most proper and self-conscious, he was unlike anything I’d met. His ragged figure was a breath of fresh air. We’d spoken for hours at a café. Weeks later I’d found myself alone, atop a high mountain pass, in a tent that was getting battered by wind for hours.

In the first moments of knowing nothing-to-do, I was naive to imagine the possibility of the ultimate awakening. I had once been on a ten-day silent retreat, among strangers. The experience, demystifying, silenced most of my mind. I’d since stopped writing from abstraction. I sheepishly admonished myself for this naivety. “So!.. What now?” I thought.

The tent was like a rocking plane in turbulence. A mirror of my mind. Mostly I was immobile, physically, and in intention. I caught myself nibbling on something. A dry date. I began to feel calm with each silent passing minute. I felt a sense of arrival. Inexplicably, that usual gnawing sense of wasting away the hours began to vanish. Here, devoid of life, this first taste of pure solitude removed even the subtlest impression of that guilt. My first date with myself was in pure desolation. Lying down, staring wide-eyed at the shaky, fabricated ceiling, still on a date.

I realize it is bear country. Even big cats, possibly. I had an old dagger whose slippery bone handle I noticed only now. “Too polished!” I curse. There was no sling to secure it to my wrist. I imagined a bear in front of me, and the elusive dagger escaping my grip. I quickly make a loop with some extra tent fasteners. A friend’s mocking line comes

to mind, “Bringing a blade to a gunfight?”

It’s been nine hours since my last meal. After three arduous trips down to the dirt road to fetch my stuff from an overloaded motorbike earlier in the day, I did not feel a pang of hunger. The mind has ignored the body. I fall asleep. I was atop the most scenic mountain pass in the country, Chelela (3,988m), and the fog did not relent for the entire stay. With rain for company, it was all yours, faithfully. The fog’s whiteness diffused the starlight and lit up the tent at night rendering my torch useless. I could identify every article by its shape and size and was content not to shine the torch for fear of attracting whatever lay in the darkness outside. But the rain eventually got in through the tent floor and one part flapped on my face, pushed by the fierce winds while I slept.

The first morning, I woke up intent on digging a channel to direct the water away and to straighten the tent I’d pitched in haste in the drizzle. Getting it erected quickly had been the priority. I dig for an hour with my dagger and wash the mud off with my outstretched arms and palms. A stain remains like an ill-designed Mehndi pattern on an Indian bride. After several attempts to rinse it off, the bad art keeps sticking, like a stale joke. I recall the sturdy, dark palms of farmers whenever I’d handed them some edible treats. I’d look at them hesitantly, but they’d smile with heads slanted gratefully, nodding it was ‘OK’ to place it on their soiled palms. My palms now look like theirs. And they don’t have enough time in-between work to try to maintain its spotlessness. A wash is not enough. I realize their hands aren’t dirty. It’s only stained with work.

The sky all around stayed white, except for a brief, crisp spell on the second dusky hour. All it did was to clearly show me the fast-fading light on the western horizon and the darkness falling from the east. My loneliness peaked at that point as I stared at the last sliver of light.

By the final night, I began to welcome the wind. The sound of silence left my mind reinless. During a windless spell on the second, I wandered so far into the imagination that my body thawed in fear and for an instant, I shivered on the cusp of ‘fight or flight’. But as if by some divine intervention, a knowing smile appears on my lips and a laugh betrays my feelings. The fear dissipates like water trickling down a smouldering vessel.

I didn’t make a fire, not that I could, with the persistent drizzle, but that I wouldn’t, even if I could. I drank cold juice, cold milk and cold water to wash down the bread, muesli, apples, and dates. I’d never gone two days without a warm meal. It occurs to me that most wild animals never had it warm, not since suckling their mother’s milk.

The only person I encounter is an ex-serviceman on my two-hour hike up the highest peak in the area. He secured the telecom tower and lived alone in a little cabin, in perpetual fear. He invites me in for tea, profusely, and I give him some company, hopefully welcoming. My first warm drink. He beams in a manner that’s empathetic when he learns I am alone in a tent.

I was on my way to the sky burial peak. A spot where deceased infants and old people are left to the birds and animals. The final act of generosity, posthumously. “Not just that peak, we’re actually in the middle of it. The entire mound you see here is a graveyard!” He declares, dramatically.

I leave, he descends to pick up the food I’d stocked, in gross overestimation. I learn I’ve camped just above the thickets that are familiar to bear sightings. I laugh in gratitude to the ranger for not revealing it the previous day, it would have made the night harder.

I learn that bears attack people only when they are with their cubs, and when the encounter is a surprise. “The odor of food, especially the neglected waste, must always be concealed!” And why hikers should never walk silently. “Ordinarily, all wild animals flee upon the smell or sight of a human,” he adds. It dawns on me that I am one of the ultimate predators.

It’s been a while since my return. There’s a change that’s hard to put a finger on. Recalling my time up there, the most vivid is still the complete absence of guilt for wasting time. There was no feeling of uselessness or some existential crisis. I was fully immersed in the awareness of existence on that mountain pass. Time wasn’t just abundant, it was infinite. Just as it was when in my teens. When the only thing I had was time. I was though incapable of exploiting it for my lack of wisdom and experience. A confidential paradox, for I was also capable of facing life head-on to jump into the unknown. But life was a drag.

I was losing that feeling as I tried to grow up and become ‘somebody’. To ‘think’ at least, if not become useful to people and the community. Time began to have value, but it was also becoming the master. I was losing that youthful exuberance. Three days of solitude have restored some of it. I’ve concluded I’m a thinker.

I was told but had never really thought about it, ironically. I’d forced myself to be tangibly productive, often chided for being idle when in hindsight I’d been in my element. I need to proclaim, defend, and justify this newfound identity that is inherently my sense of myself. To live among people and never have to feel the guilt of wasting time – the only thing I have.

The shabby, bearded, knotted man has retreated into his element, his mountain. That breath of fresh air. I intend to surprise him soon someday and perhaps, myself, as I did today.

Karma Wangchuk Sonam

He is an artist and independent filmmaker. Portraits done by him of His Majesty the King and His Majesty the Fourth King adorn the PMO and the JSW Law College. His last short film ‘The Black Tego’ is on Samuh OTT platform. He is currently working on a concept for a documentary film. He can be reached at karmawangchuk@gmail. Com