On the border with Tibet, on the Indian side. An expedition of myself, one cook, and one guide. A horseman walked two days with us with about six ponies. He dropped us off, and all our food, and gear for two weeks. Then he left, he and his horses, and we were left alone, isolated miles away from any human.
Another three day walk to “base camp”. All vastness and desert, no snow, aside from the highest peak. I could see well into Tibet. Mountains and mountains as far as the eye can see, with no human construction in sight.
The goal was Lungser Kangri 6,666m. Wind and rock, and more rock, and ice on Summit push. The oxygen starts kicking in at base camp around 5,000m. I had never been so far away from any other human.
No rescue, no helicopter. A militarised zone (close to China) means the Indian army does not allow for heli rescue. No cell phone coverage. If anything happened, an injury, an accident, medical attention meant a two day walk to cell phone coverage, and way three days for the horseman to come and collect us.
On the day prior to summit push we left all three of us around 2pm to high camp around 6,000m. My pack was ready, and the guide and cook were still packing up some more supplies.
I said: `I will start on ahead, go slowly, and you will catch me on the way.’ The mountain was a desert, it’s rocks on top of rocks on top of more rocks. We vaguely pointed at the gully we would climb through and out I went. “Turn left on that big rock and behind that ravine” sort of directions.
And that was the last time I saw my team. I climbed for hours and saw no one. I sat on big rocks, climbed up to visibility points and saw no one. I called out. I remembered the whistle on my North Face pack. I whistled and whistled and flashed lights to no avail.
Around 7pm I decided we had definitely lost each other, and decided to climb down to the kitchen tent. I was carrying no tent, I had a sleeping bag with me, but the temperature falls sharply overnight. I would not take risk and sleep exposed. I did not know what happened to my team members.
I had no cell phone myself, even if I wanted to walk the day and a half distance to coverage. Around the militarised border with Tibet, the Indian government does not allow visitors to have the special SIM cards that only locals are authorised to buy. I knew there was a militarised post around three days walk away, and they would allow me to make a phone call for help.
I was in a bit of a pickle. As I climbed down, dusk started to fall, and I was not entirely sure where was the kitchen tent, our previous ‘base camp’. It was just a grey pixel amongst a gazillion others. The overwhelming sense of utterly alone, not another human for miles.
It is at times like this that your buddhist training kicks in. You have to know how to stop thinking, and let your feet guide you back to safety. Forget rational decisions. Logical reasoning tells me tent is that way, go that way. But my feet, ever so gently and subtly, are asking to go that other way.
If you are a good student of training your mind, you have disciplined your brain to close off the neocortex, the reasoning part of your brain, and let the `under-mind’ speak.
This is a difficult mind-training technique, because, in our developed society–what, with me being a scientist and all–we have erased the voice of the under-mind, the subconscious. I would later learn that the neurosciences terminology for the subconscious is the default mode network (DMN).
The DMN speaks very softly and quietly due to our over relying on the neocortex. However in life/death situations you have to shut down the neocortex, because it will kill you. Only the subconscious can save your life. That deep call for survival passed upwards through the evolutionary tree, for 4 billion years, since the onset of life on the planet. I learnt this lesson on this and so many other close encounters with survival in the intervening 10 years since.
And so it was that at the dusk of that evening in August 2013, utterly alone in the high Himalaya, with all shapes dissolving into darkness, and with gratitude for the teachings of all my buddhist teachers, I was able to make myself stop thinking, tease and distract the neocortex, and trust that my feet would find the way and lead me to the very basic kitchen tent, where I would stay a little warmer through the night.
I reached the tent around 9-10pm, climbed in, quickly unfolded my sleeping bag and thin mattress. There was no floor, and I was shivering laying on bare rock. Around two hours later, still awake, I hear a loud distinct stir outside. I froze in terror, wondering if a snow leopard has picked up my scent. I did not even keep a knife inside the sleeping bag.
Snow leopards are shy and very rare, they do not attack human settlements, but they would definitely take on one human, as they take the odd yak, that strayed out and did not return to the herd with nightfall.
Inside the bare kitchen tent shivering and petrified with fear, I thought back to the day, high in the Annapurna region in Nepal, when we had Yak curry. The owner could not find one lost yak to return to the refuge at night. A snow leopard had found it. I will never forget remembered the wide circles of flying vultures I had spotted that morning, over a mile high in the sky, long before I knew one yak had been taken.
Vultures circling high above you. One sigh you do not want to see. Another `no-go’ in survival land.
But that day in the Indian Himalaya, it was no snow leopard. Seconds later I heard my name being called by my guide, who had also been looking for me in the vast mountain and could not find me. It was a relief to hear another human, a relief that my friends were safe. The cook had stayed in high camp.
My guide, Ali, found me, climbed into the tent and, both shivering, we squeezed into one sleeping bag to keep each other warm. And at last I felt safe and warm and was able to fall asleep.
Back in the West a man and a woman sleeping in the same sleeping bag has a whole other meaning. But in survival land, we are reduced to living beings, we are reminded of our bare biological survival parameters. We just want to stay alive, one more night. Life is simple. Life is simple in survival land, friendships are deep. One bite of bread shared at altitude. Looks in the eyes you will never forget.
Up high at altitude you discover what someone’s soul is really about. You discover who is your friend and will stay with you till the end, sharing misery and hopelessness, and danger.
Those are my people. Those I met high in the mountains and who have saved my life or showed kindness, shared one drop of the last water, or bent down to clip my security on. I would go with them to the end. Báĺãřäj Hõđïbů Tashi Sherpa Tashi Sherpa Jit Bahadur Sherpa Montana Twinprai Rajendra Thakuri Dawa Tenjin Sherpa Dave Keaveny Ellen Stein Billi Bierling Kishor Adhikari Dawa Karmey Dawa Sherpa Suraj Paudyal