I had missed them somehow in Katmandu, and though the monsoon rains were still going on unabated, I had grown impatient and hit the trail alone; they had tarried in Benares on the way to Katmandu and then waited till the weather cleared before beginning their trek.
We are overjoyed to meet up again, and while the two Sherpas bargain in the bazaar, the Italians and I sit down over a kettleful of cool chung to catch up on each other’s travels.
The Sherpas and I agree to meet in two hours to divvy up the supplies and head back up to the gompa.
Paolo and Claudia have a very strange story to tell, about a frightening experience they had just four days before, toward the end of their trek. I can tell they are anxious to tell me about it; it’s reassuring to share your fears with someone you feel close to, and clearly they are still shaken by what happened….
They had been walking for ten days when they reached Lamjura-la, the last high pass on the route and by far the highest, topping out at almost thirteen-thousand feet. They were about an hour from the summit, and hadn’t met anyone on the trail for quite some time, when they met a party of odd-looking travelers coming the other way.
“How were they odd?” I ask.
“They didn’t look like the other Nepalis we had met on the trail,” Paolo replies..
“Afterwards, it was very strange, neither of us could remember their faces, or how they were dressed, or even how many of them there were,” Claudia says. “Four, five, six, we couldn’t remember.” Paolo nods in agreement.
“Later, I thought that they were like the characters played by actors, who only appear when they have an audience,” he adds. “As if when we were gone they weren’t there anymore, not even in our minds.”
A hundred feet or so above, the trail forked, and when the Italians asked the strangers which one to take to get over the pass, they pointed to the left one.
They took the strangers’ advice and turned left, but after awhile things didn’t seem right: The ground beneath their feet looked like it was seldom walked on, and the underbrush seemed to close in on both sides, like it was trying to swallow up the trail. Then they realized that the trail had stopped climbing; in fact, it was almost imperceptibly leading them downward, into a deep, gloomy-looking chasm. And time had seemed to speed up since they took the left-hand trail; it was midday then, but now the dark was already gathering, the shadows lengthening and the depths below lost in impenetrable blackness.
Suddenly they both realized that they had been hurrying, without realizing it, walking faster and faster down the trail…and just then Claudia stumbled on a rock, and they both stopped.
“We both thought the same thing, at the same moment,” Paolo says; “that the darkness below was hiding something terrible. We didn’t know what it was, but we could feel a tremendous hatred, and with it hunger, like that of a bloodthirsty animal.”
Claudia shudders, and Paolo puts his arm around her.
He is silent for a moment, and then he adds, “It was something worse than death, much worse. Everyone is afraid of death, I think, but this was a thousand times more frightening.”
They stood there for a moment, frozen, staring at each other, and then, without saying a word, they turned and began running, as fast as they could, back the way they had come.
“We were holding each other’s hands like children,” Claudia laughs, but there is still fear in her eyes.
“I didn’t want to let go of her,” Paolo says. “I was afraid she would fall behind, and I would lose her forever.
“And I felt the same about him,” Claudia says. “I wouldn’t have let go, never, no matter what.”
But the shadows seemed to pursue them, and so they ran till their hearts seemed about to explode. And still they kept going faster and faster, stumbling, tripping, falling, but scrambling back to their feet and never stopping. “Paolo looked back just once, and I had never seen a look like that on his face before,” Claudia says. “He looked like he saw – I don’t know. I began to turn my head, to look– ”
“And I told her, ‘No, no, no—don’t look!” Paolo says, and he turns to me and says, “Rob, please, don’t ask me what I saw. You are my friend, and believe me, I can’t—I can’t describe – ”
He puts his hand on my arm – “But you don’t want to know, even an idea – I won’t even tell Claudia, never, and I pray that some day, with the help of God, the Buddha, and all the Bodhisattvas and saints, that someday I will forget.” He shakes his head.
We sit there without talking; I fill our three cups with more chung, and we drink them down.
And after awhile, they finish telling their story.
At last they saw the sunlight shining on the ridge high above, where the trails divided.
“The last stretch was the hardest. It felt like big hands with claws were trying to pull us back,” Claudia remembers. “It didn’t want to let us go; I felt for a moment that we would be pulled off our feet and whirled back down into the darkness, like leaves in the wind. But Paolo was so strong – ”
“And so were you,” Paolo tells her.
“And so—so we lived.”
It wasn’t until they reached the main trail that the feeling of menace disappeared, dissolving away in the sunlight like salt dropped in water.
“And then the strangest thing happened,” Claudia says. “We looked back at the left-hand trail, and we saw that it wasn’t really a trail at all, just a faint track, like one left by animals a long, long time ago. When we had started down it, it had been a wide path, just like the main trail, the real one, but now it was a ghost of a trail, barely visible, that no one would have ever followed.”
They began climbing toward the pass again, and a few minutes later they were at the top. The summit was barren, with a high wind off the Tibetan Plateau whipping shreds and shrouds of mist past the stone shrines and prayer flags; from there the trail descended again, into a sea of clouds that half-concealed the Solo Khumbu gorge.
From their map, they knew that the trail crossed the river far, far below before zigzagging upward again, into the cold heart of the Everest range. They were standing at 12,750 feet above sea level, but when they crossed the river, they would have descended some eight-thousand vertical feet; and from there they had already climbed at least five-thousand feet to reach Namche, and it was still another nine-thousand vertical feet to Everest Base Camp.
It was exhausting just to think about it.
According to the map there were no permanent settlements or trailside teahouses between the top of the pass and the river, but when they had hiked down a half an hour or so, they came upon a herder’s hut, discovering, to their relief, that the enterprising herdsman had decided to earn a few extra rupees by operating an impromptu teahouse/hostel while his flocks grazed across the steep slopes.
A cardboard sign over the door was crudely lettered WELCOM FREND, and inside the herder’s wife was peeling potatoes and boiling water for tea; there were tins of yak butter and goats’ milk next to the hearth. The dirt floor had been swept clean and strewn with straw; it looked delightful.
Another traveler had already stopped there for the night, a sunburned young Sherpa in corduroy knickers and a ski sweater, carrying a grey Austrian rucksack and an ice ax for a walking stick. He was bound for Katmandu to visit his two daughters, who went to school there. He was friendly, and he liked to talk. They learned that he spoke bits of French, large amounts of German and English, and a smattering of Italian, languages that he had picked up on the many climbing expeditions he had helped lead.
He was an expert climber, famous in the mountaineering world; he had summited Everest twice as well as a half dozen other major peaks, had lived in Europe for a time, guiding in the Alps, and planned to return there the following year: a sophisticated man, at home in the world.
When they told him of what they had just experienced, the strange travelers, the ghostly trail, the eerie valley and the palpable feeling of evil, they half-expected him to laugh, but his eyes and voice became absolutely serious: “That is a very bad place.” he told them. “You were very, very lucky you turned around when you did. If the lady – ” he indicated Claudia – “hadn’t slipped and fallen—” he paused—“Perhaps a friendly spirit was watching over you, and placed that rock under your foot – but really, you were lucky.” He paused, and gazed out the door at the steep stony meadows and the clouds beyond, and then he turned and looked them at them again: “Many, many people disappear there; they go too far down that trail, too far to turn back. Then the darkness comes, and they get lost in it, and the spirits who live there take them away, and they are never seen again.”