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Notes From the Road: Sky, Rock, Emptiness, Truth

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Danuru Sherpa hiking to Ama Dablam Base Camp in the Himalayan mountains of Nepal

Despite totally sleepless nights, unbearable cold, and a potential stomach virus, things are really awesome here. That’s one of the weird things about the big mountains. It hurts like crazy but the views are worth it.

Base Camp at Ama Dablam is usually a nice grass field and the hike to Camp 1 is usually a long, but dry, hike in tennis shoes. Not this year. This year it’s deep snow. Terrible for climbing, but awesome for photos.

I keep having to remind myself, “I’m here for photos, not the summit. I’m here for photos not the summit. I’m here for photos, not the summit.” It’s a bit confusing because every other person here is only here for the summit (or at least the Facebook post of them on the summit). So the work begins.

Starting early enough in the day we are able, from time to time, to step off of the steep icy path onto the hard-crusted snow that has been touched only by a winter fox. I trace its tracks switch-backing up the steep slope near a Sherpa who is carrying tents to Camp 1. This is just a brief photo foray, but the day turns into a nearly 4,000-foot vertical climb because I keep wanting more. Being new to the big mountains, I quickly fall into a trance and am overwhelmed by the scene that surrounds me. Peaks in every direction make the Grand Tetons of my home state look like small foothills.

At one point I turn around and Taboche, at over 21,000 feet, is above the clouds, alone, like a giant altar in some epic, otherworldly ceremony. The scale of physicality, of time and space, is so different it is disorienting. There are just a few of us up here, marching in a line of brightly colored down jackets in otherwise endless white. We are so high above the organic world of living things, above the billions of beings churning endlessly through the cycle of life and death. There is something about this icy world that feels completely removed from ours. So far from the moist soil, and the stray dogs, the traffic jams, office buildings, and funerals. Like it’s already the other side. More spirit than flesh.

My climbing partner Panuru is ahead of me. He’s seen it all before. But for me it is a rare moment of surprise that snuck up on me in the hour I was looking at the ground. And suddenly tears are streaming down my cheeks. I’m not sure how to tell you why. What I see is just so much bigger than the thoughts that swarm my brain that it washes them all away for a brief moment of emptiness and purity. Like the curtains have parted and the illusion is lifted. All that’s left is sky, rock, emptiness, Truth.

And then for the rest of the hike it happens whenever I stop and look long enough to let it in. And I don’t think for a minute about trying to stop it because I want the veil to be lifted. Panuru stops ahead of me from time to time, and I am glad I am wearing sunglasses and that my big black hat and a band of fabric covers most of my face. I don’t want to have to explain the tears.

The closest thing I can compare this feeling to is what is felt at the birth of my only child. Now I know why people come here and are willing to die in these mountains.

Photographer Aaron Huey recently returned from an assignment for National Geographic in the Himalaya. Over the coming days we’ll be reporting on his adventures as he discovers the joys and pains of high altitude photography while surrounded by snow and ice. You can see all of Aaron’s Notes From the Road here. You can also follow his journey on Instagram (@argonautphoto).

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