The mountaineer’s curse: the higher one goes, the higher one wants to go. The high point of our stay in Munsiari was the tip-top of Mt. Khalia, 12,600 feet—by no means the biggest of the Himalayas, but the best of all perches to see them from. Under clear skies, not a breath of wind, the whole snaggle-toothed horizon was ours to take in, from Nanda Devi in the west to towering Nepali peaks in the east. The craggy faces of those inaccessible giants were suddenly right there to dance with, cheek to cheek…if only we had enough breath left to ask them.
Our two-day trek up Khalia was no mean feat. Our local guide Zanskar and his three co-leaders hauled bigger backpacks than ours, but our tents and food and snowshoes seemed to get heavier, the further from earth we climbed. Luckily we were well provisioned with fruit and chocolate. Through woods dominated by blooming rhododendron, huge oaks hung with ferns and jungly epiphytes, and larger and larger patches of snow, we hiked up to a ridge from which the town of Munsiari and the chasm of the whole Gori Ganga river valley spread out in front of us. We shared the hill with a flock of sheep, their shepherd, and his sheepdogs, none of whom seemed to feel our vertigo or huff and puff quite like us. The bleached teeth and vertebrae of generations of those same flocks were all around us; James Speaks and Zoe Hewitt, amateur paleontologists, pieced a few together.
About 2:00 in the afternoon we made camp in an open meadow, Khalia still looming above us. After putting up tents and gathering firewood, the next order of business was striking outlandish poses with red and pink rhododendrons for Mr. Nemitz’s 2018-19 India Trip Benefit Calendar…coming soon to a dorm room near you. We ate delicious ramen around the fire as Venus disappeared under the ridge and a tremendous number of stars popped out by twos, threes, and then by the hundreds. Without a moon to compete with, the constellations had us all tipping our heads back in amazement. Camille Pollak and Ella Rutledge composed new chapters to their ongoing works of fiction, out loud and on paper; in a place like this, imaginations had room to sprawl.
The next day’s hike to the summit was arduous but short: halfway through the morning, all ten students who had set out on the trek were standing atop Khalia, a first for Dublin trips here. Below us, flocks of huge Himalayan Monals exploded into view and out of it, and Alpine Swifts made dizzy circles overhead. The steep north slope of the summit plunged into a deep bowl, and in lieu of a sled, Mr. Nemitz donned an emergency poncho to do some face-first sliding down the wet snow. Rielly Harrison and Alex Antonellis boldly followed his lead, and on our descent, all of us took turns sliding down the steepest grade—though not without a few screams of protest. Halfway down, when it was clear she would probably survive the event and live to see another day, Ali Weis could be heard exclaiming, “I’m going to be a mycologist!”
After some much-needed rest in Munsiari, the group had the last of its “seminars,” learning about local and national Indian government and reflecting on our own experiences here. All our home-stay families gathered, along with kids from the informal Jungli School collective, for an afternoon of games, singing, dancing, and (of course) tea. We learned “Kabadee,” a hybrid of Red Rover, Capture the Flag, and no-holds-barred Australian-rules football. Our home-stay mothers, some as old as 65 and dressed in immaculate saris and knit sweaters, proved entirely willing to tackle their American guests to the ground by any means necessary, as Faith Lewis’s torn shirt will testify. We danced to the drums, panting; led the group in singing “This Land is Your Land”; ate sugary halva with cabbage leaves for bowls…and some of us (Ali) ate the bowls.
The trip is all downhill from here—at least measured by elevation. We bid farewell to our families and return to Chaukori for Wednesday night—fingers crossed for a second dance party…