You can see the worried look on a man’s face more easily when you are entrusting him with your life. You recognize the extra wrinkle, the furrowed brow, the look of concern. When he walks away with his hand upon a knife, you trust his judgement. You must.
We started our two-day 4,715 ascent toward Sakteng, home of Bhutan’s Brokpa tribe, on March 19, 2010. In our river camp on the first night, we stretched our sore muscles and splashed in the cool confidence of achievement before drinking beer, whiskey and rum as a triple insulator. We had made good time on a trail seldom seen by outsiders.
The pack ponies carrying our gear rolled in the dirt and munched the sparse grass near the camp.
A handful of villagers arrived with gifts of rice wine and local brew poured into discarded bottles and a ragged thermos. Sip slowly. Smile. Pull the cup slowly to your lap and pour it under the table. To refuse is a discourtesy. To swallow is often intestinal sabotage. The next morning, we crawled from the tents before daybreak for the uphill climb was full of uncertainty on a trail closed to tourists since the mid-1980s. By lunch, an unseasonal heat wave fired up 90-degree temperatures and made it obvious that we needed to carry more water. At the Thrakthrig General Store, we stopped and untied our boots to free our feet and grab a quick bite. We had made it to 7,638 feet, and the air began to thin.Within an hour, the call went out to boot up and get ready for the afternoon climb up another 2,000 feet on a narrow, rocky trail.
There was a problem. It arrived in the form of the pony man, the photogenic, happy pony man. Seems he was six ponies shy of his commitment and now, at the halfway point, he wanted to leave us high, dry and ponyless. It all made sense as I watched the scene unfold. I remembered how our guide had gathered grass for the ponies the night before, and how the pony man had ignored his offer and built a fire for himself instead. And just that morning when the pony man and his crew were forced to unpack the herd and push the animals across the bridge, it wasn’t a stubborn animal trick after all? It was horse sense. They were hungry, worried and a little out of shape. Oh, I knew those feelings well.
Motivation comes in many forms:
- Mental fortitude
- Friendly persuasion
- A big-ass knife
Here on a misty mountainside in karma-blessed Bhutan, land of gross national happiness, the long arm of reality was about to get unsheathed. Here was my thought: The next time I looked into the pale eyes of a pack pony and saw fear, I was going to believe it. Voices escalated. Hands grasped knife belts. Threats teetered on action best described as a “my knife is bigger than your knife” pissing contest without the piss. In the end, the pony man came out on the short end of the argument with only an oozing ego. Attitude adjusted, he gave up on the idea of giving up on us. Pony Man repacked his meager herd and plodded onward. Our lead guide – the one with a spirit so sweet you could cut it with a knife, well, almost, hired a local woman, her son and their ponies to help Pony Man carry our tents, food and water. We pulled on our boots, took another swig of water and followed them down a dust trail and then up and up
It reached 95 degrees on a day predicted to hover around 70 degrees. By 2 o’clock, we were behind schedule on a narrow, rocky footpath jammed with the local rush hour traffic of yaks and packs. Men and women hurried to lug their water back to their homes. Children bounced up the trail on their way home from school. Groups of villagers carrying steel poles and reels of electrical cable kept a steady pace as they tried to complete their job of delivering the goods that would someday bring electricity to their villages.
First, you stop and take photos of the yaks, the donkeys, the tribal men wearing animal skins. Then, you comment on the children in their blue rain boots running up this big rock dandy mountain. An hour or two later, you begin to ignore the whole lot of them. Another 80-year-old woman carrying an infant on her back and a basket of buckwheat on her head? So what. A 7-year-old carrying a 2-year-old? He’s not heavy. He’s a Brokpa. You start wise-assing just for motivational hydration. Finally, you beg for someone to happen by, please, so we can stop.
Mist rolled into the mountains cloaking the valley with a cotton-candy sweetness. The blazing red rhododendrons grew heavy with dewy frosting. It would have made a great photograph, but we stayed focused on putting one foot in front of the other. Our guide began telling Bhutanese stories about wandering spirits dispensing misfortune to travelers who paused too long in the mountains. It was a ploy, a bogey man under the bed kind of ploy. It worked. We understood the need to catch up to the ponies before nightfall. They had the food. They had the water.
One of my fellow hikers began to shiver. Her speech jumped around in an irrational way. Her pack was with the camp crew so she had no extra layers to deal with a dipping temperature. It was now teetering on 30 degrees, and the chilled breath of fog coated the trees in ghost sheets. When one of the most experienced trek leaders of Bhutan paused at the peak and subtly tried to see if his cell phone worked, I began to empathize with the ponies.
“Keep walking, keep going,” I said and handed over a sweater stuck in the bottom of my pack. Then I repeated a lie that every trekker hears sometime on the trail, “It’s just around the next bend.” The oncoming traffic was fading like the light. We came upon three villagers tucked into a rock outcropping as they prepared to bed down for the night. How much longer? Not far? How far? Not long. No one wanted to commit.
Finally, we saw the light, a bouncing white ball of salvation thrown from a cheap flashlight down in a valley where hours are not marked by hands on a watch. Our friends ahead of us had tried to send two ponies loaded with water, warm clothes and lights, but the stubborn pony man had refused again. Unfortunately, the man with the knife was with us.
If you walk the wrong way around a prayer wheel in Bhutan, they say your next life is spent as a dung beetle. Rest in peace, Pony Man. I hope you like the taste of dung in the morning and the afternoon and eternity.
We stumbled into the camp and stripped off our clothes, grabbing anything warm as we dressed like children bound for a snowstorm. Quickly, we gulped whisky and soup before plunging into our sleeping bags with warm thoughts of stumbling our way up to 9,600 feet in less than 12 hours.
Sometime in the night, frost coated our tents. Sometime in the night, the dogs began to bark as the ponies galloped away in the hunt for sweet grass.
Sometime in the night, I realized it was worth it.