On Top of the World

Michael Palin may be best known for his roles in "Monty Python's Flying Circus" and the highly irreverent film "Life of Brian," but it is through his travels that many of us feel a common bond. In 1988, he undertook a globe-circling trip for the BBC that became the book "Around the World in 80 Days."

"Highlights for me included the passage through the Corinth canal, the week on the dhow, my first visit to China and a stunningly beautiful rail crossing of America," he wrote. "And, of course, making it home with only half a day to spare."

Since then, he has undertaken "Pole to Pole"; "Full Circle," in the Pacific Rim; "Hemingway Adventure," following the author's footsteps; and "Sahara."

Then someone suggested the Himalaya, and thus was born, in May 2003, a 3,000-mile, 125-day journey among the world's tallest mountains, from Pakistan to southwest China.

"The scope of our journey means that this is not a mountaineer's account of the Himalaya," he writes in the introduction to the book. "It's a traveler's account."

"What I feel we have achieved … is to put the Himalaya in a human perspective."

In this excerpt from "Himalaya," which is to be published in late summer in the U.S., he leads us on an eye-opening and very real journey in Nepal from Pokhara to the Annapurna Base Camp, accompanied by his guides, Wongchu Sherpa and Nawang Dorjee Sherpa, photographer Basil Pao and a BBC film crew.


We leave Pokhara this morning for our first serious assault on the mountains. Because of time constraints, we shall be taken by helicopter to our start point at Chomrung. A 20-minute flight instead of what would be a two-day walk.

Once the helicopter has delivered us, we're left in deep and almost sensuous silence, hemmed in by the steep, thickly wooded walls of a valley, one side in brilliant sunshine, the other in impenetrable shade. At this height—we're at just over 7,000 feet—even the most precipitous slopes are cultivated. Across the valley, I can see a farmhouse with 40 terraces, descending the hillside below, one after the other. Rising high in the distance, the summits of Annapurna and Machhapuchhre (Fish Tail Mountain) mark the parameters of our adventure—our constant companions on the trail, the objects of our pilgrimage.

For now, the atmosphere is relaxed. We sit outside the hotel in warm sunshine surrounded by all the trappings of an English country garden: thickets of marigold, chrysanthemum and nasturtium, butterflies fluttering round hydrangea bushes. The trail up to Annapurna runs through the hotel and a steady stream of walkers comes by.

Three Israeli students tell us they have been approached by Maoists and asked for 1,000 rupees (about $15) each. They pleaded student poverty, but the Maoists were insistent, and, as one was armed, they thought it best not to argue. They were dealt with very courteously and issued receipts. Nevertheless, Wongchu doesn't think we'll have trouble with the Maoists.

There seem to be plenty of other things to worry about, if a large sign just outside the hotel is to be believed. We are, apparently, in an avalanche risk area. "Cross the Risk Area before 10 a.m.," the sign warns.

If you avoid the avalanche, you could still fall victim to acute mountain sickness. Symptoms are divided into "Early," which include "Headache, Loss of Appetite, Dizziness, Fatigue on Minimal Exertion" and "Worsening," characterized by "Increasing Tiredness, Severe Headache, Walking Like Drunk and Vomitting" (sic). "What To Do?" asks the big metal signboard. The answer is unequivocal. "Descend! Descend! Descend!"


Day 50 // Chomrung to Dovan

We set off about 8 a.m. Our 35 porters, though expertly marshaled by our 13 Sherpas, are not used to the stop-start interruptions of filming, and by 9:30 we have reached only as far as the Chomrung General Store. More worryingly, our progress up to Annapurna has been entirely downhill. We'll surely have to pay for this.

The store, crowded with schoolchildren buying sweets, is our last chance to buy "sophisticated provisions." The range of goods gives a foretaste of the weapons we might need: Pringles, porridge oats, toilet paper, vodka, "Man's Briefs," chocolate, "Bandage for Knee Caps," nail clippers, Chinese playing cards and rum.

Once outside the village we continue down on paths occasionally stepped with wide stone slabs until we cross the River Modi and at last the ascent begins. The porters bend to their work. As I watch their rubber sandals nimbly negotiate the rocks ahead of me, I'm ashamed to think how long I spent deciding on which kind of boots to wear. And some of them are carrying 88 pounds in their wicker backpacks.

For a while it's idyllic. Prayer flags festoon the trees at intervals, fat bees feed off the cornflowers, lizards sprint across the mica-sparkling rock.

"Namaste," I say cheerfully to everyone we pass.

Wongchu sticks fairly close to me. He's been given the impression that I'm someone of consequence, though he's not sure why. He's in his late 30s, solidly built with broad features and high cheekbones. He's horrendously overqualified for this sort of work, having twice summitted Everest.

He talks in staccato bursts of heavily compressed English, a lot of which I miss.

I ask him what he thinks about the situation in Nepal.

He looks around with a shrug and a sweep of the arm.

"Nobody in charge of the country anymore."

We climb over a spur and begin moving down through thick rhododendron and then bamboo forest. The way becomes increasingly dark, overgrown and claustrophobic. The sun has disappeared behind the mountains and a white mist is descending as we reach our overnight stop at Dovan. There are three long, gray stone buildings with blue painted tin roofs to choose from: the Dovan Guest House, the Annapurna Approach Lodge and Restaurant Hotel Tip Top. All are identical and all are full. In the courtyards, a largely Western crowd of trekkers is resting, washing, snacking, lolling and generally looking exhausted.

"Tourism," mutters Wongchu, contemptuously. Though of course he makes his living from it.

The Sherpas set up camp. We've had a long, hard day's walk and only 1,000 feet to show for it. The talk at supper is not uplifting, turning mainly around the choice of our next camping spot, bearing in mind the risk of avalanche farther up the mountain.

As we sit at the table after supper, Wongchu, unbidden, comes round and massages shoulders, arms, heads. He has fingers like steel.

"Sleep well, now," he assures me.

How wrong he was.


Day 51 // Dovan to Derali

Temperatures fell sharply in the night, and when I push back the flap of my tent it's ice cold with condensation. As we approach the toughest part of the trek, I can no longer ignore the inconvenient fact that I am feeling pretty lousy.

I stubbornly resist offers from Nawang and Wongchu to carry my backpack for me. It's become a matter of pride for me to carry it.

We set out at 7:30 a.m., climbing up steep stone staircases through a tangle of semi-tropical woodland, with wispy lengths of Spanish moss trailing from the branches of the trees like a trail of feather boas. When we emerge from the trees the sunshine is still way up in the mountaintops, but the air is cool and fresh.

The distance between us and the tantalizing ceiling of sunlight high above us is gradually decreasing, but it's not until 10:15 a.m. that it tips over the rim of the mountains and spills into the valley. The temperature change is dramatic. Off with fleece and on with 35 factor sun cream.

The scenery change is equally dramatic. After 24 hours of sometimes oppressive forest, the valley now opens and widens out and for the first time I have a sense of the monumental scale of what we are heading into.

The 40-mile-long wall that stretches from Annapurna I in the west to Annapurna II in the east has no fewer than nine summits above 23,000 feet. Even closer to us are Annapurna South at 23,678 feet, Hiunchuli, over 21,000 feet and, barely five miles due east, the mesmerically eye-catching Machhapuchhre, the highest of its two pinnacles rising just short of 23,000 feet. Not much time for wonder, as we have to keep moving, stopping, filming and moving, eventually stopping for a more substantial breather beneath a soaring overhang called the Hinko Rocks.

We reach the Sangri-La (sic) guest house at lunchtime and decide to go no farther today. It turns out to be a good decision. By 2:30 p.m. a swirling, vaporous cloud has descended, bringing the temperature down with it. Out of T-shirts and shorts and into scarves, hats, gloves and eventually thermals. We have a grandstand view of Machhapuchhre, revealing itself in tantalizing Garboesque glimpses between the drifting cloud.

It's a holy mountain. It is forbidden to slaughter any animal within its sacred valley, and Wongchu says his attempts to obtain permission to climb it have always been refused.

As the conditions become increasingly cold and inhospitable, the only members of our expedition who look at all cheerful are the porters. Released from their loads half a day early, they spend the afternoon noisily gambling away their take-home pay. We eat early, sitting on wool-covered benches around a rectangular table that is usually heated from beneath by a kerosene stove, but it isn't working tonight. Freshly made Gurung bread, thick, yet light and filling, then anodyne vegetable noodle soup and fried rice. The staple diet of the mountains is dal baht, lentils and rice, but our cooks seem unwilling to offer us this and instead try manfully to provide us with what they think Westerners want.

The night is cold. I take an analgesic and hope that it will help me sleep. It knocks me out for two-hour periods and tames the coughing but provides little relief from an increasingly angry sore throat. One word repeats itself in my disordered dreams. Descend! Descend! Descend!


Day 52 // Derali to Machhapuchhre Base Camp

At breakfast Wongchu asks me how I am. I give him quite a detailed progress report on cold, cough, sandpaper-like throat and general collapse of system. He ponders this before narrowing his eyes like Sherlock Holmes confronted with a new and unexpected clue.

"You have beer last night?"

I try to cast my mind back. "A little."

Wongchu nods gravely. "No beer."

The sun is setting fire to the crests of the mountains, but it is still a long way from delivering us from this bitter morning chill. We fall to reminiscing about the good old days in the heart of the Sahara desert.

The porters, so ebulliently happy yesterday afternoon, are quiet and subdued. They will be paid $8 for each day on the mountain.

Though we have only about 1,000 feet to climb today, the path rises and falls in a frustrating switchback.

I've given up saying Namaste to everyone who passes, but I'm momentarily cheered when I plod up to the top of yet another stone staircase and come level with two middle-aged American ladies. I see a look of recognition on one of their faces and hear a gasp of excitement as I pass.

"Oh, my God!"

I nod appreciatively, straighten my back and move on.

"It's Eric Idle!"

This precipitates serious psychological collapse. Half an hour later, exhausted by the pain of swallowing and the increasing effort required to pull in oxygen at this height, I finally yield my backpack to Wongchu. He takes it with a quiet smile, as if accepting the surrender of a garrison after a long siege.

Shedding the weight doesn't make things any better.

Stagger into Machhapuchhre Base Camp around lunchtime. It's a much more open, jollier place than last night's guest house, full of infuriatingly happy campers sitting outside their tents.

Even the majestic scenery—shapely Fish Tail and chunky Annapurna—fails to lift my spirits. I feel completely busted. The merest movement to take food, to peel off a coat, to unpack an overnight bag, requires major physical effort. After a cup of garlic soup I decide there is nothing to do but take to my bed. Because of my condition, I'm upgraded from tent to room.

It's a standard mountain lodge accommodation, a stone-walled cell, 8 by 10 foot, with a flagstone floor that traps the cold and damp, and a wooden bed frame on which is a thin mattress and a pillow.

There is not much else to do but turn my back on one of the finest mountain panoramas in the world and climb, fully dressed, into my sleeping bag until whatever it is passes.

"You eat," orders Wongchu when I surface a few hours later. "Need food." Force down some garlic soup, enlivened with shards of spring onion and green pepper. My neck and forehead are feverishly hot, and once I've finished, all I want to do is to go back to bed.

Wongchu and Nawang deal with me most tenderly. Despite all my protestations, they prepare a bowl of steaming inhalant and insist I use it. Nawang gets fresh hot water and helps me bathe my feet. Then they guide me into my sleeping bag. I feel rather as if I'm being laid out, and I must say at this moment the Grim Reaper would not be an unwelcome visitor.

I close my eyes and wait.


Day 53 // to Annapurna Base Camp

I wake up, wrenched from sleep by some chest-racking cough, and am seized by near panic. Everything is pitch black, silent and cold as ice. I have no sensation of where I am. I scrabble around for my headlamp, sending a bottle of pills clattering across the hard stone floor. For a few minutes I simply lie there.

All sorts of things go through my mind. The one thing I can't dismiss: For the first time in any of my journeys, I may have to face the possibility of failure. I'm 60, after all, and there must be a point at which the body puts its foot down, as it were.

For a depressing hour or so I can't escape this profound feeling of being defeated, physically and mentally, by the Himalaya.

When I next wake, though there is absolutely no physical sign of time passing, I know, even before I search for my flashlight, that I've been out for a while. And in that time some sea change has taken place. I'm no longer hot and feverish, and the sense of survival seems stronger than the sense of doom.

With some effort I pull myself up and take sips of hot water from the thermos Nawang insisted I keep beside me. It's 4 a.m. and as sure as I was three hours ago that I wouldn't make it, I know now that there can be no question of turning back.

This morning, I feel I'm emerging from hibernation. Last night was winter and this is spring.

I leave the camp, climbing due west. The snowfields of the Annapurna Himal lie dead ahead, shining and brilliant in the rising sun.

Nawang stays beside me all the way, making sure I take regular slugs of water. Wongchu, who, reassuringly, seems to think I no longer need his personal supervision, walks ahead, looking like Geronimo and pausing occasionally to chat to some descending female trekker. These encounters really seem to cheer him up, as well as make up for my dawdling.

So it is a tired but unrecognizably happier band that pulls itself up the last, agonizingly long and steep flight of steps to Annapurna Base Camp.

Appropriately enough for Annapurna, the Hindu goddess of fertility, a dal baht lunch is waiting, and on the sun-filled terrace I can sit and enjoy a combination of relief and release. For the time being, at least, I don't need to go any higher.

There's quite a crowd of trekkers already at the camp and, with a captive audience, Wongchu is in his element. Like many climbers I know, he has an inexhaustible supply of disaster stories. He points out a small Buddhist shrine just outside the camp, which marks the spot where Anatoli Boukreev, a Russian climber, was killed by an avalanche. Annapurna I has taken the lives of some 15 people. Some, he adds mysteriously, have died because they offended the mountain gods.

"By eating meat?"

"Eating meat, yes. But also having sex."

"Having sex?"

He nods knowingly. As there has been absolutely no question of my having sex on Annapurna, the gods seem to be positively smiling. For once the sunset is not lost in the mist, and at 6 o'clock, 40 or 50 people from all over the world gather to watch the light show on the peaks of Machhapuchhre. A small act of homage to the Himalaya.


Day 54 // Annapurna Base Camp to Pokhara

Last night my chest and lungs were better behaved but I was kept from deep sleep by an avalanche of images that roared through my brain, unbidden and unstoppable. At least I had no recurrence of the sensory deprivations of the night before.

We're due to be taken off by helicopter sometime this morning. I must be honest and say that, for me, it's not a moment too soon. I think back to the enthralled group silent in the face of the majestic beauty of Machhapuchhre, and I wonder if we aren't all in danger of falling into the romantic delusion that by staring at these great massifs of rock and ice we achieve some form of communication with them, as if something so forbiddingly colossal must somehow be friendly.

The mountains are far more likely to be enemies than friends. We take them on at our peril and, despite all nature's warnings, long to go higher. And the higher we go, the more the mountains tighten their grip, squeezing the life out of most people, gently in some cases, more severely in others. Human beings are not meant to live at these heights, and they should expect trouble if they do.

If there is a reward for reaching this height (13,400 feet), it is the exhilaration of the immense. Because we're that much closer to the top of the peaks, the sunlight reaches us earlier than it did below, and the dazzling clarity of the light sharpens and intensifies every detail of this mighty bowl of mountains.

My skepticism thaws a little with the sun, and as we walk beyond the camp and look out over the monumental sweep of the glacier that unwinds from the Annapurna Ridge, gouging a valley from the sheer rock, I realize how extraordinarily lucky I am to have seen all this.


From the book "Himalaya," by Michael Palin. Copyright © 2004 by the author. Photographs copyright © 2004 by Basil Pao. Reprinted by arrangement with Thomas Dunne Books, an imprint of St. Martin's Press LLC.