I wish I could say that I gamboled up the slopes of Nepal like a mountain goat. Or begin this report with a sentence that reads: As we forded the Kali Gandaki River, my companions far behind.... Or better yet: Where was my Sherpa guide? Lost, no doubt.
Alas! The truth of the matter is I did not gambol, I limped. I did not ford the Kali Gandaki River, I fell in. And my Sherpa guide is thinking of early retirement. As I nurse sensation back into still-numb feet I now add trekking to the list of things at which I am inept, in a history of general ineptness.
Trekking, the current euphemism for walking, is the latest rage in holiday travel. It is antipathetic to motorized transport, television, home-cooked meals, electric lights, hot baths and beds with coil springs. Nevertheless, people wanting to get away from it all can and do trek—over Alp and through jungle, leaving footprints in the snows of Iceland, the dust of East Africa and the dank flora of New Guinea. Finally, if they are ultimists, they can even try the sine qua non of trekking, the Himalayas, via Nepal, that tiny mountain-studded kingdom between India and Tibet. Of the 12 highest mountains in the world seven are in Nepal. Its people, born on slopes inimical to the wheel, are a merry mixture of countless tribes. Superstitious, they are moved more by gods than politicians. They go barefoot up stony hillsides, breathing unpolluted air. They laugh a lot.
Ah, you are thinking, what joy, what peace, but you are thinking it as you sip a dry martini or snuggle down on your Beautyrest. Likewise, once upon a time, a sweet innocence or two ago, thought I.
It all started when I heard that Cooks Travel Service had scheduled a Himalayan trek from Pokhara to Annapurna. Cooks—The Greatest Name in Travel. Also the Oldest, the Wisest, the Most Economical. For a mere $1,000 I could rely on Cooks to transport me from London to Nepal and back. The price included food, tent and guidance every step of the way for 21 carefree days among picture-book mountains. There used to be a song, Follow the Man from Cooks. Had Cooks in the past not arranged for countless little old ladies to visit such exotic places as Paris, Venice and Cairo, met them at airports, tucked them into hotels and brought them back? Would a company with such a reputation offer to take me for a walk and lead me down the garden path? Vacation in the Himalayas? Why not? Good old Cooks.
My knowledge of mountains was minimal, though I had applauded the conquest of Everest with the rest of the world and had always admired Sir Edmund Hillary's first words as he and Tenzing Norgay descended from the summit of the highest mountain. "Well," he is reported to have said, "we knocked the bastard off." Prior to that, Maurice Herzog had climbed Annapurna, the first of the Great Himalayas to be scaled, but in the process left all of his fingers and toes behind. Mountains don't fool around. I had a mental vision of myself shaking a small, chapped fist at Annapurna, though trekking, in truth, has about the same relationship to mountain climbing as the Soap Box Derby has to the Indianapolis 500. This in no way diminished my enthusiasm. I am inordinately fond of my fingers and toes. I wrote to Cooks in London for further information.
By return mail came an application form, with a request that my doctor submit a letter attesting to my good health. Would my lungs, for example, hold up at an altitude of 18,000 feet? The application also asked that I list my previous walking or climbing experience. The distance we would trek, as best could be judged, would be roughly 250 miles. My personal record of a lifetime might have added up to a three-mile round trip, achieved during the New York bus and subway strike, when I labored along the flat, concrete sidewalks of Sixth Avenue to and from my office, drowned in self-pity. This would never do for Cooks. I wrote that I was an active member of the Sierra Club, which was true. I had paid my dues regularly. As an afterthought I tossed in that I had walked from the Italian Riviera to the French Riviera, which added a nice, Continental flavor and was inspired by a friend who had made such a trip. If I had not actually slogged the route myself, the two or three boring weekends I put in looking at his slides and homemade movies of the scenery made me eligible.
Harry J. Grant, the special promotions manager of Cooks, apparently took all this fiction to be fact and wrote back promptly that I had been accepted into an otherwise all-British group—nine women and 14 men. I tried to visualize the British citizens with whom I would be trekking to Annapurna, but it was no good. They all came out looking like Leslie Howard dragging Hermione Gingold up a hill.
When Harry Grant's first formal bulletin arrived, it left no doubt in my mind that I was not going to be sitting around Nepalese gardens sipping tea. "Intending members," he advised, "should appreciate that when trekking in Nepal they are for nearly all of the time away from 'civilised' centres, in a remote countryside with few forms of communication other than bearers. They will be camping in wild and sometimes quite difficult conditions, and although their basic provisions will be carried with them they must rely for meat on livestock in the countryside. The Annapurna area is said to be fairly well-endowed in this respect, and chicken, goat meat and possibly yak meat are likely to be available from time to time in variation of the basic tinned-meat diet and farinaceous foods such as rice and spaghetti."
While I was still trying to cope with farinaceous foods the itinerary arrived, and exotic names leapt out at me: Pokhara, Henja, Pamdur, Tatopani. A clothing list, covering two pages, accompanied the itinerary. "Bring a pair of sneakers for evening wear in camp," ran the most depressing line on the optional list. I was to be thrown on the collective bosom of 14 Leslie Howards, and all I would have to offer by way of charm was a pair of sneakers. Any notion I had been entertaining about looking sexy apr�s-trek was now dismissed. Bulletins continued to flow across the Atlantic, and I sent one of my own to the prolific Grant.