Sunday, August 26

More - Nangpa La - Awe of Death

In his book ‘Storms of Silence’ Joe Simpson relates a more pitiable memoir of an experience on the same Nanga Pa trade route near the Tibetan border.

‘Did you see the grave?’
‘Grave? What grave?’
‘There’s a grave further down the trail. We passed it yesterday.’
‘I didn’t see a grave,’ I said, trying to remember the walk up from Arya.
‘It wasn’t very obvious,’ Geoff added, ‘just a mound of stones really. It's not far away. Do you want to see it?'
‘Er . . . no’, I hesitated. ‘I don't think so. Not now - I'll see it on the way down.’
As I set off after the others I couldn't get the woman's grave out of my mind. Who was she? Who buried her? Why did she die? I wondered why she hadn't been brought down for cremation or given a traditional Tibetan air burial. Maybe they don't do that round here.
I turned the volume up on my personal stereo and tried to forget her but she kept coming back to me. It was troubling to be hexed by the memory of a grave that I hadn't seen and a woman who, for me, might never have existed. I thought of the wind-whispered voices in the shelter and remembered the sense of past souls calling to me from the shadows.
The bleak emptiness of the stony valley where she had died unsettled me. I hoped that she had died in the company of others, even the arms of strangers, rather than face that ultimate loneliness by herself. The barren mound of rocks she had become was something to warn passing travellers and quicken their steps; a grim lonely site, unmarked, almost indistinguishable from the surrounding rubble.
I wondered whether she had been with a group or if passing traders had stumbled across her body as it was released by the melting winter snows. Perhaps she had been separated from her party in a storm, slowed down by her weakness until .at last she succumbed to the insidious grip of winter's frost. Maybe she simply got lost in a blizzard and passed the group of shelters never knowing how close she was to protection from the storm.
Who was to say that it was a storm or altitude sickness that had killed her? Her frailty may have already been created long before she attempted to cross the pass. She could have been a nun escaping imprisonment and torture, half-starved, staggering down from the mountain, abandoning her beloved homeland and carrying away with her the scars of rifle butts and electric batons, broken bones and battered organs.(‘Storms of Silence’ published by Vintage 1997)
Joe Simpson is of course, the experienced mountaineer who achieved universal fame for surviving an incredible accident in the South American Cordillera Huayhuash mountains. As he fell over the edge of an ice cliff, his partner to whom he had been secured, lost his anchorage as well and felt himself been dragged remorselessly to the same edge. Faced with an unbelievable situation and having to make a momentous decision in a matter of a few split seconds, he cut Joe’s lifeline…
Joe came to rest on a narrow ledge in a deep crevasse with a shattered leg. The story of how he spent three days crawling through ‘the wasteland of crevasses and jumbled rock debris’ to arrive back in main camp just as the party was about to leave has been translated into thirteen languages and earned him the Boardman Tasker and NCR awards.(‘Touching the Void’ published by Vintage 1998)

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