The Sherpa woman glared down from above the unmarked trail junction where I stood, uncertain which way to go. Her black eyes stared through me as if I were a ghost.
''Keni hinang Nang? Lam ga Nang?" I asked in phrasebook Sherpa and Tibetan, gesturing toward one trail and then the other. Then I tried Nepali: ''Kun bato Nang?" Finally, English: ''Which way to Nang?"
Her look seemed full of some deeply rooted hostility that had finally found a place to rest. I had no idea if my attempts at the local languages and hand gestures were in any way comprehensible, but a shiver ran through me. She wasn't going to tell me which trail went to Nang. She was silent as rock, so immobile that I wondered if she was deaf or mute.
Traveling without a guide, my friend Neil and I had ventured off the most popular trekking route and were heading up a side valley to Mount Everest. We hadn't been concerned until now because the routes were clear and we knew we could get food along the way at the lodges or from locals happy to earn some money. But we were down to our last few scraps and we had a long way to go.
We shrugged, agreed on the lower trail, and went on our way. Despite the heavy pack on my back I couldn't shake the chill that had settled upon me, and the longer we walked away from the woman, the more I wondered if the chill was as much from the strange encounter with her as the clinging fog that had crept up the canyon. I began to mull stories my Nepali friends had told me of evil spirits that preyed on vulnerable beings, and I wondered if I was vulnerable, if I'd done something to bring this ill omen into our path. I walked on, following Neil, cold, hungry, uneasy.
The trail gradually descended. Fog drifted around us like a shifting shroud. The sound of the river below had grown from a faint backdrop to a constant growling companion. More than an hour later we stopped and ate our final biscuits. We'd seen no one since our encounter with the Sherpani.
''What did you make of that woman back there?" I asked.
''Strange. Made me wonder if she even knew we were there.''
A puff of damp breeze penetrated my three layers of clothing. ''I felt like she saw us all right, but wanted nothing to do with us.''
''Could be,'' Neil said. ''She probably has a hundred trekkers a day asking directions.''
''Yeah, maybe,'' I said, but it felt deeper than that.
A moment later I struggled to rise, hardly noticing that Neil was already making his way down the trail. One foot in front of the other, I reminded myself, my mantra for trekking in Nepal. The fog clung to the trees, licking with an icy tongue, deepening my chill.
Soon we could see the river at the bottom of the chasm, a churning, gray torrent stripping the land and sweeping glacier dust from the flanks of Everest. Still we had seen no one, nor any sign of human habitation except the trail that drew us silently on. Then the trail broke off at the site of an enormous gash in the canyon, a landslide that had taken half a mountain with it. Neil was staring grimly at the near-vertical slope we had to cross when I caught up with him. My legs felt like lead, and by the look of things we had no choice but to turn back. My heart sank. We knew we'd find no food or shelter by going back. We'd walked too far and couldn't possibly climb out of the canyon before dark. But how could we proceed?
Neil surprised me by saying he thought we could make it across. ''Look, the hillside is soft, we can plant our feet. Take it slow, and easy, and we'll make it.''
With a heavy pack to balance, I didn't see how I could, but I was too tired to dissent. One slip would mean a certain, fast slide down at least a hundred feet to the boulders and that roiling current. But we had little choice, and Neil set out.
He dug in his boot, then planted the next one in a timid step, then another, and another until he was moving slowly across the slide, leaving bootprints for me to follow.
Unsteadily I took a step, then another. Pebbles dislodged and sluiced down the hillside to the rocks below, their sounds absorbed by the roar of the river. The weight of the pack bore down and I tried to keep it from shifting, certain that one misstep would send me tumbling along the same path as those pebbles. I glanced up to see Neil halfway across, fifty feet from me, and that gave me hope. I concentrated, wobbled once when my pack shifted, but caught myself with a flash of adrenaline. Sweat dripped from my brow. My shoulders ached with the pressure from the pack. The delirium of the thin air made my head swim. But I kept moving, and an eternity later looked up to see Neil standing on firm ground at the end of the slide, only twenty feet away.
A few more steps and I was across as well. I shed my pack and collapsed the instant I touched solid ground. I needed many minutes to regain my composure. Sweat soaked my whole body, stealing what little warmth I had. Down in this cold canyon daylight was fading and we had to keep going to find shelter.
Neil urged me up and we set off again. I was woozy now, not sure why we were plodding along this way, even where we were and why. I'd spent enough time in the wilderness to know that the bony grip of hypothermia was latching on to me, and I tried to calm myself. Need food. Warmth. Rest.
Then Neil shouted. He'd spotted huts ahead. Two, three, perhaps a village, but certainly food and shelter. He rushed on and I kept up my mantra, step-by-step. When I arrived at the first stone hut Neil's sullen look told me everything I needed to know. The place was deserted. Again I collapsed, this time against a cold stone wall, too tired to contemplate moving.
But then Neil shouted again. The third hut was open, we could get out of the fog. I dragged myself up and stumbled the few feet to the hut where I dropped everything in a heap. Dim light edged in through tiny windows, but the place was dry, full of straw, and not nearly as cold as outside. We finished off our water, climbed into our sleeping bags, and lay down for the long wait till morning.
Sleeping at high altitude is never easy, and I spent hours shivering until my body generated enough heat to allow the down bag to warm me up. At some point I was aware that I wasn't freezing anymore, and then I slept.
After some hours I woke to faint light that suggested a new day. My stomach ached, but not from the intestinal problems that afflict most trekkers in Nepal. I needed food.
Our maps revealed that we should have been much higher than we were, and we realized we must have taken the wrong trail and ended up in a summer herders' camp, abandoned now for the approaching winter. Would that mean that the villages ahead would be deserted as well? We needed to climb out of the canyon and keep going in the faith that we'd find the main trail, and someone still there who would sell us food.
With no other option, we began bushwhacking up the hillside. Eventually we found a trail that seemed to be leading us up, and as we trudged along, the track became clearer. Better yet, high above, the first rays of sunshine graced the hillside. Blue sky emerged where we'd seen only fog the day before.
We climbed out of the forest and steadily up. I kept looking ahead, hoping to see where the path would flatten out on the main trail. Then suddenly I thought I saw someone sitting on the rocks high above. With every step I looked again, trying to convince myself that yes, it was a person, but fearing the shattering disappointment if it turned out to be just a trick of the light. The sun was shining on it but it remained immobile, a gargoyle staring out into the canyon. We climbed, mule-like, and with every step what I saw continued to look like a person.
And then it moved. Yes! It was a man, resting on a stone wall in the glorious sunshine, watching our slow progress with amusement, anger, surprise, indifference? Who cared? He was salvation.
When we reached him the old man slid off the wall as nimbly as a cat. Before we could speak he motioned for us to follow him, gesturing at his mouth and then to us to ask if we were hungry. We didn't need to answer. We followed him through the sunshine to his stone hut ablaze with morning light.
He offered us seats on a bench covered with a Tibetan carpet. A fire burned in his earthen stove, sending wafts of smoke curling to the ceiling and out the thatched roof. Sunlight streamed through the window and threw halos around him that seemed to refract into rainbows. Deep lines carved his face into a mask of toil, but tranquility shone in his eyes.
In a tin basin he washed his hands over and over, taking several minutes as if in a ritual cleansing, then he poured water into a black pot and put it on the stove. After that he took a bag of potatoes off the wall and gently removed them and put them on a tin plate. With a small brush he carefully scrubbed every speck of dirt off each potato, one by one, until they gleamed. The pile of potatoes glowing in the sunlight, and the care with which he handled this food, made me feel we were in a sanctified presence.
From that moment I watched every move he made, my hunger forgotten, marveling at the precision with which he cleaned the cups into which he would pour our tea, the delicacy of his actions when slicing the potatoes, the patient care he took to polish every spoon and fork and plate before he placed them, just so, before us. Here was a man who treated hospitality—the preparation of a simple meal, the sharing of sustenance with guests—as a higher calling.
We sat for an hour or more in that warm hut watching this patient yak herder prepare a simple dish of fried potatoes. When I took the first sip of tea, when I inhaled the first scent of those potatoes, when I tasted the first nibble of that life-saving meal, I discovered the true meaning of gratitude.
The sun beamed straight into the canyon when we finally rose to leave. Belly full, energy restored, I hoisted my pack to continue along the trail. And then I remembered the woman who had caused me so much anxiety the day before. She was our messenger as well as our nemesis, setting up our encounter with this man who taught me a lesson in kindness and the importance of every detail. He was the yang to her yin, the two of them the whole we all seek, the crazy mad jumble that is our humanity.
We all have our own doses of light and dark, and that thought, along with the memory of those simple but exquisite potatoes, left me feeling lighter than I had in days as we headed up the trail toward Everest.
Larry Habegger has been covering the world since his international travels began in the 1970s. As a freelance writer for 30 years and syndicated columnist since 1985, his work has appeared in many major magazines and newspapers, including Travel + Leisure, Outside, the Los Angeles Times, Chicago Tribune, and San Francisco Chronicle. In 1993 he founded the award-winning Travelers' Tales books with James and Tim O'Reilly; he is currently executive editor. For more information on Larry's travels and writings, visit his website.