Taking acid at 3000 meters puts you in another world.
We were nearing the tree line when Dmitri insisted that we take a break. There would soon be no more shade to protect us from the Indian summer sun and this was our last chance to appreciate the forest. The sweat from the last four hours of climbing these Himalayan slopes now caused us to shiver as an icy mountain breeze swept through the valley.
“So how many drops do you want” Dmitri asked as he took out a small bottle of liquid LSD . I stared back at him in disbelief. Now the first rule of mountaineering for amateurs is that you don´t go up on the slopes alone. If you slip and break your ankle then you could die of exposure before anyone would ever find you and bring help.
Then second rule is to always carry several sources of fire. A box of matches can save your life if a storm suddenly swings in and the weather in the Himalayas can drastically change in half an hour. And the third rule must surely be not to take high doses of mind-altering substances– above 3000 metres.
“Are you crazy?” I protested. “We’re almost out of the tree line, we don’t even know where this lake we’re looking for is and… oh give me three drops.”
Dmitri did the same and so we staggered to the top of the first slope with 300 micrograms of LSD charging through our blood streams. Our visuals weren’t yet impaired so we took a look around. We were out in the clear for the first time since we´d set off from Dmitri´s house above the Himalayan village that morning. Suddenly we were on a level footing with all the glacier-capped mountain peaks that we´d been gazing at all summer from the porches of our houses made of wood and clay. We no longer knelt at their feet but now stood as equals and the complexity of these gorges and crags became breathtakingly apparent.
The early Hindu tales say that the mountains used to run all around the place playing chase and other such childish games. But as villages kept getting crushed beneath their feet the gods took hold of their feet and tied them down. Since then the Himalayas have been the stage for many of the gods´ adventures; Krishna loved to chase the cow girls in the flowery pastures and Shiva meditated up on the snow peaks for thousands of years at a stretch. Climb high enough yourself and it´s easy to appreciate why this stunning landscape became the land of the gods.
We stumbled along in search of water and came upon an icy stream that we knew would become a thundering waterfall a couple of hours below us. It didn´t seem possible. With the acid coming on it could well have been liquid silver that quenched our thirst.
We set down our backpacks and took out our lunch. When you´ve hiked up 1500 metres in a morning, sandwiches taste better than anything on earth.
“So where´s this lake?” Dmitri asked, glancing around us.
Right. We weren´t just two acid casualties stumbling around on top of a mountain, we were actually on something of a pilgrimage. Sort of. Every major village in the mountains has it´s own local deity and the spiritual home of the one belonging to our village was up at Lake Bhrigu, 4300 metres high.
Once every 2 years the entire village carries up the mountain a wooden effigy of the local god so that it might gaze upon the waters from which it´s supposed to have emerged. More than a thousand people march up the slopes at a speed few Westerners can match. With drummers and trumpeteers heralding the way, they make a huge communal meal at the end of the first day´s walking, dash to the lake the next day for a hasty ceremony and then bolt back down to the village in time for tea.
We were after a quieter time. There was nobody up here besides us as we´d passed the last sleeping shepherd some hours ago. This was a far sight removed from the trekking circuits of Nepal where guest houses are on hand every few hours to cook food and provide hot showers.
We split up to head for nearby mounts of rock that might give us a better vantage point. Leaving our backpacks behind we suddenly felt weightless and bounced along like astronauts.
As I climbed up my chosen hill, I realised that I had never been anywhere so quiet in India, the continent where one can never be quite alone. It was almost eerie. A large shadow passed over me and I looked up into the eyes of a huge vulture that hovered above me on a thermal. I instinctively dropped to the ground and my hands happened to find two sheep jaw bones by my feet. I raised my impromptu daggers in self-defence but the vulture had already gotten bored of me and had departed on another gust.
“Look at that.” Dmitri said, pointing back at our rucksacks 500 metres away; a murder of crows had descended on our packs, turning them black. I decided we couldn’t take any chances and so i ran down the slope and swooped in on our bags, sending the thieves in all directions. Sure enough they’d managed to open the pocket with our biscuits and bread inside. The bastards. I tied a blanket around our packs to keep them safe and looked up to see what all the noise was about.
The crows had begun to flock above my head. They darted and swooped just metres above me, working themselves into a frenzy. The air was thick with harsh carrion voices and all i could see was a mass of black fractals that seemed intent on blood. My blood.
I reflected that reading all those Carlos Castaneda books must have been for something. I crooked my fingers as Iimagined a shaman might do and let forth a series of rasping croaks, tying to attune myself to the language of the crows. Against all the odds in that moment the crows left me and flew in a pack the 500 metres that separated me from Dmitri. They circled around his head until he waved his arms and shouted and then they departed. For the next two days we only ever saw a sentry crow check us out from a distance.
The episode was the stuff of psychedlic dreams and we both wandered off alone to sink into our trips. I followed the slope to the top, curious to see what would lie beyond the highest point. As I walked up the grassy slope I reflected that this was the quietest place i had ever been in India.
That changed the moment I mounted the peak and looked down onto another world. An entire new valley opened up before me and the river in the basin 1000 metres below roared up at me with such force that i almost fell over. The valley weaved through a new set of foothills to a new set of snowy glaciers that reminded me just how small i was.
At that moment the sun sank beyond the peaks behind me and the temperature dropped ten degrees in a second. It was definitely a good hour to think about making a fire. I marched back to camp, singing merrily and clashing the sheep jaw bones together as accompaniment. I was having a fine time until I realised I was walking back amongst the trees – I´d gone too far and was now lost.
“Dmitri!” I yelled and only my echo came back in reply. It was getting darker quickly and I realised I´d left my matches in my backpack. Rule number two. They say dying of cold is a relatively pleasant way to go but I wasn´t in the mood to find out. I sprinted uphill in a panic and almost collided with Dmitri who was trying to build a fire.
I only had three blankets to keep me warm but even Dmitri in his sleeping bag got precous little sleep that night as we were taunted by mountain breezes that changed directions every few minutes. We awoke a little delirious and our toes frozen stiff. A frost lay on the ground around us and the snow peaks were already glowing pink as they were struck by a distant dawn.
We trudged our way up the slopes in silence and the grass crunched beneath our feet. We made breakfast at the top and gazed down into the next valley. Again a whole new vista of snow peaks and forests before us and the distant thunder of the river. But no lake.
A hawk coasted by on the wind and released the most abysmal, eerie shriek I´ve ever heard. It echoed in my our ears and haunted our dreams for days to come.
We hurried back down from this chilly precipice and headed in the last possible direction in which could Bhrigu Lake could lie. But every time we reached the top of a slope, the earth before us dipped and rose yet again. After climbing and descending five such inclines we´d lost our sense of humour entirely.
Dmitri and I could no longer sustain a conversation for more than about 30 seconds without snapping at each other. It didn´t exactly improve relations when we realised i’d left the bread up on the mountain where we´d met the hawk.
“You think this is it?” I asked as we came across a large puddle. He shrugged. “It doesn´t exactly say ´sacred´to me. But maybe it dried up.”
We couldn´t quite believe that this murky pool was the home of a god, though and trudged on.
Finally, we gave up trying to find the damn lake. We set down our rucksacks that we’d begun to hate with a passion. We wandered aimlessly over a series of boulders, dizzy in the mid-day sun and almost entirely devoid of energy.
I felt a tap on my shoulder. Dmitri stood by me with that foolish grin on his face.
“Looking for something?” He asked.
Bhrigu Lake lay a stone´s throw away to our right like some sudden mirage. This time there was no mistake. A hundred metres wide, the turquoise waters reflected the stony hills that surrounded it.
We sat and gazed into the waters, losing ourselves in the reflections that swirled into bizarre collages. It seemed as though we were before a portal to another world, where stone cities were inhabited by creatures of light. Perhaps if we jumped in we could join them. The shriek of the hawk passing overhead snapped us back to reality. The sun was already regressing to the west and we had no wish to spend the night at these heights. Utterly enfeebled and hungry, we staggered down to make a last camp in the forest and back to the village for breakfast the next day.
I guess the fourth rule of mountaineering in the Himalayas is to come back alive.