I am not sure whether this gradual rising feeling of terror in my chest is due to the less oxygen in the at 13,000 feet or because my mind is slowly registering that am suspended in a plane not much bigger than a mosquito by some unseen force. I can hear the engines and feel the plane swaying back and forth, as if dangling from a tender thread trailing down from the heavens above. I have opted to remove the headphones he gave me when we took off. I wanted to experience the mountain myself without the continual radio chatter on the air ways.
The pilot gestures to indicate that we are going to go between Machupuchare, the 6,993 meter high mountain in the Annapurna range of the Himalayas that I first caught sight of from the security of my hotel room in Pokhara in 2018 and its neighbor, one of the 1300 peaks of the Himalayas. I am beside myself with excitement. Then he proceeds to turn the plane around. I give him a puzzled, and he waves his hand again — in order to reach the altitude necessary to pass between peaks we have to dance in a circle in order to gain altitude. I hold my breath as we ascend and then fly ever-so-slowly through the space between Machupuchare and its neighboring peaks. I never imagined I’d ever see what was behind Machupuchare. I was spellbound.
I have now taken several flights out of Kathmandu, some to the east, some to the west. From the air, the ground looks as if it had been crumpled, not unlike the way a bed would look if you pushed the blankets across the surface. The blanket is a deep green, and each wrinkle has a well-defined peak following its length. On many of these, a pale beige line runs along the top indicating the presence of a footpath. Here and there, the paths follow the slope down, twisting and turning back on itself. These are the paths where people trek and sometimes I can see a tiny figure trudging along the top of one of the green wrinkles in the blanket. More often than not, there is a light gray fog obscuring a clear view of the Annapurna foothills, but beyond its furrows, the sharp jagged snow-covered peaks of the Himalayas tower over them, often with breath-taking clarity that contrasts sharply with the hazy foothills in the foreground.
Growing up, my principal experiences of the phenonmenon of a “mountain” were the Sierras, the Rockies, and the Cascades. I worked on trail maintenance crews in the Sierras during my summers in college, and staffed groups of hikers, serving as one of the cooks who prepared food for them at the end of each day. I skied down their slopes in the winter, as part of high school ski trips. Mountains for me consist of dirt, with trees growing out of it. In the winter, snow blanketed the mountains, but I always relied upon the recognition that, below the layer of ice sat solid layers of earth. At a certain altitude, you find yourself above the alpine tree line, is the highest elevation that sustains trees. Beyond the tree line it is too cold, or the snow cover lasts for too much of the year, to support trees. But you still can continue to walk higher and higher. The only mountain of solid stone rising up out of a valley floor that I had ever seen was Half Dome in Yosemite and even that could be climbed simply by walking up the backside, something which I had done many years ago. But Half Dome is, as its name suggests is a smooth round formation, with its front half missing.
I used to laugh when people spoke about the Green Mountains of Vermont because they were nothing like the mountains of my youth. They were, for me, mere hills, not unlike the Annapurna foothills. Certainly, they did not merit the moniker “mountain” as far as I was concerned. Nothing in my previous experience with mountains prepared me for the Himalayas. Every formation that I could see appeared to be pure stone, there was no dirt to be seen anywhere. Huge slabs of rock rose above me on all sides, as the soft green rumpled ground gave way to sharp jagged wrinkles of rock. Only their furrowed appearance told me that I was looking at a mountain range that was a continuation of the green rumples that I studiously inspect from the air each time I flew in and out of Kathmandu.
As I look directly beneath the plane in which I am traveling, I am protected only by the rounded piece of plexiglass that forms the side of the plane. I search for words to capture the scene beneath me. The sharp jagged ripples directly below me look like knives of various lengths rising straight up, tip on top, from the ground beneath. They look like staligmites, except we are not in a cave and they are clearly formed from solid rock, as opposed to calcite from dripping water. Streaks of various shades of brown, gray, and beige cut diagnonally through the stone. There is no dirt anywhere to be seen, no thin beige lines indicating the presence of a paths to climb higher. I finally understand why rock climbers are so drawn to the Himalayas. The only way one can conquer these peaks is to to rappel straight up their sides. However, Machupuchare herself has never been climbed. No one is allowed to climb it. She is a sacred mountain, the home of Lord Shiva, god of destruction and transformation (my personal favorite among the Hindu deities), and we certainly wouldn’t want to upset Lord Shiva by defiling his home by pounding pitons into its sides. Besides that, he probably likes his privacy. As far as we know, Machupuchare has never been touched by the hand of humanity. The only way to get as close to its peak as I am in this moment is in a microscopic plane such as the one I am in.
There is a reason for the rumpled look of Nepal, and of the Himalayas themselves. Apparently, the surface of the Earth is broken up into large tectonic plates that do not stay in one place, they move slowly around, across more ma than my mind can fathom. As a result, planet earth looks like a round cracked egg shell whose crack lines are continually shifting. Apparently, 225 ma (a measure of time used by geologists equal to one million years) ago, India was an island situated off the coast of Australia, separated from Asia by the Tethys Ocean which no longer exists, having been squished out of existence when the India plate decided to kiss the Eurasian plate.
About 200 ma ago, the super continent of Pangea, assembled when the continent which we now call Africa pushed up against the eastern coast of North America approximately 335 million years ago (causing the formation of our very own Appalachian mountain range, which may have once been as high as the Himalayas, as it turns out). Pangea existed during the late Paleozoic and early Mesozoic eras, and then began to break apart. When this happened, India started to drift north until it collided with the Asia. Apparently, when continents collide, mountains pile up.
Fifty million years ago, India’s continental plate crashed into Asia – the biggest collision on Earth in the last 400 million years. The collision was so violent that India’s plate did not just crumple, it pushed under Asia – raising the land mass high into the sky: The Eurasian plate was partly crumpled and buckled up above the Indian plate but due to their low density/high buoyancy neither continental plate could be subducted (1). This caused the continental crust to thicken due to folding and faulting by compressional forces pushing up the Himalaya and the Tibetan Plateau. (2) So the reason why Nepal looks like a big rumpled blanket is because this is exactly what it is, geologically speaking. That is, when India crashed into Eurasia, it squished against what was presumably once the well-made bed of the southern coast of Eurasia to create the crumpled unmade bed crammed between the Tibetan plateau and India that we now know as Nepal.
Perhaps the most interesting thing about all this continental pushing and shoving is that it never stops. India is still pushing against Asia and, as a result, Sargamantha is still growing, at a rate of about 1 centimeter per year which is, apparently, fairly quickly in geological terms. To put this into perspective, the summit of Sargamatha is now more than two feet higher that it was when I was born (67 years = 67 centimeters = 26 inches = 2 feet two inches). This means that the summit upon which New Zealander Edmund Hillary and Nepalese sherpa Tenzing Norgay, the first climbers to stand on top of Sargamantha in 1953, was two feet lower than the summit upon which Marvalath Poorna, a 13 year old Indian schoolgirl and the youngest woman to reach the summit, stood in 2014. Even more impressive than the fact that she reached the top that was two feet higher is the fact that she reached it from the Tibetan side of the mountain, which is more difficult to climb than the Nepalese side. Nepal does not allow climbers under the age of 16 to attempt the ascent.
For those of us who, in our ignorance, think that the ground beneath our feet is always where we think it is, i.e. at the same altitude, consider the fact that, in 2015, the magnitude 7.8 earthquake in Nepal raised the entire city of Kathmandu more than three feet. This means that people woke up after the quake in a completely different altitude from where they went to bed. There is also some speculation that the same quake may have reduced the height of Sargamantha by a centimeter.
The shifting of the earth beneath our feet that results from the ongoing dance between the various segments of our planetary egg shell is not the only thing that changes the height of mountains. Erosion, water and wind, eventually wear away mountains. Luckily the base of Sargamantha is granite, and more resistant to erosion than other mountain-making materials. This means that, although someday Sargamantha may lose her crown, it won’t be for many many ma.
As I peer out through my plexiglass shell at the side of Machupuchare as I (breathlessly) pass it, I feel as if I could simply reach out and touch it. It is that close. I imagine Lord Shiva standing on its summit watching as it rises higher and higher over millions of ma. I suspect that he is there to keep an eye on the results the collision between India and Asia which occurred after he orchestrated the demise of Pangea. Remember, his job is to destroy the universe so that Brahma can re-create it. Presumably, he is so pleased with their handiwork that he has decided to reside there for eternity.
(1) Subduction is a geological process that takes place at convergent boundaries of tectonic plates where one plate moves under another and is forced to sink due to gravity into the mantle.