I am awakened at Dingboche by a sound drifting in from the edges of consciousness, soothing and exotic, but not identifiable. As sleep fades, my oxygen-deprived brain grinds on toward cognition, and finally recognition: yak bells. The mellow peeling rings out as the shaggy beasts forage among the sparse vegetation outside the tents.
Lying inside the tent among the billowy folds of nylon and down, I relish the warmth, and the moment. Ahead is another day of wonder in the heart of the Himalaya. This part of Nepal, the Khumbu, is named for the glacier that tumbles down the flanks of nearby Mount Everest--Sagarmatha to the locals. This is the center of the Sherpa universe, and immersion in that friendly culture combines with Himalayan terrain to make this the quintessential mountain journey on the planet.
Who can resist taking a look at the highest mountain on earth? We've been here a few days already, acclimating to the higher elevations beyond, and will spend a few days yet. Everest Base Camp is just two or three days' walk up the valley and on to the moraine. But the pace of uphill hiking in the Himalaya is glacial, and patience a virtue for the pilgrim here, where altitude demands slow progress.
For acclimatization, I wander among the windswept slopes above the village. High on the hill above our camp loom two big spooky stupas, ancient, weathered and wild. Prayer flags, bleached and ragged from the elements, whip around in the wind, snapping and popping, sending their supplications skyward. The familiar religious icon, the Buddha's eyes, stare out from the structures in an eerie indigo pigment, faded and wind blasted by time. The old stupas seem ineffably mystical, yet somehow reassuring. They remind me of a promise made to myself long ago, a promise to see the great places on the earth that remain wild and beautiful.
So far, I've managed to keep that promise, but it's been a long road with a steep learning curve. In the beginning I trudged in too-heavy hiking boots under the backbreaking load of my bulging Co-Op Cruiser. I loved the backcountry from the beginning, despite the self-inflicted agonies resulting from my rookie decisions on what to carry and how to go. But the more you do something, the better you get. After an adult lifetime spent loving wilderness travel, I'm pretty good at it by now. I can move through the backcountry with lighter loads but greater comfort. If there is a surprise, it's this: I enjoy backcountry travel now more than ever.
And, more importantly, I've gotten better at figuring out where to go. That's the critical skill. When I realized early on that there were more great wilderness places than one could see in a lifetime, I understood the need to prioritize. The urgency I felt was to find the places and the routes that bring the greatest return on time and effort and expense.
That was the idea behind Classic Hikes of the World, my new book that reflects thirty years of searching for the best routes to the most enchanting places on the planet. I've described some hikes below that are among my favorites--at least so far. I'm still looking, and hope I always be.
For more, visit: www.classichikes.com