Altitude Sickness


Date: October 19, 1999

Place: Manang, Nepal (Annapurna Circuit)

At 13,000 feet, up there, somewhere
in a cave
a man . . .
and a woman (you won’t see her)
who will bless your ascent
for the equivalent of two dollars
to cover the cost of spiced oil
that he drips in your hair.
Bring a kata with you,
silky white in your pocket.
The lama will say a blessing
and then lay it gently around your neck.
He will sprinkle the scented oil
and something else in your hair.
It won’t wash out (the smell never goes away).
Don’t smoke or
light any candles
for several days.Nepal_blessingThe cave smells like sweat and fur and juniper
and a curry dish the woman cooks.
You won’t see her . . .
until you turn to say goodbye
as you stumble downward
on loose rocks and
she comes out of the cave
to watch you go
at 13,000 feet.

At 14,000 feet your head gets woozy.
You start believe you can fly
Eat lots of garlic, in salads and omelets
and hot garlic soup.
It’s good for altitude sickness
—and other things
you do to pass the time
at 14,000 feet.

At 15,000 feet your head begins to hurt
It wants something.
Water or warmth,
something . . .
Mostly it wants not to hurt.
Remove your headlamp when daylight comes,
Maybe that will help
your head
and heart
and the hungry ghost
to feel less pain
at 15,000 feet.

At 16,000 feet you want to pee
really, really bad.
All the time.
Day and night.
There are no bushes here.
Drink lots of fluids,
and don’t believe your eyes
when you think you see a goddess
holding the reins of a donkey,
clip-clopping down the slope,
to offer you a seat beside her
at 16,000 feet.

At 17,000 feet you’re forced to stop,
your heart says, go no higher.
One step steals your breath.
You’re almost to the top,
and you know
not to pause
not to rest
not to lie on your back,
on the flat rocks
so inviting
where you might feel some relief
as you stare into the sky.
You do it anyway.
You want to go to sleep.
at 17,000 feet.

thronglaAt 18,000 feet, you are here.
Annapurna, the mother
who feeds you,
the goddess
of the harvest.
still spreads a white shadow
above you,
but no longer seems so bold.
Hang your threadbare kata
a celestial laundry line
between the clouds
where other katas fly.
The wind spreads the blessing
of the man in the cave and
the scent of the woman
who cooks for him.
It spreads these things
and more
as far as the eye can see
—which is far enough,
at 18,000 feet.


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