Ballu and Khumbi climbed up Kandodhar, the ridge behind their village leading to moraines at the base of peaks too great to be called names. Noses ran white vitriol as the boys scampered up the mountain. They started off racing to that point in the hill where new energy falls off and gives way to questioning how far you really want to go. Kumbhi arrived first, picking up pebbles to throw at the feet of Ballu who had slowed to an Ape like lumbering. "Achcha!" yelled Ballu. "Just wait". Speech gets shortened as altitude rises. He clambered up to the rock Kumbhi had claimed dominion upon and jumped onto Kumbhis back. "Here........ having fun?". Kumbhi dropped him to the ground, sat on top of him and began to ticle him. "Whos the king of Kinnaur?.... lets hear it. Lets hear it or ill tickle till you turn to stone." Wild laughter echoed a long while for altitude selects a breed of robust that is only matched by barren snow beaten moraines.
Just then a cloud stopped by to talk to the sun and shade made its presence felt. You learn to fear the obscured sun as you would a wild animal for weather moves as fast at the extreme edges of life. A hole in the cloud allowed the sun back through and the boys were bipedal again, shading their eyes. "My father says that behind these hills the clouds put out the sun fights with clouds every evening and gets put out. The sun then sleeps, gets up fresh and fights his way out." Ballu guffawed. "You son of a mule! you beleive anything your father tells you. If he told you you were a mule, you'd start eating grass also. If the sun and the clouds fought you think the sun wouln't win? Then why dosent this cloud put the sun off right now?"
"Thats because there's only one cloud" Kumbhi replied.
"Right! and there are Two hundred clouds on that side of the hill. WHy dosent the sun go the other side? And why dont the clouds fight in the morning."
"You think you know more than my father? If he wants to he can make even your father into a mule. He can squash you like a bed bug if he wants."
"My father will climb up a Sharu (Fir tree) and your fat father can sit and watch"
"Chal. Lets see. Well climb the hill. If my fathers right then hes better, if you are right then your father is better.... OK?"
"Chal" said Ballu confidently heading in the direction of the path that lead to the pass - a pass that only occaisionally in the peak of summer was used by herdsmen en route to the river valleys when other passes stayed closed.
They both walked with a defiant step, each confident that their fathers would be proud when they got back with stories of vicory. In preparation of the cold, Kumbhi put his hand inside his sweater and waved an amputated hand at Ballu before wiping the snot off on his sleeve. Ballu pulled his sweater up to his ears and did a little monster walk as the sweater pulled at his lower lids. They laughed and both hands and face were back in the pure but niting air of the upper reaches.
Things slowed to a rythym and Ballu hummed a tune about how children who misbehaved grew Yak horns. He made to horns and poked them into Kumbhis side. THere wasnt enough air to run already.
Walking amid the start of the moraines, they played hop on the larger boulders and picked up round stones and pretended they were potatoes. "Give this to your father so he can get stronger and fight mine." said Kumbhi picking up a round stone twice his palms. Ballu took the stone and rolled it down saying his father didnt need it.
In a while they reached that part of the mountain where their snot trails left cold reminders and wiping made them sore. The deception of mountains accompanies even the most seasoned walker as hope always interferes in knowing impossible when he sees it. Ill race you to the top said Kumbhi and they ambled the best they could, a far cry from a run but the best their dynamos could deliver. A sliver higher than where the race began, Ballu called it quits and sat down to a slightly bloody nose. Dizzy he buried his face between his knees and snivelled. Khumbi back tracked all of his three step lead and stood by Ballu in concern. When Ballu stopped snivelling Khumbi bent down to talk:
"Are you OK?" .... Ballu nodded without raising his head and inhaled heavily. "Are you hungry?" asked Khumbi. Ballu nodded a no. "Still," said Khumbi "have a potato" holding a round stone infront of Ballus face. Khumbi roared at his own joke and ballu managed a snigger. Khumbi offered his hand and Ballu got up. The ice had melted. They were on the same side.
Walking was now all about baby steps.... many many baby steps. Time would have stood still except that when the sun met whatever it did across the pass, the cold would come seeking to sweep up all stragglers. That was still far away but not to be ignored. They both grew in age with each step, deepening the crows feet that would landscape the sides of their eyes in years to come. Frost and Ice now interspersed the rocks and hands tapped on thighs to remind the body of their existence.
Silence. Nothing but the sound of air filtering through moist sweater collars. The pass was now wihin a stones throw. Now there were no stones and no possibility to throw them even to test their estimate. They made secret time calculations but fallibility as a concept sets in early in high altitude folk. They continued nonetheless.
The ridge of the pass came closer even as they grew disoriented - not trusting anything but the sound of the crunch under their frozen feet and the promise that they were making progress. Khumbi reached first and stuck his hand out to Ballu as he made the last two steps. They sat speechless and reeling.
It took a while for the fog behind their eyes to lift. They dropped jaw inside their sweaters and sat higher than the reference point of mean sea level would have us beleive. There facing them for the first time in the life of village boys, was infinity not hill obstructing their view. Just hills and fake potatoes going far beyond what their frozen little minds could comprehend.
They sat a while and let a bit of cold in. "Chal bhai" said Kumbhi beginning to walk down. They walked down a little unsteady at first but gaining in the confidence of their step with every moment of triumphant realisation. Halfway down (psychologically so) Ballu remebered their bet. He took the early bird initiative to distort reality.
"See I told you there were no clouds." he put his han on Kumbhis shoulder.
"Are you blind? you didnt see the clouds? Which way were you looking?"
"Im not a mule.... you want to go back and check?"
"Chalo.... lets go" retorted Kumbhi
"If your nose want so weak we'd go back, but if you die, yourmother will make Yak butter out of me"
"Make excuses. Make excuses."
"OK chal... you want to go again?" said Kumbhi and began walking upwards.
"Come on lets go, our mothers will be worried"
"If you insist" said Kumbhi triumphantly strangling ballu in the crutch of his arm and elbow. "Ill make yak butter out of you even if your mother dosent".