By the time we near the 5,600-meter Parang La Pass of Ladakh, my breath is coming in deep, drawn-out heaves and we are spread out over several kilometers, with mule and men finding their own pace.
We are all small figures on the ancient pathway and this smallness feels good, as though it is a sensation that belongs. Pace and consistency carry the day on these routes while adrenaline keeps clarity at razor sharp levels. Winds hit the body and face out of nowhere as I crest the last little bit of rust-colored rubble. Suddenly the mind forgets the lungs’ work and the sightline opens up to Parang La’s north-facing slope: an entire expanse of gaping white ice.
Wafts of snow blow into the sinus cavity and my molars feel the icy blasts that curl over the pass. Landscapes can temporarily paralyze thoughts at times, as though they have conspired with the senses to simply shut everything down with their impact.
Sadanand makes his way with the mules up to the summit. He finally dons a warm jacket over his hunched body and leans against the cairn of stones gathered by travellers for worship, a prayer of thanks to the gods for helping us this far. His feet are clad in woolen socks and an over-sized pair of Crocs. His lined features appear to have absorbed every ray of sun ever created.
Over this pass, mules, yak, and even sheep would struggle with their loads heading north as we do, or returning with their high mountain goods. Sheep were the favored transporter for hauling salt. “They are easy to feed, and a flock can haul huge loads,” says Sadanand. “And when the journey is done they could be eaten.”