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March 27, 2008 | Katmandu

Katmandu on a winter’s night is a unique place. People are tucked away in their houses, the aroma of charcoal braziers mixes with the humidity drifting up from the terai. Even with 4 million people in a small valley, there is a hint of the exotic. Perhaps I have read too much Rudyard Kipling and I imagine my self-alive 150 years earlier. With no jet aviation let alone the internal combustion engine mounted to four wheels.

Perhaps this is it . . . my love for nature and the outdoors. I’m perpetually trying to get back to a place and time that is a compilation of my imagination’s best moments. Well,if that is what it is I certainly don’t mind.

I’m in Katmandu for the fifth annual Khumbu Climbing School, a vocational training program for the high altitude climbers of Nepal. The climbers that are with me are here to share their expertise on climbing with the local Nepali people. Our goal is to make climbing (guiding) on the tall peaks safer for the Sherpa – the ones who do the majority of the work and suffer the most of the consequences.

The Khumbu is a special place. The Sherpa people that live in the region are super friendly and have a balance in living with nature. Their villages are within the Sagarmatha National Park – which means they live close to wild places. Land that is arable has been tended for centuries, coaxing potatoes and barley from the sandy soil. It seems the only wildness we find are the high mountains, rising tall above the villages and monasteries. Is it possible that there is actual wildness in these mountains or is it merely a postcard backdrop to a human landscape?

Certainly it isn’t the wilderness one comes to think of in Alaska or Siberia, where human impact is far away and passing when it arrives. But it isn’t the urban landscape that covers much of our delicate planet. Hidden in the steep canyons are tall pine trees, home to squirrels and birds. In the under story one can see the occasional musk deer or if one is lucky and patient a snow leopard. As a climber, the cliffs and peaks call me with their unexplored and mysterious faces and ridges. Here, far above where grasses grow is the stark, desolate wilderness of the high alpine. Trapped in perpetual cold, clad by snow I find my greatest joy being in these high mountains.

Knowing there is wildness, just beyond, in places my imagination can visit and my eyes report upon, is what sustains my drive to be in the woods. The finest moments of my life – from being with my grandfather on the upper Tuolumne River fly rod in hand as a wide eyed six year old to standing on the summit of our shared planet as an incredulous 44 year old – are inextricably tied to the wild. Without it I wouldn’t be who I am.

And if we extrapolate this to the bigger picture, what would our world be without wilderness?

– Conrad

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