‘You see that flag there? That’s the top.’ Said Tsering Lazes, pointing at a tattered, crimson red flag fluttering restlessly above us. We were at Chamba Gompa, Nubra Valley, Ladakh. Nubra, is classified as a high altitude cold desert. This was my first visit to any kind of desert.
‘Really? I thought this was it! I don’t see any stairs going up to the flag.’ I replied. Tsering was a friend I had been working alongside in Ladakh for over a month. She was a local and the ancient ruin of Champa Gompa was where she had spent a great deal of her childhood, hiking up and exploring.
‘There used to be one, maybe a hundred years ago. Until the wall collapsed.’Lazes explained, motioning toward a faint outline of a stone wall that ran beside the flag before disappearing behind a ridge.
‘Ah, well. If that’s the top, it’s where I wanna go.’ I told her, excited with the prospect of having to chalk out a route up to the flag. It had been a while since I climbed and I was eager to jump at the opportunity.
‘Then let’s make it a race.’ quipped Lazes, casting a sideways glance. I recognized her impish grin all too well.
‘Sure!’ I said, knowing fully well that there was no way she was going to make it up. I saw that there was first, an easy scramble up a lose-gravelled slope and then a chimney up a narrow passage followed by an easy climb up a rocky slope. For someone without rock climbing experience, this would take a lot of trying.’
‘You’ll lose!’ she called out from behind as I slowly made my way up the first slope.
‘I’m already ahead!’ I replied, not turning back.
I pressed hard against the narrow vertical passage with my feet and my back as I made my way up the Chimney. It was harder than I imagined.
‘You’re too slow!’ she called out from somewhere. But I didn’t pay attention. I needed to stay focused to get through this safely. Besides, the altitude had me panting.
I finally made it up to the flag. Only to find her sitting, taking in a view that was the most spectacular sight. She turned to me and smiled. I realized she had simply walked up another simpler route around the corner, unknown to me.
‘There’s always another way to do anything.’ she told me. I accepted defeat and joined her in watching a glorious sun set over the dunes.
‘Let’s go down.’ I said after sometime.
‘Let’s make it a race.’ she smiled.