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Nepal Semester Student's Catherine Von Holt's photograph of the Boudhanath Stupa in Kathmandu.

High Altitude Butterflies

The air was cold, but I was warm. I warm easily. The snow crunched beneath my boots. I stepped lightly, not wanting to sink through. Already ahead of me, the path was littered with holes and I meandered around them, trying not to crack the thin crust further. My eyes flicked down and up rhythmically, like they do when I play the piano. This was like playing the piano: a crisp, concise world of black and white. A set path where one must be carefully where to step- where to press the keys- and deviations could lead to triumph or disaster. I followed the scattered holes, like notes on a page, and breathed deep. To my right, the path sloped up gently and then suddenly, cresting in a rocky, icy ridgeline I’d forgotten to ask the name of. To my left, it sloped further down to the glacial river, which gurgled through boulders and rounded stones and sweet-smelling brush. Down there it was brown and crumbling and flat for a bit, before ascending sharply up the face of another cliff. This one was scratched and scathed with fault lines and inversions and layers of stone. You couldn’t really tell how big it was until the occasional bird flickered across and barely cast a shadow. Ahead of me rose more monoliths of stark black and white, behind which the sun was slowly rising. It illuminated the sky a pale blue, the orb itself not yet above the line. As soon as it did peak, the snow would become soft and the way slower and more treacherous. So I willed the sun to hide its face a little longer. Let it be cold a little longer.

I breathed deep, deeper than I had in days. I felt stronger. Stronger than I had in days. I wore no gloves, letting the ice scratch my hands every time I had to drag my short legs out of a posthole. The pricks of pain, the numbness, the heat as blood rushed to regain control- it all felt so familiar in my fingers. So welcoming. Like the spirits of winters I’d missed suffocating in Southern humidity or summer heat- or barely known on crowded ski slopes at Christmas- were nipping me, greeting me. Reminding me why I like the cold. Why I love the cold.

The path became steeper, icier, and the sun broke over the mountains, slowly painting them gold and cream from the top down. A song played in my head- “Sunrise, Sunset” from Fiddler on the Roof, the old version sung by Perry Como. I’d heard it in a movie and liked the swell of the chorus and the strings, and then listened again and liked the lyrics.

Sunrise, sunset, sunrise, sunset,

Swiftly flow the days,

Seedlings turn overnight to sunflowers,

Blossoming even as they gaze…

No flowers bloomed up here but there were butterflies- high altitude creatures in shades of gold and green, fragile yet strong all the same. I’d felt a bit like one of these butterflies this trip: buffeted by swift winds and snowstorms, betrayed by the sudden fragility of my own body. But I kept going, for once in my life trusting my heart over my mind, and now I walked across the snow and I knew why.

Sunrise, sunset, sunrise, sunset!

Swiftly fly the years,

One season following another,

Laden with happiness and tears…

We rose along the snow and the sun rose with us. Soon it became hot and I lost the easygoing way I moved before, slogging through the thick drifts and pulling myself up crags and cracks. My strange and sporadic fear of heights kicked in, stuttering in my feet and in my breath. But at last, I crested the lip of the cliff and saw a wide expanse of flat, frozen snow before me. A glacial lake- silent and deadly. I sat on a rock, breathed heavily, and stared. Here, there were no butterflies. I’d imagined this moment often earlier in the trek, figuring the shores of Tsho-Rolpa as our proverbial highest peak. I’d seen it turquoise and glittering, lapping gently against silty, sediment shores. I’d imagined putting my feet in the frigid water- or, my right foot at least. Maybe my left foot too. Maybe the water was magic and would heal the numerous sores and swells and loose toenails that seemed to accumulate there. But that wasn’t to be. The lake was frozen. I felt no sense of euphoria, no thrill of triumph. This moment here, sat on a rock eating roti, was not what mattered. It was that old cliché- not the destination, the journey.

One season following another,

Laden with happiness and tears…

Mountains have borne witness to many of my tears. Tears disguised in sweat, tears collected in the bottom of my ski goggles. Tears, this time, before I even reached the mountains, when I thought I wouldn’t reach them at all. When I couldn’t swallow the lump in my throat and let myself cry, shedding my weaknesses down my hot, red cheeks. But they have born witness to my greatest moments too. The moments some people call “aha!” but I’ve always thought of as a gentle, somewhat somber “oh”. After glissading down the cliffs, curling my fingers up inside my fleece, and resigning myself to wet feet, I walked along, alone, in silence. My piano world had become slushy and streaked in taupe and brown as the snow melted. The path ahead of me, once stark notes, was muddled, footprints bleeding into each other. This happens with music too. This happens with music too. The more you play it, the more you remember and the more your fingers slide across the keys, rather than step carefully. The more you leave the pages on the stand by the window, the yellower they become. I watched my perfect ice kingdom deteriorate around me and saw a butterfly. A white butterfly.

When I was younger, I used to think white butterflies were angels. To an extent, I still do. They are angels or spirits or souls. Moving from this life to the next, or this life to the beyond. I watched it flutter, only seeming to catch it in the corners of my eyes. It disappeared as quickly as it had come, like a snowflake on a bare palm. I knew then I’d found my proverbial peak. Here was my silent “oh” moment. Whatever I’d come to Nepal to find- whatever I’d come to these mountains to find, refused to leave before finding- I’d found it. I cannot say what it is. Or where, exactly, it came from. But I found it. I found it.

I missed the sunset later that day. I lost a toenail. I ate more potatoes. As I fell asleep, knowing I’d awake later, sweating in my many layers, I thought about the seasons changing. The summer to come. The years to follow. And the butterflies. High-altitude butterflies. Fluttering in a snowstorm. Fragile, yet strong. A creature so determined to be where it should not. I thought about the butterflies. I felt a kindred spirit. And I fell asleep, dreaming of the cold.