Their Night Sleeps With Me Still by Talia Levy

A woman climbs the Annapurna Circuit in Nepal, and progressively surrenders to the mountain.

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What if I live no more those kingly days?
Their night sleeps with me still.
I dream my feet within the starry ways;
My heart rests in the hill
I may not grudge the little left undone;
I hold the heights, I keep the dreams I won.

- Geoffrey Winthrop-Young
'The Old Hill Climber'

As the lovely young woman brings me my plate, I can't help but remember the old Nepali man who had smiled broadly, celebrating his T-Shirt: Daal Bhat Power 24 Hour. I have been converted. My plate carefully split into three parts. The rice. The vegetables. The small cup of daal. The lentils may be gold or black or brown. They may have strands of saffron winding through their prismatic surface. They may be cooked thick, nearly the consistency of a shepherd's pie; or thin, like a soup that could unclog any head cold. But, always, a small cup of daal.

I look up at Rani, my adventure companion, and past the others in the room. We are perched on, or rather wedged into, the side of a steep mountain. The simple room has long, thin windows stretching the length of the walls. Beyond them, Annapurna II. My eyes linger on her, despite the urgency of my goal.

For me the biggest challenge is the rice. An enormous mound of rice, at least three cups. I see the way the sherpas shovel it down intently, stooping over the table, eyes pointing downwards. I mimic their ergonomic eating. I glance up and see that the woman has emerged from the kitchen with a large pot. I increase my speed. Rani says something to me, and I allow myself a peek to see that he is sitting back victoriously. An empty plate. I am envious.

The woman comes by our table, and plops another enormous scoop of rice onto our plates. We have been marked. Soon, she returns with the vegetables, then the daal. I take some more bites, and then relax back into the wooden bench. I had earned my second portion. I would hardly need to eat until it was time for daal bhat again tomorrow evening. I reach out my hand, and his meets mine, but really Rani is listening intently to the conversation at the other table, waiting for the right moment to chime in. He finds it, and they discuss Diamox. The drug of choice for high-altitude hikers.

Their guide has brought the pills for them, and recommends that they begin taking the medication today. I know that I will never take it. I have no desire to conquer the mountain using pharmaceuticals. I want to feel myself nearly conquered by the high pass. If anything, I want to get lost in the mountain. Maybe it is dangerous to wish that, but somehow, I do. Not to rot on the peak, but to fracture my soul, and leave a piece there. I listen to the discussion vaguely for some time, and then begin my journal entry.

February 28th, 2020
Day 5

I can't believe that the Annapurna massif is right there. I am looking at her right now through the dining hall window at 'Hotel Happiness'. We are truly in a valley of giants.

Today started out monotonous on dirt roads carved out of the cliffside. Just getting through switchbacks. Eventually we entered a sort of high desert of gnarled juniper, pine. The ground had sparse grass and everything was grey and dusty, windy, striking against the omnipresent snowy peaks. We made maggie by some prayer wheels, fending off curious crows, and then climbed up to the monastery. Altitude, 3,300 meters.

Prayer flags on flag posts made of whittled pine trees. The monks were all in Kathmandu. Inside was deserted, draped in yellow silk. I made myself sentinel of the stone steps outside of the temple. And it was early. Nothing but sun to soak in, mountains to meditate on. To watch the flags shiver in stiff mountain wind.

This evening, altitude is a conversation. Some feel it, some don't. We all will soon. I have a slight headache, and my eyeballs feel like they could pop out of my face. The sensations instill a bit of dreaminess to the afternoon. Context to the hike. This altitude ain't going away too soon, so the real challenge is just beginning.

Daal Bhat Power 24 Hour...

Just as our plates are set in front of us, the chatty German who is hiking solo with his sherpa asks Rani and I if we are 'the kind of couple that can communicate without speaking'. We both smile at him and shrug. We focus on our meal, let him keep on detailing his schedule for tomorrow, occasionally confirming points with his sherpa. The three of us are listening to him as we shovel food down our throats, and the sherpa is responding politely, but clearly as briefly as possible. We are all eyeing the German's plate concernedly.

In the end it all turns out alright. We should have known that he would be able to inhale his entire portion the moment that the woman appeared in the doorway of the dining room, equipped with her enormous iron pot. The rice first. Then the vegetables. Then the daal. Afterwards, Rani and I would play rummy, alone or with new company. We would retreat to our room, and make tulsi rose tea on our campstove, because we are cheap, even in Nepal. We would get into our bed, attempting to take off our clothes in the bitter cold. We would read on our old-school Kindles, I was devouring nearly a book a day. We would discuss what we learned from our fellow hikers, and make some mental notes. In the morning we would meditate with the sunrise, order a Tibetan bread, read our guidebook, and continue on our way. Every day is like this, and the repetition makes me feel more human than I ever have. In curious juxtaposition, my dreams feel so real.

Rani and the sherpa begin to chat. His name is Ram, he is from Kathmandu, he has done this Annapurna circuit 40 times. He has left Nepal, he has been to America, and yes, he has been to Patagonia. He even speaks a bit of Spanish. Rani and him begin discussing the mountains of South America at length. I wonder vaguely if he's ever played rummy, as I pull out my journal.

February 29th, 2020
Day 6

I'll meet you in Gyaru, I told the silence. Five crows flew.

Today began with clear skies. Early in the day we climbed switchbacks for over an hour, up to Gyaru. Gyaru and Ngyaral were both made of river rock, hauled up to perilous locations.

Today was a day of images. Past the two high villages and onto a plateau. Shaggy yaks, an abandoned town, clouds starting in, ancient stupas. A monastery I attempted to enter, but was spooked by a dog barking and a man lying face down on the cold stone, in the wind, sleeping.... I have a dark feeling that the frozen steps of that place will be the setting for my dreamscape tonight.

Down through elder pine forests to ancient Julu. Onto a thin sandy trail through scraggly yellowing pine. Clouds beginning to gather thicker. Easily strolling the low road all the way to Braka, where we found the only lodge that was open in this season and settled in.

Daal Bhat Power 24 Hour...

My eyes are abandoned, up on the mountain, gazing out into the snowy infinity. The daal bhat is in front of me, as always, but I find it impossible to focus. I still hear a hundred bells ringing as that herd of goats shifts from rock to rock. I wonder if the tiny dog that we had hiked with is still up on the peaks, harassing those slim herds as the sun sets and the wind whips, heralding the arrival of thick clouds that take their nightly rest on such exceedingly high places.

Rani nudges me, and tells me to eat. I tell him that I am not so hungry today. He tells me to eat anyways. He is right. The routine makes me feel human. This evening I am happy to be something else. I am happy that the blood has not yet made it thoroughly to my fingers or toes or lips. I am okay with the tension behind my eyes and my incredibly vivid dreams.

A fellow traveler sits down next to us, a late arrival. Enriquez, from Chile. He has a very immediate, warm nature that brings me back to reality for another night. We play many hands of rummy, and I am not able to get to my journal until late, when the fire has already been put out. I huddle under a stack of blankets with my headlamp on, and write.

March 1st, 2020
Day 7

Acclimation day. I woke up with the sun as is usual these days. With such a simple and frostbitten room, there was initially no motivation to get up. But the skies were clear and the sun was lighting up fresh snowy peaks orange, luring us out of bed. We had homemade toast and real coffee, then ditched some weight at the hostel and headed up to the ice lake.

There were some clouds around the tall, snowy mountains. The more ominous clouds settled over the peaks, so that the mountains faded into the sky seamlessly. The mountains could stretch on forever upwards, like a charcoal sketch. And the valley below like a storybook. I felt it could be a mystical world down there. The past few days I have attempted to take the images before my eyes and place them into my heart. It is a strange and at times painful process, to open myself to this place. Yet this land is the most gorgeous thing that I've ever seen, really, and I hope to absorb these moments and keep them with me.

What else... Ice lake, 4,500 meters. We had this epic little dog follow us down, chewing on his yak hoof. He went up to the ice lake for fun, and probably does it all the time. It snowed this evening. The anticipation is on for the upcoming pass, especially with all these snow flurries.

Daal Bhat Power 24 Hour...

I inhale my plate, hoping it will help me to feel human in the face of the altitude. I take a sip of the water that we had gathered from a village earlier today. It is the essence of the mountain itself. So sweet and fresh I could cry. No matter where I am in the world, I must remember that the water from high peaks is pure.

Nearby, a large group of youth from Singapore are gathered around the fire, talking spiritedly. I am unsure if it is the ability of the young to construct a false image, or if they are truly feeling normal. To spend the night at 4,200 meters. 13,779 feet. My mind mirrors the landscape, a dull gray, and the towns ghostly. Through the discomfort of my state, I suppose that it will be best to continue with my routine.

Rani and I will play rummy, alone or with new company. We will retreat to our room, and make tulsi rose tea on our campstove, because we are cheap, even in Nepal. We will get into our bed, attempting to take off our clothes in the bitter cold. We will read on our old-school Kindles, I am devouring nearly a book a day. We will discuss what we learned from our fellow hikers, and make some mental notes. In the morning we will meditate with the sunrise, order a Tibetan bread, read our guidebook, and continue on our way.

March 2nd, 2020
Day 8

We are up in Churi Ledar, with everybody gathered around the wood stove to keep warm.

The hike was pretty uneventful, just plodding along, trying to breathe enough. We ate a delicious chocolate croissant and cinnamon roll by a melting icicle waterfall, and we passed by a herd of blue sheep munching away on the hillside. The males had giant horns, thick, and curving upwards and inwards, disproportionate to their bodies. If not for the horns, I would have been convinced that they were deer.

Our maggie break was at a closed restaurant, on a cold plateau that was eerie with creeping clouds and stone buildings, stone outcroppings.

Not much else to report.

We are eating more, as if it might ground us, make us larger against the increasingly foreboding body of the mountain pass.

Everyone is starting to really think about Thorung La. How cold it will be, will the weather be still for us? We saw three groups today that turned around due to altitude sickness.

Daal Bhat Power 24 Hour...

Every moment from the trek flashes in front of my eyes as the woman emerges from the kitchen and places my daal bhat in front of me. I move to the other side of the table to sit next to Rani, to wrap our arms and calves together impossibly as we eat. I suddenly feel so strongly for him, and for my own flesh. I eat quickly, and write quickly in my journal, then return to reality. I want to make love tonight. I had dreamed that I was inside the mountain last night, that I had already seen the high pass from my cave of ice. My hands had been blue. I had watched group after group of hikers nearly reach the highest point, and then turn around with piercing headaches. Veins erupting. Then I had seen myself. Lagging a bit behind Rani, who was already at Thorung La. Of course he would be able to make it. But me...

Miraculously, now, at the foot of the mountain, I feel more myself than I had since we set foot in the lands of Annapurna. I pull Rani back to our cabin. We are all giggles, and we have our last bar of chocolate. We fall asleep still talking, shifting, imagining.

March 3rd, 2020
Day 9

I'm feeling good about this adventure tomorrow, and looking forward to warmer weather and thicker air on the other side of Thorung La.

Today we traversed through an avalanche zone. Icy slopes and tiny paths, edged by steep cliffs. The altitude made my body feel panicked, hyperventilating. But I started to feel better as the hours passed, listening to some tunes, and just being up in this crazy place!

It was a crystal-clear day and the sun was hot. The pass is only a thousand meters more. Now it's bed time, warming time, acclimation time, dream time, rejuvenation time. Epic moments lie ahead. ♥

...When we wake up it is strange. The anticipation, perhaps, or the altitude. I don't think we say one word to each other. We hang our microspikes from the outside of our bags, make the last of our coffee, and hit the trail. Five thirty in the morning. The sun is beginning to peek out. The glaciers and snowy drifts are an ethereal gold. My mind is still ruminating over my night's journey, although my body is clearly functioning at a high capacity. One thousand more meters to reach our goal of 5,416 meters. 17,769 feet. The high pass. It is a dreamscape.

We crest the steepest part of the terrain. It had been just ice and rock, too harsh of terrain for gentle flakes to find a place to rest. Above is nothing but smooth snow drifts. I close my eyes. I wake up fully. I feel the stillness of the mountain. I know that she is holding still out of a benevolence. I imagine a blizzard. Just us, no guide, desperately following these thin orange posts that had been pounded into the glacier beneath. I whisper to the mountain.

We follow the posts. I am out of breath every fifteen steps. But I pause, I breathe as deeply as I can, and then I take fifteen more steps. I move on like this for hours. The whole world is a white blanket. The wind cannot stir, there is not enough air. I think I see forms drifting slowly by above us, but I cannot bring myself to lift my neck and look.

We must be moments away from Thorung La. Rani has pushed on ahead of me. I can still see him, but he is very small. I follow the orange posts dutifully. Then my eyes wander on their own, rest upon a break in the infinite smoothness of the landscape. The cave. Inside, it seems blue.

I attempt to shift my eyes. To the sunshine echoing from the other side of the mountain. The morning on the horizon seems increasingly normal, less and less ethereal. My breath comes even shallower than usual, and I fully panic for a moment. I strain. If only I could crest the pass, and gaze down upon the sun.

But I cannot. Increasingly, I desire not to continue along the trail. The mountain is holding its breath for me, as I have been holding my breath for the mountain. Its tenderness, its magic, fills my mind. My own life seems so small. It is. It is nothing. I had always known that, we had all always known how small we are. But, somehow, we had cared nonetheless. Up here I realize that I no longer feel an attachment to life on the other side of the pass. To daal bhat and rummy and my Kindle; my mother, my schoolmates, or my lover. To my humanness. I take one step towards the cave. I imagine my life here, as my fingers turn blue and then purple. As my bones harden. As I, too, become a form that simply floats above these glaciers. A ray of sun that melts ice. I take another step.


  1. What a sojourn! These words: “ Not to rot on the peak, but to fracture my soul, and leave a piece there” were what the narrator wanted at the start. I don’t know if she got it or not. Certainly she went to her limit. And maybe beyond. I was confused by her relationship partner. They hike far in front of her. That does not seem caring. I’m also confused by her death/rebirth wish. I don’t know what that means in practical terms for her. But it is a story full of beautiful detail and longing. Thank you for it!!

    1. Hello June, thanks for the feedback! Perhaps I should have made it more clear that towards the end of the tale there was a shift farther away from reality.

  2. Rozanne CharbonneauMarch 18, 2024 at 6:42 PM

    The descriptions in this piece are beautiful. I was also a bit confused by her death/rebirth wish, but I assume that quite a few extreme mountain climbers feel this way. This transported me to a very different world. Well done!

    1. Thank you Rozanne, and it is interesting to hear the impressions/confusion of the readers. I suppose everyone will understand the 'point' in a different way.

  3. Quite the adventure. Tried to relate it to being a mere 2-3 thousand meters high in the Specific Northwest USA. Not much comparison.

    Mr. Mirth

    1. That is an adventure in its own right!

  4. This is beautifully crafted with a perfect amount of prosaic, albeit highly effective, description and a good mix of poetic, ethereal language - giving this story a wonderful balance. The descriptions of the scenery are sublime. On a smaller note, it also made me hungry in the first few paragraphs!

    1. Thank you. I enjoy the way you define balance as mixing prosaic, poetic, and ethereal language.

  5. Your characterization of the protagonist via her dialogue, actions, thoughts, and journaling was profound. So much so that I disliked her as if she were a real person. I found her very annoying, I guess I hate her - she is like a real person to me, ha ha… Evoking this sort of strong emotion in a reader is a great victory!

    I am angry with her for risking her life so needlessly. I suspected her refusing to use diamox would be a foreshadowing of a later tragedy. Also her ascent schedule seemed too rapid. Altitude sickness is best avoided entirely, and if left untreated, it also can progress to fatal high altitude pulmonary edema and high altitude cerebral edema. (Diamox works! None of the various “natural” teas separate from placebo in any clinical trials.) Of course too, there also seems to be a lot of dumb luck involved in whether one suffers from any of these high altitude illnesses.

    The character also has an obvious eating disorder, or at least many dysfunctional thoughts and behaviors around food.

    It’s a dated way to say it but she has “first world problems” while adventuring in the “third world”, and it leads to her doom.

    Well done!

    1. I am glad you had so many thoughts and feelings about her!

  6. A bit too much daal, perhaps. I found it a little hard to get into this story; I realize the breaks are intended to make it seem like a journal, but somehow I found each one was like starting over, rather than part of a continuous development. Perhaps the point was that the protagonist was losing herself? If so, it needs work...or, at least, some fine-tuning. Some sections were beautifully written, BTW. Other sections were sentence fragments, like shards of a broken stained-glass window -- brilliant and breathtaking, but difficult to piece together.

    1. It is interesting to witness the mixed feedback coming in from this piece. Thanks.

  7. Excellent job Talia, this was beautiful to read, you really have honed your craft. The little gems of description really take me back to the mountains :)

    1. Thank you! It was a lovely exercise in remembering, to base a story off of that circuit.

  8. I love when fiction introduces me to an entirely foreign world and characters who are the kind of people I likely wouldn't come into contact with (I mean, the mountains might as well be another planet to me!), and this does so beautifully. I liked the section breaks, they gave me the little pauses and resets that I probably needed to keep up with the climb, and made sense for this type of story.

  9. Talia’s writing, like her theme, is rather breathless. We are led, by her skillful writing, to believe that the MC’s impressions and visions and dreams are affected by the altitude, the exuberance of conquering a peak, and by a cresting love. The more I read this story, the better I liked it. As Talia writes, the context of the adventure becomes “…a dreamscape…” It is very poignant how for the MC, the mountain becomes first a rival, then a partner, and finally, a nurturing lover. Excellent story, Talia!