Photos by Wade McKoy

I open my eyes at 4:20 a.m. to a rime-crusted tent. It’s ten below. A cold string of jelled saliva drips from my sleeping bag onto my chin. I’ve been dreaming of the track that leads to the top of the 17,614-foot pass, imagining the view from up there. We have to gain it in a day–and get back. That’s all the time we have.

A high-pitched double beep from my watch pierces the quiet. It takes ten minutes to shimmy out of my sleeping bag and into my bibs and down jacket. Hooks, snaps, and zippers sink their teeth into my dry, cracked skin. I fumble through mesh gear bags, twisting nearly 180 degrees inside my nylon house-on-ice in search of a headlamp. I accidentally lean on my water bottle and it explodes into my sleeping bag. Living at 11,500 feet in the middle of winter is a royal pain in the ass.

I tumble out of the tent, trembling with an early-morning buzz. Above, stars sparkle in a creosote sky. The cold bites as I fumble with the stove, taking off my gloves to operate the lighter. Damn child-safety switches.

We’ve come a long way to snowboard this pass: three days of flying, two days of driving, and 30 miles of trekking. But we aren’t going to make it–at least that’s what the guide says. By his estimation, the pass is still four days from our camp, and we have to start back toward the trailhead tomorrow.

I light the stove, squinting at the yellow flame, and tote two pots to the stream to fill them. Fifteen minutes later, I strain a boiling pot of tea through my bandanna into a water bottle. The warm plastic thaws my frozen fingers. Steam from the dark Bond A1 brew moistens my face then drifts through the tents, plucking the rest of the crew from vivid high-altitude dreams.

One by one, they roll into the cooking area: Mikey Franco, the

upbeat director of the Jackson Hole Snowboard School and backcountry rider for K2; Jamie Ziobro, the half-crazy ex-Intermountain West snowboard coach who ditched his high-paying L.A. office job to snowboard the Indian Himalayas; Jason Tattersall, the hired muscle of the group who’d laid a skin track halfway across the Garhwal range for us; and Wade McKoy, the soft-spoken, subtly hilarious photographer who entertained us with climbing stories from around the world.

The expedition’s goal was 17,614-foot-high Yamunotri Pass, a breach in the western Garhwal Himalayas in the northern Indian state of Uttar Pradesh–a region rich in history and lore. The pass marked the headwaters of the Yamuna River, India’s second-holiest waterway that flows past New Delhi and the Taj Mahal. Legend has it that bathing in the river spared believers an agonizing death, and traveling to its source provided moksha, or release, to pilgrims. We thought snowboarding on it would be cool.

***

As our tires screeched around a corner on the second day of driving, the Himalayas sidled out from a bend in the one-and-a-half-lane road. I’d heard stories about the great range, and pictures of the Himalayas’ seventeen 26,000-footers adorned the walls of my room. But I never expected this. The Sanskrit poet Kalidasa described the range as “the king of mountains” and the “measuring rod of the world.” I had to agree. Imagine standing at the bottom of Jackson Hole Mountain Resort and staring at the summit. Then stack seven Jackson Holes on top of one another and you’ll begin to get the picture. In the shadow of the Himalayas, our mountaineering gear suddenly seemed as useful as a yield sign in an elephant stampede.

The morning after we arrived in Sankri, a dusty mountain town at nearly 5,000 feet, our government liaison Karan Singh helped us hire nine porters and a guide from an eager crowd of villagers. A twinge of guilt tickled my gut when 90-pound boys with twigs for legs tied our bags to thr heads with hemp rope–refusing to use shoulder straps–and waddled up the trail. Nonetheless, I felt a skip in my lightened step as I followed, treading to the tunes of Stevie Wonder and James Brown.

For the next three days, we hiked, ate, slept, smoked, and laughed with this motley crew of villagers, falling headlong into their ragtag world of biscuits and bidis on a perfect cobblestone path above the Tons River. Each day we gained thousands of feet, weaving through stands of 120-foot chir pines laden with grapefruit-sized cones, and battling fields of rhododendron. We stopped often to admire troops of gray langur monkeys swinging from trees, and once we spotted a set of rare Himalayan brown-bear tracks.

By night, we peered through the doors of our nylon tents at the porters as they howled and laughed into the darkness, the cherries of their bidis–tobacco wrapped in eucalyptus leaves–bobbing in a ring as flames spouted 30 feet above their heads from a tree they’d torched.

We were not the first group to trek this route. Shepherds walked the well-worn trail a thousand years ago, whisking their flocks to the sacred Dev Thach pasture in the summer, then herding them to the lower valley in the winter. Tools dating back to 8,000 B.C., used by one of the earliest civilizations known to humanity, were discovered near this valley. When wool-clad shepherds slipped silently past us under the shade of chestnut and walnut trees, it didn’t seem like much had changed.

After three days on the trail, we climbed above 11,000 feet and arrived at the sacred pond of Ruinsara, setting up camp on its southeast edge. East, toward Yamunotri Pass, sat a massive boulder with the words “Love Himalayas” written on it, probably a message from the Chipko environmental movement started by the women of Uttarakhand in the 70s.

Minutes after we concluded we were the first people to visit the pond in the winter, a four-foot-tall ibex hunter shouldering a five-foot-long rifle and wearing tiny red Wellingtons walked past us toward the lower valley; he may as well have been Paddington Bear gone guerrilla. His footprints led to a 13,500-foot ridge a mile up the valley. As he walked past, I stared at our gear, wondering if our stash of dehydrated food included freeze-dried humble pie.

After paying the porters 500 rupees ($12.50 U.S.) to buy food for the return trip, they bid us farewell and promised to return in five days. Just before he left, I asked the guide how long it would take us to reach Yamunotri Pass. I held my breath as he began counting on his fingers.

“Four days,” he finally said. My heart stopped. We didn’t have enough time. Sure, we had five days before the porters returned, but it would take that long just to acclimatize before we could approach the higher elevations. Even here, at just above 11,000 feet, we were all having a difficult time with it, and climbing to 17,000 feet without giving our bodies a chance to adjust would be downright dangerous.

After a rest day, we pushed into the mountains as high as we dared to keep ourselves occupied before attempting the pass, getting to 12,000, 13,000, and eventually 14,000 feet. At the end of the second day, we finally got a chance to ride.

The run was a long-awaited release of anxiety, fear, and excitement. At last we were turning–the same way we did back home. The snow was firm with a four-inch layer of cream cheese on top, and we felt more grounded with each familiar motion. Drop. Edge. Carve.

We made tight turns along a 500-foot fin and then angled through the crux of the Cadillac-wide chute. When the slot opened, we opened our turns with it. Past the granite walls, I could see Har-Ki-Dun peak to the west and the Tibetan plateau to the northeast. My jacket rippled as I picked up speed, and the sound of sugary powder vibrating under my edge melted into a low-pitch hum. In a trance, I gazed at the 1,500-foot-long bergschrund on the flanks of a 20,490-foot granite peak named Swargarohini II across the valley, and the great Himalayan circle enveloped me. I opened my turns more, gaining speed, each arc now 150 feet long.

Something an Indian girl told me on the flight from New York to New Delhi echoed in my mind.

“It just shows you that destiny will have its way,” she’d whispered as I stared out the window, transfixed on the dusty desert lights of Tehran, Iran.

Speeding toward the snowfields below, I realized it was my destiny to be here, now. I saw how little control I had over my existence, and at that moment–for the first time in my life–I lived. Just for a second. Then, as quickly as it hit me, it was gone. I stopped under a rock ledge and looked over my shoulder to see where the others were.

***

The camp sinks into darkness as the stove sputters off. We finish packing and click into our access skis. We’re already behind schedule. Even if the guide was right and we have no chance of reaching the pass, we aim to climb as high as we can. By 6:00 a.m. we’re tracing the southern edge of Ruinsara, headlamps bobbing like a string of Chinese New Year’s lamps. We drop over a ridge bordering the pond, and cross the Ruinsara River on a two-piece wooden bridge.

Single file, we hump to the bench that leads to the pass, bisecting a line of jungle leopard tracks on the way. We’re moving fast now, the access skis working well on the rock-hard crust that formed overnight. Clouds move in from the east and west like a chalky vise. A narrow strip of stars overhead holds out for an hour, then gives way to a gray daybreak.

We reach the first saddle in 50 minutes and realize, euphorically, that we might make the top. But we aren’t there yet. Interpreting distances in the Himalayas is like voting for a politician: you never know what you’re going to get until after you commit. Mikey has a case of Delhi belly, and his knee is aching. The rest of us are beginning to feel the effects of altitude. Step by step, breath by breath, we chip away at the second saddle, zigzagging up its 800-foot face. We pass 13,000 feet, and the sparse air burns my lungs. A Lammergeier hawk unfolds its nine-foot wingspan high above my head, casting a black sliver across the track. Gimme a couple of feet, I ask.

At 10:00 a.m., we creep over the top of the second saddle. We’ve been skinning for four hours on a few bites of cereal, a mug of tea, and an energy bar. Fatigue lurks in the group’s bloodshot eyes. Our initial euphoria has worn off, and we begin to understand why the guide thought it would take four days to reach the top. Snow-covered moraines roll before us like a choppy white sea. The vast Himalayan peaks on either side teeter over our heads. Jason hammers ahead. The rest of us follow as best we can.

Cresting the last moraine, we drop into a gully and head toward the third saddle. We’ve been ascending at a breakneck pace for six hours, and I feel like I’m pushing a brick wall as I reach 16,500 feet. I take five steps at a time before my head begins to spin. Jamie and Mikey are exhausted and lag 45 minutes behind. Mikey’s knee is swelling, and my right knee clicks and pops with every step. No one is close to anyone. We’ve all turned our radios off. There is nothing to say.

On top of the third saddle, I see a thousand vertical feet between me and the top of the pass. It’s so painful to bend my knee, it makes me nauseated. I can see Jamie, Mikey, and Wade aren’t going to make it. There’s not enough time.

Jason is halfway up the 1,000-foot headwall. Upon seeing him I spontaneously reach with my right ski, grab two feet of snow and pull it toward me. Then the left. Then the right again. into a low-pitch hum. In a trance, I gazed at the 1,500-foot-long bergschrund on the flanks of a 20,490-foot granite peak named Swargarohini II across the valley, and the great Himalayan circle enveloped me. I opened my turns more, gaining speed, each arc now 150 feet long.

Something an Indian girl told me on the flight from New York to New Delhi echoed in my mind.

“It just shows you that destiny will have its way,” she’d whispered as I stared out the window, transfixed on the dusty desert lights of Tehran, Iran.

Speeding toward the snowfields below, I realized it was my destiny to be here, now. I saw how little control I had over my existence, and at that moment–for the first time in my life–I lived. Just for a second. Then, as quickly as it hit me, it was gone. I stopped under a rock ledge and looked over my shoulder to see where the others were.

***

The camp sinks into darkness as the stove sputters off. We finish packing and click into our access skis. We’re already behind schedule. Even if the guide was right and we have no chance of reaching the pass, we aim to climb as high as we can. By 6:00 a.m. we’re tracing the southern edge of Ruinsara, headlamps bobbing like a string of Chinese New Year’s lamps. We drop over a ridge bordering the pond, and cross the Ruinsara River on a two-piece wooden bridge.

Single file, we hump to the bench that leads to the pass, bisecting a line of jungle leopard tracks on the way. We’re moving fast now, the access skis working well on the rock-hard crust that formed overnight. Clouds move in from the east and west like a chalky vise. A narrow strip of stars overhead holds out for an hour, then gives way to a gray daybreak.

We reach the first saddle in 50 minutes and realize, euphorically, that we might make the top. But we aren’t there yet. Interpreting distances in the Himalayas is like voting for a politician: you never know what you’re going to get until after you commit. Mikey has a case of Delhi belly, and his knee is aching. The rest of us are beginning to feel the effects of altitude. Step by step, breath by breath, we chip away at the second saddle, zigzagging up its 800-foot face. We pass 13,000 feet, and the sparse air burns my lungs. A Lammergeier hawk unfolds its nine-foot wingspan high above my head, casting a black sliver across the track. Gimme a couple of feet, I ask.

At 10:00 a.m., we creep over the top of the second saddle. We’ve been skinning for four hours on a few bites of cereal, a mug of tea, and an energy bar. Fatigue lurks in the group’s bloodshot eyes. Our initial euphoria has worn off, and we begin to understand why the guide thought it would take four days to reach the top. Snow-covered moraines roll before us like a choppy white sea. The vast Himalayan peaks on either side teeter over our heads. Jason hammers ahead. The rest of us follow as best we can.

Cresting the last moraine, we drop into a gully and head toward the third saddle. We’ve been ascending at a breakneck pace for six hours, and I feel like I’m pushing a brick wall as I reach 16,500 feet. I take five steps at a time before my head begins to spin. Jamie and Mikey are exhausted and lag 45 minutes behind. Mikey’s knee is swelling, and my right knee clicks and pops with every step. No one is close to anyone. We’ve all turned our radios off. There is nothing to say.

On top of the third saddle, I see a thousand vertical feet between me and the top of the pass. It’s so painful to bend my knee, it makes me nauseated. I can see Jamie, Mikey, and Wade aren’t going to make it. There’s not enough time.

Jason is halfway up the 1,000-foot headwall. Upon seeing him I spontaneously reach with my right ski, grab two feet of snow and pull it toward me. Then the left. Then the right again. I slip into a rhythm, and after 30 painful minutes I’m halfway up the face. My knee is now locked in a 45-degree angle–I can’t straighten or bend it. I can step when my right knee is uphill, but I have to make up for twelve lost inches on the reverse skin track. Twenty minutes later, I’m amazed to find the top of the pass just 30 feet away. I stop to catch my breath. I want to remember this. I want to be prepared.

Closing my eyes, a gray shadow sweeps across a desert from north to southeast. It’s the Caspian Sea. I hear the Indian girl’s whisper again and I wonder what my place is here. A desire to learn about myself brought me to this gap in the mountains, but what am I looking for? Will I find it on the other side?

And then I remember the way people live on this side of the world–or rather, the philosophy they live by: Realize the present. Don’t look ahead. Don’t look behind. Live and breathe and walk–and climb. I’m moving toward the top now. This is how you do it; one foot at a time. Breathe and live.

I rise to the crest of the pass, and in a triumphant splash India rolls out before me like a giant green tongue licking the snowcapped mountains. Life. Valleys, trees, branches, blades, and trunks float on a warm wind that blows in my face. Breath.

I can see a thousand trickles leading to a hundred streams that empty into one river–one holy river that feeds millions of acres of wheat, sugar cane, mustard, and mangoes while swirling through the legs of men, women, and children seeking eternal peace. These rivers are deeper than anything I can comprehend.

“They are the shores of life,” Karan explained to me later.

To the south, I see the road to New Delhi. To the west, smoke rises from the historic hill station of Mussoorie. It’s been four months since I circled this point on a map with a pencil. Now the pass rustles in a warm southern breeze, 17,614 feet above sea level. I cannot think of a pilgrimage more worthy.

Back on the third saddle, Jamie and Mikey are standing on their boards, access skis strapped to their backs, faces flushed with color. The two have ridden mountain passes for more than half their lives, but this one is different–this one is a holy place where ghostlike shepherds float past tombstone-shaped trail markers. This is sacred ground that demands sacred turns.

Putting the painful ascent behind them, the two hop off the saddle and leapfrog down the moraine, throwing backside slashes on the spine and powering deep arcs through the trough. From the ridge, fingers of feathered powder trickle from their tracks. Wade, Jason, and I follow, and the soft surface cradles our boards as hard-earned ground slides under our feet.

We balance on the tops of snowy dunes and allow gravity to pull our boards into the fall-line. Jamie and Mikey launch off the tongue of the moraine, landing in a gully leading to the first saddle. From there, we take a line down the right side.

We open our turns and follow the angles of the hill. Avalanche debris dots the snow, and deltas point the way down. We etch five lines, carving around rocks and airing off rolls. Over the hump of the second saddle, the final slope comes into view. Jamie and Mikey lurch ahead, leaving two shadowy tracks in their wake.

I wait. For a minute. And then two. Rocking on my edges, I listen to snow crunch under my base. I adjust my goggles and feel steam escape from the neck of my jacket. I’m comfortable here.

I breathe twice before shifting my weight downhill. The peaks needle the clouds above, and I think about all the places I have ridden and all the people who make up my life. Then, for every daydream I have ever had and every opportunity I let slip past, I start to glide in wide, symmetric turns and don’t stop until I hit the shadow below.

in. I slip into a rhythm, and after 30 painful minutes I’m halfway up the face. My knee is now locked in a 45-degree angle–I can’t straighten or bend it. I can step when my right knee is uphill, but I have to make up for twelve lost inches on the reverse skin track. Twenty minutes later, I’m amazed to find the top of the pass just 30 feet away. I stop to catch my breath. I want to remember this. I want to be prepared.

Closing my eyes, a gray shadow sweeps across a desert from north to southeast. It’s the Caspian Sea. I hear the Indian girl’s whisper again and I wonder what my place is here. A dessire to learn about myself brought me to this gap in the mountains, but what am I looking for? Will I find it on the other side?

And then I remember the way people live on this side of the world–or rather, the philosophy they live by: Realize the present. Don’t look ahead. Don’t look behind. Live and breathe and walk–and climb. I’m moving toward the top now. This is how you do it; one foot at a time. Breathe and live.

I rise to the crest of the pass, and in a triumphant splash India rolls out before me like a giant green tongue licking the snowcapped mountains. Life. Valleys, trees, branches, blades, and trunks float on a warm wind that blows in my face. Breath.

I can see a thousand trickles leading to a hundred streams that empty into one river–one holy river that feeds millions of acres of wheat, sugar cane, mustard, and mangoes while swirling through the legs of men, women, and children seeking eternal peace. These rivers are deeper than anything I can comprehend.

“They are the shores of life,” Karan explained to me later.

To the south, I see the road to New Delhi. To the west, smoke rises from the historic hill station of Mussoorie. It’s been four months since I circled this point on a map with a pencil. Now the pass rustles in a warm southern breeze, 17,614 feet above sea level. I cannot think of a pilgrimage more worthy.

Back on the third saddle, Jamie and Mikey are standing on their boards, access skis strapped to their backs, faces flushed with color. The two have ridden mountain passes for more than half their lives, but this one is different–this one is a holy place where ghostlike shepherds float past tombstone-shaped trail markers. This is sacred ground that demands sacred turns.

Putting the painful ascent behind them, the two hop off the saddle and leapfrog down the moraine, throwing backside slashes on the spine and powering deep arcs through the trough. From the ridge, fingers of feathered powder trickle from their tracks. Wade, Jason, and I follow, and the soft surface cradles our boards as hard-earned ground slides under our feet.

We balance on the tops of snowy dunes and allow gravity to pull our boards into the fall-line. Jamie and Mikey launch off the tongue of the moraine, landing in a gully leading to the first saddle. From there, we take a line down the right side.

We open our turns and follow the angles of the hill. Avalanche debris dots the snow, and deltas point the way down. We etch five lines, carving around rocks and airing off rolls. Over the hump of the second saddle, the final slope comes into view. Jamie and Mikey lurch ahead, leaving two shadowy tracks in their wake.

I wait. For a minute. And then two. Rocking on my edges, I listen to snow crunch under my base. I adjust my goggles and feel steam escape from the neck of my jacket. I’m comfortable here.

I breathe twice before shifting my weight downhill. The peaks needle the clouds above, and I think about all the places I have ridden and all the people who make up my life. Then, for every daydream I have ever had and every opportunity I let slip past, I start to glide in wide, symmetric turns and don’t stop until I hit the shadow below.