Six thousand feet below us, the blanket of night is pierced by five blazing bonfires. I finish the anchor, de-rig the rappel, and yell for Vince to come down. We’ve been downclimbing and rappelling the Rupal Face for 26 hours without a break. Vince clips in next to me. He says, “I hear drumming. Really.”
I can’t see Vince’s face. It is hidden behind the yellowing glow of his headlamp. The halo of light swings toward the valley, and I imagine that he cocks his head to catch the sound again. “You’re too tired,” I say.
As we’re both leaning on the anchor I feel his body go stock-still. I stop pulling the rappel ropes and join him in concentrated listening. I try to imagine why the five fires are lit. Hidden in the darkness is a green, glacier-cut valley with five clusters of stone huts. Homes inhabited only by seasonal yak and goat herders.
“The fires must be for us,” I joke. “They’re celebrating.” Two rappels later Vince accidentally loses his headlamp. A rope-length lower, my batteries flicker and die. Our speedy descent grinds to a sudden halt, and we take refuge below a small serac.
At 16,000 feet the air feels luxuriantly thick, and we sleep through the dawn for the first time in a week. Fueled by a breakfast of warm water, we methodically make our way down the last 4,000 feet of this 14,000-foot wall. It is just past noon when I step off the face. I sit in the first truly safe spot I’ve been in eight days. With cracked and swollen fingers, I remove my crampons.
Scree gives way to an overgrazed alpine meadow that cedes to a stunted juniper forest. Vince and I get separated on the myriad of yak trails. We’ve been on the move for 44 of the past 54 hours. I walk like a frat boy leaving a kegger. I will myself to stay upright and keep moving down the trail – toward basecamp.
Then, a dirty, bearded man bursts from the brush and grabs me in an overwhelming bear hug. I let out a weak, terrified scream. He is crying and crushing me. I push against him with all my strength, but he holds fast.
He says my name, and as he finally lets go I see his face: Ghulam, our cook’s assistant. Behind the next juniper, I see Vince with Aslam, our liaison officer. Vince sits on his pack eating whole cookies in one bite and gulping down springwater. I take a seat in the dust and help Vince get through the entire box.
Two days later, we pack up basecamp and start the daylong walk back to the trailhead. Vince and I carry nothing. A line of a dozen donkeys stretches out behind us. We walk silently behind Aslam and Fida, my friend and cook on many past expeditions, trying to match their excited pace.
Fida waits atop the moraine. I join him and Vince and the three of us look down at the village Tarshing in the valley below. “For you, sir,” he says, sweeping his hand toward the village. Many switchbacks below us people mull about on the edge of town. From here I can just see clustered groups of people gathered on the outskirts of the village. Someone shouts, and they hastily begin to form lines.
Many of these villagers remember the first time the Rupal Face was climbed by Reinhold and Gunther Messner in 1970. As a young boy, the village headman had played soccer with them in their basecamp. The place that Nanga Parbat, and the Rupal Face, holds within the psyche of mountaineers has not been lost on those who live at its foot. To them, it has always been “the naked mountain” – so steep as to not hold even heavy Himalayan snows.
Vince and I walk toward Tarshing, side by side. Neither of us knows what to expect next. We’re followed down the moraine by Fida, Ghulam, Aslam and the packers with their laden donkeys. At the edge of town the headman of Tarshing, round and graying, stands holding two fresh flower leis beneath a hand-lettered paper banner reading – “Congration to Summit Team.” Hundreds of schoolchildren line the footpath wearing clean, pressed uniforms. Many of them hold smaller banners and signs.
The bonfires were for us. The residents of the Rupal Valley had been tracking us through that ubiquitous herder’s tool – binoculars. They had watched as, on our sixth day on the mountain, we had crested the world’s biggest wall and disappeared onto the summit of Nanga Parbat. They had cheered as, by headlamp, we had come back down from the summit and regained our fifth bivouac. On the seventh night, they had lit bonfires and beat drums.
Vince and I sit in the center of the town square, in seats of honor. The flowers around my neck are so heavy I ache. We are brought cold bottles of pop and a tray of cookies. The headman gives a speech as the children squirm and fidget. Tears well up, and I am happy. Happy to have come down. Happy to have come home.