I'd been writing a massive detailed account of our recent Sikkim trek, when the freaking power went out here in this two-bit cybercafe where I'm writing. I'd been trying to convey that when the oxygen gets thin, little things begin to mean a lot. The smell of butterscotch on the breeze, for instance. Or tiny blue flowers sparkling on the trail's edge like pale, displaced stars. The bells of the yaks coming downhill warning you to get out of the way.

And so forth....

Did I say yaks? Actually, the preferred pack animals in Sikkim, a former Buddhist kingdom opposite our Indian home state of Uttaranchal on the eastern border of Nepal, are cow-yak crossbreeds called dzo (pronounced "joe"). These thick horned critters carry about 100-pounds a piece, and allowed me and the missus to backpack without much on our backs except small daypacks. The dzos are soft-furred, cleft-footed ungulates, which have the advantage of not keeling over when you reach lower, humid altitudes. Yaks, I now know, are strictly for the heights.

But don't get the impression this was a simple walk in the park. On the first day, we gained about 4,000 feet over 6 miles, to enter the alpine zone, spending our first night at 10,000 feet in a Tibetan refugee settlement called Tsoka. We soon found that full-service trekking comes with a routine; it's kind of like car camping, but instead of a car, you've got a staff. Bed tea comes to the tent at 6:30 AM, followed by washing water, generally just this side of tepid, followed by breakfast in the mountain resthouses served at seven. Most days we hit the trail by eight.

And to what purpose, you ask?

Well, we were headed for the flanks of Mount Kanchenzunga, a peak over 28,000 feet, second in height only to Everest and K2. We weren't planning an assault on the big hill, just to take a gander from Goecha La. The pass is at around 15,000 feet, and taller than most mountains in the Lower 48. The trail was not a brutal one, but it did take a lot of heart and hard work to keep on trekking as we spent the better part of the past 10 days above 12,000 feet. Fortunately, we were blessed with pretty good weather, the clouds generally holding off to late afternoon, allowing us to walk in the sunshine and get good views of the jagged glaciers on a couple of early morning efforts.

In addition to our own porters, our Nepali guide Amar, and the orange-panted yak man in charge of our livestock, there were plenty of other folks on the mountain. It was my first time to see such swarms of touristic humanity in a natural setting. We traded leads with a group of crazy Swiss hikers, a pair of American girls, a French couple, and about 15 obnoxious Germans, who I dubbed (in a fit of something other than generosity) 'the Kraut dickheads.'

Maybe it was the altitude, or the fact that I had envisioned fewer people on a trek to a land few people are familiar with, but I finally got over my reservations (except for hating the K-d's) and sort of even enjoyed the social aspects of this hard walk in the Himalayas. I even mustered energy to play soccer at 12,500 feet with the Swiss, who even with my dubious skills, could not handle the crew of Sherpas and assorted schleppers on high.

Of course, ask me now, and I'll tell you it was all worth it.

However, during the climb to Goecha La pass, I thought I would die. C was in the lead, with one of our kitchen crew making sure she didn't take a spill off the ridgeline. I was breathing hard, bringing up the rear and wondering whatever possessed me to think I was a mountain man. We crossed amazing moon-like glacial moraine, and faced into a cool wind for 6 hours to find ourselves amid Buddhist prayer flags and small white cairns, the massif of Kanchenzunga slipping in and out of the cloud-scape before us. Of course it was worth it.

Coming down, we took our time, but it's tough to find the words to describe the experience all over again. Perhaps I'll find a bit of inspiration later. Surely, I will find sparks in recollecting the amazing road I've traveled.


Rewind: Forget the swelter of Delhi’s April heat.

Recall the leaves of the Sal forest in Corbett National Park, a few hours north of here. Visited back in mid-March. The wind loosening the yellow planks of vegetation, dropping the leaves to the ground with a steady tic-tic… almost like rain. And then the rain did come, as we boarded an elephant to search for a tiger in the woods. The mahout, the elephant driver, smiling, confident. “I know where there’s a kill. We should find the beast,” and then we moved out across a field of tall grass. Elephant grass, where we found a herd of wild pachyderms lingering near the edge of the jungle. The wind blowing harder now, and the sky black with cloud. A stroke of lightening, a thunder clap, and we’re crossing a field on the back of a 20-foot animal, our heads just a little below the level of the tallest Acacia trees. Oh my!

That safari didn’t produce a tiger, but it was an adventure, wheeling through the woods, following the drag marks, where the killer cat had moved its latest meal. Under this tree, over to that bush, a small piece of deer meat left behind here, and hoof there. The tiger had been this way. And the rain falling the whole time. The mahout providing us with a tarp, which makes scratchy noises against our hats and hairs so that the whole world sounds like it’s wrapped in plastic. The elephant pulling up small trees, wrapping her trunk around leafy branches and stripping them bare. We double back, the ground muddy now, the pug marks washed away in the downpour. The mahout confers with another elephant driver; we are working the forest, crisscrossing in search of a glimpse of orange fur in the undergrowth. Not here. Not there. Hiding. Always elusive. The tiger.

I’ve had good luck in the past seeing India’s most famous fauna: In Assam, 2003, a tiger poked his enormous head out of the grass to look down the road after our jeep as we birded Kaziranga Park. I spotted a tiger in Corbett from elephant back earlier that same year. Now I was beginning to worry that we would be skunked; this photo safari cursed by unseasonable rain – and with my father in tow (although we’d already spotted a tiger in Ranthambore Park the week before), how embarrassing!

That evening in the park dining hall, three American girls with a digital camera, one with quick-film capacity, share their tiger sighting. A flash of orange in the bush. A warning snarl, a scream as the camera get jostled, and a charge that would have stopped our collective hearts had we been there personally. The tiger having had enough, warning the elephant-born bipeds, stay back. We are overcome with some pale green shade of envy; fortunately, we have another day to make up our deficit. We can still bring my tiger-sighting average up to .400.

At dawn, the sky clear, we head for our mount. Same mahout, same elephant; we are happy to know them. Fed her fruit after yesterday’s ride; tipped him nicely even without seeing a tiger. We make a quick circuit of the jungle, smelling something ripe right by a watering hole, hoping for tiger. Watching the shadows for something living. With the sun rising, I begin to despair. The rain-swept countryside is beautiful, though. The Himalayan foothills, lined in tall straight Sal trees and pines higher up, shiny and full forested to heights of 3,000-plus-feet, and the bigger mountains, snowcapped out of sight. Birds call, and a jackal breaks from the bush. Deer browse the grasses at the edge of the woodlands, which makes me doubt that a tiger could be lingering nearby.

After an hour, the mahouts decide to gamble on tigress known to inhabit the far side of the Ramnagar River, just a short ways from the lodge where we have been sleeping. We make our rough way down the slope, the elephant's thick pads providing surprising traction, and soon we are riding across the river when I notice an anomaly in the light on the shore upstream. I point, tentative at first, and wonder aloud “Tiger?” Our guide, then the mahout take up the call as soon as the word is out of my mouth. "Tiger! Tiger!" She’s moving, but the three elephant drivers are quick to corner the cat, who jogs up the river bank to the tall grass, breaking by a small tree.

I admit there’s something a bit sad, and also absurd, about wrangling a tiger with the help of elephants. Certainly, it makes the old sport of hunting tigers from elephant back seem a bit less sporting.

We don’t witness a charge, and after everyone gets a good look (and I snap a few photos) the big cat swims the river and vanishes. We’d spot an additional, final tiger on a game drive that afternoon, a bigger cat, lounging in the sun. Sleeping with his/her paws up and the white fur of its belly shining in the light. Such memories will certainly define my time in India when I look back on these days.