Over 2005, 2006 and 2007, Italian traveller Lorenzo Gariano spent his time installing panels in Sagarmatha National Park — also known as the Everest National Park — in Northeast Nepal. The panels — along trekking trails that snake across the high-altitude park — explain to explorers the biodiversity they are likely to chance upon, from snow leopards to the colourful plumes of danphe, Nepal’s national bird. But as he sits back to reminisce about the extent of his globe-trotting, during a short visit to Chennai, that particular project forms a small start of a long conversation.
“My life started in my 30s, because I had a daughter when I was 21 and that put everything on hold for a while,” he begins. But he has no regrets: his face lights up when he remembers the first time his daughter slung a backpack on her shoulders to go exploring with him.
He is organic in his experiences, and simple in his descriptions, but can’t hold back words like “enlightening” and “spiritual” when recalling his crossing of a 150 kilometre-stretch of the Sahara Desert, “leaving from Timbuktu in Mali, and going on for two and a half to three weeks. This was back in 1997-1998, when I was in my 40s.” The first remembrance to spark a superlative in him, is that of colours — “different shades of purple and yellow that are present within the sand, and their contrast with the sky.” The second is the lifestyle of the nomads he stayed with — “the search for water that was often too saline for my Western metabolism” — starkly new, but so shod of embellishments and so true to the Earth that he can only describe it as spiritual.
“For me, spirituality was seeing the breeze caressing and lifting the sand; it was seeing my nomadic tour guide, dressed in a blue that almost glittered in moonlight, praying amidst the sand dunes in this vastness of nothing…” And that is what strikes him still: the vastness. “In a strange way, it was the dessert that brought me to mountaineering. The extreme environment and harsh conditions.”
He doesn’t speak of it as a sudden, new flame, but rather an old spark that had been simmering and waiting for some air. “I have always had a love for the mountains,” he says, describing Poggi, the “tiny, tiny village of 200 souls” that he grew up in, lined by overarching, snow-capped mountains on one side and “the immensity of the sea” in another. “I remember avoiding my maths classes, pretending to be unwell and skipping school, to go off into the wilderness instead. So I have to thank my maths teacher for frightening me away, and sending me subconsciously to the mountains.”
And then Mount Kilimanjaro entered his life, just in passing, almost by accident. On his flight back from Zanzibar to Tanzania one year, he remembers crossing over “this colossal crater with snow on the summit”. The 4,000-metre climb was more intriguing than it was difficult. Tropical forests gave way to meadows, to Alpine woods, and then to snow, over mere day-to-day walks, he recalls, adding that it was “much like it is where I live, where I can start from the coastline, with its palm trees and olives and arrive at the snow in an hour.”
The seven-summiteer experience
- On his way down from Aconcagua in South America, he rescued a man from the summit who was too weak to climb down by himself
- He climbed Mount McKinley in Alaska, North America, entirely in twilight. Since it is so close to the North Pole, it doesn’t experience complete nightfall
- Mount Elbrus in Russia, Europe’s highest mountain
- In Oceania, he spent some time with the hunter-gatherer Dani tribe of Irian Jaya, near Papua New Guinea, before climbing the Carstensz Pyramid
- It took him two attempts to summit Mount Everest in Asia, though he had climbed Mount Lhotse before it, in preparation
Without discounting the adrenaline of adventure travel, Gariano insists that for him, it is more about the people and the education that comes from meeting them, than about the glory. He describes the triumphant feeling atop Mount Everest, but dwells longer and more ardently on his meeting with Tibetan refugees in Odisha. “The oldest generation I met, had left their homes behind in the 1950s and not seen it since. I had taken videos of the villages during my travel. I showed them the footage: they were seeing their villages, and how much things had changed, for the first time since their departure. It was very emotional,” he recalls.
But he was denied this prized human connection in his farthest venture of all. “It’s like going to moon: so remote and inaccessible. I landed on this amazing, hostile, continent… over 50 million kilometres large,” is how he describes his base camp for Mount Vinson, deep inside Antarctica. It took him two years to collect the 40,000 dollars and coordinate with a party of meteorologists to be able to take two flights from the Southern tip of South America towards his destination. “The research centres are located below the ice, where there is comparative comfort. But we didn’t have that luxury: a few seconds without your glove is enough to give you frostbite.”
But that wasn’t what scared Gariano — after all, he had visited in summer, to daylight at 1 am and a somewhat less dangerous temperature of minus-50 degrees Celsius. No, his most terrifying moment was when he simply walked to a rock from where his tent wasn’t visible. “An almost panic set into me, because on my GPS, for thousands of kilometres East, West, North and South, there was nothing. In the Himalayas, in Alaska, sooner or later you come to some form of life. But here, nothing: zero population, zero wildlife, no bacteria, no lichens. The only sound I could hear was my heartbeat.”