Highs and Lows

Arriving at 1 World Trade Center, where The New Yorker’s offices are located, you can sometimes spy the building’s window washers hard at work, as many as a hundred and four stories above the ground. It’s an awe-inspiring sight, and a mysterious one: is any day for them just another day at the office? This week, we bring you pieces about people who work in extraordinary places—specifically, the highest and lowest. Adam Higginbotham discovers what it’s like to be part of a New York City window-washing crew; Rebecca Solnit rides along with the Nomads Clinic, which delivers medical services in the Himalayas; and Nick Paumgarten embeds with the daredevil volunteers of the Icelandic Association for Search and Rescue. Meanwhile, beneath the surface, David Grann meets the engineers who work in New York City’s subterranean passageways; Burkhard Bilger finds out what it takes to tunnel through the Swiss Alps; and Hector Tobar tells the story of the Chilean miners who spent sixty-nine days trapped underground. We hope that you enjoy these stories about people whose bravery and toughness usually remains out of sight, where the rest of us don’t dare to go.

—David Remnick

Item #1

City Of Water

Can an intricate and antiquated maze of tunnels continue to sustain New York?

Tunnel No.3 has been under construction since 1969. Already, twenty-four people have died building it—roughly a man a mile.

Photograph by Robert Polidori

No one knows how many sandhogs are, at any given moment, working beneath the streets of New York City, but one morning this winter half a dozen men could be spotted gathering around a hole on the northwest corner of Tenth Avenue and Thirtieth Street. The hole, surrounded by a tall aluminum fence, was thirty feet wide and reinforced with concrete. A priest had visited months before, to offer a brief prayer: “May God be with all ye who enter here, that the earth shall return ye safely.” Now, as the sun rose, the men stepped from the snow-covered ground into a green metal cage, which was suspended over the chasm by an enormous winch. They wore yellow slickers and rubber boots with steel tips; they carried, among other things, flashlights, scissors, cigarettes, cough drops, knives, extra socks, and several twenty-pound crates marked “explosives.

A worker who was to remain above ground pulled a lever, and the cage began to descend. As it accumulated speed, and the light from the surface grew thinner, James Ryan, one of the older men in the crew, peered over the edge into the void. He had a long, hard face flecked with scars. “We got nine cases of dynamite,” he said. “That should be plenty.”

His voice reverberated in the shaft as the men went down thirty, forty, fifty feet, then another fifty, then a hundred more. “Two hundred,” one of them called out. By three hundred feet, they could no longer see anything above or below. Surrounded by darkness, and pressed closely together, the men exchanged sight for sound—the ping of dripping water, the echo of voices, the cable groaning overhead. At five hundred feet, the air became warmer, denser; one of the men put on a mask to keep out the dust that floated through the shaft. “All right,” Ryan told me. “We’re almost there.”

A thin beam from a flashlight suddenly rose up from the bottom of the shaft, catching the men’s faces. They were all part of the fraternity of sandhogs, a rare breed of tunnel digger whose name comes from the workers who excavated the soft earth under the Brooklyn Bridge in the eighteen-seventies. The men in the cage with me were mostly middle-aged, with barrel chests and knotted fingers; dust had already begun to streak the skin around their eyes. A bell sounded, and the cage came to a halt, bouncing up and down on the cable. “This is it,” Ryan said. “Brace yourself.” He unsealed the cage door. We were nearly six hundred feet underground.

Until that moment, I had only heard tales of New York City’s invisible empire, an elaborate maze of tunnels that goes as deep as the Chrysler Building is high. Under construction in one form or another for more than a century, the system of waterways and pipelines spans thousands of miles and comprises nineteen reservoirs and three lakes. Two main tunnels provide New York City with most of the 1.3 billion gallons of water it consumes each day, ninety per cent of which is pumped in from reservoirs upstate by the sheer force of gravity. Descending through aqueducts from as high as fourteen hundred feet above sea level, the water gathers speed, racing down to a thousand feet below sea level when it reaches the pipes beneath the city.

It is a third water tunnel, however, that is the most critical. Designed to meet expanding demand and to serve as a backup system in case something ever happens to City Tunnel No. 1 or City Tunnel No. 2, City Tunnel No. 3 has been under development since 1969, and was initially billed as “the greatest nondefense construction project in the history of Western Civilization.” Already, twenty-four people have died building it—roughly a man a mile—and it is not expected to be completed until 2020.

As an engineering feat, the water-tunnel system rivals the Brooklyn Bridge and the Panama Canal. Yet it has the odd distinction that almost no one will ever see it, save for the sandhogs who are building it. Over the years, the men have constructed an entire city under the city, a subterranean world as cluttered as the Manhattan skyline: it includes four hundred and thirty-eight miles of subway lines, six thousand miles of sewers, and thousands of miles of gas mains. “If it’s deeper than a grave,” sandhogs often say, “then we built it.” The water tunnels have become the sandhogs’ greatest and most elusive achievement, an often deadly effort that has consumed generations. “I’ll take you down there if you want,” Jimmy Ryan had said when I asked him to show me the tunnel’s newest section. “But, trust me, it ain’t like Macy’s down there.”

A large, reticent man of fifty who prefers gestures—an upturned eyebrow or a curled lip—to words, he has spent nearly as many hours underneath the earth as above it. “I started working on the third water tunnel when I was a kid,” he told me. “I’m still working on it, and I’ll probably be buried in it.” Ryan, who was elected president of the sandhogs’ union, Local 147, in 1999, has trouble lifting his shoulders; his red hair has turned silver, and his broad chest is compressed, as if it were about to collapse.

After Ryan opened the cage, I stepped out with him and the other men into the bottom of the shaft. Water seeped down the sides of the opening and dripped on us. There was a pool at our feet, and as we moved forward the icy water spilled over the tops of our boots. I began to sink in the muck, and Ryan gave me his hand to pull me out.

“Don’t stand under the shaft,” he said. “If somethin’ falls from the top, it’ll go right through you.” I looked up and could barely see the opening. Once, in Queens, a sixteen-ton winch fell down the shaft, crushing one worker and injuring seven others; another time, a man died after being impaled by a broken icicle.

As I followed Ryan into the tunnel’s main artery, it was hard to orient myself. There were only a few scattered electric bulbs, suspended from wires clamped to rocks and shrouded in mist, and I blinked, trying to adjust to the watery light. Several of the men turned on flashlights; through the shadows I could see a hospital stretcher and emergency medical supplies propped against a wall. At last, the tunnel came into focus: a cramped, crumbling cavern that extended a hundred yards or so in either direction. This stage of Tunnel No. 3 will eventually run nine miles, reaching down to the Manhattan Bridge and looping up to Central Park; its walls will be honed into a smooth cylinder, ten feet in diameter and lined with concrete. But at this early stage swords of black schist—formed more than four hundred million years ago—hung from the ceiling, which was buttressed with steel bolts to prevent collapse. Ventilation pipes ran along the sides of the tunnel, circulating the choked air, which, unlike the freezing air at the surface, was nearly seventy degrees, a humid mist of dust and fumes.

The men split into two groups and went to opposite ends of the tunnel, where they began painting detailed patterns on the rock face. Moving out from the center of the rock, they carefully dabbed white dots about three feet apart, forming an elaborate grid. Then the sandhogs mounted hydraulic drills and bored a ten-foot-deep hole into each mark, their arms and legs rattling up and down, the lamps on their hard hats shaking.

As the men prepared the rock face, listening to each echo for any sign of danger, they spoke in a private language: a jackhammer was known as a “jackleg”; a bucket, a “battleship”; the Nerf-like sponge used to clean a pipe was called a “rabbit.” Sometimes, because of the noise, the men would simply draw images in the air, like mimes. After a while, they took out blowpipes, which blasted air and water into the holes, washing away the dirt. “Everything has to be done just right,” Ryan told me.

With his knife, he opened one of the boxes of explosives. Inside were dozens of red sticks of dynamite. The men packed the sticks into the holes as if loading muskets. Each piece of dynamite was wired to the next, and soon dozens of cords crisscrossed the rock face. Then the men turned off the lights, one by one, until the tunnel was completely dark, except for a single flashlight that guided us back to the metal cage. “We need to be a thousand feet away,” Ryan said, as we slowly rose to the surface. “It’s not like the old days, when they’d blow the son of a bitch in your ear.”

When we reached the street, the sun was fully in the sky, and Ryan squinted uncomfortably in the light. He leaned over a small detonator while the men cleared the intersection of pedestrians. A woman in a camel coat, who insisted that she was late for work, tried to force her way past. “One minute,” Ryan said, cocking an eyebrow. Another sandhog put his hand on the T-shaped lever. “Now,” Ryan said. The sandhog slammed the lever with both hands, yelling, “Fire in the hole! Fire in the hole!”

There was a great roar, a percussive rumble that grew louder and louder. The sidewalk and fences began to tremble, along with the ground beneath our feet. The crane that was suspended above the hole rattled from side to side. One bystander looked up at the sky, then down at the ground, not sure what was happening. “Is it a bomb?” another asked. A plume of dust rose out of the shaft. Then everything fell silent. The tunnel had advanced another nine feet. “All right, hogs!” the foreman yelled. And before anyone noticed, Ryan and the other men vanished into the hole.

At the end of the day, the sandhogs congregated in the hog house, a small white shack with wooden benches, lockers, and a shower, inside the fenced area on Thirtieth Street. Yellow slickers, now black with mud, hung from hooks. A television set murmured in the corner, and several men stood around it in towels while another mopped the floor around their feet.

Ryan sat down at a table to talk with me. His elbow rested on his hard hat; a line of mud traced the side of his cheek. He had lost part of his hearing from the constant concussions, and he spoke louder than normal.

“No one wants to talk about it, but we’re flirting with disaster,” he said. Like the country’s electricity grid, which recently left parts of the city in the dark for more than twenty-four hours, the city’s water system is deeply antiquated. The old tunnels, Ryan explained, were leaking “like a sieve”; some of the sections were built nearly a century ago and were in desperate need of repair. But until Tunnel No. 3 is virtually complete there will be no way to fix them. In part, this is because getting inside Tunnel No. 1 or No. 2 would require the city to shut the water off, and without a backup supply there would be serious water shortages. But it was more than that, and, as several sandhogs peered over his shoulder, Ryan started to draw a circle on the table with his muddy finger. “See this?” he asked me. “These are the valves that control the flow of water.”

“They’re hundreds of feet underground,” another sandhog said.

The valves were designed, Ryan said, to open and close guillotine-like gates inside the cylindrical tunnels, stopping the flow of water. But they had become so brittle with age that they were no longer operable. “They’re afraid if they try to shut the valves they won’t be able to turn ’em back on,” Ryan said.

He wiped some mud from his eyes. “Look,” he said. “If one of those tunnels goes, this city will be completely shut down. In some places there won’t be water for anything. Hospitals. Drinking. Fires. It would make September 11th look like nothing.”

Ryan wasn’t the only one who spoke of the tunnel system’s frailties, even if the others did so in slightly less alarming terms. One day this spring, I met Christopher Ward, the head of the city’s Department of Environmental Protection, which is responsible for designing and operating the tunnel system. With a broad chest and a blunt, goateed chin, he looks more like a sandhog than a politician, and has a tendency to lean forward when he speaks, as if about to leap to his feet. “People don’t want to acknowledge it, but the useful life of a tunnel does exist, and at some point it does start to fail,” he said. The metal valves, in particular, degrade until they can no longer withstand the pressure. Ward said that the original two tunnels were so dilapidated that it was too risky to try to shut off the water and repair them until City Tunnel No. 3 was operational. He added that there is still time before the aging tunnels collapse—“We’re not talking about today or tomorrow”—though it is impossible to predict how much.

Others are more pessimistic. One D.E.P. scientist told me, “Some of the aqueducts are already hemorrhaging water badly,” while a recent study by Riverkeeper, an environmental organization, concluded, “In some cases, this extraordinary infrastructure is literally crumbling.” Upstate, in the industrial town of Newburgh, for example, water has begun to pour out of cracks in the underground aqueduct that feeds into the city tunnels—so much that the leaks have created a giant sinkhole.

Many experts worry that the old tunnel system could collapse all at once. “Engineers will tell you if it fails it will not fail incrementally,” said Ward. “It will fail catastrophically.” If City Tunnel No. 1, which is considered the most vulnerable, caved in, all of lower Manhattan and downtown Brooklyn, as well as parts of the Bronx, would lose its water supply. If the aqueducts gave out, the entire city would be cut off. “There would be no water,” Ward told me. “These fixes aren’t a day or two. You’re talking about two to three years.”

In the past, the city sometimes tried to assuage concerns about New York’s water system, but Mayor Michael Bloomberg recently noted at a press conference that the aging pipelines were “very vulnerable” and that “this city could be brought to its knees if one of the aqueducts collapsed.” Anthony DelVescovo, the project manager who has been working on City Tunnel No. 3 for nearly fifteen years, echoed Bloomberg’s warning. “What no one knows is that we’re facing a potential apocalypse,” he told me. “It’s a race against the clock.”

It is hard to imagine a city without water, its faucets empty, its hydrants dry, its plazas filled not with fountains but with citizens suffering from diseases spread by dirt and desiccation—to imagine, as Charles Einstein put it in the title of his 1964 futuristic novel, “The Day New York Went Dry.”

For much of its history, however, New York was a parched city. Though surrounded by the sea, its principal supply of freshwater remained, as late as the eighteenth century, a single fetid pool in lower Manhattan called the Collect Pond. Human waste was dumped into it, along with the occasional dead body. Distribution of water was dominated by racketeers known as teamen, who roamed the streets with giant casks, gouging customers. In 1785, with the city’s population reaching nearly thirty thousand, the New York Journal published an open letter to government officials complaining that the water supply had become a “common sewer.” One daily newspaper declared that it was “sickly and nauseating,” adding, “The larger the city grows, the worse this evil will be.”

Even as the paper warned that a “plague will make a yearly slaughter until you furnish better water,” pestilence spread through the squalid streets. In 1798, yellow fever wiped out two thousand New Yorkers, and venders wandered the streets yelling, “Coffins of all sizes!” The plague returned in 1805, 1819, and 1822. “New Yorkers are like the rich man told of in the Parable,” one resident noted in the local paper. “They have no clean cool water to slack their thirst when the flames of the plague are devouring their vitals.”

One summer morning in 1832, two children woke up in Manhattan with severe pain in their intestines. They stopped urinating and were overcome by thirst; they began to vomit and their skin turned blue. By the next day, they were dead, and two days later so was their mother.

Asiatic cholera, an excruciating disease that is spread, in large part, by water contaminated with feces, had struck. In barely a month, two thousand New Yorkers were dead, their bodies marked by a bluish tinge and puckered extremities; more than a hundred thousand residents—half the city’s population—fled to outlying villages. By the time the scourge ended, the death toll had reached more than three thousand. A group of doctors who visited the city at the time reported a “constant and imploring” cry: “Cold water, cold water, give us cold water!”

Finally, in the winter of 1834, the Common Council vowed to locate new sources of water. But before plans got under way a fire broke out near Wall Street. Without enough water to extinguish it—the rivers were frozen solid—the flames leaped from roof to roof, carried by a gale-force wind. Within minutes, the fire had spread from Exchange Place to Water Street, then on to Front and South Streets, and still onward. (The smoke was visible as far away as Philadelphia.) The fire burned for twenty-four hours, and after it had consumed nearly seven hundred buildings and caused such mass looting that the military was called in, roughly a third of New York City lay in ruins. One witness, who called it “the most awful calamity which has ever visited these United States,” wrote, “I am fatigued in body, disturbed in mind, and my fancy filled with images of horror which my own pen is inadequate to describe.”

And so at last the city began to construct its first aqueduct.

By today’s standards, the Croton Aqueduct is modest in scope, but at the time it was considered an architectural marvel. Begun in 1837 and completed in 1842, it extended more than thirty miles, running from the Croton Reservoir down the east bank of the Hudson River—an elegant, eight-by-seven-foot brick pipeline. When it was finished, church bells rang out across the city and thousands poured into the streets to parade past new fountains, whose water sparkled in the sun. Philip Hone, who eventually became mayor of New York, wrote in his diary, “Nothing is talked of or thought of in New York but Croton water. . . . Water! water! is the universal note which is sounded through every part of the city, and infuses joy and exultation into the masses.”

Twelve years later, however, the city’s demand for water again exceeded supply, and the pressure in the pipeline fell so low that the water could no longer reach the third story of a building. By 1882, with thousands of immigrants arriving each week, the Times pleaded, “More Water Wanted,” adding, “The health of families . . . was jeopardized because sufficient water could not be secured.” Yet, unlike the previous century, when the city had looked on impassively at civic problems, there was now an almost evangelical faith in human progress. In 1905, Mayor George McClellan, who had just inaugurated the city’s first subway system, laid out a vision of “an additional supply of pure and wholesome water,” a vision so bold that it struck many as evidence of hubris. At an estimated cost of a hundred and eighty-five million dollars—3.7 billion in today’s dollars—it would be the largest municipal water system in the world. In 1907, at the groundbreaking, McClellan declared, “The course of human events is not permanently altered by the great deeds of history, nor by the great men but by the small daily doings of the little men.”

Before long, thousands of laborers arrived in the Catskill Mountains and began clearing away vegetation. Under the expansive McClellan Act, which one judge complained gave “power that the Almighty would not delegate to an archangel,” the city appropriated more than twenty-five thousand acres of land, including hundreds of homes around the area of Shokan, which is just south of Woodstock. Nine villages were torn down, some burned to the ground, and nearly three thousand residents driven out; even cemeteries were dug up. “The trees are all cut down and the village is fading as a dream,” the Kingston Freeman reported.

Then dams were built, water was diverted from streams in the Catskills, and rain was collected. The entire elevated basin was flooded, creating one of several reservoirs that, together, are nearly as large as the island of Manhattan. In photographs of the Shokan area taken before the flooding, the land is green and expansive; months later, it is covered by a glasslike inland sea.

Meanwhile, sandhogs burrowed through mountains and under hillsides to construct the Catskill Aqueduct, a ninety-two-mile conduit that slopes gently downhill from Shokan to Storm King Mountain and then down to White Plains. At one point, it crosses below the Hudson River, at a depth of eleven hundred feet—an achievement that New York City’s new mayor, William Gaynor, called “one of the greatest engineering feats in history.” The hardest part of the project, however, was yet to come. According to the engineers’ elaborate design, water would flow from the aqueduct into a reservoir in Yonkers. From there, it would be channelled into another tunnel—one dug deep beneath the city, and able to withstand the pressure of more than half a billion gallons coursing through it each day. This water would then begin flowing upward, into smaller and smaller pipes, ultimately discharging into the millions of faucets around the city. Construction on what become known as City Tunnel No. 1 began in 1911. Many men went down once and never went back. Those who stayed received about two dollars a day. Once, under the strain, a riot erupted twelve hundred feet underground, and workers attacked each other with picks and shovels.

The situation was equally difficult on the banks of the East River. According to “Liquid Assets,” a history of the city’s water system by Diane Galusha, natural groundwater made the rock so soft that the shafts which allowed sandhogs to descend into the tunnel became watery death traps. Engineers were forced to build on each bank a giant inverted box called a caisson—a risky device that was pioneered during the laying of the foundations of the Brooklyn Bridge. About fifteen feet on each side and weighing as much as two thousand tons, the steel-and-concrete boxes were sealed on all sides except the bottom. As they were lowered into the soft ground, compressed air was pumped into the caissons, pushing out the mud and water. To get into the caisson the sandhogs were lowered in a bucket down a steel shaft; from there they entered an air lock, much like a diving chamber. Air was pumped in, and the sandhogs could feel their eardrums strained to bursting, the blood rushing to the center of their bodies. Many assumed that they were dying.

Once the pressure in the air lock was equal to that inside the caisson, the sandhogs crawled through a trapdoor into the caisson, where, standing ankle-deep in mud, they began to dig from the bottom, removing the muck in a bucket through a hatch in the ceiling. As they dug, under pressure that was so great they could work for only two hours at a time, the caisson would slowly sink, allowing the sides of the box to carve the lining of a shaft. An engineer who had been in a caisson during the construction of the Brooklyn Bridge described the sensation this way: “The pulse was at first accelerated, then sometimes fell below the normal rate. The voice sounded faint, unnatural, and it became a great effort to speak. What with the flaming lights, the deep shadows, the confusing noise of hammers, drills, and chains, the half-naked forms flitting about, with here and there a Sisyphus rolling his stone, one might, if of a poetic temperament, get a realizing sense of Dante’s Inferno.”

More unnerving, though, was the threat of a “blowout”—a breach in the lining of the caisson wall, caused by a sudden imbalance of pressure, which created suction much like that of an airplane door opened in mid-flight, accompanied by a terrifying kettle-like screech. Men had a few seconds to climb inside the air lock; if they didn’t make it, they could be sucked into the earth, as happened in 1916, during the construction of a tunnel under the East River, when three men were swallowed through a crevice; two died, while a third, Marshall Mabey, was propelled safely into the afternoon sky on a geyser said to be four stories high. “I felt myself being pushed into the hole,” Mabey later explained to a reporter. “As I struck the mud it felt as though something was squeezing me tighter than I had ever been squeezed. I was almost smothered.”

It’s not known how many sandhogs died building the Catskill system, but in 1913 the Pine Hill Sentinel reported, “Approximately ten out of every 100 [workers] are killed or injured every year. More than 3,800 accidents, serious and otherwise, to workers on the great aqueduct have been recorded. . . . The men doing the rough work are virtually all foreigners or negroes. Owing to the laborers being so inconspicuous, the death by accident of one or more of them attracts no public attention.”

In 1917, more than a decade after the work began, the last explosion was sounded. It was now possible to walk underground from Manhattan all the way to the Catskills. The city marked the accomplishment, but the event was more subdued than the Croton celebration. The moment a new fountain by the reservoir in Central Park was turned on, the skies opened up and rain poured down.

“Hey, can you smell it?” Jimmy Ryan asked.

“What is it?” I asked.


We were back inside City Tunnel No. 3, watching the sandhogs scoop out the blasted rock—“mucking it out,” as Ryan called it. It had been only minutes since I watched the men detonate the explosives, and the misty air was laden with smoke and dust; soon, a thin yellow film covered everything. Rocks that had endured earthquakes had been smashed against the surrounding walls. Some were cracked in two, revealing bits of mica, beautiful white glimmers amid the dust; others were black and dull.

At this early stage, the method of digging through the rock was similar to that used on the first water tunnel. As Ryan put it, “You stick the dynamite in, blow the motherfucker up, then haul the shit out.” It was a repetitive, driving ritual, one in which there was no day or night and the sound of concussions replaced the passage of time. The men now loaded crushed granite into enormous buckets that carried as much as twenty-eight tons in a single load and were hoisted out by a crane through the same shaft that the men had come down. Each sandhog had his own role in the operation. There were muckers and blasters and signalmen and nippers; these last remained above the hole, connecting materials to the hoist. One veteran nipper, Brian Thorne, told me, “Everyone has a skill. My best skill is rigging. The guys downstairs want to know they can trust the guy that’s upstairs to put stuff over their head and not worry. If you hit someone, you can’t say, ‘Oops, I’m sorry.’ That person is dead. So you always have to be on top of your game.”

Over the years, Ryan had risen from mucker to foreman, or “walking boss,” and now, as president of the sandhogs’ union, he is largely responsible for the whole gang. One colleague paid him the highest compliment you can give a sandhog: “No job is too dirty for Jimmy.” But as Ryan waded through the mud, his eyes peering out from under his hard hat, he seemed slightly removed. When younger sandhogs started to recall some near-death tale, he would arch an eyebrow and say, “You got some line,” or “You’re a real bullshit artist, aren’t you?” Unlike the other men, who tell stories about the tunnel the same way fishermen spin tales about the sea, Ryan rarely speaks of his time underground. When his shift is over, he heads home to Queens, where he often changes from his digger uniform into bright golf pants and plays the links, trying to propel the ball with his sore arms as he breathes in the smell of freshly cut grass. His wife told me, “He never says a word about the tunnel. I don’t know what he does down there.”

Ryan is not, by the standards of the trade, a particularly superstitious man—he doesn’t carry a lucky crescent wrench or refuse to go down on Friday the thirteenth—but he maintains a constant watchfulness. And now, while the others told jokes, Ryan stood off by himself, quietly inspecting the walls to make sure there were no cracks that might cause chunks to shear off.

After a while, he trudged to the end of the tunnel, where there was a pile of smoldering rubble. At lesser depths, sandhogs had been known to uncover jewelry, murder weapons, false teeth, a chest of coins, a Colonial dungeon. “In the sewer tunnels, you sometimes find rats,” Ryan said. “But this far down there are only sandhogs.”

He reached into his pocket and pulled out a plastic bag, which he carefully unwrapped, revealing not his lunch but a pack of Marlboros. He was the only one who, in spite of the stinging dust, seemed always to work with a cigarette dangling from the corner of his mouth—like the detectives in the old dime novels he likes to read.

Some of the men propped a ten-foot ladder against the rubble and Ryan started to climb it, the embers of his cigarette leading the way. “Come on,” he said. When I reached the top, he pointed down the tunnel, as if to say, Go on, take a look. And I saw a dozen figures moving through the dusty haze. There was a cacophony: men slamming picks into the jagged rocks, drills probing new holes, buckets moving back and forth amid sparks that flickered like fireflies. After five months of blasting and mucking, of two shifts working sixteen hours a day, of engineers and contractors measuring the quickest route, they had advanced only two city blocks, from Twenty-ninth Street to Thirty-first Street. But as I peered from one end to the other at the ceiling of rock, dripping with water and bathed in sulfurous light, I could sense the first hint of a design.

“So, what do you think of our cathedral?” Ryan asked.

Later, as he was taking off his boots in the hog house, Ryan told me, “You know, my grandfather did the same thing.” He clapped his boots together. “He came to this country in 1922, from England. He started working first on the Holland Tunnel, but then they started the second water tunnel and he moved over to that. It was even bigger than Tunnel No. 1. It was pretty brutal. That much I can tell you.”

In 1929, to keep pace with water consumption, which had increased by thirty-five million gallons per day since the first tunnel was built, the city began to construct Tunnel No. 2. Once again, another aqueduct was built, this one drawing water from the Delaware River. (It is still listed in the “Guinness Book of World Records” as the world’s longest water-supply tunnel.) Once again, villages were flooded and cemeteries were dug up.

Nick Ryan, Jimmy’s grandfather, was tall, with a broad chest and red hair. Jimmy Ryan is said to resemble him, but Nick was more of “a wild man,” as his grandson puts it, with a distinct hint of understatement. He was known for his penchant for whiskey, which in those days was often consumed in the tunnel. He had little, if any, formal education. Most of the sandhogs of his generation were recently arrived immigrants, typically from Ireland, Italy, and the West Indies, who would show up for work in their only set of clothes and wrap plastic bags around their shoes. The Board of Water Supply would sometimes put them in camps, and try to teach their children to read and write; the townspeople occasionally complained of “immigrant hordes.” Black-and-white photographs taken at the time show Nick’s gang standing in the tunnel, only a few beams of timber supporting the crumbling rock over their heads. Instead of a hard hat, Nick Ryan wore something more like a cowboy hat. In a 1936 log from one of the earliest meetings of Local 147, to which Nick belonged, there is a warning to the men not to pack pistols.

“Even during the Depression, most men wouldn’t take these jobs,” one miner who was in the union with Nick Ryan recalled in an oral history. “Nobody was going to go down and work with a shovel all day and then work in compressed air. We had some hard, hard people, and you had to be a rough commander. . . . They told you, Do it or get the hell out. So the only ones, as the insurance adjusters will tell you, that survived were the most fit.”

Nick Ryan endured chest pains, broken limbs, bleeding sinuses, and caisson disease—the bends. Then, in 1937, with his family still in need of money, Nick Ryan took his eighteen-year-old son, Joe, down the shaft with him. “That’s how my father learned how to survive underground,” Jimmy Ryan recalled.

“Years ago, it started as a father-son business,” a sandhog whose father worked side by side with Joe Ryan told me. “The fathers brought the sons in, then the brothers brought the brothers in, and the sons brought the cousins in. I don’t know how you word this, but no one ever asked you your pedigree if you came here. They didn’t care if you had a criminal record—as long as you worked you could stay in the hole.”

Shorter and more compact than his father, Joe Ryan was known as Red. A ferociously driven and, to those who didn’t know him well, intimidating man, he carried the burden—and perhaps the anger—of someone who had given up a football scholarship at Wake Forest University to work underground, helping to support a father who was sometimes out too late to make it to work on time. After Nick Ryan died, in 1958, his son briefly ran a gas station. But before long he returned underground—to the place that he knew best.

A section of the Catskill Aqueduct, 1910. The city seized twenty-five thousand acres for the system; even cemeteries were dug up. *Courtesy New York City D.E.P. Archive*{: .credit}Courtesy New York City D.E.P. Archive

By the fifties, the city was already in frantic pursuit of more “pure and wholesome water.” This time, it was not simply demand from an exploding population, or even droughts, that provoked alarm. This time, it was something that few, if any, had ever contemplated.

In 1954, unbeknownst to most residents of the city, several engineers went into a shaft to try to turn off the water supply in City Tunnel No. 1, to see if the tunnel needed repairs after being in operation for almost half a century. “Imagine your faucet after only ten years,” Christopher Ward, the D.E.P. commissioner, said. “These things had been pounded away at for decades.”

At the bottom of the shaft, sticking out of the tunnel, was a long bronze stem with a rotating wheel at the end. It was supposed to control the six-foot-diameter valve inside the pipeline. But when the engineers started to turn the handle, using all their might, it began to tremble and crack. “There was too much pressure on it,” Ward said.

“They were afraid if they turned it any more the whole fucking thing would break,” Richard Fitzsimmons, Jr., the business manager of the sandhogs’ union, said.

After decades of building the world’s greatest water system, the city had stumbled across its weak point, a single flaw that had rendered an otherwise invincible body mortal. “It scared the bejeezus out of people,” Doug Greeley, an engineer in charge of the city’s water distribution, said. There was no effective way to shut off the water, no way to get inside and weld a crack, no way to know if a tunnel was about to burst.

By the late sixties, officials had decided that something had to be done. “One of the original tunnels was seventy years old, and we were unable to repair any valves,” Ed Koch, who was a congressman at the time, recalled. In some cases, he said, “we didn’t even know where the valves were.” Koch, who later served three terms as mayor, added, “You can exist without food, but you can’t exist without water.”

On a cold January day in 1970, the ground was officially broken for the third water tunnel, which would dwarf both of its predecessors. Designed to be constructed in four stages, it would extend sixty miles, from the reservoir in Yonkers through the Bronx and down to the southern tip of Manhattan, and then into Brooklyn and Queens. The project would include another underground aqueduct. More important, at the center of the entire system would be thirty-four specially designed valves that would be made not of bronze but of stainless steel, with shorter stems that could withstand greater force. (Most were manufactured in Japan, where city inspectors lived for two years to insure that they were made according to precise measurements.) All of the valves would be contained in a single centralized chamber, where they could be easily reached and turned off.

Construction on the chamber began in 1970 and was not finished until 1998. Though the tunnel sections that will feed into the chamber have not yet been completed, this past spring the D.E.P. gave me a glimpse inside the vault—which is in the Bronx, not far from the sandhogs’ union hall. There is nothing above ground to indicate the vault’s existence except a small guard tower and a sealed door that leads into a grassy hillside. “Ordinarily, we’re not supposed to let anyone in,” Greeley told me, standing outside the door.

Like many of “the pencils,” as the sandhogs call the engineers, Greeley is a fastidious man: he has a neatly trimmed mustache and was wearing a blue blazer and a tie. The main door, which he unlocked as if it were a safe, was constructed out of solid steel. “They built this place during the Cold War,” he said. “It’s supposed to withstand a ten-megaton nuclear bomb.”

As he pressed his weight against the door, it gradually gave way, emitting a loud sigh. It was damp and cool inside; the corridor was made of concrete. After descending a flight of metal steps, we rode an elevator twenty-five stories down. As Greeley opened another thick door, he said, “Prepare to have your perception of the water supply permanently altered.”

The vault resembled an airplane hangar; it extended more than two hundred yards, with a domed ceiling that was forty-one feet high and walls that were cloaked in condensation and algae. Lights hung from the top like crescent moons. Suspended twenty feet off the ground, one after the other, were the valves, or, rather, the pipes that contained them: seventeen thirty-five-ton steel cylinders with studded bolts that reached horizontally from one side of the forty-two-foot-wide vault to the other. Each cylinder contained two valves. A metal gangplank ran alongside them, and Greeley walked excitedly to the first cylinder, running his hand along the torpedo-like shell. “This way, if a tunnel develops a crack, we can shut it off from here,” he said. “Everything’s right at your fingertips.”

If a valve broke, the cylinder could be lowered down to the bottom of the vault, and carried out on tracks. One piece, Greeley explained, could be removed without disrupting the rest of the system. The old tunnels had run in a straight line from the reservoirs into the city, but City Tunnel No. 3 was designed with various redundant loops (upper Manhattan has a loop; Brooklyn and Queens have a loop) that would pass through the chamber, so that parts of the city can be taken off-line without cutting the water supply entirely.

Putting his hand on a small wheel that jutted out of the cylinder, Greeley said, “Here we can turn the valves on and off electronically or, if there’s a power outage, even manually. Of course, if you did it manually, you’d have to turn it twenty-nine thousand times, but if you had to you could get a couple of guys down here and crank it away.”

It was cold in the chamber, and Greeley shuddered as he held out his hand to demonstrate another innovation. “They’re called butterfly valves,” he said of the sluices inside the cylinder. Unlike the old guillotine-like sluices, these gates rotated slowly into position. “That takes off the pressure and makes it easier to close,” he said, turning his hand clockwise. Though he had been in the vault dozens of times, he paused for a moment and looked out at the dozens of valves. Then he said, “Once the third water tunnel is finished, all the water in the city will flow like Zen.”

In 1969, just before construction on the first stage of the third water tunnel began, Jimmy Ryan’s father took him below the streets. “When I was eighteen, he said, ‘Come with me,’ ” Jimmy Ryan recalled. “He was old school. You never asked what your father did. . . . Then they put us in this big bucket. I had no idea what to expect. It got darker and darker. My father told me to stay close and watch what he did. And that’s how I became a sandhog. I was born into it.”

Jimmy Ryan became known as the Red-Headed Hippie. “That was the style back then,” Jimmy told me, somewhat defensively. “Even the old-timers had sideburns.” If he was slightly rebellious, he had his father’s unrelenting drive: he told me that he wanted to prove to his “old man” that he could do the job. Jimmy also had a forthrightness that made him popular among the men. “I can’t say a bad word about Jimmy,” Buddy Krausa, one of his old foremen, said, adding that Ryan was the type “who would never steal a crescent wrench.”

After short stints on other jobs, the Ryans moved to the third water tunnel. On a summer day in 1982, Jimmy Ryan, Krausa, and a dozen or so other sandhogs went down a hole near Van Cortlandt Park, in the Bronx, where they were connecting a tunnel that would feed into the new valve chamber. The section had already been bored and they were in the final stages: building a steel form—it resembled the skeletal hull of a ship—around the contours of the carved-out earth, then pouring in concrete. To reach the cavern’s ceiling, Ryan had climbed atop eighteen feet of scaffolding.

Around noon, some of the men stopped for lunch, but Ryan and a few others were still working when another sandhog, George Gluszak, who was a mile up the line, saw two twenty-ton agitator cars, which were used to mix concrete, racing down the tunnel. They had broken free from the brake car and were picking up speed along the steady decline. Some of the men tried to throw things on the tracks to slow them down, but it had no effect.

Jimmy Ryan was drilling when the cars slammed into the scaffolding, catapulting him twenty-five feet through the air. “Everything turned upside down,” Ryan said. “I was knocked unconscious, and when I came to, all the lights had gone out. All I could hear were moans.”

Krausa, who had not been injured, felt his way through the tangle of steel, rock, and machines. He could hear the other men calling out for help. Eventually, he found a flashlight and pointed the beam in front of him. “It was like nothing I’d ever seen,” he said.

Sandwiched between two flatbed cars was Johnny Wademan, who had been drilling alongside Ryan. The two cars had collided under his shoulders and he was suspended in midair, his legs dangling, his arms outstretched. “He looked like Jesus Christ,” said Gluszak, who, along with his team, had run through the darkened tunnel to the scene. One of the men shouted that Wademan was dead.

Ryan was bleeding profusely from his head. “Jimmy was hurt pretty bad,” Krausa said. “God bless him, he was still looking for people, trying to help them. I don’t know how he could walk.”

In the corner, trapped between a concrete pipe and the wall, was a sandhog named Mike Butler. Most of his leg had been cut off, the crushed bone exposed; his foot, where the skin and tissue had been butterflied open, was pinned, so that he couldn’t move. “He was bleeding to death,” said Ryan.

Someone pulled out a penknife and, guided only by the unsteady beam of a flashlight, tried to pry him loose. His heel wouldn’t budge. “I told him we were going to have to cut part of his foot off,” Gluszak said. “He said, ‘Do whatever you have to do.’ ”

While one sandhog held a cigarette to Butler’s lips, another began to slice off his heel, severing what remained of the tendons and bone. “I took off my shirt, and wrapped his foot up in my undershirt and put a tourniquet around his leg,” Gluszak said.

While Butler was being freed, the other men pulled Wademan down from where he had been suspended. As he hit the ground, they heard a groan. He was still alive.

It had been one of the worst accidents to date in the third water tunnel. Butler later had the rest of his leg amputated. Wademan’s legs and hips were broken, six of his ribs were shattered, and he suffered severe head trauma. Ryan got a hundred and twenty stitches in his forehead and chin; he also had a broken knee, six fractured ribs, and two separated shoulders. It took him eight months to recuperate. When I asked him why he returned to work, he replied, “I’m a sandhog. That’s all I know.” He never went back to the scene of the accident, and he grew even quieter. “The accident took the life out of Jimmy,” another sandhog said. “The exuberance.”

“They ain’t gonna do any psychological work on me,” Ryan told me. “They ain’t ever gonna penetrate this head.”

Shortly after Ryan resumed working, he noticed that his father was having trouble breathing. “He’d walk thirty feet and have to stop,” Ryan said. Then Joe Ryan started to cough up black phlegm. When Joe visited the doctor, X-rays showed spots on his lungs. He had contracted silicosis, a disease caused by years of breathing dust.

Jimmy Ryan said his father had always told him that sandhogs die unexpectedly. They die of cave-ins and blowouts. They die of explosions and electrocutions. They die of falling rocks and winches and icicles. They die of drowning. They die of decapitation and the bends. They die without legs, without arms. They die by plunging hundreds of feet or simply a few. They die quickly and, more often than not, painfully.

In May, on Ascension Thursday, Ryan put on a neatly pressed tweed jacket and a tie and drove from his home, in Queens, to St. Barnabas Church in the Bronx for a service in honor of all those who had died in the third water tunnel. The stone church had stained-glass windows that could be opened, allowing in the unfiltered sunlight. Ryan sat toward the front, his jacket tight around his broad shoulders. Packed in the pews around him were Christopher Ward, the D.E.P. commissioner; Anthony DelVescovo, the contractor; and dozens of sandhogs and engineers. “Let us pray for all those who have been hurt or killed in construction of City Tunnel No. 3,” the priest intoned.

“Lift them up,” a sandhog responded. “Lift them up.”

Ryan knelt against the front of his pew as the priest read the names of the twenty-four men who had died in the tunnel. “Lord have mercy on them,” the priest said. When the service was over, Ryan and the others headed down the street to an Irish pub. “My father was one of the lucky ones,” he said. “He held on until 1999. That’s when the silicosis finally got him.”

“I’m John Ryan. I think you met my father.”

The young man was standing by a shaft for a tunnel on the corner of Thirty-sixth Street and First Avenue. Short, with compact arms, he looked more like his grandfather than his father. He was twenty-eight, and his face had yet to develop the hard etchings of a sandhog. It was broad and frank, with bright-green eyes; red hair poked out of the front of his hard hat.

The other sandhogs called him “Jimmy’s kid,” but he had little of his dad’s reticence. “You never know what’s going on up there,” he said of his father, with a smile. “I’m more of a bullshit artist.” He looked up at the crane that was lowering materials down the hole. “I used to think my father was out of his mind. I was about eight years old when he got hurt. I still remember it. He didn’t want to stay in the hospital and came home in a wheelchair. That’s when I first realized what it meant to be a sandhog, and I said, ‘Christ, I ain’t ever gonna do that.’ ” He peered down the hole. “It’s in your blood, I guess.” Holding out his arms, he added, “We’ve probably got more muck in our veins than anything else.”

“Nobody wants their kid to go into it,” Jimmy Ryan told me later. “You’ll always hope they’ll find some kind of pencil job.”

“I grew up wanting to be a baseball player,” John Ryan said. “Then I dropped out of college, and one day my father came in the bar where I was working and said, ‘All right, mister, you want to bartend? Come with me.’ I’d never been in the hole before. I was scared. I won’t lie to you.”

“I can only imagine what he was thinking,” Jimmy Ryan said. “We try to help each other.”

John Ryan’s great-grandfather brought home only a few dollars a week from his work on the water tunnel; today, sandhogs earn as much as a hundred and twenty thousand dollars a year. Though many are descended from tramp miners, they now often emerge from the hog house in tailored suits, their hair perfectly combed, as if they were bankers or accountants. Chick Donohue, the head of the hog house, has a degree from the Kennedy School at Harvard and is well known in city politics. He wears his Harvard ring on one hand and his sandhogs’ union ring on the other. “That way, if I can’t outsmart ’em with the left, I hit ’em with the right,” he told me.

Just as sandhogs have gradually transformed the city, the city has gradually transformed the sandhogs. Some now arrive at the hole in a Cadillac or a BMW. John Ryan, who is engaged to be married, is buying a Colonial house in Nassau County. “A lot of guys are drawn to the money,” he admitted. He paused. “And there’s the camaraderie. That’s a big part of it, too.” He paused again, as if still searching for the deepest reason, then added, “Hell, I like it down there.”

After five years on the third water tunnel, John Ryan had risen to foreman. His current mission was to build the city’s newest “mole,” a two-hundred-and-thirty-ton drill that would be placed at his father’s site, on Tenth Avenue. Experimented with as early as the seventies, the mole was officially introduced in the water tunnels in 1992, and had become the sandhogs’ most critical instrument—comparable, in the world of tunnelling, to the invention of the printing press. In February, the latest mole was transported from New Jersey to Manhattan, in pieces weighing sixty to a hundred and thirty tons, on a flatbed truck; the payload was the largest ever to cross the George Washington Bridge. The components were then lowered into the Thirtieth Street hole by a special crane that could withstand the enormous weight.

One day in February, after the mole had been assembled in the tight confines of the tunnel, John Ryan invited me to go down with him and see it. The pipeline was twelve and a half feet in diameter. The mole had already been driven nearly half a mile, and to reach the heading we had to ride a railroad car called a “man trip,” which rattled from side to side. Groundwater seeped out of the surrounding rock, splattering against the walls as we sped past. After about five minutes, we came to a sudden stop. In the distance, I could see a monstrous machine that looked more like a space shuttle than a drill. The mole’s hydraulic engines churned, and its blinking lights gleamed. “Come on,” Ryan said excitedly, walking toward it. “That’s only the trailing gear.”

This gear—including a conveyor belt that carried out the crushed rock—took up most of the tunnel. A narrow gangplank had been built on the tunnel’s side. Occasionally, to pass one of the fifteen or so sandhogs, we had to turn sideways, pressing our faces against the damp rock. As we went deeper, the mole began to resemble a colossal organism: its giant cylindrical arms gripped the walls and pushed the machine’s mouth forward through the rock. In some compartments of the mole, engineers were peering at computer screens; the mole had lasers that registered the precise type of rock at the heading.

A siren sounded, and the men began to run up and down the plank. “What’s happening?” I asked nervously.

“Nothing,” Ryan said. “We’re just starting it up.”

The mole coughed and sputtered and shook. The temperature had been twenty degrees at the surface, but the mole heated the tunnel air to eighty degrees, and some of the men began to strip off their layers. After walking seventy-five yards, we reached the front of the mole: a round shield with twenty-seven cutters, each weighing three hundred and twenty pounds, pressed against the rock face, obscuring it completely. The cutters, driven forward by hydraulic propulsion, spun ferociously and noisily, chipping away at the granite, which was then carried out on the conveyor belt and loaded into muck cars. Ryan, who had grown up listening to tales of his forebears, said it was hard to believe that “my great-grandfather had only a goddam muck stick”—sandhog slang for shovel.

Indeed, until the mole was invented, tunnelling had changed only incrementally since the days of the Romans, who used fire and water to crack the rock and horses to carry it out. When a prototype of the mole was introduced in New York, in the seventies, many of the sandhogs feared it as much as caving rock.

“It’s like that old story about John Henry,” Chick Donohue explained, recalling the fabled contest between man and machine after the invention of the steam drill. “Well, when they introduced the first mole over in Brooklyn, the cutters kept breaking, and the sandhogs would jump in with their shovels and picks. They knew they were competing for their jobs, and they were actually beating the mole! Of course, they then perfected the mole, and there was no contest.”

The construction of the first water tunnel required no fewer than eighty men to drill and blast for at least a week in order to advance a hundred feet. The mole, with a fraction of the manpower, can tunnel that far in a day.

Yet, even with the mole, the third water tunnel has already taken six times as long as either City Tunnel No. 1 or No. 2; some people think it won’t be completed, as scheduled, by 2020. “We should’ve been done with this thing twenty years ago,” Jimmy Ryan said. “But the city keeps fucking around.”

Conditions above ground have proved almost as difficult as those below. After the initial phase of a billion-dollar contract to build the tunnel was awarded to a consortium of companies, costs began to exceed estimates by the millions. When the city balked at the rising costs, the companies sued and the work stalled. Then, in 1974, when the city went bankrupt, construction was halted altogether. In all, nearly a decade was lost, and in 1981, with work proceeding only piecemeal and the ever-growing demand for water forcing the old tunnels to carry sixty per cent more capacity than intended, city officials were so desperate that they pleaded with the federal government to fund the project.

Meanwhile, charges began to surface that Tammany Hall-like machinations were contributing to the delays. The once vaunted Board of Water Supply, which oversaw the construction, had become a “Democratic patronage plum tree,” as one critic put it. Stanley M. Friedman, the Bronx Democratic power broker who was later convicted of racketeering, was given a lifetime position on the board, with a salary of twenty thousand dollars, as well as an office, a secretary, a chauffeured car. “When I came in as mayor, it was a lifetime job given to retiring politicians,” Koch told me. “They didn’t do anything.”

The board was dismantled. But in 1986 the man in charge of supervising purchasing for the water tunnel at the D.E.P., Edward Nicastro, warned that contracts were still not being properly monitored. “You’d be amazed at how easy it is to steal in the system,” he told a reporter at the time.

In recent years, the greatest delays seem to be caused not by efforts to defraud the public but by attempts to placate it. Where the old water board once plowed over communities, the D.E.P. is now impeded by them. In 1993, when it tried to sink a shaft on East Sixty-eighth Street, Councilman Charles Millard protested that his office had received calls from parents whose children were “finding it difficult to concentrate.” numby, or “not under my back yard,” movements sprang up. In 1994, after engineers had spent two years planning a new shaft site, residents in Jackson Heights held a protest, carrying signs that said, “don’t give us the shaft.” Engineers were forced to find a new location. “When we want to choose a shaft site, everyone says, ‘Oh, the water system is a miracle, but please find another place,’ ” Ward told me. “ ‘We’re building a co-op’—or hotel or park—‘there.’ ” A D.E.P. engineer and geologist, Scott Chesman, added, “Instead of taking seven years to finish, we’re on thirty years, and hardly any of it’s been done. It’s like the eighteen-hundreds again.”

Indeed, for the first time, the historic Delaware Aqueduct—the eighty-four-mile underground pipeline that carries the water from reservoirs upstate down to Yonkers, where it connects to City Tunnels No. 1 and No. 2—has begun to crack. According to some D.E.P. reports, in 1995 the aqueduct was losing about five hundred million gallons a month from leaks, which were creating massive sinkholes in Ulster and Orange Counties; in 2000, the monthly loss sometimes exceeded a billion gallons. An investigation by Riverkeeper warned of a potential “collapse” of the aqueduct, which would cut off as much as eighty per cent of the water flowing into the city.

In the spring of 2000, the D.E.P. decided to send a team of deep-sea divers down to do repairs on one of the original bronze valves in the Delaware Aqueduct, in the Dutchess County town of Chelsea, which had cracked, spewing a torrent of water through a hole the size of a quarter at eighty miles per hour. “For about two or three months, we built a mockup of the valve and a mockup of the bottom of the shaft,” said John McCarthy, the engineer who oversaw the project. “We took the crew and experimented in a tank of about fifty feet of water, without any light, trying to simulate the conditions.”

After practicing for days, the engineers transported a diving bell and a decompression chamber to the leak site. Four divers, who were hired from the same company that had helped to salvage the Russian nuclear submarine Kursk after it sank in the Barents Sea in August, 2000, had to remain inside the decompression chamber for twenty-four hours, in order to adjust to the intense water pressure underground. The chamber was about the size of a van, only round. On the outside were valves and hoses and an air-lock door to send in food (mostly fluids and peanut butter) and to remove human waste. The pressure in the chamber was gradually brought to the same pressure as that of the water seven hundred feet underground.

After breathing a mixture of ninety-eight per cent helium and two per cent oxygen for twenty-four hours, two of the divers crawled into a thirteen-foot diving bell that was attached to the top of the chamber. Once they had sealed themselves inside, the bell was lifted by a crane and lowered down the shaft that led into the aqueduct. There were only inches between the bell and the walls of the shaft. When the divers reached the bottom, one climbed out and swam toward the leak. (The other diver remained in the bell in case of an emergency.) He wore a wetsuit, a mask, and scuba equipment, and carried a small waterproof tool set. While struggling to stay in position against the pressure of the escaping water, he placed a brass plug in one of the holes, then sealed it with a clamp and an epoxy compound.

Each shift lasted at least four hours, then the bell was lifted up and two other divers went down. “It was not for the faint of heart,” McCarthy said. The men spent ten days finishing the repairs, and fifteen more in the decompression chamber.

Still, far greater leaks are suspected somewhere between the Rondout Reservoir, in the Catskills, and a reservoir in Putnam County. This June, the D.E.P. sent a custom-made two-million-dollar submarine through forty-five miles of the Delaware Aqueduct. (The job was deemed too dangerous for a human.) The eight-hundred-pound craft, which was nicknamed Persephone, took three hundred and fifty thousand photographs. “The sub looks like a torpedo with catfish antennas,” Commissioner Ward told me. “While a motor pushes it through, the antennas help it bounce back off the walls to stay within the middle of the tunnel.” The Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, on Cape Cod, and the D.E.P. are now examining the pictures to evaluate the structural integrity of the pipeline.

But even if the locations of the leaks are determined, and if engineers can then concoct some way to plug them, most D.E.P. officials I spoke with do not consider this section of the aqueduct the most vulnerable. They are more worried about pipelines closer to the city—in particular, Tunnels No. 1 and No. 2, which, because of their greater depth and buried valves, are far less accessible, even to a self-piloted submarine. Some sandhogs believe that the only thing preventing these sections from collapsing is the pressure of the water pushing against their walls. A former chief engineer on the water system, Martin Hauptman, has noted, “We see headlines in the streets frequently where a 24-inch water main breaks and the street’s flooded, basements are flooded, the subway is flooded, and people think that is a horrible situation. Failure of a tunnel is an entirely different situation. What bothers me most . . . is the element of time. You cannot buy time with a situation like that.”

And there is now the additional threat of terrorism. Although the public’s attention has focussed on the danger of someone’s poisoning the water supply, officials believe that the system would likely dilute a toxin’s effects. The greater danger, they say, is that a terrorist might blow up one of the pipelines before the third water tunnel is up and running. “That’s the scary thing,” Ward said. Fitzsimmons, the sandhogs’ union leader, added, “If you attacked the right spots—I hate to say this, but it’s true—you could take out all of the water going into New York City.”

On the morning I went down the hole with John Ryan, he told me, “My hope is that we can finish the third water tunnel, so my father will be able to see it completed.”

The mole was boring into the rock. Several sandhogs had laid new tracks on the floor, pounding them into the rock with sledgehammers.

“All right!” Ryan yelled. “Let’s check the cutter heads.”

He looked up at me from under his hard hat. “You want to go?” he asked.


He pointed underneath the mole, where a small passageway led into the bowels of the machine. Two other sandhogs were already crawling in and, after a moment, I followed. First we had to crouch in a cavity no more than three feet by four feet. One of the sandhogs, who introduced himself as Peter, fumbled with the lamp on his hard hat. “Fucking thing’s busted,” he said.

The other worker turned his light on, and I could see that the passage led to a five-foot-long corridor that connected to the head of the mole.

“Whenever you’re ready, John,” Peter yelled to Ryan, who was outside the cavity, directing the operation. “You can roll the head.”

We stayed in a crouch for several more minutes, watching the mole’s cutters rotate several degrees one way, then the other, until at last they came to rest.

“This is the most dangerous part,” Peter said. He then lay on his stomach and stuck his hands straight out in front of him and began to squirm, feet first, through the narrow passage leading to the mole’s cutters. He slid through the mud and water, and I followed on my stomach. Soon, I was standing in mud and water up to my knees, staring at the giant metal blades. I tried to step away, but my back hit something hard: the head of the tunnel. We were sandwiched between the mole and the rock. “You just don’t want anything to move,” Peter said.

As groundwater seeped from the ceiling, hitting the machine, puffs of steam filled the cavity.

“Go ahead, touch it,” Peter said, pointing to one of the blades.

I reached out and touched the edge: it was scalding hot, from friction. “You could fry an egg on it,” Peter said.

The other sandhog squeezed into the crevice. Now the only wiggle room was above our heads. As the water crept up to our thighs, Peter craned his neck, inspecting the front of the tunnel to make sure the rock was sound. There was a series of grooved concentric circles where the blades had cut. “It looks like a dartboard, doesn’t it?” Peter said.

“Like a tree,” the other sandhog said.

They checked the blades to make sure they didn’t require replacement.

I told them I thought I needed to leave.

“Just a second more,” Peter said.

The other sandhog exited first, followed by me, then Peter. When I saw John Ryan again, he looked at my muck-covered clothes, then clapped me cheerfully on the back. “Welcome to our fucking world,” he said.

There was no man-trip car to take me back to the shaft, so I set out by myself, walking the length of the tunnel. “If you see a muck car coming,” Ryan told me, “just hang on to the pipes on the side of the tunnel.”

A few minutes later, the noise from the mole faded, and the tunnel was empty and still. Though it extended as far as the eye could see, this tunnel was not even one-sixtieth the projected length of the third water tunnel; it was a mere one-thousandth of all the miles of water tunnels and pipelines and aqueducts combined. For the first time during my underground excursion, I had some sense of this city under the city—of what many engineers refer to as “the eighth wonder of the world.”

After a while, a light flickered in the distance and I thought it was a muck car. As Ryan had instructed, I hung on to the pipes on the side of the tunnel. But it was only a sandhog come to escort me out.

When I reached the top, I went into the hog house to change. On the bench beside me was a slender boy with a hard hat cocked to one side, as if it were a fedora. He looked astonishingly like Jimmy Ryan. It was Jimmy’s younger son, Gregory. “I started in 2000, over on the third water tunnel in Queens,” he said. “They call us the millennial hogs.”

Only twenty, he looked like a slightly ungainly teen-ager in his dirty white shirt and a slicker that seemed too loose for his narrow waist. He hung his Yankees cap in his locker and wrapped his supper, a veal cutlet sandwich, in a plastic bag. “It saves time to eat underground,” he said.

Greg glanced at another sandhog who was dressing nearby. His left hand had been crushed under a beam in the hole, and his index finger was missing. “I still get scared sometimes,” Greg said, lifting his hard hat and removing a pack of menthol cigarettes. He lit one and let it dangle between his teeth, the way he had often seen his father do. “My father told me not to think about it. It’ll only make it worse.”

Greg turned and headed outside, where his brother John was emerging from the cage, his face covered in mud. As John stepped onto solid ground, shielding his eyes from the blinding light, he clapped his hand on Greg’s shoulder. “I’ll see you, O.K.?” Greg nodded and, without a word, descended into the darkness. ♦

  • David Grann has been a staff writer at The New Yorker since 2003. He is the author of “The Lost City of Z: A Tale of Deadly Obsession in the Amazon,” as well as the forthcoming “Killers of the Flower Moon.”

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Source: https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2003/09/01/city-of-water?mbid=nl_Sunday%20Longreads%20(65)%20remainder&CNDID=44225119&spMailingID=11588391&spUserID=MTU4NDQ3OTAxNjk1S0&spJobID=1202706842&spReportId=MTIwMjcwNjg0MgS2


Item #2

Medical Mountaineers

Delivering basic care to the remote Himalayas.

Pasang Lhamu Sherpa, a record-breaking climber from northeastern Nepal. She and her husband, a physical therapist, began working with the Nomads Clinic in 2013.

Photograph by Chiara Goia for The New Yorker

To get to Saldang is simple, if not exactly easy. You walk. The nearest airport, many days away by foot, is a rough dirt strip at an altitude of about eight thousand feet. It sits on the side of a Himalayan mountain in the Dolpo district of northwest Nepal, on the border with Tibet. Heading north from the village of Juphal, a labyrinth of small houses on a steep slope, you encounter a place where fossil fuels are not part of daily life. In much of the region, there are no roads. Horses, mules, and yaks—and men, women, and children—carry goods on trails.

One autumn day, the Nomads Clinic, a medical-service trip, pilgrimage, and adventure expedition, set off from Juphal with six riding horses, and fifty pack mules laden with a month’s worth of food, cooking equipment, camping gear, and clothing. Six duffels were stuffed with medicine and medical equipment—asthma inhalers, deworming pills, vitamins, analgesics, antibiotics. Others held hundreds of solar lights, toothbrushes, sunglasses, and reading glasses, to be given away. It was the 2015 edition of a mobile clinic that Joan Halifax, a seventy-three-year-old American teacher of Zen Buddhism, has been coördinating since the nineteen-eighties, to provide medical care in places where there is little or none.

This year, after the earthquake in Nepal, Halifax contemplated scrapping plans for the trek to Dolpo. But she considers poverty and lack of resources to be an ongoing disaster in Nepal, and she decided that there was no reason to neglect Dolpo, which is as materially poor as it is culturally rich. (In the meantime, she organized Kathmandu-based earthquake relief efforts from afar.) Our group included a doctor, four nurses, and a nurse practitioner from North America; a young lama, and a Nepali nurse born in Saldang; a German acupuncturist; and an amchi, or practitioner of Tibetan medicine. There were also a thirty-year-old, record-breaking mountaineer named Pasang Lhamu Sherpa and her husband, Tora Akita, a physical therapist from Kathmandu; a number of Westerners; and Nepali mule men, horsemen, cooks, guides, and translators.

The first day, the caravan travelled north through fields where wild hemp and pomegranate trees were growing on a slope that descended to the Tarap River. The second day, we continued through groves of wild walnuts and small stands of bamboo. The third day, there were apricots hanging on gangly young trees along the hillsides and cliffs. The fourth day, the terrain became more arid, and the plant species fewer and more sparsely distributed. We climbed high above the river and then, by a roaring waterfall, found the riverbed again. Finally, at an altitude of almost twelve thousand feet, we arrived at Lake Phoksundo, which is sacred to locals and is the approximate turquoise shade of a Las Vegas swimming pool. (Photographs of it look badly manipulated.) We were now in upper Dolpo, on the southern rim of the Tibetan plateau, one of the highest, harshest inhabited areas on earth.

The trail to the lake passed through Ringmo, a village of two-story stone houses. Men walked down from the heights with huge loads of hay on their backs. Along the main path, an old woman dug tiny potatoes out of the soil with her hands. Later, we saw men behind wooden plows pulled by yaks, the shaggy, humpbacked beasts that roam everywhere in upper Dolpo, and whose milk is used to make yogurt, cheese, and butter. The butter is stirred into tea and burned in lamps. Women used handmade wooden rakes, and after threshing the barley they tossed the results into the wind, letting the chaff blow away and the grain fall back into baskets.

Before the Chinese invasion of Tibet, in 1950, the herds of yaks, horses, sheep, and goats were larger, and people moved freely between Dolpo and Tibet, where salt mined from the dry bed of an ancient sea was traded for grain, which the high plateau lacked. But, as China clamped down on the border, the Dolpo population’s longtime use of Tibetan winter pastures ended. And the market for Tibetan salt was undermined by subsidized imports from India.

The residents of lower Dolpo, some Hindu and others Buddhist, mostly speak Nepali, and greeted us with “Namaste” (“I bow to you”). Past Ringmo, in upper Dolpo, the principal language is Tibetan, and the greeting is “Tashi delek,” meaning something like “blessings and good luck.” Both Buddhism and Bon, a religion indigenous to Tibet, are practiced there. The landscape is studded with gompas, fortresslike structures combining the functions of library, seminary, and temple. Some date back several hundred years, and many have a pair of seated golden deer on their entry gates. The lama accompanying us said that deer were among the first creatures to listen to the Buddha.

In the course of nearly four weeks, our group walked between four and ten hours on the days when clinics were not held. We followed a steep oval circuit through the mountains, covering about a hundred and forty miles. A few nurses were stationed in the towns in Dolpo, but we heard that they never stayed long, and for most inhabitants the nearest hospital was too far away. There were five clinics, and we treated almost seven hundred people, out of an estimated five thousand residents of the upper Dolpo region.

The first clinic was set up at Lake Phoksundo. Patients came in with digestive troubles, infections, and, often, strained necks and sore joints from a lifetime of carrying big open baskets full of apples or firewood or household goods.

Alcoholism is widespread in Dolpo, and the few tiny shops we saw offered Chinese liquor among their meagre wares, though most people drank homemade raksi, a hard liquor made from grain. One morning, we went to the Bon monastery, on a promontory above Lake Phoksundo, where a smiling, red-clad monk showed us the four-hundred-year-old rooms, with murals of lamas on horseback and painted Buddhas in the lotus position—the colors were blue, green, yellow, red, and white, like those of the prayer flags fluttering in the sunshine. Then he apologized for being drunk. The abbot told us that the monastery had been built to protect the blue sheep, creatures related to mountain goats and ibexes, from hunters who would drive them down the mountains and then herd them over the bluff to their death.

Occasionally, during the two days we were camped there, we gazed across the blue water at the trail that awaited us on the steep hillside beyond. It looked as though someone had casually scratched it with a stick, the way you might draw on a map with a pencil, not like something you should trust with your life. The term “trade routes” may summon up visions of broad paths, but thousand-pound yaks can traverse faint, canted trails the width of your outspread hands.

From Phoksundo, Saldang was still a week away, over one pass that rose to more than 17,600 feet and another to about 16,700 feet. Our sirdar, or head guide, noted that years ago there was a great deal of ice at the highest pass, but we found only a retreating mass of snow in a shadowy stretch of the path. We all got used to moving steadily along, amid the scree, the dust, the ruts, the trails built to hang out over the abyss, the slippery slabs of rock, the staircases of irregular stones, the rickety bridges of logs or old wood patched with flat stones. There was rarely a phone signal in the regions where we ventured, though at one of the high passes the young Nepali men in our expedition lined up to make calls, looking like regulars at a bar three miles high, scoured by wind, with hundred-mile views.

“Am I getting warmer?”

Between the two passes lay Shey Gompa, the ancient monastery of the Crystal Mountain, one of the holiest peaks in Tibetan Buddhism. The old abbot told us about a predecessor, hundreds of years earlier, who had first recognized that the mountain was sacred, and about the ability to recognize the sacred as a special gift or talent. Tenzin Norbu, the outfitter for our expedition, told us that prayers here had several thousand times the power they have elsewhere. Inside, we saw ranks of butter lamps burning before golden Buddhas on an altar flanked by gaily painted shelves of sacred texts bound in bright silk. Outside, we saw people who had walked there from fuel-starved Saldang to gather dung from the ample supply that passing mules provided.

The abbot welcomed the Nomads Clinic into the temple, and locals asked the doctor and the nurses to treat wounds, address pains, listen to stories. The first evening, a horseman brought in a comrade, who was too sick to walk. “He was such a beautiful man, and he was almost dead when I first saw him,” the doctor, who diagnosed a severe kidney infection and treated him with antibiotics, said. The man, who was in his early forties, had a drawn, sun-darkened face, a faint mustache, the high cheekbones of most of the Nepalis in the region, and a thick coil of crimson strands of wool around his braided black hair. He wore camo-patterned tennis shoes. The next day, he was back on his feet, lingering outside the monastery to make contact with the doctor and the nurses coming from meditation inside.

The medical staff treated sixty-five people in Shey, mostly nomads from the tents on the river plain below the monastery and beyond. They shared their complaints with smiles and good grace. Dolpo residents wandered into camp throughout the trip: a pregnant woman with infected breasts; a group of children who had impetigo, escorted by their anxious mothers. Some conditions were curable. Some were not. To a man with a broken pelvis and a woman with a broken back, we could offer only painkillers and advice. The morning after the clinic, we packed up and set out again.

Joan Halifax started the Nomads Clinic in 1980, and it has grown by increments in the decades since. She goes by the Japanese honorific roshi, or teacher, and has made annual trips to Nepal and Tibet for thirty-five years. She has circumambulated the 21,778-foot Mt. Kailash, another of the sacred peaks, eight times, and has wandered far into Tibet and into the mountains of Nepal, where she learned practical things, such as how to give a horse an enema. (She oversaw one for a sick gelding on the 2015 trip.) She has been inside many of the region’s monasteries, and she recently visited one treasure house in which the ancient skull of the monastery’s founder lived on as a kapala, or ritual cup.

In Nepal, relics owned by monasteries have been stolen, and sold on the black market in Kathmandu, China, and elsewhere; some Dolpo gompas have taken to burying their treasures. In 2011, the household of a friend of Halifax’s—in Humla, a district west of Dolpo—was robbed of its family gods, sacred statues that had been with the household for many generations. Halifax used social media to help track down the figures. The main statue, a fourteenth-century Tibetan bronze medicine Buddha—the Buddha who presides over spiritual and physical healing—had reportedly been on the black market for two hundred and twenty-five thousand dollars. The robbers, known as the Karnali Tigers, were caught and imprisoned in Humla. “I visited the prison,” Halifax told me. “A true hellhole.” (Last month, robbers raided the monastery at Shey Gompa, beating up the caretaker and stealing several statues.)

“The idea of just tromping around the mountains never appealed to me,” Halifax said. “I’d rather stay home on my zafu”—her meditation cushion—“and study the dharma.” Halifax’s medium is psyches, communities, and social systems. Through her many activities—teaching, bridging cultures with such projects as the Nomads Clinic, drawing people to social activism and a contemplative life—she can be imagined as a weaver or a sculptor, conjuring new forms out of her raw material: people and groups. To intervene in individuals’ lives takes confidence, which she has in abundance.

The Nomads Clinic spent almost a month trekking through the Himalayas of Nepal, one of the remotest places on earth.

Map by Carl DeTorres

In Dolpo, Halifax wore a black robe with a white hat, layers of black down vests and coats, and a pair of Merrells. Most of the time, she travelled astride a calm, compact white horse. You could consider riding less demanding than walking, but if you got on a horse in that terrain you continually encountered the abyss and your own mortality. “I remind myself that the horse wants to live,” Halifax often says. She dismounted during the most treacherous passages, with the hovering presence and sometimes the firm hand of her longtime attendant in Nepal, a lean, quiet Humla man named Buddhi. Halifax has osteoporosis, and a fall could be serious, but she’s chosen risk over limits.

In many of Dolpo’s holy places, Halifax was received as an honored guest, and although she says that she doesn’t enjoy the attention and the gifts, she accepts them as acknowledgments of the ties between ancient Buddhism and the young Buddhism of the West, and as an honor to a woman in a male-dominated tradition. At each temple, gossamer silk scarves were draped around her neck—white, saffron, turquoise, red. Bows of acknowledgment were performed and formal speeches were made. She was seated in state while chants were recited.

Halifax was brought up in Coral Gables, Florida. An illness left her blind from the ages of four to six, and those two years, she said, led her to discover that she had an inner life: “The blessing that comes from catastrophe has been a theme in my life.” She recovered, raised a condemnatory eyebrow at débutante balls—her right eyebrow still does a lot of critical work for her—and vowed to escape. Her first step was college in New Orleans, where she participated in sit-ins and civil-rights marches. Afterward, she became a research assistant to the musicologist Alan Lomax, at the Bureau of Applied Social Research, at Columbia University.

She rode many of the waves of upheaval of the nineteen-sixties and seventies, and had a knack for landing where events were getting interesting. She went to Paris in 1968 to work at the Musée de l’Homme, arriving just in time to witness the student uprising that became a general revolt. She travelled to Algeria at the behest of the Algerian Ambassador to France, who hoped she could figure out why former revolutionaries in one neighborhood had such a high suicide rate. Her conclusion was that, when the war was over, “there was no one external to fight,” and the conflict went inward.

In Algeria, she also met the Black Panthers Stokely Carmichael and Eldridge Cleaver. “When I saw Eldridge in Algiers, I was taken aback,” she recalled. “I was sitting in a café near the ministry of tourism, and there he was, the Black Panthers’ minister of information, strolling down the street, a fugitive and free.” Algiers, she told me, was filled with spies, intrigues, music, dance, “and a sense of revolution and possibility.” A man whose advances she rebuffed reported her as a spy, and she did a brief stint in an Algerian jail.

Most lives have lulls. Hers so far hasn’t. “I just lived as though my hair were on fire,” she said. Halifax spent much of 1969 among the Dogon tribe of Mali, whose ritual life made her wonder what new rites might be available to Westerners—especially the dying, for whom “spiritual and psychological issues leap into sharp focus,” she wrote in her 2008 book, “Being with Dying.” In 1972, Halifax married the Czech psychiatrist Stanislav Grof and joined his experiments in psychedelic drugs as therapeutic tools for the dying. (They divorced five years later.) Sick with hepatitis, which she contracted in Africa, and generally in crisis, she turned in earnest to Buddhism.

In 1975, Halifax became a student of Seung Sahn, an innovative Korean Zen master based in Providence, Rhode Island, whose methods were influenced by Korean shamanism. She took up the tough Korean version of Zen, which involved doing a hundred and eight prostrations (think pushups, with devotion) before daily meditation at 5 A.M. During her Buddhist training, she was ordained by Seung Sahn and then by Thich Nhat Hanh, a Vietnamese Buddhist teacher and antiwar activist. Through Nhat Hanh, Halifax said, she was “inspired by the relationship between social action and contemplative life.” Halifax also trained with Bernie Glassman, who taught what is sometimes called “engaged Zen.” Participants in his “street retreats,” instead of withdrawing into a sanctuary, lived as homeless people.

“You won’t believe how many Frisbees are up here!”


In 1990, Halifax founded the Upaya Zen Center, in Santa Fe, New Mexico, a residential community with daily meditation, weekly talks, and a busy schedule of meditation retreats, workshops, and seminars. In the spirit of Glassman, Halifax has trained disciples who work with the homeless, with prisoners, and with the dying. She is still the abbess at Upaya, although she’s away about half the year. In 2015, she has been to Hawaii twice, once to teach about death and dying with Ram Dass, and once to teach about compassion; to Japan, to lead a program on temples and shrines; to Costa Rica, to conduct a seminar on Buddhism. She has also given talks this year in Singapore, New York, Washington, D.C., San Francisco, and Louisville. A few months after the Nepal odyssey, she flew to Bangalore, for a conference of the Mind and Life Institute, an organization that blends scientific and contemplative approaches to the study of the mind (Halifax sits on the board). Zen gives her the ability to be at home anywhere.

Halifax was once a great beauty, with fierce blue eyes and long chestnut hair. She shaved the hair off in 1996, and can describe the moment when, in Santa Fe, turning onto Gonzales Road from Cerro Gordo Road, she realized she’d been conditioned to think that “pair bonding” was an inevitable and necessary part of her life. She took up celibacy and independence—but not solitude. She calls herself an introvert with a personality, but she responds to e-mails in a flash and uses social media constantly.

She travels with Noah Rossetter, a thirty-year-old Zen priest with a lighthearted disposition, a knack for technology, and the steadiness to keep the many parts of her life from tangling up. The two amuse each other with banter and by occasionally singing snatches from operas. They could be mistaken for a comedy team: in camp at Lake Phoksundo, when someone asked about what to do with “number one and number two,” Halifax answered, “Be one with nature,” and Rossetter added sternly, “Push duality in the hole.”

Halifax keeps in touch with many dying people, and also with film stars, affluent donors, scholars of consciousness, and monastics in various traditions, including the Dalai Lama and her Zen students. She said that, after years of involvement with medical care, she sees “much suffering in the experience of Western clinicians, weighed down by the demands of their institutions—which are demands to protect the institutions from being harmed.” She takes the clinicians she recruits “to a place where cure isn’t necessarily possible but care is,” and said that the experience of working with patients on the trips was “a kind of grace or blessing.”

On the afternoon of Saturday, April 25th, a temblor, as Halifax put it, “tore the heart out of Nepal.” It was followed by an aftershock in May. Together, they killed an estimated nine thousand people; shut down the tourist industry; smashed about half a million homes, displacing a population of about three million; triggered avalanches that cut off high-altitude villages; and, in Kathmandu, crumbled many ancient religious sites. The quake was centered in Gorkha, a district in the middle of Nepal.

When Halifax heard the news, she began checking in on Facebook with everyone she knew in the area. Her mountaineer friend Pasang Lhamu Sherpa, who guides climbs of major peaks around the world, was with a client near Base Camp on Mt. Everest, where the quake prompted an avalanche. Many people fled, but Pasang went toward the avalanche, in the futile hope of finding survivors; nineteen people died. Pasang dispatched her client, and got a helicopter ride to Kathmandu, where she joined her husband, Tora Akita. She announced her safe arrival on Facebook, and on April 30th asked friends and family for support—manpower, food, blankets, tents—as she and Tora headed into the wreckage.

A few years ago, one of Pasang’s clients introduced her to Halifax, and the two women took to each other. “What I recognized in Pasang,” Halifax recalls, “is a quality that I had when I was her age—incredible drive and this feeling that we as women were born for a mission that is compassion-based. I was meeting a person who had very few contrivances, who had been as a child exposed to a lot of suffering, and had become a role model for women at a global level.” Pasang and Tora joined Nomads Clinic trips in 2013 and 2014.

“I’m sorry, everyone—my e-mail account got hacked last night by some alcohol.”

The husband and wife look a bit alike: Tora has a wing of black hair over his brow, Pasang has dark hair to her waist, and both have expressions of self-effacing kindness. Tora is unusually tall for that part of the world, and is slender in a way that in a woman might be called willowy. Pasang, at five feet seven, is tall, too. At first, you notice only that she’s beautiful. Later, you realize that her rounded limbs and her torso are tremendously powerful.

After the earthquake, the three became the core of a disaster-relief team. Halifax raised a quarter of a million dollars; Tora was the central coördinator of a shifting, growing group of volunteers and supplies; and Pasang went deep into the disaster zones. In Kathmandu, Pasang and Tora worked with Thomas Mathew, an erudite fifty-year-old Indian man, to organize help. With dozens of volunteers, they directed convoys of trucks, moving forty tons of rice at a time; found sources for salt, lentils, and cooking oil in volume; and had tarps trucked in from India. Tora was sometimes so busy that he talked on two phones at once, and he went on many of the relief missions that headed out in the middle of the night. Pasang coördinated the efforts of drivers, donors, volunteers, porters, and locals. On the scene, she made sure that supplies were distributed equitably, and commanded village chiefs and truck drivers alike. For a Nepali woman, it was an unlikely role. Mathew recalled, “She has the authority. She has the voice. It comes from the gut.”

As a high-altitude mountaineer, Pasang had often hired helicopters and knew many of the pilots who took climbers and adventurers around Nepal. She worked with them to deliver supplies. In a relief effort for Laprak, one of the Gorkha villages that were cut off by landslides, she organized three hundred local men as porters to carry food and tarps, enlisting them in disaster relief while arranging for them to be paid out of funds that Halifax had raised. An estimated twenty thousand Nepalis a year are trafficked, and, in the chaos of the earthquake’s aftermath, there were more opportunities to seize victims. Pasang began giving talks in the refugee camps about how to protect oneself. When no one came, she announced that she was giving away sanitary napkins, and delivered her speech when the women arrived.

On the Nomads trip, during the steepest passages and at the highest altitudes, even those of us who had done some training approached the limits of our capacity. Almost everyone—excluding Pasang and the tough young Nepali men—found that walking uphill at the highest elevations left a person panting. Pasang’s energies remained essentially untapped by any challenge—a ten-hour walk, a five-thousand-foot gain in altitude, a freezing night in a tent, air so dry that fingers cracked and noses bled. When a young woman sprained her ankle, Pasang was the first person on the scene. When dinner was ready, she served it. When the women’s clinic was held, she was the translator and the doorkeeper. She carried rescue equipment in her big day pack, watching over us like a shepherdess.

Pasang was born in 1984 in a village about thirteen thousand feet high, and grew up in the town of Lukla, often called the gateway to Mt. Everest. As a child, she resolved that she would climb the mountain. Her father died when she was a toddler, her mother when she was fifteen. By the time she was eighteen, she was training in a male-dominated Nepali mountaineering school while supporting her younger sister. Like Halifax, she was supposed to have one destiny but made another. In her community, she said, women were meant to marry young and raise children. “They think I’m doing something wrong,” she said.

In August, 2006, she became the first Nepali woman mountaineering instructor, and the first woman to ascend the 24,117-foot Nangpai Gosum II. Not long afterward, she was injured while climbing, when her handhold on a cliff crumbled. She swung hard on the rope anchored below her, smashing her hip. The injury made it difficult to do the lateral moves that climbing requires.

“What’s the right age to tell a child that she’s ironic?”

Almost a year later, a Japanese team doing cleanup on Mt. Everest invited her to climb the mountain from the less-traversed, Chinese side. She scraped together the money for boots, crampons, and the rest of the gear, but her injury got worse. Someone recommended a Japanese physical therapist in Kathmandu. It was Tora, whose father is Japanese and whose mother is Nepalese. “He was so young, so handsome,” Pasang told me. “And he’s, like, ‘You shouldn’t climb.’ I’m, like, ‘No, I want to climb.’ He treated me four days. Every day three hours, and then—gone, the pain was gone. He kept saying, ‘You shouldn’t go.’ ” She went.

When she was on Mt. Everest, her injury reasserted itself. “I couldn’t climb,” she said. “I had to grab my leg and put it down, grab my leg and put it down.” She did exercises that Tora had taught her, and made the climb on ibuprofen and will power. She returned in dire need of physical therapy. In gratitude for Tora’s help, Pasang offered to take him trekking. He asked to see her home town in the Himalayas. The patient-caregiver relationship became a friendship, and the friendship became a romance. They married in 2010. Mathew remembers that Tora and Pasang wore traditional Sherpa clothing at the wedding. Marriage didn’t interfere with her mountaineering. She said, “I wanted to show and tell people, If you really want it, it doesn’t matter if you’re married or you’re mothers.”

Last year, with two other Sherpa women, Pasang organized a Nepali women’s ascent of K2, the mountain in Pakistan that is nine hundred feet shorter than Mt. Everest but far more dangerous. About one in ten climbers dies in the attempt to climb K2. Its violent weather offers climbers smaller windows of time to summit, and chunks of ice fall off the face that climbers must scale. Getting up its couloir, or ice gully, known as the Bottleneck, is a brutal ordeal. Only fifteen women had climbed K2, and, despite the number of Nepalese Sherpas in high-altitude mountaineering, no Nepali women had made the ascent until Pasang and her companions did, on July 24, 2014. Pasang told me that everyone had told her that K2 was a killer, but “I just wanted to feel what this mountain is.” In a picture taken at the summit, she wears a red snowsuit and huge boots that make her appear bulky, a little unreal, like a Transformer toy, but her helmet and oxygen mask are off, and she looks bold and free.

Twelve days after we started, we came down from the second pass, Sela La, to Saldang. To a visitor, the thirteen-thousand-foot-high settlement looks like a picture from a fairy tale or a volume of “The Arabian Nights”—nothing extra, everything emblematic. The stone houses, plastered the same color as the dusty slopes, are surrounded by small, terraced barley fields and rough stone walls, sometimes enclosing a horse or a yak or a barking mastiff. Their flat roofs, reached by ladders made of logs notched with steps, are fringed with the grayish brush that fuels the sheet-metal stoves inside. White prayer flags snap in the strong afternoon wind, and stupas, three-tiered mud towers to the spirit, rise from the ridges.

The clinic was set up in the school. People came dressed in traditional clothing, the women and girls wearing ankle-length tunics with kick-pleats, scarves and shawls in rich purples and hot pinks, and necklaces of turquoise and coral disks. Some of the children wore shirts emblazoned with names like Adidas; they must have come from as far away as the ocean coral. Others wore Tibetan-style sashed jackets and tunics. It was as though all the region’s color had been stripped from the eroded hills and deposited on the people.

As they waited in line, some of the men swung brass prayer wheels, and some of the women spun woollen thread on drop spindles. Children carried smaller children on their backs or played, and everyone chatted. The man with the kidney infection from Shey Gompa was among them, with the same red yarn ornament and the same black braid. He had been near death, and was now able to travel as fast as we were.

“We’re not here to talk about what I want for Christmas—we’re here to talk about what you want for Christmas.”

The clinic was welcomed with a speech from the school principal, in Tibetan and English, and schoolchildren danced to scratchy music emanating from speakers on stands in the dusty yard, powered by the solar energy system next to the school. There was a traditional Tibetan dance, a Nepali dance, and a theatrical pantomime performed to a mixture of music and the Dalai Lama’s voice, advocating nonviolence. The children reënacted the invasion of Tibet; those playing the Chinese carried wooden guns. A girl in a blue blouse gave a stunning performance of dying in slow agony.

Then the nurse practitioner administered gynecological exams in the only closed room in the clinic, with Pasang guarding the door. Everywhere else, families crowded into the dim schoolrooms to watch what the clinicians did, and children poked their heads in the windows, which had brightly painted shutters but no glass. The nurses gave away the last of the prenatal vitamins, but the children had already been dewormed by a visiting nurse, so they didn’t distribute the deworming pills. Long lines stretched from wherever the bodyworkers were practicing.

The doctor listened to hearts and lungs. He looked at wounds, sores, eyes, ears, throats, skin, joints. He dispensed what care he could—pain relievers, antibiotics, steroid creams, asthma inhalers, advice to stop drinking the moonshine and to quit smoking cigarettes. (Packets with diseased-lung images on both sides littered all the long-distance trails.) Later, the doctor told me that when he looked into people’s eyes with an ophthalmoscope he rarely saw a “red reflex”—the red light bouncing off a healthy retina. Instead, he saw the opacity of eyes beginning to form cataracts from long exposure to the blazing sun of the high-altitude desert.

There was too much light and yet not enough. The evening after the Saldang clinic, we visited the mother of Pema Dolma, a young nurse and Saldang native who had moved to Kathmandu and come back to trek with us. Her mother lived with Pema’s half sister, who was mute, and a granddaughter in a small, square house with one tiny window in its thick walls. The house was feebly illuminated by a slender fluorescent tube hooked up to a rooftop solar panel.

I asked Pema Dolma what her mother did for light before she got solar, seven years ago. The older woman brought out a flickering brass butter lamp. We were served butter tea, and we gave them three solar lights. The next morning, we began our return journey, heading south.

The suffix “-la” is a term of respect and affection in Dolpo: Halifax became Roshi-la, Pasang became Pasang-la, and so forth. The syllable also describes a high-altitude pass. As we descended from upper Dolpo, we looked southeast from the last pass—Jyanta La—toward Dhaulagiri, the world’s seventh-highest peak. In the white mountain ranges above the heights we traversed, snow and glaciers feed the streams that flow through these arid, stony places. The same sources water the barley and the potato fields, the livestock, the farmers, and the nomads of Dolpo, and extend far beyond it. A billion and a half people are nourished by water from the Tibetan plateau, which pours out into the Yangtze, the Yellow River, the Mekong, the Ganges, and the other legendary rivers reaching across Asia. The last river we travelled was a tributary of a tributary of the Ganges.

Throughout the region, the snow and the glacial ice are withering away. Halifax recalled a Tibetan prophecy, “When the mountains wear black hats, the world will end,” and interpreted the black hats as the peaks without snow and ice. One day, some of the clear, cold streams and rivers flowing through upper Dolpo might dry up for part of the year, or stop entirely. The people who never had coal or electricity might be forced out of this place where the butter lamps are still lit before golden Buddhas in the old painted gompas, and where the barley is harvested by hand.

“Still won’t talk, eh? Well I’d hate for it to get slightly colder in here.”

During the final days of our journey, snow began to dust the hills behind us, coming lower and lower, as if the door were closing for the year on Dolpo. In the first settlement below Jyanta La, when the tumbling alpine stream had become a gentle river, we encountered the first internal-combustion engine of the trip, a motorcycle, probably brought in by helicopter. Past the agricultural valley of Dho Tarap, we returned to the world of trees: hanging gardens of birches, golden in autumn, high up the gorge of the river; tall pines with clusters of blue cones; huge cedars; wild fruit trees. Along the canyon of the rushing Tarap River, we made our way back to Juphal. ♦




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