Thorang Phedi to High Camp; Trek day ten; In which we fail

Morning came far too early on the day we finally attempted the Thorong-La Pas. There was a light dusting of wet snow on the ground. I felt terrible but just couldn’t stand the thought of another day in the freezing cold and was impatient to go. That took longer than I was happy with, though - we hadn’t prepared well enough the night before and had to purify a bunch of water before we could leave. This took a long time because our temperamental UV water-purifying device doesn’t work well with cold water, obliging us to heat the water on the gas stove before we could purify it. After that we had to wait for my stomach to settle down. We finally set out on the trail to High Camp around 6:45.

The trail was wet and very slippery with snow. Conditions were very cold and windy. I’m so glad we left the packs at High Camp last night - it was difficult enough to climb with just the little bit of equipment we had with us. Despite both of us being more or less physically destroyed at this point our energy level was surprisingly good and we reached the top in an hour with only a couple of rests. We retrieved the packs from the room in the lodge where we’d stored them. They were unmolested, but I’m glad we’d had our own lock to put on the door. I repacked while Sheryl ate (I was unable to stomach anything but biscuits, and even that was touch-and-go).

We set out for our attempt on the pass around 8:30. I was concerned about the time. They say there are very high winds in the pass by 11 and I expect it to take us around three hours to get to the top. It had stopped snowing but was still bright overcast and quite cold. I was feeling miserable and assumed I’d be setting a slow pace for both of us because of my stomach problems and weakness. Sheryl and I stayed together for a kilometre or so, down one gully and up to the top of the first sharp ridge past High Camp. After that she stopped for some photos, and I trudged ahead thinking it would be easy for her to catch up.

Looking back a couple of times I saw that she was behind but walking, so I kept going. Finally I snapped out of my stupor and realized she was shouting at me to stop. I let her catch up and realized she could hardly speak or stand. She said her head was exploding with pain like a migraine, but it had come on instantly with none of the usual migraine precursors. It was clear that we couldn’t go on - a sudden terrible headache is one of the warning signs of High Altitude Cerebral Edema, and that can kill. I got her some of her industrial painkillers, took her pack and wrapped a scarf around her eyes, and guided her slowly back to High Camp. We’d come less than a kilometre and ascended less than a hundred meters.

Back at camp, she put her head down and just cried. There was no one else at the lodge but the owner, his nephew and one porter. They were all very concerned and the nephew gave her a special headache remedy - wintergreen oil, it smelled like. He told her to put it under her nose. All Sheryl could do was sit huddled in a chair, blindfolded and with earplugs in her ears, trying not to cry from the pain. I was trying hard to decide what to do - stay here or retreat downward to High Camp? Staying was a big risk. All the literature recommends - demands, really - that you descend to lower altitudes when the symptoms of mountain sickness or its more serious elaborations manifest themselves. But that felt like defeat, it really did. Sheryl just started crying again if I talked about going back down. It was up to me, and both alternatives seemed bad. At last her headache receded enough that I thought it would be okay to stay at High Camp. We took the same room at the lodge that we’d kept our packs in the night before.

What am I doing here? I thought to myself. I hate being cold worse than anything in the world, and here I am stuck for days in freezing winter conditions on top of a mountain at the end of the world. I spent most of the day in bed under multiple blankets and wearing all my clothes trying to keep warm against the terrible cold and the wind coming through the holes in the walls, knowing that the coming night would be far worse. Every time I had to use the outhouse I had to fight my way past three frozen horses crowded around our door. Whenever I opened it they’d try to get inside. I was half of a mind to let them, just for the warmth, but it was a very small room. They couldn’t possibly have smelled any worse than we did ourselves - it had been six days since our last shower (and that had been only a splash of water on a freezing concrete floor).

I left the room only for the toilet and once in the evening to try and eat something, with limited success. Sheryl spent the day in bed too, unable to sleep and drinking tea and hot water, for which the lodge charged through the nose. At dinner we chatted with a nice, funny Australian couple and a Finnish mountaineer, his girlfriend and their porter. I have to admit the Finn impressed me. He was a big hearty man with a huge beard - the very picture of a mountaineer. He’d been on a dozen proper expeditions and had a goggle-shaped suntan-line on his face. It was easy to imagine him striding robustly over the pass in only ten or twelve steps, right then and there.

Chris Liberty - Dispatches from a Gentleman Adventurer
Being the internal dialog of a vagabond who chased his own tail across five continents for 4 years and 2 days from May 2008 to May 2012, in search of something that never really became clear.
This travelogue comprises 16,426 photographs and 402,515 words in 307 dispatches written from 335 places in 52 countries on 6 continents around the world.
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