High Camp to Muktinath; Trek day eleven; In which we succeed

Today we cross Thorong-La Pass or die trying, I’d decided when I woke up in the morning. Sheryl was of the same mind and asked the owner of the lodge about hiring a horse to get to the top of the pass in case she wasn’t able to make it herself. The cost was 2000, um, 3000, um, 4000 rupees, she was told (she’d made no friends there during her short, unhappy stay). 4000 rupees is about $60 and god knows I’d have hated to pay it, but if she couldn’t make it over the pass then the only alternative to the horse would be to walk a hundred kilometres back to the beginning of the trek.

It had been a horrible, frigid night. There was a centimetre-thick skin of ice on the water buckets in the outhouse when we woke up. A snowstorm had blown in overnight and it was still coming down. My stomach was finally feeling a little better and I was able to eat porridge and a pancake - a great victory. We packed up and settled the exorbitant bill (Rs2600 or $40 for a one-day stay, 3 or 4 times the cost of the same in Kathmandu) and were on the trail by 7. I think they were as happy to see us go as we were to be gone.

Outside was bitterly cold and near white-out conditions. The light was still very bright, though, and the ultraviolet light is very harsh at this height. We have no sunglasses, so we wrapped thin scarves around our eyes to keep out the light - the last thing I needed was to go snow-blind. The trail was frozen hard. This was a mixed blessing - it was slippery but we were able to use the frozen ridges of older foot- and hoof-prints for purchase on the climbs. The frozen donkey crap was more of a problem - the stuff is still slimy even when it’s frozen. Our hands and feet were numb at first, but the exertion soon warmed us enough to stop me worrying about frostbite. The landscape was completely barren. There were a couple of frozen scabby plants, but nothing living.

Some of the steep ascents left us short of breath, but enough stops got us to the top of the first ridge, where we’d been forced to turn back the day before. I was very nervous and kept bugging Sheryl for health reports. It soon became a pattern - every so often one of us would check how the other was doing. Sheryl did very well - she was stubbornly determined to reach the pass, and this time her body didn’t seem to be betraying her.

The trail led crosswise over three or four ridges, dipping down to the bottoms and back up in a steep climb diagonally to the top. We’d been told there was an abandoned teahouse about halfway to the pass by distance and by height; we reached it by 8:15 and a more welcome sight I can’t imagine. We stopped for ten minutes in the empty stable to get out of the cold, the wind, and the harsh light.

The second half of the trail to the top of the pass was easier - more because we’d gotten into a rhythm than because the trail itself became easier. Breathing was much harder. The air was so thin that any little exertion left us doubled-over and gasping and we could go farther than fifty meters without resting whenever we were climbing hills. Sheryl was counting the black-and-white striped marker poles as we went. They weren’t regularly spaced, but rather by line-of-sight. There had been five between High Camp and the abandoned teahouse and Sheryl guessed that there would be nine more between the teahouse and the pass (she was right - sort of. We counted the top of the pass itself as the fourteenth marker).

We could hardly believe our eyes when we topped the last ridge and saw something other than more white, grey and brown wasteland. Another abandoned building squatted in the snow and beside it was a big congratulations sign crusted and swathed in frozen strings of prayer flags. Eight or ten figures were grouped around the sign - all the trekkers who’d left before us. We’d been the last, and given our physical state had hardly expected to catch up with anyone. But we’d made very good time in the end - it was about 9:45, so it had taken us two and a half hours of walking. All the Nepalis we’d asked had told us “two hours for Nepalis, three for tourists”, and so we reckoned we’d done well.

We didn’t spend more than maybe fifteen minutes at the top of the pass, though. It was frigid and strong, cold winds were screaming through the cut between the mountains on either side. I haven’t felt cold like that for a year and a half. It must have been -15°C or less. We took a few photos of the sign, us and Spidey, amazed that the cameras were still working, and I built a hurried, wobbly inukshuk. The highest point of the pass is 5,416 meters, and that seemed like a stupid number. I wanted to go up to 5,500 but not badly enough, and settled for stumbling up a little higher and calling it 5,420 which is at least a bit easier to remember.

Half an hour past the top of the pass we were still in high winds and snow, following the poles one to the next. Finally we dropped below the bulge of the mountains and into shelter. It was still freezing, and there was still heavy fog and snow, but at least we were out of the wind. From there it was endless hours of punishing steep downhill walking. We needed to lose 1,600m of altitude to get to the village of Muktinath. Our fast pace slowed to a crawl as Sheryl’s knees and hip started to hurt. She had to pick her way down the switchbacks and kept slipping. Visibility was very poor and there were no points of reference to know where we were and how far there was to go. At last we found an old sign a one of the marker poles saying that we were at 4,800m. That was both good news and bad. Good to know where we were, but bad because I’d thought we were further.

We’d been passed by a couple of donkey trains coming down and had had to get out of their way in a hurry as they barrelled downhill. Surefooted as they were, even they were slipping. At one point a train of runaway donkeys caught up with us. There were seven or eight of them and no human. Most of them passed us, but the last two were lonely and insecure and insisted on staying behind us. They were the last thing I wanted behind me on a steep, slippery slope, but donkeys like to follow, and so we were dancing from one side of the trail to the other like a demented ballet, trying to keep out of their way. We finally got them to pass us and the last donkey in line kept stopping and looking past us, back up the hill, and braying plaintively. Half an hour later, when they were all out of sight (though we could still hear the brays of the last donkey), a man came running down the icy slope and rolled his eyes as he pelted past us completely out of breath. I had brief thoughts of telling him that his animals had gone some other way, and riding triumphantly into Kathmandu the proud owner of eight donkeys.

Around then the thick clouds ahead parted and we could see down past kilometres of barren black mountainside and canyons into a beautiful green and golden valley. It was like a vision of the Promised Land, or the stories of Shangri-La that you still hear repeated in these parts. Sheryl said it was like a painting of some fantastic scene from a Tolkien novel. It was a long way ahead and a long way down, but the lovely vision drew us forward. It was exactly as I’d imagined descending a high mountain pass to be - coming down out of the wasteland and into the gentle valleys.

Soon after the dry pebbly snow turned to sleet, then slush, then rain. If we’d thought the trail was slippery before we soon learned better. We could barely keep our footing and it became very dangerous with the heavy packs. Progress was very slow and the last couple of hours down into the valley were no fun at all. The rain followed us the whole time, moving down out of the pass and turning our golden valley grey as we watched. We kept thinking it would end any minute and never bothering to put on our rain pants, and then all of a sudden we realized that we were soaked and frozen from the waist down.

The last kilometre or two were frustrating. We could see the village of Muktinath, where we’d planned to stop. I really wanted to push ahead and just get there, but the pain in Sheryl’s legs wouldn’t allow it. The last little bit was past a big Buddhist monastery with white walls. The hills behind it were covered with prayer flags and white-painted chortens (stone cairns). The path joined a little road between the monastery and the village, and zipping along the road were motorcycles, the first motorized vehicles we’d seen in eleven days. I’d forgotten how noisy and smelly internal combustion is.

Muktinath is at 3,800m, the same altitude as Yak Kharka, but it’s much more sheltered, much greener, and much warmer. It’s a muddy and uninteresting little place, but there were ten or so lodges all with signs claiming to have hot showers. Hot showers! Hot! Showers!. I’d have sold my soul to the devil right then for a hot shower. It would have been the first hot shower in eight days. Food was more important, though. I still couldn’t stomach much but Sheryl was nearly falling over - it was midafternoon and eight or nine hours since she’d eaten. I had some Tibetan momo dumplings and she had a gigantic chicken, both of us sitting frozen to the bone in our wet clothes.

At last we were able to escape upstairs to a snug little room where we solemnly and ceremoniously ate the last of the Victory Chocolate. And then… my long-awaited (and desperately neeed) shower. Pessimistically, I tried to convince myself not to expect anything better than a lukewarm dribble, but there was a gas water heater in the shower room. I stayed in there so long that the steam and the gas fumes nearly did me in. My head was spinning but it was the first time I’d been warm in a week. Glorious.

Nearly all our clothes were soaked and filthy, and our pants were donkey crap up to the knees. I put on what was dry and least crusty, got under the blankets and slept through the evening. Sheryl stayed downstairs talking to people and eating, but I was happy and warm in bed. I can’t believe how much sleep I’ve needed since I’ve been sick, it’s horrible.

So, we did it. We crossed the world’s highest mountain pass, sick, alone and unsupported, in a snowstorm. It cost us, and it was a hell of a lot less fun than I thought it would be, but it’s done.


2 Comments on this Dispatch:

June 28th, 2009

Chris & Sheryl, you tell a great story. The frightening thing is that it’s all true! Good luck.

¬ Phil Young
June 28th, 2009

Thanks, Phil!

¬ Chris
June 28th, 2009

You guys are nuts… and yet I’m envious!

¬ Nicola
June 28th, 2009

Ha, you have always been envious of my insanity!

¬ Chris
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.
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