‘Yes. At the bottom of that escarpment the track vanishes into that scrubland. I walked up and down the bank trying to find the bridge.’
‘I couldn’t find the bridge so I stayed out.’
‘All night? Are you serious?’
‘I couldn’t find my way, so yes, all night. Once the light has dropped I am blind.’
‘So what did you do?’
‘Put on every layer of clothing that I had in my pack and then put my feet in my pack.’
‘Did you get any sleep?’
‘No. I could see the lights of where I wanted to go just a few hundred metres over that river. But I couldn’t sleep. It was too cold. But I did have a fantastic view of the night sky and all those stars. It was clear all night.’
It’s a rest day and I am lounging around the mess tent when ‘Chicago Dan’ wanders over. I thought he had spent the night at Pengboche to help acclimatize but discover his remarkable night out in seriously subzero temperatures. I am thankful that he had all his gear but am puzzled at how he could get lost on that bank. He explains his challenge with vision in poor light and the dark. I am impressed with his fortitude. It was indeed a clear night last night and I wonder at how cold it must have been. But I have to agree with his observation about the night sky. The heavens are untainted by any haze up here and are startlingly bright. And cold.
We farewelled a handful of the team yesterday and today. Mike left yesterday and Howard from the UK walked off today with Charlie. Disconcerted like myself about the type of rope being used on the mountain and the resultant accidents and death they are resolved to go home or have some time trekking in Nepal. There is clarity in their decision making and everyone in the team seems to understand that. It’s a decision that is respected by all and which no one tries to countermand. In a moment like this it becomes clear that, even though we are supporting each other in a team effort, the decision to climb or not climb is entirely an individual one. I am reassured by that.
Some of the team take the afternoon to head down to Pengboche but I remain at camp. I wanted to prowl around the place with the camera and am content to poke around the rocky rim of the basin in which we are camped. It is just on the other side of the rim that I see the very clear pawprints of a cat. No question that we have snow leopards around about us. In fact I find a den behind some scrub covering an entrance into the rocks and would not be surprised if they were camped close to all these people and their food scraps. I have been encouraged at how much wildlife there seems to be up here. A pair of huge vultures cruise over me, having a close, slow look as they pass. Snowcocks are everywhere, noisy critters in flocks of a dozen or so that also seem to be attracted to the food scraps. Given they are not unlike some sort of pheasant it should not surprise me that the sherpas put out boiled rice for them. I bet Snowcocks end up lured into any number of Sherpa cook pots when the rest of us are not looking. Ravens loiter around, their sharp black coats and glittering eyes reminding us they are the Mensa birds around here and quick to muscle in on any food opportunity. The choughs wheel and circle high above us. They seemed to be more inclined to the heights at Advanced Base Camp but they do also flirt about on the Base Camp perimeter, perhaps deterred by the ravens. The snow gives up the suggestion that any number of rodents live among us and there are other tracks I simply don’t recognize. I wouldn’t mind betting that a small parade of animals had a close look at Dan as he sat on the river bank and waited those long hours for the dawn that felt like it was never coming. Including leopards which I now know are up here too. I am just glad he survived the night. Another death up here would be unconscionable.
I finish my walk around the camp after a couple of hours. By early afternoon the weather has gone from bright to dull as cloud rolls in and a very cold breeze snaps up. Foolish me. I was going to have a shower earlier and put it off. Now I stand in a chilly shower tent, the breeze leaking through. I pump up a cylinder that looks like an oversized stainless steel fire extinguisher, flick the valve and direct a tepid stream of water over me, turn it off and get the soap going. The focus is of course on “the creases” as one of the lads wryly observed a couple of days ago. If the sun was out this little tent would be warm. But its not, and its not. The freezer cold breeze leaks in around my feet and through the door flap. Do I wash my hair? I figure I am in here dancing with the cold already so I might as well. Things are redeemed by the coarse fibre towel I borrowed from the hotel in Kathmandu. It’s vigorous use pushes some warmth back into me. As I fumble my way back in to multiple layers of clothes I hear a handful of others walk past the shower tent on their way to ‘the Lodge’ about five minutes walk away. I scramble out of the shower feeling cosy and warm, drop soap and towel in the tent (where it will be frozen stiff inside ten minutes) and follow the others into the fog.
We sit around a pot belly stove fired up by a couple of local lasses and make the most of a large flagon of milk tea laced with brandy, and enjoying conversation with a chap from NZ, a young fellow from Melbourne and a woman from California. In the course of the afternoon conversation the local lads who run the lodge confirm my suspicions about snow leopards, insisting quite firmly they are common in the area. Given all the tracks I have seen I don’t need convincing. It’s hard to drag ourselves away but as it gets dark we make our way back so we are at the dinner table when the cooks sound the gong. They spend all day preparing food and it would be rude to not be about when dinner is called.
23 October 2014
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