I wake at 0250 and am pleased there is no rain on the roof. The same was the case at midnight when I was able to look across this vast valley and see the ridge of rock that dominates this town. I am pretty much packed and ready to go but need to allow a little extra faff time to get my contacts in. They slip in without too much trouble but as I blink them into place the rain starts drumming on the roof. Dang. It’s bit of a challenge working out how and what clothes to don. The rain might be more sleet and water but I know I heat up very quickly and will want to rapidly discard clothes once we get going. And besides, I hate the idea of any clothes getting unnecessarily wet. We have breakfast of porridge (one opted for noodle soup) some fruit juice and then head out into the dark and the rain. We do so quietly since there are three other trekkers camped round us who were planning a later start. We have walked this first section already (yesterday) and, as is always the case when it’s raining, there is enough scattered light to show up the track. But my colleagues want their head lamps on so they light up and off we go, a string of bobbing white lights nodding up into the dark behind me. There is enough light thrown down by all of them to allow me to leave my lamp off anyway. My legs and lungs are okay to start with but by the time I am up another 1000’ I am struggling with a thermal vest I should not have put on. I’m glad I opted for shorts as that is helping to keep me cool. But the air is very thin and by the time we get to High Camp at 15,420’, a deserted collection of stone buildings I am ready for a break and a divestment. The rain has stopped and over our shoulder the Chulu West range glares down at us with its cracked glacier faces and sheets of snow. By now we are on a track devoid of anything organic other than the copious amounts of damp mule manure underfoot. The weather closes in, a dense mist in which company we wend our way up through a gravel and flint landscape that seems to have escaped from a science fiction movie set. My walking rhythm has settled into a rolling plod and I am starting to focus on each breath rather than on each step. We cross a noisy stream, unnamed on any map. I fancy if there were spirits living in these things that it protests our passing and that we are paying it no recognition. But the track and our breathing are all we are focused on right now. We move on from its fury and climb a steep bluff and then turn the corner and it is gone. Ahead of us through the lifting mist is a lowly looking teahouse, closed of course, except that a dark skinned, curly headed fellow in rags and unable to speak – even to the porters – opened a door, squatted in the doorway and watched us. Yakawakag is the name of this spot, also marked by some large cairns of stones which attract my attention. The weather which had lifted for us now closed in from here and we put our heads down. From this point on my breathing is laboured and I struggle with each step. I force my lungs to exhale as much as they can, relying then on atmospheric pressure to fill them. That makes a big difference and I realise my shallow breathing up to that point had not been helping. Still, I have never experienced anything like it. Step after plodding step. It’s perverse and really no consolation that the team grinding up behind me is labouring its breath as well. Lila flags to me that there are three ‘mounds’ to ascend before the track flattens out as we approach the pass. So I count off the mounds as we plod up them. Each gentle rise of rock shale makes me feel like I have sprinted up a flight of stairs. Suddenly we are stopping at a large monument of rock. A stupa of sorts, whose rock base is frosted with old snow. Nearby is the cairn marking the grave of a young man who died of AMS – a salutary reminder of how serious this climb is. I twig to how close we are when I notice one of the porters return to the group without the pack he has been commissioned to carry. He has only been gone from the group for a few minutes. I dare not believe we are this close. Lila calls “jam jam” (jahm) and we start grinding across the gravel again.
A string of prayer flags, partly anchored in the rock on right lifting ridge appears. Its left flank is invisible abound a low rise. I blink the sweat away and check I am not seeing things. The colour against the white and tan and otherwise drab environment is a little dislocative. For just half a moment I wonder what it means then realise where I am. Lila turns back and grins at me. My gut flips and I pick up the pace. For the last hour or so I have visualised this moment but each time I have done so I have become emotional so have pushed it to the back of my mind. But right now the lack of oxygen and the slow plod become secondary concerns as I stride towards the board that comes into view and which declares we are at Thorong Las no less, the highest trafficked pass on the planet.
Sarah has walked us in and is about 5metres ahead of me. The rest of the team are strung out across 500 metres or more. Indeed the tail end cannot yet see the flags and where we are. Sarah walks up, reaches out and touches the board. I’m overcome and give her a hug. She has done such a great job getting here and this is an amazing achievement by her. Then everyone starts piling in – their pace has quickened and they move up quickly to touch the sign and to hug each other. The porters join in, and well they should, for they have done a magnificent job. I am overcome and find myself in tears by the time the last member steps in. There is a blessing in having the sunnies on. Can’t give too much away now can we? I thank them all for making a crazy idea of mine their own and for their extraordinary commitment in training, expense and time. We take a few photos then, after consulting with porters we pick a rock 300’ above us and climb to it. Even without packs we struggle. But we want to reach 18,000’. It seems such a shame to come so far and not actually get to that altitude.
We were blessed too by the weather. That it opened and the sun fell in on us as we reached the pass was clearly miraculous and an answer to many gasping prayers offered up as we slugged our way to the top. That it stayed open for an hour was no less of a miracle for the weather moves and changes so rapidly up here a blink is the moment when clouds transform a peak from translucence to obliteration. But as I call the group off the 18’000 mark and insist they saddle up the cloud descends and the fog swirls in and as we start down we find ourselves moving through an eerie set of rock and ice, cloud and shafts of diamond light until we are sunk completely into a dense cloud an hour later and the rest of the world, even this one, is muffled out. Sometimes the only way I can see anyone else is by the luminescence of the Orange Hope beanies which bob through the mist, the bodies beneath them completely invisible. Weird indeed. A little over ten hours after we set out, and after fours hours of knee wrenching descent we arrive in Muktinath, having dropped out of the cloud at last into a grey world of stone and the first hints of resurgent vegetation.
I finish the day feeling very fragile, no doubt fuelled by the events of the morning. I wander up the street and buy some jewellery, then park on a stone fence under a walnut tree to avoid a passing shower of rain. I watch the stone cutters work the quarry which is feeding a building site in the middle of town. As I watch them watching me watching them I wonder what we all must look like. Who are we really? Aliens in this place no doubt, with our expensive kit and strange clothes and poking into the lives of these people. Do they welcome us really? Or do they just tolerate us, even as they beaver away building more accommodation for the likes of us? And why are we here anyway and what do we hope to find? I have no answers to any of these questions. But I realise I am probably no different to the Hindu and Buddhist pilgrims I watch coming up the stony path towards me, who come to this place looking for something special, for some revelation perhaps. Or simply because it is here. I shared the same ambition with them once but they have yet to uncover what I have discovered. Will they be disappointed by the dearth of answers in these austere mountains too? I bet they are.
We sit up late and chat and look over photos., despite the 3am rise earlier in the day. I finally head to bed about 10pm. The prospect of a late start tomorrow seems to have energised everyone. The Royal Mustang where we are camped is a reasonable place and we have had a good meal, hot showers and the beds look promising. In a town of Hindus and Buddhists we are surprised to discover it is run by a Christian family who tell us that they are one of many in this town. A Bible verse on his menu twigs us to the fact, along with some very up to date contemporary Christian music he is playing in his restaurant which catches the ear of Chris D as soon as we walk into the building and makes him wonder. I am about to turn the light out. A card game continues out in the dining area but I sense it is breaking up. The others will not be far behind me it seems. I look forward to the obliteration of sleep.
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