March 15, 2018: Day 10
Samdo to Dharmasala
Altitude gain: 770m
We had a team discussion last night to plot our our strategy for today. We are Team Take Our Time – which means we are the last ones to leave every day. We were headed to Dharmasala, which is the last camp before the pass. The camp is comprised of two or three private rooms, one dorm room and then 12 or so tents. Accommodation was on a first come first serve basis. We knew we could never make a fast enough pace no matter how early we left to try and secure a private room, or even dorm- but also, we didn’t want to leave early because that would mean spending a very long day in a very cold tea house/room trying to keep warm. We wanted to leave as late as possible. Bhim agreed to be a hero and leave around 7am with the pack by himself. I wouldn’t be surprised if he ran the whole way to be honest. Bhim was 20 years old, lithe and spry and even with a 20kg pack on him he could nimbly jump from boulder to boulder, dance across unstable landslide debris and somehow keep his balance and never be out of breath. It was incredible. He was some sort of super human! So to we gave Bhim a snickers and a power bar for extra energy, and he set off bright and early while we lingered back as late as possible. Unfortunately, this tea house was the most run down one we had encountered yet. The room was tiny – just enough space to have three small single bed frames with mats. Our bags had to go under the beds, as we could barely walk in the room. There was one toilet upstairs in the dining area and one downstairs near the rooms, however the one near the rooms was completely overflowing with half frozen shit, and was thus entirely unusable. To make matters worse, a few of the other trekkers were sick with a stomach bug. In the morning I went to use the toilet upstairs and ran out gagging. Someone had taken a shit and missed the toilet entirely. So now the only other toilet was unusable!
Around 9am, we ended up setting out earlier than we had hoped to leave – sadly there was no sun, so the tea room which was lined with windows was a cold prison instead of the greenhouse it was the day before. We might as well be cold at our final destination rather than stay put and be cold here. Plus it looked like some heavy weather was coming in. With no working toilets, no sunshine, and no other trekkers, the pace had become desolate. On top of that, I had a bit of anxiety in the morning, knowing how high we were going, and not knowing if we would be sleeping in a tent or not. The trek was hard. I would classify it as the hardest day yet due to the altitude. It was all uphill and we had a huge gain in altitude to make today, over 700m in just three hours! My lungs were killing me, my asthma acting up, so I took it very slowly, sucking on my puffers every break. A few sections were really steep, so I kept my head down the whole way up them so as not to look up and see how far I yet had to go. It was a struggle, the entire three hours. My arms and legs got unbearably heavy, and every step felt like hell. But we made it. And Bhim succeeded in getting us a room! Needless to say everyone was baffled as to how the hell we got a private room with beds, since we were the second last to show up (Crafty Canadians, they called us!). We lucked out big time because the shared dorm room didn’t even have beds, just mats on the rocky floor, and the tents were small even for two people and definitely let in a draft of snow through the bottom. I can’t put my gratitude to Bhim into words!
Now, when I say a private room with beds… let me clarify what this really means… It was a stone building, which snow came tumbling in through the rickety roof on to our beds. Travis ended up ripping a piece of foam off one of the mats and stuffing the hole in the roof so it would stop snowing in the room. Our pillows were black. I mean they used to be white, but they had seen so many filthy, unwashed heads for so many years they had turned black with grime… We had to pay extra if we wanted blankets…and I mean 20 year old filthy, horrendous smelling, falling apart blankets… but it was freezing here and anything would help, we didn’t care how dirty it was, as we would have our sleeping bags, liners and every piece of clothing we owned between us and them. The floor was dirt with huge rocks sticking out everywhere. The beds were small wooden frames with a foam mat on them. We did however have a window sill and a white candle next to a photo of a Lama. Top notch decor up here!
When we got to camp we immediately took off our sweaty clothes and changed into dry ones, shaking and freezing and stamping to keep warm as our skin was exposed to the cold. We set up our bedding and piled on all the clothing we could find and made our way to the tea room with the rest of the entire crew. We arrived around noon and so now had a very long cold day ahead of us. We have been playing cards religiously, over and over for hours, taking breaks to warm our hands. Everyone is talking about tomorrow. It’s the final push, the big day. A 700 metre altitude gain, a four hour ascent, and then three hour steep descent, descending over 1300m..! Ouch! The plan is to depart at 4:30am to beat potentially bad weather. Personally I am more worried about the up than the down, as my asthmatic lungs are having a hard time in this thin air. Downhill of course has its challenges and it hurts like hell on the knees, but hey, Advil! It will definitely be nice to get back to 3700m and be able to breath easier and not have so much anxiety about altitude sickness. But I’ve come to a sort of peace with myself and my anxieties – we have made it this far! Sure, tomorrow will be impossibly hard and feel like the hardest day of my life, but we’ve come this far and just have to get through tomorrow!
However… we need the weather to take a turn for the better. All day the clouds followed us in from Samdo and it began to snow lightly and then to really snow. It’s become a disaster outside as the snow has not stopped falling, there is no visibility and it doesn’t look like it will let up. If the weather doesn’t change… we will have to turn back!!! But alas, ‘tis life in the mountains; we are at the mercy of Mother Nature now. We’ve just eaten dinner early, at 5pm – there is but one cook and over 50 people crowded in this tiny camp – so we ate early so he could get all the orders out. We will be heading to the room soon to try and get warm an hour or so before bedtime and pump some body heat into the room. We have to get up at 3:45am to pack up. Breakfast is at 4am and we are supposed to be on the trail at 4:30am – weather permitting, but we really won’t know until morning.
It’s hard to keep hopes high in this place. It’s utterly desolate. It reminds me of the barrens of Baffin Island. The snow is blowing around wildly, and all that stands here in the middle of nowhere at this absurd altitude is a couple of old stone buildings that make up this camp – there is no village. This one man lives up here all trekking season to cater to the trekkers. The toilet building is full to the top of shit overflowing and frozen into a two foot poo-mound. Any bathroom breaks have to be taken in any place you can find away from the building, without any hope for cover as it is barren here. But hey, we all made it! Everyone is here – all trekkers who started this trek around the same time and have been on pretty well the same schedule. We hardly ever see each other on the trail, but we always see each other at the tea houses at the end of the day so we have all come to know each other more or less by our nationality. Everyone is sharing their ailments, excitement and anxieties; the energy is intense and palpable – especially with the added stress of whether or not the weather will break and we will be able to make the pass tomorrow…
And miraculously… Maybe followed us yet again! This crazy dog is now hanging out at camp with all us trekkers. He came into our room and laid down and I felt awful and wanted to let the poor thing stay so he wasn’t left in the frozen cold alone, but Jan wasn’t too keen on a stray dog sleeping with us – which is fair enough – so we had to boot him out. I tried to pawn him off on other trekkers, but no takers.
I heard him barking and growling all night, the poor dear. But of course in my mind, he was barking because there was a snow leopard skulking into camp. Because yes, we are in snow leopard territory now, yikes!
The storm raged all night, thunder crashed and echoed all over the mountains, lightning illuminated the overcast sky in dull orange bursts. And now and then you heard an avalanche, snow crashing down violently in the distance from the added weight that was falling from the sky for the last 12 hours. Obviously, I didn’t sleep. At all….
March 16, 2018: Day 11
Dharmasala to Bimtang via Larke Pass
Altitude: 5106m (Larke Pass) 3720m (Bimtang)
Altitude gain: 636m
Altitude decline: 1386m
Today was the day. All this Nepal business was leading up to this very day, crossing the Larke pass. We awoke at a disgusting 3:45am.
Last night was wretched. We were all in bed by around 6pm, warming the room and our sleeping bags with our body heat. We tried to go to sleep around 7:30pm. It was absolutely freezing though and we just could not stay warm. Our room had a photo of a Lama and a large white candle on the sill so we decided of course to burn it (the candle not the photo!) to try and add some warmth to the room. We all ended up falling asleep and two hours or so later Travis and I woke up in the exact same instant, looked at the window sill where we had lit the candle, and saw a pool of wax and a fire creeping up the wooden frame of the sill. We each blew it out vigorously, and then flopped back down into our beds – entirely unphased by the fact that we literally just extinguished a small fire by blowing on it and almost burnt our room down with us sleeping inside it. I think the altitude was definitely getting to us.
Since I couldn’t fall back asleep, I went out to pee. As I stepped outside my boot fell into a foot of snow. Not good, not good at all for tomorrow. I made my way around to the back of the building to find a pee spot and was scared of the eerie darkness. I heard snow crashing down in a small avalanche somewhere near us, the sound clashing off the surrounding mountain sides, yet strangely muted by the falling snow. There was thunder and lightning amidst the blizzard and I was sure I heard the soft padding of the gigantic paws of a snow leopard sneaking up on me from behind. I was terrified out of my mind and kept shining my torch around wildly, sure I would see one come pouncing at me in the blowing snow. I quickly pulled up my pants and ran back inside. I spent the rest of the night almost falling asleep and then being awoken suddenly by my lungs gasping for air. I felt like I was suffocating – constantly being unable to get enough breath into my lungs. It was terrifying, one of the scariest feelings I have ever encountered. It was like having an asthma attack that just wouldn’t end, for hours.
And then of course my anxiety kicked in. I feared I was experiencing altitude sickness and was sure I was suffocating and would need to take a helicopter out if I couldn’t soon breath properly. I honestly wondered if I would just suffocate in my sleep and die on the mountain. Anxiety is a cruel bitch. But at last 3:45am rolled around and we all got out of bed. It was a wretched start. Travis and I got in a fight right away. I was really freaked out from not having slept all night because I felt like I was suffocating, and was still struggling to breathe properly. I told him this and how I was worried about not being able to do the final climb today. He asked if it was my asthma and I told him that I thought it was the altitude. And that was the end of our conversation. I was hurt by the fact that he didn’t care to ask how I was or check in further with me or comfort me in any way- this is why I had reached out to him in the first place. Instead, I felt abandoned and angry and sad and entirely on my own. He got mad at me then for putting his shorts and glasses on his bed where he didn’t see them and so got knocked on to the floor. Then there was a fit over getting our sleeping bag liners mixed up and Trav threw his down on the ground like a child. Maybe I wasn’t the only one the altitude was affecting. Needless to say it was a brutal start -for both of us- and set the tone for the first couple of hours.
I didn’t want anything to do with Travis after our spat- I wanted space. I was exhausted, cold and scared, and I had to deal with it alone. I was nauseous and dizzy and still struggling to breath while we got ready. I couldn’t eat breakfast because I felt so sick. I knew I would need the energy from the food, but I was on the verge of throwing up. Luckily I had power bars and beef jerky and snickers (all treats I had lugged around since we departed Canada for this very reason!) so I knew I would survive without the gruel porridge that was breakfast. Jail slop as Travis called it. It was awful. I couldn’t even drink my tea. After breakfast we geared up and got into the back of the line of about 50 trekkers, porters and guides, everyones headlamps aglow in single file slowly trudging up the mountain side through the newly fallen deep snow. I couldn’t believe we were actually going, to be honest. I thought for sure after all the snow they would turn us back. But sometime in the night, the skies had cleared, the snow had stopped, and we had a day of absolutely perfect weather ahead of us. So aside from the snow we had to trudge though, the guides decided to push on – and they had the worst of it- it was their job to go ahead in teams of two and break the trail…!
It was all so surreal. It was barely 5am, and all I could see is a what looked like a glowing worm snaking its way through the snow in the dark predawn air, as our head torches lit the way for us. A pale blue glow was appearing behind the huge mountains behind us as the sun prepared to arrive.
My feet were absolute icicles, and I concentrated on one clunky step after the other, as I slowly made my way up, up, up. I had my hotpads in my mittens to keep my hands warm at least. I had chosen between cold hands or cold feet. Travis put his hot pads in his feet but his hands absolutely froze. I knew once I got moving enough my feet would warm up, but cold hands is a curse I battle even in warm weather, and it’s always worsened when I have anxiety. For some reason if I can get my hands warm, my anxiety lessens.
And so we trudged on in the dark. As we got moving, my anxiety lessened and I felt a bit better even though I was gasping from the climb in thin air, my asthmatic lungs were protesting like never before. Every breath burned like hell and wheezed in my ragged throat. It wasn’t long before the headtorches could be turned off as the sky lightened in the pre dawn. I was at the very back of the line with Trav and Jan, where we always like to be – dead last! This way we didn’t have to worry about holding anyone up and could take our time. Seeing the entire line of trekkers slowly going up the pale blue glowing mountainside was such a surreal sight from the back of the line. I felt like we were summiting Everest or something! I was frozen, but I knew when the sun came out I would warm up immediately so I just kept going at my unbearably slow pace, never even breaking a sweat, no matter how hard my legs and lungs were pumping. It was that cold.
Alas the sun broke out from behind the mountain and bathed us in his warmth – we stopped to pee trail side – or really, right on the trail because the snow was so deep you couldn’t leave the tiny little path that had been cleared in front of you! Another perk to being last in line, peeing in private! We stripped off some layers, slathered on the sunscreen on anything exposed, and put our sunglasses on. We were over 5000m above sea level surrounded by a sea of reflecting white snow- the sun is vicious up here in the thin atmosphere so we took all precautions. I struggled on, but the spectacular views made it so much more bearable. I may have felt like I was suffocating/going to vomit/going to pass out the entire time, but what my eyes were drinking in made me hardly care. The sun was glinting off the snow sparkles, glittering like diamonds everywhere. Beautiful yes, but it also made me feel like I was seeing stars rather than beauty and I felt even more dizzy than before and came quite close to losing consciousness at one point, feeling overwhelmed by the mounting anxiety. I took a break and then pushed through it and did my best not to look at the sparkling ground and instead looked at the stunning vistas around me, which was bloody hard to do as you really need to watch where you’re going on a narrow snow path on the side of a steep mountain!
When the sun began rising it was so beautiful, the red glow plastered against the snowy peaks and slowly crawling its way down the mountains until we were all bathed in the light. Basking in the glory of the warmth, we pushed onwards and ever upwards. We were told it would be four hours up to the Larke pass, then three or four hours down. With this in mind I thought I could do it, no matter how wretched I was feeling. But the timing estimate was a little …off. Even with the guides ahead breaking in the trail, and the 50 other people ahead breaking it in further, every two steps you took forward you, you took one back, slipping in the snow. The progress was excruciatingly slow. It ended up taking us seven hours just to reach the pass. Seven hours! SEVEN! And another five to descend!
My head started to pound horrendously the higher we went and the harder I sucked in the thin air, desperately trying to pull as much of the oxygen in as I could. Every time we mounted a small hill summit on the trail, the path that lay ahead was merely yet another long climb upwards. I kept thinking each time that surely this was it, the Pass. Surely we’d been going four hours already. But every time we crested, we went down every so slightly and then back up another slope – over and over and over again for seven hours…I couldn’t believe I was still functioning. My lungs burned and wheezed terribly and I was coughing from my asthma. My head spun sickeningly at times from the altitude and severe lack of sleep and food. My heart pounded fiercely in protest to what I was putting it through. But I sucked on a frozen solid protein bar and started to get a tiny bit of energy. The return of my appetite was a good sign. Hopefully if I got a little food energy in me it would help things.
It’s impossible to describe what we saw up there. We were 5000m high, the highest I had ever been, surrounded on all sides by the glorious snow covered peaks of the Himalayas. It left you speechless and breathless (and not just because of the altitude!). I wanted to burn it into my memory as vividly as it was in that very moment, to savour forever. How could something so achingly beautiful be on this planet of ours? And how could I be so lucky as to be standing here in the midst of it? 11 days and 130km of trekking through Nepal brought me here – undoubtedly closer to the heavens, closer to the gods, for this place was holy, sacred. No matter how miserable you were from the bodily ailments -and trust me, I was not the only one with ailments- you could not feel anything other than awe and veneration.
None of your pain and struggle mattered. The beauty out shone all of it. It was overwhelming- the power, the beauty, the intensity. How can I hold these moments forever? How fortunate am I to be able to have seen some of the most spectacular land on the face of the earth? I wish everyone could see such untouched, beauty. The world is extraordinarily beautiful and it just leaves you speechless, because words are not enough in these moments, words are entirely insufficient. Reaching the top of the pass was so hard, so damn hard. My lungs, legs, arms and mind – my whole body was done for. It took everything I had to get there. Yet I did it. On virtually no sleep. I’ve no doubt it would have been a very different experience if I had slept, just like my trek in Peru: The first day I hadn’t slept and I thought I might actually die; the next day I slept well and crushed the Salkantay Pass with ease!
There were two things that really kept me going this time – the perfect weather with the dazzling sunshine, and Maybe! That little rascal was up and ready to go with us at 4am. Like me, he perked right up when the sunshine came out and it warmed up and he was bouncing all over the trail, keeping all of us trekkers company and putting smiles on our faces. I am telling you, this dog is seriously special! Taking breaks was that much more enjoyable when he was nuzzled next to you! I felt his silent encouragement the whole way!
We took our obligatory photo at the Larke pass sign to prove we had been here and did indeed accomplish what we set out to do. And then we took our surroundings in. But not for long. Clouds behind us were moving in fast, a weather system was growing and our guides urged us to move forward, acting like Shepard’s herding everyone and pushing them onwards, before the weather hit. It was short and sweet, our moments up there, but I was damn well ready to cross the pass and begin the descent to get my brain back to normal oxygen levels. The descent was easy compared to the ascent, but being familiar and comfortable with snow made a difference. The descent was really steep, as we had been warned, and other trekkers not familiar with snow were having a really difficult time. It was a narrow path cut by the guides, dug into the side on a mountain on an uncomfortable angle with a steep drop off and slippery conditions as the sun had begun to melt the snow. It took forever and people were terrified and slipping all over the place. To be honest I was entirely surprised that no one slipped and fell down the steep slope. Crampons would have been really handy right about now! We ended up bottlenecked which was so dangerous because it left a long line of people standing on an uncomfortable angle in the snow, exhausted, and wanting to get down, losing energy all the while. One guy couldn’t seem to figure out how to safely get down and just stood there on the trail holding everyone up. He definitely should have stepped to the upper side of the path and let folks pass to keep things moving and to keep them safe.
While I was having a hard time today, it was good (for my ego) to see that I most definitely was not the only one. Everyone was moving just as slow as I was, taking just as many breaks as me (my god, so many breaks, sometimes not even five minutes apart). Some people were fighting vicious nausea, brutal headaches, dizziness, weakness etc. All the usual ailments up here. Healthy or sick, this was a challenge for all. Yet we ALL did it! Travis and I ended up sliding down many spots on the trail on our bums as it was quicker and felt safer (it was getting awful slippery on the feet) and all the porters got into it and started sliding down too, laughing and having a great time!
It was good to relax a little and have some fun after all that hard work. We were descending into a sanctuary – an area where all sides of the range converge in a circle around you. Several glaciers converged down into two small lakes at the bottom. The jagged peaks were soaring all around us as we came down into it, one of the most beautiful scenes I’ve ever taken in. From the monastery at Samagaon, to the Pass, to the sanctuary – how magical to see all of these spectacular sites! My mind was just in overdrive with the beauty, utterly saturated! The last two hours however… were hell. Absolute hell. My mind was cleared from the altitude but those last two hours were downhill in a slushy muddy trail that had turned into a messy little river that was unavoidable. You couldn’t help but get completely soaked and filthy. Every step you took had to be carefully planned to try and avoid as much water as possible, but eventually that became impossible and you just gave up and started stomping down in ankle deep water, splashing mud and water all over your legs. It made all of us miserable.
We could see the village of Bimtang for at least an hour, yet it never seemed to get any nearer. It was torture. We had been trekking through snow for nearly 10 hours, exhausted, pushed to our physical limits, with aching bodies and stretched tempers, and then we had to walk with icy water sloshing in our shoes for two hours, as our knees screamed in protest at the brutal descent. Travis and I had it out on that horrible walk down, finally dealing with our blowout fight that morning, so at least it helped to pass the time. I had to take a heavy dose of Advil because my pinched nerve was excruciating. My feet were sloshing in my boots in the icy water. I was soaked up to my ankles. My knees were throbbing. I was hungry – there was no lunch break on this 12 hour day, so we sustained ourselves on jerky, frozen power bars and some gross vitamin goop packets. I kept slipping everywhere and splashing myself. Travis and I were fighting. The village just wold NOT get any closer. It was hell. Just hell. But… Travis and I got our shit sorted though and made up, so to speak and the village did get closer after an eternity. Those last two hours we all felt defeated. The altitude, the exhaustion, lack of sleep, lack of food, the excitement the fears- it all just crashed down on us at once. But finally, finally, finally we made it. And never was there a better feeling of finishing and accomplishing -what a relief!
The tea house was the best we had seen on the trek so far – it had stunning little new cabins instead of hotel style rooms, and the common room had a wood stove! We all tore our wet boots and drenched socks off (and took them to the wood stove which now had a pile of boots and socks around it), changed out of our sweaty clothes into dry ones, and went to the common room for a celebratory drink and popcorn. WE DID IT!!! Everyone was excitedly talking about the day, how hard it was, how fun it was, how exciting it was, their favourite part etc. But one of the Danes, a fellow my age was complaining about his eyes – they were shockingly red and strained and he was having trouble seeing. As the hours went by it worsened and we found out that he didn’t wear sunglasses on the pass. We were 5100m up, for 12 hours with the sun reflecting fiercely off the snow… The poor guy was snowblind! Bhim hadn’t put any sunscreen on his face and his whole face ended up peeling off a few days later the poor guy! And so while we all made it, it wasn’t without a few struggles and injuries. But nothing could bring down the feeling of accomplishment and victory! Except of course utter exhaustion…! After a delicious meal we headed to bed early; we still had a few more days of trekking left!