As I walked home from the YMCA in a torrential downpour, I kept thinking, well, at least this didn’t happen during the death march. But rain is about the only thing we didn’t endure.
You will remember that our summit attempt was postponed a full 24 hours due to bad weather. The repercussion of that delay was that, after summiting, we were going to have to immediately hike from Base Camp down to Stok Village – where we would pick up taxis to take us the 45 minute drive back to Leh. From the summit to Stok Village is over 9000 feet of altitude descent. (It was about 4000 feet of altitude gain from Base Camp to the summit so that gives you some idea.)
The original plan had been to collapse at Base Camp after summiting and have a nice leisurely hike out the next day. Now, only 7 of us remained of our original 11 team members. We were all dedicated to reaching the summit, and we would probably have accepted any Faustian bargain to make it happen. But we really didn’t know what we’d agreed to until many hours later.
After our few triumphant minutes on the 20,387 foot summit – after all, J, S, and I had made it with a whopping 26 minutes to spare before the 9 a.m. cutoff, came the dread realization – we had to get back down.
To be perfectly honest, I think I’ve lost the memory of the first hundred feet or so down. I presume we went back down the ridge; I do recall being very anxious about locating our backpacks, which we had discarded somewhere below. We obviously found them but I truly have no memory of descending what I had found such a difficult climb on the way up. All I know is it took a really long time.
After we got our packs, we faced the descent of the very steep snow field. Somewhere about then, my contact lenses, which had done oh so well up until that point, decided that 20,000 feet of altitude was not compatible with staying planted on my eyes in any way that enabled 20 20 vision. Hence, my call out to J that my distance eye (I have mono vision) was out of focus and I couldn’t see. I loathed having to stop, but eye drops were a necessity. After successfully managing to squirt some in each eye, we started off again – we were still roped and trying to get a rhythm for the way down.
S told our guides he thought I should go first, based on our Elbrus experience; after all, the three of us had been on a rope together before. I’d also been the first going down Cotopaxi and Orizaba. For some reason I’m good at setting a downward pace on a rope. But our Sherpa guides were having none of it and classically put me in the middle with J in the front and S behind. Needless to say – it wasn’t ideal. J was moving too fast; he’d have to slow down; I’d be too fast and he’d take off again to be too fast all over. Several falls later and I had a few large bruises on my backside that were to be with me for a while.
Finally we reached the snow slope above the glacier and our guides seemed to think we were best off unroping, taking off our crampons, and cross crossing the glacial moraine. I swear they were looking for the trail themselves and I’m certain we made a few needless forays across the rocks on the way down. At that point it was clear we were going way slower than we should be. By then I’d given up on my left contact and was hiking with my eyes completely caddywampus. Should I try to go fast and risk the twisted ankle or just keep on at my own tortoise like pace? I chose the latter.
Just about then, after some consultation in Nepalese, one of our guides took off with S to go much quicker down the moraine. Think dry river bed with huge cobblestones. Moraine sounds kinder than it was. J and I stopped with our other guide for water, some Gus (me) and some of our packed lunch (J).
Back up we got and off again. One of our guides took my pack – the ultimate ignominy but I kept remembering that J gave his pack to a porter on the Kilimanjaro descent and I didn’t. So I felt I could justify it (not to mention that simply Increasing my odds of surviving the descent seemed like adequate justification by then). We finally reached the glacier and toward the other side, near the old and now unused high camp, saw some of the kitchen crew who were waiting for us with drinks.
We were now about 6 hours or so in the descent, and our main guide, R, had hiked out to see what was going on as we had been so slow. He knew we’d summited in an adequate time – and hadn’t anticipated how long it would take us to descend and was concerned something really bad had happened. He was soon to learn it was just intrinsic age 57 year old slowness! J plowed on with one guide, quite a bit ahead of me, and I walked with R. By now the bizarreness of my out of focus eyesight was getting the worst of me and I put my glasses on. While the contact issues were gone, my glasses are progressive lenses. Thus, I couldn’t look down – I was relegated to the top third of the lens as there was little need of the mid lens computer view where we were, much less the reading portion.
Walking with R, I suddenly realized how incredibly steep what we had climbed up was. It was probably much better that we’d done it in the dark, as it was almost inconceivable to me what we’d climbed. Finally we were back at the prayer flags at the bit of the summit trek that we’d climbed so successfully a couple of days before and could see Base Camp below us.
All would have been well and good, had our adventure stopped there. It was about 2:30 pm or so; we’d been going for about 15 hours. I’d survived on about 5 Gus (I still love those things) at 100 calories each. J had only had some energy blocks and a hard boiled egg out of the packed lunch.
Remember that plan about trekking out the same day? Well, when we reached camp most of the tents were already disassembled. Needless to say, we were the last of our team members. We had about an hour to pack up our tent and participate in the tipping ceremony – which we had single handedly delayed due to our slow descent. Anyway, by about 3:45- 4 we all traipsed off to start the final descent to Stok Village. There we were to meet cars that would take us the 45 minute drive back to Leh. We had an 8 am flight back to Delhi so not getting there was not a choice.
We all took off at once and immediately broke up into about 3 or 4 groups. Super Amazon women J and A were in the front, C and S tag teamed down, I’m not sure where P was, and J and I were convincingly in the rear.
We all knew it was 13 plus kilometers but somehow we had all translated that in our head to a 3 hour hike out. Oh, so not so.
First, we were back on glacial moraine. Somehow the workers from our crew (not to mention the horses) who’d now finished their work could simply fly down the rock on heir way back to their villages. Not so for us mere mortals. Plus, at least at the beginning, I thought Stok Village was going to be around just the next corner and saw no reason for any hurry.
But as the shadows grew long, and one of our crew passed us and offered to carry what at that point was a pretty heavy pack because, as he told us, we had several more hours to go – I realized my time estimates were way off base.
We had descended to the region of the brown serrated mountains – which cut against the sky like knife blades. Evening was falling and the only people we saw now were workers from the camps happy to be going home. They were moving at the twice our pace.
R had stayed behind at camp to see to close out issues, but fortunately caught up with us. So, our little band was J, a non English speaking kitchen helper who’d been sent off with us originally, me and R. I asked if we needed our headlamps and R said no but about 30 minutes later that changed. Luckily I knew where mine was – J’s was mashed in the bottom of his pack and he ended up having to use R’s. R ended up using the flashlight on his iPhone.
We were supposed to only be walking downhill, which is why the hike out and summit the same day didn’t seem so bad. But it was so late that the river was high and we had to scramble up a significant bluff – and descend it – to be safe.
By now we’d been going for 18 or more hours. I truly felt I was sleeping while standing. It was all I could do to put one foot in front of the other. The sole of my hiking boot had blown out and I had absolutely no faith in its tread. It was slow, slow, slow on slippery sandy dirt on the way down the bluffs by the river.
We’d waited for the twinkling lights of Stok Village for so long that when we finally saw them I thought it must be a mirage. For the first time ever, I felt what it must have been like in the Middle Ages for travelers to see some signs of human habitation glowing in the midst of a pitch black night. We’d been wandering in the middle of nowhere, with no choice but to keep walking. I kept wondering if there were actually wild animals out there. But even during the most miserable bits, I was conscious of what an amazing experience this was and felt profound gratitude that I was experiencing this time and this place.
Finally, the wilderness morphed into what appeared to be a more formal trail. We passed small houses under various stages of construction and walked through what seemed to be a construction site. We crossed a meadow where our horses – or somebody’s horses – were eating. We passed a home stay guest house.
And then, miraculously enough – the van appeared. It was loaded with our teammates’ duffel bags and had just room enough for R, J, and me. Our other guide had long before peeled off to go home.
It took 45 minutes to get to Leh. We arrived about 10:30 pm. Wake up time for our flight to Delhi was 4 am.