I will confess. I have a stone in my coat pocket, purloined from some exotic spot, I know not where. It could be from Ladakh, India on the way to Stok Kangri. Or I might have surreptitiously slipped it into my pocket on the trek to Everest Base Camp. Perhaps it dates even further back, to the more domestic but no less adventurous White Mountains of New Hampshire.
Whatever its origin, I get enormous pleasure from touching its rough edges, rolling it between my fingers. The rock of unknown ancestry is the descendant of the lucky pecan I kept in my coat pocket for years. My lucky pecan was picked up on Minerva Avenue (what a name of a street to grow up on) and resided in my old Michael Kors jacket – bought at a Tuesday Morning, no less – until the sad day that said jacket disappeared, I think in California. I believe I was as upset about the loss of the lucky pecan as I was by the loss of the jacket. By then the pecan had grown smooth as silk from my rolling it around in my hand as I walked, like an organic worry stone. And I figured if I were ever stranded on a desert island perhaps I could eat it and survive, or plant it as a sign of hope for the future. Although admittedly, the latter probably wouldn’t improve my chances of survival.
But regardless, those talismans in my coat pockets make something concrete out of the virtual world in which we live. Our lives are comprised now of internet virtuality even more ethereal than the wispy clouds you zoom through when taking off in an airplane. There’s nothing to touch, and the world becomes like a memory.
One of my yoga teachers brought small polished stones to class the other day, for people to hold as they chose in class. I guess the same concept as my purloined rock. It makes those past summits real, just like the lucky pecan anchored where I grew up. And this small rock is now inspiring me to return to the stairs, backpack and all, to get ready to climb Mt. Katahdin in Maine.
People keep asking me, “What’s the next one?” The reality is that we are in a between year. Trying not to make it sound like the doldrums (what a great word), but when I looked at my schedule for next year, I simply can’t find a spot for a two week trip plus weekends on either side. I am usually able to preserve that period of respite but this year’s judicial system apparently had other ideas in mind. Hmm.
We haven’t had a between year for a while. In fact, I think since 2013 which somewhat inadvertently turned into one due to a virulent flu attack on J as we were about to embark on our Hawaii backpacking trip. Since then, we’ve climbed Elbrus, Ecuador’s volcanoes, hiked the Scottish Highlands and the Peaks of the Balkans, and summited Stok Kangri at all of its over 20,000 foot splendor.
So what will 2020 hold? The year itself – with its parallel numbers – must mean something. Thus far, the idea is a throwback – a week at the North Carolina beach with family and friends. Haven’t done that for years. And hopefully the daughters are now old enough to avoid sea kayaking accidents like the one many years ago that caused me to call 911 to everyone’s great embarrassment since they’d hauled themselves out of the ocean by the time the rescue team arrived. I suspect we are still black listed at the sea kayak rental place.
But as fun as that will be, there have to be some actual summits somewhere. It looks like work will take me to Seattle over spring break – and there appear to be some nearby hikes with a good 3500-4000 feet of elevation gain. And N, A’s boyfriend, has suggested we hike the northern part of the Appalachian Trail and summit Mt. Katahdin. It’s the highest mountain in Maine and he promises he knows the way to reach its 5,267 foot peak.
That sounds appealing. Given that the odds of our hiking the entire AT are probably close to nil we might as well cross the finish line first.
So, I may wrap the decade of my 50s with local summits. They are just as important as the others. But 2021 marks the 10th anniversary of the start of all my mountaineering and related adventures. Entertaining suggestions for another non (or at least mostly non) technical, over 20,000 foot mountain for my 60th birthday next year! Got to keep looking toward the future!
My travel journal starts off: I am sitting in the warm sunshine on a picnic bench at the Guesthouse Lepushe, in Albania, surrounded by the Accursed Mountains. Several of our group are playing cards, and another is sharing wine made by the nuns at the monastery we visited the previous day – straight from the plastic screw top bottle – with a pasted on label over the original brand. I’m in one of the most beautiful places I’ve ever been.
Two days ago our first full day of trekking began with a classic Kosovo breakfast on the porch -tomatoes, egg, puffy fried bread, cheese and olives. Somehow all the trekkers at the home stay each got a turn at the one bathroom before setting off. Lunch food was set out so everyone could make their own sandwiches for what was billed as the most difficult of the trekking days.
We took jeeps to the start of the trail, which started with a straight up trajectory. They don’t believe in switchbacks here. We later learned that a lot of the trails were old smugglers’ paths. We hiked through long-grassed meadows where the wildflowers became even more exotic – now shocking blue periwinkles interrupted the yellows, pinks, and purples. Our first stop was a glacial lake – not blue but green glass. A second glacial lake came soon after, this one very low and banded by rock.
We continued onward and upward, finally reaching the Jalanek Pass, with limestone cliffs all about. Walking along the border of Kosovo and Montenegro, ultimately we started to follow the “signs” down, bringing us into Montenegro. It was a very long descent with some rocky spots – we had gained a lot of elevation.
After 7 hours or so, we could finally see the vans that were to deliver us to that night’s accommodationway below us across some meadows. However, it turned out those fields were the property of an ancient farmer who staggered over to us with a walking stick in each hand while we had stopped for a very brief rest. He was seemingly unable to speak in words but eventually pulled out a piece of paper that made clear he expected tribute for crossing. Our guide quickly rallied us all and we ascended back up the meadows and found a way down through some fields being harvested by a much more congenial farmer who apologized for the behavior of his neighbor.
The next controversy involved deep unhappiness among the drivers of the three vans – too many had been ordered and our guide had had no cell service so he couldn’t let anyone know. Eventually, after a flurry of extremely loud communication – with great umbrage and angst on all sides – we ended up with all three vans, although J was the only passenger in one of them.
Following our 7-8 hour trek, we had an hour or so drive to some cottages in a national park where we were staying the night. We drove through several small towns, a number with Florida style McMansions planted right next to traditional small concrete dwellings. Nothing is really “quaint” here – the utilitarian architecture of post WW2 USSR left a strong mark. According to our guide, Montenegro is now a good place to house money, and Montenegrans who reside in the west frequently maintain large residences in the Montenegran countryside.
By then, somehow we had assuaged the van drivers and we all loaded into two vans for the final stretch. There were 4 of us in a three person row in the smaller van. The steep uphill on the way to the national park simply proved too much for its engine, and despite several valient attempts (I kept thinking of the little engine that could), it kept stalling half way up the mountain. Eventually four of us got out and finished the day the way we started – trekking up the last hill.
The cottages that night felt quite luxurious. Each couple had their own, with a private bathroom and a little porch. I felt like I was in the tiny house show. There was also a great restaurant, filled with families, many in Islamic dress but an equal number in western garb.
The next day it was time to venture into Albania. As a child of the ’70s, I still found it unbelievable that you were permitted into that country, which was historically one of the most closed off places in the world. The first part was uphill through a dark and gloomy forest. It was overcast and quite humid. Finally the sun started to break out, and we reached the tree line, through more meadows and to the top of the first peak of the day. From that peak we descended along a saddle and back up along a very exposed ridge that connected the peaks. We could see Albania. But there was another peak yet to be climbed!
Sheer drops were on either side of the ridge trail but that didn’t seem to bother the flocks of goats that were cavorting along the hillsides. The Accursed Mountains loomed over the trail, steep sharp crags etched against the sky. The wind finally died down and we were able to stop and take a lunch break on the top of the second peak.
We took our time on the long meandering descent, finally walking into the little village of Lepushe, Albania for another home stay. There, J, me, A and N shared what must have originally been the kitchen. It was quite convenient to have our own sink in the room.
We arrived about mid-afternoon on an absolutely lovely day. One other small group was staying but it was clear we were in the middle of nowhere. Boys were racing a donkey and a horse in the dirt street; the owners gave us a tour of the restaurant they were building out of stone next to the house. I’m also pretty sure we say our dinner being butchered on a stone slab.
We watched the sun sink over the Accursed Mountain, suddenly turning the steel grey into a soft pink. I guess that’s sort of how I felt about Albania.
Three bruises, a blister, and a pair of ripped hiking pants. But they were all worth it for the views at the top of Turtlehead Peak. After an amazing dinner at what must be the only calm casino environment in Las Vegas (if not the world) — Sage at Aria — we were up at literally the crack of dawn to start our adventure in Red Rock Canyon.
I had my share of trepidation about this one. I knew it was 2000 feet of altitude gain in 2 miles, 800 of which were in .4 miles. Sounded steep, and it has been a full year since I’ve managed to climb anything other than stairs. And this was compounded by the fact that I managed to do quite a number on my feet on my last ten-miler and am paying the price of some badly treated blisters. I was triply concerned when I exited our one-day rental car to start the hike and realized I was limping!
But the adrenaline of being in the mountains kicked in and soon we were trotting along at a pretty decent pace. The trail starts at an old stone quarry with monster chunks of limestone on either side. From there, it gradually rises up. Well, gradual for a while.
I was expecting a brown, dry, barren landscape. But that’s not what we found. A surprising number of low growing green shrubs flanked the trail, but even more remarkably, a ton of flowers – pinks, lavender, some bright yellows, and every now and then a brilliant red, sprouted up all around. And interesting shapes, too. Some dripping like crystals in chandeliers, others swollen seed pods, some wispy and feathery.
Turtlehead Peak is famous for its vanishing trail on the way up. In fact, calling it a trail may be an exaggeration. Once we got beyond the initial wash, the few trail markers seemed to disappear and we were confronted with a rocky, scree scramble heading toward the ridge. We’d encountered two other intrepid hikers (needless to say, a lot younger than J and me) and they were having an equally difficult time figuring out how to journey from the to the ridge.
I knew we were in trouble when J convinced me to go up and over a bluff – while I was certain the easier route lay below. After all, the lower route is exactly where the other hikers were. Nonetheless, up and over we went, only to be faced with another even steeper section. J, apparently believing left and up was always the right way, pushed on; I, certain a better way lay below, kept going along my own personal trail. But after a bit – and seeing J well above me and the ridge towering above that – I realized I needed to get onto some semblance of a trail that would carry me on up.
So, with Ossy’s words (Shifting Winds Lead to Cotopaxi Summit) echoing in my ears, I started thinking to myself – right, left, right – just find your next step – and wend your way up the side. I found myself on a couple of ledges and unstable spots – but shaky legs and all, eventually wound up next to J, with trail markers in sight. I’m pretty sure that little scramble is the source of the arm bruises.
From there, it was simply a steep slog to the summit. The foliage changed to small scarred trees (sort of like what I remember from the North Carolina coast). Once we got to the top, and with the elation that even a 6300 foot peak can bring, I totally lost my concentration and managed to stumble on a relatively flat surface. Bruise #3, the leg bruise.
We spent about thirty minutes at the summit, ate our power bars, and took photos of the sculpted peaks surrounding us. A little yoga, of course.
What goes up must come down. Miraculously, we were able to see trail blazes the entire descent – which simply confirmed how far off the trial we (I) was on the way up. The descent went much faster, but there was the one moment where I realized sitting down and then stepping onto the next rock was the best way down one section – resulting in that unique, not to be replicated – R -I-P – of your hiking pants. I knew it was a risk when I decided on that strategy. Those pants have been with me since Kilimanjaro in 2011, though, so what better way for them to meet their maker.
We hiked back to the parking lot by the sandstone quarry, watching the people who’d decided to try to climb the sandstone cliffs as opposed to hiking on up to Turtlehead Peak. It looked hot and miserable. In fact, the way down was cooler than the way up, even though it was then close to noon, as the sun had retreated behind the clouds.
After finishing the 13 mile scenic drive through Red Rock Canyon (you have to, because the loop is one way only), we were back in Las Vegas in 40 minutes. Back to the land of casinos and cards. A red eye flight to Florida awaited us. As well as a wedding of the son of dear friends M and S back in the swamp.
I started running in 2014. We had just summited Mt. Elbrus, but I felt I was too slow on the descent and needed to increase my cardio training. True, some of it could have been due to the third degree sunburn I had managed to achieve. But, regardless, we knew there were a number of higher mountains in our future – the Ecuadorian volcanoes were on the burner for 2015 – so the cardio was essential.
I started slowly; fast I am not. And over the next several years I worked my way from a 5k to a bit over 7 miles. There were times I felt I could have gone further, but I just didn’t. My standard was a 5k on the treadmill Wednesday nights before yoga and a 5 to 6 mile run on Saturday mornings.
But all things change. This past summer we actually achieved our goal of summiting an over 20,000 foot mountain – Stok Kangri in Ladakh, India. My Wednesday yoga class time was moved up to 7 pm, making it practically impossible to get a 5k in between yoga and work. And more importantly, I felt I was getting slower and slower.
For Type As like me that means that Friday nights started to be filled with an existential dread (ok, not quite that bad) of how my run would be the next day. Could I achieve under 12 minute miles consistently? Why didn’t I ever get an under 11 minute like I used to? What’s wrong with me? Can 4 years of aging make a difference? What does this say about my next climbing or trekking expedition? You get the picture.
Then, a few weeks ago, I just stopped. I simply made the conscious decision, somehow justified in my head, that what I really needed to improve was my general walking speed. So I would just become a fast walker.
I started with a very brisk three mile walk to meet a friend for (of all things) a stroll through a “fairy door” exhibition in a nearby park, and realized I could keep my “splits” at 15 minutes per mile or less. After a few sessions of that, I decided to “walk” to the Y before a Saturday yoga class. And as I took off down the road, on what felt like a crisp day, at least to us Floridians, I suddenly realized I wanted to run. So I did. And it felt good to let my legs move freely without obsessing about what my Fitbit was showing. I’d run to the end of the block or the next tree or whatever the mark was and then keep going at a walking clip for a while – and then run again, whenever I felt like it. And ironically, I discovered that when I run I’m running faster than I did and overall end up with 13 to 14 1/2 minute miles and a decently elevated heart rate.
I’ve been using this run- walk technique for a few weeks now. And I’m looking forward to my Saturday morning training sessions again. Friday nights aren’t filled with worry. As I wend my way through the neighborhood, I’m noticing more things – a new home renovation project, which trees are blooming, the latest development in the never-ending series of drainage construction projects by the lake where we live.
It was like letting the air out of a balloon. But not in a disappointing way. Letting up on all that pressure let me enjoy it all again. I’m going to try to remember that as we enter the upcoming Thanksgiving to Christmas marathon.
Our departure from Delhi was not until late evening, meaning that we had a full day of adventure ahead of us. S’s flight was even later than J’s and mine. So on the advice of the concierge at the Ashok Country House we decided the Red Fort was the appropriate destination. By now we had realized how little we really knew about the history of India so we were prepared for anything. But the Red Fort truly was like something out of the The Arabian Nights.
We took an Uber (talk about creating a continuity of experience in any culture…) along beautiful boulevards, interspersed with crumbling shopfronts and people camped in every little open space. After 40 minutes, we arrived in Old Delhi, facing a long and high red brick wall that seemed to go on forever – especially in the 102 degree F heat. Now we had to find the entrance, which we presumed was somewhere behind the numerous military checkpoints. There were very few Westerners, and seemed to be no Americans at all. I located one European looking man in a pastel shirt who vaguely looked as if he knew what he was doing. We followed him up to the ticket counter and through even more checkpoints into the Red Fort itself. Once again, men and women were separated into two queues, so I proceeded along in solitary splendor as J and S veered off in a different direction until we’d gone through metal detectors, pat downs, and bag checks.
The Red Fort was built in the 1600s by one of the Mogol sultans, and destroyed by the British. It’s now undergoing a major reconstruction. You enter through a large gate into an arcade filled with small shops selling everything from scarves to curios to jewelry. So overwhelming we didn’t even attempt to buy anything. You then arrive at the main campus, which I can only describe as Aladdin-like. A throne room for public audiences; a spectacular mosque with delicately inlaid red jeweled flowers on white marble. The whole area is about 2 kilometers in size.
After several hours recreating the world of the sultans in our mind’s eye, we were ready to fortify ourselves with a 21st century lunch. I’d read about a Mogol restaurant that dated back to 1913 that was supposedly run by the descendants of a chef to the sultans. We tried to walk there from the Red Fort, through reams of people, beggars, salesmen, and just occupants of the city. We eventually figured out Google Maps was taking us in circles, and I was still dealing with a swollen and numb foot – so we swallowed our adventurers’ pride and hailed a motorized rickshaw type thing. I showed the driver the address on my phone, and along we went though narrow streets only to be dropped off at what appeared to be a literal hole in the wall, but turned out to be a warren of interconnected restaurants. Yes, it was a little Alice in Wonderland-like.
To call it informal was an understatement. There was a sink at the entryway for washing up; we were then ushered up a short flight of stairs to a small and blessedly air conditioned room with five tables. Once again – we were the only westerners. I had mutton Muglai – a stew that was remarkably hard to eat with only a spoon and nothing to cut with. Plus, I felt so filthy by then that eating with my hands didn’t seem like a good idea – nor was I convinced that washing up with Delhi water was going to assist with any standard of cleanliness. Nonetheless, we managed. J had a superb chicken tandoori and S roasted mutton. Really good rice and nan and I don’t think a Coke has ever tasted so good as it did on that hot day.
We were worried about getting back to the hotel in sufficient time to get our transfer to the airport especially given some of the challenges of getting around Delhi. We walked past a man carrying what was (at that point) a live rooster, spice shops, a live bird market – and miraculously were able to connect with our Uber driver.
S still had his hotel room for another night (it turned out his flight left at 2 am that night, not 2 pm the next day as he had thought!) so we were able to shower off some of the grime from the 100 degree day before heading off for our flight to Dubai and then onto Orlando.
We’d traveled up 20,000 feet by foot to get to the top of Stok Kangri. As our flight took off I looked out the window at the puffy clouds as we topped that height. Had I really climbed there, into that level of the stratosphere? I had–into that cotton, light, hard fought, rocky, grey and white, jagged, damp and dry, foot upon foot, part of the world. Usually you only see 20,000 feet from the window of a plane. But to reach that altitude on foot meant every inch had a special meaning. From the horses that carried our bags, their bells clanging as they looked toward their home villages, to the shrines with the yak skulls ashen in the hearths, to the rainbow colored prayer flags sending wishes into the winds….20,000 feet now evokes an infinite number of memories.
The first night in Leh – our night’s sleep was punctuated by the sounds of very loud people in the hotel courtyard, followed by a heavy rain storm and a cacophony of barking dogs. I quit trying to sleep at 5:30 a.m. Breakfast finally started at 7:30 – eggs to order, poori, chick peas and corn.
That day, Tuesday, our second in Leh, Ladakh, involved a two hour drive along winding roads cutting through the mountains and following the river to the Alchi Monastery. A few villages along the way but the main outposts of civilization seemed to be multiple military bases.
The oldest parts of the monastery were 1000 years old, and show Mogol influences – before conversion to Islam. Our guide R gave an interesting description of his brand of Mahayana Buddhism. We had a typical lunch at a restaurant at the monastery – cheese in red sauce, potato curry, dahl, local vegetables.
Along the way was the remarkable view of the Indus River merging into another – the Crest toothpaste like blue into the murky brown. Especially notable were the carved signs of the road construction companies advertising their work.
After we returned from the monastery we had some down time until 5:30, when we met up with R for a short acclimatization walk to the big stupa at the edge of town. After a climb up 500 stairs, we were rewarded with a great view. And to reward ourselves further we ventured to “Food Planet,” a roof top bar where people who weren’t worried about their VO2 levels could order hookahs.
Wednesday started off on a sad note as one of our trekkers, V, encountered some medical issues that resulted in his having to return to the UK. And two others, M and M, were off at the doctors for colds! A bit daunted by the early reduction in our ranks, we took off on yet another acclimatization hike. Wove through crowded streets and alleyways by very large houses, many of which were under construction. Because of the weather, construction can occur only during the summer months. Spent quite a while watching the outdoor assembly at an elementary school.
Finally we broke from the road and went up a very steep trail, with switchbacks up to the top of an over 13,000 foot mountain. There are so many such peaks here they don’t even bother to name them.
I was steady but definitely the slowest – felt the altitude a bit. We were going rapidly and I felt I did ok. There were actually two summits with some fun scrambling in between. And coming downhill was great.
These early hikes are so odd – you can tell the guide is continuously evaluating you- not just to make sure you’re ok at the moment but to get a sense of how you’ll do when you are really at altitude and facing the summit and whether you’re ready.
We re-entered Leh by the 16th century Ladakh palace. A very plain, large fortified structure now empty. The current “king” of Ladakh – who no longer has any official status – is still alive and lives in a nearby village. Stripped of power but apparently not money.
That afternoon J and had our one splurge and purchased an old, intricate kilim (woven rug). It tells a story – you can see where the weaver started to run out of wool and and misjudged the layout of certain motifs.
One more day in Leh before our trek was to begin….and a day we’d all been looking forward to – a drive to the second highest drivable pass in the world. I was sitting in the front (motion sickness doesn’t improve with altitude). Many Indian tourists who had no acclimatization at all on motorcycles heading up to the pass. And many T-shirts promoting it as the highest drivable pass in the world – with lots of motorcycle graphics. The higher we got the more hairpin turns there were and the less the visibility. I simply didn’t look out the window for large parts of it.
The pass was highly militarized and we had to show our passports to move forward, even though we were still in the same country. We also learned that satellite phones and detailed maps were completely banned in this part of India. So much for my rescue plan at the summit.
We were now at 17,500 feet and it was freezing with light snow. I was grateful I’d dressed warmly and had my hiking poles – those who hadn’t were pretty miserable. After we stopped we struggled up a nearby hill – quite icy and couldn’t go as high as planned because it was simply too slippery.
But what was near the top was a small hut, lots of burning incense – and an oracle – a woman in a purple and yellow shirt dancing around the hut screaming and chanting. It turned out the day was a holy day – the one time a year that the oracle – from a local village – comes to this spot. Other villagers were there to light the butter lamps and pay appropriate homage. I think C from our trip has video. If he reads this he should add it to the comments.
After a very quick tea at the crowded small tea house – where most were huddling to stay out of the cold – we drive back down through a steady rain that only occasionally cleared.
Once back, we had a delicious lunch of momos (dumplings) and listened to R give our trek briefing for the next day. J and I went back to town to pick up some last minute things – amidst the pouring rain in what was supposed to be the dry season.
In the meantime, S had somehow managed to run into a rabbi doing evangelical work in Leh. He got into a conversation about the synagogue his wife attended in Alaska and ended up with a dinner invitation for 10 pm at night. He may be the only American/Alaskan to experience a Lubavitch Jewish dinner in Northwestern India. Just another example of the unexpected things that can happen in Ladakh.
The next day – the true Odyssey started. The one to Stok Kangri- where I started this series – Days 1/2 – The Stok Kangri, Ladakh, India Expedition. But there’s still more left- after the trek, Base Camp, the summit and the Death March down – there was still our stay in Delhi. That awaits.
And now a brief detour from adventures in India to some time spent snorkeling in the Florida sun. If you can call what I did snorkeling. During the four weeks since our return, we’ve been to the beach three separate times for various reasons. Sort of remarkable, given it had been about a year since our last beach visit.
Most recent was my foray into the world of snorkeling. As you can probably tell from this blog, as a good Taurus I am an earth as opposed to a water person. Even swamps have some dirt in them. Embarrassing though it is to admit, it took about two years of lessons for me even to learn to swim.
But we found ourselves on the beautiful shores of Palm Beach for a firm retreat, and the afternoon activity we signed up for was a “guided reef tour.” Now from that innocuous description – wouldn’t you expect a boat to drop you off at a reef, where you could gently bob about above the fishies to your heart’s content? Not so! I started to get cold feet in the morning when it was explained to me that we would be swimming out to the reef, which was “just off shore.” And my feet got even colder when we got to the meeting place and learned that not only was there no boat but the only resting spot would be one little yellow buoy hauled along by the guide that only two people could hang onto. There were a lot more people than that in our group.
Nonetheless, I waded into about 3 feet of choppy water, struggled into my flippers and got the guide to help me with my mask. I could tell he was regarding my lack of proficiency with a certain degree of trepidation.
We “took off.” I tried to relax – remembering from past snorkeling trips where I really was dropped off by a boat that was key. But with the waves continuing to roll, my mask not clear, and my arms flailing even though I knew I was only supposed to use my legs – I could feel myself starting to panic and gasp for breath.
So you know what? After about seven minutes of this, I told our guide – probably to his great relief – that I was going in. One of the things I have learned from mountain climbing is that you have to know when you’re maxed out. At a certain point you’re not proving anything and you’re not having any fun. Stopping isn’t giving up – it’s simply exercising some good old fashioned common sense.
It’s one thing to train and suffer a little. It’s one thing to suffer a lot when you’re on the way to hitting that 20,000 foot altitude goal. But it’s another thing entirely to be miserable doing something you don’t even like that much. I’m glad I escaped this one with only a crick in my neck and a sore hip from my underwater gymnastics!
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.
Now that we had made it to base camp at approximately 16,400 feet, the waiting began. The afternoon we arrived we were sent off on a very steep hike up the beginning of the summit trail. Our guide assured us this would actually be the most difficult part of the trek as we’d be doing it in the dark and the cold, so it was a good idea to know exactly what we were in for. It turned out to be a steep dirt trail with decent exposure, but quite doable – at least in the daylight. Plus, it appeared a flat stretch immediately followed, which would hopefully give some incentive to keep on going.
In the meantime, our ranks were dwindling. IB developed an upper respiratory infection and left to hike down to Stok Village the day after we arrived at base camp. M and M started to feel the altitude and after the delay in our summit schedule (more on that below) also decided to make the trek back rather than attempt the summit. This left J and me as the two most senior members of our band of would-be summiteers.
Base camp was bizarre. Lots of tents and any number of other groups, all with varying degrees of acclimatization. A lot of people attempt this mountain woefully unprepared.
There was a tea house selling beer and sundries – I never actually saw the inside; somehow I got it into my head that visiting it would undo everything I’d achieved in the past week and impede my chances of a summit. Such fears didn’t deter a few members of our group who came back with lots of stories about the characters they had met there – some of whom seemed to be suffering from the early stages of altitude sicknesses or else were just genuinely odd people.
Base camp was also home to a collection of toilet tents which kept getting moved to higher locations such that it was a hike even to reach them. Speaking of which, the ecosystem at the base camp is simply unsustainable. There is an entire area pockmarked with latrines now filled in with dirt and rocks – you have the sense that at any moment your boots could go crashing through into who knew what nastiness below. Think toilet crevasses.
With that charming image in mind – what else happened at base camp? Well, the plan was to rest on day 2 (July 4) and take off about midnight that night. But the weather gods were having none of it. After our walk up the initial portion of the trek that first day there, the weather turned very on and off, with sporadic showers of what can only be described as snow pellets – small round almost gravel shaped things. I felt a long way from Florida.
The next day, July 4, did not greet us with any better weather. It was foggy all day, with intermittent snow and hail. We were supposed to be resting and there really wasn’t anything else to do anyway. We began to gauge visibility by how many horses you could see on the mountainside. In the morning we did some rope travel and crampon training but we basically didn’t move all day, and I was finally starting to feel I’d had a lot of sleep.
By mid afternoon the snow had started to accumulate on our tent and we heard that many groups had decided not to attempt the summit that night – by then you could hardly see your hand before your face. Apparently one group made a different decision and a 29 year old trekker died that night up on the mountain because they couldn’t get him down after he started to experience serious altitude sickness.
We carbo loaded that night with delicious Nepalese dumplings (momos) but with the knowledge that if weren’t awakened between 11 and 12:30 am we would not be going that night and would have to use our buffer day for the summit attempt. Camp was crowded and you could hear horse bells clanging and conversation all night but we slept anyway. At 12:20 am R came by to confirm. We weren’t going and breakfast would be at 8. It was a relief simply to know, one way or the other.
This put our departure on the night of July 5 and summit attempt on July 6, the Dalai Lama’s birthday, so we all hoped for an auspicious day. In fact, the day dawned beautifully and conditions looked great. However, we knew we were in for a long haul because we were going to have to hike out to Stok Village the same day as our summit attempt. More on this later.
That morning we hiked up to about 17,400 (1000 feet elevation gain) just to get ourselves moving. Quite steep but confidence building. Tents were nice and warm and after another huge dinner we settled in to sleep for a couple of hours before our 10:30 pm wake up, trying to ignore the sounds of the pick up cricket game nearby.
Eveyone was tense as we gathered for “breakfast.” J, S and I were in one group and the faster (and younger) climbers were in another. We’d packed and repacked our packs and slept in our base layers (for the second night) so we were ready to go. I ate one of the thick pancakes, little realizing that would be the last solid food I’d have for over 24 hours.
We trekked more or less as one group up to what used to be the high camp. If they still allowed camping there it would have made our day much easier! We then split into our two groups. We were trekking in the dark, so you couldn’t see the exposure and only felt the steepness.
After a couple of hours, we eventually reached the glacier – it truly was a relief to suddenly get to a nice flat area. But on the other side was a very steep snow and rock slope – we stopped at the rocky area, to put on crampons and harnesses and rope up. At first our guide wasn’t traversing but just forging straight up the side of the mountain – but I think he then realized we (or at least I) needed an easier S curve. Next came a series of upwardly sloping river beds (more of that pesky glacial moraine) and steep rock climbs up. There was really very little snow by that point. The air was thin, and getting into a steady rhythm of breath and step and climb and breath was critical.
The sun was rising as we approached the ridge, and there was a spot to drop our packs. There’s a high level of trust at over 19,000 feet. For some reason I had thought the ridge would simply be an exposed path nicely meandering along the mountaintop to the summit. To the contrary, it was a series of jagged rock formations, each of which had to be climbed up or around. I could never figure out which the super steep wall was supposed to be because they all felt equally damn steep!
At a certain point S looked at his watch and we were already at 19,600 – 300 feet above our prior best on Cotopaxi in Ecuador. Somewhere along the ridge we passed the other group returning – all had summited, although they, like us, were all looking a little the worse for wear. It was now about 8 am and we’d been climbing for 8 hours. R said if we weren’t at the summit by 9 we’d have to turn around.
That gave all of us, including our two Sherpa guides, the impetus we needed. They set up safety ropes into a series of what S called running (or free) belays, and with their good guiding skills we made our way up, by hook and by crook. We reached the summit with 30 minutes to spare. J, S, and me. About 8:30 am and all 20,187 feet of it.
It was clear and blue and turning to cloudy. The prayer flags flapped their brilliant primary colors, sending mantras out on the winds for all to to receive. We had done it.
But, as we all know, what goes up must come down again. And what a descent it was. The adventure continued.