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.
When I last left my readers, we had camped at both Shang Sumdo and Shang Phu. Day 3 of our trek, which went over two passes to Matho Phu, was reputed to be the longest and most difficult, barring summit day itself. (Spoiler – summit day was immeasurably harder!)
We were forewarned, but that doesn’t mean forearmed! Three of our ten trekkers had been suffering mightily from an array of ailments, but that day one of them made an absolutely miraculous recovery that lasted him the rest of the trip. Some might credit the antibiotics he had, but I like to believe it was really the chewable Pepto Bismol tablets I was dispensing.
The food created on this trip was remarkable. Carbo loading occurred practically every meal. The night before our long day we were fortified with noodles, potato pancakes, spinach with cheese. The prior night was curry chicken and a tomato cilantro soup. Each dinner started with a thin soup – part of the anti-dehydration technique. Breakfasts all included porridge, followed by pancakes or eggs.
At Shang Phu, I actually slept fairly well for a night in a tent. Our guide R’s promise of the beauty of the hike over the passes was borne out. We gained a lot of altitude on gentle undulating paths, now leaving behind the brown serrated mountains and hiking between green meadow mountains. This is apparently where the horses go to graze when they aren’t escaping back to their villages (as they are apparently wont to do on occasion). At a certain point the trail changed to steep switchbacks going up to the Shang La pass at 16,300 feet. Many small wildflowers between the rocks – periwinkle blue, lavender, and a tiny pink and white one. The color yellow was everywhere. S, whose professional research involves the plant rodiola, even found its cousin here. Speaking of which, double doses of rodiola are apparently not a good idea at high altitude.
After lunch, in a grazing meadow following the big pass, we trekked to the second, lower pass. Frankly, I thought it was harder than the high one. After a climb up, we traversed along numerous, narrow dirt ledges with serious exposture. All I could look at was where my foot would go next – no up or down glances for me! Plant uphill pole, step, repeat.
To top it off, we then reached a fast flowing river crossing where R had to place stepping stones to help everyone across. From there, we were blessedly off the ledges, across a meadow (where a flock of sheep were in a pen), and finally up a last hill to our camp site (Matho Phu at 14,435 feet) and a welcome dinner of eggplant, egg curry, and rice.
We had one more night on the trail before we arrived at Stock Kangri Base Camp, at a campsite called Smankarmo, a little lower at 14,370 feet. The day was slightly easier – we started with a long traversing uphill to a pass (Matho La) as high as yesterday’s. The trek was gradual, so you didn’t realize how much altitude you’d gained. There’s nothing like the high – literal and figurative – you can get at 16,000 feet. It’s gotta be the dopamine.
Following a 2000 foot descent, we veered off the trail to a meadow worthy of the Hobbit. As we’d made our way back to the green stone mountains again, the grass was particularly refreshing. After a long lunch break, we finished the descent- this one was steeper and yet another stepping stone bridge had to be constructed. The campsite had a beautiful view, but for the very first time we had to share it with another group.
Dinner at Smankarmo was a version of a Scotch egg – but instead of sausage, the egg was wrapped with fried potatoes. It apparently reacted well with my sleep schedule – I managed to sleep from 9:45 to 5:15, a record so far.
The trek to Base Camp had quite a few steep sections but was much shorter than we’d expected. J and I reached a collection of prayer flags and just assumed we were at a pass with hours left to go – but no, we were there. About 16,400 feet high – we were at our home for the next three nights.
This series of blog posts starts in medias res – right in the middle. Since it’s the trek itself that I’ve been training for – why not start there and circle around to the rest of the trip later? If that technique was good enough for Homer in the Odyssey, it’s good enough for me. I’m writing this during 2 hours of free Wi-Fi on Emirates somewhere over the North Atlantic, although it’s going to be uploaded later.
I could start with a rundown of current and various minor injuries from the trek, which range from multiple bruises to swollen numb feet – but instead I’ll start with June 29, a Friday and the first day of our trek. We were awakened about 4 am or so at the Hotel Mogol in Leh by a family that apparently felt everyone around them should also participate in their departure from Leh. I couldn’t help but think where they would fit in on the Wheel of Life we’d been studying at a monastery the day before.
Our group of ten started with a drive to the very large Thiksey Monastery. It’s perched on a hill and consists of many white and orange buildings. Monks and nuns in their ancient red robes come and go; odd contrasts between their garb and the vehicles they are driving. The temples date back to the 1500s; the oldest contains a very serene Buddha that glowed in the dark setting. Another more recent temple houses a huge Buddha of the future surrounded by colorful Tanka paintings – many monks and nuns paying their respects.
Back in the cars for a drive through the valley to our first camp. At first on paved roads; then a sharp right into an unpaved road through yet another valley. Rose/green stone mountain walls on either side reminded me of the striation in the Grand Canyon. Suddenly the road improved a bit and we turned into a meadow, separated into several areas by stones, with the brown/green/rose mountains surrounding us on all sides (Shang Sumdo, 12,467 feet). When the sun comes out, the mountains glisten, reflecting the tufts of green in the meadow and the high, pink flowering bushes that line the campsite.
The pack horses arrived with their three “horsemen” and wandered around the campsite, bells jangling like a carillon.
What is the set up, crew and tents, you may ask. There are two toilet tents, basically canvas walls surrounding dug out latrines (one with a commode perches over the hole); a kitchen tent, dining tent, and sleeping tents. The kitchen staff consists of a Nepalese father and his three sons who are learning the trade (the food was fantastic), 3 Sherpas (2 Nepalese including one who has climbed Everest 3 times, and 1 from Darjeeling). We have an extra Sherpa due to the calamities that had befallen our group before we even set out – but more on that later. That’s part of starting in medias res! Ages of our fellow trekkers range from 27 to 61.
After we established ourselves in our tents,we took a “gentle” acclimatization hike. It turned out to be an extremely steep climb up loose dirt and rock to 13,467 feet. Then we did a little bit extra at the end without packs. Feeling very good with acclimatization.
Tea and biscuits follow at 4, with dinner at 7:30, which is apparently early for India.
First nights in a tent are always hard and it’s remarkable how things go missing in such a small space. The night included a horse bell clanging (one horse had to wear a bell all night although they were removed from the others), and a braying wild donkey that practically walked into our tent. The next morning it tried J’s coffee when he left his cup sitting outside.
Tea and coffee are brought to the tents at 6:30 am, warm water at 6:50 and breakfast is at 7:30. I managed to spill my tea in the tent immediately and was punished by having to travel with two wet towels for the next few days.
The trek on our first real day started on a road with a gradual rise. We passed an Army training camp where we saw a class being taught – it is very clear we are near disputed borders and there’s a strong military presence. We walked by the little village of Chang, a striking white monastery up on a hillside, fields of green barley and yellow mustard. Then we hit what I affectionately refer to as a river bed death march, although it’s technically glacial moraine where you have to pick your way over rocks of all varying shapes, sizes, and colors. Little did I know how well I would get to know glacial moraine on this trip!
We eventually made our way to a lunch spot – an enclosed stone area with a shrine in the middle of it, ornamented with what looked like burned yak skulls. Our guide, R, immediately lit a butter lamp. We are completely alone on this trek. We’ve seen no one but locals (and very few of them).
After a long lunch to wait for the horses to catch up and go on ahead of us, we were back on the trail, steeper, and you could start to feel more altitude. Suddenly we were at a meadow that was to be our next campsite, Shang Phu (14,380 feet). There was a shepherd’s hut where some small items were sold, but nothing else but incredible views of layers of mountains, sun glinting off stone.
So we are count down 72 hours or so. I had a great work out last night – but that’s the last one. At this point, on the countdown, I’m not going to get any better; I’m just going to get hurt.
We celebrated J’s upcoming 58th birthday tonight with dear friends; I’ll work a half day tomorrow; we’ll get our house ready for our housesitters; go to a cocktail party; and get up at 3am or sooner to Uber to the airport.
Our travel companion, S from Alaska, who is featured in the beginning of this blog in 2014 when we met him on our Mt. Elbrus (Russia) climb, has already left for Delhi. We will all arrive on Sunday – Delhi time.
On the level of things to worry about I realized today that I’ve been so focused on the summit I forgot about the river crossings – several of them. As some may know, I was almost swept out to sea crossing over to Z Trail on the Muliwai Trail on the Big Island in Hawaii. I am not a water person.
So I think I’ll use that for distraction. I can focus on whether my Costco water sandals will be ripped off my feet as before. The list of things that can seemingly go wrong is insurmountable. I could worry about all of them or none.
The only choice to make it to 20,147 feet is to put one foot in front of the other. I’m as ready as I’m going to be. And I’ll report back on the river crossings.
As we embark on the two week countdown and our final chances for that one last training run, I’ve been thinking lots about mantras.
The last couple of weeks I’ve tried to vary my training routine. We celebrated Memorial Day with what’s now become a talismanic 20 mile hike – the entire West Orange Trail. Years ago we started hiking it in sections starting at each end (see A Walk on the West Orange Trail, West Orange Trail – Starting from the Other End’) but the last few years we’ve simply started at the Apopka trailhead and hiked to Killarney Station. Last year’s erstwhile travel companions, M and S of Everest Base Camp fame, joined us at mile12, with no more incentive than dreaming of treks to come.
By now the West Orange trail has its own rhythm for husband J and me – there’s the area of bizarre churches, the warehouse ruins of the fern industy, the “development” (that is the nastiest bit, involving uphill along a hot busy road surrounded by look alike housing developments), the Buddhist temple, followed by the golf course and memorial gardens (somehow that has always seemed apt to me), and finally, the wooded trek into Winter Garden, Oakland, and Killarney.
I’ve balanced the pleasure of 20 mile hikes with six mile runs in 80 plus degree heat – and literally hundreds of flights of stairs in my office building.
So what does any of this have to do with mantras, you ask? Last year, on the Everest Base Camp Trek, I was forced to confront one of my greatest fears – the incredibly high swinging bridge. And it wasn’t just one. There were a LOT of them. Our guide told me just to keep my eyes on the prayer flags that lined the steel cables atop the flimsy chicken wire sides of the bridges. I did that – and for whatever reason the phrase “God is in the prayer flags” came to mind. I repeated it, sometimes aloud (with the whistling wind no one could hear) while focusing on the flags and M’s white hiking shirt billowing in the breeze as she strode along in front of me. It got me over a lot of bridges.
And on these runs – and many of you know running is not my favorite thing – I’ve kept myself going by finding similar mantras, especially when I’m getting to that point where I’m tired and starting to focus way too much on whether I’ve gone even another tenth of a mile. With a mantra, I can become almost hypnotized by the passing cracks in the pavement, I can slow my breathing down, and those tenths of miles pass by much less knowingly. In fact, yesterday, another runner came toward me from the opposite direction and I was so lost in my present he startled me!
I don’t think these mantras have to be “religious.” Just something that speaks to you and gives an image that you can fall back into in those hard times. As if you’re on a giant fluffy cloud that propels you along effortlessly. I’m picking out my mantras for Stok Kangri.
We leave for India, more specifically Stok Kangri, in just under 4 weeks and it’s time to stop. Time to stop reading other people’s blogs and trip reviews.
You know you’ve read too many over the top accounts of bad weather, deep snow and almost vertical walls when you find yourself repeatedly googling whether the steepest gradient is really 40 degrees (according to the one and only detailed trekking guide I’ve found) or 75 degrees (according to anecdotal accounts by multiple trekkers at varying levels of inexperience). The next clue you’ve gone too far in internet research is when you start googling all the mountains you’ve previously climbed for comparison purposes to see where they rank in this doubtless highly imaginary world of guessing gradients to try to determine if that will give you a clue as to whether you can do this. And that is followed by a good dose of wondering just how good your training can actually be when you live in Florida and a feeing you better rapidly add even more stairs to the stair climb in the office, not to mention increase the distance of your runs.
I guess fear can be a great motivator – for a bit. But I think I’ve hit the point where reading more about this trek/climb is about to backfire. I need to spend these few last weeks getting my head ready to focus on the present moment and the here and now. That’s what it’s going to take get up that mountain. One foot in front of the other; one at a time.
It’s the opposite of the planning and strategizing and analyzing I have to do in my day job lawyering. Sure, there are the logistics – the gear check, travel arrangements, picking out your GU selections – those are fine. But trying to psych out the mountain beyond a certain point – that’s no good. On a trek, typically the guides will not even tell you what the next day holds until the evening before. I’ve figured out the reason for that. You need to focus on where you are and what you’re doing – not where you’re going to be and whether you can make it.
Right now should be a yoga practice. I need to take the space created on the mat…and let that sense of the present be my guide for these last three weeks. And not read any more first hand versions of “how I survived Stok Kangri.” Namaste.
Stok Kangri is a snow covered mountain 6153 meters, or 20,187 feet, high. Yes, that is a reference to Hemingway’s “Snows of Kilimanjaro” and I don’t expect to see a snow leopard, dead or alive, anywhere up there. It’s supposed to be pretty arid. And, it’s only partially snow covered. But Kilimanjaro is what started J and me on this summit journey, seven long years ago. God willing and the creek don’t rise, we’re off to Stok Kangri in the Kashmir region of India starting on June 24 of 2018.
To top it off – it’s not just the two of us, but our friend SB, from Alaska, is going too! I sent a casual Facebook post to him about our tentative plans, and within 72 hours he’d committed. SB is the person who gave me that last push – and I mean a literal push – to get up that last steep incline to the top of Mount Elbrus in the Caucuses region of Russia when I started this blog in 2014. Ever since, J and I have said how much we’d like to climb with him again – and now we are! He’s climbed Denali and Aconcagua and actually knows what he’s doing. Provides a lot of confidence for J and me.
This is going to be a first. We’ve made it to 19,347 feet on Cotopaxi in Ecuador in 2015. But we’ve never made it to that elusive 6,000 m/20,000 ft. peak. This is our one chance, before we go totally grey and spend our time sitting by the fire – although in Florida that would mean before a cool air conditioner. There will be a lot of more details to come.
It had now been eight days since we left Orlando, and we were finally ready for our trek to Lobuche at 16,180 feet. This took us well above the tree line into a very barren area, through valleys occupied only by grazing yaks (who seem able to eat anything), and what can only be described as a stone hobbit house for the yak herders. Everest peeked through clouds and mountains in the distance.
We had lunch at a tea house on the other side of a slightly less scary swinging bridge, which was followed by a very long uphill, culminating in the many memorials placed in honor of those who have died on Everest. They reminded me in some grim way of the above ground tombs you see tthroughout New Orleans.
From there, it was more up and down and finally into Lobuche. We were by now completely out of village culture and into trekking culture. We kept running into the same people everywhere – the guys from India, the nurses from Florida who were working in Nepal, the Australian couple. And I think I forgot to mention that he who hogged my seat on the flight to Katmandu ended up staying across the hall from me in Dingboche!
The Oxygen Altitude Hotel was our next residence and one of the worst bathroom experiences yet – even though by then we had adapted to the fact that the existence of an ostensibly normal looking toilet meant nothing about flushing. Instead, flushing was correlated to the barrel of water with the plastic jug floating on top that was placed next to the toilet – and usually in just a spot to make it hard to close the door. But when you realize how difficult it was just to get that water there it becomes much more understandable. At that height – despite the surrounding glaciers – there’s no easy water source. There’s also no source for fuel. Yak dung fed the one stove in the dining room – and it was the only source of heat.
After we arrived, J and I went with our guide for a short acclimatization hike up the nearby ridge to look at the Kumbo Icefall. I forgot my poles and it was dicy on the way up and started to snow on the way down. The Icefall itself looks like someone took a big bag of snow covered ice cubes and dumped them down a slide.
None of us slept well that first night at over 16,000 — and the next day was to be the trek to Gorak Shep and EBC. We started at a reasonable hour but the team wasn’t moving very fast – it’s a lot harder to get oxygen at that altitude – and we ended up going first to Gorak Shep, checked into our tea house and had lunch. This was a much smaller lodging – our rooms were up three flights of completely uneven stairs – some almost 20 inches high – and I found getting to the room as hard as the trek itself. To add insult to injury, due to the water issues the inside bathrooms were barricaded off during the day!
The trek to EBC – theoretically the talisman of the trip – is challenging. You hike alongside the glacier – mostly stone-covered but with deep divots through which you can see tens of feet of blue ice and frozen lakes. Lots of rocks to pick your way between and finally you reach what feels like a natural levee between two valleys that you hike along.
The creepiest part of the experience was to hear avalanches and rock fall by Everest and the surrounding g mountains. J and I were hiking by ourselves ahead of the team. At first I heard a sound like thunder – a slow roar, a rush, and then I heard someone yell from across the valley. I think it was on Lhotse. We heard several more similar soundtracks – and on the way back I saw a huge rock become dislodged and start a slide.
We waited for M and S at the levee just before base camp so we enter together surrounded by prayer flags. It’s very spread out and I wish we’d had the time to poke about. Weather had been terrible at the summit so most of the climbers were still at base camp.
After photos, we headed straight back. Exhausted and early to bed – especially since J and I were rising early to climb Kala Pattar – 18’200 feet – which was our main mission.
We got up at 5, had a coffee and a Cliff bar, and met up with our guide. Our tea house was very close to the beginning of the trail. Very steep dirt for the first part and my fingers were absolutely numb. The ground was frozen solid. Then, there was sort of a tundra area and another steep uphill, this time through black stone (which is what kala pattar means). A tiny bit of scrambling, especially at the top – and we were there. Surrounded by the panaramic view of the highest of the Himalayas – I finally I had that over 18,000 feet of altitude nothing will get to you feeling that happens only at serious height and after days of trekking. I was happy.
Descended, and had breakfast with M and S. We headed back to Lobuche, for lunch at the Oxygen Altitude. We were about to start the trek for the long way home. (More to come in that front.)
M and S had never done anything like this before. They did great. But it’s nothing to do with the training or physical discomfort you endure. The outcome of trekking at high altitude takes a while to sink in. The reality is – no one and nothing can ever take away it away from you. We had stood in the attic just under the roof of the world.