Day 14: The Thorung La Pass
For the past few months I have been worrying about the seemingly random nature of altitude sickness and how my body would react and how it would affect the trip. I’ve also researched the severity of the trek across the pass, reports ranging from almost impossible to a walk in the park. I’ve trained hard to give my lungs and limbs the best possible chance at making it over. It has been the one day that I have had doubts over all this time. The day has arrived.
To say we leapt from our beds would be a lie. Extracting ourselves from the relative warmth of our sleeping bags into down jackets, trousers and walking boots is a difficult process that needs to be achieved at speed in these temperatures, add to that pitch darkness and the ungodly hour and you have a recipe for grumpiness. Tom, unsurprisingly, pushes away his breakfast of stone cold omelette. Susan and I, on the other hand, cram as much hot porridge into our bodies as we can hold, knowing this will be our last meal for twelve hours or more, and knowing that with the exertion we’ll be putting ourselves through, every oat and grain of sugar counts.
At 4.30am we set off, climbing slowly through the thick snow, ice particles glittering and dancing in the light of our headtorches. I’m careful to pace myself, walking directly behind Gyalzen, placing my tiny boots in his huge footprints and focussing on keeping to his tracks. All about us is darkness. I don’t know where the edge of anything is and I certainly don’t want to drop off it wherever it is. Slowly I realise the sky is beginning to lighten. There is something magical about watching the sun rise over the mountains you are standing on. Glaciers reveal themselves. Peaks and summits, untouched, appear as smooth glassy bumps. It would be breath-taking had the altitude not already done the job.
We stop by a small tea hut to soak up the day’s first rays of sunshine and to let Susan catch up. A puppy scampers past, a tiny little fellow who had made it up to high camp of his own accord last night, but doesn’t seem to be owned by anyone. He is tiny and cold and will not make it if he is left up here. Tom, dog-rescuer in Kathmandu is this little guy’s only hope as nobody else will take responsibility; we all already have way too much to drag, heaving for breath, over the pass. But Tom, heroically, empties the contents of his backpack across ours, scoops up the tiny puppy and pops him in the bag. As we make off Tom is a sight to behold with the dog’s happy face bobbing around behind him all the way to the pass.
We make the pass around 7.30am, three hours of mammoth effort through thick snow at high altitude and I’m not feeling that tired. Tilicho was way more effort than this. I’m either used to the heaps of snow by now or I’ve really acclimatised over the intervening week. I’m feeling pretty smug with myself. There’s a tiny tea shack up here, a dark, smoky bolt hole from the wind where a man constantly brews big blackened kettles of tea for passing trekkers and guides. I don’t think a cuppa has ever tasted so good. Hot black tea washes down lashings of bourbon biscuits, including for the dog and we all feel revived. Even more so for the puppy as he has now turned from shivering, tiny wreck to a bouncy fun seeker who almost immediately scampers off with other trekkers for the descent all the way to Muktinath. We didn’t see him again, but I like to think he made it all the way down to make friends with some dogs on the other side and has a happy life that he wouldn’t have lived to see had Tom not taken action. And he didn’t leave the present in Tom’s backpack that we expected.
We have now spent nearly an hour at the pass and the exposure to the bitter temperatures is starting to take its toll. The cold has seeped through our layers and layers of technical fabrics and huge down jackets and I’ve lost feeling in my feet and the bottom half of my legs. I’m constantly making fists and waggling my fingers to keep some warmth in them. I’ve experienced severe cold before having got caught in heavy ice and snow climbing the west face of Pen Yr Ole Wen, Snowdonia, years back which left me with frost-nipped toes and an unwillingness to go through it again. We snap some terrible group photos, my smile being more of a grimace (I thought I was smiling!) and get a hurry on to get moving down. It’s a bit of a shame really as this is the pinnacle, literally, and all we can think of is getting out of the wind.
The descent is not severe like some had previously said, although it’s possible that the sheer depth of snow has eased this. But it is long. Very long. Just as I did several days ago, I power ahead to get some warm blood flowing around my body again. It takes a good ten minutes before I start to feel any benefit and then the pain of the warmth takes another good ten minutes to subside. By which time I have stomped off so far that the others are small specks in the white slope behind me and it leaves me with the predicament whether to stop, wait and possibly get cold again, or slow right down and try to stay warm whilst equally not going too fast for them to catch up. At this point fate intervenes as my left crampon flies off my boot and down the hillside. When I catch up with it and go to reattach it I discover that with so many layers on to keep warm, I can’t bend far enough to reach my foot. Another ten minutes plus are spent like a dog chasing its own tail trying to wedge the bloody thing back on my boot whilst juggling every item of clothing I’ve ever owned. I have become some kind of high altitude Monty Python sketch. Breathless and happy that no one has been around to witness this spectacle I peek behind me to find that Susan, Tom, Dilli and Gyalzen are just a few minutes away. This is not how to descend a mountain safely but I have got away with it.
So we descend together. A seemingly never ending snow slope interspersed with the odd boulder and scree slope. It’s a bit grey and slightly damp when we reach the first buildings of the tiny village at the foot of the slope. We stop in at a teahouse with half a roof and gobble down steaming bowls of noodle soup. It’s lunchtime and we have another couple of hours ahead of us to reach Muktinath.
A made path stretches out before us descending further the geology changing from grey hard rock and ice to soft brown, muted layers that appear like set Demerara sugar (I’m still quite obviously hungry). This is Tibet. This is the forbidden Kingdom of Mustang. So forbidden in fact that we can only look from afar or pay the 500USD it takes to get a visa. It feels very far from anything I’ve seen or known before and it is so tantalisingly close.
We round a corner to hear chiming bells and come face to face with the huge Hindu temple of Muktinath, one of the most remote and famous religious sites for Hindus across the world. Many visitors journey hundreds of miles from India to worship here. Incense and bells ring our arrival into Muktinath, a dusty and somewhat cosmopolitan town compared to what we have been used to so far. We are beyond tired, so tired that it even seems pointless to dodge the tonnes of yak poo, marking its way through town towards our accommodation like Hansel and Gretel finding their way back home.
Our hotel, for this is an actual hotel, has proper walls, beds, windows that fit, doors that close, lighting that doesn’t resemble something out of a GCSE CDT class… and a hot shower. SHOWER! Tom is sent ahead to check it out and returns clean, smiling and triumphant that it actually did what it said on the tin. I happily go next. Its warm, clean and wonderful. And then the power goes off. I am soapy. Very soapy. And now am left with the quandry whether to await the power to return, which could take minutes or days, or to scramble around in the pitch black to find the cold tap and rinse off the bubbles. I wait. And I wait. And with a few swears start fumbling around for the cold tap, splashing around and resolving that at least I’ll smell better. As I dry off and redress with difficulty in the dark, wishing that I’d eaten more carrots in my lifetime the power comes back. I feel the shower situation of this trip has not treated me kindly. When I get home I will hug mine, talk to it nicely and appreciate it’s being.
One thing I had hoped for after such a triumphant success (aside from a hot shower) was maybe some jubilation from the others. Both Susan and I had brought our hipflasks of scotch especially for this occasion and I feel now, more than ever, we deserve a wee dram. The guys have already made themselves scarce. Susan is already fast asleep. Tom is on the phone. So I sit in darkness again, thankfully with clothes on this time, and make a toast to us all. I think we’ve done bloody well and I’m a bit sad that all the high hard stuff is now over. Oh how fate would cackle again.