Cold (Part 3): Dash for the pass

As expected its cold. The coldest morning so far… And still I knew it would become colder.

In semi-darkness, the light not yet bracing the higher reaches of our nearest peaks we dressed, breakfasted and strapped up. An all too familiar activity. In our midst a new companion – down from high camp the previous day – joined us. His descent unlike the many before him was not resulting from a barred pass, but from a philanthropic act of helping a friend with a badly injured knee down from the pass. Scuppering his own chances of making it over.

Well now he was with us. A second chance loomed before him.

Stepping through the already open door…

(point of note for anyone looking to innovate in Nepal. Simple. A self closing door! After many days on the mountain and almost all our Nepali hosts being inept at closing doors behind them – even in sub zero temperatures – has led me to believe that they may all, in fact, have been born in barns. To those from a more temperate clime this is abhorrent and quickly leads to frustration, cursing and boiling blood… Irrespective of the outside temperature!)

… We were confronted with the now overly familiar white of our world, coursed here and there with evil blue veined iced, just waiting for an ill placed foot.

The *crunch* *crunch* *crunch* of the snow was now ringed with the *crinkle* of freshly formed ice on its surface. A faintly worn path existed but the nights howling winds had all but eradicated the work of the few before us. We trudged and trampled through almost virgin snow.

Ledar, but an hour away from Yak Kharka was dispatched without too much woe and then the trail wound across the valley in a drunken manner. Rising up and falling down for no perceptible reason. Across bridges than spanned nothingness…
… And brought us to desolation.

A small warning sign simply read, ‘landslide area’. In spring and autumn, devoid of snows, this area would be bad enough. Loose shingle paths not even shoulder width wide the only route. To left, a steep shingle slope. To the right… A long fall, and at best some broken bones.
But this wasn’t spring. This wasn’t autumn. This was mid-winter and lying atop the miles of loose shingle was inches of snow that cunningly hid slick ice.

It was a long and torturous walk that played on the nerves of all. We walked for tense and agonising minutes round corners with no ends. Ridges with no finish line. At times it was easier just to sit and watch the clouds roll in and wonder what they brought?
Having no choice but to play along with the cruel vagaries of the mountain we marched on until, finally, the mountain gave in and presented us with our stopping point. Thorong Pedi. Almost exactly 1000 metres below the pass, Thorong La.

Tired and hungry we gathered indoors and crammed in front of the – thankfully – working TV, and our only connection with the outside world and its weather: BBC World News. Would it bring hope or further desolation?

Unfortunately, the BBC and the weather gods are not so kind as to inform mere Trekkers with any clarity of what will happen. And so, in short… It would snow tomorrow, but when and how much was something we would just have to wait and find out! Brilliant.

We crammed even closer together to discuss what we should do. Stay here and go to high camp tomorrow, trying for the pass the day after fresh snow? Forge onto High Camp now and try to take the pass before the snows close in tomorrow? Turn back… Bullshit.

Nerves were starting to fray. This was getting serious. We started to realise what we had all thought already… The pass in mid winter; that’s a big ask, especially after it had snowed once. What if it snowed again?

But we had to see for ourselves. None of us wanted to give up. And so bags returned to cold, sweaty backs and we stared upwards at the steepest 400 metres we had yet climbed. To high camp.
Ascending ever higher from 4500 metres above sea level the air started to thin noticeably. Anything above a short plod brought over-exertion. Frequent, short rests were required even from a well-paced monotonous plod. We were pushing our physical limits today. We were climbing almost 800m in a single day, where above 3000m (which we were already far exceeding) it is unwise to push more than 300m a day. But we wanted the pass. We wanted success.

It was indeed a big push. At high camp, 4833 metres above sea level I had lost my appetite. Joyce was feeling sick. The group was tired and bedraggled.

And tomorrow? Would it snow and all be for nought? Or despite our battered bodies, would we push on to the pass?

I have no way to break the news kindly, gently or unemotionally. It fucking snowed. From 6pm that very evening it snowed.

It snowed as the light faded.
It snowed in the darkness.
It snowed constantly through the night.

It was a restless night. Altitude makes you sleep light and not well. Each of us slept maybe one or two hours. We were drained.

We were disillusioned as we woke. It continued to snow.

We awoke at 5.30 in the morning ready to summit and it dragged on to be a long day – through it all the snow perpetually fall – as we debated our 3 options:

1. Forge through the snowstorm. Not a fucking chance. It was a horrific thought. 800 metres above us who knew what the storm brought.
2. Turn back. We all spat at the taste of those words in our mouths.
3. Wait it out. We go tomorrow.

We jump to the static of the TV when it works. A one-man team constantly sent out through ever-deepening snow to wipe the dish clear so the signal can stream through… Just!

The BBC informs us…

… Clear tomorrow. Clear tomorrow. Clear tomorrow.

Guess which way we are going? Up.

At least that’s what we think as we slide into sleeping bags and tighten the draw strings around barely exposed faces. Yet, despite this jubilant news tensions remain high and we just don’t know what tomorrow will bring. For outside this already ominously sits…
Unbeknownst at the time we lay down our weary heads, a Japanese lady had departed from Muktinath (the other side of the pass and where we were heading) on the day of the storm. Their aim: to reach high camp through the blizzard. Her, and her guide, never made it to high camp. We are told they remain missing on the mountain. Our thoughts remain with them and their families. We hope they are soon rejoined, fit and well.

’No guide. No porter. Just Dal Baht Power. Twenty four hour.’

This part of the story covered the following:

Day 9: Yak Kharka – High Camp
Trekking time: 5 hours
Altitude (Start / End / Difference): 4050m / 4833m / +783m

Day 10: High Camp
Trekking time: 0 hours
Altitude (Start / End / Difference): 4833m / 4833m / +0m

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