Cold (Part 4) – Over The Top

“Once more unto the breach my friends? Or once more unto (sleeping) bags my friends?”

The morning twilight and its accompanying wind did not bring with it the sounds of success. Instead on its back rode more of the white stuff.

Not only had it fallen ceaselessly all night. It plagued the sky even now.

Drifts waist-to-shoulder deep kept us on the High Camp’s paths…

A spectacle-less midnight foray for a piss a few hours before had me missing the path and sinking into the drifts in mere nightclothes. Cold and a little wet I had to return dejected to the relative warmth of my sleeping bag!

… But path or no, snow still climbed high onto the legs making you cold and wet after just a few paces. To get to breakfast wading was a required skill!

With the sun still creeping up the mountain ranges to our East, and the snow still spluttering the last of its deluge we prepared for battle. At this point we were under no illusion. This would be a battle. This would be hard fought and hard won.

The *zippp* of jackets.
The *pheut* of nylon through buckles.
The *cough* from altitude.
The *blow* on cold extremities.
The *f**king* swearing from the cold.
The *stamping* of feet.

This was the ’High Camp Orchestra’, playing for one day only… Cause their is no way we’re fucking coming back!

At 7.10 on January 23rd, 2014 we stepped out into the bitter winter winds of Thorong La. We were heading to the pass. It had just stopped snowing.

Led, by a hired 16 year-old, hard-as-nails, Gorka who knew the way and would help break the path for us we set off on our slow strenuous march uphill.
Snow streamed skywards up banks to our East-South-West-North. Mountains hemmed us in reminding us of our insignificance in this barren land, many metres above the sea.
At times the path was merciful and only made us struggle through shin deep snow. At times it was less so and we had to wade through waist deep snow. The Gorka, and us in the lead, ploughed the track for all.
As we rasped and wheezed, pushing our aching bodies higher and through ever soft and deeper snow the clouds roiled overhead. A brief close of the eyes and a meaningless pray, ’please. No more snow’. So far the clouds hold themselves in check.
Our path turned east and we traversed a precipitous slope. One slip and that’s one man on a long fall. A breathless squeal of ’help’ finds my chilled ears from behind and I turn to see one of our party on that slow and worrying slide down.

I stepped back quickly – and gingerly – and extended the looked for arm to pull him back on the truly straight and narrow! As a team we linked arms to help all across this treacherous part.

Second in line, the Gorka ahead. Only 16 years-old and so strong, but also so light. In one section, after kicking furiously and punching angrily at the mounting snow just to break a path a few yards deep he clambered onto the thin icy surface of the snow and scurried tip-toe across. Light indents the only marking on otherwise untouched snow.

Great! The snow here must be thin or at least solid. I raised my leg out of the waist deep snow and placed it gently on the snow above me. I tested its strength. It held. As I pressed down more weight through my forward leg, lifting my trailing leg to continue the march I find myself sunk back in to the stomach. This continued through a hundred yards of snow…

After each slump back into the cold embrace of the snow. A rasping breath escaped me. A dejected head lolled forward. Each effort was exhausting and we were not even half way to the pass. How much longer Could I keep second and break the path? I do not know.

My friend behind me patted my shoulder and took his turn ahead of me. I thanked him.

We were climbing to the top of a small rise. As our legs pumped pneumatically through the undulating snow, our eyes turned to that small spot of snow a foot in front of us, we had no idea what was to come…
… Popping up over the rise the wind roared into our faces. Its speed undefinable, but enough to unsteady us and blow us from our stances. We resorted to kneeling and huddling. Temperatures were somewhere around -20 degrees; before or after wind chill I have no idea.

Water froze in its bottles;
Ice crusted on gloves, shoes and trousers;
Exposed skin was bitten. Lips were ripped raw;
Covers round our faces cycled through frozen solid to dripping wet as our skin briefly warmed it;
Our breath could only be found by sheltering our faces.

This war with snow-filled wind continued for well over an hour. It was a long, slow and draining climb. But at its end, just as the skies cleared and showed a speckle of blue in the distance we came upon Thorong La.
And so. This rag-taggle group of Australian, British, Czech, French and Kiwi had made it to stand at 5416 metres above the level of the sea. To stand in a desolate bowl of snow on the widest pass in the world amid the perils of mid winter…
… It was a moment to savour. But as fingers and toes once again turned towards a cold and frostbitten end we thought we had best move on from this ferociously-fought-for objective.
It was sweet. We had done it. Now we decided to get away from this bittersweet place.
After the epic battle and struggle against the elements and the limits of our fragile bodies the afternoon’s activities we’re frankly comical.

The sun shined down and the clouds glided across the Himalayan stage before us. Blue sky filled the heavens and a descent to a fire lay under our feet.
We were about to descend almost 1700m in an afternoon. The mountainside fell away sharply and but for the thick powdery snow that lined its flanks it would make for a bumpy and bruising descent.

Each and every one of must have fallen near 50 times on our meandering descent. Sometimes to the sound of ‘fuck you Himalayas’. Sometimes, and increasingly, to the sonorous sound of laughter. In icy conditions the ’path’ would be a death trap. In seasons devoid of snow it would just be plain painful.
And so we fell and picked ourselves up again buoyed by our recent success and the promise of food and fire many metres below.

And so, no broken bones – but two broken poles – later we found ourselves, still 3760 metres above sea level in Muktinath, and yet on relatively flat land.

Over 10 hours of walking had taken each and every one of us to a point higher than we had ever been and back down again.

With mugs of tea in hand, our wet clothes drying over the fire and forks full of the evening’s grub hovering near our faces we laughed, joked and rejoiced on our accomplishments.

Actually, looking back… It wasn’t so bad! 😉
Who am I kidding, ’you weren’t there man. You weren’t there…’

’No guide. No porter. Just Dal Baht Power. Twenty four hour… And some Gorka to lead us over the pass!’

This part of the story covered the following:

Day 11: High Camp – Thorong La Pass – Muktinath
Trekking time: 10.10 hours
Altitude (Start / End / Difference): 4833m / 3760 / -1073m
Today’s overall ascent: +583m
Today’s overall descent: -1656m

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