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22 January 2013 Tuesday

Breakfast was taken in the kitchen sitting on stools. The Japanese pilgrim cold not get his feet into his frozen boots. Evidently he hadn’t waited for them to be completely dry before going to bed. I had taken the precaution, because my boots are marginal warmth-wise, of putting them in a bag in the end of my sleeping bag, so they would be warm in the morning. I hadn’t done that at Yak Kharka, and my feet had gotten cold right away when I started hiking.

The Japanese guy asked if I am Christian; I told him that I am Catholic. He said he met Catholics on the island of Fiji, and they practiced “right thinking”. I mentioned Thomas Merton, a Catholic monk who traveled to the east to study with Buddhists and died there.

We started out following the tracks in the snow. Lal’s hope, that the snow would be less in the pass than in the valley, did not come true. I started out without the down parka I had been sleeping in, thinking that the exertion would warm me up, but at the first break I put it back on. I have never been in conditions before where I had to wear my down parka while hiking uphill. Then my face began to feel numb; luckily I was wearing a fleece balaclava that was combined with a neoprene face mask which I pulled up over my nose; there was a hood shielding a hole for my nose and rows of small holes in a diamond shape for my mouth; I had never before had to use it in non-windy conditions (I worried what kind of mess would occur since my nose was dripping constantly. Every day at breakfast, lunch, or dinner Lal would offer me a napkin, while he and the proprietor laughed. I was always too slow to get out my own package of tissues. Without the neoprene face mask, the drip would freeze and blow away or pendulum into my mouth, or with a vigorous puff of air expelled from my mouth, pendulum up and stick to the brim of my hat. Somehow with the mask on the mess wasn’t too bad). My toes and fingers were tingling; but once I put on my mitten shells (completely stiff for a couple of hours) over my liner gloves and pile mitts, short of undressing and putting on silk underwear and thin nylon pants under and over my pile pants, there was nothing more I could do to be warmer. I thought of some wonderfully warm down insulated leather mittens that I never used; I had not brought them to Nepal. On my legs I had on only Goretex overpants over pile pants; normally that was enough for hiking in cold conditions. I had considered wearing the thin silk long underwear also, but had been concerned about becoming too hot on the way down (since the overpants had the snow cuffs that kept the snow out of my boots I wouldn’t want to take them off). It was a definite mistake not to put the silk long underpants on, as well as the thin nylon pants. In retrospect, an ideal thing to carry would have been down overpants with zippered legs; then possibly I would have had enough clothes to stay warm without continuous exertion. Even another pair of pile pants would have helped. On my upper body was enough layers: silk underwear, two pile sweaters, and an expedition weight down jacket. It was through my legs that I was losing most of my body heat.

At this point I would like to mention a fact of human physiology. If the core body temperature drops only a small amount, to protect the brain and heart the blood vessels to the extremities are constricted. The hands and feet are sacrificed to save the essential organs. The point of having boots with extra insulation for winter is not so much to keep your feet warm while hiking, but to protect them from frostbite in case for any reason the core body temperature drops. I had known my boots were only barely adequate for the expected conditions, and my strategy had been to have the insulation on the rest of my body be more than adequate, but I had failed to do that. The flaw in my strategy was that it required that I wear a little bit more on my upper body, legs, and head than normal, tipping the scale between wearing too much and too little in favor of wearing a bit too much. But in my experience, the colder the weather the more delicate is that balance, the more difficult it is to put on just the right amount of clothes. Losing body heat through my legs contributed to my feet being cold, I am sure.

High camp seemed deserted; Lal found a toilet and we continued. About a half hour later the tracks stopped! Now we were the ones breaking trail through the famous Thorung La in the Himalayas after the first major snowfall of the year! What were the odds of that?

I couldn’t possibly have followed the trail on my own, in the dark, covered in snow, which had drifted up to thigh deep in places; but both Lal and the porter were evidently familiar with the terrain. They were speaking Nepali, and later Lal reported that the porter said that he didn’t want to go on in the conditions, but Lal said follow me. The porter did lead some of the time.

At a small shelter I opened my fanny pack, put on the stiff mitten shells, gave the porter a Chocolate Chip Peanut Odwalla Bar, and gave a Holiday Gingerbread Cliff Bar to Lal. The porter began eating his immediately. I took a drink of water, and gave some to the porter. Lal didn’t want any. We resumed the climb.

I kept wiggling my toes and fingers as I walked, to promote circulation and make sure I could still feel them. The sun began to come up as we approached the pass, revealing a freezing and alien desert of jagged and snow covered peaks. I noticed myself having irrelevant and nonsensical thoughts, or forgetting for a moment that I was supposed to be climbing. I became truly alarmed. Having never been to this altitude before, there was no way of knowing if I would get altitude sickness, and if I did the extremely cold conditions would make it dangerous to stop. Lal estimated the temperature at minus thirty Celsius. There was my winter sleeping bag in my pack which the porter was carrying, an important piece of emergency equipment.

I had a realization of my own responsibility for the situation. What am I doing here, leading an expedition in the Himalayas in the winter, breaking trail at high altitude? These people are here risking their lives because I am paying them to do it. What a hard job Lal and the porter have, having to deal with idiots like me: “I can do winter hiking, I am experienced…”, this, that, blah, etc, etc.

When the sun came up I fumbled with my mittens for the button to turn off my headlamp then gave up. I had extra batteries. After a while Lal saw it and turned it off for me.

In my sweater pocket was the money I planned to give to the porter when we reached the top: the rs. 2000 I owed him, plus a rs. 500 tip. I figured the socks were worth rs. 500. When we reached the top, Lal gave me a high five, and I unzipped the pocket and took the money out. I said I already paid you three thousand; here’s the two thousand I owe you, and here’s (five hundred) for high altitude. Lal translated. But I couldn’t stop. I fished the wallet I kept hanging around my neck out of my shirt. And here is (a thousand) for cold weather. And another thousand for deep snow. I looked into his eyes; he seemed moved. A wave of emotion overcame me and I had to suppress an urge to cry. Sometimes you just can’t hang on to money. He started back down without a pack; I put on the pack. Lal said he is happy; you gave him a good tip.

I was exhausted and wanted to rest, but forced myself to stagger on. Shortly after the top a size 7 flip-flop lay by the trail. Even though my water was insulated inside a thick sock, it had a lot of ice. Lal had my other quart inside his pack, and it was freezing as well, after about six hours. If I did Thorung La again in the winter, I would for sure bring a quart thermos plus two quart bottles of water. I had to complete the last half of a thirteen hour hike without water. I wasn’t dehydrated, but it is a matter of having a safety margin.

The snow on the other side of the pass was even more wind blown and drifted, and there was not substantially less of it, as we had hoped. The trail went down and down endless brown gullies and ridges. It wasn’t possible to avoid frequent knee deep snow. With each step you never know how deep you will sink in, so you are always being thrown off balance.

As we lost altitude and the sun rose my fingers finally became warm, and later my toes. I went for hours without putting on sunscreen. Lal said tonight we will get some apple brandy.

At one point I became concerned that the sun would go down before we arrived at Muktinath. I asked Lal what time it was, and he said noon. I had thought it was closer to four. We were finally low enough that we could stop and eat without becoming too cold. The boiled egg and Holiday Peppermint Stick Cliff Bar really revived me. I worried about not having water, that the food might dehydrate me by using my body’s water to digest it; probably I have read too much about physiology that I don’t really understand. My sunscreen was mostly frozen, but I managed to get a little on my nose and chin, a bit late. Lal adjusted the straps on his gaiters for the fourth time.

About four hours past the top the Swiss guy with his guide caught up to and passed us, after first saying a few polite things. They had left High Camp after dawn. The guide was carrying a large day pack, but the Swiss guy was carrying a good sized pack. We never saw him again. We passed a lodge closed for the season; there was now running water but we were only a few miles from Muktinath.

The terrain became less steep. We came within twenty meters of some blue sheep grazing; it was the first time I spotted something before Lal. Lal stopped for some reason; I sat down on what looked like a grassy knoll, and a few dozen thorns pierced my Goretex overpants.

All day as we descended I had been gazing across the valley of an immense relief at a range of snowy mountains that I took to be Himalayan giants; we went around a bend revealing KABOOM! KABOOM! They were mere footstools! Dhaulagiri and Nilgiri, way higher, reposing like twin gods across the valley from each other, above the tiny town, Dhaulagiri wreathed in its own clouds against the clear blue sky. I understood why Hindus come on pilgrimages to Muktinath, or imagined that I did. I thought the best spot to take a photo of the scene was near a sign announcing the outskirts of Muktinath, but you never know how those photos will turn out. Sometimes the giants end up looking like small white triangles. My iPad was inside my pack, and I didn’t feel like getting it out.

At the east end of town the Hotel Bob Marley occupies the strategic location, since almost all trekkers approach Muktinath from that direction. As well, it has the most prominent sign at the entrance to the town, advertising a fireplace and hot showers. At street level is a 7-Eleven, complete with carefully painted letters in orange and green. I wasn’t sure if it was fake or not, because it did have some of the inventory that at least looked like the inventory a 7-Eleven franchise store is supposed to have. I’m told there are real 7-Elevens in southeast Asia.

I followed Lal past the Bob Marley, stepping carefully around mud puddles with a thin crust of ice that had already been broken by the hooves of ponies and small cows, past women making clacking noises weaving colorful scarves of yak wool on outdoor looms, to the Hotel Royal Mustang. My room was on the third floor, with a terrace that was the roof of the second floor. There was a table, chairs, and a clothesline. The terrace went around two more sides of the building, to the street side, where in the day the clacking noises could be heard, and at night Dhaulagiri could be seen in the moonlight over the rooftops. In Nepal, such terraces rarely have guardrails.

The plumbing was frozen, but they provided a bucket of hot water for a shower. I enjoyed watching CNN and Al-Jazeera English on the flat screen TV in the lobby. I hadn’t heard any news for a few weeks. Anderson Cooper was reporting on the controversy over whether Beyonce was lip-syncing, while Al-Jazeera was reporting on the French invasion of Mali, on the war in Syria, and on Hilary Clinton’s impending testimony on the events in Libya where the American ambassador was assassinated.

We had dinner with the proprietor and a couple of employees or friends in a small room seated on mats around a small stove. I was given the best spot in the corner by the stove. I ordered yak steak (Lal thought it wasn’t really yak). The apple brandy turned out not to be what I feared, some cheap flavored hard liquor; it is actually made from apples in Marpha, not far from Muktinath. Although the apple brandy tastes OK and is not as strong as the brandy westerners are used to, in my opinion rakshi is better and cheaper.
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