21 January 2013

This morning Matt complained of no appetite and being out of breath. I confirmed the symptoms of mild altitude sickness in Bezruchka & Lyons, which recommended not going higher but not taking anything, since he had not ascended rapidly. My iPad was down to 20% charge.

Due to the difficult conditions Lal recommended hiring a porter for two days, to carry my pack to the top of Thorung La; I agreed. I was glad to see that the porter had decent looking boots, gaiters, shades, and a parka. He seemed to be about 17. He wanted rs. 5000 to carry my pack to the top of the pass, 500 more per day than the guy in flip-flops I hired at Bagarchhap. Had I hired a porter in Besi Sahar for the entire trip as Lal wanted, almost certainly he would have been ill-equipped and inexperienced with cold weather. The problem with hiring a porter locally and not through an agency is, they have no insurance. If something happens, you are responsible.

The route followed the Thorung Kola and Kone Kola. Lal and I kept stamping and dusting the snow off our boots at every opportunity; Lal tore off a branch of an evergreen bush to use as a boot broom.

Lal spotted some yaks far down in the valley. We crossed a suspension bridge to the right side of the Kone Kola, and began traversing the slope upstream. The slope was the angle of repose of piled rock or a little steeper from small cliffs, and the rocks being covered in inches of snow made a potential fall dangerous. The situation was made worse by the way the snow drifted over the L cutout of the trail. Sometimes the drifting snow exposed a few inches of the trail right by the edge; sometimes the edge of the trail was drifted over completely. In normal conditions the trail was about six feet wide, but the first person to break trail naturally stepped where the snow was shallowest: as close as possible to the edge. I marveled that the trail-breaker never stepped off the edge. Of course each subsequent person stepped in the same place. Once the snow did collapse where my right foot stepped. I was very glad to have poles.

Some yaks were spotted on the slope above us, their hairy heads peering down at us from ledges. Then we encountered a large black yak coming down the trail. He didn’t want to get off the trail and neither did we. Lal yelled and he turned around. We drove him before us for a while until he found a suitable place to get off the trail on the uphill side.

Tim, Eduardo, Johanne, and the Korean were resting on the terrace at Thorung Pedi 4450 when we arrived. After a few minutes they left for High Camp 4925. It was early in the afternoon.

Lal had wanted to make it to High Camp, but all the walking times were fifty percent longer than usual and we needed time to dry our boots before starting the long hike over the pass to Muktinath the next day. I had suggested that we take an extra day, only gong to High Camp the next day and hiking over the pass the following day. Lal was worried about the forecast for snow the next day that the owner of the hotel in Manang had pulled up on the internet, and wanted to get an early start and beat the weather. I remembered the forecast being for only a little snow, and taking an extra day would give me more time to acclimatize as well as shortening the final day over the pass. Lal thought that idea was overly cautious; for most people taking the extra day in Manang, which I had done, in the absence of any symptoms was sufficient time to acclimatize. But Lal was willing to consider my way and asked the porter. He wanted an extra rs. 3500 for a third day; he had a job and other responsibilities in Yak Kharka.

The lodge on the upper terrace at Thorung Pedi 4450 did not have a way for us to dry our boots, so we went to the one on the lower terrace. There, there had been an explosion of a gas canister only a month before which had destroyed the dining area. Lal told me to sit in a room at a table with a kerosene heater under it, but the room was unpleasant and smelled of kerosene so I left. The room we used to dry our boots and socks was a small one with a large box shaped stove that looked like it had been constructed from some scrap parts, such as a large can for part of the chimney. Wood was being shoved in a gap under the box; flames came from the gap and not more than half the smoke actually went up the chimney. But with both the door and a window on the opposite wall open, I sat on a plastic chair in the corner and the smoke was not too bad. The stove gave off more heat than the ones at Manang and Yak Kharka, excellent for drying our gear.

I paid the porter rs. 3000 so he would be able to get something to eat.

As dusk was falling a young Japanese couple arrived. Lal had spotted them on the trail behind us during the day. The man was carrying an enormous pack with a large pad strapped to the side, and had some kind of large gourd attached to his waist. He had long matted hair wrapped on his head. She wore some kind of a cloak that shrouded her face. They looked like the Buddhist pilgrims that they were. After Nepal they were going to Bhutan, then Australia. They were carrying a tent, and had camped in the snowstorm. Lal helped them to dry their boots by the stove.

The porter needed a pair of socks; Lal was going to give him one of his. He had four pair but wore two at a time. I had three pair but could only wear one pair at a time with my boots, so I gave the porter one pair.

I decided I wanted to try for the pass the next day. It would be a cold and boring day to spend the next day at High Camp, and the facilities were likely to be extremely basic. I had had a good meal of T MoMo (MoMo with no filling and two side curry dishes), my boots would be dry, and I would be able to go to sleep early. Lal’s plan was to get up at 2 and leave by 3 AM. His reason was that strong winds kick up in the pass once the sun comes up, and it is easier walking on the firm snow before it starts melting. Also, on the long downhill stretch from the top of the pass to Muktinath there is no food or water. He explained this to the Japanese couple, and they decided to get up at 2 also. I wasn’t entirely convinced that his reasons were so compelling, but energy-wise it seemed better for me to go along with his way. Besides, there was nothing wrong with having a few extra hours to spare in case things go wrong. Lal pre-ordered our breakfast.

Although I wasn’t carrying a thermometer, I could tell it was the coldest night yet in my room. I got a report two days later that at High Camp, 475 meters higher than Thorung Pedi, that night it had been minus twenty-three Celsius in the room.