Return to Base Camp
After my debacle on the slopes of Lhakpa Ri, I was pretty much a zombie – still not rehydrated and definitely not yet thinking smart. The next morning we left for the hike back to Base Camp. By “we” I mean the Sherpa who had been assigned to me since we had arrived in ABC, as well as the other staff who had been maintaining the mess tent and providing support for our team. There was no wiggle room in the schedule – no time for a second attempt on Lhakpa La. We needed to hike down in one day what we took 4 days to climb up. As supporting evidence concerning my comment above about not thinking “smart”, I left for the return hike with a single 1 liter bottle of water. Note my comment in an earlier blog that you need probably a minimum of 6 liters a day of water to stay hydrated. I was already significantly dehydrated. Looking back on this, it seems absolutely ludicrous but that was how I started out. As we broke camp, I looked back up at Lhakpa Ri and could see the rest of the team, like a trail of ants, heading for the summit pyramid – it was a pretty cool sight. I wished I was up there and again felt a sense of frustration that I had been betrayed by my body. Probably it was much more accurate to say that I was betrayed by my mind (or lack thereof). I recognized that I made a good decision yesterday afternoon, given the circumstances, but …
I marked off our progress down as we passed by our previous campsites. Finally, around 6 PM, at dusk, we were out on the plain with Base Camp in sight. I thought we were home free but then we came to a major stream that cuts across the plain, separating us from camp. When we passed this 8 days ago it was in early morning and we easily forded the stream at low ebb. Now, in the evening, after a day’s worth of glacial melt, it appeared (and was) much more challenging. My sherpa assesses the situation and indicated to me that we needed to take off our boots, roll up our pants and wade across. I was disheartened to hear this. It is hard to explain the state I was in at that point. But, looking at a glacier fed stream that had knee deep water, rushing down at a very brisk pace, at 17,000 ft altitude and having to contemplate taking off my boots, socks, etc and wade across did not, to say the least, thrill me. But, exhausted and dehydrated, I had no choice. Indeed, as I found out immediately, the water was exquisitely cold and indeed, knee-deep, as measured by my knees. We reached the other side and immediately headed for Shanty Town and entered one of the “establishments” for hot drinks. At this point, I had passed into a preliminary state of hypothermia and was shaking uncontrollably from the cold. I don’t remember too much about this stage except that I slammed down one cup of hot tea after another until I finally calmed down. That night I slept well. At this somewhat lower altitude the difference was remarkable.
Around to the Kharta Valley
After a rest day at Base Camp we left for the Kharta Valley. The drive was spectacular. As we descended further in altitude, I felt gradually stronger and stronger, despite now having all the characteristics of a serious head cold. By the time we entered the Kharta Valley we had descended to 12,500 ft. We stayed overnight in the town of Kharta – there was not much to it. But, I had reconnected with the trail of the 1921 Expedition. It was in Kharta that Mallory regrouped before making one last stab at finding the right approach to Everest. His arrival in Kharta was depressing for him as well, as he felt time running out on the expedition. I was nearing the end of my trek. We were now in a farming region – fields of barley lay on either side of the main road – a dirt path but wide enough for a single vehicle. The fields were all being harvested by hand – there were no combines, tractors, or yak power either.
In the morning my sherpa and I started hiking up to the Shao La pass. Shao La is one of two principal gateways through the mountains and back into the Everest region proper. Mallory had the same choice at this point in his expedition – he and a companion split their party and covered their bases, exploring both the Shao La and Langma La passes. Our plan was to hike up to Shao La, camp over night and meet up with our group on their way out. It was a misty overcast day – a classic monsoon weather pattern has developed the closer we got back to the north side of the Himalayas. We found our way onto the main trail for Shao La and ascended steadily. We passed only a couple of goat herders on the way. When I say goat herders, let me say that we passed a couple of kids that I estimated to be 10 and 8 years of age respectively. They were out on their own, tending the family business – impressive. I now seemed completely recovered – rehydrated, the antibiotics were finished and I was 8,000 ft lower. Combined, I now was able to keep up with my Sherpa at the pace he set.
By around 1 PM we reached a series of lakes that lay just below the pass. To my surprise, we saw our group at the far end of the final lake in the chain taking a lunch break. It had been just 5 days since we split up but I felt somewhat the outsider – the one who did not make it. They made it to the summit of Lhakpa Ri and successfully came down the Kharta Glacier. I learned that their hike out was accomplished under full Monsoon weather and very dicey conditions. Because of this the lead guide pushed them pretty hard and thus they got here a day ahead of schedule. We immediately turned around and headed back down the path I just ascended. On the way we dodged around a yak team also coming over the pass. They were loaded with commerce – several yaks had rough cut timber on them. Lumber is a precious commodity in this treeless region. And I complain when I have to drive 20 minutes to get to a Home Depot to get 2x4s? How about needing to rent a team of yaks to bring your 2x4s home, instead of a pickup truck?
That night we stayed in Yulba, at the home of our lead sherpa’s cousin. It felt like we had stepped back 600 years. I do not exaggerate when I say this. Stone houses, two stories tall, were all around us. Yulba is a walled town. Our arrival seemed to cause a sensation in the town and soon us westerners had become the pied pipers of Yulba, having attracted a huge crowd of youngsters, fascinated by our completely alien look. The route through town to his cousin’s home was labyrinthine. When we finally arrived we found that the first floor was for livestock. We made our way up a ladder and into the living area. This indeed was the basic floor plan for peasants in medieval Europe and “credited” for the efficient way that the Bubonic Plague spread from livestock to humans via infected fleas during the 14th Century, killing upwards of 50 million Europeans. The house had three rooms – a kitchen area, a bedroom area and what appeared to be a storage room/indoor latrine. Of course, there was no running water. The ceilings were about 6 ft high and the floor was packed dirt. In the middle of all of this incredibly? A TV connected to a voltage regulator and a lead acid battery! On the roof, a solar panel to recharge the battery. This was jarring to the otherwise completely medieval atmosphere.
But, the hospitality was great. A bit of sociology/anthropology for rural Tibet: our hostess, was married to two brothers and had two sons. Polyandry is a common practice in rural Tibet where arable land is precious and subdividing farming/grazing plots among a large family is impractical. This arrangement was just part of the background, standard culture. We were immediately served Tibetan tea by one of her sons. At the end of the meal, they broke out the chang – partially fermented barley – Tibetan beer. It had a slightly acidic, obviously alcoholic, flavor. I downed my cup and it was immediately refilled (by her other son) – part of a Tibetan tradition of not allowing one’s cup of chang to be empty for long.
We were all back together. That night we spread our sleeping bags on the roof top. We all sleep well and deep.
(to be continued)