Each successful bounce away from the window would bring a smile to my face, as would the thought of how much the travel to Jomsom had changed in just the three years since I last made the journey. It used to be even more uncomfortable and lengthy. There used to be a requirement that all travelers switch vehicles in a little town called Ghasa. The road north of Ghasa was controlled by a little mafia, and the ticket price for foreigners traveling north would jump. The buses north of Ghasa were always late and were generally more packed. Now, there is a jeep directly from the bustling tourist town of Pokhara to Jomsom, and the price for foreigners and Nepalis is the same. The “jeeps” are not actually Jeeps, but are one of several varieties of SUVs from India. They are all similar in size to a mid-sized SUV you might find in North America. Invariably, the tires are bald and undersized, the shocks are shot, and there is rarely four-wheel-drive. Most Nepalis seem vehemently opposed to using four-wheel-drive even when it is available.
Our driver was not afraid of punishing that car, which appeared to have already done a life sentence. The last six hours of the drive are on a road that would be considered a four-wheel-drive road in North America. There are large rocks, stream crossings, steep grades, exposed shelf roads, and there is constant traffic creates never ending dust. The last six hours I had plenty of time to perfect my sitting technique, and the driver had plenty of time to rally us off a cliff, which thankfully he did not.
Around dusk we sped into Jomsom, where I spent the night. Jomsom is a truck stop of sorts. It’s dusty, windy, and thrums with the constant noise of motorcycle, jeep, bus and plane engines. It’s close to the gateway to the Upper Mustang Valley, and all transportation bound for the special permit area of the upper valley or for the holy city of Muktinath starts in Jomsom. There’s an airport, and it’s the end of the line for transportation coming from Pokhara or other towns to the south.
The next morning I went to the bus station and spent two restful hours waiting for the bus going to Muktinath to fill. I had no real desire to spend much time in Jomsom, and wanted to be on the way to the main objective: a solo ascent of Thorung Peak. This wasn’t my initial intent when I arrived in Nepal, but I had nothing truly set, and all of my potential climbing partners were not able to climb when I wanted to go. I did some searching, and decided that a peak that is near an established trekking route with a high pass would be ideal. Thorung La (Pass) is one of the easiest passes to reach, with a number of peaks nearby. This strategy would allow me to use the teahouses to acclimatize, so I would not have to carry much food or fuel. I would just bring enough food and fuel for a few days of the actual climb. I heard from guide friends that Thorung Peak was a relatively straightforward peak, so opted for that.
At the time, sitting and waiting for the bus, I was quite anxious. Despite having been to Jomsom many times, I had not climbed up to Thorung La. I had not seen the peak, I did not know what kind of areas there would be to camp, I didn’t know if there was a water source or if I would be melting snow, which requires a lot more fuel. Of course, there are plentiful guide services that will take you up many peaks in Nepal, and simple peaks such as Thorung Peak run around $5,000. I am definitely a budget climber, plus I have plentiful experience in mountains and Nepal. I did not want to be dragged to the top on fixed lines. I like testing myself, and relying on my own skill and power to reach the top. A lot could go wrong.
A lot did. Before the end of the trip, I would climb Thorung La three times, I’d lose some of my food and clothing to a hungry critter, and I’d be part of a mad dash down the pass one snowy night to save the life of a dying man.
The first half of the bus ride to Muktinath is bumpy with plenty of stream crossings. A highway is being built towards the border with China, so there are a number of half-finished bridges with rebar tentacles sticking out of the dust like monuments to humanity in a post-apocalyptic world. Each diversion road around the construction areas seemed to be solely made of terrifying switchbacks. The last 10 km of the road towards Muktinath is paved! That section went much faster than the rest.
I found a hotel, and spent the rest of the afternoon exploring the temples of Muktinath. I enjoyed watching the pious pilgrims immerse themselves in the icy-but-holy mountain water. Many of the temples are works of art themselves, and there are numerous Buddha statues and monuments on the hills above the city. Most of the local residents are Buddhist, but the main temples are a holy site for Hindus. Muktinath is an ancient city nested in the foothills of the Himalayas at 3,800m. There is a striking dichotomy between the ancient temples, monasteries, and nunneries and the hustle bustle of the packed hotels, tour operators, and trinket hawkers.
|A Hindu temple in a cluster of temples at Muktinath|
|A Buddhist temple high in the mountains|
|It was fall in Muktinath. I enjoyed the changing leaves.|
|A very large monument to Buddha|
|The same Buddha as above, but looking at if from a distance|
|Holy Water. The truly pious will run under these streams of mountain water. There are 108 mouths.|
|An enormous statue of Buddha|
|Burning things in prayer|
|One of the many monasteries of Muktinath|
Day three of the trip started with a short walk up to a little cluster of guest houses called Phedi at 4,100m. I took my climbing gear with plans to drop it at a guest house and return to Muktinath. The hike up took about an hour, and the first guest house I stopped at was staffed by some very friendly folks. I chatted with them while they gave me some apples, and then stashed my gear in one of their rooms. A French climbing team was staying there for the night, and I took a short walk up to a ridge at 4,400m with one of their team members. Then I returned to Muktinath, had some lunch, and spent the afternoon checking out some more temples and a nunnery as well as the Ranipauwa. The Ranipauwa was built by the Queen of Nepal over 200 years ago to give folks going to the temple a place to stay. It’s now a police post with a gigantic tree in the inner courtyard towering over the roof.
|A pleasant pond with a temple. Just follow the gurgling stream from the nunnery, and take a left at the horse.|
|The residential district of Muktinath with Dhaulagiri in the distance.|
|The view from just above Muktinath|
|Dhaulagiri. I spent two years staring at the other side of this mountain. Such a cool peak.|
Day five started with a four hour slog to Thorung La at 5,400m with a pack full of climbing gear. There is a little teashop right at the pass. I chatted with the owner for a bit, and arranged for my climbing gear to be left in a corner of the shop in an inconspicuous green duffel bag. That evening, back at Phedi, was a repeat of unasked for tea and thick, lung-burning smoke. That evening was punctuated by a nice chat with a nearly unintelligible Scottish couple. Based on what I could understand, they were quite nice, and had done quite a bit of adventuring in Nepal. Typically, in the guest houses in Nepal, as in most places around the world, everything has a cost, but when I went to settle my bill with the guest house in Phedi, they refused money for the tea. They hadn’t even kept track of what I had eaten, which they normally do. They just asked what I ate, and then asked for less money than it should have been. I paid the correct amount minus most of the tea because they really wouldn’t hear of taking money for something for which I hadn’t asked.
|The top of Thorung La the first time.|
The sixth day was supposed to consist of relaxing acclimatization, but turned into the longest and most tiring day of the trip. After crossing Thorung La, most people reach the closest guest house and collapse into a chair for a good long rest. That was my plan as well, especially since I was climbing the pass the “wrong way.” The “correct way” is to start on the other side near Manang because there are nicely spaced guest houses about every 300m in elevation until 4,800m. The side from Muktinath has guest houses at 4,100m and then nothing until the pass is crossed. Many people climbing from the Muktinath side will spend a night camping before crossing. I had done a number of acclimatization hikes, and while on a faster acclimatization schedule than is recommended; I’d been to elevation before and was feeling great.
|A critter spotted on the pass|
|Funny little critters (Himalayan Snowcock)|
|Starting down the other side of the pass.|
I reached the top of the pass for the second time in as many days, and continued down to High Camp (name of the lodge) at 4,800m. Once there, I started my relaxation program by drinking tea, reading, and sprinkling in the occasional light chat with other trekkers. Around 5 PM I got up to use the restroom. Light was just starting to fade, and the gentle snow was starting to pick up. As I walked out of the outhouse, I heard a guy yelling, “Alex! Alex!” A group of people had clustered around a man lying face down in the mud. One man rushed over and dumped some icy water on the collapsed man’s head.
“Oh boy,” I thought, and then went over and told them to stop dumping freezing water on the guy in the sub-freezing temperatures. Another person and I got one of Alex’s arms around our shoulders, dragged him indoors, and sat him up on the floor.
A little Nepali guy, who turned out to be his guide, was speaking French, “Alex, tu m’entends? Tu m’entends?” (Do you hear me?)
“Oui,” mumbled Alex, though I guess he could have said anything. It really was more of an “Unh.” His eyes were not focused, and he was drooling a bit.
By this time, Alex’s French companions had arrived and started babbling French at him. One young lady elevated his feet. Very strange, maybe she saw it in a movie. The guide was cradling Alex’s upper body with shaking hands. He was clearly getting generous doses of adrenaline, and telling someone to get Alex a Coke.
Someone else said in Nepali, “He needs garlic soup.”
“Hey, hey,” I kept saying repeatedly while tapping the guides arm. He finally looked at me.
“Tapai usko guide ho?” I asked. (Are you his guide?)
“Hajur,” he replied. (Yes.)
“Ani usko tauko dukhyo?” (And does his head hurt?) Our conversation continued in Nepali.
“His head hurt this morning down in Yak Kharka (around 4,100m), so he took a horse up to High Camp. He slept most of the day, and when I went to get him up for dinner this happened. But only his head hurt, his stomach was fine.”
Obviously, my eyebrows were trying to climb off the top of my head in astonishment. Every choice in the above statement was the wrong choice, and a guide should have known better. This was almost certainly High Altitude Cerebral Edema (HACE), and this guy was in serious trouble. The guide started feeding Alex some Coke, and discussing whether he should have tea or soup.
I told the guide, “This is dangerous. He needs to go down. Now. Tea and soup will do nothing. He needs to go down.” Since my Nepali is far better than my French, I told the guide to ask Alex if he is breathing okay. He was. I didn’t hear any gurgling in the lungs, so likely there was no pulmonary edema as well.
The guide said, “We have a horse.”
“Well, get your horse,” I said.
At this point, I looked around and saw one of Alex’s friends standing there shaking. I realized my hands were shaking. This was scary. I nodded to the lady holding Alex’s legs up, and motioned to put the legs down. “It’s okay.”
She complied, and then looked at me as if to ask, “What next?”
While I was thinking, the horse handler came and said, “It’s snowing too hard. It’s too slippery for the horse with a heavy load.”
“Okay, what is here that we can use to carry him,” I asked. “Are there some pieces of wood and a sheet? Or anything?”
“Oh, we have a stretcher,” someone said almost as an afterthought.
“Get it!” I said. “He needs to go down quickly. He needs oxygen.”
“This place has some little oxygen bottles,” the lodge manager put in.
My God. What else do they have that is exactly what Alex needs? Do they have a hospital stashed in here somewhere?
“Get one,” said the guide.
“They’re 2,000 rupees each.”
“Doesn’t matter, I’ll pay,” the guide snapped.
Someone grabbed this oxygen bottle that was about twice the size of two coke cans stacked on top of one another. It was white with blue writing that said “Oxygen” in English, and the rest was covered in Chinese characters. I grabbed it and took the plastic wrapping off. The top had a nice plastic fitting to go over the nose and mouth of a person. There was a small button that released what I assumed oxygen when pressed.
I fitted the can over Alex’s nose and mouth. “Respirez,” his guide said. I watched to see when he was breathing in. It was fairly difficult to time the release of the oxygen, but some oxygen went in.
Later, I worked out a system where I would say, “Ready?” Alex would nod. Then I would take a deep breath with him watching me while I pressed the button. This way he would follow my breathing pattern, and maximize the use of the oxygen. When I breathed out, he would breathe out, and I would remove the bottle. Then I’d say “Ready?” and repeat the process.
The stretcher arrived, and we laid Alex down. A few people got their hands under him. “One, two, three,” I said, and we lifted him onto the stretcher. “Zip up his jacket. He needs a blanket,” I said.
“I have an emergency blanket,” said one by-stander.
“So do I,” said the guide, and he barked an order to his porter to get the blanket, his backpack, and Alex’s backpack.
By this time I realized that I should go with the stretcher, so I laced up my boots. Other helpful people got Alex wrapped in the space blanket and someone found some straps to tie him to the stretcher. Good thinking, that. I hadn’t thought of it, but they were very necessary on the treacherous trail down. Four local folks got Alex lifted up, and I asked the guide, “Do you want me to come?” I already knew the answer.
“Okay, I need to grab some things, and I’ll meet you.”
I ran to my room, which I was sharing with an older German gentleman. I grabbed a shell and some gloves, while managing to forget my headlamp. I ran to catch up with the group about 20m down the trail. I took up a spot in the middle of one side of the stretcher. We were a team of six, four Nepalis and two foreigners, plus the guide and the porter carrying gear. The trail was narrow, steep, slippery, and had plenty of tricky switchbacks. I was basically slipping my way down, as we were moving quite fast.
“Slowly, slowly,” I said to the Nepalis. The other foreigner was opposite my position, and I kept catching his eye as we walked down.
About five minutes in, the Nepalis stopped, and we put the stretcher down.
“Okay. Let’s discuss how much we’re getting paid.”
I was flabbergasted, but after thinking about it, it does sort of make sense. These local guys probably see some idiot foreigner sick every month or so, and their lives are hard enough without having to volunteer to carry someone down the pass in the dark.
The guide says, “Money is nothing. How much do you want?”
“15,000 rupees (about $150) each.”
Then we picked up the stretcher and continued on. Every time someone got tired, we set the stretcher down, and I gave Alex some oxygen.
“Ready?” Deep breath in while releasing oxygen, breath out. Repeat. Each time the oxygen was given the effect was instantaneous. Alex’s eyes cleared up, and he said, in very clear French, something like, “I feel better.” A minute later, he was back to dull eyes, and barely mumbling “Oui” when someone asked “Alex, ça va?”
A little ways down the pass, I looked at the other foreigner and asked his name.
“Ethan, where are you from?”
“The States, Illinois.”
I had assumed he was one of Alex’s friends from France, but it turned out that none of his friends came along. Just after this, we reached the next guest house. Guy rushed in to ask for a bottle of water, since neither of us had brought one. One of the managers was a lady from the U.K. who was dating the son of the owner. She came out and asked if we have any “dexy” (dexamethasone), a powerful steroid that helps reduce swelling in the brain.
“No, do you?”
“Yeah, I’ll go get it.”
We gave Alex the “dexy” orally, and continued on our way. As we headed down, various Nepali folks came out of the dark with lights. Some helped carry for a bit, and others just gave us lights. Stretches of the trail were very narrow, with precipitous drops into the river on one side. At these sections we set Alex down very carefully, and only two people would carry the stretcher through the narrow spot. The Nepalis were so sure footed!
Around 8 pm, after dropping 700m we reached a town. We decided that we needed something to eat, or as the local guys said, “It’s time for some biscuits and alcohol.” (The guide talked them out of the latter until they had taken Alex further down). We carried Alex into one of the guesthouses, and the entrance felt like we were in an old Western movie. Everybody got quiet, and turned to look at us… the guy playing a western tune on the piano missed a key and stopped playing (not really). Everyone was craning their necks to see what was up with the guy in the stretcher. As we went about getting some food, word circulated about what happened, and the worry became palpable. It tasted like garlic soup.
We got Alex out of his stretcher and got him seated so he could have some hot soup. He looked a lot better. Guy and I ate something and had a quiet chat, and realized that the guide was going to need some convincing. He was thinking about stopping in this town, but Guy argued that there is no real reason to stop. It would be best to get Alex below 3,000m, if possible, and why wouldn’t the guide continue? Yes, Alex looks better, but it could be the drugs working. He is still in danger. The guide was convinced. He negotiated the price to a lower town with the local guys, which turned out to be another 15,000 rupees each. Guy and I decided we didn’t need to continue on. Alex was doing better, the guide was convinced to continue on to a safer elevation, I had shown him my technique for giving oxygen, and we were exhausted. I had climbed from 4,100m on the other side of the 5,400m pass, and was now at the elevation from which I had started.
Bed didn’t bring sleep very quickly. The evening’s events just kept replaying through my mind. The guide paid for our rooms and meal, as we hadn’t brought any money. I really dislike sleeping in my contacts.
The next morning we had breakfast, and the worry from the night before had spilled over into a constant barrage of silly questions. I had become the resident doctor. One Nepali group came to me and told me their friend couldn’t stop shivering last night. “Can you have a look at him?”
I walked into the room, “Do you have a headache?”
“Okay, well you might want to rest here until you feel better.”
They ultimately ended up cancelling their trip. Several guides and other trekkers asked me what to do because somebody in their group had a headache. My advice was the same as all the signs (literally 20) in the area: “If you have a headache, stop. If it doesn’t get better, go down.” Some groups continued up anyways.
After breakfast, the guesthouse owner was grumpy because someone brought us tea for which the guide hadn’t paid. We hadn’t asked for it either. Well, okay, many guesthouses on the major trekking routes in Nepal lack hospitality, and this one was no exception. We asked for a bottle of water for our hike up, but because we got free tea, he angrily refused, and off we went. We got to the place that gave us the dexy around 10 AM, and went inside to say thanks. This guesthouse is one of the exceptions to the lack of hospitality rule on the trekking routes. The owner’s son has long dreadlocks, and manages the hotel. He thought it was great that we helped that guy out, so gave us free bread just out of the oven. Guy ran into a friend he backpacked with in the States, and we all started chatting.
I asked Guy how he ended up helping with Alex. I helped because I have medical training, and speak Nepali. He had neither of those things. He said that he took a psychology course in college, and one of the things that stuck with him is disaster by indecision. In times of crises people often just assume someone else is taking care of the problems and so decide to do nothing, with bad consequences. He decided that if he was ever in a tough spot, he would ask if any help was needed. That’s what he did. They said, “Yes,” so he grabbed the stretcher, and started walking. He also provided a cool head, and a calming presence, which was very helpful for everyone.
That afternoon, we found ourselves back in High Camp. I finally got my rest day, with two nights at 4,800m. As I was packing for the next day, I discovered that a critter had entered my pack and eaten some of the food I had packed as well as chewed a hole in my down pants. I can’t blame it; down is warm.
|Looking toward the pass from High Camp. The diagonal black line near the top of the moraine is a cluster of people.|
|The morning view from High Camp looking towards Gangapurna.|
|Early morning light on Thorung Peak from near High Camp|
Day nine was intended for climbing back up to the pass and establishing a camp. The day dawned beautifully; there were no clouds. The previous few days had come with some snow, but this one seemed pretty clear. Most people get moving very early on the day they need to cross the pass. Some start out as early as 3 AM. The guides I chatted with said that the wind really picks up after some unspecified time, but I suspect it is to make sure even their slowest clients can make it down the other side before it gets dark. I took my time, had breakfast around 6:30, and then hit the trail around 7:30. By 9, I was at the top of the pass. I felt good, but had the beginning stages of a cold with a scratchy throat and weird sinuses. I knew the next day would be worse, as colds have a fairly predictable progression, especially with a cold night at 5,400m. The day was so nice, and I truly felt good and energized after resting for a full day. After some hemming and hawing, I decided that I would just go for the summit that day. I grabbed the bag I had stashed at the pass, changed clothes and boots, repacked my pack with necessary items, and told the tea shop guy that I should be back around 3 or 4 PM. I thought I could summit in about three or four hours, and downclimb in a few hours.
I was on the way by 9:20, and almost exactly four hours later, I was on the top. To get there, I crossed some rocky moraines, and then climbed some slick slabs of rock, which required a bit of exciting dry-tooling. On the way down, I discovered a much easier and less sketchy gully to descend through this section. Then came the slog: A fairly steep snow slope for at least 100 miles. Step, breath, “1,” step, breath, “2”…………. step, breath, “100.” Every 100 steps, I would look up and take a short break, then start again. Step, breath, “1,” step, breath, “2…” This was mostly zone out time, but I did keep my eye out for changing snow conditions. It was all fairly consistent for the whole climb to the first bench. Crevasses and snow bridges were few, and easy to go around. I made my way for the rock wall at the upper end of the first bench. The lip of the bergschrund here provided a nice pace to rest.
|A panorama from a bergshrund|
I continued up the next slope, which was about 45 degrees with a peculiar ice sprinkled throughout to keep the climb a bit exciting. It appeared that water had melted on the surface of the snow, and then re-froze. The result was an inch or two blobby layer of clear ice on top of the snow in various spots. The climb would go from easy climbing on hard snow to “you’d-better-pay-attention” climbing on blobby ice. I was happy to have two ice tools for these ice sections. Climbing back down this section was a bit spicy, but still quite secure.
The top of this slope yielded another low angle bench. Walking across this bench was painfully slow. The altitude was really noticeable. I was still feeling well, had no headache, but would run out of breath very quickly. I knew I just had to keep plodding along, and I’d get there, eventually. I kept my eyes peeled for snow bridges and made my way up to another short, steep section. I navigated around a few yawning crevasses, made the short climb, and was on the summit. After two previous attempts of similar peaks, which required immense effort and time, I had finally reached a Himalayan summit. I was literally overcome with joy. Tears started coming down my face, and I screamed “Yeeeesssss!!!!!” at the top of my lungs.
The summit of Thorung Peak is a wide, flat area, and is almost a shoulder of another peak, Katung Kang. Climbed by itself it is its own summit, but if were climbed as part of Katung Kang, it would probably not count as a separate summit. The way to the summit of Katung Kang is only 300m vertically, but is laced with plenty of hazards and would require steep snow climbing. It is a beautiful summit with a beautiful route, but not one (for me, at least), to do alone.
|Looking east from the top|
|My photo stitcher isn't working, but this is a neat section of Gangapurna.|
|Looking down towards the valley where High Camp sits|
|Looking north into dry Upper Mustang Valley.|
|A picture of me, Yakawakang in the background|
My altimeter read 6,162m (20,215ft). That was a solid accomplishment for me, and about as technical as I would be comfortable with as a solo climber. The day was still beautiful, so I took a lot of pictures, had a snack, and started back down. Going down was fast! Except for the icy slope, I was able to plunge step all the way back down to the moraines near the top of the pass. I reached the pass at 3:30, repacked my bags, chatted with the guy who runs the tea house, and then started down the pass towards Muktinath with all of my gear.
|Moon rise as I descend the pass in the late afternoon. Yakawakang's summit is still in the sun.|
I reached the little hotel I had stayed at on the way up about half an hour before dark. They made a call to Muktinath, and it seemed unlikely there would be rooms in that town. I stayed the night, again being plied with tea, then went to Muktinath in the morning and hitched a ride to Marpha with an Australian couple in a jeep. Marpha is one of my favorite places in the world. Its ancient main street is made from paving stones and has no vehicle traffic (except the occasional motorcycle). The town in surrounded by apple orchards and 7,000m peaks, and most of the hotels have great apple pie. Needless to say, I stayed a few days.
It dawned on me while I was sitting in the sun one morning in Marpha that part of my success on this solo trip was because of the peace of mind offered by being near the trekking route. It was less scary than being by myself bushwhacked a day or two away from a town as on my previous trip, so I was able to focus on the task at hand. While it wasn’t a "classic" mountaineering experience, I had climbed to over 6,000m without spending a single night in a tent.