Elevation gain: 14,600’ to 17,769’ to 12,336’ (+3,169’; -5,433’)
Estimated miles: 13km
We decided to stay in Throng Phedi for a day to acclimatize. This was probably the best decision we had made so far, as I really needed the rest and it mentally prepared me for the challenge of ascending 3,000’ in the morning to get up and over the pass. Griffin seemed fine, as always, but I never know with him. He had told me of a headache the day before so I was naturally worried about him too. The pass had been becoming the source of all of my fears. I just did not see how I was going to make it up and over something so high. As it was, we had been sleeping at an elevation higher than any point in the continental US, and the thought of adding another 3,000’ was daunting. I realized the human body can adjust, and that when people climb the 8000 meter peaks they start at 18,000’. But that wasn’t me, and going 3,000’ in a day, well, it was a lot to ask.
While resting in Throng Phedi for the day, which included lots of tea, card games, botany keying, and reading, we met a couple from New Zealand traveling with their Australian friend. Emma, Campbell, and Sharpe, as they were, turned out to be really cool and we had a ton of fun hanging out, sharing stories, and playing more cards. We also met a couple traveling from Nome, AK, making them the first Americans we had talked to all trip. It rained all day, at times pretty hard, making going outside unpleasant.
We decided we were going for the pass the next morning, weather be damned – my hope was that if we got above the cloud and rain line it would be clear. But at 4am when my alarm went off and it was dark, cold and raining, I gave in to 30 more minutes of sleep. But this time, at 4:30am, it was not raining as hard, and I saw several headlamps on the trail. Other people were going, so that meant we would too.
We hit the trail just after light, so our headlamps were not necessary. We saw, and got very close to, a flock of blue sheep. They were more gray than blue but nonetheless interesting to encounter. We were going very, very slowly up the trail. I knew it was a steep ascent to base camp, about 1500’ higher, and then from there the trail was to level out and wander on and on over a series of false peaks before the pass would be revealed.
After only about 45 mins of very slow hiking we came upon an empty tea house, and a sign that said “base camp”. But it seemed too soon, we had not been hiking fast enough to cover 1500’ vertical yet. And we had leared that many of these towns on the trail stretch out for several miles, such that a tea house over a mile away from the actual town will still call itself in that town. Also, Griffin’s altimeter said 15,900’, so we knew we were not there yet. All the rain had turned to snow flurries at this point and the weather was threatening to cooperate with us. Maybe it was the altitude, maybe it was just sillies, but all I could think of what “I’m dreaming of a white…christmas!”
We kept going, and soon came to another small shack that sold tea and some snacks. The altimeter barely read over 16,000’, so we were pretty confused. I figured we will had more than halfway to go in vertical to get to the pass, and who knew how long in walking. And then the Kiwis and Sharpe showed up. They had a much better idea of what was going on and told us we were in fact more than halfway there. This was exciting news.
We kept trudging along through the snow and rock across some of the most forbidding landscape either of us had ever seen. Yet, the ever-present smell and sight of donkey and pony dung still clung to the trail. At one point we stopped and I asked about the altitude on the silly instrument we had relied on this far, and it said 16,900’. I realized we still had almost 1000’ vertical to go, and we, surprisingly, had no headaches yet or any symptoms of adverse altitude reactions, but I was worried. Keep it slow. We turn back to the trail to start walking again, but after going less than 10 minutes we saw a bunch of prayer flags, a building built into the snow, and a large number of people milling about. There was no way it could be the pass, as the altimeter said so, but there was no denying it, we were there.
Turns out the altimeter really doesn’t work over 16,000’. It duped us, which was a good thing because I was so relieved there was not another 1000 feet to go, and that I had made it to the pass. When I spoke such emotions, Griffin just looked at me like he knew it would happen all along and was never worried. I guess it just shows the slight differences in our personalities.
It was pretty much the best day ever.
About 5 minutes later our friends showed up, where they had some whiskey to celebrate. Photos were taken and the sky was blue, but just for a moment.
While most people, including our friends, piled into the little tea house for the “highest brewed tea for sale” on Earth, we decided to start heading down before the weather got bad. It was about 9:50am.
The descent was gradual at first and then became rather steep and repetitive. The rain was intermittent. The next town was Muktinath, some 5,000’ below us. We turned back to look at the pass it and was again shrouded in thick mist and clouds.
We arrived in Muktinath at some point in the early afternoon, after getting slightly lost and inadvertently taking a monastery tour at the edge of town. Our new friends came out of their hotel to tell us where they were staying and we happily joined, obtaining the last room in the entire 5 story place (by far the biggest we had seen yet; who were all these people?!). They had left the pass after us, but due to my botanizing had passed us long ago on the way down. They said just after we left, by 10am, the pass was completely covered in clouds, windy, and snowing hard.
We all had a nice relaxing lunch with tea and beer. It had been quite a day.
But for me, well, I suppose I decided the pass just wasn’t hard enough, and it might be worth simulating what the top of Everest would feel like, in the bathroom. The showers were heated by a flame in a heater box inside the bathroom. We took a wonderfully refreshing warm shower, our first in days, and decided a shave was in order for Griffin too. By the end of the shower I was just about fully dressed when I suddenly felt as if I was going to pass out. I thought maybe it was anxiety being in this small bathroom and its awkward green light, or something, but my instinct was to get the hell out. I told Griffin I was about to pass out, but he either didn’t hear or was feeling ill himself so it did not compute. I tried to open the door but had no strength. That was all I remembered.
The next thing I knew I was on the floor on my back outside the bathroom with Griffin holding my head and a Swedish nurse holding my legs and feet rubbing me talking and saying things I did not understand. I watched her with a detached feeling for a while, and then suddenly came to. I realized thankyous were in order and offered to buy her a drink.
As it turns out, the flame that had been heating our shower had used up all of the oxygen in the bathroom, which was poorly ventilated, so I was oxygen starved as well as mildly poisoned from the carbon dioxide. As soon as I felt mildly better I realized I was freezing. I had wet hair and was on a cold concrete floor. Griffin took me to my sleepingbag, where it took almost 2 hours for me to stop shaking and shivering. I suppose it was almost hypothermia I was so cold. I fell asleep around 8pm with no more a-due and woke up the next morning feeling much better.
What a day.