Tuesday, February 3, 2015

The Mountains Bite Back - Bazara-Goeche La Trek Day 4-5

Trek day 3: We had some miles to make (or kilometers I suppose).  Our goal for the day was camp at a high lake called Joktey Pokhari.  So far, over 2 days we'd traveled only about 6 km and climbed 1478 meters (5,000 feet).  Making Joktey Pokhari in one day would mean hiking another 7 km and climbing to 4,0000 meters (13,100 feet) - higher than the tallest point in Arizona.  We felt refreshed, ready to take on most anything, but we all knew it was a big day for low-landers.  And we didn't even know about the storm yet.

Dwarfed by the massive trees

The beginning was a piece of cake.  We started across the ridge line, walking through thick stands of blooming rhododendron.  At this point, we were heading mostly downhill, with just enough climbing to keep us interested.  The group was laughing and taking plenty of time to snap photos and make silly faces.  This area is incredibly beautiful and wild: trees in the area were heavy with moss, often hanging in curtains across the trail;  wildflowers were peaking out of the ground, surrounded by their own shiny, dark green leaves; views stretched out forever of green-sloped mountains and valleys lost in fog.  I wanted the names of every plant I saw, and while our guides knew many, even they couldn't possibly know every one.  The variety was incredible.  

Some sort of Rubiaceae?

Some sort of yellow bulb...lovely little bells!
Flower clusters as big as my head!

Our guide, Binay, loved photography as much as we did.  He often borrowed my dSLR to snap photos.

We loved that Nancy's outfit matched the flowers

Down hill felt SO good!
From the first day, our group had started to divide itself into 2 groups: the fast group and what I'd call the lag.  Mitch and Ivanka are speed demons, and Debbie was determined to keep up with them no matter what.  Nancy, Rocky and I, however, were taking a more leisurely pace  - it's a pattern I see often in larger hiking groups.  Luckily, we had 2 guides with us for this part of the trek, so it seemed logical to let everyone move at a pace most comfortable for them. 

The first small stream we crossed
One of our yak men, Tashi.  I loved his shirt and always wondered if he knew what it meant ("There's too much blood in my alcohol level"...)

The darkest of the dzo carried my bag (left side).  I felt a bit sorry for him.
When we finally stopped for lunch, we were all high on adventure.  The boys were playing betting games behind a huge rock and we were snapping photos of the waterfalls of Tholo Oral. Our guides told us that this little valley was about half way to camp - but they didn't tell us that it we still had 2,000' to climb.  (I'm not sure they actually knew that - to them it was just a couple hours walk.)

Tholo Oral
Tea at lunch.  Notice the clever sock action designed to thwart leeches.  

Binay sports Rocky's hat over his own knit cap

The boys doing our dishes as we get hiking.  They'd always catch up fast.

Climbing again out of Tholo Oral
So here's where it started to get more interesting (scary, dangerous?).  The usual afternoon fog began to flow up the hillsides - but we could see behind it larger clouds that were actually forming in the opposite direction.  They had a black center that made us think perhaps we might get a little more than a mist.  When the rain started, we stopped to put on rain gear.  The guides just smiled and waited patiently for the Americans to cover themselves in brightly-colored plastic.  I'm not sure they would have had anything else to put on, even if they knew that this would be more than the usual heavy mist.  

Even through the early part of the storm we were still enjoying the hiking.  The elevation was getting to us a bit, and we (at least the lag group) were slow.  I snapped a couple last pictures before I put my cameras safely in my backpack to protect them from the rain which was getting more serious (and freezing into hail).  

The yellow spot ahead of me is Nancy in her poncho.  It became my beacon.

Rain is turning to small hail as we hike along the ridge

Still cheery
When we paused, I told Binay I was getting cold and tired, and asked how much further we had to go.  He patted me on the back and smiled.  

"Only a hundred meters more."

I had no idea that this was the Sikkim version of "not much further", which I use to motivate struggling hikers on trips I'm leading.  You know, it's usually said with a big smile and typically means that there are miles yet to go...

Binay took the fast group on ahead, and the lags hiked on with Chung Wan.  He had only a pink striped umbrella against the weather - and as the temps started to drop, it was obvious that it wasn't enough.  The wind was really blowing by now - I was guessing it was gusting over 30mph - and the hail hurt if it hit your skin.  We came around a corner and potted the dzo stopped on an exposed ridge a good distance ahead of us.  I had a brief moment of relief thinking that we were almost to camp, but it disappeared quickly.  There was no chance we could camp on a ridge like that in this weather.  Camp would have to be further on.  

Nancy wisely decided we should stop and eat a quick snack to help keep ourselves warm.  I resisted a bit, wanting to keep moving and make camp as soon as possible, but she was right.  With the distance still to go, we needed to keep our energy up.  While we snacked, Chung Wan moved on ahead.  His umbrella was shredded to ribbons by this time, and I'm sure he was freezing.    

That left the three of us alone on a hillside at about 12,000', in a growing blizzard, thousands of miles from any familiar rescue system.  The wind continued to get stronger.  Then the trail disappeared into a boulder field: an ice covered boulder field that fell away into a valley hundreds of feet below.  It was getting dark.

I won't lie.  I was freaked out.  

I've crossed boulder fields like this one many times in places like the Grand Canyon, with the treacherous slopes and loose footing.  I've even done it in some nasty weather.  However, something about doing it in the Himalaya just added a touch of intensity to the experience (just a touch, ha!).  Several times, I had to close my eyes and fight back panic so my confidence could surface enough to navigate.  Nancy and I got separated from Rocky in the boulders.  My hands were getting numb (I'd left my warm gloves in my bag on the dzo) and I was starting to recognize the early signs of hypothermia, including sluggish thinking and shaking.   

Yup.  If there is a time to freak out, this felt like a good one. 

We met Rocky again - he had stopped in the shelter of a large boulder to wait for us, and we called out until we found him.  Together we managed to get out of the boulder field and back onto a steep, but walkable slope.  Finally, after what felt like hours, we made it out onto the exposed ridge we'd seen from afar.  Instantly, we were slammed by real gusts - the kind of wind that only inhabits lonely mountain passes.  It was almost impossible to talk over the sound and walking against it took serious effort.  It's the sort of place that is so beautifully terrifying that in retrospect I wish I had at least one rain-blurred photo to illustrate.  All I have, though, is a memory framed by the hood of my raincoat.  

We stopped once more in the lee of a large stone to put on more layers.  It was something we should have done much earlier, but as often happens we kept convincing ourselves that it was smarter to keep moving.  For me, it was rain pants.  Somehow, I always wait too long to put those on, and they usually end up over soaking wet hiking pants.  Rocky didn't have much more to put on, so I gave him my wool buff for his head- he said later that the small piece of cloth made such a difference that he decided to never hike without one again.  Warmed slightly, we started moving again, but with very little light left and no idea where we needed to go beyond the pass, we were beginning to wonder if we didn't need to find a place to shelter for the night.

We just made the far end of the pass where a small trail lead clearly to the next ridge when Binay and the lead yak man, Galuk, found us.  He'd lead the rest of the group to the camp ahead, stopped long enough to borrow rain gear, warm clothes and head lamps from the faster hikers, then come back for us.   I think I might have cried with relief at seeing him - but my eyes were watering so badly from the stinging wind that it was impossible to tell.  I wanted to have a full on tantrum, but there was no time.  Binay lead us quickly along the rocky path over the next ridge (above 13,000') and down to the camp.  His mood was positive and reassuring, and in retrospect I have a great deal of respect of how well he handled some VERY grumpy campers.  

By the time we made camp, we were walking through a full-on snow storm, our feet breaking ice crusted puddles and our headlamps showing mostly just frozen lumps of ground.  It was completely dark.  Nancy had trouble with her night vision and Galuk was steering her, hand on her elbow, with enough strength to almost carry her over the potholes.  His English may have been very basic, but somehow they managed to get through the last half-mile with nods and pulls on her arm.  

Binay brought us right into the kitchen tent, which was crowded with bodies and thick with smoke.  The rest of our group was there, overcome with happiness that we were safe, and we got lots of hugs and hot tea as the boys pulled at our soaking wet clothes.  Even the boys seemed genuinely overjoyed to see us.  We would learn later that they'd been truly frightened that we were lost in the storm. 

If only I could say the adventure for the day ended there!  We knew we were safe, but we were far from warm.  I could barely hold my tea, I was shaking so badly.  The storm still raged outside, though in the sheltered valley of camp we were protected from the worst of it.  One of our 3 sleeping tents was knocked down in the storm, so we needed to pile 3 of us and all of our gear into a space that was usually pretty snug with 2.  Rocky, Nancy and I crawled into a tent, leaving our muddy shoes outside, and tried to get our wet things off without soaking our sleeping gear (or each other).   Modesty was not high on our priority list, but there were plenty of frantic giggles coming from both tents as we tried our best to get dry and warm. 

Chung Wan brought by some dinner (through the storm, to our door - what SERVICE), but we were all unable to eat much other than some fried rice and soup.  I felt horrible that they'd cooked the usual complicated meal and we weren't able to eat it - but my stomach was a knot that wasn't likely to untie for a while.  The shaking was finally starting to abate, though.

With little choice of moving around, we all agreed to try to sleep.  Our wet gear piled near the door, we lay shoulder-to-shoulder at the back of the tent and turned off our lights.  My feet were propped up on the heap of my stuff to make more room.  I smelled like a wet cat, and I couldn't stop squirming.  .But at last I began to feel my extremities again.  

I caught my watch before we dozed off...it was only about 8:30pm.   

Trek Day 4:

When it was light enough to step out of the tent, we could hardly believe our eyes.  The storm was gone, we were at Joktey Pokhari, and it was magic.  

Morning view - Joktey Pokhari - 4,006m

It didn't take us long to recover our wits enough to take advantage of the views
Camp at Joktey Pokhari
We climbed out of the tents and started to spread our wet things out on the low shrubs of the alpine valley (called Ti plants by the guides).  It was clear that we weren't the only ones who'd been caught unprepared by the storm.  All of the boys were clearly worse for the wear, too, and their brightly colored clothes were spread out next to ours.  As we sat to enjoy breakfast, we hoped that we'd be able to take a day to recover, dry out and regroup.

Still snowy at breakfast, but we bundled up to enjoy the view with our meal

I love this guy (Binay).  He's just a great person.  He saved me from freezing on the side of a mountain.  Really, I love this guy!

Yup.  It's COLD.

We did end up spending the whole day recuperating at the sacred lake.  Our clothes dried quickly in the sunshine, which was good because it didn't last long.  The mists returned in the afternoon, but they were quiet and without menace.  We wandered the small, high valley we'd camped in and I walked to the shores of the lake.  It's a small glacial cirque, ringed with boulders and tough shrubs.  The dzo grazed out of site in a pasture more accommodating than our rocky valley, so it was almost eerily silent without their bells.  

We played some dice and card games, redistributed our things to the lost tent (which luckily dried out), and ate a lot.   We laughed with the boys and felt a new kind of camaraderie that comes with surviving something truly frightening.  We felt like a single expedition...actually, we were a single expedition.  

One of the most heart-felt Wendy's EVER!

Yardsale at 13,000'

 Enjoying the day, though you can see the mists approaching

When the cold mists settled in, I enjoyed it more from inside the tent (wrapped in my down sleeping bag)

Sacred lake at Joktey Pokhari

We were heading for Goeche La, with a visit to Dzongri along the way.  An epic adventure already, and look what more was to come!