Drafted 13-May 2011
Kagbeni @ 2,800 meters
Let me reiterate: fuck skydiving.
High altitude trekking is the scariest – and, in many ways, the hardest thing I have ever done.
We left base camp (Thorung Phedi) at four am. We being Tess, Eva, me, our porters, Sanu and some miscellaneous Three Sisters folk that were there for training. Michelle was still in Yak Kharka recovering from possible food poisoning.
I wore every layer of clothing I had available to me, including my bootleg stuffable down jacket1 and my (useless) legit headlamp.2
The first one-third of the trek is a steep series of switchbacks over loose rock from Thorung Phedi to High Camp (16,000 feet). On the day before, we crawled up this same stretch of trail, gaining some 400 meters before turning around to sleep low.3 That time around had been brutal. The sinus pressure that comes with increased altitude developed to a near headache every other switchback. I would rest and wait for the pressure to subside before continuing, a rest that would also allow me to catch my breath. By Thorung Phedi, the air was so thin going to the thirty feet between the room and the dining hall left me winded, never mind going up the steep angle the trail required. It was slow progress.
All that does not mean that the trail was familiar: in the pitch lack, without my overpriced headlamp working, all I saw in front of me was the few stones lit by another hiker’s light. Behind me, a line of headlamps crawled up the trail: 4 am is a common start time.
Above me, the bright stars of the Himalayas. Less comforting in light of my focus on the trail and my body.
The quick time we made over that first one-third could be submitted as evidence in the case for climbing high, sleeping low. Exhibit B would be the relative ease in breathing at the already experienced altitudes.
At High Camp, we stopped to fill our water bottles and use their toilet.
Where I got sick.4
At altitude, as noted before, it is very easy to get dehydrated – being sick only multiples this, making a simple discomfort potentially dangerous.
After High Camp, the remaining two-thirds to Thorung La is less steep but it’s completely open trail. There is no life: just rocks, snow, and trekkers.
And there is no bush to hide behind when you’re sick.
About halfway between High Camp and the pass, an enterprising Nepali man has set up a teahouse (where, in addition to getting a hot cup of tea, you ca also rent a horse to get you the rest of the way up, or take you down if you are ill).
After the teahouse, the altitude came down hard on me. Imagine walking uphill through asthma (not an attack, that completely loses your lungs, but the incidents where it feels like none of your breaths are actually providing oxygen), with a headache that is getting worse, nausea that threatens to turn into vomiting every time you stop to be sick or to catch your breath, and severe intestinal cramps that send you running to the side of the trail to squat and hope that no one sees you being sick.
Now do that for more than two hours, will all that getting progressively worse with each step.
At least, I think it was two hours. That is the timeline provided by my fellow trekkers. I have no watch, and my usual good sense of time was shot in the simple focus of pushing through.
Reaching the pass felt hollow.
5,420 meters didn’t feel like an accomplishment, it felt like I was just doing what needed to get done. How do you feel proud of simply pushing through all of your body’s common sense – and for what, exactly?
I felt like shit, and the other girls had been there for thirty minutes already and were getting lightheaded.5 So I stayed just long enough to have my picture taken by the sign (that is largely obscured by prayer flags) and catch my breath (as much as I could) before heading down.
“Down” is a steep descent that covers over 1,200 meters in less than three hours with another hour of a more graduate descent (we slept at 3,800 meters that night).
I cried for the first hour of that.
I cried from exhaustion. It took every bit of my physical and mental resolve to push through altitude and sickness6 and intestinal distress on top of the physical exertion of the hike. And it didn’t feel worth it.
So I cried – much needed salt and hydration, not to mention crying tends to make both vision and breathing difficult. I cried and kept walking. Eventually my altitude sickness went away, but I still squatted behind small rocks and didn’t stay hydrated that way, either.
Sanu later told me that she and the girls were impressed that I made the pass while sick, especially because my home is at sea level and I’m not used to the mountains. Just about everyone, including the porters and Sanu herself, suffered from headaches and nausea. One of the guides in training that joined us specifically for the pass actually threw up several times in that last hour.
For most of them though, the altitude didn’t truly hit them until the way down. Just while I was starting to feel better, the nausea and near-migraine headache started to hit the rest of the group. And it was a long way down – quiet, cranky, with long breaks of us lying in the late morning sun, our faces covered, simply unmotivated to move.
Muktinath, the location of that night’s guesthouse (also a famous pilgrimage site for Buddhists and Hindus) was at the very reasonable altitude of 3,800 meters. An altitude most people, if simply dropped into, would feel sick at.
To me, breathing felt like Christmas morning.
1 One of my better purchases pre-trip.
2 Black Diamond – it cost more than my coat. It worked for three hours, those three hours not being on the trail.
3 “climb high, sleep low” helps acclimatize you to the altitude.
4 Diarrhea. You get really used to talking about your bowel movements here in Asia, but as soon as I start talking to people from the west I go back to being awkward about it.
5 At Thorong La, there is 50% of the oxygen that there is available at sea level.
6 Which may or may not have been the smartest decision on my part.