Thursday, November 8, 2012

Ladakh 1991 - Boy Meets Himalayas

The following is a chapter from the book:

One weekend in early 1991, I was watching a documentary on TV about a group from Singapore who were trekking in Nepal to the base camp of Mt Everest. The organizer of the expedition was Bill Kite, a transplanted American who ran a company called Sagarmatha Trekking in Kathmandu. I was mesmerized, and was thinking about how cool it would be to go trekking with this guy. I didn’t have to wait for long. Within weeks, there was mention in morning assembly at school about an upcoming expedition to Ladakh in northwestern India. It would be organized by Bill, and Mr. Gibby. The thing that really caught my imagination was that the trek would take us right past a small (6000+m) Himalayan peak which, time and weather allowing, we would have the option of climbing. ‘Small’ is a relative term in the world of Himalayan climbing. Your base camp is usually located at altitudes that are higher than the summit! of anything located in the 48 contiguous US states, or in the European Alps.

When I climbed Kinabalu, I’d sworn I’d never set foot on another mountain… So, naturally I started reading all I could find about it. I also rediscovered my dad’s copy of Chris Bonington’s ‘Annapurna South Face’, after checking out ‘Everest the Hard Way’ from our school library. My favorite book by far though, was an old book called ‘On Ice and Snow and Rock’, by Frenchman Gaston Rebuffat. This one cost me a fortune in library late fees over the years, as I just didn’t want to give it back. It talked about all the climbing basics, such as balance and proper hand holds. I spent many hours reading it in the comfort of my bedroom while I should have been doing homework. In my mind, I was making epic ascents up the North faces of the Matterhorn and Eiger in raging snowstorms. I romanticized about a spot on the Eiger known as the ‘Death Bivouac’, completely ignorant of the fact that it has that name for a good reason… This trip to the Northwestern part of the Himalaya, was the opportunity I needed to put all this ‘armchair mountaineering’ into practice.

Ladakh is situated in the Indian state of Jammu & Kashmir. It is located near the Ceasefire Line/Line of Control, which marks the border of a long standing territorial dispute between India and Pakistan. Passions ran quite high, and there were occasional kidnaps of westerners. Most of those incidents took place in or around Shrinagar. Since we were separated from it by a huge mountain range, Ladakh was considered quite safe. Geographically, it is part of the Tibetan Plateau and Tibetan Buddhism is thoroughly engrained in the local culture. Numerous monasteries, or ‘Gompas’ such as Spituk and Hemis, are found throughout the area. Our trek took place within Hemis National Park, the largest such park in South Asia. The landscape is rugged and is often described as moon like. During the summer months the climate is very dry, and relatively warm. During the brutal winter months, temperatures can drop to 40 degrees below zero. In this ruggedness, a population of around 200 snow leopards thrives. These are breathtaking but highly secretive creatures that rarely allow themselves to be seen.

Our trip took place less than six months before the collapse of the Soviet Union. In those days, you could save hundreds, if not thousands of dollars on airfare if you flew an ‘Eastern Block’ carrier. As it happened, we flew from Singapore to Delhi on good old Aeroflot Soviet Airlines… Our aircraft was an Ilyushin 86. Many jokes were made about its potential safety, and about the tray tables being made wood. There was the fat male flight attendant who refused to let passengers say no to their inflight meal, because Aeroflot was a ‘civilized airline’. Or the thick white fog that filled the cabin on takeoff, as its underpowered engines struggled to get that big bird in the air. The fact remains, that in its entire operational history, an Ilyushin 86 has never killed a passenger… It was, despite all of its perceived shortcomings, a damned safe airplane to fly on. If our flight to Delhi was entertaining, it was nothing compared to the spectacle that awaited us the following day.

After a few hours rest at a hotel in Delhi, we returned to the airport for a 4am check in and security check for our flight to Leh. Departure was scheduled for 6. Flights to Leh leave very early. Reason being once the air masses over the Himalayas start heating up with the morning sun, the air becomes very turbulent. So turbulent in fact, that it is not safe to fly in. Leh airport is at an altitude of over 3,000m, making it one of the highest airports in the World. At that altitude a jet has to have both a very high takeoff speed as well as landing speed in order for the wings to provide lift. The runway slopes up at an angle. Takeoff is downhill to help gain speed. Landing is uphill to help the plane stop. About 45 minutes after departing Delhi, the Himalayas came into view and it was one of those sights that you have to see to believe. Officially, photography was prohibited, but I ignored that rule, too gobsmacked to care. The flight attendants didn’t seem to notice anyway.  I was able to identify two mountains. K2 in the distance, and surprisingly Nanga Parbat, which we appeared to be very close to indeed… I got a clear view of a feature known as the ‘Silver Saddle’, and in my mind could picture the lone figure of Hermann Buhl slowly making his way to the summit back in 1953, in what was one of the great climbs in history.

After a series of creative maneuvers and steep turns, dodging sheer mountain faces, we came in for landing at a speed which makes Formula One cars jealous with envy. Bill had joked that the pilots would start throwing out anchors out the cockpit windows. It seemed then, that he might have been only half joking. During the descent, I had felt a slight sting on my left wrist. After we’d landed I realized that the case of my watch (one of those 1980’s ‘Swatch’ waterproof watches) had burst due to the pressure difference. There was also a ringing in my ears. All that, together with the general sensation that my head was indeed hollow, told me that we were now pretty high up. The strange sensation intensified, and after about twenty minutes I felt ‘buzzed’, not unlike being slightly tipsy. Of course, at age sixteen I knew absolutely nothing at all about being drunk… Toward the evening the headache set in, and we’d been told to expect it. We were having mild symptoms of Acute Mountain Sickness (AMS). It is completely normal when you go from near sea level to over 10,000ft in just over an hour. The only thing you can do about it is rest, and wait for your body to acclimatize. For the next few days we did a little sightseeing around Leh and hung out at the guest house.

At the start of our trek we took a group photo on the banks of the Indus. The weather was absolutely gorgeous and the views spectacular. As we made our way toward the Ganda La pass, the 6000m silhouette of the mountain Stok Kangri towered over us. Once across the Ganda La, we entered the gorge through which the Markha river flows. The source of this river was Kang Yatse. This was the 6,400m / 21,000ft mountain that I was absolutely determined to climb to at least part of the way up. To be quite honest, at the beginning of the trip it looked sort of unlikely that I would be capable of doing that. Thanks in part due to exam stress (having just sat for my GCSEs) I had for the previous months been gorging myself on huge amounts of late night snacks… Throughout most of the trek, I was walking at the back of the group and felt very embarrassed about it. I had all this nerdy knowledge about climbing techniques, but was not that confident about being able to put them into practice. Fortunately though, I got a bit of help on the way. With us was Patrick, an experienced American trekking guide. He’s the sort of easygoing chap you just cannot help taking an instant liking to. I had told him from the start that I wanted to get to 6000 meters. He knew that I was determined to get up there and he’d been sharing his knowledge. He taught me the basics of ‘pressure breathing’. In this technique, you focus on pushing the air out of your lungs. Your breathing reflex fills them back up automatically. This way, you get rid of the most CO2 and take up oxygen most efficiently. The second thing he taught me was to keep my steps small. Much smaller in fact than I would normally want to make them. It conserves energy, and even though it appears to slow you down, you can keep going for much longer periods of time. This really becomes important when you’re climbing a high mountain, because getting to the summit is only half of the equation. A lot of mountain deaths occur because climbers spent all their energy getting to the summit, and then just ‘sit down’ for a permanent rest on the way down.

We hiked past spectacular rock formations. Lhawang, one of our other trekking guides took out his rock climbing boots during rest stops for bouldering practice. Occasionally we’d come across shepherds and their flock of goats going up and down the trail. Our baggage was carried on the back of ponies instead of the traditional porters you see in Nepal. Every morning around 7am, we were woken in our tents with cups of hot tea. Keeping hydrated is really important at high altitudes. In these conditions you will lose up to two liters of fluid just by breathing in and out. When the body produces more red blood cells, your blood thickens. It will start to take on the consistency of maple syrup. At lower altitudes the reduced circulation makes you cold. When you get really high up, this is one of the bigger danger factors for getting frostbite.  All of us carried chlorine tablets which enabled us to use river water for drinking. It would taste like drinking out of a swimming pool, but it wouldn’t kill you. Being high up, the difference in temperature between sun and shade was pretty large. In the sunny parts it was quite hot, and a T-shirt would suffice. In the shady spots, it was time for a sweater and a jacket. Layering was the way to go. Having several t-shirts at hand you could just take off and put on as needed. It was the same with the wind. If it was sunny and calm, it was hot and sweaty. But a stiff breeze could cool you down within seconds.

This trek was also a big exercise in not complaining. I was wearing brand new Dolomite trekking shoes, and I had perhaps not taken enough time to break them in. Needless to say I started to develop blisters on my feet and they rapidly got worse and worse. My left pinky toe, by day three was a pocket of fluid that was held together by the nail. My heels on both feet were huge blisters. To be honest it hurt like hell, but I sort of breathed through it. I was captivated by the sights, as well as by the sheer ‘in the moment’ realization that I was actually hiking in the Himalayas.  We were approaching a 6400m mountain that I’d get the chance to go climb on. I was advised to cool my feet as much as possible. At every rest stop that was close to the river bank, I’d take off my shoes and socks and submerge my feet in the icy cold water. After about 10 seconds they were completely numb and the pain was gone for about a half hour while I read a bit. This worked quite well and the pain relief was good. I patched up my feet with anti blister gadgets known as Compeed Second Skin and they worked like magic. After a week, large areas of my feet were completely covered in those. The whole thing didn’t smell too good, but they did their job. The blisters eventually dried out and stopped hurting.

I kept to the back of the pack during most of the trek, slowed down by the blisters, and attempting to pace myself. After experiencing the stunning sight of the ancient ruins of Hankar Palace sitting precariously on the edge of a steep cliff, we got our first glimpse of Kang Yatse. The forepeak which we would climb on consisted of mostly gentle scree slopes, topped off with a nice snow cap. From here on out, the trekking became steeper and more arduous. There huge boulders to cross and it took some concentration not fall off.  Our overnight stop at Tachungtse was only a few hours from base camp. The following day would get us there quite early. This was probably when I’d get the most likely chance to climb as high as I could. Taking Patrick’s advice, I conserved my energy and drank as much water as I could. I ate like a pig at dinner, and stuffed myself with wine gums and probably half a bag of Cadbury’s Garfield chocolates. My backpack, which was more of a candy pantry, was well stocked.

That night, the excitement of what lay ahead in the morning made sleeping very difficult. I figured reading my book was more rewarding than tossing and turning around all night. This would also just annoy my tent mate. So I put on my parka and sat down with my back against a boulder outside. I was now reading Silence of the Lambs, by Thomas Harris with the aid of the World’s biggest reading lamp. At 5000m, away from civilization and the light pollution it brings, the Milky Way  galaxy is bright enough to read a book by.. I read for several hours,  in the company of a flask of cold tea and more chocolate. The most surreal thing was that every so often a bright point of light would fly by overhead. It suddenly hit me that those were not airplanes but satellites. This was one of the single most memorable nights of my life…

The next day’s trek was indeed short. Still, I conserved my energy for what was hopefully to come later that morning. The whole effect was rather comical as I must have looked somewhat like a cat stalking its prey. After arriving at base camp I took a look through the basic climbing gear that had come along. This consisted mostly of a few ice axes. I grabbed an old 1950's wooden axe, just because it looked the coolest and most ‘classic’ of the lot. As soon as my tent was pitched, I got a day sack of snacks & my parka together. Then I went to find Patrick who had done the same. We took one look at each other and said ‘Let’s go’…

A few teachers went up as well, on a slightly different route with our third trekking guide, Jangbu Sherpa. Jangbu is a very capable climber and in May of 2011 he summited Everest. We set off on the slope, taking tiny steps, conserving our forces. Climbing at even a modest altitude of 5,500m in the Himalayas is a surreal experience. In good, calm weather the effect is somewhat like being in a Salvador Dali painting, but in 3D with a most unusual, completely silent soundtrack. The lack of oxygen, combined with the exertion of climbing, means that you start to mildly hallucinate. My ice axe started encouraging me to keep going, and was apparently giving me directions. At one point Patrick and I became separated, and I started veering off to the right of the planned route. I soon found myself on a rather steep and tricky field of loose scree. It was physically easier climbing, though much riskier. When I got to the edge of the snow, I had to make a sharp left and climb steeply up to get back to the ridge. I did it carefully, and slowly. I’d been climbing for several hours, and it was encouraging to see that ridge get closer and closer. The summit of the forepeak was covered in snow. I didn’t have crampons to the snow line would be as high as I could go that day. I would not be able to reach the top, but I was determined to get as high as I could. 6000m was definitely within reach. I climbed for another hour or so when the scree slope started leveling off, and the other ‘main’ summit of Kang Yatse became visible on the other side. The next thing I remember seeing was Patrick with a wide grin on his face, and a rather flabbergasted looking teacher who I don’t think had expected to see me, Mr. slow poke up there on that ridge. But I was there. About another 100 vertical meters, 150 at most separated me from the summit of the fore peak which was at around 6200m. I wanted to go above 6000m and my goal had been attained. It didn’t matter to me at that point that I didn’t make the summit. Up there it was very peaceful and my senses were one with the mountain. I was completely in the moment and could see the appeal the Himalayas have to Buddhist monks. It made sense now, why they would build monasteries up on high cliffs. The whole experience was very meditative. And the only material goods that mattered at that moment, were the clothes that were keeping me warm.

Poetics set aside, it was now early afternoon and we still had to get back down. That night was likely to be another cold one. As we were pretty tired, everyone descended at their own pace. This was probably not the smartest of things to do, as that’s how you get lost. And that’s sort of exactly what I did. I lost track of Patrick, Jangbu and the teachers. It was a good lesson in situational awareness, and not panicking. I had to get back to camp while there was still light. The temperature was starting to drop as well. I was now a relatively wise 16 years of age, and the full weight of why the ‘Death Bivouac’ on the Eiger got its name started to become clear. Granted, the north face of the Eiger is a near vertical wall and Kang Yatse is completely non-technical. However, I was now at nearly twice the altitude of that miserable rock ledge in the Swiss Alps, and I didn’t fancy a night in the open without a tent.

So I took a look around. Directly in front of me, there was only one valley, and by logic it had to be the one that our base camp was in. I had veered off to the right of the normal descent route, so I figured if I found the safest way down into that valley, which was basically following the ridge, I could just hang a left in the valley and follow the stream down toward the camp. It worked. I got back to camp over an hour after the others did, and I was met by a lot of relieved faces. I was happy and winded. I was proud of having attained my goal, and took a rest in my tent, enjoying a cup of hot tea and another half bag of Cadbury’s Garfield. For me the next day would be a rest day. The teachers who went up with me set off again the next morning with full climbing gear. For them, the previous day’s climbing had been an acclimatization exercise. They summited easily and enjoyed the view of K2 from the top.

Our final day in base camp before trekking back toward Leh, I went for a walk with my former math teacher, Mr. Blythe. We explored the area around the glacier that emerges from the North face of the mountain. The terrain was spectacular, and we took some photographs. Since we were up high and there were no people (or too many animals to speak of) that could ‘do their business’ in the water, I decided to have a drink of the fresh glacial melt water that was flowing there. It was icy cold, but delicious. I think it’s still the best tasting water I ever drank. It had a very slight sweetness to it, comparable to the smoothness of Grey Goose vodka, minus the alcohol.

Our trek ended in the town of Hemis where we visited the 11th Century Buddhist Monastery. After a final day’s roaming around Leh and buying some souvenirs, we took an early morning flight back to Delhi. We had a flex day before we split up as a group. Some of us, including me would fly back to Singapore. Others would fly on to Moscow and from there to London. That extra day was well spent on a long bus drive to Agra where we toured the Taj Mahal. It was every bit as spectacular as it was on photos, probably more so. The inlay stone work of the tomb was supremely intricate, although the sweltering heat inside would compare favorably with the hottest Scandinavian sauna. At the end of our day, one of our teachers suggested getting a burger at the nearby Wimpy’s Restaurant. Throughout the trip, I’d been talking about paying a ‘major visit’ to Burger King for an overdose of junk food. This seemed like a good way to get a head start on that. The trek had done me good, and despite the wine gums and chocolate I’d lost nearly 20 pounds. That burger & fries though, was a huge mistake. Almost immediately I started feeling queezy, and by the time I made it back to the hotel I had a spectacular case of the runs. I made an attempt at forcing down some spaghetti carbonara at the hotel that evening, but I spent most of that night running between my bed and the bathroom.

The following mornings came the goodbyes. Most of my expedition mates I would see again in the fall for the start of term. Some were leaving for good.  Ian, a cousin of one of my classmates I really would never see again. I was briefly in touch with him through Facebook, but he passed away last year after a long illness. It takes a while, sometimes years before you can talk about incredible experiences like this. The sheer amount of stuff you soak up can be rather overwhelming, even if it is all amazingly positive. Doubly so as a TCK, where after a trip you don’t go home, but simply fly to another foreign country that happens to be the one you live in. The concept of ‘home’ becomes rather complicated, and it completely changes your perception. What to most people is a once in a lifetime experience, becomes almost a way of life and it never ceases to be a rather odd thing. At the end of this trip, having reached my goal of climbing above 6000m, I was absolutely determined to continue climbing in the Himalayas. One of the teachers who summited that day told me: “Now all you need is experience”. It came the following winter, but my beginner’s luck was running out. My next expedition was very nearly my last.

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