Make your own way to camp.” I was slightly worried, was this a test ? I resolved to keep to the middle of the group, at a good pace but not as fast as I could go. From the camp site we could see Palam Peak which was tomorrow’s target although it’s smooth hump did not look too daunting. After lunch we would be climbing a small peak which had become known as Exodus Peak (5056 metres) as Exodus always used it as an acclimatisation walk from this camp.
Initially the walk was flat so we set off at a fast pace but as it got steeper and the terrain changed to broken brown rocks similar to places in the Lake District, we slowed down. As we climbed higher far, far away we could see mountain ranges on both sides, to our left, the Zansca and to our right, the Karakorum. As we looked across to Palam Peak it seemed to grow in stature, looking more and more demanding and Chosphel pointed out Kang La, the pass which we would be crossing tomorrow after Palam Peak. On route we saw a flock of the famous blue sheep which are neither blue nor look like sheep being much more like goats.
As I reached the craggy top of ‘Exodus Peak’ I felt very emotional but kept it together until I asked Ian to take a photo of Mick’s poles. Maybe it was the mountains, maybe it was thinking of Mick or maybe that intense happiness which is just a whisker away from extreme sadness but, as I looked at the screen on my camera, my emotion spilled over and I felt the tears welling up. I moved away from the others and sitting quietly staring into the distance tried to hide the fact I was crying. Once on my own, as the others started to go down, I was unable to contain it any more and sobbed uncontrollably. I don’t know why really, I didn’t even feel sad. It was just a massive outpouring of emotion. At first I didn’t notice Roger coming over but he offered me a drink and feebly joked, “Come on down.” He was so kind, we walked and talked, I’m not even sure what about but the conversation didn’t lag and I immediately felt better. After some time, possibly because we were walking at the pace of our speech, I realised I was getting very breathless, hesitantly I admitted as much to Roger who gallantly said he was too and we slowed our pace.
Back at the camp Chosphel gave us a demonstration of the Portable Altitude Chamber which he carried throughout the trek. It seemed a very low tech piece of equipment with nothing to absorb the expired carbon dioxide and its reliance on the pump being worked at an effective rate to push it out through the valves. With Andrew inside and one of the guides using the manual pump the pressure was slowly raised to the equivalent of Leh and then slowly decreased again by a guide pushing his finger into the valve. Chosphel explained how a person had died at Stok Kangri basecamp when the pressure was decreased too quickly. That evening the dinner conversation was focused on the PAC and Nathan and Richard came up with the innovative plan of designing a truly ‘portable’ altitude chamber which you could wear as you climbed up the mountain each step pushing down on pumps to ventilate it. This meant you would be ‘powering the chamber yourself and with the higher pressure inside your suit it would be as if you were walking at a much lower altitude. Predictably they named their invention the ‘Ass’ (Altitude Survival Suit). The design was tweeked many times that evening and on several occasions later on the trek as they prepared for a potential appearance on Dragons’ Den !
Before dinner as I sat outside my tent writing my diary a herd of dzo crossed the hillside in front of me. These cow/yak hybrids are excellent draught animals being stronger than cattle and more docile than yaks. Each family will have one or two dzos for field work but after the seed is sown they are brought up into the mountains to stop them eating the crops in the villages. In the autumn they return home often of their own accord. At last, we also saw a few marmots and with our cameras fully zoomed in, saw the small badger sized creatures waddle around and occasionally sit up on their haunches like prairie dogs. Although in reality we had realised the snow leopard was a vain hope, I was still hoping to see a golden eagle on this trip. It was another cold night and the stream where the cooks collected water from was frozen but in my silk thermals and hat I was toasty warm in my sleeping bag. Again it was a wonderful night for stars and the immense sky was filled with myriads of twinkling jewels of light.
Until today we had been serenaded by chirping grasshoppers as we walked but now we were too high and underfoot it was silent. The start of our trek up the valley was steep and as we climbed, our target of Palam Peak seemed to grow before us, looking higher and higher and less attainable with every step but once we reached the pass it was an easy trek to the summit. Poor Simon was struggling with the altitude and had a thumping head ache and felt nauseous. He did not make it to the prayer flag clad cairn at the top but sat, head in hands about half way from the pass and awaited our return. I felt lucky with no signs attributable to the altitude as I felt my shortage of breath as I went uphill was more down to lack of fitness and our very slow pace suited me as I stuck to my preferred position in the front half of the group. Today I noted in my diary ‘Feeling good and very happy’. From the summit of Palam Peak we had great views all around especially of Stok Kangri which seemed so far away. It was hard to believe in two days time we would be crossing Stok La and two days later hopefully be at the summit. Palam Peak was the highest point of the trek for Sally and she was justifiably proud of her achievement. She was doing so well I felt sure she would have had as good a chance as any of us of summiting and I hoped she wouldn’t regret her decision not to attempt it.
It was not an easy path as we came off the peak and in places it was very rocky. Tashi, who today was our lead guide, and a few of the others got ahead while Roger, Ian and I made our own little group. By the time we had descended to the pass where our picnic lunch was already laid out, the group had become quite disjointed and we waited a long time for every one to arrive. Andy was justifiably annoyed that they had not had a guide with them as they negotiated the difficult path. Tashi, unlike Chosphel, was not a good leader and always seemed to be in a hurry to get ahead and sit down somewhere to smoke. Chosphel had remained on Palam Peak for sometime after we had all left and arrived at lunch after everyone else.
After lunch we set off over grey ashen scree in a desolate landscape but on a good path. In some areas red brown slabs of rock reminded me again of the Lake District. For a while Stok Kangri disappeared from view but as it reappeared it looked definitely achievable but then, as we descended it looked more and more difficult and further away. We were heading down, down, down but as Chosphel reassured us being low and getting a good nights sleep would hugely improve our chances of reaching the summit. I had not been sleeping well but did feel rested. It took me a long time to get to sleep and then it was broken sleep punctuated by crazy dreams. I was still comfortable sleeping in just silk thermals, socks and a hat although most nights I would end up too hot. Mel complained she was freezing at night despite last night having worn two down jackets and ski trousers. Perhaps her last minute purchase had not been a genuine make of sleeping bag. Walking I usually began the day in a T shirt and wore my sun hat but today at times it had been windy and my windproof had been useful both for warmth and also using the hood to stop my hat blowing off. Most of the others seemed to be wearing fleeces and warm jackets. As we were in a valley secluded toilet spots were not readily available. The blokes had it so much easier just calling out “ Heather, look away” as Clinton and Ian had done coming off the pass. I had attempted to squat behind the tiniest ridge but in truth realised my attempts at privacy were futile and in fact I was probably in full view of every one. The girls had all taken to just announcing our intention and hoping the blokes had the decency to look away.
The amount of vegetation increased and today the ponies were muzzled to stop them eating the poisonous blue flowers which grew here. Again we could hear grasshoppers and crickets but fewer than on previous days. Looking around, the mountainsides appeared green which I thought was plants but actually it was the colour of the rock. Suddenly everyone was looking up as finally we got to see two golden eagles as they glided through the sky way above and made circular sweeps around us. Chosphel told us how some types of eagles carry bones up very high and drop them onto rocks to smash so the birds can feast on the marrow. Today we saw loads of marmots which had been so elusive on the last two days. They were certainly cute as they waddled like seals on stumpy hind legs and dragged their short tails on the ground. As soon as a couple had been spotted it seemed they were everywhere and we heard them whistling to each other.
Each day as we arrived at camp we were bought either hot lemon or orange and then had time to sort out our tents, air our sleeping bags, prepare clothes and kit for the next day, take off our boots and socks and relax either reading or writing our diaries before tea and biscuits or sometimes cake.
Today I was pleased that the biscuits were the savoury Ritz ones which I really liked. I noticed this camp had been set up with all the single tents at the back. Was this coincidence or was it they had realised I was suffering quite badly with nocturnal symptoms of the well known high altitude disorder, HAF ? On my Expedition Wise training course a few years ago Brian Jackson had discussed at length HAPE ( High Altitude Pulmonary Oedema) and the even more dangerous HACE (High Altitude Cerebral Oedema ) but had also warned us of the very common syndrome HAF or High Altitude Flatulence !
We were now in the Markha Valley and as we camped in the valley we lost the sun early and it quickly got chilly so I changed into my silk thermals under my clothes before dinner. I looked out of my tent, it was 5.45pm but no one was outside. It was at times like this I wish I had a tent mate. Still, it gave me a chance to write my diary and review my photos. I was struggling a bit taking photos as we were often in very bright light so I couldn’t see the screen and also my new camera did not seem to focus exactly where it was pointed but instead it seemed a little ‘off set’. Having not succeeded in downloading the online manual I had been back to Jessops where the sullen, unhelpful assistant had reluctantly set it to an ‘everyday point and press’ setting which ‘would do’ for most things and I wasn’t sure I understood how to change the settings back if I wanted to. I hoped Sally and Richard, who seemed very professional, would be sharing their photos and also Jen who had a posh camera lent by Exodus so I could nick some of theirs. Despite being a bit lonely at the moment I felt very relaxed and content. Delhi and even Leh seemed a lifetime ago. This was such a wonderful experience it seemed wrong to describe it as a ‘challenge’ and try to raise sponsorship. I’m sure I’ll feel differently on Summit Day. I thought about how our pace would really suit Rebecca and wished I could convince her how great this experience is. I felt a bit sad I couldn’t text anyone to share my feelings but overall I wasn’t missing my mobile or access to emails. I just hoped Paul had managed to let Jan and Ken know why I wasn’t keeping in touch. Before dinner I attempted to fashion a chin strap for my sun hat using a spare bootlace (another reason why they were always on a kit list).
The next morning, after a better night made up of longer periods of sleep, I used the washing water to wet my hair in an attempt to remove some of the grime, although I rubbed it dry with the dirty towel I had moped the floor with yesterday, and then treated myself to clean T shirt and socks. I tied the towel to my daysack so it could dry on today’s trek. Outside the tents I heard laughter and looked out to see Chosphel wearing Clinton’s army camouflage backpack and carrying his ice axe like a gun ‘patrolling’ the camp site. The mess tent had already been taken down so breakfast was ‘al fresco’. As Richard left the table he sidled along behind everyone’s chairs bending over just as he would have done had the tent been there.
We set off down the Markha Valley on a very dusty almost white path. Looking across the river the geology was amazing as the colours of the rocks changed and peculiar parallel vertical stacks were left standing as the softer rock had eroded. The first village we passed through was Yurutse which is home to just one family living in one large house. The grandfather came out to sit and talk to Chosphel. He had a wonderful rich dark chestnut face, bright eyes and a content but down turned mouth which had long since lost the support of any teeth. He wore traditional woollen clothes and beads which he ran through his gnarled fingers as he closed his eyes and mumbled gently in prayer. The house had small slit like windows on the ground floor where the animals would live in the winter and then larger windows with carved wooden lintels on the upper storeys where the family of 8 adults and the homestay guests would reside. We watched the younger members of the family tending the crops in front of the house beside the river and the older lady carry a bowl of slop for the house cow. We passed a large maniwall and several stupas and respectfully followed the left hand path as it split so the stupa could be passed on the right side in either direction. Even the pony boys ran round the left side joining the train of ponies on the other side.
It was a lovely walk following the river and gradually the vegetation became less sparse, the bushes less stunted and eventually lots of willow trees grew in and around the river. Conversation today, when it happened, largely revolved around football although often there was no talk and the silence was only broken by the gentle chink, chink of walking poles on stones and our footfall. I think every one like me was very content in their own little worlds. Our next stop was a tea house, under an Indian army parachute, where Exodus had funded a water purification system so they could sell purified safe water to trekkers. Selling water in plastic bottles is banned but ironically everyone except me, who doesn’t like coke, bought Coco Cola in the plastic bottles which the locals are trying so hard to reduce in the area. Andy, whose son works for Pepsi was photographed enjoying his Coke as was Jen sitting in front of the water purifier emblazoned with Exodus stickers.
As we walked down towards Rumbak, a much larger village consisting of nine families in about twenty houses, we followed a narrow bore pipe line taking safe water up the valley. However most villagers still wash their pots and pans in the streams. I had been religiously wiping out the lids and threads of my bottles with antibacterial/antiviral wipes before purifying my water but realised our cups, plates and utensils were being washed in the streams, often down-stream of our toilets which were holes hacked out by the guides using ice axes. Despite this as I remained well and vowed to continue my strict hygiene regime with my drinking water.
Rumbak, being lower down and close to the river, was a very fertile area. We took off our boots to enter a teahouse and homestay which looked very much like Chosphel’s house with all the pots on shelves on the wall and the low metal stove. We were given delicious cinnamon rolls, a good lunch and mint tea. Afterwards we got to taste the very peculiar butter tea which tastes, as you might expect, of very rich butter. I wouldn’t describe it was ‘nice’ but drinkable and I was glad to have tried it although would be happy if I did not have it again.
The walk to camp felt flat but in fact was a steady uphill climb but at a gentle wandering pace. There were more birds here as we saw partridge running along ahead of us, loads of magpies and blackbird sized birds with rusty burnt orange rumps as rooks soared and cawed above us. We arrived at our camp by about 2.30 and it seemed like a long wait before tea at 4.00. I hoped we would have a short walk after tea. There had not been a cloud in the sky as we had been walking but now dark clouds were closing in and there was a definite chill in the air. Suddenly, contrary to Chosphel’s promise of ‘No rain in Ladakh’ it was raining. I grabbed my sleeping bag and socks off my tent and threw them inside before hurrying over to rescue Ian’s sleeping bag which was also airing but by then, the rain had stopped. I was pleased that despite the cloud the power monkey still charged without direct sun light. I did not like this time of day on our easy days as I got bored and lonely. I think some of the others would sleep but I wasn’t tired and besides would probably sleep less well in the night if I napped in the day. In the long gap before tea I sunk into a gloomy mood, bored and alone having run out of tasks I needed to do in preparation for the long night ahead and the next day. I lay on the thermarest staring at the floral pattern of the tent and blankly thought of nothing. At tea Andrew announced he had gone off for a walk on his own and I wished I had known. He said he’d found a waterfall and was keen to go back to it. I immediately asked if I could join him and soon a party formed of Andrew, Chosphel, David, Katarina, Roger and myself. We all set off together but Andrew then branched off on his own back towards his waterfall while the rest of us headed for the ridge. It was a lovely walk and immediately my spirits were lifted. I felt better for the exercise as we had not really been challenged today and it passed the time. I stupidly dropped my windproof which was stuffed into its tiny ball like sack and it bounced away down the steep slope. Immediately one of guides chased after it with amazing agility and then climbed back up to us barely out of breath. Now I was feeling better I felt guilty about my low mood and letting myself get down when in reality I had nothing to be sad about. Back at camp, Roger wandered over and kindly offered me a book to read. I was very grateful to have something to read in my tent of an evening as after our meal everyone retired to their tents very early.
At dinner, which surprisingly consisted of the unusual combination of pizza and mashed potato, Andrew showed us his photograph of a mystery footprint he had found by the river. We could see it was large as he had photographed his boot beside it, but it bore no resemblance to any prints the guides recognised. The inevitable discussion about yetis ensued and as bears were almost as unlikely we concluded it may have been a wolf or something else which had slipped so it was not a single foot print at all. Bizarrely a conversation on swear words evolved and I heard myself asking Andrew, “ Do you have muff in Canada ?” Through the raucous laughter I couldn’t explain I had meant did they use that word and not did it exist !
By this stage of the trek I had completely lost track of time or date and simply headed my diary ‘Today’. From the camp we looked up towards Stok La. It looked very steep and, covered in scree, totally inhospitable. In fact it was hard to believe there could be any possible route to the pass. I had not slept well and in fact had been awake until gone three but I was relaxed and had rested so felt I should be ok for today’s trek. For breakfast I tucked away porridge, two fried egg sandwiches and a cheese spread sandwich and questioned just where was I putting all this food. We were being fed amazingly well.