To begin with the trek was not too arduous but then it became steeper although the footing was better than I had expected. As we looked up towards the notch in the mountains which was the pass it was still hard to imagine the route we’d be taking. Up, up and up on the purpley brown rock, it was exhausting but then as the prayer flags came into view I felt a surge of energy but at the last minute we could see the zigzags which, although easier, slowed our progress to the pass. Finally we reached the pass and ducked under the low slung prayer flags to see the mountain dropping down ahead of us. I felt very happy although not too emotional but chose to go and sit alone on a craggy rock for a while. After a time Roger came to join me asking “ How are you, Buggerlugs ?” It always seems strange when someone else uses a familiar expression which you always had felt was peculiar to just your family. We rested for a long time at the pass enjoying the views as we waited for the donkeys and ponies to reach us. Some refused to walk under the prayer flags which the two Andrews obligingly raised with their walking poles. After a short rest for them, their loads were adjusted and then, ahead of us, they started their descent into the next valley. Quickly the scenery changed and the mountains were verdant but it was not just with vegetation as the rock itself was green. Jen hazarded a guess that it was augite. The geology here was the most stunning so far with jagged vertical flutes promising exciting climbing and scrambling. Tashi was leading with Trevor but despite looking back at him struggling, gave him little guidance or reassurance and strangely it fell to me to praise and encourage this veteran trekker down the steep path suggesting he kept his weight in the upper pole and turning his feet sideways if it gave him more confidence. There had been a few spots of rain before the pass and, soon after we started down, some hail or snow which appeared to be tinged green, but for most of the long walk down to our lunch spot it was dry but increasingly chilly. Almost as soon as we reached our lunch suddenly we were in driving hail. As it viscously cut into me I tried to huddle in my wind proof and eat my lunch. It stopped almost as suddenly as it began and soon we were moving again ever downward. Having seen the slope we were to descend I was thankful to see our path took a steady zigzag route but foolhardy Nathan and Andrew, despite sporting his knee brace, ran straight down the dusty hill kicking up a cloud of red ash. At the bottom we were on soft green springy grass with streams running through it and we traipsed on in the pretty valley and rested in the base waiting for everyone to catch up. By now Chosphel was with Trevor who was struggling especially with the down hill. Eventually they joined us and Trevor told us he had reached the conclusion he would not attempt the summit. We were all sad for him but it was a sensible decision.
The rest of our trek to Mankarmo was up a wide rocky river bed largely dry with a few streams running through it. It was a lovely rocky walk. We passed some dzo which Chosphel was to tell us were heading home towards the villages having spent the summer in the mountains. At the same time a group of ponies were coming down the path, they were less well cared for than ours, looking ribby and with over grown, poorly trimmed feet. The dzos respectfully moved out of their way although, from a safe distance, the bull, full of bravado, pawed the ground angrily.
Our campsite was very rocky and the river ran through the edge where the pony boys were washing their clothes. Here there were other groups camping with us and despite the unfortunate smell of some type of fuel it was a beautiful location. Today I was in a different frame of mind, very happy with my own company. Contentedly I sat on a rock by the gurgling river with my diary and Roger’s book while my power monkey charged. As dark clouds loomed and the sun went in it was quite chilly. My contentment was tinged with sadness thinking it would all soon be over. I felt strangely content and fulfilled as if I had everything I could need. I was loving being distanced from the rest of the world and it was strangely liberating having no idea what was happening in the news. I felt totally at peace with myself and with the world. Looking up at Stok Kangri it seemed very distant and very steep and I struggled with the possibility we could be on the top of it in just over 36 hours. But I was feeling very positive. I really believed it could be possible. I was feeling better than I had ever felt before at this altitude or this stage of a trek. I was already thinking how much I wanted to do it again. Maybe Nepal next time, people had told me it was greener and a different landscape. The sun was out again now and as the wind had dropped I felt warmer. This was the perfect existence. As I tried to express my feelings in words I noticed how dreadful my writing was and hoped I’d be able to decipher it at home.
Last night I had started Roger’s book which had been pretty gruesome to begin with but it was a compulsive read and I happily snuggled into my sleeping bag early to enjoy it. The downside of an early night is waking at 5.00am desperate for a wee with the prospect of a dangerous rocky route to the toilet tent in the dark. By 6.00 I could hang on no longer but by now it was getting light and I realised the toilet was nearer than last night when I had struggled over the unstable rocks and across the deepest part of the stream taking a far from direct route. David and Katarina were already up and dressed looking pale and tired. Both were unwell and I felt sorry for them. Yesterday Mel and Simon had been very, very slow getting up to Stok La but later in the day had been in the lead. Hopefully they were acclimatising and would be able to make the summit which we were all yearning for but too scared to tempt fate by voicing our dreams.
I could not believe we would be moving on to base camp tomorrow ready for the summit in the very early hours of the next day. Having slept at 4200 metres there was a massive height to be gained before then. But I was feeling good and pushed that fact from my mind. Thinking about how good I was feeling I thought of my stuffed up nose which was chapped and sore, my dry mouth and throat from breathing through my mouth all the time, my hair matted with dirt which must have looked horrendous. I almost laughed out loud at this being my idea of ‘feeling good’. But I also noted with relief how I was less breathless than on previous treks. I had not drunk as much as I should have yesterday and had drunk nothing overnight and at breakfast felt tired and sluggish. I was struggling to take in enough fluid now. The apple pancakes cheered me up a little before we began the 3 hour walk with 600 metres ascent to Base Camp.
Stok Kangri kept creeping in and out of view, impressive and imposing as our path wove across the river bed. Sometimes only the peak was visible but it never seemed to get any nearer. The walk was boring, simply a slog. I felt tired and slightly nauseous, with a slight headache. All my enthusiasm of yesterday had vanished. The walk was hard work and I didn’t enjoy it. It just made me feel depressed and disillusioned about tomorrow. This was only 600 metres and 3 hours and tomorrow ………. I couldn’t even think about what tomorrow entailed ! Trudge, trudge, trudge. I was at the front of the group but trudging on head down in my own melancholy world. I looked back, every one else seemed in a tight group and obviously not struggling as much as me but they too were walking in almost total silence. Was everyone feeling the same ? Today was just a means to an end. Today was just about getting to Base Camp. Finally we left the river bed which had been punctuated with a few fuchsia pink flowers whose heads looked like livingstone daisies and headed up over a slightly grassy ridge. There were very few plants here except some extremely viscous nettles which grew in clumps in disguise as they looked and smelt like mint. We heard a few birds but feeling down I hardly noticed my surroundings.
Base Camp was again rocky and desolate though busy with several groups of hopeful summiters. Our tents were spread out and mine was last to be pitched. I hung out my sleeping bag to air but couldn’t be bothered to set up my tent. I sat on a small patch of grass feeling tired and miserable. It was dull and cold. I put on my long sleeved T shirt and primaloft and sat huddled on the ground. Then the sun emerged from the cloud and suddenly everything seemed better. There was still a light chilly breeze but the sun’s bright warm rays touched my heart and relit the gladness. My spirits lifted as I drank my hot orange, relaxed my hunched shoulders and had a whole new outlook on the day. I enjoyed sitting outside my tent reading as, even on my own, I felt less isolated. I looked up at the massive Stok Kangri and tried to imagine our route for tomorrow which looked very steep and tedious. I decided I was not looking forward to it and looked away first at the mountain on the opposite side to Stok Kangri which at 5950m is apparently more challenging but to my positive mind did not look impossible, and then looking out from my tent, at a glorious view ….. of the toilet tent. I smiled to myself and thought again about how right everything felt. I returned to my book and as I sat listening to the constant ringing of the horse bells as they plodded around the campsite still wearing their blankets and pack ‘trees’, I was struck by the irony of it all. I was so absorbed in my book I had failed to notice how uncomfortable I was as spiky stones dug into my bottom but I was weirdly content in this strange situation, so distant from every day life but feeling totally happy. I could stay here for ever. The sun was hot now and my power monkey was gently blinking as it charged although the sun was too bright for me to read the display. Perhaps I should be sleeping or at least resting. Suddenly I was jolted from my thoughts as metals plates clanged together, it was the lunch time ‘gong’.
After lunch we had some practice at walking roped up and performing ice axe arrests. It was very reassuring that 6 people running down hill could be held by 6 others arresting with their ice axes. I intended to sleep after our ice axe practice until dinner at 5.30 but somehow I didn’t manage to as I dithered over what to wear and what to take for the summit. We had been told that Stok Kangri was not especially cold and to expect temperatures around freezing. It was important not to be cold but getting too hot would also be a problem. Finally I was packed and organised. I had found some of my snack bars had smashed completely in my rucksack earlier on the trek and so had saved some nut bars for the summit. The plan was to be in bed at 6.30pm, have a wake up call at 12.30am and leave for the summit at 1.30am.
As I nestled into my sleeping bag I was not sure how I felt as I flitted from feeling confident to despairing and expecting failure. If I failed, how would I tell Jan and my sponsors ? Would Natasha and Rebecca be sympathetic but secretly disappointed ? I did not really know what they thought. Despite my mind being in turmoil I fell asleep quite quickly and woke up alert and ready to go only to find it was just 10pm. I slept and woke several times before hearing Chosphel calling at each tent. This was it ! I dressed quickly in my warm thermals, a long sleeved T shirt and would wear my paramo jacket and trousers but take my down in my rucksack. Breakfast was porridge with chapatis and cheese spread with black tea. I tried not to think about the steep path out of the campsite or the fact that was only the beginning. Yesterday my legs had felt very tired even walking to the toilet tent. Sally, who was not attempting the summit, came to breakfast to wish us all luck and at 1.30am we set off.
The climbing guide who we had met yesterday and taught us the ice axe and roping techniques was to lead the summit ascent. It was a starlit night but I didn’t notice the moon. Plod, plod, plod. I knew I had to just close my mind and get into a rhythm. This was where your mental attitude is everything. Just one foot in front of the other and plod, plod, plod. Every step counts. Unfortunately the guide had set a fast pace and I was already struggling. Very quickly I was too hot but didn’t want to lose time and drop further behind by stopping to remove a layer. I vented my jacket and struggled on. All the time leading up to tonight I had been near the front of the group and now, when it really counted, I couldn’t keep up. I kept trying to remind myself that I should set my own pace that I knew I could keep to and it didn’t matter how slow I was. But it did matter to me.
We reached the top of the hill and after a brief rest set off over the moraine. Later I was to learn it had taken us only 30 minutes to the pass. It was a crazy pace and I knew if we kept it up I wouldn’t make it. Resentfully I looked at the others who all seemed to be coping. The moraine was rough underfoot as we tramped on and on and on. You could just distinguish the narrow path with a steep drop to our right and it seemed to go on for ever, gently undulating but overall steadily uphill. As it was less steep now, I was struggling less but still had fallen behind the others. Suddenly I realised they had stopped as the lights ahead darted in odd directions but were no longer moving away. As I caught up with them I realised they were putting on crampons, this was the moment I had been dreading most. We set off across the glacier slowly at first and all together. The leaders showed as over a narrow crevasse less than 12” across but then the pace picked up again and the group quickly split into two with me leading the back markers of Roger, Andy and Ian. It was a great relief to reach the edge of the glacier and take off the crampons although my relief was short lived as the path was now very steep and already the leader was pulling away with his group of followers. I tried to focus my mind and set a realistic pace for me but it was so demoralising seeing the gap between us ever widening. I was trying to follow their route but it was not always clear and they were too far ahead. Up, up, up. Dark mountainous shadows hovered in the distance as we plodded on in the dark, unspeaking and scarcely aware of our surroundings. We were lagging far behind the first group now and as I was in the front of our little group I felt sure I was slowing the others’ pace. At each rest the advance group waited for us to catch up but would quickly draw away again, then rapidly they would be lost in the gloom as the gap between us and their flickering head torches lengthened steadily. At one stop Andy joined the faster group leaving Roger, Ian and myself on our own. Katarina and David were further back still but both had been quite unwell.
The pace was too fast for me and I was struggling. I was bitterly disappointed and angry with myself as I struggled to keep my mind positive but I was acutely aware I was holding up Ian and Roger and felt guilty about that. Determined not to be defeated or demoralised I suggested they overtake me but Ian very generously said he didn’t want to leave me on my own and so he and I stuck together. He fell into step behind me but being a big man, his natural stride was probably twice the length of mine so I’m sure he was just being kind. I desperately didn’t want to spoil anyone else’s chances of summiting but was worried as we had no guide and the leader seemed to have lost any interest or concern for us. I thought Chosphel was somewhere behind with David and Katarina but looking back I could not see their head torches. Perhaps they had returned to camp. Perhaps we were truly alone now. I’m not really sure if I was thinking about anything. I was trudging uphill almost in a trance. Occasionally I spoke to Ian without looking back or breaking step, “ God, this is ****ing steep.” “ It would be good to see the sun come up.” Now Ian and I were completely alone. At times we saw the lights ahead stop their linear progression and mingle and, realising the group ahead had stopped, hoped we would be able to catch up with them but they always moved off before we reached them. Tashi was behind the first group on his own but still some way ahead of us and not close enough to be leading us.
We were expecting sunrise at about 5.30am and slowly, almost directly behind us a faint pink, purple haze emerged under the dark sky and purple grey mountains appeared in the distance. Even the daylight did not really invigorate me. It just made the path clearer and looking ahead I was now depressed by the distant figures rather than the light of their head torches so far away. At some point one of the guides came back to us and said we would not be needing crampons on the summit and so took them off us so as to lighten our loads and hid them off the path. As I remarked to Ian it didn’t seem to make my rucksack any lighter. Although in the last two days I had been drinking less I had taken four litres of water with me rather than the recommended three. I knew I normally drank a lot and running out would certainly spell disaster. But that was 4kg of weight I was carrying.
Up, up, up. Seconds, minutes, hours passed. I was disappointed not to be up with the leaders but content enough and I did feel slightly more energetic as the sun now showed our route and way, way ahead we could make out ‘the ridge’. On and on and on. Up and up and up. My steps were very short now and my weak legs exhausted and to make matters worse the path had deteriorated into loose scree. The first group seemed to spend ages on the ridge and miraculously were still there as I struggled and battled up the scree towards them. I was exhausted and felt very vulnerable. If I should slip I could see nothing to stop me plummeting hundreds of feet except huge boulders. At one point I froze, close to tears unable to make a move. Nathan, Mel and Andrew shouted encouragement, “ Come on, Heather.” “You can do it.” “ You’re almost here.” But I felt a million miles away and burying my neck into my jacket and with my hat almost over my eyes hoped my tears were hidden. I was totally exhausted and felt I could go no further. I felt stupid as they were close now but in my mind it was an insurmountable distance. I stared blankly at it unable to comprehend that it was possible. It was a void. The path was right there before me but I could see them and me and nothing but a gaping void between us. I tried to take a grip of my wandering thoughts. “Focus, Heather. Focus.” I think I may even have closed my eyes but gritting my teeth and with every muscle in my body tense I took one faltering step and then another and then another and then …. twenty labourious paces later I was on the ridge. As soon as I reached the ridge the exhaustion fell away and I felt my face break into a smile. Either side of the ridge the mountain fell away , down, down, down and to our left and right narrow ridges wound away creeping upwards.
The first group were already roped together and ready to set off for the summit. I sat on the rock and watched them moving so slowly and carefully along the ridge. Soon after them the second group followed. Tashi, Ian and I laid back against the rock and rested. I ate a cereal bar, drank water and relished the moment. I noticed a small creature poke his head out between the rocks and scurry off. Confused I thought how it looked like a Syrian hamster. We hardly spoke except to ask Tashi about David who was some way behind us with a guide and apparently Katarina was still coming up with Chosphel. We sat on the ridge for a long time as Tashi said we were waiting for David as we would make up the final group to go to the summit. David was pale and exhausted when he reached us and told us Katarina had intended to turn back at 5000 metres but now was still resolutely struggling on determined to make it despite having no snacks as David was carrying them all in his rucksack Eventually we could see her totally exhausted and in pain with every step. She looked so tired and ill but we so admired her determination. We waited while Katarina rested and ate something to boost her energy levels although in truth she did not look much better for it. Chosphel suggested we should not rope up for the ascent at least not to start with. There were 4 of us and 3 guides so we should be fine. Later he justified his decision explaining that ‘messing around with the rope’ could have cost us an extra hour.
The ridge walk was amazing, exhilarating and exposed. Suddenly we noticed a golden eagle swirling above us, with fabulous majesty it effortlessly hung in the sky as we admired it. The route was a combination of scrambling and walking along narrow paths with massive drops. Despite our tiredness, looking down into a valley hundreds of feet below certainly focuses the mind. Concentrating hard on every step, time passed quickly and eventually the prayer flags of the summit came into view. We passed below the summit and then turning back suddenly we stepped up onto the summit plateau to be met by Clinton and Nathan. A few yards away the brightly coloured mound of fluttering prayer flags marked the summit. We had done it ! 6,153 metres. This was what we had strived for. All the hours of monotonous plodding in the dark, the soul destroying struggle up the steep scree, the pain of exhaustion, all forgotten. We breathed deeply and looked down over the Himalayas in all directions, a brass bell hung in the forest of prayer flags a strangely evocative symbol of peace. I got out my camera realising I had not taken any photographs coming up the ridge. I plunged Mick’s poles into the snow and photographed them with a backdrop of the Himalayan mountain tops all below us. I was filled with overwhelming joy and at the same time overwhelming sadness. Mick would have loved it here and he would have been so proud of me. “Well done gal,” I heard him say. The sadness took over. I felt the grief well up inside me and it spilt out as I sobbed holding Mick’s poles and looking down over the vast array of mountain tops in all directions. Roger came over to comfort me. It was impossible to explain my feelings. I was so happy and so sad. I had fulfilled my promise to get Mick’s poles to the top of a mountain, I had conquered 6,000 metres and the ghost of Elbrus was laid to rest. I was happy, supremely happy but crying at the same time.
By now the first group had already been on the summit nearly an hour and were getting cold and grumpy. We had a group photo and then every one started passing their cameras to the guide to get their own picture. Nathan was keen to move on and sullenly commented “ Haven’t they heard of f***ing Facebook”. Soon they were roped up and left us behind to begin their long journey down. We too would be roped on the way down and I was surprised to be ‘chosen’ as leader as supposedly the most confident of our group. The ridge was exciting coming down but leading it was harder as I had to keep stopping as the guide called out instructions from behind to keep us all together and never let the rope get too slack or too taut. I felt confident now and elated. At the end of the ridge where we had rested so long on the way up we untied the ropes and set off down, down, down. It was a long tedious descent . It seemed like hours before we reached the glacier and by then dry flakes of snow were falling. Quickly it turned into a blizzard and it was a very wet, grim walk. It was difficult footing and now I could feel the pain in my bunion on my left foot and the aching lateral edge of the right. Now I regretted not having broken in my ice boots. It was an unbelievably long walk down and as the driving snow cut our faces we could see very little except the narrow path and deep drop now on our left which we had not seen all those hours ago in the dark before dawn. For hours we trudged on depressed and bored, feeling the weight of the anticlimax of the descent after the exhilaration of the summit. I remembered nothing of the route from earlier and kept expecting the camp site to come into view at any moment but it never did. On and on and on in the grey depressing fog and snow. Finally we saw the camp site, we had reached the pass. Despite the driving snow we were uplifted by the welcome sight and almost as soon as we started down the hill blue sky broke through from beyond our base camp. The trip notes had suggested a 12 hour + day and we , the slowest group, were back in camp after 12 hours 20 minutes. We were clearly not the weak group we thought we were.