Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Travel: The Snowman Trek (Part III, Days 4-6)

Day 4 (Rest day)

It was time to spend a day acclimatising to the altitude, but what do you do on a rest day?

Jangothang provided a magnificently scenic place where we consider what to do. The enthusiastic went off visit a nearby mountain lake, while the rest, including Miriam and I, decided that a day of rest and relaxation would be more appropriate. And besides, my dull headache. The previous night I had woken up with a thumping headache that I needed to treat with some painkillers. They had dulled the ache but I had not had a great night’s sleep even though I had kept my head elevated to try to prevent the build-up of fluid on the brain. I had been expecting a headache, but I never been at this altitude for a prolonged period of time and it had been much worse than I had expected.

(The domestic chores of a rest day)

The thing about this headache was that, if it did not improve or got worse, it could keep me from carrying on with the trek. It would be for my own health and safety, but the thought was still disquieting. The next day was the first high pass (4890 metres), after which there would be no way to walk out of the trek route without going over another high pass. And there was no way Sumit would let me do it if I hadn’t improved. He had started me on Diamox by now, which would help keep the fluid build-up as low as possible. Every year people die because they don’t properly recognise or deal with the symptoms of altitude sickness, so to have an experienced guide is something I would highly recommend. While we didn’t know it until we had completed the trek, a group walking a couple of days behind us, lost one of their number two days further on from Jangothang. It was a sobering message and made us appreciate the fact that we all made it through safely.

However, on our day of rest and acclimatization, the sun was shining and my headache was reasonably mild. The majestic peak of Jhomolhari towered above the campsite, its snow-covered flanks and peak glistening in the morning sun. It really is a magnificent peak. I spent most of the morning sitting in a chair doing a bit of reading and periodically becoming entranced by the mountain and spending what was probably hours just staring at it, watching clouds brush across the snow and listening to the distant sound of unseen avalanches. Jhomolhari is one of the mot sacred peaks in Bhutan, and at 7300 metres one of the highest. Nobody is allowed to climb it from the Bhutanese side, or any other mountain in excess of 6000 metres for that matter. I think this is a good thing. To leave some mystery in the world only makes it a more interesting place!

To make the day enjoyable, the crew had decided to make deep-fried sandwiches for a morning treat, and despite my raised cholesterol levels, I felt that I had to sample at least on of these culinary masterpieces. This was one of the first clues that our cook was going to excel on this trek. The group members who went wandering came back in the early afternoon, and I decided to explore the Jangothang site.

In addition to the stupendous views, there are also ruins of another 17th century fortress at this site. This one was adorned with many prayer flags, giving the scenery some colour and giving the ruins a festive feel. Like Drugyel Dzong, this fort is a relic of when the Bhutanese were defending their valleys against incursions from Tibet. We were to come across more on this trek; most just collections of stones that were crumbling, or just a distant jumble of rocks.

The rest day was over all too soon and we were all soon sitting around our trestle-table watching a feast of carbohydrates being brought out for us. We soon realised that this was a sign that the next day might be a tough one. Due to a camera malfunction that cost me a roll of film, I have no photos of the stunning Jhomolhari on the rest day...but take my word for it - it was magnificent! Below is the best I can do!

Day 5

That night I awoke with a splitting headache at about midnight and quickly accessed the painkillers I had brought for just an occasion. I had very little sleep for the rest of the night, but woke, with much relief, with no real headache a Diamox to take before breakfast.

So this was the day when we were going to climb our first high pass, Ngile La, which rises to 4885 metres. The day began with a gentle walk up the valley before we turned east and began the long climb up to the pass. The day was cloudy and this meant that we didn’t get to see the summit Jichu Drake, one of the more spectacular mountains in the region, however it did keep us cool. The trail soon turned very steep indeed. I was at the back of the group already feeling the pace, and wandering if all that training had been for nothing (I had been doing runs up to 20km long as part of my preparation).

It soon became a matter of putting one foot in front of the other and accepting that there simply is not the same amount of oxygen in the air up at this altitude. It was time to take things easy and it provided many opportunities to stop and admire the view back down the valley to our campsite. The previous night’s snowfall on the surrounding peaks added to the vista.

About two hours into the climb, it became a matter of setting myself into a rhythm and keeping going. My legs were feeling the 800 metre climb, and while I didn’t feel out of breath in any way, I could feel the tiredness coming on, along with a dull headache. After a short break we reached what looked like a flatter section, perhaps we were nearing the top.

However, when we turned the corner we were met with another climb that promised to tax us even further. At the valley’s head were snowy peaks, and between them, a saddle which promised to be the pass. Miriam, Sheila, and I put our heads down and trudged onwards and upwards. This was not so steep as the initial climb, but after that steep early section, together with my body rebelling against the lack of oxygen, it felt just as tough, if not more so. By this time we had probably climbed about 400-500 metres, only another 300 to go!

(View back toward Jangothang)

Approximately 3 hours in and I was wondering why I was not still sitting back at the camp with a deep-fried sandwich! Of course, they’d packed up by then and I could see the loaded yaks coming up the mountain some distance behind me, catching me up if I was any judge. The pass looked close now, but one of the crew, who sauntered past me with incredible ease, told me that it was probably at least an hour away at my pace. To make me feel better he told me that our leader was with two people even further behind than us. It gave me a sort of perverse pleasure to know that someone was suffering more than me. Terrible, I know, but I blame it on my oxygen-starved mind.

Eventually the pass came into sight, marked by the multi-coloured prayer-flags that were fluttering in the considerable, and cold, breeze. Howling gale would be a more appropriate description. By now I was carrying a couple of lead weights in each of my legs and could not manage more than a few dozen steps at a time, small steps I might add, even with the pass so tantalisingly close.

With only about fifty metres of climbing to go, I was reduced to counting twenty steps at a time and stopping for a breather, but even this proved too much, and with the prayer-flags within spitting distance, I was reduced to ten steps at a time. I hoped to god that all the passes were not going to be like this because I had ten more to go on the trek after this one.

The freezing gale helped propel me up the last few metres and all of a sudden I was on a gentle downhill slope. My legs, still with their lead attachments, carried my down far enough to sit out of the wind, and gaze across the bleak, but magnificent, landscape that lay before me. The dry landscape was framed by the mountain peaks that lined the horizon beneath a broken layer of cloud. Miriam took some photos, but I just felt awful and didn't worry.

Once I had sat down, we thought about having some lunch, although I must admit that I wasn’t feeling that hungry. After Sumit caught us, he headed on to catch up with the rest of the group, telling us that Margo and Neil were not far behind. This was one of the most enjoyable rests that I had on the whole trek, and I was pretty reluctant to get up again, but we still had a few hours walking to go before we reached our camp near Lingshi.

The descent started well enough, my body rejoicing in the downhill gradient, however, after about two hours, the physical toll of my fist real climb stated to have an effect, and I could feel my legs going weak at the knees. The descent took us down into some lovely forests, but I was far too tired to take much notice, only concentrating on putting one foot in front of other and watching out for treacherous parts of the track.

After about four hours I was wondering if the day would ever end, and looking up in hope every time we came around a corner with new view of the valley below to see if our tents were in sight. The descent turned into a bit of a blur as I fought my way through the fatigue. Thankfully at four-thirty, we saw our tents, but this was just a tease! We still had to clamber down a steep and rocky slope, making way for yaks at the same time as they passed us on the way the camp. After another forty minutes of fatigued walking, we finally reached the camp and I don’t think I could even manage a smile as I sat on a log. Miriam was kind enough to lay out my sleeping bag in the tent and I gratefully lay down, only lifting my head to talk to Sumit when he came by to see how I was feeling – bloody awful!

However, after two hours of lying down, and a cup of tea and some chocolate, I was feeling a lot my like myself again. I managed to get up to have dinner, and another dose of Diamox. As I sat and ate my daily intake of carbohydrates with some vegetables, I fervently hoped that I was over the worst of it. Thankfully it was. I slept like a log that night.

Day 6

I awoke feeling 100% better than the previous day. We started with a short but hard climb up to the Lingshi Dzong, guarding the Lingshi pass that crosses into Tibet to the north. The view from this place are fantastic, with the rugged mountains stretching in all directions. The dzong here is also a centre for traditional medicine, and there were many herbs drying in the sun. Inside the dzong there were some relics of the colonial influence, with some old firearms on the walls from that era. We left a donation, spent some time looking around the old building, and then made our along the track towards Chebise.

We walked along a track carved into the steep mountainsides and up to a mid-level pass. It was a steep climb up to what was more of a ridge than a pass, but nothing like the previous day. The views were, as usual, fantastic. We then made our way along more paths down to the village of Goyok, where we stopped for lunch. It was a great stew (probably mutton or yak) and we ate in the courtyard of one of the houses, sitting among the various drying meats and greenery. The view coming down into Goyok is one of the best of the trek, with the village sitting in a narrow valley, surrounded by sheer rock faces.

(View coming in Goyok)

Above the village is one of the oldest monasteries in Bhutan, Goed Dzong, built in the 16th century as far as I could tell from our guide. Like many of the dzongs, it has been renovated through work by the local villagers. It sits carved into the mountainside, however we did not visit it.

We carried on towards Chebise, walking on paths that clung to steep mountainsides, promising a long fall if one of the many landslides that we clambered over decided to move at any time. Chebise provided a welcome campsite, and a view towards the waterfall at the head of the valley. I felt good now, still taking the Diamox, but no headaches any more. I was adjusting to the altitude, but I continued taking the drug until we reached Laya, the mid-point of the trek.

(view towards Chebise)

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