I face the 3rd last mountain pass trying to get back to our base camp. Tashi and I are out front, another two are about 15 minutes behind us and another group of three is at least 90 minutes behind them. We’re in a white out, I want to say that low cloud cover has smothered us but since we are at least 4.3km (14,000ft) above sea level somehow I think the clouds are exactly where they are meant to be. Not realizing the height at which we would trek to, I had not taken medication to combat altitude sickness, I’m nauseous, my legs are exhausted and have been for the last three hours, with every step is a struggle.
We left from the telecommunication tower above Thimphu at 7.30 that morning. Backpacks filled for the overnight camp. I have our dinner packed away in my rug sack and we take it in turns to carry the tents. It takes us 4 hours to climb to Phajodhing monastery from 2,300m to 3,600m where we eat lunch. We drop off the backpacks into the monastery, we’ll camp here tonight. At 11.45am we set out on the second half of the climb and what we believe will take us 2hrs to reach our destination, Simkotra Tsho, a high mountain lake. The first hour and a half gets up to the first pass at Thujedrag Goenpa (4,070m). The first signs of the near permanent snow is scattered across the mountain peaks which are laid out before us. Kinlay, who has trekked this route, known to as the “Druk” path, 9 times but the last time was over ten years ago. He believes that the lakes are just over the next mountain pass.
Five passes later and we reach the lake, its visible we’re all shattered; we look down on the lake from a cliff ledge as it is laid out below us, about the size of a football pitch, perched above the valley far below. Three of the group discuss going down the 150m to the lake edge, I have no problems in letting them know that I’m not able. I really feel the altitude at this point and my stomach is doing summersaults. The three start the descent as we wait, its 4.00pm at this point. It’s taken us over 4 hours to get here and I’m conscious that we have only a couple hours of light left. I decide I’m going to start back to camp and the other three are only too keen join me. We signal to the others that we’re off. The clouds have moved in at this point. One of our group is suffering from a bad headache, a sure sign of altitude sickness while the second is nauseous. All four of us are beyond tired.
The third last mountain pass was a bitch, Tashi and I broke away from the other two, I knew I needed/wanted to get to a lower altitude. The gradual incline for more than a kilometer rising to a height of 4,300m was killing me. We stopped at least five or six times, from our snail’s pace, to rest and catch our breath. We finally get there. We make it back to the last pass above Phajodhing at 5.20pm and wait for the two behind us. I was worried, Kinlay was pretty sick and I could see in his face he was scared. Tashi and I had agreed to wait at the pass as long as we could, leaving enough light for the hour hike into camp. We decide if it came to it, we would leave our hiking poles on the path with our torch so that the other two could use them to find their way back down. The sun had set at this point.
Luckily after 20mins they came into sight and 15 mins later they made it to the pass. None of us were as concerned for the three we left behind. All local, they did not seem to be as affected by the altitude. Tashi and I made for home. One of the benefits of the steep decent is the reversal of the otherwise deadly altitude sickness. If I learned anything from a month in Nepal 8 years ago is if you feel it, you must descend immediately. Tashi and I got back just before nightfall just as the wind and hail picked up. The other two were 10mins behind. The monks were a godsend, giving us all hot water. I, along with the others, were frozen. The other three arrived back two hours later in pitch darkness, a little worse for wear. Boy we were glad to see them. They had wandered off the path four times in the darkness, but thankfully each time realizing it before they had gone too far. The wind and hail has beaten into them but they had two got torches. Feeling like, what I can only describe as shit, we went to pitch the tents…..I’m the only one out of seven who had done this before, I couldn’t believe it! We collected firewood and managed to get a camp fire going, wet wood and all. It took us until 11.00pm to get dinner cooked but boy was it good.
In hindsight we should have acclimatize at Phajodhing before trekking to the lakes the following day. It went from an adventure to an epic mission but we made it. Lesson learned – prepare better!
We’re already planning our next trek! 😉