Dispatch from the Razor's Edge, the Blog of Michael Stephen Fuchs

Day 5: The Magnificent Valley

Thame (3800m) → Lungdun (4400m)

Just so we're clear, 4400m is 14,436 feet – shit-gets-real territory. And we'd actually be climbing up above 4500, on Aakash's latest little end-of-day mandated acclimatisation stroll. (That bastard. :) But, that would be then. Right now, it was another completely glorious late-autumn morning dawning in the Khumbu.

Darby (upon waking): “I've come to think of this process as the Great Rustling.”

That was Darby getting herself together for the coming day. It occurred to me that trekking is like a job – your work is never done. That said:

Me: “This trip is great. You can sleep all you want. Eat anything and never gain any weight… You know, every evening Aakash threatens a wake-up call, and every morning we don't get one.”

As regards the eating, dinner the night before had been fried potatoes. And I realised that, despite constantly ordering every vegetable going on every menu, I was still eating significant quantities of potatoes, rice, and bread, and even putting real sugar in my tea – and still losing weight. Also, despite the very pleasant sleeping in, I was brassed off in advance that when we got in tonight, Aakash was going to take us out on another damned hike. The monastery had some inherent appeal. But this… I mean, I did understand the logic of taking us to a higher altitude before going back down to sleep, but still…

Me: “You know, you're going to remind me of this moment in a few days or a week, but… I think this whole altitude thing is overblown. I've had no problems. It's a non-issue.
Darby: <wild laughter>

She then explained to me that each 1km you gain costs you a lot more than the previous one. We'd just hit 4km – and 5 would be next. While Darby soaked her foot, I went out. The fire wasn't lit, so everyone went out and stood in the sun to try to warm up instead. Though 'everyone' was just us, one German man, and the lodge staff – and Shyan and Lakhdan, when they rocked up.

Speaking of the cold, last night was terrifying because by the end of the night – in a routine that would become familiar – everyone staying there was huddling around the yak-dung-burning stove in the middle of the main room. And even just dashing back into the sleeping areas – which were basically made of plywood, and do I need to mention were utterly unheated? – was dire. And you're thinking, Jesus, we're going to have to sleep 9 hours in that! But, later, the cocoon furnace came through once again. Even a midnight toilet run wasn't so daunting, as warm as I was both before and after.

Breakfast was muesli for me, but I was instantly jealous of Darby's (local) Tsampa pudding. Aakash told us the Sherpas eat it – it's massively calorically dense, and powers them to the top of Everest. Afterwards, I got geared up, then Aakash and I repaired outside again to sit in the sunshine and wait for Darby.

It's hard to believe there is such a place as this – I tell A. – and that every moment of my life, through everything I've ever done, these mountains have been here.

The climb out of Thame was simply jaw-dropping.

Me: “With the sun like that behind us, you should be a one-woman power plant.”
Darby: “I'm trying to charge the tablet and the battery in parallel. If my pack catches fire, let me know.”
Me: “I'll be too busy taking pictures.”

The starkness of the shadows was just knocking me out.

Drama inflation – I've got it. This blows the Alps out of the water. It doesn't even look real.

It belatedly hit me that Darby hadn't showered. The facility in the last place had been basically a horror-show of a chamber, or maybe even dungeon. But, on the other hand, it was pretty spacious, well-lit, and had scalding hot water. On the long list of reasons most people don't shower at altitude is it's just way too damned cold when you get out. Anyway, this morning, the sun was so strong I didn't realise how cold the air still was until I started breathing it through my nose on the hills. We hit our first icy streams:

We took a quick stop to gear down and goop up for the rising sun and temp. As we did, I also realised I didn't have a trace of the so-called Khumbu Cough – the respiratory lurgy that most everyone up here gets – and not a trace of elevation headache. I was still dealing with the Khumbu Quickstep (diarrhoea), but that was my own stupid fault, and not only was it going away fast, but my bowels had really gotten with the program – I'd effectuated a big, satisfying dump right before departure. (It's all about what in the military they call "maintaining operational efficiency.") We carried on with the river on our right.

This section of valley another knockout – the churning blue and white of the water, and the yellow-but-otherwise-Martian sunlight, are just amazing. Breeze is still cold.

I started billygoating around to get high, large-framed shots. I like photography – as endurance sport.

Darby had previously told me that she basically took this trek because she needed to clear her head from work.

Me: “Well, if Nepal won't clear your head, you're terminal.”

Unprecedentedly, another group appeared on the trail ahead of us – they turned out to be a group of slow-poke Germans. I led the charge to overtake them. After we left them in our dust, I stopped to scribble, basically, the prior two sentences. Deutschlanders eating our dust Continually leapfrogging other people on the trail is actually a long-running (and, frankly, embarrassing) problem with me – I hike fast, but stop constantly.

Darby: “Don't write too long – the Germans will catch you.”
Me: “One of these times I'm going to fall off the back, and when I return, I'm going to say, ‘The Germans shouldn't trouble us anymore’.”
Darby: <gales of laughter>
Aakash: <not, evidently, amused>

Or maybe he was just thinking of how I'd have to deal with their Nepalese guides, who probably have khukuri knives…

Billygoating, yo Way up high, yo
Me (after clambering back down): “This valley is like nothing I ever imagined.”
I find it's also, somehow, causing me to appreciate my blessings, for once. I've had a pretty amazing life. Not least, right now. And of course most, albeit not all, of the suffering I've experienced I have created in my own mind. (As His Holiness reminded me, again, reading his book before the stove last night.)

After scribbling all of that, I found I had fallen pretty far off the back, and when I caught the others up I apologised and explained that I'd been having epiphanies, on top of all the usual Michael Work.

Darby paused to thank me for scheduling this trek on the shoulder of the season (as is my practice, to avoid crowds on the trail, while keeping decent weather). With the Germans, she'd gotten a little taste of what it was like to be stuck in the donkey train. I opined that the Germans were actually a blessing – or, rather, they allowed us to appreciate our great blessing. (Of, essentially, having Nepal to ourselves.) And that got us to tea.

At the stop – at the only place visible in the valley, in any direction – we met Andrew and Sue, from Devon. They were on their fifth Nepal trek. It was another fantastic spot, and I checked my altimeter: 4017m.

Me: “A new personal record!”
Aakash: “Every step you take will be a new record.”

I realised I'd probably better pipe down about that. Darby returned from the toilet.

Darby: “You ever lose anyone in a toilet?”
Aakash: “Not yet. That would be funny, to see someone soaked in shit.”

I hope this is coming through without a lot of extra commentary, but I just kept falling more in love with Aakash each day. I myself repaired to the outhouse, opened the door, took one look – and one sniff – closed the door and peed behind the structure, muttering to myself, “Every place in this country is a better place to pee in than that outhouse…”

When I returned, an adorable little dot of a two-year-old girl was carrying out pucks of yak dung to dry in the sun. And Aakash looked so much like an LA gangster in his ballcap, dark shades, and pulled-up bandana, that I got the Hollywood Undead song stuck in my head for pretty much the rest of the day. Not a bad marching cadence, though.

Through this segment, I felt so strong – like I could race back and forth all day. Maybe it was the unusually gentle upwards grade. We were gaining 600m of elevation today, but you hardly noticed it.

The Salomons are just aces – I'm hardly aware I have feet.

I was going and staying off piste a lot – initially climbing up boulders for shots (and for fun), and then just sort of staying up there.

Gangsta sexy
First dodgy bit.
Valley finally narrows again, after the broad section – which is what I'd been expecting, not a dramatic river gorge – as we ascend to our lunch stop. I know it must be the lunch stop b/c it's a place. So freaking happy today. :)

And so it was (a place).

We had, it seemed, a private dining courtyard, the mountains smiling down all around us – and not to mention another little two-year-old dot of a Nepalese girl toddling around, this one actually filling water bottles. Everyone works around here, it seems. And, just to switch things up, this time I got ginger lemon tea!

Me: “That was the heaviest lunch I've ever had – and I don't eat lunch!”
Aakash: “Things change in the Himalayas. Attitude chances with altitude.” <stretches in the sunlight> “Hmm, I'm getting sleepy.”
That's Swiss chiropracter and mountaineering badass Emilie – look for her later Working dot Another stinky outhouse

I had, not entirely incidentally, the fried potatoes again. While Aakash drowsed, Darby and I lounged in that sunlight and talked life plans, and the primacy of people.

Me: “I've got this entire gorgeous valley to piss in, and I'm going to do it in a tiny stinky room… hmm, nothing like dung drying in the sun…”
Rest of day is a short-ish, sharp climb out of valley. Looking back at the river and the lodge where we had lunch, and the valley behind that, and mountains behind that… I can hardly believe I'm here.
Dodgy icy stream crossing!

I actually passed a German man pissing; and finally reconciled myself to doing it Aakash's way and taking it easy and just staying behind all this German ass. But, hey, how could I complain about getting to spend more time in this valley? I used it to climb up and around, working for shots – and just to stand in wonder and awe.

Me: “4380!”

So much for piping down. Anyway, with that, we were into Lungden.

Despite this being a pure trekkers' outpost, our room here was kind of a delight, actually – colourfully patterned drapes, pillow cases, and crisp sheets. It was so charming I wanted to photograph it.

Darby: “So photograph it, then.”
Me: “Can't be bothered.”
Emilie, on left

Anyway and but so the Swiss woman, Emilie (2nd photo above, trekking crap piled around her), and who had also been there on our lunch stop, it transpired was from Lausanne, a truly lovely and posh city on Lake Geneva (aka Lac Léman). It further transired that she treks, skis, and properly mountaineers. I asked her what peaks she'd climbed and she named at least a dozen in Europe, South American, and Nepal. I asked her how she managed to travel so much. “I'm independent.” This could have had several interpretations, but it turned out to mean she was a chiropractor with her own office. When she asked me, seemingly rather pointedly, “Are you independent?” I was pleased to be able to answer: “Yes.” She showed me her single room, and it was a closet, with all her kit on her bed.

As we lolled around the main room, me continuing to chat up implausibly attractive Swiss chiropractor/mountaineers, Aakash broke out blood/oxygen test kits, and pricked us, and I scored 90, which evidently was pretty good. And thence we headed straight back out again, goddammit – and straight up the wall at the back of the valley.

And but then it hit me:

Me: “Hey – wait! is this our last stop before the pass!?”

And, weirdly, it really did just hit me. Tomorrow would be the big day: Renjo La. And tomorrow night we would sleep in Gokyo – twice. I asked Aakash the height of the pass. “5360.” Ahh! Altimeter currently read 4432…

At 4504m we just sat in wonder and watched the sun sink behind the mountain and its shadow race up after us. We sat and acclimatised until the shadow of Mordor fell across us. Then we went back down.

We kitted down, got into camp clothes (no showers), and I for one took a seat by Emilie by the stove, both of us reading – me, His Holiness; her, A Doctor on Everest. A German joined us and I greeted him. A huge gaggle of Nihon-jin (Japanese) spilled in, and I delighted in greeting them. I do love Japanese people, and the gentle and mellifluous sound of rising and falling spoken Japanese. They were on their way down, so all happily cracking San Miguel tallboys. I chatted with them happily, starting with a tiny bit of awkward Japanese, they switching seamlessly and graciously to English.

Me→D&A: “I'm happy. I just wanted to report that.”
We all fill the common room, or as many of us as will fit huddling around the stove, reading, chatting, drinking beer or tea, watching the light fail and waiting for dinner (as one does).

Aakash showed me a pic I took of him this morning, posted by him to Facebook with the caption, “I hereby declare myself the most attractive trek leader in Nepal.” Proper.

I sat by Emilie at dinner, eating bottomless dahl bhat – a wonderful convention; in addition to being the national dish of Nepal, dhal bhat has universally been declared to be bottomless, evidently ensuring that no one dies on the mountain from lack of calories – and she told me that when it got hard tomorrow, I must remember that beyond the pass was the most beautiful place in the world: Gokyo.

Aakash: “The pass crossing doesn't change anything – we'll still get up before breakfast, and leave after breakfast. The timings may change a little.”
1000m climb.
Wake-up 0500. Breakfast 0545. Leave 0630.
4.5 - 5 hours to get to the top.
600m descent to Gokyo at 4800m. 2.5 - 3 hours from pass to Gokyo. Terrain tougher than valley trails.
Sun doesn't hit until 0830. Only leaving early to have some daylight for safety.
Base layer under trousers, Gore-Tex for windbreaker, bring fleece jacket, food, water.
Nothing between us and Gokyo.
Up to 5360.


Tomorrow, Day Six: Renjo La – The First Pass

close photo of Michael Stephen Fuchs

Fuchs is the author of the novels The Manuscript and Pandora's Sisters, both published worldwide by Macmillan in hardback, paperback and all e-book formats (and in translation); the D-Boys series of high-tech, high-concept, spec-ops military adventure novels – D-Boys, Counter-Assault, and Close Quarters Battle (coming in 2016); and is co-author, with Glynn James, of the bestselling Arisen series of special-operations military ZA novels. The second nicest thing anyone has ever said about his work was: "Fuchs seems to operate on the narrative principle of 'when in doubt put in a firefight'." (Kirkus Reviews, more here.)

Fuchs was born in New York; schooled in Virginia (UVa); and later emigrated to the San Francisco Bay Area, where he lived through the dot-com boom. Subsequently he decamped for an extended period of tramping before finally rocking up in London, where he now makes his home. He does a lot of travel blogging, most recently of some very  long  walks around the British Isles. He's been writing and developing for the web since 1994 and shows no particularly hopeful signs of stopping.

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ARISEN : Operators, Volume I - The Fall of the Third Temple by Michael Stephen Fuchs
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