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

Day 6: The First Pass – Renjo La

Lungdun (4400m) → Renjo La (5360m) → Gokyo (4750m)

So, in a nutsack, here's what you need to know about the first pass-crossing day, up and through Renjo La:

  • It's basically 1000m (3281 feet) of ascent – straight up.
  • At the top (17,585 feet), there's roughly half the oxygen in the air that one might find at sea level.
  • There is nothing – absolutely nothing – between our starting point of Lungdum and our destination of Gokyo. It's either complete the day's walk, or die on the mountain.

But, at the top, up there in the notch of the pass… is one of the most sublime spots to be found anywhere on this here Planet Earth. And all we had to do was climb our asses up there.

Official Start-of-Pass-Crossing-Day Photo (brrr!) Bad moon rising No idea what awaited us…

Those first three shots of the day pretty well capture what departure was like: early, dark, scary, and very very cold – much like the night that preceded it.

Day 6: Shit Gets Real – or exponentially harder…
No lights in room. Much colder than last night. Base layers and shells. Bringing down jackets. Little sleep: was too cold for a long time.

I was actually belatedly working out that wearing my base layer to bed was a big mistake. It's so counterintuitive that I needed both Emilie and Darby to explain to me the principle that fewer clothes inside the bag is actually better – because the clothing prevents your body heat from warming up the cocoon of the bag. Unfortunately, when I finally bought into this (or maybe just decided to give it a go out of desperation) I was already tucked up – and had to get my base layer off from under my trousers – inside the sleeping bag liner, inside the other liner, inside the bag. (Getting naked outside the bag, in the ice chest of the room, was a non-starter.) I did finally get that sorted, eventually warmed up, and had just drifted off – when I had to get up and out and take myself to the bathroom, there to squat over a hole in the cold and dark.

Got back, got back in, faffed with getting three bags, clothing, and me fucking sorted again. And then D's alarm went off.

Goddammit. Well, there was nothing to do but get up and try to get ready – all of which we had to do in the dark.

Taking socks off, clothes off, was like: "!!! That'll wake you up in the morning!" Huddle around stove in 5 layers, drink tea, scribble notes.

When I learned that the Tsampa pudding was anecdotally 1-2k calories per bowl – and reportedly mostly protein – I decided it would be my pass day breakfast. I fired down a bowl, then asked, Aakash: “So – can I get another one of these?” The 4k-calorie breakfast. Wow. After that, I swivelled to face the blessed stove again, my swaddled feet still frozen. We'd been instructed to break out all the cold-weather gear for today. I considered, and was not reassured, that on game day, we were essentially changing everything: new clothes, new socks, new pack weight… However, the instant we got outside…

Thank A. for making us wear all this shit. Still, can't feel fingers or toes. Thank god for Buff.

And thence a few words on the abso-flipping-fabulous Polar Buff. Tim has been wearing Buffs – basically a sort of multi-functional headwear thingy that functions as scarf, hat, baffle, bandana – on our treks for years… and being made fun of by me virtually every time. But now the Buff was on the other face. This was my very last-minute purchase before departure – and I only bought it, in desperation, because on my shake-out cruise (basically a hike around London in all my kit, because you want to find out what doesn't work before you're in the Himalayas), I'd discovered my North Face baffle wouldn't stay in place covering my damned ears. Anyway, long story slightly less long, the Polar version of the Buff basically includes a warm baffle (or snood) at the bottom, multi-function wrap thingy at the top – and, absolutely critically, covers your ears, face, nose, head, pretty much whatever the hell you want, with virtually zero trouble.

Absolutely tellingly, every single trekker in the Nepal Himalaya had something like this. That I almost didn't still terrifies me. Basically, there's not even any way to put a price on a warm nose and ears, not to mention not breathing dust. Once I put this thing on, I almost never took it off again. Get one of these today – after the Salomons, by far the most indispensable piece of kit I bought for this trek (or, actually, ever).

Killer climb out of town. 4522m.

In case the temp isn't coming through in these photos (e.g. Darby huddling), allow me to report that somewhere along here, water from my bite tube dripped on my camera – instantly freezing… and freezing the damned controls.

I took to my notebook to try to convey what this was like – already.

Imagine the climb out of Courmayeur (i.e. 1000m of elevation gain) – except at sub-zero temps, and with 2/3 the oxygen in the air. Then again, the cold does keep your mind off the ass-kicking verticality of the climb. I don't even care about getting to the top – I just want to get into the sun!
Me: “I can't get into panorama mode until I de-ice my control wheel.”
Aakash: <laughter>
Me: “Shit, my notebook pages have frozen together…”

I grabbed a small rock to try to knock the ice off my camera controls, while Darby admired the construction of a climbers hut.

Climbers hut
It's warming, I think, but clearly not above 0, as my controls still jammed, and I can't get my rock into the crannies…

We emerged onto a rise, a little tongue of flat jutting into the void.

Me: “Holy shit.”

Altimeter read 4755. We were approaching 5km above sea level.

Me: “That Sherpa porridge is good stuff. One bowl of that and I feel like I could do this all day.”
Me: “How is there a beach on top of this mountain?”
Aakash: “This land was under the sea, a long time ago.”
Wrong way Free fuel
Me: “There's perfectly good fuel lying all over the ground. We should collect it and make a killing.”
Aakash: “Did you see the two girls with the baskets, coming up this morning? Their job is to collect the yak dung.”
Dumbass that I am, I only now remember got I've got a knife with 1,100 tools, which I've been lugging all over Nepal, and use that to de-ice the camera.

We were at 4932. I noted that Darby seemed to have stopped talking. She just nodded. I didn't know then to take this as a bad sign. But it was.

And then… sunshine. Salvation. You can't even imagine how great it felt to cross that line out of shadow, and start to be warmed by the sun.

I'd been lollygagging behind again, shooting and scribbling, and when I caught the others up…

Me: “I don't want to worry you, but the yaks kind of had a go at me. They sort of all swept down the hillside, and for a second I was afraid they were going to cut me off. When I got clear, they were all stopped and staring at me. Like, ‘That's right, you better fuck off.’”
Our path… …bitches Still King of the Mountain

We stopped to gear down, goop up, fuel up… and change hats.

5,003m! And I feel fine, aside from being a bit winded. Take a seat to breathe, celebrate, scribble notes, and let others catch up.

I also belatedly noticed the weather, now that the sun was up and we were out of the shadow of the mountains, was absolutely sublime.

Not a cloud, sharp sunlight, very light cold breeze, one or two chirping birds. Lean back on my ruck and soak it all in. I'm the King of the Himalayas.

And then… and then I realised the others weren't catching me up. They were still back down there. When they did start moving, I saw Aakash was carrying Darby's pack – alongside his own, along with the med kit.

The altitude had hit Darby.

I descended back down to meet them, and took the med kit off Aakash. We had a brief fight about that; but I told him I was either taking the big bag, or taking the small bag, and he'd better choose if he wanted a say in which. And then we got moving again. As I said from the outset, there was no choice – it was get all of us across the pass to Gokyo (the next anything) or die on the mountain.

Ole ‘Two-Rucks’ Aakash

We'd actually been leapfrogging Shyan and Lakhdan all day (for once), and when next we caught them up, we stopped again and Darby took some ibuprofen. As you may know, there's absolutely no way to tell who is going to be hit by AMS, or at what altitude. To her credit, Darby was still on her feet, and still moving. But we later realised we'd effectively found her full-operational ceiling, and it was about 5km.

As for me, with the med kit slung over my shoulder, my rig had gotten a little more complex, but otherwise: Bhai hal chai, ni. (No worries.) We set off again.

I'm smart enough to keep my mouth shut, hump my load, and keep climbing. And going slow is good. (I admit, particularly with the extra weight.)

Seriously, I'd learned the hard way over the years, that if someone else is struggling with a climb, exhortations and motivational pabulum are the opposite of helpful. The best thing you can do is shut the f*&^ up and let the other person bang out the climb.

We passed a nice English couple on their way down.

Me: “Good afternoon.”
Man: “Good morning.”
Me: “Ah. It's seemed like kind of a long day already.”
Woman: “It's beautiful at the top.”
Slow is good. I can scribble notes, take pictures, and catch my breath. Not to mention ogle the ridiculous scenery.

Something made a lonely whooping noise. As I turned to look, Aakash told me it's called a snowcock. Maybe that set the tone, I don't know, for my next comment a little bit farther up the path…

Me: “Is it just me, or are some of these stone cairns disturbingly phallic?”
Darby: “Just you.”
She speaks! Good sign. :)

At a stop at the top of those murderous steps, Shyan offered me some kind of salty Chex-Mix type stuff. Weird food break It was good, it was spicy, and if it kept those guys going… And then Aakash dumped two sachets of spices into what looked like cups of instant noodles. He offered me some. They were instant noodles (uncooked). I had to trust these men knew what they were doing, fuel-wise.

It's painstaking work at this altitude – one little stair-step at a time, with frequent breaks.

And it wasn't just the murderously steep terrain and the oxygen-denuded air. I also learned something surprising and problematical: that I evidently don't breathe when taking photos. This was a huge problem, actually. You'd think that, after my little photo-snappy stops, I'd be rested and recovered to carry on. But the opposite was proving to be the case! I was utterly winded each time I started out again! Basically, with the air so thin, if you missed even a single breath, it was really hard to catch up, to make up the oxygen deficit. I was having to train myself to consciously suck wind while taking photos.

Darby stopped to sun-goop up, slightly trapping Shyan and Lakhdan behind her.

Darby: “I'm blocking the path.”
Me: “The obstacle is the way.”

And the true path is no path. And then… we caught our very first first glimpse of the top of the pass! We were at 5177.

Okay – NOW I want to know where the top is!
Me: “So, Darby: Patterdale to Shap – better, or worse?”

I explained the reference to Aakash – and that, back then, on the longest and toughest day of the Coast to Coast path, I had considered that to be the hardest thing I'd ever done in a single day. We were now at 5247.

Me: “I've gotten religion on going slow – it's the way forward. I think my brain is using too much oxygen. I need to turn it off.”

Aakash offered to take the med ruck.

Me: “Not a chance. Not unless you give me yours.”
Aakash: “Not a chance. One tired trekker is enough.”
Me: “Yeah, I guess we're your problem, but you're not ours.”
Aakash: “That's not right. When you go into the mountains, it's a team.”

#AakashLove. He turned, hooted loudly, and made echoes off the mountains that surrounded us.

As we braced up for the final, stupidly steep ascent, this also involved stepping back into the shadow of the mountain – and the temperature instantly plummeted.

Me: “Whoa-ho. That makes a change. And I just took my Buff off…”
Me (a bit later): “Thik cha; thik cha [it's okay] – that's my new marching cadence. In and out.”

As anyone who's experienced it will tell you, it's actually pretty scary when you can't get your breath – and I couldn't get mine.

Thik cha

But then Shyan came back down from the top, took Darby's ruck off Aakash, and Aakash took the med kit back from me.

Me: “Ooh, that does make a difference.”
Stands to figure: more weight = more work = higher 02 requirement.
Me: “All right. Let's put this climb out of its misery.”
Behind us (from the top)… …the border between…
…and what now lay before us
Holy shit. 5360.
Me: “I see why people come up here.”

Dead center there, right over the first and biggest Gokyo Lake, you can see Everest, Lhotse (fourth highest peak in the world), and Makalu (fifth). Amongst other things, this spot is said to be one of the best views in the world of the 8km peaks.

Right after we got there, a German couple came up the other way.

Me: “Good job.”
Them: “Damned right. This is our third pass.”
Me: “That deserves a high-five.”

A bird Aakash told me was a yellow-billed chough landed between us and all the completely breathtaking awesomeness; and, still in an oxygen-deprived daze, and stunned by the spot, and in my usual obsession with shooting wildlife, I spent the next however long clacking my shutter at it, along with everything else.

Gokyo – our destination for the day <gulp>

The suddenness of reaching a spot like this was hard to get one's head around.

Aakash: “That's what I like: you don't see anything—”
Me: “—and then BOOM.”

And then… and then Aakash busted out with lunch. Veg fried potatoes for me, and pancakes for Darby. I asked him whence this miracle; and learned he had humped all of it all the way up here with him.

Me: “Thanks, man. You're always looking out for us. You either find the best lunch spot, or make one.”

He'd even brought me toothpicks to eat the potatoes with. And a donut for desert! I sat there on a perfect stone bench, eating my fried potatoes with a toothpick, staring at one of the best views in the universe, happy.

And a few more photos. Because, Jesus.

And then there was nothing to do but go down again – the other side. Because we still had to walk our asses down there. And as we'd learned to our cost on Patterdale-to-Shap… not only is a loaded descent harder on your legs than a loaded climb. But that endless descent, after the murderous climb, is actually harder on your soul. We'd be relearning that lesson now. For the moment, absurdly, I was still jovial.

Me: “The air can be as thin as it likes – 'cause we're going downhill!!

Ha ha ha.

Farewell Renjo La

We were going downhill now, perhaps, but it was still a moonscape – Aakash had warned us that the terrain would be a lot rougher than the valley – and we were still at 5300. I took a brief pitstop to change a flat contact lens.

Along here, while sidestepping through gravel to get the shot I wanted, I took a little skid into a big rock. This necessitated another quick stop, for first aid this time: a little Dettol, plasters – good to go!

I belatedly realise we're traversing this crater of the moon with Sagarmatha, Lhotse, and Makalu staring down on us.
Crater of the Moon Everest, Lhotse, and Makalu Everest Closer – but not what you'd call close
Ice – including grey-dust-covered ice!

By this point, the shadow of the mountain was chasing us from behind.

Me: “It's like we're racing the night… Man, before I just couldn't get enough O2. Now, I'm knackered.”

I was the walking dead, basically, now.

Me (loudly): “This is the Captain. We're currently passing through five thousand metres on our descent to Gokyo International. We're third in line to land, so we should have you on the ground right about your scheduled arrival time.”
Darby: “You left out ‘We apologise for the rocky descent.’”

Yeah, I definitely missed a trick there.

Me (dodging yak dung): “Free fuel!”

For some reason, I found myself saying a lot of the sort of amusingly goofy things Mark would say if he'd been there. Darby laughed at this one, and we agreed this definitely wasn't the trip for him – i.e. that, disappointed as we were not to have him there, he had probably been right to stay away. And, as regards a next trek:

Darby: “Try to top this one in strenuousness, I'm out.”
Me: “I'm out, too.’”
Me: “After all that endless descent, we're still at 4838. Before yesterday, neither of us had ever been in the ballpark of 4500. How quickly things change.”
Aakash: “Still, somewhere in the back of the mind, it feels low.’”

And, finally, at long long last, after a concluding walk around the edge of the first Gokyo Lake… we were in. Tang, yo Aakash made the dead (us) drink mugs of Tang, presumably to rehydrate and get some electrolytes down – and our blood sugar up. We were both far too destroyed to protest.

Darby: “Looks like we're going to be warm tonight.”

Yeah, that was truly one shit-ton of yak dung by the stove. In other circumstances, a huge pile of shit might have been something other than fantastically heartening; but not here.

Finding-the-room pro-tip: the 100-numbered rooms are actually on the level above the fucking 200-numbered rooms.
Not my best look; but definitely conveys what it felt like to have just crossed Renjo La

By the time I stumbled back to the main room, I swear to god I was so shattered and shagged I could barely walk or see – here's what that looked like – and talking was definitely out. So we just sat in the refracted sunlight, and were still and quiet, and let the pain slowly subside.

Evening briefing:
A.: "Just for a change, we're going to wake up after breakfast."
Me: "So breakfast in bed?"
7am wakeup, 7:30 breakfast, leave 0800. Bring base layer. Glacier! Everest view.
A. in #26, last on right.

It had nearly killed us. But we had crossed the pass.

Tomorrow, Day Seven: The Hidden Lakes of Gokyo

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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