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.
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.
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.
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.
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…
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).
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.
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.
We emerged onto a rise, a little tongue of flat jutting into the void.
Altimeter read 4755. We were approaching 5km above sea level.
Aakash: “This land was under the sea, a long time ago.”
Aakash: “Did you see the two girls with the baskets, coming up this morning? Their job is to collect the yak dung.”
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…
We stopped to gear down, goop up, fuel up… and change hats.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Man: “Good morning.”
Me: “Ah. It's seemed like kind of a long day already.”
Woman: “It's beautiful at the top.”
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…
Darby: “Just you.”
At a stop at the top of those murderous steps, Shyan offered me some kind of salty Chex-Mix type stuff. 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.
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.
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.
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.
Aakash offered to take the med ruck.
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 (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.
But then Shyan came back down from the top, took Darby's ruck off Aakash, and Aakash took the med kit back from me.
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.
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.
The suddenness of reaching a spot like this was hard to get one's head around.
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.
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.
Ha ha ha.
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!
By this point, the shadow of the mountain was chasing us from behind.
I was the walking dead, basically, now.
Darby: “You left out ‘We apologise for the rocky descent.’”
Yeah, I definitely missed a trick there.
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:
Me: “I'm out, too.’”
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. 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.
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.
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.
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.