Day 10: Cho La The Frozen Pass
Tagnag (4676m) → Cho La (5420m) → Zongla (4835m)
While trying to get ready in the below-freezing beyond-dark, I told Darby the story about the day Tim and I were slogging around the coast of Cornwall, and how we kept walking up and down these endless cliffs, with giant heavy packs on our backs… constantly passing all these legions of bathers lying motionless and happy on their towels… and how it occurred to me that had to be the conception of Hell in some religious tradition; and Tim pointed out that it probably did say something about our character that “this is our idea of fun.”
I gave up on my thermals, which had been soaked by the dodgy hydration sleeve, and went with the fleece-lined trousers I'd bought specially for the passes. In the below-freezing beyond-dark, Darby misplaced some critical piece of kit, and it took her a while before she finally dug it up.
Me: “Of course. I was going to suggest the thing, but it seemed so obvious, I couldn't imagine you hadn't looked there.”
As so often, humour was the saving grace in the face of misery. But, so was breakfast. Tea! Muesli! Noodles! We also continued our lamentations, and questioning of why the hell we were subjecting ourselves to this.
Aakash: “laundry service, hot showers…”
Darby: “WiFi that works, trappings of civilisation…”
Me: “I'm gonna make it back there one day, man!”
As always, Aakash inquired about our health, and I told him I had “just the ghost of a headache.” We were under strict orders to keep him apprised of exactly how we were feeling, morning and night. This was because the classic way to create an emergency case of AMS is to ignore mild AMS symptoms and keep ascending. But, speaking of endless ascents, now there was nothing to do but go out into the freezing pre-dawn and drag our loaded bodies up to another high pass…
All I could think about was keeping moving toward the line of sunlight, somewhere up above us and also about cutting off the third pass, Kongma La entirely, and all that went with it, like the third peak, Chukung Ri, from the trip. And descending as quickly and directly as possible back down toward sanity. In retrospect, if the lakes day had been the All Is Lost Moment of the trek, this was pretty clearly the Dark Night of the Soul beat of the story.
Finally, blessedly, Aakash led us in a proper dash up a hill, off the trail and to the right, and into the first blessed sunshine.
I sat collecting photos, and particularly heat, unmoving. I realised I'd only checked the temp once on my watch and it had read 1°. There were also damned few photos, and no notes, from this section… When I was warm enough to move again, I broke out my sunglasses, switched hats, climbed to my feet and got climbing again but in the sun this time. It was still salvation. I suppose I didn't really wait for the others.
Me: “The pass.”
To borrow a line from one of my characters: the sooner we got this shit over with, the sooner we got this shit over with.
We took a break at the false summit. Altimeter read 5101.
Aakash: “Yes, if you don't take a break here, it's an insult to this spot.”
Me: “Oh, man, that first segment sucked. All I could think that whole time was ‘Fuck Kongma-La’. But it's funny how your mood turns around when the sun comes out.”
And off again.
That flat pan ended quickly enough, and soon we were reminded this was a pass-crossing i.e. climbing day.
Both Aakash and Darby cautioned me about photo-snapping, and scribbling, while actually moving on this terrain.
Darby: “What could go wrong?”
Me: “Okay. I know an injury up here would be a big problem for you two. And this is broken ankle territory.”
Darby: “This is broken leg territory, you fall at the wrong angle.”
Aakash: “That's why you had that ghost of a headache this morning.”
Me: “God, that would suck.”
As on the first pass-crossing day, we were basically doing this in company with Shyan and Lakhdan, sometimes sharing rest stops together, at other times leapfrogging one another. As always, they were covering the same distance and terrain as us with 2.5x the pack weight, shitty shoes, and no hydration systems.
I stop for some phone photos, so as to be sure every last one of my ‘friends’ on Facebook knows exactly how fabulous and adventuresome my life is at all times.
Me: “Stop, don't stop. Stop, don't stop…”
Me: “Absolutely! I love pain!”
Falling behind doing Michael Work, I actually took a wrong branch of the path, and found myself having to use my hands to keep ascending. Luckily, Aakash came back to retrieve me.
Aakash: “I generally don't like to lose one.”
Me: “I can see where that would ding your reviews on TripAdviser.”
Aakash: “Darby, you'd better finish, because there's now a bigger climb behind us than ahead of us.”
Darby: “I hate you. I hate you all.”
Aakash: “You know what I'm going to say… thanks for coming.”
It turned out, of course, that despite me asking him not to… Aakash got me lunch anyway. And I discovered to my surprise that I'd accidentally brought my knspork, so I had something to eat it with.
Earlier, Aakash had said that why he likes this pass is that you cross it to cross it, not to see something beautiful.
But, actually, pace that, it turned out there was a freaking glacier at the top of this pass, which was devastatingly beautiful and would shortly prove to be nearly as deadly. Because we were going to have to get across the thing. So now out came the Yak Trax which if you aren't familiar, are basically steel overlays for your bootsoles, attached by rubber straps, a bit like crampons lite. And, thusly accoutred, we were going over the top.
As you will imagine while the camera was hanging around my neck and marginally safe to operate there aren't a ton of notes from this section. Here's one:
Darby officially reported she was having fun. The glacier seemed to suit her.
I stopped and repaired behind a large rock for a wee and judging from the yellow ice, I wasn't the first to have had this thought. When I emerged, I found Lakhdan stopped and waiting to make sure I was thik cha.
I took another minor spill, opening up the same hand as on Renjo La, the wound two inches from the last one. Stopped and dealt with it. At this point, my glove liners, which I'd been living in, were getting so torn and tattered I was starting to look like a hobo riding the rails.
We finally emerged onto another amazing overlook.
Aside from the gobsmacking view straight down into the next valley, and the majesty of Ama Dablam basically staring us in the face, yellow-billed choughs floated in the updrafts. Darby called them “summit ravens” because they were always there at the top, presumably hoping to get fed by lunching trekkers. I enjoyed shooting them, as I do, albeit missing about as often as I hit.
I belatedly clocked the basic (and charming) structure of Cho La:
Finally, bidding adieu to another sublime rest spot, there was nothing to do but… well, you know the drill. As usual, utter exhaustion pretty much precluded note-taking. Enjoy the views on our descent.
Me: “It's kind of a miracle.”
Finally/blessedly into lodge at Zongla, I got changed, and otherwise squared away, all pretty much on autopilot. Then I went back outside and shot these portraits of this yak.
Then back into the main room for a tea and a recline. While my phone slept and recharged, I did the same, snagging the one pillow going and racking out on the cushioned bench seating.
Aakash confessed that he only characterised Cho La as easier than Renjo La to keep Darby going. In fact, he said, if we hadn't been as acclimatised as we now were, Cho La would have been a lot harder. In the event, I definitely took today a lot harder than Darby did. Nonetheless:
The three of us confabbed about the next couple of days, and agreed to push on to Gorak Shep tomorrow. The plan had us doing only a three-hour day, which would have been welcome, but doing six hours instead would allow us to ramble up to Everest Base Camp (EBC) the day after and enjoy it.
After the confab, also too tired to read (by far), I lay down again, not sleeping, but resting my eyes and the rest of me while a random teahouse pooch came over to watch over me.
Lunch at Lobuche. 7AM wake-up, 7:30 breakfast, wear windbreaker, layers, cold. Gorak Shep: 5150m.