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

Day 10: Cho La – The Frozen Pass

Tagnag (4676m) → Cho La (5420m) → Zongla (4835m)

Up at 5.30, freezing, dark, stupid leaking hydration sleeve has splashed over everything.
Me: “Whose idea of fun is this?”

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.”

Darby: “Next time, let's paddle kayaks around Tahiti or something.”

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.

Darby: “Oh, I put it in the thing.”
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.

Me: “For some reason, I keep fondly thinking of that lodge back in Namchee—”
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…

Climb. Coldest I've ever been. Fingers hurt like hell, toes following suit.
Me: “Hey, remember 14 hours ago baking in the sun on that bench in 30 degrees? Me, neither.”

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.

Me: “Yes! Yes! Hallelujah!”

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.

Aakash: “Where you going?”
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.

Me: “Pretty nice spot.”
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.

Toughest terrain we've seen – steepest, most bouldery, most scrabbly. Fighting for breath with each step.

Both Aakash and Darby cautioned me about photo-snapping, and scribbling, while actually moving on this terrain.

Me: “You mean, like pirouetting on an edge of rock at 5100 to get a panorama?”
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.”
Me: “Ooh, I dreamt last night I had one of those Khumbu Kolsches – it was delicious.”
Aakash: “That's why you had that ghost of a headache this morning.”
Aakash: “These guys left at 5.30 and they still haven't gotten any sun.”
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.

Belatedly work out that Shyan's English isn't bad; and that by constantly showing off my minuscule little bits of mispronounced Nepali, I've been stealing his chance to practice. (Which is worth a hell of a lot more to him, than Nepali is to me.) So when he passes me yet again, with at least twice my pack weight, I say, "You are a stronger man than I." He smiles – he's a really cute kid – and asks, "You okay?" I reassure him that I am, and he powers on.

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.

Aakash: “Michael! You are in a rockfall zone.”
Me: “Stop, don't stop. Stop, don't stop…”
Now have to worry about sliding back down in dusty thin gravel, injury potential…
Aakash: “Having fun, Michael?”
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.

Me: “I thought that was getting a little technical. Thanks for coming back for me.”
Aakash: “I generally don't like to lose one.”
Me: “I can see where that would ding your reviews on TripAdviser.”
I'm enjoying it again (the physical challenge of it).
Now I'm not again. 5237.
Me: “Last hundred metres. I could do a hundred metres upside down with my head in a bucket of shit.”
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.”
Top! Yay! Glacier. High five/hug w/A.
Me: “Thanks for getting us here safely again, brother.”
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.

Team MM

Earlier, Aakash had said that why he likes this pass is that you cross it to cross it, not to see something beautiful.

Me: “All pain, no beauty.”

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.

Yak Trax, baby!!

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:

Holy shit (glacier). Just when I thought this trip had no more surprises.
Dodgy descent, yak trax stop.
Me: “Yak Trax are awesome!”

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.

Lakhdan the Protector
He's doing this with 2.5x the load, no Yak Trax – and cheap New Balance trainers. Jesus.

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.

Off ice, onto dodgy cliffside boulders.

We finally emerged onto another amazing overlook.

Me: “Jesus Christ… this country never ceases to amaze me.”

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:

It's really as if the glacier is the pass, w/overlooks at each end.

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.

Another endless descent. My legs are knackered and so am I.
Darby: “I just don't understand how, with every town, it's uphill to get into town, and uphill to get out of town.”
Me: “It's kind of a miracle.”
I was done shot an hour ago.
Me: “Thank fuck.”
In. Buy boys drinks – whatever they want is on me.

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.

Yep, I'm definitely as shagged as I was after Renjo La. The ascent was a little shorter and easier (albeit steeper and rougher), but the descent way harder – and much longer. Even my face is tired, and my back aches.

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:

Morale is good. We're laughing and debriefing – agreeing that today was damned hard, but we're hanging in.

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.

Too tired to shower tonight – despite that it's going to be another 4 days until next opportunity.

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.

Tomorrow, Day Eleven: The EBC Superhighway

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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