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

Day 14: The Last Pass (And My Best Day)

Lobuche (4940m) → Kongma La (5470m) → Chukhung (4730m)

I slept straight through, all night, dreaming – the theme of which was that London is my (spiritual) home – and whatever it is I am looking for, I will find there. Awoke with a sense of peace – that everything is just fine, and all of it is going to be okay. Now, this morning, and forever.
[And, having written that down, my bowels even started to move! Here come four large dinners and myriad breakfasts & lunches! And coconut crunches.]

I don't suppose I mentioned the abiding (post-Khumbu-Quickstep) constipation. For, obviously, excellent reasons. As we prepared for the last climb, and last big push, Darby bundled up and said:

Darby: “If there's any sustained climbing, these pants are coming off.”
Me: “Girls are always saying that to me.”
Badass pass climbers, ready to rock Out into another froze-ass pre-dawn

Yep – one more glacier to cross, before we could even start the climb.

Big-ass glacier Froze-ass glacier
Darby clothing break – merciful Sun! I get up high.

I asked Aakash the elevation of the pass again: 5470. I stole a look at my altimeter: 4940. Yep, this was gonna hurt. And it wasn't going to suck itself…

Me: “If we're going to be climbing in the sun for a while, and we are, I've got to call a stop to gear down… looks like it's just a pants-changing festival.”

Plus the all-important hat change (silhouetted in next photo).

Me: “Now I'm ready to kill the hill.”
This is pleasant now! Little hill climb in the sun! Though, I can't believe we got passed by Batman.

There are sadly no photos, and I can't even quite recall whether it was someone in a full-on Batman costume, or just a hat or t-shirt or something. Also – in a turn that was as inevitable as it should have been predictable – we soon walked right back into the (freezing) shade of the mountain…

Back out of the sun… …and onto a frozen-ass stream

…and then things got worse.

Me: “That is one frozen-ass stream.”

It was not only frozen solid, it was steep as hell – and it was big, seeming to cover this whole section of mountainside. Worse, rather worse, Aakash eventually opined that we were actually on the wrong side of the damned thing (to get up to the pass).

Me: “What's the plan?”
Aakash: “Crampons.”

That is, there was seriously no way to get up this 45-degree chute of ice safely without them. And we were all out of crampons.

Aakash: “Or we could just hang out until the sun melts all this.”
Me: “What the hell kind of cold freezes a stream solid as it's tumbling down a slope this steep!?

There were two other dudes up there, equally trapped and flummoxed, and soon all five of us were trying to plan a route through the danger zone. Now it was a full-on expedition. As I necessarily laconically noted in the notebook:

Dodgy as shit stream climb/crossing!
‘Keep up’

As we searched for bits of non-frozen boulder to inch and hop across, Darby bollocked me for taking a picture in the middle of it, and generally falling behind. This was because, basically, she had to follow literally in Aakash's footsteps, and I needed to follow in hers.

Darby: “Dammit, every time I stop to wait for you, I lose Aakash.”
I, belatedly, get it. This isn't photo time. This is stay-the-fuck-alive time.

That's why there are only three photos of this madness, above; and the last one is from after we got clear of it, as is this one. →

Once we got clear of the death zone, and into another ass-kicking and endless-seeming climb, Aakash promised we'd take a proper break on a flat place about 200m below the pass.

Darby digging out food – to save us all
Darby: “Dammit, where the hell is this flat place!? Wait, I know what's wrong… what time is it–?”
Me: “Stop the train! Stop! Darby's hungry! Darby must eat!”

Yeah, she's one of those – fail to feed her regularly at your own peril.

That rumoured, if not actually mythical, ‘flat place’. It didn't last.

Me: “Damn, dude. That's some steep-ass shit.”

Yes, seriously – we started the day's walk DOWN THERE.

Gigantic boulder field. Mindful that, even here, one misjudged step, and my ankle – or lower leg – could crack in half. And then it's a mountain rescue situation. And then I'll be a long time getting off this mountain…
Rockslide! Mostly pebbles and dust, but there's one big enough to do some damage – and I actually have to run to get out from under it.

And after that last (new, unique) peril, all that was left was the final ascent. As I passed over the last rock before the summit, I said aloud:

Me: “That's it. After this step, I am descending.”

Probably needless to belabour (on top of shots like this), the views and setting at the top of Kongma La were stunning – standing up very well even against the lakes and 8k peaks of Renjo La and the mountain-top glacier of Cho La. It even had a summit pooch.

Pooch Fuches Custom Trail Mix, baby! Nom, nom

And down. The difference this time was… I had no idea what we were in for on the other side: the Imja River Valley.

Darby: “Don't look now, but there's a proper graded trail. And it's flat.”
Me: “Don't tease… Wow! This is what most people mean by hiking.”

Aakash was right (as always). Everything would get easier after this.

On the other hand:

Still can't even SEE the town…

We were a long way from in for the day.

On the other other hand: we were starting to properly emerge out into the Imja River Valley – and it was getting bloody breathtaking, and fast.

Aakash (gesturing broadly): “This, you just cannot imagine – it's like a painting.”
Me: “It's the most beautiful place I've ever been.”

We took a rest stop for Second Lunch. I racked out on a flat rock, head propped on med kit, face under my hat. (Only learning months later that Aakash had immortalised the moment.)

On this stop, I also had what was for me a pretty big epiphany about the conclusion of the series, which I wrote down in the back of the notebook, and shall reproduce here. Apologies if you don't give a damn about ARISEN; but of course I mainly do these dispatches for myself, and like four other readers, and I think two of them read the series…

13 & 14: I can't phone this in. It's got to be huge; and its going to take all year. Every surviving character has to arc. The action & peril have to equal/exceed what's come before. People have to die. I have to work seriously, and steadily, and for a long time, on design. It's going to hurt. I've got to finish it RIGHT.

It's pretty interesting to see this, in light of how the series ultimately turned out (and what I had to go through to get it there). Prior to this moment, I had honestly been thinking – particularly with how hard Books Eleven and Twelve had been – that I could kind of just wrap up. And that, having pulled those off successfully, it was now mine to lose. But – no. The reality was I had to prove it again, and take it up multiple notches – every time out.

Aakash: “Michael?”
Me: “Ha jur?
Aakash: “How are you.”
Me: “Great.”
Aakash: “Good day?”
Me: “The best.”
Aakash: “Every day is the best day of the trek for you.”
Me: “No – the best day of my life.”
Aakash: “What made it the best?”
Me: “It was the hardest and most beautiful.”

And but of course inevitably the end of the day still turned into a death march (as asskickingly long trekking days like this always do), with us in the role of the walking dead, and culminating in crossing a frozen stream ↓ when we were too tired to do it safely. How do I know? Lapidary end-of-day death-march notes!

Death march, walking dead, frozen stream.

And but this very special look from Darby (back at me) reminds me of what there are (necessarily) no notes of: the fact that she basically told me to put the damned camera and notebook the hell away and light a fire, for once. Basically, she was just crushed, and just wanted to for God's sake be in for the day – and not hanging around while I, you know, did yak portraiture. I think she expressed it respectfully, that it was my trek too and she didn't want to ding it for me, but on this one I, you know, needed to take one for the team (read: her). I agreed; and complied. Maybe this is actually the dodgy frozen stream crossing:

And at very long last in – to Chukhung, 4785m. The lodge was an absolutely beautiful place – and a placard on the desk indicated they took AmEx! Muahahaha. Darby came back singing the praises of the flush toilets. Civilisation indeed. And then… and then I went straight for that long-awaited, desperately needed, and long-fantasised-about shower.

Motherfucking shower broken. Bastards.
Me (sighing): “It's fine. I made it five days, I'll make it a sixth.”

Speaking of which (a fifth), I immediately went and bought beers for everyone in the party. Beer! Freaking beer! We were officially descending, and could drink again! Yee-freaking-hah!

Me: “I'm enjoying this enormously more than I expected to. I haven't been drinking [which usually dings my enjoyment of drinking], I'm dehydrated. It's San Miguel – not refrigerated [leaving it in the unheated bar area overnight seemed to be considered more than sufficient]. My expectations were low.”

But the beer was truly awesome.

Darby: “It feels like the pass was yesterday.”

And so it did. From contemporaneous facebook post:

Here are four lovely photos that Aakash took of us, what I think were from today (or today-ish), but can't quite figure out where they go and so here they are.

Tomorrow, Day Fifteen: The Earthquake Day

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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