Continued from Part One
Just past midnight. It’s Summit Day.
Someone bangs a saucepan and yells “Good Morning Base Camp!” I feel well rested. It’s not too cold, and I put on my clothes and go into the homestay tent. Thankfully it doesn’t smell too badly of cheap fuel. Breakfast is porridge and there’s honey and I drink some tea. We’re given a packed lunch, too, all wrapped in foil. The others seem tired and they reveal they didn’t get much sleep. Poor Tom is suffering from a churning belly. Of all the mornings!
I feel strong, and I think I might just make it.
But first, I decide I need to take a dump. Better now than on the glacier (how true this would turn out to be). By headlamp, I walk over to poo hill and as much as I don’t want to, I decide to be the change I want to see and I use the filthy pit toilet rather than one of the few remaining patches of virgin ground. It’s still early, not even one o’clock.
Back at camp I finish packing and put on my outer shell pants and jacket. The pockets are already stuffed with things I might need, spare batteries, some paracetamol and altitude pills. Stanzin comes over. He casts an eye over my pack which now has little in it. He seems to check I actually have my crampons. I do.
We set off. It’s me and Stanzin, Tom, Frer and Andreas and their guide, and the two Israeli boys have attached themselves to our party. It really is pretty shameless. Still, I resolve to help them if they need it.
Others from other camps are milling around, and the bouncing lights of yet another party are already dotting the darkness above. Apparently they are struggling because we quickly overhaul them, grinding to a near halt on the steep hillside. There’s no easy way to pass, but the other guide pretty quickly loses his patience. That party’s guide mumbles something and the whole group shimmies left a foot or so, and we’re moving again. Before long we crest the hill, passing another slower climber, and hit the flat stretch leading towards the glacier. Tom wishes us good luck, and announces he’s turning back. His belly.
It’s dark, still, and a little colder. Snow starts to appear downhill on our right, pale in the LED light from our headlamps. The glacier is near, and then it’s right in front of us. We stop for a moment, but there’s no need to put on crampons.
I realise it’s more of a snowfield than a glacier, certainly compared to the glacier at Potosi. Still, caution is the watchword, and we climb up onto the snow. It’s flat, and the snow is thin and crunchy cold.
We stop again after carefully jumping a little stream. The other guide is getting stuck into one of the Israeli boys, who’s standing there in a T-shirt. “You think this is a picnic”, he says (not asks). “No, man, I’m only cold when we’re not moving. Back there I was burning up”. It’s just a few degrees above freezing. I look on in bemused wonder.
Some of us sit briefly but I stay standing. I wonder two things – what’s that noise and what’s that smell? The answer to both questions is the same. The other Israeli guy is taking a dump. And how! He is standing rather than squatting and though his knees are bent I worry about the angles. His pants are hardly down, and I can’t imagine how he’s going to hit the snow. The scene is even more comic because he sounds like a dog growling, or maybe it’s like the very beginning of labour. I don’t know because I don’t want to stick around and Stanzin doesn’t either. Nobody wants to stand on a freezing snowdrift in the middle of the night at 5,000 meters two feet away from a man giving birth to a poo.
The hard part begins not far further up the hill. We clear the snow and strike uphill on a field of smashed rocks. It’s still completely dark. Our lights, or mine at least, show only a small circle in front of my feet. I already gave my spare set of batteries to Frer, and I put my own light on low to preserve what juice I have left. He bought new ones, Indian, before the trip, but they died inside an hour. Mine are Energizers but I’ve had them a while.
We trudge uphill. For now, it’s hard just because it’s dark and the route is nothing but rocks. I don’t feel the altitude if I keep a reasonable tempo. A few times the other guide sets a tough pace and I lose my breath and I tell him it’s too fast. Yes, he says. Just take your own pace. Andreas is keeping with him. I worry that he’ll expend all his energy, but that’s for him to decide.
By now we are using our hands in places as well as our feet to get up the mountain. There’s snow, too, and black ice. In the dim light it looks like water, until you realise it isn’t flowing. Someone mumbles a warning and we pass the message down.
I realise this is just like climbing the Great Wall. Something I do nearly every weekend. Except for the darkness. Well, I’ve done the wall in the dark too. Except for the altitude, then. It’s not even as cold as many of my winter walks. This gives me some confidence, but I am careful not to let it get the better of me. The scrambling might be straightforward enough, but there are another eight hundred vertical meters to gain. And I still need energy to get back down.
“Getting to the top is optional, getting back down is mandatory. A lot of people forget about that.” Ed Viesturs
And suddenly I start to feel the altitude. I stick out my leg to take a step, and I wobble a bit. I check my altimeter and it’s reading around 5,500 meters. So low? Surely we’ve gained more than 500 meters since base camp? I resolve to concentrate and take it slow.
We reach a tricky stretch, a traverse across a steep pitch with some drifts of gravelly snow. I’ve caught up to Andreas, and not a moment later he slips and loses his footing. I don’t think he’d have fallen downhill, but instinctively I grabbed him and now I help him back up. The other guide, just ahead, turns around and is there in a flash. Just now I realise Andreas is suffering. He’s not really focusing and that slip has clearly shaken him. He’s mumbling something about turning back but I dissuade him, turn him to face uphill and give him a gentle shove in the back. He’s moving again.
At last the sky lightens. Out to the left, behind me really, I can see the grey wall of snow that looms over the valley below. To my right, beyond the ridge, the horizon is a streak of pale grey. The route is still tough, tougher even, and I crawl over a few rocky parts that seem too slippery to trust to two feet alone. But I’m not nervous. I have it under control. For now.
Sunrise comes at about 5:15am. We stop at what the guides call the shoulder. Andreas is there ahead of me, and he’s looking tired. He wants to turn back, still shaken. I don’t think I can make it, he says, and I remember my resolution to help the Israeli boys if they needed it. Same applies to this guy, so I tell him to look at me. He won’t so I take his face and turn it to mine, and I look him in the eye. “You can do it”, I say, with all the earnest commitment I can muster between repeated failed efforts to get a deep breath. “You lost your nerve a bit when you slipped man, that’s all. The hard bit’s done, don’t give up now”. No, he says, it’s too much, he’s tried to do too much. “Come on dude, that’s just your nerves talking”. I said this because I believed it. “The guides are here, they’ll help you up”. His guide chipped in with some pretty upbeat commentary, and Andreas decided to continue. He aimed himself uphill, stuck out his foot, and took the next step. I give him a gentle shove as well.
From here it’s an easy walk – or it would be at much lower altitude. But at almost 6,000 meters above sea level, it really is hard to breathe. Sitting or standing still is no problem, and even walking is ok. But as soon as I need to exert any more energy, to scramble over a rock, say, I realise there is very little left. I take 20 or 30 steps, and fall onto my knees, arms on the blade of my ice axe. Someone, I think the other guide, pats me on the back. I’m fine, I just need a moment to rest. But I get back up off my knees. Falling onto them was so relieving, it had the slightest trace of something spiritual. A tiny part of me understands why exhausted mountaineers might just sit down and die on the side of some eight thousander. It is very peaceful.
Here and there I need to scramble up and over a rock, or wind my way around an obstacle. That exertion drains energy quickly and the air seems yet thinner. The path falls away steeply to the right, and then to the left as I traverse onto the other side of the shoulder. I look up, and think I still can’t see the summit. Actually I can, but I don’t realise it.
I’m on my own now. Andreas is some way ahead, climbing with his guide. Frer is up there too, somewhere. My own guide Stanzin must be a few paces behind me, but I am pushing myself now, one step then another. I stop and rest again, a few more times, and slowly realise the top must be closer and closer. But I still can’t see it. Finally, I turn right with the path and see a sight I recognise. From YouTube. It’s the prayer flags and the last little path to the summit. I suck in deeply and get next to no air.
At the summit, there is a large pile of rocks covered in prayer flags. I walk towards it. I’m overcome with the urge to hug it, and I almost throw myself against it, arms wide. I let all my weight fall onto it and I realise I have made it. I’ve climbed Stok Kangri. My heart starts pulsing, and my whole body goes into strange convulsions. It is as if all the power I had at sea level had been jammed into a tiny box inside me and it has suddenly burst open at more than 6,100 meters. My chest expands and contracts, my belly wobbles rhythmically. Later I can only describe it as similar to the physical sensation of vomiting, but it is not at all unpleasant. Just strange, in a positive way. I let go of the prayer flags and walk around to an open area just ahead. Stanzin warns me of the huge drop on the left side and I have enough mental capacity to note that and avoid it.
The view! The air is still and the snowy ridges are beautifully defined. The sun is low and white in the sky, and the lower hills glow yellow and brown down below. For the moment I can breathe calmly and I find Andreas and Frer and the guides. I see the Australians, about to head down. The old Germans from Leipzig are nearby and they see me and I say, in German, “The Heroes of Leipzig!”. They laugh and return the compliment: “Der Held von Canberra!”
I chat with the others. Stanzin is fine, of course, and the other guide is laughing and making jokes. Andreas and Frer seem pretty exhausted. The Heroes of Leipzig are posing for photos with their banner. It reminds me of my prayer flags. I bought these with something special in mind, and that thought brings on a new round of convulsive breathing. The same sensation I had before. I have to stop everything, and in its detached state, my mind observes from outside as my body goes through the remarkably deep emotional response. It isn’t “happy” or “love” or “pride” or anything specific. It’s just raw emotion, positive overall but just raw, maybe from somewhere basic inside my genes. I don’t start grunting like a caveman or anything. I just let it take control of my body until it passes. Then I climb up onto the snow ledge and get Stanzin to take my Summit Hero Shot. Sadly the Germans are in the background but it’s still cool. I do a few on my phone for good measure.
There’s some time to try to enjoy the summit. Look around, try to take it all in. I notice a tiny little shrine tucked amongst the prayer flags. Later Stanzin tells me it’s for leaving offerings. Had I known then – had I had the presence of mind to ask – I’d have left one. I’ve told the other guys about our imminent child, talked about it incessantly really, before we’ve announced it to friends and family, but I don’t expect to see them again so what’s the harm? The mini prayer flags I’ve strung on my axe are meant for the kid’s cot. I think about that and another wave of that summit emotion hits me hard. I have to stop everything while it passes. Have to? Want to. It is a bizarre experience, like nothing I’ve ever felt in my entire life.
Suddenly it’s time to leave. Though it’s still, and not cold, it’s 6,137 meters. I can’t stay there too long, because I’ve gained over a kilometer in altitude in just the few hours it took me to climb the mountain. Hang around too long and altitude sickness is a risk. The others have already left. I head down sadly, and then ask Stanzin to stop a moment. I take one last, long look. The shadow of Stok Kangri covers the mountains below us.
The waves of emotion keep coming, all the way down to the shoulder. Halfway down, I stop and film the last bits of video that I later edit into this:
Climbing down is easy. I feel renewed, physically, as my body seems to understand that thicker air is coming. I feel elated, mentally, for the very simple and straightforward reason that I did it. I made it. I got there. And under my own steam, with a little to spare. Eight years of living in polluted Beijing; nearly 42 years old. I hope I don’t sound braggy, but I know a lot of younger people who couldn’t do this. Not a competition; just a fact that makes me feel good at that moment, fit, healthy, and strong.
I pass the other guys who are conserving their last energy and Stanzin and I descend quickly. At the big snowfield on the main slope, we just slide on our butts like I haven’t done since I was a child. Above the flat snowfield they call a glacier, we stop for a rest and bump into the Australian/Austrian couple. They’re full of beans – they were the first to summit. I lie down as comfortably as I can on bare rocks and bake in the sun. It’s hot now and I realise I left my sun hat behind. I will pay for this later with a bad sunburn on my nose. Energy drains from me and I think I must get moving.
I’m the first into base camp. Nine hours, roughly, for the entire round trip. I’m really happy on that last walk in, waving my hands above my head, holding my axe and watching the prayer flags fly in the wind. I made it, I did it, it was wonderful. Nearly there, I’m stopped by a British guy heading uphill. He plans to summit tonight and asks me to make a few comments into his phone. I do, and we laugh at what I say. Stanzin asks me: “did you really mean you were so happy to be on the summit you wanted to cry”? Yes, I tell him, it was true. He smiles, and tells me how happy it makes him, as my guide, that I enjoyed it so much.
Back at camp, nothing has changed of course. Horses come and go, people mill around. Someone hands me a chai, and I buy myself another Mountain Dew. Over the rest of the day, everyone else returns to camp, the Australian/Austrian couple not far behind me, the Israeli guys, Andreas, the Germans, and Frer. We all much around a bit, inhale lunch, and spend the afternoon sleeping. The Israeli guys bid their farewell. They’re aiming to return to Leh tonight, while everyone else will sleep here and descend tomorrow. Another crazy decision, losing so much height so fast. I see them give a decent tip to the other guide, glad that I didn’t have to suggest it to them as I’d planned. I point it out to Frer, who says he told them to do it. The Australian ski instructor leaves in a babble of big talk, and as he exits the tent I raise an eyebrow at Frer. “Typical ski instructor”, he says with a dry accuracy.
Tom is feeling better. Ananda decides to try for the summit the next morning and we all go to bed. I sleep right through the midnight call of “good morning base camp”, and wake with the sun (which comes later in this valley than it did on Stok Kangri). Ananda is already back, having not made it. Too hard, he says. But he doesn’t seem too upset. We all farewell each other, trade emails, and Stanzin and I set a strong pace. Within about four hours we walk into Stok. He arranges a ride while I enjoy my last Mountain Dew. It is so frozen I might as well be eating a slushy. Delicious.
I’m tired, I’m dirty, I probably smell after four days without a shower. My face is burnt, my thighs tight, but I am on a high like never before.
Stok Kangri, 6,137 meters. I did it. I made it. Under my own steam, with a little to spare. This was the best experience of my year and one of the best in my life.