For the second consecutive day in Braga the rain continued to fall. Plan A had been to make a three day diversion to Tilicho Lake, the highest lake in the world at over 16,000 feet. The mountain shelf on which Tilicho sits was visible from the dining room of our lodge, and it wasn’t looking good. Word soon trickled down that the trail had been closed due to avalanche danger.
It was Kendra’s turn to deal. Hearts again. I had gotten good at Hearts and Gin Rummy over the last few days, and by now our new Portland friends must have considered me a young Ted Kazyczynski when it came to card playing; cute and cuddly on the outside, but merciless and unpredictable under the hood.
“I’ve always liked Portland,” I said, “the people are weird.” Everybody nodded in agreement, studying their cards. I had been dealt a fearsome hand, and had to keep talking to keep myself from laughing out loud at how much I was about to slaughter everybody.
“But I must say, the last time I was in Portland the hipster thing had gotten rather out of control. We went into Stumptown for a coffee, and the androgynous girl who took our order was so indifferent to our existence that she almost fell asleep behind those big ugly glasses. When our coffee was served to us by a man dressed as a leprechaun we thought, well now this has gone too far.”
“They’re an alien race,” Kendra agreed. The rainy afternoon dragged on while we consumed thermos after thermos of milk tea. As it turned out, my good luck streak had been a fluke, and by late afternoon my Ted Kaczynski façade had all but crumbled. I couldn’t concentrate. It may have been mild carbon monoxide poisoning from the wood fire. Jake and Kendra entertained us with stories of life in Portland.
“There’s definitely a learning curve for new people who move to Portland. For instance, we take our wild mushroom hunting very seriously. A while ago a new guy moved to town and asked me where my mushroom hunting spot was. Everyone stopped talking and looked at him. I was like, ‘what the f@*# did you just ask me?'”
Soon people around us began exhibiting signs of stir craziness from being cooped up indoors. At around four in the afternoon we witnessed the very instant that a whole group of young adults went insane. One minute they were performing card tricks and telling tales of one-upmanship, and then suddenly silence befell the group. They wordlessly huddled around one young man with an iPhone, and with the seriousness of the Dead Poets’ Society the man began reading Snow White from a file on his phone. It was creepy. He read the whole fairy tale aloud to his friends over the course of forty five minutes while the rest of us shifted in our chairs and wondered just what in the hell was going on. I’m not going to stand here and pretend that it couldn’t have been carbon monoxide poisoning, as my ability to dominate at Hearts never did return.
“We have to get out of here,” Sheena said, a hint of fear in her voice.
“Agreed. Here’s what we do,” Jake began, “Brad, you and I will hike to Manang on a supply mission tomorrow. We’ll need more cold weather gear. The next morning we’ll set off for the pass. When the snow gets deep we can take turns breaking trail.” We all nodded gravely.
That night brought a fitful and cold sleep interrupted by bouts of wind and pelting rain on the roof. At 11,300 feet it had become difficult to fall asleep. In the morning we ate an inventive breakfast that the Nepalese cooks had concocted using the meager ingredients available at these altitudes—some kind of pancake made of tubers. Jake and Kendra moaned with ecstasy as they ate their tubers, and it occurred to me that alternative pancakes were probably very Portlandesque indeed.
In the morning Jake and I set off in the rain toward Manang, the district capital, although its modest population of 1,300 and the fact that it looked almost exactly like an Indian ruin hinted very little at its status. I quizzed Jake some more about Portland as we walked, partly because Sheena and I are considering moving there, but mostly because the truth about Portland is far more entertaining than any other topic I could imagine.
“Sure, Portland has a huge cycling culture, but would you believe I’ve been hit by cars three times while riding my bike? All that time spent in the ER is really what made me want to become a male nurse…”
We reached Manang and set off on a scavenger hunt. Although Manang looks very much like an inhabited prehistoric ruin, the influx of trekkers has given rise to a great number of shops selling knock-off trekking gear.
“All right, we’re going to need some ponchos and some gaiters,” Jake said as we reached the first shop.
“Gaiters? Jesus.” This was serious.
“It’s a necessary evil, man.”
“I know, I know, it’s just hard to believe it’s come to this.”
We entered the first shop, but they were sold out of everything useful. The second and third shops too. Things weren’t looking good. The storm had caused everything to sell out. Pretty soon we found four sets of gaiters, but it was worse than I had ever imagined.
“Excuse me, sir, but do you have any gaiters that aren’t neon?”
“Gaiter. One size fit all! Also have batteries. Chocolate bar?”
“We’ll take them. Better throw in these neon gloves too.” If we were going to get over this pass, we were going to look completely idiotic doing it.
“Look at the bright side,” Jake said. “If we go down in an avalanche it’ll be easy for rescuers to find us.” He had a valid point.
We raced from shop to shop looking for rain ponchos to drape over our bodies and packs, but everybody had sold out that very morning. One shop had a few, but they were all size Small, so we continued on. When we reached the very last shop they had two ponchos left—exactly what we needed! But to our dismay, an older European couple was trying them on as we entered. We squeezed around them to speak to the shop owner.
“Excuse me, but are there any more of these?”
“Sorry, these are the last two.”
We backed into the corner of the store and gave the shop owner the eyebrow furrow and steely gaze that meant, I will pay you anything you want for those ponchos. He nodded in acknowledgement and waited for the two to make their decision. I wondered if it was bad form to start a bidding war, but decided against it. Our breathing became heavy and we tried to will the couple to put down the ponchos.
Put down the ponchos … put down the ponchos …
“We’ll take them,” the woman said. We cursed and hurried to the door, and then ran as fast as we could back to the first store that had the small ponchos and bought two.
When we arrived back in Braga the sun was nearing the horizon and the ladies were at first very excited to see us. Their joy waned as we began unpacking our bounty, and then evaporated altogether when they held up their new neon gaiters.
“You’ll be easily identifiable in an avalanche,” we assured them, as if this would make it less painful. They reluctantly nodded in agreement.
The trail from Braga passes through Manang and then climbs steadily upward toward Thorong La pass. We would do the approach in three stages; first we would climb to the village of Yak Kharka (literally “Yak Corral”, and consisting of little else than just that) at 13,235 feet. The next day we would climb to the lonely high mountain outpost of Thorong Phedi, perched on the side of the steep chute below the pass at an elevation of 14,500 feet. From there we would make our attempt at the pass the following day. But there was a problem: with the pass covered in snow, we didn’t know if there would be any space at the lodges below the pass; no trekkers had come from the other direction in days, so nobody knew anything of the conditions up the canyon. If the pass was indeed closed, then the high camps would surely be full and we’d have to retreat. Our plan was to start early and try to be among the first to arrive at Yak Kharka to snatch up a room if there was one.
We hobbled our way through Manang where the incessant rains had caused parts of the village to collapse, blocking the trail. We wound around the debris and past some small landslides, leaving the village behind and making our way into the chilly, wet canyon toward Thorong La Pass.
The trail was steep and we weren’t making great time, and it seemed that several other parties had the same idea about getting to Yak Kharka early. Knowing that it was a very small village with limited rooms, we had to formulate a plan.
“I think we should send someone up the trail to secure a room,” Kendra suggested. We looked around our group. Sheena and I had the heaviest packs and were both recovering from debilitating blisters. Kendra smiled sweetly and looked around the group, her red cheeks showing off their dimples. That would never do. We needed someone cutthroat who would be willing to scratch someone’s eyes out if push came to shove. Then there was Jake.
“I say we send Jake. He has trekking poles, so he’ll be the fastest.” I silently noted that these trekking poles could probably be used as weapons. Jake agreed and quickly set off in a hasty pursuit of Yak Kharka. We watched him disappear around a bend, a two-legged man made fast and four-legged by his trusty trekking sticks, the brave Portlander, our Great White Hope.
The trek to Yak Kharka was only a couple of hours, and when we arrived Jake was sitting on a rock wall looking happy.
“I got us two rooms!” We cheered and I glanced at his trekking poles for any sign of a struggle, but saw no indication. After checking into our rooms the Nepali man who ran the place announced that the all of the rooms had just filled up. It was 10:30am. From our warm perch in the dining area we watched exhausted, frozen trekkers being turned away and sent back into the freezing rain. I have no idea where they went.
We spent the evening bundled up reading, playing Hearts, and listening to anecdotes about Portland life.
“It all started when I offered to help my buddy build a teepee on his property and we had to find some small trees to use as poles…”
We hit the trail early for the second day in a row, walking out of camp just as the sky began to shed its blackness. I don’t think I need to mention just how cold it was in the wee hours of the morning at 14,000 feet, but I will anyway. The nippy wind swept down the canyon like a frozen waterfall and my icy nipples stabbed at my jacket like twin laser beams.
The trail left Yak Kharka and followed the narrow glacial valley upwards toward an amphitheater of cliff bands. Below us a ribbon of teal water snaked its way downward, carrying glacial flour to the valleys below. I scanned the mountains and ridges trying to pick out the pass, but couldn’t discern a clear path anywhere. It must be a pretty steep approach, I thought. We traversed the river on suspension bridges and crossed a landslide, and then finally around midday we caught sight of Thorong Phedi perched below a cliff band.
Thorong Phedi wouldn’t exist if not for need of a staging area before the pass. It consists of several rows of rock barracks where trekkers may put in one final night of acclimation before attempting the pass. About two trekkers die each year crossing the pass, mostly due to pulmonary or cerebral edema, and in fact one man had died at nearby Tilicho Lake a week before we arrived. Climbing too fast was ill-advised, and we’d already climbed a lot for one day. We had left early in hopes of finding beds; failure to do so would have meant ascending to High Camp at an elevation of 15,700 feet.
The good news was that the snow had inexplicably failed to materialize. The weather had been very cold and we’d had bouts of rain, but there was no accumulation at Thorong Phedi. We played Hearts and Jake told us more about Portland.
“…It’s next to impossible to get paint to stick to a bamboo bicycle frame. They are very strong though. I’ve only broken one, and that was because I got hit by a car…”
Before long it began to snow, and as we ate our dinner it began to accumulate. The iffy situation had been upgraded to perilous. The ladies looked admiringly at Jake and me for having secured gaiters and ponchos for everyone. It was time to mentally prepare for crossing Thorong La in waist deep powder.
People approach the crossing of Thorong La much in the way that they would approach the summit of Mount Everest. The 3,300 foot ascent from Thorong Phedi to the top of the pass takes just over three hours. From there it’s a 5,600 foot, four hour descent to Muktinath, where plenty of warm beds await. But for some reason, people get all Ed Viesturs about it and set out for the pass at 3:00am. And so it came to be that we were awoken from our restless sleep at 2:30 in the damned morning by testosterone-fuelled self-motivational yells and whoops in various languages.
“Ja! Ich bin READY! Ich go auf der PASS!”
“Schmeinden bounden shmirgin HIKING!”
“Yar bruh! Let’s shred this mofo!”
By the time we deliriously rolled out of bed and met Jake and Kendra for breakfast at 6:00, all two hundred of our fellow trekkers had long since departed. We shared the dining room with one solitary rotund Russian man.
“So, how about these other jokers leaving at 3am, eh?”
“Yis. Zey leef very uhly.” He was bundled up in what appeared to be nine layers of ill-fitting clothing, giving him the appearance of a sausage link. He waited nervously by the front door while we ate.
“Well, if there is waist deep snow up there, at least there’ll be lots of people out in front of us to pack it down.” Kendra looked relieved that she wouldn’t have to wear her neon gaiters.
We paid our bill and hoisted our packs onto our backs, and as we did a porter came to retrieve the Russian man. They walked before us out the door and over to a miniature donkey.
“Oh please, don’t tell me…” I knew what was coming. The porter intertwined his fingers to make a stirrup and the Russian man thrust himself onto the poor, tiny animal. It was a horrible sight, the Russian man tilted uncomfortably to one side, hunched over, clearly struggling not to topple off the saddle. He definitely weighed more than the donkey, and the little animal struggled with each step to walk up the impossibly steep incline, led by the porter.
We breathed a gulp of thin, freezing air, buckled our straps, and began trudging up the pass.
The trail started off in a long set of switchbacks up the steep wall of a natural amphitheater. A thin layer of snow had survived the night, and it became steadily thicker as we climbed. We trudged slowly, breathing heavily at this oxygen-starved elevation. When we reached the top of the amphitheater the trail eased up and wound its way through a frozen moonscape of interwoven gullies. The ground became frozen and slick, and it was hard to keep our footing.
As we crept slowly along an off-camber section of trail, the porter in front of me slipped and dropped his enormous load of packs, pots, and pans. I hurried over to help him and noticed he was just wearing tennis shoes. He had a long day ahead of him. I bent down to help him hoist his load onto a boulder, and the effort of doing so nearly caused me to pass out. These boys are tough.
When we passed high camp we could see the places on the bare ground where several tents had been erected over night, and I was reminded that things could have been worse. As we made our way toward the pass we were repeatedly fooled by false summits. We began to pass some of the early risers who could have perhaps benefited from more sleep.
At around 9:00, thinking that we were approaching another false summit, the earth sloped away in front of us and we realized that we’d made it. I checked my watch and found that we were at nearly 18,000 feet! The clouds parted as they raced past the summits of the peaks surrounding the pass. An imposing peak stood to our left, while a massive red cliff jutted out to the right—Once a part of the Tibetan Plateau far below us. The clouds shifted and we could see down the valley to the dry desert ridges and rocks that made up the edge of the Tibetan Plateau—a place I never imagined I’d see with my own eyes.
It was otherworldly. It was one of the most amazing places I’ve stood, not only because of what I could see, but because of where I was and what I had been through to get there. It was freezing.
We dropped our packs and hobbled around the pass for about fifteen minutes. Several other trekkers congregated there, ducking in and out of a rock hut for shelter from the wind. After the obligatory photographs we again donned our packs and began the long slog down the other side.
The far side of the pass was another world altogether. Within a few hundred feet we’d dropped below the snow line; we were now in the rainshadow of the Himalayas. The land ahead of us was parched and rocky all the way to the Tibetan Plateau below us. Nepal’s northern border is defined by the edge of the Himalayan range, but we were now in the one small appendage of the country that lies beyond the Himalayas. Straight ahead was the former Kingdom of Lo, now a part of the restricted Mustang district, and beyond it the Chinese border.
We descended for hours, testing our knees as the trail wound down narrow ridges and valleys in endless squiggles and switchbacks. By lunchtime we reached the first settlement and stopped at a yak corral for a bite to eat. We ate with Jake and Kendra; Stuss, who had coincidentally gone to school in my hometown and worked long ago with Kendra; and Lowell, from California, who had fashionably made his own gaiters out of a grain sack and some string—and might I add, a man who would have benefited our team about three days earlier. We lunched gluttonously, for we had earned it, and when we were done we donned our packs and strolled the final mile to Muktinath, the ancient Buddhist pilgrimage site. As we ambled through the shrubs and boulders, bellies full of Tibetan macaroni and cheese, I could hear Jake’s voice.
“Yes, wild mushroom hunting can be a wet endeavor. I do very much enjoy it, but in the offseason it’s easier to harvest my own mushrooms by inoculating oak logs with fungal spores in my front yard…”