Tuesday August 14 2007
When you travel in foreign countries, sometimes you form special bonds with certain people you meet. Someone you spend a few days on the road with, far away from home, can become a closer friend, and much quicker, than someone you meet at home and you've known for half a year. It doesn't matter if you're both from the US or if you're from the US and South Africa – you're both at this moment travelling (in this case with a backpack) in a foreign country, doing something like planning a 3-week trekking route in a Kathmandu restaurant. “Instant kinship,” I've called it. Any kind of relationships you form with people in special circumstances – travel, unique work - can be special, but nothing is like the ones you form when you're travelling in some other part of the world.
On October 18, 1991, I went out to the El Bistro restaurant in Kathmandu Nepal with Heather from Canada, Lisa from somewhere, Bob from Canada, Florence from Italy, Kjersti from Norway, Karl from Germany, Luigina from Italy, and some gal from Canada. “We had such a fine time, 9 strangers sharing a meal for a night in Katmandu,” I wrote in my journal. That dinner with Kjersti was where we decided to hook up for a 21 day trek around the Annapurna Circuit in Nepal together.
My Himalayan trekking partner! We'd struggled together, on our own foot power, over miles (3 weeks of miles) and mountains (over a pass at 17,872 feet) and rickety bridges over raging rivers. Her shoulder had been dislocated by a bad taxi ride just weeks before, and my backpack broke on the second day out. Along the way we drank tea from cups cleaned with dirt, we ate food in dirty guesthouses, children with sores and diseases clung to our legs, we struggled along exhausted on some days. We slept in places so cold we wore everything we had and only our noses were sticking out of our sleeping bags. We got tired of being dirty, we got tired of being cold, we got fatigued and winded and some days could barely go on, but we never tired of the spectacular scenery all around us.
The following is an account of our final day of ascent of Thorung La Pass in November of 1991. Andrew, a Welsh guy had been trekking with us for about a week.
What a day! It started at 3 AM when 2 girls in our room (a dorm room of about 14 beds, military barracks style) got up to leave, but they were pretty quiet. We won’t even mention the noisy bloody Englishman and the amplified theatrical snoring we all had to suffer through all night. His group-mates weren’t kidding when they warned us about him. Then SnoreMan and the rest of that group got up about 4 AM and must not have noticed the 3 warm bodies still trying to sleep at the Ungodly hour. Or they didn’t care because they didn’t make any effort to be quiet. Pack, rattle, yap yap, laugh, wrap-wrap, pack, and the corker was when the Englishman sneezed twice. “HA AHH HAAA!” loud enough to lift the roof off the building. I should’ve stolen his acclimatization pills at night.
We laid in bed till 5:15 AM, when I could no longer stand it – I had to get up for the toilet. So I got dressed, which meant, since I was already sleeping in layers, simply putting on my wool sweater and ski jacket over my 2 or 3 day old clothes, peeling off my second layer of wool socks, and putting my dirty socked feet into my cold shoes and running out in the still-dark with my flashlight to the outdoor toilet. Another girl and I paused and stared in amazement at the brilliant stars – one in particular was beaming like a beacon.
It wasn’t THAT cold outside, but when that wind whips through the toilet stalls around your squatting bum, it’s pretty bloody cold. We got hot cups of coffee and hot porridge (yuck), and finally set off in high spirits and no altitude effects (nausea or headache) at 14,586' (4420m), at 6:25 AM. We were climbing to and over Thorung La Pass today at 17,872' (5415m), a climb of 3286' (1000m). Then we had a long way to go down... but we weren't even thinking about that yet.
It was light, and we pushed upward, ever higher out of the valley at a steady pace, and stopped in about an hour for a water/biscuit break. There were several people in the vicinity, including the 2 American girls ahead of us. We continued up, and up, climbing incredibly higher, unbelievably higher, stopping for breaks at the tops of long stretches.
It got a bit harder after 2 ½ hours – we figured we had 2 more hours to go or so. It got more difficult – false summit after false summit after false summit… our steps got slower and shorter and the breathing more difficult. I never looked past where my next 2 feet would go.
It began to get discouraging. Lower down I thought – God I wish my brothers were here! The last hour I thought – I wouldn’t wish this on anybody. The views were stunning with every new false summit, but the last part nobody cared. All that mattered was the next spot you put your foot down, and concentrating on not stumbling. I kept saying, “It’s just over this next ‘hill.’” “This is the last climb, I’m SURE of it.” Kjersti was ahead of me and would groan every time the trail shot out of view up another ‘hill.’ God, just get me up this hill, I prayed, because I can’t turn around and go back down.
My head started to hurt, my pack gained weight (this morning Andrew took some of my books and a shoe in his pack), and my body refused to go faster than a crawl. I'd take three steps and rest, take three steps and rest, bending over panting, trying to fill my lungs with deep breaths of the thin air. I couldn’t drink any more, and my body was running on empty. Then I spotted some rock piles and I knew that HAD to be the summit, or I simply wouldn’t make it. Up ahead, Kjersti yelled “Ahh haaa!” – her now-familiar victory yell. I saw the prayer flags, and could’ve collapsed with relief. We did practically collapse on the big stone cairn.
My migraine headache attacked me but I managed to take some pictures (even smiled) and we waved to a guy coming up from the Muktinath side. It was cool and windy on top, and my headache was now bordering nausea, and I knew I had to start down.
After climbing 3286' (1000m) in 5 hours, we began a descent of 5280' (1600m) which took us another 5 hours. It was miserable. Instead of decreasing, my headache got worse; the steep descent was difficult, and after about 2 hours and several stops where I had to sit a few minutes because I could go no further, Andrew took my big pack, and carried both mine and his. I honestly don’t know what I’d’ve done without him. I doubt I could’ve made it down. All I wanted to do was collapse on the trail. I longed to just let my legs buckle and sink to the ground, and never get up again.
I stopped twice more to sit a few minutes, then threw up the whole day’s worth of food and water. I felt a bit better than, but still walked down slowly and carefully as it was still very steep, while Andrew blasted way ahead of us with both my and his backpacks. Kjersti also was beat but we kept plugging along. Down, down, we couldn’t even see the bottom of the Kali Gandaki valley we were plunging into.
Finally we spotted what must be Muktinath in the far distance, but it was still at least another 1500 ft down and at least 2 hours away? I wasn’t going to make it… fighting off nausea and fatigue (although I was totally coherent, and not stumbling at all) – all I wanted was a bed. Finally we spotted a tea house – where I prayed for a bed, but there were no beds so we stopped for hot lemons. I felt so incredibly terrible and weak – I didn’t think I’d make it. I drank half the cup, and we set off, now a light descent, but Muktinath was no longer in view. Suddenly a wave of nausea hit me hard, and I barely had time to run off the trail, fall to my knees, and puke. Andrew threw the packs down and ran to me with Kleenexes and held my shoulders, Kjersti handed me water; and as the spasm wracked me and cleaned me out, I felt much better, and knew I’d make it now.
Kjersti and I had an easier walk (Andrew was now puffing hard a ways behind us – I felt SO awful he had to carry my packs! But all he said was “I’m just glad you walked down on your own. It would’ve been hell going back up for your pack after helping you down!”) We passed a large Buddhist temple which is part of Muktinath, then walked on 10 minutes to Ranipauwa where all the hotels are. I chose what I thought was in the book – the Muktinath Guest House, because there was supposed to be hot showers/hot bucket baths here. I asked inside for a triple room as Andrew struggled in behind, and unstrapped my pack from around his neck (he wore his on his back). I made a Herculean effort and lifted and carried my own pack upstairs behind the Nepali woman – and collapsed on the bed. That’s what I had dreamed of for 5 hours.
I couldn’t move – Andrew opened my sleeping bag and threw it on me, and took off my shoes. I simply lay there with my head throbbing, and as Andrew and Kjersti went downstairs for food – it was 4:30 PM – 10 hours of strenuous trekking with no meal since 6:30 AM – I laid there wrapped in my sack, with Tshirt, sweatshirt, wool sweater, ski jacket on, shivering. I must’ve slept an hour, and Andrew brought up a chapatti with jam for me – Kjersti had bought me a new mineral water - then Andrew brought up a cup of milk coffee and propped me up in bed.
I sent him back down, and drank my coffee, some water, ate half the chapatti, and rested some more. I finally felt good enough to sit up so I changed to some ‘clean’ clothes (meaning I hadn't worn them for a few days), cleaned my feet with Handiwipes, and ventured to the dining room with them where a bucket of hot coals warmed our legs under the table. I felt good enough to try the garlic soup – I figured that was good for me, and just stuck to drinking water. Kjersti and Andrew ordered apple cider (since brandy wasn’t available) but it was so bitter they both choked and couldn’t drink it. They deservedly retired to bed at 8:30; I stayed up till 9 to write, as earlier today I wondered if I’d be capable of anything besides dying. We all decided on a rest day here in Ranipauwa/Muktinath tomorrow, and if there aren’t hot showers here as advertised, we’ll move to a different hotel tomorrow.
Sixteen years later, here I was finally going to Norway to visit Kjersti. I hadn't seen her since then – we'd kept in touch once or twice a year, ocassionally sending pictures of our exploits from somewhere, riding a horse or climbing a mountain (me, with the Raven), or sailing the coast of Norway (her). I spotted her the second I stepped off the train in Oslo central station - I would have known her instantly if there had been 5000 people there – my Norwegian Himalayan trekking partner!