A Close Call: Big Trouble in the Himalayas
It’s been rough and rocky traveling, but I’m finally standing upright on the ground…after taking several readings, I’m surprised to find my mind still fairly sound… – Willie Nelson
I faced the white sky as the wind clawed skin from my face, and asked God one simple question:
Minutes earlier, a large rock had pinned my left foot just as I lifted it. I felt a gritty, calcium snap as the smallest toe broke itself for the third time or so since February. I knew I should have had the thing cleaved off in a Bangkok backalley for 100 baht. Even still, I was lucky: some of the boulders moving around me were the size of Volkswagens.
Wind, snow, tumbling rocks – the apocalypse was unfolding around me, so there was no time to whimper about nonessential appendages. I would be devoured by the glacier or frozen solid within the hour. My face was already frostbitten; skin would be peeling from it for weeks to come. Despite exhaustion, being soaked through with sweat, cracked lips stuck together demanding one drink from a frozen Nalgene, I knew that sitting down, even for a minute, would mean not getting back up.
I began climbing, scratching, and sliding my way to the top of yet another mountain of rubble, hoping for a glimpse of salvation…
- Why I spent 19 days alone in the Himalayas.
To paint a clear mental picture of the glacier for you would be a life’s work. Mostly because somewhere along the way we’ve come to visualize glaciers as blue beasts that cling to mountains. They have a coat of snow and can generally be crossed by careful mountaineers on the watch for crevasses.
But this glacier was unlike any I’ve seen. It was a jagged cut into the earth, just deep enough to allow a little hell to seep in from the bottom and fill it. It had an exoskeleton of brittle stone and scree; only in the darkest crevices could you detect any hint of blueish life.
Somewhere along the way, this glacier had transformed into a monochrome snake with razorblade scales of alien rock. It was old and stubborn, not even clean or courteous about the way it tried to dole death. Most of the landscapes on this planet are inviting in some way, even the desert, but this pit of lifeless despair made Tolkien’s Mordor look like a sunny playground.
I don’t fully understand the geology behind the landscapes I wander. What I do know is that this dangerous scar of shifting stone was between me and the Cho La pass, what I considered to be the real challenge to eastward movement. It presented an obstacle between myself and the track to Everest Base Camp that needed to be crossed.
And cross it I did.
Aside from going alone – admittedly, a big mistake, I know, I know…I did everything right. I began early on a sunny morning; the sky had more songbirds in it than clouds. I had carefully consulted no less than two separate maps: both showed a faint track that began near the first lake just south of Gokyo. I enjoyed the backtrack along the same, familiar trail taken days before. I was the only one walking so early. Not a single ripple disturbed the happy Bob-Ross masterpieces reflected on the lakes.
The idea made sense – as many bad ideas do. I would backtrack along a familiar path, then make a 90-degree surgical slice across the glacier directly east to the tiny settlement on the other side. The crossing should have taken two or three hours at most. I knew that even on sunny days, giant piles of rock in a glacial moraine can be dangerous. My intended path would have minimized exposure to the moods of nature – a very good thing when you’re on your own.
But what I should have realized is that glaciers – even old, ugly ones – are alive. More so than maps printed a couple of years ago. They mutate and change, despite the best intentions of cartographers in musky offices. When I climbed the steep ridge to survey my crossing attempt, I did note that I couldn’t see any settlement perched on the other side. But it was a long, hazy way across. My gut knew better, but stubborn determination told it to shush. Beneath me was a literal labyrinth of towering stones and open pits arranged into a maze of hazardous obstacles. In the center lived a ghastly lake the shape of an amoeba, tentacles of poisonous water an other-worldly color reached out far in every direction.
I slid down the ridge and plunged inside. The glacier graciously swallowed me up. I did my best to recall the mental map – a deceptively simple puzzle to navigate – I had enjoyed from the high ground. But once inside the moraine, everything looked the same. I slipped and slid along a wasteland of shuffling stones, scratching away for sweet progress that never came.
I saw rocks ahead of me falling on their own accord, far before I had any influence on their places in this world. Puffs of dusty smoke rose up, and sudden splashes in the lake below made my arm hair stand up. I heard noises: brittle grindings and warnings of movement. The trail was faded but still visible; cairns – those ever-present piles of stones to help lost travelers find the way – were still standing here and there. Artifacts from safer years long since gone, they provided false reassurance.
I knew things were turning ugly when the trail ended at the lake, completely impassable outside of winter’s freeze. And like many life-death scenarios often begin, it was an accumulation of small problems rather than one big event that slowly closed the trap around me.
There was a sickening feeling in my gut: I had been lured into an ambush.
Problem-solving mode kicked in. Attempting to skirt the edges, I climbed massive piles of moving sand and stone, one after another, only to find more water on the other side. I’d cling to the scree slopes, gasping for air at 4,700 meters, watching as the avalanche of soccerball-sized stones I loosened tumbled into the water below. Occasionally, I’d have to make way as boulders the size of cars teetered and shifted. Those heavy movers always get the right of way.
After hours of this terrible exercise, the sky darkened quickly. I became aware that serious trouble was on the way. Pace quickened to near panic. My ears popped as the barometric pressure dropped swiftly. Wind came first, then ice crystals crackled in the air. My morale sank as I watched the white, wispy clouds stain to an evil, sooty color and drop down to my level, cutting visibility to just a few meters. Chaos was coming.
The chilly fingers of charcoal-colored smoke encircled me until I could no longer see terrain features. Staying calm, I pointed my compass east but wasn’t sure how far south along the glacier I had come. Every time I pushed forward, I was blocked by another finger of the lake. It had an impossible geometric shape. Was it maliciously morphing to block progress? Up and up I’d climb and slide, ribs aching from effort. I held onto frayed hope, telling myself that at the top of every tower – this would be the one! – I would be able to see a path or the village.
I may as well have been lost on Mars.
At some point, a giant golden-colored eagle passed by low overhead – the only living thing I had spotted in over five hours. The wingspan was astounding. I had been praying a lot by this point but didn’t expect such a cliché sign to gracefully glide overhead. In a fit of madness, I wondered briefly if I should follow this magical creature…but in the end decided to trust my compass.
Later, as I told what I had seen to the owner of a lodge, he said that the bird was, in fact, a vulture – not an eagle from the spirit world. We laughed. If anything, the giant scavenger had been investigating me and weighing my chances, perhaps noting where to find a potential ribcage to pick apart later. I’m kind of glad that I thought it was an eagle at the time. Nothing against birds of carrion, but eagles are better qualified morale boosters. And for future reference, Himalayan vultures are far more attractive than our own.
As large rocks bowled around me, hitting my shins, making me do a little survival shuffle, I thought of my travel knife at the top of my pack. Would I have what it takes to saw off a pinned limb? If there was ever a place to become trapped Aron-Ralston style, it would have been here, in a desolate place where no humans have any sane reason to go. In these temperatures, I wouldn’t have lasted the night, let alone 127 hours.
Finally, on perhaps the twelfth scramble to the top of a scree tower, I spotted a white Sherpa’s flag flapping from a high cliff far across what was left of the glacier. Despite being exhausted and half frozen, warm hope seeped through my tired limbs. Elated, I now had a visual objective, a ghastly fragment of civilization to remind me that all would be okay after all.
Just a little more effort.
Over the course of another hellish hour, I made my way to the abrupt rise of the sharp cliff. It was nearly vertical, but I had no choices left, and a man with no choices will do whatever it takes.
I shortened my hiking pole and used it as an ice ax, stabbing violently into the cliff then clawing my way up with raw and bleeding hands. Rocks poured down around me in a shower of choking dust. I put my cheek on the icy dirt, panting a moment for thin air, then pulled myself up another precious few feet. On some attempts, I lost more ground than I gained. Eventually, trembling and covered with dust, I reached the top of the cliff, literally holding on with fingernails for dear life.
There was no trail. No village. Nothing.
The inevitability of the situation struck me hard about the time the snow came. In big, wet clumps, it came in sideways, completely obscuring my hard-earned ridgeline. At the exact moment of what should have been sweet relief, I was dealt a deathblow of despair. The meaningless marker flapped on a pole above me.
I fell to my knees; there was no longer energy or reason to stand. With an inch or two of white on the ground in only minutes, safe footing was impossible to find. One slip would have sent me tumbling into the deep valley on my left or back into the glacier on my right. The wind roared. Irregularities in the rock walls produced groans and warnings in an ancient Vedic language of howling. A dangerous animal was unfolding its leathery wings. My heartbeat thumped in my ears. A blood vessel burst in my right eye.
I took a picture of myself. Strange, I know. I had many things going through my head, but one was that this moment should be captured – especially if it turned out to be my last. That seemed logical. Of all the close calls I’ve had, I realized that none had ever been captured outside of my haunted memory. The Big One, the career-limiting thing filed away as an example for other travelers in the don’t-be-an-idiot cabinet. You can see the disbelief in my eyes (click for a photo of what survival terror looks like).
Unlike when I drowned in 2009, I was too tired to be angry or frustrated. I was simply cold and frightened. I felt very alone.
I was also disappointed to find out that despite months of growing the best momo-catching beard I could muster, no frost clung to it. If a man can’t even get ice in his beard during a full-on Himalayan blizzard, what has the world come to? What a ripoff.
My blue fingers barely had enough dexterity to dig the emergency whistle out of my survival kit. A whistle I’ve never had occasion to blow until now. I stumbled forward along the snow-covered ridgeline, testing the ground with my pole one step at a time, glacier death 300 feet and a misstep below me.
My mantra for the next 45 minutes went like this in perfect cadence:
“Please, God, deliver me [blow whistle]. Please, God, lift this weather [blow whistle]. Please, God, give me the strength [blow whistle]…
I repeated this ritual over and over, with an occasional Himalayan om mani padme hum thrown in for good measure, blindly pushing forward. Snow collected on my body. I was wet. Sitting down even for one precious breather would have let the hooded rider pursuing me all afternoon to finally catch up.
Screw that bastard; I’ve got a pointy hiking pole for that bony prick when he finally turns up. Survival became a mental workout. At this point, I hadn’t paused or taken a drink of water in almost seven hours. The shrill blasts of my whistle reverberated off mountain walls in all directions, but of course no human would be out in such a storm. They were all warming themselves near the cheerful heat of a potbellied stove with one empty spot: the place I should have been.
Darkness had taken over when I finally stepped in the first pile of snow-covered yak dung. Although yak trails spider far and wide across Nepal, I took this as an accomplishment. With a confused mind, I pondered the meaning. The pile was fresh, green – potentially a good sign. I took a gamble, one of three potential directions, and chose correctly. Soon, I could smell smoke coming from the settlement of DragNag (with a catchy name like that, I should have known getting there would be a pain in the ass).
The Sherpas and three foreigners looked up abruptly from the business of warming themselves by the stove. No one had expected to see a coughing, limping, ice-covered vagabond come in from the storm.
The Cho La Pass
I’ve unraveled enough telemores of loved ones for one post, so I’ll withhold details of crossing an infamously dangerous mountain pass until bribed with a beverage. I won’t even mention that a week later I was rudely trampled by a stampede of helicopter-startled yaks (photo taken seconds before) on a narrow trail. That’s definitely an unexpected twist. Yak attack? Seriously?
But the following day, less than 24 hours later, with muscles still stiff and skin on my face still lifeless from frostbite, I found myself caught in another blizzard at 5,500 meters as I crossed the Cho La Pass. Same story: a cloudless day turned into quite the situation as trouble screeched and squealed in like a freight train with brakes on fire.
What was there to do? I hardened myself into a leathery, numb piece of flesh with stubborn mind made of nails and limped back out to the front lines again.
Unlike the day before, I knew the Cho La would be a messy burrito — and it was. I met adventurous trekkers who diverted for days to go around it. My frayed map crammed dubious warnings around the broken line designating what is the final walk in this world for several travelers each year: “possibility of falling rocks”; “slippery path”; “difficult icy crossing”; “danger of crevasses”; “crampons recommended.”
The Cho La was a dangerously challenging vertical scramble followed up by another glacier crossing – although, this one looked and acted much more like the glaciers I’ve met before. It was a slippery Roman Wilderness of Pain for a guy with a broken toe, but I made it across the melting ice without incident.
On the other side, I even sat down against a boulder, blizzard blowing around me, out of cares to give, and defiantly ate my trail lunch. Why not? The two boiled eggs, hunk of yak(nak) cheese, and chapati neatly wrapped in a brown bag cost me $7! The Taoist Winnie the Pooh would have been proud.
Interestingly, as visibility dropped to five meters or less, and I stumbled along lost and blind in No Man’s Land, wondering if this shovelful of shit tossed into the big fan was going to be as heaping as yesterday’s, I came up on a single man-made structure. Reassurance immediately seeped through me.
On the other side of an infamously dangerous pass, materializing out of the mist, in a prominent place where survivors would see it, was something so utterly useless that it caused my mad laugh to resound through the Himalayas.
It wasn’t an emergency shelter for troubled mountain men like myself, a communication kiosk, a You-Are-Here map, or a St. Bernard with cask of brandy around its neck.
There at 18,000 feet in a snowy, survival wasteland was an overflowing recycling bin.