The night never wanted to end. It is difficult to sleep at high altitude as breathing is heavy and heartbeats race and both of us were up most of the night. Though we managed to stay warm from six heavy blankets and all of our layers, Alyssa only manged to sleep three hours on and off and I was lucky if I got even thirty minutes of unconsciousness. We knew the plan was to wake up at 4am and begin trekking by 5am. We also knew that the difficult climb normally takes six to seven hours but because of the deep snow, the guides predicted at least ten hours of hardship. These were the facts that rolled through our minds for the long twelve hour night of no sleep.
It was easy to be wide awake for the 4am call and we quickly packed our bags and dressed for the morning climb. It was -30C at 4am so we wore more layers than normal which lightened our packs somewhat. The bags that we had been wearing to keep our feet dry were now in shreds so we emptied some ziploc bags which we sandwiched between two pairs of hiking socks. We did not want to leave this mountain with anything less than ten toes each.
We joined the trekkers in the dining hall, forced down a few spoonfuls of oatmeal, paid our hefty high camp bill, then joined the procession braving the elements by flashlight. We were the first group of trekkers to attempt the Thorong La Pass since the massive snow storms which means there was no path to follow and we had to march our own route in the snow. Dawa, one of Judy’s guides who has accompanied expeditions as high as 7000m on Everest, lead the way and we all followed closely behind with each step replacing the footstep of the person in front of us. Though none of us said it out loud, we were all thinking the same thing, “THIS IS CRAZY!” We were marching on a loose narrow path on the edge of a cliff, at 5am, in complete darkness, with almost no sleep and a lousy breakfast. To break the tension we started to sing and everyone but Martijn loved the early morning distraction.
So there we were, Judy the 45 year old mother of two, Wolfgang whom we renamed Mozart, Bieke the Belgian, Martijn the Dutch, Aires the Israeli and the four Chinese who pulled up the rear. One of the Chinese women experienced extreme symptoms of altitude sickness but carried on against the wishes of her guide but everyone was most worried about Aires. His porter explained that Aires had not slept in seven days since he reached an altitude of more than 2400m and it was obvious when talking to him that delirium had set in. His speech was slurred and incoherent and he walked with a wobbly gait accentuated by his already bow legs. He hobbled in front of me for most of the morning and each time he slipped, I was preparing myself to dive on him before he sailed down the great abyss. Both his water bottles were frozen solid so everyone offered him some of their rations.
A few hours in and everything was beginning to freeze. Our Gatorade was now a blue slushy and we cringed as we bit into our rock hard frozen eggs. The ascent was slow and tedious and the sun did not light up the path until 6:45am. At around 7:30am, we had a short refueling rest and the Chinese group thought it would be a good time to pull out a propane burner, fill a pot with snow and have tea time at 5000m. Little did they know that it takes forever for water to boil at altitude and this was the last we saw of the Asians.
We had a general idea of where we were going but when we asked a guide, he said, “It’s easy, up, down, up, down then Thorong La!” About three hours and a million ups and downs later, we had reached the top. It took 5.5 hours to ascend 1000m and at 5416m, the air was thin and chilled you to the core. The wind and snow made for hasty celebratory photos then we quickly darted behind an old stone structure and huddled into a ball for warmth. The last 200m ascent had been a struggle for me since it seemed I could not consume enough calories which were demanded of me and as always, Alyssa was right there to cheer me on. In our two minutes of rest at 5416m, I almost became emotional (I’m sure the tears would have come had my ducts not been frozen like every other container holding fluids).
As I sat in a ball chiseling off pieces of our frozen victory Mars bar, a flood of gratitude overwhelmed me. We had been trekking for the past twelve days to reach this point and each day brought its joys and hardships. Being grateful for the joys is easy but at that moment I was most grateful to have Alyssa to help me through the hardships. As I sat with my head on my knees unable to stop from shivering wildly, a flash of all the times Alyssa has been my rock stole my focus. And still, after expending everything we had to reach the summit with frozen boots, numb hands and feet, and our breath frozen to our neck warmers, she still found the energy to make sure I was alright. Love is a difficult phenomenon to describe with words but I was certainly filled with it at that moment. The kiss at 5416m on Valentines Day 2012 will be forever etched in our memories as a reminder that there is little we cannot accomplish together.
Unaware of my small meltdown (Alyssa will not know until she proof reads this entry maybe weeks later), we set out on the long 1600m descent. The brisk wind was at our backs giving us an extra push but each step brought new pains in the knees and toes as they jammed to the front of our icy boots. At the eight hour mark Alyssa hit her wall and each minute afterwards felt like an eternity for her. We could see the small town of Muktinath far in the distance and we knew from experience that it would take at least another two hours to reach it. Now the roles reversed and I had to muster up the positivity to motivate Alyssa and the energy to help her up each time she slipped. From a combination of fatigue and steep slippery declines, Alyssa must have slipped flat out on her back more than a dozen times and I marveled at her strength each time she stood back up and continued to march. Judy was also feeling the fatigue on the way down and when everyone took off to maintain their pace, we stayed back with Judy to help her when she slipped and motivate her by singing some Bob Marley.
Alyssa had a serious urge to empty her bowels and when we stopped, the rest of the group carried on without us. So it was just the two of us for the final hour of the day. The ornate gold and orange Buddhist temples were scattered around the valley and made a nice distraction from our pruned and bruised feet. Muktinath is on the border of the Upper Mustang Region which is the heart of the Himalaya and the border of Tibet. We could sense the aura of the 2500 year old Buddhist religion and older still, the nomadic lifestyle which once flourished in this region.
By the time we reached our lodging we had been walking with our packs for eleven hours. When Alyssa threw off her pack and fell back on the bed, she took her well deserved ride on the emotional roller coaster. In the past 36 hours we walked for 17 hours, ascended 800m to high camp, spent a night at -30C with no sleep, began hiking at 5am by flashlight, ascended another 1000m, took care of Aires, sang for Judy, ate frozen eggs, and descended 1600m to the frozen and gray Muktinath. And all this with frozen boots and sun burned noses. This was the most mentally, physically and emotionally draining experience of our lives and well deserving of a few tears.
After our first hot shower in over a week, we felt like a million bucks and then we joined Judy, Mozart, Aires, Martijn and Bieke for a romantic Valentines dinner by candlelight. We shared stories and laughed all night while the guys kept feeding drinks to Altitude Aires as a cure for his insomnia (Aires slept like a baby by the way, his porter had to wake him up for the 1st time on the trek!). Though Judy was 15 years our senior, she was the life of the party with her over-the-top reaction to the past events. By 8:30pm everyone was too exhausted to carry on and we hit the comfortable double bed and were out cold in seconds.