Today I had a lovely surprise. A card from my friend Louise Shepherd, the only person I know who still write proper cards from her travels.
This time, it is from the Kimberley, where she was walking with friends in the wilderness. She is funny. They arrived two days earlier than anticipated at the airfield for their flight out, and on the last rest ( rest!!) day, they walked up an escarpment.. to be rewarded by incredible views. What a way to finish a trip! I wonder if little lazy me would have sat around camp instead, felling within the place, the vibrations that Just Being gives the one who can sit still..
That card brought back to mind expeditions to Himalayan peaks in the eighties.
Communications were of the handwritten, hand delivered type in those days. A mail runner would bring in the mail, and take back with him our written news.
Once, twice perhaps during the two months an expedition usually took, a smiling man would appear in camp, the telltale blue cotton mail bag slung across a shoulder. After a cup of tea in the kitchen tent, letters would be distributed to members in the mess tent. Those lucky enough to get a missive would hold it to their heart and trot to their tent to read every word in the luxury of personal space and time.
Below, I have for you an extract from my book The Wind in my Hair. This one takes you to the Karakorum in the eighties. Have fun living a different kind of expedition to those blogged about these days..
I am grateful I experienced high altitude when I did.
Moot point, now is now and there is no getting away from that!
Excerpt from ” Touching the Sky”, The Wind in my Hair.
” (…) The weather in the Gangotri was appalling, and the snow slopes of 6860-metre-high Kedardome, which we hoped to climb to acclimatise to our further adventures, were deep and unstable. Our group separated into smaller units: Lydia and Jon, who acclimatised faster than the rest of us, went ahead. Geoff and I followed a while later, and dug a snow cave halfway up the mountain to shelter from the coming snowstorm, and to wait for the weather to improve, which it did not. Al and Louise were lower down, on a terrace exposed to avalanches, and while Lydia and Jon were battling down from the summit in waist-deep snow, their bivouac site was hit by an avalanche which sent Louise tumbling down the face, to stop miraculously at the very edge of a gaping crevasse. She was lucky to escape with her life, and had nightmares about the experience for a long time afterwards. She was also reluctant to give mountaineering another go; a top rock climber who had just discovered the hazards of mountaineering, she decided to stick to what she knew best.
I had not achieved much on the expedition, dwarfed as I had felt by Jon’s presence, so I was relieved to leave and go on to Pakistan. Jon wanted to traverse Kedarnath and Kedardome, and being the hot-shot that he is, he did it in forty hours, listening to Patti Smith’s Dancing Barefoot. Louise and Viv went travelling, Al went on to Italy and the States, and as we had gotten on rather well, we kept in touch by writing each other numerous letters, crisscrossing the planet on the paths of our travels.
In Rawalpindi, Geoff, Lydia and I met with the Kiwi team, which was quite large and included four females. We were not to climb as a whole group working together for a summit though: Craig Stobo, our expedition leader, explained to me that the expedition had been organised to allow a number of small climbing teams a cheap expedition to a Himalayan mountain. In theory a noble idea, but one which proved disastrous when put into practice.
Pakistan was totally different from India. Lydia and I, being western, fair-haired women, had a hard time escaping attentions from Pakistani men, who locked their own women up at home but considered us fair game. I found the country beautiful, but I despised the misogynist interpretation men had given the Koran, which reduced women to a subspecies to be exploited and even maimed. The situation became less blatant as we travelled north by bus and rules relaxed a little, but there were occasions where the injustice and inhumanity of it all hit us in the face again.
To get to Skardu, the town preceding the start of the walk onto the mighty Karakorum summits and Hidden Peak (also known as Gasherbrum One at 8068 metres), we drove up the Karakorum Highway linking Pakistan with China. The incredible landscape gave me the impression of travelling in a just-settled primeval world that some caves in France had given me in my teenage years. Except that here, creation was still in the process of happening. A huge landslide which blocked the road and sent a raging torrent rushing over the bridge, meant that we were stuck in a small village for four days, waiting for the road to be cleared.
On the first day in the village, the female members of our group cruised the streets until the town elders came to our camp near the river to talk to our male leader. We had been judged a bad example to the local women, and were asked to remain hidden in the camp until the road re-opened. We were left with no choice but to comply. After all, our expedition had already almost caused a riot: some of us had used convenient holes on what had looked like a vacant lot as toilets, on a small peninsula surrounded by the roaring Braldo . . . that is, until some elders had come and asked us to please stop shitting into the graves of their ancestors! Oops . . .
Well aware of the woman’s place in these latitudes, Lydia and I snuck along the river for an overdue wash. We were sure that nobody has seen us, but how wrong we were! Small boys threw stones at us and, as we got down to washing socks, we noticed a mob running along the shore towards us. Forty men had rushed to us in the hope of catching a glimpse of white female flesh. They stood around us, disappointed, while we gathered our washing and scampered back to camp, swearing that being sticky and smelly was better than this.
It was a relief to start the walk towards Concordia, K2 and Hidden Peak. Our expedition was enormous, with dozens of porters to carry our masses of equipment. At night-time, as the smoke of fires and the aroma of cooked dhal lingered on the glacier, the porters prostrated themselves on tattered rugs towards Mecca, and sent their prayers echoing in the cold mountain air. The peaks skirting the glacier we were following had the colours and lines of Sleeping Beauty castles. But this was no fairyland: a war was raging close by between Pakistan and India. Fighting a territorial dispute in this godforsaken land of snow and rock seemed ludicrous, but there were constant reminders, like the telephone line which guided our steps on the glacier, all the way to our Base Camp. As we were negotiating the treacherous icefall between Base Camp and Camp One at the foot of Gasherbrum Two and Hidden Peak, we heard a series of loud bangs. Look around, fear. At first we thought it was an avalanche, but no. Some Pakistani climbers had been making progress on a peak located on the border, and Indian soldiers were shelling them!
I did not have a climbing partner. I was supposed to have climbed with Geoff and Lydia, but a violent illness, emptying me top and bottom, had set me back. I ended up spending most of my time in the mountains tagging along with one team or another, or moving on my own. I did not really care that I didn’t have a climbing partner; in fact, being at one with the mountains elated me. I was overwhelmed with happiness at being able to look after myself, and enjoyed every minute of the expedition, and also the company of everyone on the team. Who cared if I climbed Hidden Peak or not? Reaching its summit always remained a vague proposition in my mind. I was too busy conquering self-sufficiency, a fragile self-esteem and contentment to worry about such trifling matters.
As it turned out, not much progress was made up Hidden Peak: the season was rotten and the small-team approach did not work as energy was spent in duplicated efforts to climb the mountain. Arguments between teams became a regular practice, to the detriment of the common good.
There were other teams on the mountains surrounding us, and a Pakistani army group on our own Hidden Peak. They were a group of friendly, mostly inexperienced climbers, determined to succeed no matter what. We had fixed some ropes up to 6800 metres on Hidden Peak and retreated to Base Camp to wait for the weather to improve when tragedy struck. Four Pakistani climbers had ascended, spurred into action by an ambitious colonel and their own desire to climb Hidden Peak for the glory of the army (perhaps they also wanted to beat us to it?). They were sitting around at their high camp, waiting for the snow to stop before persevering with their summit attempt – except that one of them had what sounded like cerebral oedema, if we believed the radio reports. Still, the group stayed up, hoping the man would soon feel better. Of course, he didn’t.
We were having a bland dinner of dhal and rice in the kitchen tent when Craig’s voice boomed over the innocent chatter: ‘Fuck! Avalanche!’ The four climbers, who had become good friends of ours, had received permission to retreat down the mountain as the sick climber was now in a critical state. As soon as they had left camp, the dangerously deep snow had given way in their tracks, and all four had tumbled down in a monster avalanche. It was a huge shock, and if some of us were still undeterred, most climbers were disinclined to stay after the accident. Our time in the mountains was running short, commitments at home were becoming pressing. Lydia, Geoff, Carol McDermott and I were fiercely determined to stay and try again, if not Hidden Peak, maybe Gasherbrum Two. We could always sort out the minor matter of permits on our return to Rawalpindi – if we were not kicked out of the country beforehand.
We joined forces with a Basque team and while our team was packing, we headed again up the icefall, an experience which was becoming quite shattering as crevasses had opened up greatly with the advancing of the season. As we reached Camp One and scavenged delicious treats from caches left behind by retreating teams, we all looked at Gasherbrum Two. Some fixed ropes had been left by a British team to the site of Camp One on the mountain, and it seemed silly not to use these. The climbing would be easier than on Hidden Peak, and as the route was more straightforward the summit would be attainable in a shorter time.
I gasped as I followed my new climbing companions up the fixed ropes, and it soon became obvious to me that I had already spent too much time at high altitude to be in top shape for the job ahead; while waiting for someone to rope up with on the dangerous icefall between Camps One and Two on Hidden Peak, I had spent ten days at Camp Two, at 6500 metres, before returning to Base Camp for a short stay.
It was too long, too high for me. To function properly in the rarefied atmosphere at high altitude, the body has to manufacture more red blood cells to carry more oxygen around the body (at around 6000 metres the air contains more or less half to a third of the oxygen we enjoy at sea level, the pressure being lower). It takes about three to five weeks at high altitude to reach a peak acclimatising stage, but the body simultaneously starts deteriorating at and above 5000 metres as a result of the lack of oxygen. Although it varies from person to person, usually the best proven way to acclimatise is to climb up to a new altitude, carrying a load of gear to the high point to make the most out of the excursion, then to come down and sleep at the lower altitude before moving up to stay on the next foray high up. I knew this system worked for me, but I did not know how long I could stay at and above 6000 metres without deteriorating. I found out in Pakistan.
At Camp One on Gasherbrum Two, I settled to brew and cook for my tent mates, Geoff and Lydia, as they had been ploughing steps up to camp. This, of course, did not make me feel better, as I kept spending energy working, while they rested, their work done. Carol, sharing a tent with the Basques, kept everyone awake and edgy all night with his continuous coughing. In the morning, as we set off towards Camp Two, I experienced problems focusing on the ground in front of me. Altitude sickness? No. I had lost one of my contact lenses, and found it very difficult to keep my balance on the steep ground. Right. The reality was devastating. I had to forget about climbing an 8000 peak – staying alive is always more important. And even that was not going to be easy: Geoff had my lighter, and I could not wait at our camp at the bottom of Gasherbrum for his group to return from the summit. Without a lighter, and the means to melt snow to drink, I would become dehydrated and useless pretty fast.
There was only one thing to do – pack my gear and descend to Base Camp. Great. That meant I had to negotiate the icefall on my own, with all the risks involved. Without being roped to a partner, any fall, collapsing snow bridge, or miscalculated jump over a crevasse would be fatal. So it was with a certain apprehension that I approached the first visible crevasses. In front of me was a twin crevasse, two bottomless holes each more than a metre wide, with a narrow snow band between their gaping jaws. I was talking to myself by then. Okay girl, better get this one right. Take your pack off and throw it over, it will be easier to jump without that load on your back. Easier said than done. My pack was too heavy for me to pick up, let alone throw over the obstacle. I sat on the ground with my back to my pack, strapped it on, and turned around onto my knees so I could use the strength of my legs to get up. Back to square one. Walk back a few steps, run like mad, jump! Mummy . . . Made it. One down, only a hundred to go.
It took me all day to come down, my head now cool enough to keep panic at bay, but when I finally arrived within sight of Base Camp, I collapsed in front of the last obstacle of my death race: an eighty-centimetre wide angry slice of water, gushing down a valley between steep ice shores. Fortunately someone saw me, and came with a rope to drag me across. A few days later, the team came down, having climbed Gasherbrum Two, and we all celebrated with gusto, happy that we had made it, and were all back alive.
You can buy the Wind in my Hair ebook HERE, only US$5.95. Thank you for buying, each copy sold supports the Beyond the Smile Project and Documentary.