I don’t remember falling asleep, but my first memory of waking up is the cup of tea slipped in my hand. The folks are already up; bright smiles in the cold, clear dawn. While Amma-ji cooks, I scamper over two small stone walls to visit the little kid from yesterday. He’s the only one without a proper hat; I leave him my spare.
The weather is clear; once the sun comes out, the temperatures are single-digits and dry. I start to move; it goes slowly, but not painfully. I know the climb is short today, and there’s time and space to pay attention. When the wind dies down, I can still hear the birds singing. The breeze whips the brave bushes for the last time; they’ll be gone a hundred meters up. The trail breaks up and comes together again; I pick my way at first though meager mosses, and finally across bare rock. There’s no hurry.
Besides, up here, slow is good. Acute mountain sickness – what I affectionately call “the altitudesies” – is the worst hangover imaginable. Medical suggestions are to gain no more than 300 meters a day, and to take a rest day every four days or so. Up here, dropped into the unyielding reality of where towns and water sources are, the filthy world of exigent circumstances, this is a pleasant fiction; I’ve been moving up 500 or so (admittedly, the upper bound of the official position) and haven’t had a day off in a week. Slow going it is.
I still hear the birds chirping while I have lunch at 4799 meters. Blissfully, the bag starts getting lighter – what carrying has come before is paying dividends now. At 4794, I see the first permanent snowfield – a hundred-meter patch of dirty white; a gossamer curtain between the browbeaten trail and reclusive glacier.
A dharamshala is a guesthouse for pilgrims; Lunak Dharamshala, at 5013 meters, may well have the claim of being the highest. I don’t know; what I do know is that of the four stone huts, only one has a roof. There’s water – enough for two or three – amidst the plastic bottles and spent batteries strewn all over. The doorway is tiny, and I move in on all fours to have the backpack fit into the stone hut. It’s 5 degrees Celsius in broad daylight on my newfound porch.
I unpack. I’m out of breath and everything goes slowly: spreading out the tarp and sleeping bag, priming the stove, waiting for the pressure cooker to come up to temperature all seemingly takes longer. I reach for the sleeping bag, and it takes me two tries to fit the liner. Spinning the inflation valve on the Thermarest becomes a game, until I register I’ve been at it for ten minutes, and am none the closer to food or heat. The knurls on the stove’s fuel flow regulator take on a suddenly meaningful texture; the spilled priming fluid reminds me to focus.
The scary thing is the comfort with which you waste precious time. It’s easy to lose track of where you are, and have a shuddering breath pull you back to reality. I bundle up, take a Diamox and open Pnin. Half an hour into Nabokov’s vicarious adventure in Ithaca – made all the more humorous by my dying brain cells – I close the book and head off into an easy sleep, well before sunset.
It’s 12.1 kilometers to get here; I take it in 4 hours with 2 hours 45 minutes off. I descend 178 meters, but have climbed 732; the day’s gain is 554, well over the suggested 400.