I open my eyes and see nothing, because there is nothing to see.
I’m still in a cave. It’s still dark outside; the meager starlight can do nothing about the morning haze. The frost on my bag and beard crunches as I move; the hollow echo greets nobody.
The solitude makes every sensation sharper and more portentous; everything I feel carries a pregnant foreboding. Is the seam on the sock going to eat a hole in the foot? Is the way the boot is laced going to twist the ankle? Is the cold seeping though the glove enough to freeze the hand? Did I strain too much last time I pulled my pants down; maybe I am constipated and dehydrated? Every one of these, hundreds of times a minute, deserves deliberate consideration; each could be a symptom of some failure over the horizon. The secret then, and half the pleasure, is looking on these one by one, coldly evaluating the risk, and accepting a decision about moving forward.
It’s five below freezing as the sun comes up; the first rays of dawn greet me on the moraine that separate the campsite from the Bhote Khoshi and Nangpa glaciers. I’ve been walking behind this rampart for most of yesterday, and haven’t seen the full breadth of the glacier until now. The jumbled seracs spread up the valley as far as the eye can see. In the ablation zone, car-sized boulders cover the thick ice; each creaks and bellows as the ice below it moves, inexhaustably, down the valley. The Bhote Khoshi is the venerable trunk; the Nangpa is the youthful upstart. It sweeps northwest; steeper, with more graceful curves and sharper, icy teeth. 500 years ago, overeducated men with soft hands would write “Here be dragons” on maps, beyond where anybody knew what was going on. Well, here’s mine: giant, scaly, loud, unstoppable and timeless.
I don’t know it yet, but the fast descent onto the dragon’s back carries in it the full story of the next few days. Anything resembling a trail is a pleasant memory; I dodge two rockslides coming down the moraine. Movement becomes idiotically slow: I clear the jumbled bergschrund having sacrificed my lens-cap. The scales and ridges add texture when viewed from far away, but up close, each is an impassable wall of slick frozen sand or jumbled rocks, each of which shakes and settles as you set a foot on it.
Each icy ridge and rocky hillock comes to pass after indescribable fatigue: you look at the base of this thing, and steel yourself for the climb, then you take a step, and then another, and each means balancing on one leg – with the pack and camera doing their best to topple you – and catching yourself as you lean forward onto grip unknown, and feeling the boot bite up against something, and knowing you are safe for a second, before time comes for the next step. After a dozen of these, it gets to be too much, and you stop for a second to take a few breaths, and lie to yourself that you’re checking the GPS or looking at framing a picture, and you suck down the absent air and curse the lack of gas and the way the pack is cutting your shoulders and the way the boot is rubbing against your nascent blister, and stare out at the indifferent ice and glaring sun and wonder if it’s out there trying to kill you or if you’re out here trying to die.
But then you look again and it’s perhaps a little better and your pulse is no longer pounding in your throat so hard and you can feel the pause between the breaths and you’re one hill closer. All that’s enough to push you through to an incremental victory: the next single step, and the setup to do it all again.
Three hours of this elapse, and it becomes mechanical and routine and muscle memory takes over and my mind wanders. Completely jacked up on a cocktail of adrenaline and endorphins, breathing air that’s ceased to exist, my thoughts are vivid and as real as the rocks around me. There’s not much to think about; there’s a tendency to scamper off in search of solace in your own head, before you reel back in horror at what bubbles up. I’ve damned and forgiven every ex-girlfriend twice over. I’ve told off all the asshole bosses and thanked all the nameless strangers. I’ve counted my blessings and let my wounds fester all the more.
All this is interrupted by a stunning roar: a thousand freight trains, each carrying a thousand racing engines, traverse a thousand waterfalls. The largest avalanche I’ve come to see snaps me sharply back to reality. Two or three kilometers away – it’s hard to tell up there – a sheet of ice on the western flank of Pasang Lhamu Chuk (7350 meters, according to the map; named after the Sherpa) breaks free and crumbles into the valley. The plate moves slowly; it’s the size that’s terrifying: a single sheet perhaps 200 meters deep and 800 meters wide gives and sweeps away the base of the mountain. The drawn-out crash reverberates across the valley and I can feel it in my mouth, jaw hanging slack.
Enough; it’s time for lunch. I stop; my hands tremble as I open the oily sardines. An hour later, I’m not as wiped. My feet are dry, not sweaty; my lips taste like grease and biscuits, not blood; my skeletons are safely back in the closet, not stomping on my Sisyphean soul. I pick up the pack.
It’s a cursory respite; dancing along the loose rocky ridges is replaced with picking a way through the icy maze that decorates the melting glacier. The passages meander back and forth through blind draws and vertical, icy walls; the approach speed to any actual worthwhile target is 200-300 meters an hour.
At four, the hail starts. For half an hour, almighty God sandblasts the cwm with pea-sized balls of ice that come out of nowhere; the sun still shines brightly. I huddle under a radiant outcropping, seeking shelter in the skirts of a glacial stream.
By six, I’m more or less where I need to be, and it’s enough. There’s a sandy pad, visible from a hundred meters away. I christen it “Camp Sandy Hollow” in my notebook, and crumble. The numbers tell a miserable story; it’s been 13.8 km in 5 hours 20 minutes of movement, interspersed with 5 hours 50 minutes stopped. It’s at 5185 meters; I paid in 364 meters down and 683 up.
Come sundown, it’s instantly cold. I’m unpacked; the last thing to do is run the stove and pressure cooker, and have some rice and lentils. This takes an hour; the unleaded won’t light up cleanly this high. I tear pages out of notebooks to prime the burner, and it turns over after 45 minutes of burnt fingers and soot in my beard. An hour later, the food is done, and I’m better rested – it’s not so bad. I retreat to my sleeping bag, ensconced in all I’ve carried, and ready to leave as much behind come dawn.