I sleep like a corpse, and dream of nothing.
Before my eyes slip open, the frosty scales on the outside of the bag, the way the dryness steals the moisture from my nose and lips, the way the stones sharply crack and crinkle under the tarp all remind me where I am. It’s too late to see the stars; they’ve retreated by the time I make it out of my cocoon.
It’s back to the fine business of survival. I’m beaten and blistered, exhausted and exhumed, but bathed in incontrovertible bliss.
The first reminder of what lies ahead is the stove not starting; the primer burns with a meager blue flame, heating nothing. Wresting this, and re-heating last night’s frozen soup in the pressure cooker, takes an hour. The second hour is blown on packing; everything takes incalculably longer up here, alone. The third is blown on eating and licking my wounds: the expected bevy of nicks and scratches on my hands and face are not worth describing, what I later find out is a hell of a sunburn isn’t a problem yet – the main concern is my feet, the skin ground into peeling ribbons of stew beef. I use a decade-old Second Skin pack for the second time ever, packing my toes in the moist blue pad.
After two days at altitude, I’ve acclimated enough to extract fortuitous bursts of clarity from my cerebral cortex. Movement along the glacier is hellishly slow; I decide on a more direct crossing to the eastern moraine, chancing a steep but seemingly solid climb, and moving along the much flatter (though still higher) route skirting the glacier.
The 800 meters crossing the glacier takes three hours; after the past two days, the misery of doing this under load again bears no description. Up close, the climb is more tenable than I thought from afar; a joyous lunch atop the moraine is grounds to promise myself that if there’s still walking time when I make it to Lunak today, I push forward and sleep in a bed.
The descent, however, is a major obstacle. A rockslide, either fresh or long-forgotten, obliviates a kilometer of trail. I make three attempts at finding a line to follow; hopping along boulders while the last set of GPS batteries slowly dies. When they finally turn lifeless, I stop and declare half an emergency.
I look over the ice and rock, dump a kilo’s worth of garbage in a crevice and tie back the camera. Ice axe in hand, I plunge over the nearest slope and soar down the scree, gravity be damned. The pebbles are slick; the slightest budge awakens their latent desire to slip and tumble and roll and thrash and come together into a roaring wave, carrying what’s seemingly half the mountain downhill.
A hundred meters of asthmatic stumbling and pulsing exhilaration later, I’m covered head-to-toe in dust, ten feet from a trail, and on schedule. I hit Lunak Dharamshala fifteen minutes before the 17:45 deadline. My notebook reads “Still light, so onward.”
What follows is a serene, swooping night march along the smooth trail behind the moraine, over the heather and through the fog. The clouds, no longer beaten back by the altitude, flow up the valley; dusk falls behind the distant gray. In the mist, the boulders and ravines become bulwarks and ramparts more real to my imagination than the dry rock and frosty rime of this morning. I’m spent; I don’t sense the movement, but sweep my feet forward and watch the rocks fly past me, out of the comforting gloom. Two hours later, stunning hunger pangs and glowing yak eyes hit me from the darkness at near the same time. It’s flat and fast though the darkness below 5000 meters; still five kilometers in the air, I can feel air congealing in my alveola with each breath. The gas has texture again; I well up as the droplets of condensed fog run down my face.
At 22:00, I see a meager light over my right shoulder. The man is closing the door – the key in the lock – as I stumble out of the darkness.
“How much for a room?”
He’s too taken aback to see me at this hour; I’m too tired to actually negotiate. We short-circuit the discussion: “100 rupee. Where you come from?”
“Kaka-ji, today I come from Dzasampa.” His eyes widen in the lantern’s glow.
I put my pack down 12 hours after I started, peel off bloody socks, watch my breath crystallize in the frigid room, and fall asleep smiling.