Improvisational Mountaineering

Looking up at Surya Peak from Laurebina La

The main Gosaikund Lake is at 14,156 feet. It is in a high, barren, cold basin. There is no village here, just a small cluster of lodges for trekkers and pilgrims, and a Hindu shrine by the side of the lake. Only one lodge was open when we were there - the other two were closed for the winter. While I was there I saw two Nepalis arrive and go into one of the other lodges. They were there to start the process of opening up another lodge for the spring season. I spent part of the afternoon sitting on the porch of the lodge where I could enjoy the view. But even in the sun it was quite cool out and a cold wind was blowing. I spent some time talking to an American woman from Portland who was following the same route that I was. She was hiking quite slowly though and was going to take over a week to hike through Helambu while I was expecting to do it in four days. But she had the time so she was hiking at a pace and effort that was comfortable for her.

Eventually I got chilled sitting outside so I headed into the lodge. There was a very small common room but it had a fire going. There were several trekkers as well as their Nepali guides and porters inside so it was cozy and warm. I found a comfortable seat and read my book while I sipped some hot tea.

Above 16,000 ft on Surya Peak - trail visible below

It was cold enough to cause problems for my camera. Because of the cold the batteries just weren't putting out enough juice to operate it. So I don't have any pictures of the lakes or the pass that we crossed the next morning. I didn't care that much because while the lakes are quite famous they aren't that photogenic. The basin was high and cold and barren and rocky. I've been to prettier lake basins in other mountain areas. Langtang had been much more spectacular. I did get a few shots the next day by putting the camera inside of my jacket long enough to warm up the batteries.

As I hiked into the basin one thing had caught my eye. There was a peak behind the lakes that stood to one side of the pass that we would cross the next day to reach Helambu. It was a nice looking rocky peak. It reminded me of peaks in the Sawtooth Wilderness in my home mountains back in Idaho. And just like many of the Sawtooth Peaks, it looked broken up enough that it would be possible to scramble up it. The ridge rising from the Laurabina La looked climbable. Since we were planning to cross the pass anyway, it wouldn't be that much more elevation gain to go up the peak. I was planning and plotting furiously as we hiked into the basin towards the mountain. The longer that I looked at the peak the more I felt that it would go. I knew that it was a wild idea but I figured that I would probably never be back here. I would always kick myself if I didn't give it a try.

Tasi is feeling good at our high point on Surya Peak

When we reached the lodge I raised my crazy idea with Tasi. What about going up the peak tomorrow when we crossed the pass? He said that he had never been up the peak but he looked at it and said that it might be possible. He also talked to the people who ran the lodge and learned that people did go up the peak sometimes. I even noticed on the business card for the lodge that "guide for Surya Peak" was one of the items mentioned. The map showed that it was 16,876 ft (well actually it gave the height in meters, but I translated). That is a respectable altitude and a chance for us to get higher than we had in the Langtang when we climbed Kyangjin Ri. Tasi said - ok - we would leave early the next day and give it a try. You can't beat a solo trek. You can change the itinerary on a whim. I was pretty excited that evening about our plan to attempt Surya Peak the next day.

As the sun started to go down it began to get really cold. Everyone at the lodge was crowded into the common room where the fire kept things warm. There was the lady from Portland. There were three Japanese trekkers that I had seen several times before in the Langtang valley. They didn't speak much English but I did learn that they were expats living in Kathmandu. One of them had really been working on his nepali and was carrying on conversations with all of the locals. There were also the folks who ran the lodge and the guides and porters for the trekkers. I had a good dinner and was chatting with the others and reading my book. It was almost dark. The wind was howling outside and it was snowing lightly but we were warm by the fire.

So near and yet so far - summit from our high point

All of a sudden the door opened, a cold wind roared inside and snow blew in as two people entered. They were all bundled up and covered with snow. I thought that it was really late for anyone to be arriving at the lodge. It was an older American man and his Nepali guide. They quickly settled in and ordered hot food and drinks. Everyone welcomed them in from the harsh weather outside. But quickly the whole atmosphere changed. Before people had been chatting casually and everything had been low key. All of a sudden the newcomer assumed center stage and we were all listening to his stories. He told us about how he had stopped at dusk at the shrine by the lakeside to do a special ceremony. He told us how he needed to be back in Kathmandu by the weekend because he was guest of honor at a nepali wedding (how can someone other than the bride and groom be the guest of honor at a wedding?). And on and on. And on and on and on. No one else got a chance to talk.

One of things I really enjoy about trekking is the chance to meet and talk to people from all over the world. But this guy was something else. To try to be friendly though I said "Your accent sounds East Coast. Are you from New York City?"

Wow - even Tasi looks tired after Surya Peak

The guy just stopped and stared at me for a long time. It was like he was shocked that anyone else had dared to speak. Finally he said "Yes I am. Now I suppose you expect me to ask in return where you are from, and then we can have some really stupid conversation about that. I prefer to talk about my trek."

Wow. I guess he told me. Shut up and sit down.

Maybe this may not seem like a big deal but you have to remember that we are at high altitude. It is physically and psychologically demanding. To be in a similar situation imagine that you have gone three days with almost no sleep and are really irritable. On top of that you are exhausted because you have hiked really hard all day. It is easy for tempers to flare. Even for me, Mr. Mellow. So my first thought was, this guy is old, I can take him easily. I looked at Tasi and Khim compared to his guide (who was also pretty old). No problem. We can take them. Let's rumble.

But instead I just said "Ok, good night. I'm going to bed." I didn't even flip him off as I left for my room. Maybe I should have though. Being from New York City he probably expected it.

The lodge was a long, narrow building. At one end was the common room and next was the kitchen. Both had fires and lots of people and light and were nice and warm. There was a long corridor that led to all the rooms. Mine was the last one. So no warmth from the other end of the building made it back to my room. It was COLD in there. I put on my heavy long johns and climbed under my sleeping bag. When I go to bed I leave a water bottle next to my bed in case I get thirsty during the night. When I woke up the next morning it was frozen solid. A quart of water. That was inside my room. When I got up in the middle of the night for a trip to the outhouse it was really cold outside. I can assure you that it was a very quick trip.

Getting up the next morning in the dark was tough. It was very cold. It was hard to get out of a warm sleeping bag and get dressed. But there was a mountain waiting to be climbed. We had a quick breakfast and a warm drink and started out just as it was beginning to get light.

A foggy morning and a dusting of snow at Tharepati Pass

From the lodge the trail rose gradualy but steadily to the pass at 15,125 ft. It took us about an hour to climb the thousand feet to the Laurebina La (pass). From there Tasi and I split off to head up Surya Peak. Khim continued on the trail with his heavy load. We would meet up with him later at our lunch stop.

From the pass it was about 1750 feet to the summit. It looked straightforward for most of the way but the summit area got much steeper. We just had to go up there to see if it would go or not. Most of the way was hard work but easy technically. It was just climbing over rocks and boulders that got steadily steeper as we climbed higher. But since the pass was over 15,000 ft it was slow going and hard work to gain elevation. There just wasn't a lot of oxygen. It was cold when we started out in the morning but as we climbed the wind picked up. As we got high on the peak the wind was blowing hard and it was really cold. This was the only time on the trek that I was wearing all of my warm clothes and I still felt cold. And this was while I was working as hard as I could climbing up the mountain. There is no doubt that it was cold up there.

Eventually the mountain got really steep. We reached a sheer headwall and I thought that we were stopped but Tasi looked around a corner and found a break in the rock band that allowed us to continue. Now we were scrambling, using our hands and our feet to climb. The ascent was getting tougher as we got higher. The cold and wind continued. But we kept going upward. We were climbing up a steep gully towards a notch that was just south of the summit.

Tasi talks to the Japanese and French trekkers at Tharepati

Finally we reached the summit ridge. We were at a deep notch in the ridge about 150 feet below the summit. But from here the route got even steeper. We could clearly see the summit and the banners that were on it. Obviously people made it up there. It was only 150 feet above us. But the route above was definitely much steeper. I thought that it was doable, but certainly risky. The wind was blowing and we were both really cold. And we were three days walk away from any road. Although I really wanted to do this summit, we talked together and both decided that this time the right thing to do was walk away. In the Sawtooths maybe I would have pushed it. But not today, not here. We took a few pictures at our high point, which was about 16,700 ft, and turned around and started down.

Somehow it seemed to take us longer to climb down to the pass than it had taken us to climb up. The altitude was taking its toll. But eventually we reached the trail and headed down after Khim who now had about a three hour head start on us. I had looked at the map the night before and though it was going to be easy for us to reach our lunch time stop beyond the pass. But the trail lost a lot of elevation so many switchbacks made it long. I was tired after our attempted climb. Although is was a short way on the map it took a long time and a lot of effort to reach our lunch stop. It was a pretty rustic lodge but I was tired and hungry and a cheese momo for lunch sounded really good. The lady from Portland that I had talked to the day before was here and she decided that she would stop for the day (and she hadn't tried to climb a 16000 ft peak). She said that she had been troubled by the altitude the night before and had not fallen asleep all night. I didn't contradict her even though she had been in the room next to mine and the walls were really thin. When I got up during the night for a bathroom break she was snoring up a storm. But I was polite and didn't mention it. I had my lunch and continued on.

Trekking on a brisk morning

Our destination for the night was Tharepati Pass. On the map it didn't look far. When we left our lunch stop I thought that I had an easy hike. Maybe an hour or two. That was ok even though I was really tired. The peak attempt had been a lot of work but the afternoon should be mostly downhill. That's how it started out. From our lunch break we dropped very quickly. That was ok. I could handle downhill. But then we started to cross a long series of ridges. We would climb up a ridge, then go down the other side. Up another ridge, down the other side again. Up and down. Again and again. This was getting to be hard. I was wearing out. After three and a half hours our stop for the night still wasn't even visible. This was not what I had expected! Finally when I was just about out of gas we reached a point where Tasi pointed out our destination. Man! It was high above us. And we had to start by dropping way down to cross a deep valley and then climbing back up even higher than we were now. It was really a discouraging sight.

I was exhausted. I just put my body in its lowest gear and my mind in neutral and grinded it out. At one point Tasi sent Khim ahead to find a place for us to stay for the night. You know that you are going slowly when a guy with a forty pound pack can race past you going up the hill. I just kept going. Eventually we saw Khim waving to us from a lodge. Finally we made it.

The sun went down not long after we got there. It was cold, although not as cold as the previous night at Gosaikund. Everyone was in the common room again with a big fire going. The three Japanese trekkers were there. There were also three French trekkers, a woman and her two teenage daughters. I ordered some food and a Coke, downed it, and headed off to bed. I was really tired.

The next day I got a surprise when I woke up. Our string of days of perfect weather came to an end. The pass was foggy and there was a dusting of snow on the ground. But we were going down the other side of the pass so I figured it would warm up as we descended. Hopefully the sun would come out as well.

These flowers were everywhere on the ground in the forest

It was cold but there was no wind so it was quite pleasant when we started walking. The air was perfectly still and the forest was really quiet, especially with the new snow. It was very pretty because there were bright purple flowers everywhere that were poking out through the snow. As we descended the snow eventually disappeared and the sun came out. The mountains behind us were still in the clouds. It wasn't so much the weather clearing as us descending out of the clouds. It would have been a nice hike but I had to admit that I wasn't feeling good. I was thinking that maybe I had overdone it the day before.

When we stopped for lunch I was feeling a little better. I ordered my usual lunch - a cheese momo and a Coke. The French party also stopped at the same tea house and I got to talk to the mom. I learned that they were from Provence. I mentioned that my wife and I had just been there the summer before on a walking tour. She asked where I had been. Oh oh. Drawing a blank. Must be the altitude and exhaustion. No blood for the brain. Avignon. We went to Avignon. And a bunch of other places (all with funny French names that I can't remember!). This was really embarrassing. Some world traveler. Maybe I really was sick or something.

A waterfall on a side stream beside the trail

After lunch was the standard itinerary. We had to drop a long way down from the village where we had lunch and then climb back up on the other side of the canyon. Now I was feeling miserable. I was beginning to get worried. But I kept trudging along and we made it to our place for the night. We were low enough now that it wouldn't freeze at night so that meant the shower was working. It had been a few days that we had been up high so I was glad to get cleaned up, even if this time the water wasn't real warm because it had been overcast much of the day (a drawback of solar heaters). Then I just found a place to sit down and rest.

I got a liter bottle of water and without thinking drank the whole thing in about fifteen minutes. So I got another one. That one went down in about the same amount of time. Wow. I guess I had been thirsty. And sure enough, after drinking about half a gallon of water, I started to perk up. So apparently I had been super dehydrated. It hadn't occurred to me because I had been drinking during the past two days, especially when we stopped, but probably not as much as usual. Added to the fact that we had been really high, the air had been really cold and dry, and we had had a really long and exhausting day when we attempted Surya Peak, I had not replaced all of the fluids that I had lost. At high altitude you lose a lot of water just from breathing - more than at sea level. It's because the partial pressure of water vapor is lower, even though the humidity is the same, if you want to get technical. I had gotten really dehydrated without realizing it.

With another liter of water and two Cokes with dinner, I was feeling pretty good again. That was a relief. Now we only had one more night in a lodge ahead of us. The day after tomorrow we would reach the road and head back to Kathmandu.