I am writing this from our “high camp” at about 4700 meters (15,400 feet) after climbing about 1000 meters today. I say about because all of the maps are wrong in important details and none place this campsite accurately. I came to that figure by tracing contour lines on the better maps and the got almost exactly the same figure from my iPhone’s GPS.
This camp is what Peter Matthiessen called Snowfields Camp, and he tells horrifying stories of carting porter loads uphill through waist-deep snow. No such problems this year. There are patches of snow on north-facing slopes above 4000 meters, but nothing we’ve needed to walk through. And the way to the pass looks clear.
The point of the climb was to place ourselves in striking distance of Kang La, the pass over the Himalayan crest that leads to Shey Gompa. (Maps also disagree on the name of the pass, but that is what I’ll use.) We have to camp high enough to make the rest of the climb in the morning before the winds get too strong, and also to get down to town before it is too late in the day.
The day consisted mostly of putting one foot in front of the other and stopping to catch our breath. The air is thin up here, but neither of us is showing signs of altitude sickness. I find I get into a kind of meditative state by breathing out hard with each left foot and in with the right, letting a rhythmic sound play repeatedly in my head with every eight steps. I hardly notice the relentless climb.
It is cold up here. Marcia and I wore everything we have to bed, and we have down jackets piled on top of our sleeping bags. Unfortunately, we don’t have our winter bags, which we bought 10 years ago for our Everest area trip. Those were too heavy for Marcia to bring by herself to Tokyo and we weren’t sure we’d need them. So we had only one three-season bag and a rectangular bag that is really only good for summer, although it is Marcia’s favorite. Our organizer in Kathmandu promised to provide a full winter bag, but it turned out to be less warm than our three-season bag. So we brought all three bags, and at higher elevations Marcia uses the Kathmandu bag and we supplement with the rectangular bag wherever we’re feeling cold. Hot-water bottles supplied by the staff are a big help for the first part of the night. So far our system seems to have kept us warm on what should be one of the coldest nights of the trip.
Our tent is also funky compared with the high-tech gear of all the big groups camped around us. Our tent is green with a traditional ridgeline design, probably made in India. The inner tent appears to be made of cloth, and we haven’t tested the rainfly in a heavy storm. But it has plenty of space for us and our gear and it seems to do the job. The other groups have stylish yellow dome tents, but they’re also paying twice as much as we are.
Just before dark, our guide pointed out a couple small groups of bharal, or blue sheep. These wild animals are found only in isolated high Himalayan regions like this, and they were the object of many of the early naturalist expeditions to this area. With characteristics of both goat and sheep, they are actually a separate evolutionary line off the common ancestor. In the evening light they looked brown to me, but we should get a better look at them near Shey Gompa where they are supposedly numerous because they have traditionally been protected by the lama there.
What we surely won’t see is a snow leopard. Neither did Peter Matthiessen, which is actually the point of his book by that name. The snow leopard is a master of camouflage, intensely shy, and very rare with a wide hunting area. Early estimates were that there were only six in the entire Dolpo region, and I doubt that number has increased. Marcia and I did see one up close a few years ago in the Darjeeling zoo, and it’s one of the most remarkable animals on earth. Its long whitish-gray fur covers its whole body, making its tail look 15 cm (6 inches) thick. May protection efforts succeed at keeping this magnificent species alive in its home high in the mountains.