Day 8 – Oct 17 – Over Kang La

Today was the day we passed over Kang La into the heart of Dolpo. Some refer to this as Inner Dolpo or Upper Dolpo, but purists would say that the true Dolpo is the four high valleys with purely Tibetan civilization isolated from the rest of Nepal by high passes. Nepal has confused things further by defining an administrative region Dolpa that includes both Upper and Lower Dolpo, but the government seems to have very little presence this far up.

I got many things wrong in yesterday’s account of our camp’s location. We could not see our way to the pass, only the first long pitch of the climb up to another high valley at about 4900 meters elevation. I think Peter Mattheissen’s “Snowfield Camp” was actually in this higher valley, not the lower place where the park now requires travelers to camp.

And there was definitely snow on the pass. In fact, there was so much snow on the normal crossing that we had to use a much higher alternative route. How much higher we’ll never know because my iPhone’s GPS refused to believe our location and insisted on a much lower altitude. From the maps, I am guessing it was about 5500 meters (18,100 feet) because we were pretty much even with the surrounding summits. The regular pass was maybe only 5200 meters, but its north-facing slope made its snow too deep. I suspect this is the reason for the divergences in names and elevations on my different maps, as there are actually two passes that get used in different seasons.

In any case, it was a long, hard slog up snowy switchbacks to the pass. Marcia and I were both feeling the altitude with minor dizziness and headaches, respectively. Even the yaks seemed to be taking their time.

The views from the pass were glorious in both directions. To the south were the Kanjirobas, with the glaciers we had been admiring now slightly below us. One large peak was also visible further south, and the full stretch of Dhauligiri and maybe Annapurna to the east.

To the north, the mountains looked completely different. Although they were still rugged, they were dry, brown and rounded, as if the wind were the major force shaping them. Off in the distance was a striking pyramidal mountain, probably on or over the border in Tibet.

I narrowly averted a disaster with our mules. They were unhappy on top and were looking for any way down. It wasn’t easy because earlier groups had left the main trail a steep, icy mess. While our crew was preoccupied cutting steps in the ice, the lead mule decided to look for another route down on an inviting snowy place. The problem was that this was a cornice, and he would have fallen through way down the slope. I saw him heading that way and three other mules following, and since I don’t speak Nepali Mule, I shouted at our mule man, who should have been paying attention. He ran screaming and almost fell through himself. But he got the lead mule’s attention just as the first foot was discovering the snow was not solid.

The trip down the other side was not bad after the first twenty icy steps. Marcia and I have lots of experience galumphing down snowy slopes. I was tempted to follow others in a glissade until Marcia reminded me how far it was to the nearest hospital if I tore my butt on a rock. Down, down, down, all afternoon down. Marcia got her second wind and beat the rest of us to Shey around 4pm. I could have walked another hour but was glad I didn’t have to.

We slept very well.

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