Trekking Day Two

Day two started with much better weather, so the clouds were a bit disturbing. It was to be the hardest day with an ascent of over 1200m, during which we would reach the highest point of the trek.

The snow on the ground was patchy and did not pose a problem. As we were getting higher and higher there was more and more of it and eventually there were only two colours around: the white of the snow and the blue of the sky. The glare was so strong that I had to wear two pairs of sunglasses simultaneously. All of us were gasping for air, stopping every 3-5 steps. Many had to swallow their pride and ask for a horse for 20-40 minutes to regain the strength. I hardly ate anything for breakfast but even that didn't stay in my stomach for long. The trail was up, and up and up. Never ending. The group scattered over a few kilometres and many had time to reflect and enjoy the solitude and stillness of the mountains. On the final approach to the Zhukar-La pass we were overtaken by our yaks! Eventually, after nearly 8 hours we reached it. The altimeters recorded nearly 5,300m (17,500 ft). There was much joy and cheering, swapping T-shirts, taking photographs and hugging. Not for long though. The menacing clouds, which followed us for a while (see photo below) suddenly started unloading their cargo: tons of hail and snow. The temperature dropped some 20 degrees in less than 5 minutes, our hands became numb as we struggled to pull our jumpers and anoraks from our rucksacks. We had to evacuate the pass as soon as possible. What followed was the 'mother of all blizzards', which for many was the fright of their lives. First it was the hail. While going down the steep descent single-file we inevitably created a gully in the snow, in which the hailstones gathered, turning it into a bobsleigh run. I'm amazed that nobody slipped on it. Then the hail stopped and a strong wind started whipping up mini-tornadoes of very fine snowflakes. With the howling wind and our hoods on we could hardly hear each other. Soon we couldn't see each other either. The visibility was down to two metres. The group fragmented. Even I started being worried. It was nine hours since we left the camp and many of us were tired, cold and hungry. We had no idea where we were, couldn't see any path and could only have faith that our Tibetan leaders knew what they were doing. Losing our way and being stuck on the mountain two days away from any inhabited place was one of the dangers. Slipping into the abyss was another. Soon we started hearing thunder, and better not to think what the third might have been...

The blizzard lasted for about 2 and a half hours, which there and then definitely felt like eternity. Eventually the skies cleared and we caught a first glimpse of a camp in a distance. It may look like a frozen wilderness to you, but for us it was the most warm, homely sight we could wish for. A sleeping bag and a cup of hot tea... the ultimate dream. I checked my watch - it took nearly 13 hours to reach the camp. We were told that we may not sleep well because of the altitude - 4,880m (16,100 ft) - they must have been joking! I slipped into my sleeping bag just after we reached the camp with no dinner. I slept for over 12 hours having the best sleep of my life! I was somewhat surprised at night that I couldn't sip my water as I usually do, but in the morning it all became clear - the plastic bottle turned into a block of ice! Apparently it was minus 10oC at night.

A gorgeous morning with an impeccable blue sky was spoilt by another discovery that our wet boots from yesterday had also turned into blocks of ice. It was impossible to put them on. All rushed to the kitchen tent to thaw them. But this story belongs to Day 3.

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