Thursday, 5 January 2012

Christmas 2011, In which I go for a rather steep walk (Part 3)

Our room for the night was densely packed with three sets of bunk beds, all of which were adorned with wet clothing and rucksacks. Orchid and I shared the room with four other hikers - two Indians via way of Australia, and a couple who I believe were Dutch. When I opened my pack to take out my night clothes, I was hit with the realization that everything in the bag was wet. My clothes, granola bars, papers, passport...Despite having secured things in plastic bags inside the pack and securing the poncho over, the rain had seeped in through the zipper and the fabric of the pack itself. I sighed, and bundled myself as well as I could in damp leggings, a skirt, and a t-shirt, read for a bit, and turned over for a restless night. While our bunkmates snored merrily, Orchid, who is apparently a fellow insomniac, and I counted the squeaks of the springs as we tossed and turned and searched for the elusive specter of sleep. Despite my misgivings about the early hour, I was relieved when alarms started going off at 1:45.

Did I mention that the second day of the hike starts at 2:30 AM?

The six of us groggily started packing our things, all lamenting the ever-present dampness. Never mind though, after cleaning ourselves as best we could in the cold shower, securing our packs, and brushing our teeth, we all headed downstairs where there was a promise of coffee. At Laban Rasa, you begin the day with an early breakfast to prepare you for the hike ahead. I sank into my coffee and noodles-with-egg, and gave thanks for warmth, friendly companions, and the knowledge that I would, at some point that day, get to take a real shower. At 2:40, Nani met us at the door and we began the next part of the climb, adorned with headlamps and bundled against the cold. The rain, miraculously, had stopped for a bit, and we caught glimpses of stars in the blackness above.

The second day's hike starts with a trek through the blackness up to the summit for sunrise. 2.7 K, which sounds like...not much, really. Less than two miles? I walk that and more every day. But uphill. Steeply uphill. And it's dark. And it's slippery from the previous day's rain. And did I mention that it's uphill?

The altitude began to get to me a bit here. Or the fatigue. Or the constant climb up slippery steps. Thankfully, the trail is fairly narrow here, and so you really only move at the pace of the slowest person in front of you (all of the groups leave around the same time). I was able to take a good number of breaks without disturbing the pace too much, for which I was immensely grateful. There's not much noise outside at that time of day - the climbers are too tired and breathless, and of course there's no traffic - so you plod through the quiet darkness, with a string of lights ahead and behind you indicating the headlamps of the other climbers.

Strangely enough, this was perhaps my favorite part of the climb. You couldn't really see the scenery, beyond passing glimpses of the lights of the towns far below, it was cold, and the climb was daunting. But it's quietly solitary, particularly as the hikers string out more along the trail, and it's very focused in the present. There's no dwelling on past imperfect or future uncertain - there's only present tense. Where is my foot now, and where should it be next? Stay upright. Don't go too fast. Maintain a slow and steady pace.

It was, in short, the part of the climb most removed from how I normally live, and I sank deeply into it.

We passed the tree line, and emerged onto the very rocky face of the remainder of the climb. You pass through a small checkpoint where they check your badge and remind you to use the rope.

Did I mention the rope?

Parts of the climb are really steep at this point, it's pretty much bare rock face, and (yes, again) it had been raining. The rocks are slick, so there's a guide rope attached to the rock. And you will use it. To haul yourself up, hand over hand, not quite daring to look behind and below.
The rope (at a less steep bit where I was willing to take a photo)

It's hard.

The altitude, the minimal upper body strength, and the mental and physical fatigue all came together to make it difficult to take the next step. Thankfully, Nani got me past some rough patches and reminded me to take it slow. That's the only way to do it. So I walked, pulled, rested, sat when I could, and plodded, one foot in front of the other.

And the reward? Was amazing.
I promise that's me - the full pic will not go up :-)

My pictures don't do it justice, but it is astoundingly beautiful. Small towns and cities below, rock all around, the tree line emerging beneath you, standing above the clouds. It's worth the climb, the bad sleep, the cold, and the wet. It's a proud moment, when the sun comes up and you see how far you've come.

Orchid, Nani, Fit, me and Everest - sleepy but accomplished
The climb down is easier, but more difficult, if that makes any sense. All those steps you came up yesterday? You go down today - the full 8.7K on top of the 2.7K you did to start the morning. At the top of the climb I was grateful that we had climbed up in the dark - seeing the terrain in the light was quite scary, particularly when going backward while hanging on to the rope! Breakfast (the real one) at Laban Rasa breaks up the descent a bit, but by the end our knees ached (I think I pulled my IT band), our toes were numb from slamming against the front of our shoes, and we were all ready to hit a shower.

But it was so worth it, and I can't wait for the next climb.

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