[To read the first part, click here.]
The Gokyo Valley is a beautiful place. Between two impressive mountain ranges, over which we have to cross the Renjo La pass and the Cho La pass, it harbors a long glacier and several small villages – including the Gokyo village itself – now almost exclusively touristic (it’s kind of cold for farming, you know).
There is also the small summit Gokyo Ri (5360m) and the five lakes: one in front of the village Gokyo, then two to the south and two to the north. Going up even higher than the fifth lake, you can reach Cho Oyu’s base camp, one of the world’s 14 peaks over 8,000 meters.
So on the seventh day I went to sleep at Gokyo village, exhausted by the climb (and descent) of the Renjo La pass.
Days 8 to 11
My initial plan included taking days off on a regular basis to rest and heal my knees, hoping that it would be enough to prevent old injuries to come back.
But to sit and be nice when you’ve got your feet in the Himalayas is easier said than done.
My eighth day is thus a “rest” day. I walk to the 4th lake along the moraine (a glacier partially covered by rocks), a desert and truly beautiful place. I then continue until the fifth lake, Ngozumpa Tsho, about 5000 meters above sea level. Arrived at destination, my eyes admire the impressive moraine before losing diving in an exquisite view.
The next morning, 3:50 am, I’m dressed up with everything I have and headed to Gokyo Ri.
It’s early, I know.
But this, is the sun rising on Everest:
And then there is the Cho Oyu (8201m), northwest, which is not bad either:
I take my time to go down, but the trail is steep. My knees do not appreciate the treatment, especially with my trip to the fifth lake on the day before. I realize at this point that my backpack forced me to walk slower and cautiously. Without that weight on my shoulders – like yesterday and today – I tend to metamorphose myself into a mountain goat and bounce around without even realizing it.
So I take it cool and head for Thagnak / Dragnag on the other side of the moraine, a tad farther south. Having decided to take the next day to rest – a real day off this time – I do my laundry in the stream (i.e. Nepalese running water).
And as the scenery is nice, I decide to add a touch of art to it by bathing a little bit 😉
Except that while my skin meets the mountain’s freezing water, snow starts to fall down. Large flakes descend from the sky all around me, in a romantic slow motion.
Shit. This is not good.
I finish washing and go inside. The guide of a German couple (in their fifties, met while descending Gokyo Ri) confirms my fear: it is highly preferable to attack the Cho La pass (5420m) on the next morning instead of taking a day off. If the snow keeps falling for more than one day, the pass will be impracticable, and I can’t expect to cross it before most of it melts.
And then, suddenly, I realize that I have a headache. I never have headaches.
Shit. (See the Acute Mountain Sickness symptoms)
I take a Diamox pill (against altitude sickness) before going to bed, hoping very, very strongly that it’s not caused by altitude sickness. It would not really make sense given my near perfect acclimatization, but… the headache is there.
In the room at night, it’s literally freezing cold. Between -7 ° C and -10 °C (19°F to 14°F) to what I was told. Did I tell you taht I don’t have a sleeping bag? I hardly slept that night.
And at sunrise, at 4:30, my headache is tenacious.
So I start following the German couple and their guide as close as possible, a little worried by all that and disappointed for not being able to take my rest day.
The trail is already a bit more difficult than Renjo La, more hilly (at a high altitude – already over 5000m – it’s exhausting). The Germans walk fast: they don’t hurt their knees when going down, they don’t have a rucksack (they have a porter) and I suspect their guide to speed the pace a bit more than the usual. It’s getting hard this time.
We finally attack the pass itself, slowly climbing up the steep scree leading us up the cliff to Cho La without any trail. It’s extremely steep, often icy. It’s hard. It’s incredibly exhausting.
My heart is pounding like never, my lungs are burning, my legs are aching, filled with lactic acid and my knees are on the tightrope more than ever. And my head is not improving, just the opposite.
Do I suffer from altitude sickness?
If so, to continue climbing is risky and very dangerous. Altitude sickness is an insidious disease, difficult to predict and it’S complications – potentially fatal – can occur extremely quickly without much warning.
The warnings, what are they? A headache. A generalized fatigue. Lack of appetite (or even nausea). Confusion.
I have the first two. I then think about the snack I packed to eat at the top of the pass: the very idea of it disgusts me. Me! The insatiable appetite! The count is now at three out of four symptoms…
Shit shit shit.
We have about an hour left before reaching the pass. To turn back at this moment, with my fatigue and the steep icy path I just climbed, is too dangerous (at this point, if it had been feasible, I would have gone back down). So I focus on what I have to do, and I step forward.
The next hour will be a concert of efforts. I have one and only one goal in mind: to not die.
Simple as that.
For the first time, I truly contemplate the idea that I might not return from this mountain. I focus on my breathing, the oxygenation of my brain, the rhythm of my heart, how I push on my legs and knees, my speed, everything. I ask myself a thousand questions to stay in the moment, lucid.
“What year did I finish high school? “
“In which battle was Hitler wounded? “
And then, without warning, the summit is there: right under my feet.
I drop my bag. Someone congratulates me.
I am happy, but I can’t smile.
I sit down. I look at the view down the glacier, and away over the mountain ranges. It’s unbelievable.
I breathe slowly, my heart slows down and the pressure goes down. The German woman vomits before me. Her boyfriend and she embrace. She sobs.
For some reason I ignore, some tears start flowing down my cheeks. And then, still ignoring why, a smile finally appears on my face. I lower my head and close my eyes. I laugh.
It’s such a beautiful moment.
Maybe I should not – and I don’t care if it’s the case – but I am proud. Proud to have created this very moment.
The descent on the glacier will be smooth, except for a few times when I found myself on the buttocks (I don’t have crampons). I reach Zongla and decide to take an Advil (ibuprofen): 10 minutes later, the headache is gone…
The next day, my eleventh day, will be a well-deserved day off. Meanwhile, I fall asleep enjoying Macklemore & Ryan Lewis in a whole new way.
“Yeah I questioned if I could go the distance
That’s just the work, regardless of who’s listening, listening
Listen, see I was meant to be a warrior
Fight something amongst me, leave here victorious
Classroom of kids, or a venue performing
If I’d done it for the money I’d have been a fucking lawyer
Concrete, vagabond, van telling stories
Humbled by the road, I’m realizing I’m not important
See life’s a beautiful struggle, I record it
Hope it helps you maneuvering through yours”
– Macklemore & Ryan Lewis (Make the money)
“Fight something amongst me. “
Everyone creates their own standards, even I, and these are the only ones that truly matter. To surpass oneself, call it “getting out of your comfort zone” (my favorite expression) or “pushing back your own limits,” it’s like growing up a little.
“Change the game, don’t let the game change you.”
– Macklemore & Ryan Lewis (Make the money)
[To read the next part, click here.]