So here we are in Muktinath, Mustang district, on the west side of Thorong La, just finishing dinner. The whole crew is here, safe and sound, though we are starting to resemble our boots: dusty, a bit scuffed up, but holding together. The big days are behind us with only one day left of trekking to Jomsom. Even Jeff D would call some of the stuff we have done lately as epic shit.
It started again at Manang. It was here that we split up. One group went up to Tilicho Lake while Mark, Kobus and I (Joel) went on to our summit try on Chuku West. I will let the Tilicho Lake group describe their adventure. Apparently it was spectacular. The three of us, plus three climbing Sherpas (Mingmar, Pasang, and Norbu) took the high route to Ledar. At Ledar we had lunch then turned east up a ravine towards base camp at the foot of Chulu. The climb up was very good with small shrubs and pasture most of the way up. Looking back down the valley we could see Annapurna 1 and Mangapurna. Base camp was set between a rock wall and a lateral moraine in a nice pasture. Think Scotland but without the rain and single malt. Total ascent was 1400 m which, as it turned out, was too much for one day.
The next day we put on our climbing gear and started up to high camp, 600 m above us at 5400m. The first part was up a 300 m scree slope to a col. A French team was camped at the col and had some climbers trying for the summit. The next part to high camp was on mixed rock and snow. Some of the route was with fixed line given the extreme exposure in spots. High camp was on a flat depression between snow/ice ridges and was quite protected from the weather. Once we got there, Kobus noted that he had difficulty breathing and diagnosed HAPE (High Altitude Pulmonary Edema) so immediately turned back for base camp escorted by Mingmar. I think the 1400m day from Manang was the problem, too much too fast.
Mark and I discussed options with Pasang and Norbu and agreed to try for the summit in the morning. We tried to sleep in the afternoon but did not succeed. We woke up at 1 am for coffee and cookies for breakfast. Not bad actually. I had to wrestle my double boots on followed by crampons. That was really hard work at 5400. I won on points. We roped up at 2 am, put our headlamps on and headed out. The terrain was convoluted following ridgelines, climbing snow and rock, and dodging crevasses. All in the dark remember. It was slow going as any major climb required multiple breaks to catch our breath.
By 6 am we had reached the main ridge leading to the summit at just over 6000m, maybe 6100m. But it was clear we had also reached our limit. My right foot was getting really cold and Mark's breathing was getting too labored. His oxygen saturation was about 65%. Taking a gulp of water was followed by a lot of sucking air. Not good for either of us. The sherpas, of course, seemed fine. As the sun was just rising over the mountains we decided to take a rest, drink some tea, take our photos, and turn back. Good choice. The views west to Annapurna 1 were excellent. The climb done was also excellent, verging on fun. It is amazing how quickly one recovers on descent. I warmed up within 15 minutes and Mark was feeling stronger by the minute. We also got to see our route up. It was more precarious than it appeared in the dark. You are going to have to see Mark's GoPro video.
We got to high camp by 9 am and, like hobbits, enjoyed a nice second breakfast with the sun baking the depression. This time wrestling off the double boots was no contest. Mingmar made it up just in time and reported that Kobus was doing fine and heading down to Ledar. We packed up camp and headed down through the fixed lines. (Just a note. I would not recommend that you attempt your first ever repel at 5300m, with a full pack, in crampons, with Korean made rope that I think is meant for marine purposes. Just saying). We got to base camp in good time and had lunch. We had an amazing surprise: watermelon for dessert. It was deep red, blood red, cold, juicy and sweet. What a treat. Someone packed it up from Manang. Amazing.
After lunch we headed down to Ledar where we met up with Kobus and the crew from Tilicho Lake. I was beat and slept early and often. The next day was an easy two hour jaunt up the valley to Thorong Pehdi. Rather than a town, it is an outpost at the end of a box canyon. The only way out is up to the pass or back to Manang. Accommodations were good, much much better than the mud hole going up to Larkya La the previous week, and the dining room had huge windows that let in the sun and gave us great views. Save for a few colds, we were all in good shape ready to make the pass.
Another big day. We woke at 3:30 am to pack and were on the trail by 4:40. The pass is due east up a long glacial moraine rising a full 1000m above Thorong Pehdi. Again, in the dark. I am getting used to this. We made good time. The first of us made the pass by 8:15 which, even in Canmore, would be decent speed up a 1000m hill. The whole crew was there by 8:45. So was half of France it seemed.
The pass is a hectic place. Trekkers trying to take photos, sherpas trying to keep groups together, and local horse services dropping off clients, someone selling tea. All this at 5400m.
Once organized we headed down. And down. And down. 1700m down to Muktinath along a dry moraine. What a relief getting to our lodging. Pretty posh for our standards too. But I am afraid our standards have fallen somewhat. Painted walls are a treat, attached bath a luxury, hot water showers a distant dream. But we are here, well fed, mostly clean, and looking forward to getting to Jomsom and the end of this trek.