One night during a thunderstorm that would have made Thor proud we sat on a splintery wood bench in a mountain teahouse, where candle stubs cast weak puddles of yellow light. The teahouse was cavernous, its scruffiness hidden in a cloak of blackness, only to be exposed intermittently by a crackling bolt of lightening. From our perch along the wall we could hear quiet conversation broken now and then by a burst of laughter.
A man brought us each a mug of yak butter tea. In the spirit of taking what’s offered, I sipped the rancid-tasting brew, feeling happily authentic. Big mistake. By midnight my stomach was in upheaval with food poisoning and I spent the night vomiting my guts out in our tiny tent. I managed to stagger through the 7-8 hours’ walk the next day, then retreated to my sleeping bag, there to lie in the shivering heat of fever for another 12 hours.
And then I was fine. But weak. And rather thin. From then on I could never warm up, which became a bit of a problem the higher we hiked. Getting closer to Pang Pema, Kanchenjunga’s base camp, it became clear that the monsoon season would be starting early. Every morning dawned with a fresh sifting of snow on the ground and a cloying cold fog obscuring the view. When I decided I simply had to wash my nearly waist length hair at 13,500 altitude, the long strands froze and I seriously thought I was about to receive a makeshift shag haircut. At these higher elevations I spent miserable nights living the truisms about altitude’s potential negative effects on your overall sense of well-being. I’d burst awake with a gasp as I imagined myself unable to breathe, then lie in the dark tent as my heart tried to pound its way out of my chest, a booming bass drum echoing in my head.
With all these night hours on my hands, I couldn’t stop wondering whether we’d trekked all this way only to have Kanch, as we now affectionately called the mountain, remain invisible behind the ever-present fog and low clouds.
That’s nearly what happened. But on the appointed day, each of us carrying a hard-boiled egg whose very existence at that stage and that altitude was a major miracle, we walked into the most breathtaking arena of mountains I have ever experienced. The fog lifted, clouds cleared, glaciers sparkled and winked, and the sheer immensity of snow-clad granite pyramids surrounding us took my breath away…or what was left of it. I have a picture of me with Kanch behind. In it, I’m leaning somewhat on Bernard, my scarecrow legs draped in trousers that are now several sizes too big. Bernard has his arm around my waist, his bum leg resting on a rock, a three-day growth of black stubble obscuring the creases that frame his face when he’s smiling. And he is smiling. So am I.
If you’d like to know more details about this trek, or have questions about what skill level would enjoy such an experience, post to me below.