How do you describe something that is indescribable?
Honestly, I’m having issues beginning this blog. To be fair, after any trek, I find it difficult to convey to people back home how wonderful it was. You know, the whole “you had to be there” bit. Adjusting to “normal” life after such an adventure that no one but your trekmates will ever understand is never an easy transition.
This time though, you really and truly did just need to be there. Now obviously, I cannot perform time travel to bring you and I back two weeks ago to the summit push of Kang Yatse II, so that option is out.
So what do I do?
How do I get your esophagus to feel the same fire mine did when we hit 19,000 feet?
What can I say for your hands to shake violently with excitement and exhaustion and cold like ours did as we ravenously ate frozen-solid Snickers Bars on a glacier?
How do I make your chest swell with delight, the kind of joy that moves up your throat and makes your head tingle, as mine did when I turned around and saw the rest of the world infinitely below us?
I don’t think I can.
Who knows though. Maybe by telling you the story of our journey to this magnificent peak, you’ll feel the same desire to experience this mountain’s spell in person.
Here goes nothing…
The adventure begins at 1:30am (no, not a typo) as I crankily turn off my alarm in my Delhi apartment. This morning, Sarthak, my recce partner, and I catch a flight at the ungodly hour of 5:15am to Leh, which is the epicenter of high-altitude trekking in India’s northern region of Ladakh.
A “recce” simply means that we are doing a trial-run of a trail we are considering opening for participant batches, making sure it’s safe, has water and camping points and that we understand the trail well.
This particular time however, we’re taking on Kang Yatse II, an impressive glacier-capped, semi-technical ascent towering at the head of Markha Valley. Upon first learning of this scheduled recce, I Googled the thing to see just what we were dealing with.
Google says it’s 20,500ft. I pause to process what this number means.
I have been on seven other Himalayan treks thus far in India- I tell myself; Har Ki Dun, Rupin Pass, Kedartal, Roopkund, Manali-Leh Cycling, Deo Tibba Base Camp and Ghepan Ghat. My personal highest altitude record to date is 16,200 at the top of Roopkund’s Junargali.
At 17,000 feet, the air density is half as much as it is at at sea level. We are about to blow past that altitude.
I feel my heart beating a little bit faster. Altitude is a tricky thing- AMS is not a joke. I begin simultaneously wondering how well my body will handle these new heights and excitedly visualizing this new personal record.
“If I’ve been at 16,000ft before without a problem, then I should be alright, no?” I begin to ask Sarthak, who is far more technically trained than myself.
“No,” he cuts me off flatly, “forget Junargali. Forget every trek you’ve ever been on- this is nothing like those. This is not a trek, it’s an expedition.”
Well that was comforting.
Of course, the adventurer in me overshadows whatever worries I may have, and my determination pushes my doubts far into a corner.
With our 20kg packs full of crampons, ice axes and harnesses loaded into the belly of the plane, we board our flight, gluing ourselves to the window as we land amidst the barren mountains of Leh an hour and a half later.
The next four days consist of us gathering additional equipment, purchasing rations and locating our guides, Tashi and Rigzin, interspersed of course with a few touristy indulgences that the remarkable city of Leh has to offer along the way. I mean seriously, how can you not visit a monastery built at 11,800ft from the 1400’s?
Suddenly we are in a jeep, winding our way up to Chuskurmo, our trailhead for the Recce (however the actual trek will take you through Markha Valley to promote more gradual acclimatization), and I realize something.
This isn’t an idea, it’s not a nice plan- it’s happening, and it’s happening now.
Let’s climb a 20,500ft mountain.
We spend the evening trying to capture the planets shining in the indigo night sky just right on the DSLR and call it an early night- we’ve got one heck of a day tomorrow.
We head straight for Nimaling camp from Chuskurmo, a 15km climb through the striking Shang Gorge with 4,700ft of altitude gain straight up to Kongmaru La, where the view is worth every bit of sweat you just shed.
As Sarthak, Manjeet and I breathlessly reach the top of the pass, we say goodbye to the rainbow-striped mountains down behind us now, looking like pastel mint and lavender-wrapped presents.
Turning my back on this view we’ve worked so hard to reach, I hear my heart thump loudly twice in shock at the sight before us now. Kang Yatse is staring us down from straight across the beautiful valley that separates us still. It suddenly strikes me just how massive this thing is. We, standing on this pass at 17,060ft in altitude, are still tilting our heads upwards to see this peak.
As we descend into the softest-looking valley I’ve ever seen, the day’s arduous climb settles in our legs, and we joyously cross the rickety bridge over the river into the bustling tent metropolis of Nimaling. Nimaling is a curious little oasis of energy in a place that otherwise feels like you’re the last humans on Earth. The place is a destination for regional shepherds, filled with donkeys chasing one another, goats trying to eat your tent and sweet-eyed cows curiously exploring the nearby grounds. It’s a comforting sort of chaos.
Tashi, Rigzin, Sarthak, Manjeet and myself all happily bathe in the sunset, enjoying the feeling of doing nothing for a moment before cooking up a steaming pot of dinner. We fall asleep without trying- well, except for me.
My head begins to throb. My first thought is AMS, but this pain feels familiar. Just in case, I chug a half-liter of water and lie down. As the night goes on, I feel every inch of my sinus fill up, leaving my nose a useless accessory on my face. By morning, my plugged nose and headache are joined by their close friends (who I personally don’t care for too much), sore throat, a relentless cough and the cherry on top, a fever.
I’m supposed to climb a mountain higher than Mount Kilimanjaro tomorrow and I freaking catch the flu.
Well the show must go on. We strap on our packs and head off and up the ridge looming above our campsite. From behind it, Kang Yatse peers down, drawing us closer. Following the slope down the other side after a few hours, we plunge our bare feet into the ice-cold river that separates us from our campsite, hiking boots draped around our necks by the laces.
The afternoon and following day consist of gear preparation and acclimatization (and me almost coughing up a lung, it feels). As we adjust our harnesses, fit our crampons to our snow boots and secure our ice axes to our packs, I find myself praying periodically for protection for our crew, for good weather and for this flu to dissipate before tonight’s summit push.
For a perfectly healthy person, this summit is a kick in the ass. For someone who’s lungs and nose aren’t working properly- well, I guess I’ll find out what that’s like soon enough.
As per night summit tradition, we eat an early dinner at 8:00pm and sleep immediately, bags packed and alarms set for midnight with the plan of eating breakfast and leaving by 1:00am.
Midnight comes instantly, it feels. With sleep-laced adrenaline, we begin changing into our thermal layers and pause- what’s that sound?
A collective groan from us all echos around the tent as we realize it’s raining. Manjeet ventures out to confirm what we fear.
“The weather is soooooo, sooooooo bad,” he says with so much sincere distress that the rest of us immediately erupt into laughter. Poor guy- for the rest of the expedition, every time something goes slightly wrong, we make sure to announce that it’s sooooooo, sooooo bad.
Manjeet does not appreciate this joke. We don’t really care.
Anyways, reluctantly we fall back asleep, sporadically all waking up to my violent coughing, praying that tomorrow’s skies are clear for a successful summit push.
We awaken again at midnight, warming ourselves with dal and rice, double-check that our equipment is all packed and head up, headlight beams leading the way.
We climb for hours in the pitch black. The sky really is miraculous, a deep indigo silk inlaid with stars that look like diamonds. The rest of the world is gone- it’s just us.
I feel my back and skin aching from the fever and hear the fluid rattling in my lungs. The problem is that since I can’t breathe through my nose, every time I have a coughing fit, there’s no way for me to breathe at all. Manjeet pats my back, and we continue to ascend for several more hours.
This new and foreign altitude introduces itself suddenly with a noticeable dip in temperature. I’ve always sweat very easily, and so typically only wear one layer unless we are standing still. For the first time in my life, I’m climbing constantly with a face mask, woolen hat, thermal layer, fleece, outer down jacket, scarf, insulated gloves and two pairs of pants- and it’s still shockingly cold.
It’s just us, the stars and this enormous mountain that we now stand on the side of- a long way from the top, and a long way from the bottom.
After hours, we hit High Camp at 19,000ft and begin to gear up just below the ablation zone of where the glacier begins. I hold my belly as another coughing fit comes on. My lungs are raw.
Wind at 19,000ft is a new, frigid beast, and we strap on our harnesses, snow boots, crampons, gators and ropes with slow, frozen fingers. The determination amongst our team as we silently gear up is palpable. Somehow, despite being remarkably uncomfortable, there is no place any of us would rather be. We are in our element.
Time to climb.
Roped to one another, we begin etching a zigzag path up the 45-degree incline glacier that caps KY2 as the sun rises brilliantly over the rest of the world behind us. It’s unlike anything I’ve ever seen.
I’m really struggling now, ice axe in hand, I have to stop every eight breathless, vertical steps to gag out the newly-accumulated goop in my lungs. With snot pouring from my nose into the snow (I know, attractive, right?), we navigate over hidden, snow-covered crevasses, up and up and up. The incline increases to 60 degrees.
Underneath my facemask, I smile each time Tashi Bhai, our guide, yells, “Shabash shabash!” down to us- Hindi for “good job, keep going!”
We climb for three more, lung-searing hours.
At exactly 19,511ft I gag so hard that I have to lower myself onto the snow before I fall, and a chunk of something flies out of my throat onto the glistening ice. It’s such a strange contrast, I think, this spectacular view with something so disgusting.
The guys are patiently waiting, taking the opportunity to catch their breath as well while we rest. Gasping, but otherwise silent, I evaluate my body while ravenously devouring a Snickers bar.
You see, I have this issue of never saying “no” to anything. I’m just a “yes” kind of person. I’ll try almost anything and I’ll go all out for it. If there’s one thing I don’t do, it’s quit. Generally, it just ends up being a fun adventure at the expense of my sleep and health (both of which I have severely neglected in the past), but learning at what point I need to call it a day has always been a weak spot for me. I’ll push too hard, and the consequences are unpleasant, sometimes dangerous.
In one of the most influential pieces of advice I’ve ever received, a very dear colleague of mine wrote to me last year, following the end of my internship with their company, “[Be] more careful about yourself. I am not saying that you should lose your wild spirit but taking care of yourself is important. I sincerely believe that nature & body are connected and there is no need for us to push against the will of nature. Our spirit should be to explore it and not to conquer it because that is impossible.”
Throughout the past 365 days, although it may not look like it, I’ve really made a concerted effort to implement that mentality into my decisions and actions.
I think of this conversation now as I enter what must be my 30th coughing fit of the day, sitting just 1,000 feet below the summit after climbing 2,800ft this morning.
“...our spirit should be to explore it and not to conquer it…”
Today, I tell myself, I will do just that. I have to.
I tell the team the same.
“You can keep going,” says Sarthak, trying to encourage me.
“Yes,” I reply firmly, every inch of my insides crawling at this new idea of not always doing everything.
“I can, but I shouldn’t,” I finish, leaning for support on my ice axe, “this isn’t a matter of being tired, it’s a matter of me not being able to breathe anymore. We need to be smart,”
I can see the team’s indecision given our proximity to the summit, but also their understanding that a trekker’s ultimate duty is to return home, not reach a peak.
As we descend, I am surprised to find that I am, of all things, feeling proud, and for two reasons. I look around and see the entire world below us. We just climbed 50 feet short of the 20,000ft mark. That’s higher than Mount Kilimanjaro, and by far the highest altitude I’ve ever reached. To see a mountain range below you from so high up in the air that they look like hills, and realize that every single one of those peaks is 14,000ft is a rare kind of euphoria. Clouds float by, hundreds of feet below where we stand.
If this is not the definition of epic, I sincerely do not know what is.
Sometimes, we get so caught up in our goals, that we forget to congratulate ourselves when we reach other major milestones along the way
Reason number two is because last year’s version of Cam would not have had the strength to make this decision. This is a new skill, new growth and this mountain was a test.
This mountain is anything but the enemy it felt like while climbing- it’s a friend.
I think this is something we all need to work on- the balance betweens leaps of faith and self-care, finding that sweet spot between actions that yield sad stories versus ones that leave us with no stories at all. The perfect adventure.
We descend from this exhausting heaven back to our Base Camp for some much-deserved breakfast and rest. We share pictures of the summit climb with each other, already reminiscing over what an unbelievable world we had climbed up into this morning.
Hungry for the summit, the guys push for it again the next night, and with congratulatory hi-fives and hugs, I welcome them back the following morning.
"So?" I ask, thrilled for them, "how was it?"
"I have no words," Sarthak replies, showing me this summit picture. And honestly, that's the kind of adventure we should go for. One where you experience something so spectacular that it really and truly does leave you speechless.
With chai in our bellies, we all lay in the mid-afternoon sun until it settles behind Kang Yatse, and night falls. We know we have to return home tomorrow, but part of you always stays behind. You don’t forget things like this, not after a week like we’ve just had.
I dare say that attempting to put this adventure into words is about as hard as attempting the summit itself, but here you have it; my heart on paper for you.
When your spirit and legs work together, they can take you to some pretty remarkable places, like the top of the world- to name one in particular.
Kang Yatse is waiting for you, and I promise, she does not disappoint.
Welcome to the top of the world.