In the land of the sherpas – Crossing the Cho la

Gorakshep, Kalapathhar, Dzongla

Gokyo

9th May, 2016

We woke up in the wee hours and started preparing. After completing the regular morning duties, we made sure our luggage was packed and ready to be handed over to the porters. Bottles were being filled up, sun creams and lotions applied to save ourselves from sunburns at these high altitudes. In my case though, sunburn already had an effect. I brought my own sun cream but abstained from applying it. I thought I’d apply it once sunburn showed it’s symptoms. Quite foolishly, I didn’t realize that applying the cream was a preventive measure rather than reactive. As a result, the skin on my forehead, nose and cheeks started to turn black and some parts of it was already peeling off. We often ridiculed Dhananjoy about his overprotective measures for his body (he had a ‘guard’, i.e. a cream for every exposed part of his body – e.g. a lip guard, toe guard etc.), but now it seemed that he was smarter than rest of us. Throughout the morning, I was a bit tensed about the day ahead. We were supposed to cross the Cho La, deemed the most tough part of the trek. Guide Raju also felt, this was going to be the D-Day. Since yesterday, he was gathering news about the amount of snow on the pass and whether people were able to cross it without problems. At the back of his mind, he was well aware that our group wasn’t experienced and the responsibility entirely lay on him to keep us safe. After breakfast, we ventured out of the lodge though the backside. It had snowed last night and every mountain surrounding us and the route that lay ahead, was covered with patches of white. The sight, although spectacular, added to the frowns on Raju’s forehead. He was extrapotating to gauge the amount of snow expected on the pass.

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En-route Cho La

I tried not to worry much about it and concentrated on the trail, which was flat to start with. But we had to be careful as some of the snow had started to transform into ice, making it slippery. Looking around, Dzongla was still waking up from sleep as the sky gradually started to clear. It was critical for us to cross the pass as early as possible and definitely before noon. After that, not only the snow starts to melt with intensifying solar rays, the weather too can turn bad anytime with fresh snow reducing visibility to zero. The last thing anyone wants is to get stranded on the pass with no way forward.

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Dzongla

The trail moved on a flat ground, but we could see that it won’t be so for long as it moved up the slopes crossing different layers of hills till it reached a small gap on the ridge of the highest slope visible from the ground. I thought that must be the Cho La. Being able to see your destination is always exciting and somehow everything seems to be within reach. We started climbing gradually. It wasn’t very tough yet, but we needed to ensure we didn’t waste much time on such tracts which were easy to tread upon. It was an act of balance trying not to hurry to the extent of getting tired but at the same time making sure we reach the pass early enough. As we moved up, the amount of snow increased. We had to be careful while stepping on the boulders. Some of them were loose enough to topple with our load, while others, slippery enough to send us down the slopes. We climbed a few steps to halt for a few breaths. The pattern continued from thereon. Guide Raju and the porters kept a close vigil on us. They made sure we were always within their reach. As we gained height, some of us needed their hands to ensure safe passage.

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Up the slopes – En-route Cho La

The gap on the distant ridge was getting nearer and I asked one of the porters how long should it take to reach the pass. His answer came as a bolt from the blue. We were not even half way through and to my horrors, he said that the gap on that ridge wasn’t the actual pass, which lay beyond a valley that lay on the other side of the ridge!

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The gap wrongly assumed to be Cho La

The boulders stacked up more and more to an extent, that we couldn’t walk over them, but had to use both our legs and hands to gain some purchase. On some of the steps, the porters had to drag me up. I was breathing harder and gulping down gobbles of water after every climb. Even with so much snow around us, the air was dry and thin and it was telling on our bodies.

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En-route Cho La

I took sometime to look around. The entire trail from Dzongla was visible. It was a collage of white and brown. Not a single rock surface was spared from snow. Each of them appeared to wear white woolens over brown pullovers.

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En-route Cho La

I couldn’t do justice to the views as my mind was constantly thinking about what lay in store for us beyond the gap on the ridge above. I continued plodding till I reached the gap and an entirely new valley unfolded. Unlike the slopes that we just came up along, the valley was pristine white with shades of blue. It was a glacier that stretched till the end. There, at the end, rose the brown mountains and on top of it, I could see some people standing atop with colorful prayer flags flapping around. It all appeared to be a silent movie playing out the acts far away from us. That was definitely Cho La. Which meant that we had to cross the glacier to reach there.

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En-route Cho La

We would need to go down the slopes to the bed of the glacier, walk across it to reach its end. That would bring us to the base of the hill that we’d need to climb to reach the pass. The trail that went down the slopes sent shivers down the spine. The entire slope was covered with thick and fresh powdery snow. It had a steep incline and there was space just enough to place a single step at a time. When I tried to place a step, the snow immediately gave way and I skid down the slope. Fortunately, it was arrested quickly and I retracted my step to give a hard long look and the think about it. The porters advised to have one hand on the sloping wall on our left and tilt our bodies towards the wall to have some grip while walking. There wasn’t any established trail, just a row of footsteps from travelers who have crossed this route just before us.

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Down the slopes – courtesy Dhananjoy De

One of our porters, Doranath, gave me a hand and I closely followed him down the slopes. While traversing it, there were constant threats of avalanches coming down from the top or even worse, one of us could skid and hence, trigger an avalanche down the slopes below. Just like everything has an end, so did the slope. We could again see boulders to step on reliably. The tension took a toll and I started tiring. When I reached the bed of the glacier, my steps were already sloth but I kept moving. I was breathing hard and fast.

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En-route Cho La – courtesy, Dhananjoy De

We were walking on the glacial bed. It wasn’t steep but was slippery. We were fortunate that the layer of fresh snow over the hard glacial ice below, gave us some grip. Nevertheless, I slipped once and found myself all over the floor. Dhananjoy and the porters came rushing, but I indicated that I was fine. We turned our heads to a call from Niladri and saw him filming our journey. He kept insisting to move in certain angles or directions so that he could cover the background properly. At that time, I felt that to be an unnecessary waste of time since we were all tired and the only thought was to cross the pass as soon as possible. But today, I look back and thank him. We now cherish watching the video seating on comfortable armchairs describing the incidents to our families as if they were from a nail-biting thriller.

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En-route Cho La

I kept moving with tired steps. Dhananjoy and the porters were heading up the slopes towards the pass. When I reached at the base, they were already waving at me from the pass. The slope wasn’t that high, but was steep and I was almost at the end of my strength. Suddenly, I heard a cracking sound. I turned around to my horror to see a series of boulders and pebbles coming down the slopes we were to go up. It’s very common in these areas to have such landslides triggered by winds sweeping the pass. I wondered how fragile The Himalayas are. As if they are a cluster of rocks somehow placed together, which, at any time, without any notice could be dis-balanced to trigger slides. I saw porter Doranath coming down the slope. Once he reached me, I held his hand and followed him to climb to the top of the pass. Finally, we were standing atop Cho La (5420 m).

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Cho La – courtesy, Dhananjoy De

It was 10 AM. There was a stupa with Mani stones. Colorful prayer flags flapped around in the wind. It was a familiar sight on a high Himalayan pass. I was feeling dizzy. As if someone placed a heavy stone on my head. The world seemed to move in slow motion as I turned my head around. I guess, that’s what they call mountain sickness. It was the first time on this trek, I felt sick. Guide Raju pulled out packed sandwiches from his bag and gave us. It was hard to chew and more importantly, I had no desire left to eat. But I knew that I had to gobble something down (if needed, pushed down by gulps of water) my throat if I were to stay fit enough to reach the day’s destination, which was more than half way ahead. The porters headed down the slopes first. After resting for sometime, we started to descend, but soon discovered that the entire slope down the other side of the pass, was covered with snow. We didn’t have crampons on our boots, which made it a difficult task to traverse down the slippery slopes. Guide Raju asked me to stay behind while others moved ahead. Everyone else went down, but I waited. Then I saw Doranath coming up and I started to go down with him. Doranath embarked on an impossible task of walking backwards down the slope while holding my hand. At every step, he kicked the snow and ice with his boot to carve out flat steps for me to place my feet upon. Once I did, he started doing the same for my next step and this pattern continued till we reached a place where the steepness was somewhat less. That’s where he handed the baton to Raju and went down with the loads. I continued while Raju kept vigil from behind. On one of the slopes, Raju himself slipped and toppled. His legs went through the gap between mine. The slide was arrested just in time so that he didn’t push me over the rocks. We both breathed a sigh of relief!

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Descending – Cho La

The clouds already started gathering and when I looked back towards the pass, it was already covered. I reached the base, finally. As we halted briefly to take some rest, my mouth went dry. Water was precious and there was very little left of it. We kept moving. The trail was not steep and most importantly, the pass and its snow was now behind us. But we still had a long way to go. My ears were blocked and everything I heard, appeared to come from behind a wall. As if, I was stranded canned within a drum and others spoke around it. Raju pointed towards the top of a hill in front and said, Dragnak (our destination for the day) lay beyond it. As I moved up the slopes towards the top, Niladri was ahead of me and rest came behind us. My ears would unclog only to be blocked again and it continued throughout the rest of the day. That said, I wasn’t feeling that bad as I was, on the pass. As we crossed the top, we saw no signs of any village. Raju was ahead of us and he signaled the way we had to take towards Dragnak. The slope was gentle beyond the top and we kept going down at a brisk speed till we reached a river flowing through the gorges. There was no sign of Raju as he moved ahead to arrange for our stay at Dragnak. We were in a dilemma. Are we on the right track? Niladri was confident that we were, but I had my doubts. But we kept moving along the river banks, sometimes walking over the rocks and boulders that dotted its bed. It was getting darker and it started to snow. Snow balls of the sizes of tapioca sago kept coming down upon us. As we moved along, it intensified. We were going along, with no signs of a village in sight, the sky was getting darker with the snowfall intensifying. Finally, midway through our journey, we met Doranath. He was going back up with a flask of warm water. We heard that Siddhartha da was stranded at the top (from where we came down to the river gorge) with all his water exhausted and he wasn’t able to move further without it. For all that, Doranath had to go back up at least 5-6 km and bring him down again! Imagine, if we had to do the same! Doranath confirmed that we were on the right path and after sometime, we could see the roofs of the lodges at Dragnak.

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Dragnak

By the time we entered the lodge, we were drenched to our bones. We quickly changed and headed towards the dining place. As usual, it was warm and filled with trekkers. We ordered our tea. It was a different feeling altogether. The final hurdle on this trek was behind us (or so we thought!). Rest of our members also arrived one after the other. To celebrate the safe passage of Cho La, we drank beer. The porters and guide Raju joined the party. We were at 4700 m.

Gorakshep, Kalapathhar, Dzongla

Gokyo

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