Nov 26

Ascent through Darkness

by in Asia, Nepal

Can your lungs catch frostbite? That was the question on my mind at 4:30am as Colleen, I and our Sherpa porter, Mingmar, made our ascent in the dark towards Thorong La pass. The air was very cold, well below freezing. This much was evident from my final visit to the outhouse at Thorong Phedi. The area around the squat toilet was slick from all the urine that had missed its mark, freezing and forming a dangerous ice rink that you did NOT want to slip on for at the center of its vortex was a hole full of poop.

Friends gathering before the ascent

Toby, Eva, Colleen, Mustafa, Caroline and Olga arriving at Tharong Phedi the day before

But freezing air is not so scary. It’s the combination of being above 5,000 meters where the oxygen is thin, and ascending a very steep slope where your legs beg for oxygen, that causes you to pant as if you were hyperventilating. Now combine that with freezing air and it feels like someone emptied a bag of ice into your chest. I imagined the alvioli in my lungs freezing and shattering into sharp, tiny ice fragments that punctured my lungs from the inside as they fell. I expected droplets of blood to spurt out with my breathing.

As it was, something else was sputtering forth with my breathing. My nose was freely running down my face, my frozen face bereft of any feeling, and forming a puddle between my neckwarmer and my inner jacket. I only realized this after we finished our ascent to high camp an hour later and stopped for tea and a brief rest. Yuck!

We had another tormentor that night, one especially suited to the dark, a black horse. It belonged to one if those entrepreneurs who on tough climbs coaxes you to throw in the towel, embrace failure and use one of his animals to reach the top in comfort. He and I had spoken earlier. I had said no. As we climbed a particularly vertical section to where he was sitting with two of his horses, he watched us like a vulture, the beam from his headlamp tracking us all the way, judging us as we navigated switchbacks in the dark, making us question our own mettle. Now one of his black horses had moved further up the mountain on his own, and was blocking our path up the trail. Every time we shooed him away, he blocked us again only a few meters further, and as he was hard to see in the darkness, I was afraid he’d kick or side swipe us off the mountain if we got too close without seeing him. Eventually our porter Mingmar swung a rock at his rear end and he finally left us alone, but he didn’t forget. When we later passed by him in early daylight near high camp, his ears folded back, a tell-tale of aggression in horses.

A dead horse after the ascent

Up here, a fall can be fatal, and that holds true even for the typically sure-footed

But by then we were in better spirits, having had hot tea and finally being able to see without our headlamps. The sun had ascended to where the tallest peaks on the other side of the valley were illuminated. The light from these allowed us to see that we were now passing by frozen waterfalls, a series of large white icicles, sometimes less than a dozen feet tall, other times close to fifty feet tall, but always perfectly still, not even a trickle escaping their bony fingertips.

Colleen has finished the ascent

Colleen on the rooftop of the world

Luckily the ascent to Tharong La was uphill almost the entire way. We only lost elevation at two points, one right after high camp, and the other right before the pass. We arrived at the pass shortly after 9:00am, a good time because the pass gets very windy closer to noon. After high fiving and snapping a few photos, we took a tea break to reward ourselves. At 17,769 feet, we were higher than Everest base camp, or any base camp for that matter. I tried to eat one of our Snickers bars but it was as hard as a block of wood. I had to dunk it for 20 seconds in my piping hot cup of tea just to be able to bite through it. During the pit stop, Colleen switched the lacing on her shoes to a special downhill configuration that is supposed to keep your feet from sliding forward in the shoe.

The ascent is complete.


After that, we started the mile plus descent. This was Colleen’s least favorite part as she is better at climbing, whereas I’m better at descending. The journey down was brutal on the knees and Colleen’s feet collected more and more blisters by the hour. When we finally reached our destination of Muktinath at 3:00pm, 10.5 hours after setting out from Tharong Phedi, Colleen took off her socks to survey the damage. In addition to the blisters, several toes on both feet were blue under the toenails from bruising caused by the steep downhill. Maybe the downhill lacing helped, but the hiking shoes she picked up in Kathmandu were just too crappy in the end. My feet, on the other hand, while still definitely tired, were otherwise in decent shape, just a little peeled skin behind the heels, that’s all. The second hand Meindls I bought in North Pakistan for $19 served me well in both the Karakoram and the Himalayas, the two highest mountain ranges in the world. On top of that, I was able to get back most of what I paid for them when I sold them to a trekking store in Kathmandu on our way out of Nepal. In order to give Colleen’s feet some rest, we decided to break from our plan and added an unscheduled rest day in Muktinath. I used this day to chill with some Buddhist nuns and Hindu Sadhus at Muktinath temple, a complex consisting of three Hindu and Buddhist shrines.

After the ascent and descent, at Muktinath Temple

Nunnery at Muktinath Temple

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4 Responses to “Ascent through Darkness”

  1. From Carlos:

    Great writing dude! Impressed by your successful ascent to 17K feet. You both must be in great cardio shape to have accomplished that. Keep having fun!


    Posted on November 27, 2013 at 12:59 am #
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    Posted on September 20, 2014 at 1:57 pm #
  3. From praveen:

    Hi mustafa
    good writing a’nd excellent on details
    for example – As it was, something else was sputtering forth with my breathing. My nose was freely running down my face, my frozen face bereft of any feeling, and forming a puddle between my neckwarmer and my inner jacket. I only realized this after we finished our ascent to high camp an hour later and stopped for tea and a brief rest. Yuck!

    Posted on February 2, 2015 at 3:59 pm #
  4. From Simon:

    Your quality of writing has given me clear visual of what is like to accomplish a goal that might seem impossible to many. ASCENT to Tharong La was always unimaginable for me to achieve, but after reading about your adventurous journey to Tharong La it has certainly motivated to believe in myself and work towards achieving my goals.Thank you very much!

    Posted on April 29, 2015 at 11:03 am #

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