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Himalayan Caravan

Ladakh, Aug 2000 by Joel Schone

Blue skies, warm nights, long sizzling days on the high altitude plateau of Ladakh... Not quite!

My third time on this route and my 67th or so trek in the Himalaya, and as usual, it dished out some surprises. The first one was probably simply our group. Beau, 19, about to go off to university in London, tall, good natured and even tempered, a great addition to any trekking group. Max Sadler, who I taught English with in the Everest region, a 20 year old Jerry Garcia look-alike, in the time he had been in India he fell totally in love with the place. Max paid for the trek by having new tents flown out for us and managed to complete the trek despite serious feet problems. Max had his brother, Casey, 17, along, and the man had trouble on the trek: altitude, and aversion to rice, but he and the last member, 62 year old Don Bolton, from different ends of the age spectrum, with me in the middle at 46, made up a mixed but well fed and happy group.

We had time to hang out in Manali before jeeping up to Leh, with a night stop at Sarchu, where Max and Casey introduced us to lovely New York dialect such as "suck my chung" as they relaxed in the spacious Muir trail "coffin" tent. The next few days saw us relaxing-acclimatizing in Leh, the Sadler boys employing the famous storage technique I pioneered at uni back in the seventies: throw it all on the floor and trip over it on night toilet trips. Then it was jeep to Matselang and our first hurdle, like, where's the bridge? After a thorough recce and the near drowning Lobsang or "Lobbo" as he became, our ponyman got the horses across, then unloaded them, and we rode over the torrent before Don demonstrated the British way, get Lobbo to carry you. Max finished the day in his usual style in his hammock with a spliff, and Beau tried out the coffin. It eventually had to be me in the tent, I could see it coming as the midget of the group.

Two days later we still were not over the pass, I was out of shape after 12 weeks in London ("hey fat boy", said Max). We awoke in the early hours as our mess tent collapsed under a fall of snow, and we brushed off our tents and some ungrateful German trekkers complained when we woke them by brushing the snow off their tents.

The next day we wended our way slowly to the pass and down to our two days rest at Nimaling, where Lobsang tempted us with some fresh mutton momos. From here we took the high road over a rarely used pass at 5000m on the shoulder of the 6400m Kang Yatze that dominates the area. Max by now was having trouble with his feet and Casey was still throwing up his breakfast every morning, and next day on the crossing of the Zalung Karpo La Casey fell further and further behind. Leaving Lobsang to shepherd him down, we dropped into the Sorra gorges. By 5 pm there was still no sign of them, so off I set back up the pass, to find Casey totally dehydrated, sitting on a rock, exhausted. Nearly a litre of rehydrating later, we set off: Lobsang set off ahead to get a horse, and two hours later we stumbled in.

The fix... Beau gave his wide brimmed sun hat, and we fixed up my day sack so that Casey could use a tube to take liquids all the time. Casey decided he wanted to finish the trek, put his mind to it, started eating, and from that day got well. And of course, we stopped Lobbos' ginger tea fix. Not a moment too soon as we were about to walk off the map...

Next day we flew across the Yar la pass and dropped into the wide pastures around Lungmoche. This and the next village, Sangtha, were deserted as the people were all off with their herds at summer pastures. Two days later and another pass and we were in Narbus, a summer camp on a wide plain. Lobsang and I received a warm welcome as we had stayed there for two days last year. We were all invited to various yak hide yurt-like tents to drink butter tea, and eat curd and next day we crossed the main Leh-Manali highway to Pang. Here we had arranged on the way up to buy fresh supplies, and Beau and Don in particular were to sample the cheap Indian army rum that Lobsang loves to dish out. Don also showed us how to fall through a table without breaking it!

Anybody who has driven to Leh from Manali will remember the high desert scenery around Pang, and many times in the eighties I looked longingly at the valley that runs out of Pang and wondered what was up there...the answer is a four day trek along a wide valley to lake Tso Moriri. All of us by now were fit and strong, the only problem being the wolves; several times our horses were frightened by them, and on one occasion they legged it back to the previous days camp, so we had an easy morning. The Sadler brothers broke the monotony with displays of wrestling skills, then made up and kept me up all night with a long discussion on US politics... And finally we climbed a small col, and there was our lake. The lake has its own mini weather system, and within an hour of arriving we had a storm, followed by an awesome rainbow. That night we were again entertained by the wild ass (Kyang) that chased our horses out of the camp. The poor things were then chased back by wild dogs or wolves.

The Ladakh photo gallery records the next few days at 4700m: the river crossing kept us literally on our toes, with Lobsang scaring Raju, our Nepali mess boy, shitless by letting go of him in mid-crossing, all recorded on film. We met an army patrol which confirmed my opinion of Indian army posting policy, ie "ha, ha lets send all the Goanese and Tamil Nadu sepoys who don't know what cold or altitude is to Ladakh." Then suddenly we were up for a 5am start and we were away up the glacier onto the wide ice fields on the 5700m Parang La. We were on top by 12 noon, awesome views all around. Then from high ice it was high desert, plunging into a steep gorge, washing and drinking from the current at the bottom. Some dodgy slide zones, and we were at out last camp, looking back to the Parang La.

The last night under canvas, and the anti-climatic feeling, last night of our Himalayan journey. Talk of our first cold beer in Kaza, pizza in Manali, hot shower, but when it is within reach, the feeling is always reluctance to say goodbye to the trekking life.

So there we sat drinking Lobsang's tea, still very high and treeless and in walks a chicken. Yes, a chicken, fat and alone, probably an escapee from another trek. After a brief stunned silence Lobsang had it, and we celebrated our last night with protein and rice in curry sauce. Thanks Beau for doing the chopping, and Max for putting up with us carnivores.

The next day Max demonstrated how much weight he had lost by putting on my trousers, and we walked a few hours to Kibber and a fridge full of cold drinks, and there sitting on the terrace of the lodge was Isabelle, of Isabelle and Jean-Luc, who we had met in the Khumbu 6 months before. Less then a week later and the Sadlers and Beau were home, and Joel and Don were off across Zanskar.

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