Ain’t no mountain high enough, except maybe Rakaposhi base camp!
I am not a travel writer and neither do I intend on being one. This narrative is simply an attempt to articulate a once in a lifetime travel experience to the fabulously mountainous north of Pakistan.
Day 1 of expedition: On which all, except me, start the ascent to Rakaposhi base camp.
When I woke up the day our expedition was to start, I felt a bit odd. I couldn’t quite pin point the oddity. I ignored the intangible (not quite bordering on distress at that stage), changed into my tracks and went out for a run, as is my norm.
I wanted to get my joints freed up enough so the ascent wouldn’t come as too much of a shock. Surprisingly, I couldn’t run much as I lacked energy, so I returned to the guest house where preparation was afoot, somewhat counter-intuitively, for a hearty breakfast for the eager mountaineers. A simple low fat, high starch/protein meal might be the better approach at the beginning of an ascent, but not being a professional trekker who was I to say that aloud.
Seeing the parathas, omelettes, scrambled eggs and toast did nothing for my appetite. Au contraire, it made me sick just looking at the food. I gave up after two to three bites of the breakfast. I retreated to my room to get my backpack ready. Right then my stomach started cramping and I felt queasy. I rushed to the restroom. Luckily I managed to take off my tracks, get to the toilet and aim for the right spot, just in time. It was diarrhoea from hell.
“Holy s**t! There goes my first climbing trip,”
Was the thought that crossed my mind.
After what seemed like an eternity of cleansing my innards, I felt slightly better. I thanked my lucky stars that fellow traveller Babu had kept oral rehydration salts (ORS), Phenergan (an anti-nausea/vomiting medicine) and Ciprofloxacin (antibiotic indicated for traveller’s diarrhoea) in the pharmacy/first aid stash. I made a litre of ORS and downed half of it, along with the anti-nausea medicine and the antibiotic.
I convinced myself that the intense nausea and cramping I was still experiencing was controllable – through my mind. That was my attempt at being a man about my ailment. While being a man I also cursed the chashma paani (fresh mountain water) and the salad from yesterday, aplenty, for being potential sources of my stomach infection.
Soon after, our climbing team comprising of one guide, 15 porters, five trekkers, and five donkeys laden with camping gear, got to the mountain trail where the trek was to start. The morning had warmed up enough so my compadres started peeling off their light jackets and quickly walked past me. I, on the other hand, feverish, felt like asking one of them for their jacket so I could get an additional layer of warmth. But of course, real men don’t do that. They keep pushing themselves in the face of adversity. So did I. But not for long.
After less than five minutes of the first incline of the gravelly track winding around the side of the hill beyond which Rakaposhi’s base camp beckoned, reachable only after several more hours of trekking, I collapsed. My heart was racing; I was sweating profusely and my vision blurring. Further up the trail, the tour guide finally noticed that something was amiss with one of the trekkers. He effortlessly sprinted back to where I was squatting and panting breathlessly. He encouraged me to get back up (on my feet), but it took a herculean effort to do so. Then he realised I would be unable to continue my trek.
“Daaktar Sahib aap ko altitude sickness hai.”
(Doctor, you are suffering from altitude sickness).
I thought otherwise, as diarrhoea couldn’t easily be explained by his diagnosis. I didn’t have the energy to argue with him.
He called for his trusted steed, also part of our caravan. The ‘steed’ was really a sturdy mountain pony, whom I had befriended that morning by feeding him two dozen crisp fresh apples from the orchard. His name was Tuttoo. Under different circumstances I would’ve doubled over by the hilarity of the pony’s name – you see a Tuttoo is a donkey. Although at that time I was just immensely grateful that I could get a ride on Tuttoo, the irony of doing so was not lost on me. In South Asian culture making someone ride a Tuttoo is to send a strong message of defeat.
As my travel companions made their way up, I made my way down – back to square one. Tuttoo carried me back to the jeep at the beginning of the trail, while I tried my best to keep my humiliation in check.
I must have appeared sick enough, as the driver of the jeep looked quite concerned when he saw me.
I vaguely recall reaching the guest house and collapsing on the bed. I passed out for the next several hours. I probably would’ve slept through the rest of the morning, had it not been for the wretched cramping and diarrhoea rearing its head again. At one point I contemplated moving the mattress and blanket into the washroom. The pantry boy at the guest house was kind enough to make some rice water-based broth for me. That was the only food I consumed that day; along with ORS and several cups of kava chai.
When I felt slightly better in the early afternoon, I resumed reading the book that I had kept with me for this journey. It was Che Guevara’s Motorcycle Diaries. If you haven’t read it then give it a shot. It’s become a cult classic: an appropriate travelogue for all travellers, as well as a coming of age story. Intriguingly, the book provided a lot of comfort and acceptance for my predicament. I don’t think I was being smug in comparing Che’s monumental, life altering journey across Latin America on a motorbike to my first (unsuccessful, thus far) mountain trek.
While reading it I realised that I had to let go of all vestiges of ‘control’ that I felt I had on my situation. I let go of all expectations of my journey into the mountains. I stopped pressuring myself to perform or deliver a ‘successful’ mountaineering trek. I let go of outcomes. I also let go of my gut frequently.
All that introspection, reflection, and self-therapy/counselling was exhausting. I must have passed out again because the next thing I remember was being woken up by an urgent knock on the door. It was the pantry boy; probably checking if I was still alive. Although it was only 5 pm, the sky outside was dark and a storm was brewing. The pantry boy updated me that my travel companions had reached the camp site called Happakun – that was almost ¾ of the way up to the Rakaposhi base camp.
They had pitched camp there for the night. That was a wise move I thought as the blizzard outside seemed severe enough to me down in the valley; it was likely magnified further up on the mountains. There was going to be no more phone contact with them after Happakun. My friend Babu and Mr G* the tour guide had asked the pantry boy to wake me up and feed me more broth; and if I felt better in the morning then I could attempt again.
Just thinking about the possibility of my reattempt was rejuvenating. And even if I felt weak and feeble in the morning, unable to resume the trek, I was going to be okay with that too. My backup plan was to explore the orchard further for different varieties of apples, consume them, finish reading Guevara’s travelogue and perhaps write mine too. All of this I would do at the guest house over the next two days while my travel companions trekked to and back from the Rakaposhi base camp.
As I delved into my predicament more, it felt less and less like one. My self-therapy was working. I felt it in my bones.
All said and done, day one of the expedition was successful. Mountain Rakaposhi, meaning ‘snow covered’, was not getting the better of me after all.
Despite the multiple challenges alluded to above, I managed to trek to the base camp. Perhaps the moral of this story is: the inner mountain needs to be surmounted before any outer one?
I am ever grateful to my friend Babu, fellow traveller and wannabe mountaineer, and his trusted iPhone6 for the photos that accompany this piece.
All photos: Asad Mian
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