Cold Water

Perfect Swimming Weather

The four men – Dorje, Pasang, the lodge owner and the cook – stare at me in disbelief. We are in the mountain village of Gokyo by the side of Lake Dudh Pokhari at four thousand seven hundred metres. Our boots are soaking wet from breaking trail in a blizzard and we are drying them and our damp clothing by the large metal stove in the dining hall.

‘You didn’t think I was joking, surely, about swimming in the lake?’ I ask my Sherpas. ‘I don’t have a sense of humour.’

‘But there’s no water,’ Dorje protests.

‘Of course, there is – under the ice.’

‘We’ve had very cold December and January this year,’ the lodge owner informs us with a grin, ‘The ice would be very thick.’

‘We have ice tools, right?’ I call to my boys for support, but they say nothing for a couple of minutes.

‘Maybe, it’s better to go tomorrow, when it’s not snowing quite so hard,’ Dorje tries to bargain.

‘Today or tomorrow, I’m still going to do it. Now, at least, we’re all wet and cold already.’

‘Ok,’ Dorje says at last, ‘what do you need?’

‘Two buckets of hot water in the shower for when I return, a blanket, and for the fire in this stove to keep burning.’ The lodge owner nods and instructs the cook to make the necessary arrangements. Dorje and Pasang quietly pick up their ice axes, two ropes, and we are ready to go. I can’t help smiling as I observe their tense, worried expressions.

‘It’s fine,’ I say cheerfully, ‘I know what I’m doing,’ but my tone fails to convince the brave mountain men.

We walk through the deep snow lying on the icy shore of the lake and stop when I think we’ve reached the point where I’d gone for a swim three years earlier in December. Granted, the weather was very different then, and there was a bit of water in the shallows. Moving some five or six metres away from the shore, we begin to hack at the ice with our axes, but I already know by the sound of the ice that it’s over a metre thick.

‘Right, stop; we need to find a place where there’s some movement of water, ice will be thinner there.’ We head back towards the lodge and soon realize that the only place where it would be possible to go for a dip is the crossing between the village and the lake. Using shovels, ice tools and boots we make a hole in the ice large enough for me to lie down.

‘The previous record was two minutes,’ the lodge owner tells me, as I take off my membrane pants and parka; I will be wearing long underwear in the water. ‘Is it true that your heart is supposed to stop after two or three minutes in zero-degree water?’

My Little Ice Pool

‘Not in my experience,’ I reply, and step off the ice and into the shallow water. My heart begins to race as my body becomes submerged, but it regains its calm rhythm in a few seconds. Cold crawls deeper and deeper under my skin, and I welcome it; I am at home in the water, never afraid of it.

‘Five minutes,’ Dorje announces, and I wake up from my cold dream. I know that my toes are frozen solid and my fingers are barely moving. I am dying, slowly.

‘Eight minutes,’ Dorje says, worried, and I know it’s time to go; reluctantly, I crawl out of the water. With my rigid fingers I try to change into dry clothes, and it takes forever. Dorje and Pasang carefully put boots on my unmoving feet and rush me back to the lodge, where two buckets of hot water are waiting in the shower. I stagger slowly behind them because I don’t want to get back to warmth – between the lake and the lodge I walk a fine line between the quiet of death and the violent, painful shivering of life which, I know, will soon invade my body. I am very tired.

In about an hour I stop stammering and can hold a cup of tea without spilling any on the blanket wrapped around me. The boys are playing cards, while I, warm by the stove, stare at Dudh Pokhari through the falling snow, already soaked in twilight. I miss home.

Leaving Gokyo

In the morning I wake up feeling incredibly strong. As the boys and I break out of the deep snows of Gokyo towards lower elevations, I feel no fatigue, no hunger or thirst: I believe I can walk forever. We reach our destination for the day all too early, so I suggest that we continue on to Namche Bazaar; in total, the trek that day takes us nine hours.

Then, we descend to Phakding, where we make some arrangements to support the monastery where we’d had our puja before the climb. After a night of rest, we hike to Lukla, which we will leave in glorious weather next morning.

Cholatse

Back in Kathmandu I will think of the Cholatse expedition as the most interesting and challenging of the season. Instead of helping me escape from February, it showed me that I could live through it, maintaining my integrity and strength. No successful ascent would have been better mind training for my next climb, the climb of my life – Everest this spring.

At the Foot of Cholatse

View Over Phortse

Our team, now complete, finally leaves Namche Bazaar on the tenth of February: we will stop in Phortse Thanga and Thore before establishing base camp at around four thousand seven hundred metres on the Cholatse Glacier. The weather is sunny during our trek, and the sky is cold and clear, comfortably distant. However, the destroyed roofs of the small houses we pass and the countless trees, lying, dead, down in the valley are vivid reminders of the Hurricane and the proximity of danger.

I walk slowly and somewhat aimlessly as I no longer have a summit to reach for. I have decided that we would not be climbing Cholatse but I know the mountain has something yet to show me, so I must get to its foot, at least.

After breaking trail through over-the-knee-deep snow towards the glacier, we finally see the Devil Mountain, and an almost extinguished flame begins again to flicker in my chest. Cholatse is glorious, and I want it more than any other before it. Its ridges curve at wonderful angles, and under the bold sun the ice encrusting the summit glows like an enormous sapphire. The slopes and the summit, however, are also covered in clouds of thick fresh snow; it would require rare luck rather than skill not to cause an avalanche in such conditions.

Cholatse

While the boys unload our yaks and put up tents, I sit on a large brown rock and stare at Cholatse, now temptingly close to me. I look, and listen, and feel for ‘a sign’, for something that would make me believe that my team can ascend to the summit and return safely, but the mountain is looking down on me in silence, its two sharp ridges like open arms reaching for the people I have brought with me to climb it. ‘You can’t have them,’ I whisper to Cholatse or to myself, I hardly know, ‘I won’t let you have them.’

Pasang and Chongba climbing the first section of the route to Camp One

‘We’ll go off to explore the route to Camp One tomorrow,’ Pasang and Chongba tell me in the dining tent in the evening, and I cringe at the thought.

‘Remember what I told you: the moment you feel uncomfortable, you turn back. I’ll happily go swimming instead.’

‘We have to try,’ Dorje interrupts me, ‘it’s our job.’

‘But it’s also just a mountain. I don’t care if we climb it or not. Training for Everest is what this expedition is about; we can’t afford to get hurt now, none of us.’ I’m lying, I do care. I don’t want to think about Everest yet because that’s in April, or never; what do I know? It is Cholatse I want now, and my team would climb it for me if I asked them to; it’s their job, they say, and they take it seriously. In all honesty, if my team were a group of less decent people, I would have insisted that we climb. These men, however, have proven to be my friends, and their safety is sacred to me.

Pasang and Chongba promise me that they will be careful, but when I see them moving steadily away from base camp towards the South West Ridge, my heart seems to shrink to the size of a small pearl. I remember why I prefer to walk alone: because this way I can afford to be fearless.

To distract ourselves, Dorje and I talk about the upcoming Everest expedition until at four pm Pasang and Chongba return, and Dorje and I can now both sigh, relieved. In my mind I thank Cholatse for granting the boys safe passage. While they are resting and having tea, we all look at the pictures of the route which Pasang had taken.

‘We can climb up to Camp One. There’s a lot of vertical rock-climbing involved, but we can manage. Beyond Camp One, however…’ he points at the gaping mouths of the wide crevasses lining the way to the summit.

‘No,’ I say, ‘enough. We’re going swimming.’

‘But we can tag Camp One, at least. Chongba and I have to go anyway because we left some rope and snow anchors up there.’ The Sherpas all nod in agreement.

‘Forget the stuff you left up there. I don’t want anyone on the mountain; I don’t want to go to Camp One. We’re done here.’ I almost choke on my words as I force my mouth to let go of them. ‘Let’s talk Everest instead…’

After a Dip In Gokyo in a Blizzard

The next day the winds return. At base camp we are waiting for the yaks which would take our gear back down to Lukla. I leave the boys to chat in the kitchen tent and climb up the moraine to get closer to Cholatse. Gusts of wind throw snow and sand in my face, and the Devil Mountain, dark-grey, stands proudly among low clouds. When I feel far enough from base camp, lost enough, I sit on the cold ground behind a large boulder, watching the storm dance over Himalayan peaks. Soon, I become part of the scenery – a rock among rocks. It is a strange and peaceful feeling – this of being Cholatse and not the greedy girl who craves to climb it; of being the strength the Hurricane had ‘told’ me to search for. As I get up to return to base camp, I am not the same person who’d left it just over an hour earlier: I am the storm, I am the mountain, and I am nothing.

Early next morning Dorje, Pasang and I say good-bye to Chongba and Jangbu, our cook, who will return to Lukla with the expedition gear. Our mini-team, travelling light, will cross the Ngozumba Glacier over to Gokyo in a blizzard so that I could go for a ‘swim’ in my favourite mountain lake in the world, Dudh Pokhari.