Day 36 - Thursday 2nd August 2001
|photo © 2001 dan|
Packing up Base Camp behind the completed dam
Sonam brought us tea at 6am. It was nice to hear the customary "Morning, Sir!" as he did the rounds, after a good night's sleep. I lay there for fifteen minutes or so before disturbing Jon by undoing the tent zip, which was on his side of the tent, before drinking my tea. I lay back down and soon fell back to sleep only to wake up ten minutes later as Sonam brought around bowls of water to wash in. Having not washed for the past week I thought I should make the effort and get up. Alan, Steve and Andy were all up and sorting their things out. I was confronted with a barrage of questions.
"Dan, do you think this will be alright like this?"
"No. I'd put it in a plastic bag"
"Have you got a Jewson bag?"
"No. But I've got green plastic bags."
"Can I have one please?" I knew this was coming and was already on my way to get them. After half unpacking one of the kit bags I found the roll of green plastic bags and gave one to Andy. I repacked the kit bag and took two steps away when Steve said
"Where did you put my Sainsburys bag which had my boots in?"
"It's got Alan's stove in."
"Oh....have you got any spare bags?"
I said nothing. I opened the kit bag and got the green plastic bags out again and handed them to Steve.
"Have you got a bag for the books" someone shouted.
|photo © 2001 dan|
Packing up Base Camp
I didn't answer because I knew it would be quicker to sort it out myself rather than explain. I went to get the roll of green bags off Steve but he had used the last one. I decided my use was of greater need than his and so persuaded him to give me the last green polythene bag. I put the books in it and packed it into one of the kit bags.
Steve asked for a black plastic bag instead so I went to search for them. I found them in my tent while emptying it and gave him the roll. I finished clearing out my things from the tent and before I knew it, it was 7am and time for breakfast. I quickly washed my face and hands, as that was all there was time for. Sonam told us there would be no breakfast until our tents were empty. We had been told at the start of the trek to clear our tents before breakfast and so this shouldn't have caught anyone out, but Andy and Steve went and hurriedly removed the things from their tent.
Steve, having emptied his tent came into the mess tent for breakfast. He saw his boots in the corner and reminded me that I haven't packed them. I told him that I had said yesterday that people would have to put their own boots in the kit bag. He claimed to have not heard me. I took the boots from him and put them in the kit bag saving myself from the inevitable complaints of there not being enough room. Porridge with fruit and nuts was eaten and followed by roti and fried egg - gorgeous, although I wasn't that hungry. Andy wouldn't let the fact that I had used up all the tomato ketchup yesterday drop, as he wanted some to go on his egg. On the label of the tomato ketchup bottle it said it contains stabilising agents. They should recommend it to the zimmer-frame people in out society I thought.
|photo © 2001 dan|
Crossing the Tokpo Yongma near Base Camp
After breakfast it was back to my pile of things outside my collapsed tent, which had been laid out to dry. Everyone else was ready before me and they started to tell me to hurry up. What they failed to realise is that if I'd had some help with the group bags I could have been long ready. The porters managed to take down the mess tent leaving my dry stone wall standing, despite the bottom rocks being placed on the canvas. It was another clear morning with not a cloud in sight. The night had been cold and frost had settled on the tents. I finally got everything into one of my two rucksacks. I searched around the boulders and in the grass for anything small that I may have missed. I took a final photo of my dam and of Base Camp being dismantled before setting off down the valley. The guy from Zingaro travels led us along the path while Sonam followed on at the back with me. I had elected to wear sandals as I knew that we would have to cross two rivers. I hadn't even left Base Camp when I slipped on a wobbly rock, grazing my ankle against another rock. We climbed up a section of scree slope, crossing a small cold stream and then gradually dropped down to about ten metres above the river. Sonam shouted to the leader and turned and ran down the steep scree bank. We followed cautiously to the rivers edge where boots and socks were starting to be removed. Despite being last to arrive, I was first to cross as I had no boots or socks to remove and no trousers to roll up as I was already wearing shorts. Sonam and I put arms over each other's shoulders and waded out into the knee-deep river. Slowly and surely we edged across making sure we didn't trip or slip on the uneven bottom. The river tugged at my knees and threatened to whip my walking pole out of my hands, throwing me off balance.
I waited on the other bank and took photos as Narinder, Sonam and the porter took it in turns to escort Andy, Alan, Steve and Jon across. Again I had to wait for everyone to put their boots and socks back on before we could continue. My feet were soon dry in the warm morning sun although my sandals took a bit longer to dry. We exited Topka Yongma valley over a pile of rounded river boulders at the foot of the valley slope. We dropped down the other side on to a broad plain that was home to the Chandra river, which we would follow up towards the Baralacha La. We walked up along the side of the broad plain over the rounded boulders separated by soft silt and mud. We passed the shepherds with their goats and sheep, camped on a small patch of grass near the bottom of the valley side. We waved goodbye and walked on as their dogs barked furiously.
|photo © 2001 dan|
Sonam surveys the view back down the Chandra Valley
Every so often we would ascend the valley side to go over a river cliff, formed by scree from the valley side falling into the river and the river cutting back. I was feeling no ill effects of the previous days exertions but after an hour or so of a fast pace, I began to feel the strain on my shoulders and back. I began fiddling with my rucksack straps to see if I could make it more comfortable. Alan had dropped back behind me, so I was able to slow my pace down without falling behind. I soon caught up with Steve who had stopped for a drink and a rest. We followed the faint tacks up through a small boulder strewn valley, separated from the main valley by a 60ft high pile of moraine. The ground was dusty and my feet soon became covered in dirt. The dust stuck to my damp sandals making them look old.
We stopped at 10am on the top of a small rise, where we shared the last of the winegums and drank lots of water. We had a long rest and I was quite happy to sit there in the warm sun although a chilly breeze saw the return of my fleece. My fleece didn't stay on for long though, because as soon as we got going we dropped down into another small dry valley which was sheltered from the wind and baked by the sun. The river had cut strange pillars out of the conglomerates that it had previously deposited.
A small river ran down the side of the valley and we were forced to cross it. Steve stopped by it briefly for a rest but then continued before I'd reached him. Alan was fifty metres behind me with Sonam and everyone else had disappeared on ahead out of sight. I waited by the river to take a photo of Alan crossing. Sonam went across and dumped his sack before returning to help Alan across, who had decided to put gaiters on to keep his feet dry. I crossed and we continued up slowly in pursuit of the others across more scree. In the distance was a valley heading off up to the right and on the other side of the river that flowed from it was a large area of flat green grass. I asked Sonam if that was Topka Gongma and he confirmed my thoughts and wishes by saying it was. I felt renewed energy now I knew there was not far to go.
|photo © 2001 dan|
A heavily weathered crag beside the Chandra
Steve had stopped by the foot of a large rise. As we approached Steve said to follow the cairns and pointed up the slope. I couldn't see any cairns so I waited for Sonam and followed him up. The slope soon levelled out and we walked along the flat top of the scree pile. A little further along we could see two figures in the middle of the river and two on the far bank, sitting down having already crossed. Sonam told us we were supposed to be on the path that ran around the bottom of the scree slope, that was now from above clearly visible. He ran down the steep loose slope as if their was nothing to it. I silently cursed Steve for sending us up the wrong way and descended after Sonam. I hadn't even taken two steps before I slipped and slid a few feet on my backside. I picked my self up and felt like a muppet as Sonam looked up to see what all the clattering of stones was about. The rest of the descent was uneventful. Alan and Steve took a rest on the top before descending. I wandered across the boulder-strewn outwash plain to the Topka Gongma river. I had intended to stop short of the crossing point so I could take photos of Alan and Steve crossing, but they were still a long way back. Sonam had his shoes off and was waiting to cross. The river looked very high so I felt I shouldn't delay the proceedings and I went and joined him. I put my camera into the top pocket of my rucksack and then we locked arms around each other's shoulders again. We edged out slowly into the river our hands gripping each other's shirt tightly. We soon dropped down and the water came up above our knees. In the middle the waves lapped at my hips. The current was fast and tried to pull us downstream. Small pebbles carried downstream by the river bombarded our ankles. We struggled to keep our balance. Sonam being shorter than me kept tugging and pulling me down as he momentarily lost his footing. My walking pole was useless as it got whipped away by the flow before it even reached the river bed. Sonam had an axe, which was even worse. The river bed was uneven. One minute you would be standing on a boulder knee deep in water and the next you would be in a hole waist deep. Andy and Jon were on the far bank, their cameras clicking away as they caught the scene on film. The water was cold but this was the least of our worries. The porter came back half of the way and helped us out at the far side, as he could see we were struggling. The water got shallower and within a few more steps we had reached the far bank. I said a quiet thank you, pleased that I was across safely.
|photo © 2001 dan|
The Tokpo Gongma seen from the ridge to the south
I asked Sonam if he wanted the rope to help Alan and Steve cross and he said yes. I tipped out my rucksack and got out the rope. I started to untangle it. Before I had finished Sonam had tied it around his waist and was asking to borrow my Leki pole. He hadn't even reached the deepest part of the river when he found he couldn't go any further because the current was too strong. He had found the walking pole as useless as I had and so he returned to the riverbank. Sonam and the porter then held the rope while Jon and Andy tied the end around a large boulder. Narinder had tied the other end around his waist and was wading out into the river while I frantically tried to untangle the last bit of the rope. Somehow Narinder stumbled across the river and clambered onto the far bank. After some shouting as to where he should tie the rope he wandered up stream after my suggestion and Sonam directing to a one metre square boulder and tied the rope around it.
|photo © 2001 dan|
Narinder helps Alan across Tokpo Gongma
Alan was ready so he walked up to the rope. There was some debate whether he should be upstream or downstream of the rope but I don't think he could hear what we were saying over the noise of the river. Both he and Narinder waded out into the river together, downstream of the rope, facing upstream and clasping the rope with both hands. Alan had only taken two steps into the water and was already having difficulty keeping hold of his walking pole. As they made their way into the middle of the river so they pulled on the rope. The give in the rope caused them to be pushed downstream from the original crossing line as the rope formed a V-shape. This meant they would have to walk against the flow of the water to get to the bank we were standing on. Jon, Andy and I were all eager to catch the moment on camera. The water lashed at his waist in the middle of the stream, and several times Alan seemed to struggle to step forwards as when he lifted his foot it got swept behind him with the flow of the river. At one point he seemed to be clinging desperately to the rope. His jaw dropped and Narinder offered support from behind. I started to get worried, but just as I did so he found a boulder to stand on and suddenly the water was only knee deep. Alan hurriedly walked on out of the river and sat down on the bank looking happy again. Narinder followed on out of the river and warmed up before crossing back again to get Steve. On his return so a rock the size of a cricket ball that was being bounced along the bottom of the river hit his foot. He limped to the other side and rested on the bank. The river had been rising all the time and my rucksack, which I had left on the riverbank, was now dangerously close to the water. I picked it up and put it on higher, drier land.
|photo © 2001 dan|
Steve and Narinder cross the Tokpo Gongma
Narinder was ready and Steve entered the water, his trousers and boots tied to the outside of his rucksack. It wasn't long before the water was lashing at his stomach. Steve's face said it all as the look of shock at plunging into freezing cold water mingled with a worried expression. He too appeared to loose his footing and clung to the rope. He soon gathered himself and stood up, stumbling on out to Sonam and the porter who was keeping the rope as taught as possible. All across safely, we left the rope and walked across to the foot of the scree slope. Jon, Narinder and Sonam all suffered cuts to the tops of their feet and toes from being hit by roling boulders.
Lunch was taken out of Sonam's and the porters rucksack and laid out on the rocks for us to eat. Steve wasn't that interested and sat on a rock a short distance away while the rest of us tucked into Roti covered in cheese spread, tuna and hard boiled eggs. An assortment of nuts followed.
The horses could be seen approaching the river on the other side. As they got closer so Sonam and Narinder got up and talked to them, but I doubted whether they could hear anything over the roar of the river. I hurriedly swapped new film for used film in my camera so I could capture their crossing. They passed our rope, which had left strung across the river and headed upriver. We were told they were going to cross the river upstream, where it split into two with a central island because it was shallower there. The horsemen led the horse on up the river for another five hundred metres or so. They were almost out of sight when we could see the horses one at a time starting to wade out into the river and splash around. I zoomed in with my camera and took a photo as the horse formed a line across the river. The last few were just entering the water, some were on the central island and the first horses had almost made it across the second channel.
All of a sudden a shepherd, who had been watching us from high on the scree of the far valley slope, where his sheep grazed on an unlikely patch of grass started shouting in Hindi. There was an air of panic in his voice. One of our horsemen could be seen running down the other side of the riverbank waving frantically in the air. I knew immediately something was wrong but didn't dare think what. There was some more shouting in Hindi and Narinder broke the news to us. A horse had fallen. I looked at my watch. It read 12:57pm. Those of us who were sitting down stood up and those of us who were standing up took a few steps upstream, faces blank, as if hoping it would give us a better view of what was going on. At first I thought it wasn't too bad and perhaps the horse might have been able to regain its feet, but then I saw how the shepherd was continuing his desperate run down along side the river. I knew then that the news wouldn't be good. Narinder walked over to the rope strung across the river and started to take his shoes and socks off. I wandered over and had made up my mind that I would stop him entering the river because the river had risen over the height of the rope. No human life was worth risking for our rucksacks and kit bags. It would have been suicidal to enter the water. He had no chance of holding the horse, or any of our bags. The water was flowing very fast and he might even have been swept away himself. Something was spotted bobbing up and down in the river upstream. The horseman was still running down the far bank but was a long way behind. As the object came closer so it seemed to speed up. It was in the centre of the river, which was about twelve metres wide. Narinder, on seeing this, gave up trying to reach the object and so I was relieved that I wouldn't have to intervene to prevent him doing so.
The object passed frustratingly close. As I stood on the bank and watched so it mounted a standing wave and for a brief second I could make out a blue and green checked pattern of what I thought was a shirt, along with navy blue and red colours. Within a split second it was gone sinking back below the murky grey silt laden waters. My eyes transfixed on the area of water where the object had submerged and tracked the same patch of water as it raced away down river. I automatically assumed it had been a porter's shirt attached to one of our rucksacks. The porters often took off their jumpers on warm days and tied them onto the rucksacks they were carrying.
Sonam started running down the rocks chasing the object in the river. Jon and I followed suit. My eyes were still fixed on the same patch of water occasionally saw a dark lump, that was the object, rise to the surface momentarily before disappearing again. I was running in a mad rush of adrenalin, presumably to help even if this meant stopping those on the bank from entering the river. After some fifty metres or so, over the rounded boulders, I came to my senses and started to walk. It was clear that we would never catch up with the object let alone be able to reach it. Sonam was running like lightening some twenty or thirty metres ahead of us but even he couldn't keep up. He glanced back up at us and I shouted to him to forget it, knowing that all our kit was insured and no rucksack was worth risking life of a man. Within seconds the object reached the end of the Topka Gongma river and joined the much larger Chandra river. It was gone now. For good. We stood and stared as the reality of the situation sunk in. There was no chance of retrieving the object, except possibly from the bottom of the Indian Ocean.
With nothing more to see or do we turned and wandered back up river to where our rucksacks were. I started to think selfishly. That patch of navy blue material I had seen. Was it part of my rucksack? If it were we would have lost all the group film. I thought of all those photos and slides we would have lost. My diary wouldn't be the same without pictures. I thought about what was in my rucksack. My down jacket and sleeping bag sprung to mind first. I wasn't too worried about these as they could be replaced. Then I remembered my Leatherman. I certainly wouldn't be able to get another as cheap as that one.
Jon caught up with me and brought me out of my world of thought. He told me that he thought he saw a bit of red. His rucksack was the only red rucksack. Knowing that he was probably thinking similar thoughts as I had, I said "It doesn't matter who's rucksack it was. It's gone now. All we can do is claim on the insurance." Nothing more was said. Silence prevailed as a whirlwind of thoughts flooded into my head. The horseman had stopped running and was walking towards us on the other side of the river. He shouted across to Sonam and Narinder. They informed us with shocked pale faces that we had lost a horseman. Stunned and shocked, and perhaps not wanting to believe what had just happened, I said to Sonam not to let the chef and porter who had just arrived cross before I had got another rope and harness from my rucksack on the horses. For my immediate concern was not to make the situation any worse than it was. Sonam didn't seem to understand, muttering horseman dead, over and over again, to himself trying to make sense of what had happened. Silence fell over us. No one said anything. Sonam, Narinder and the porter sat together in a circle, holding their heads in their hands. Jon, Steve, Alan, Andy and I sat on boulder near the picnic site again saying nothing. I felt weak and pale. Something was churning me up inside. I sat on a boulder and tried to come to terms with the events of the past few minutes. I looked at the food laid out on the picnic cloth. I saw my chocolate bar lying there. I would never miss out on the opportunity to eat a chocolate bar but the past events had changed things and now it made me feel ill just looking at it. No one felt like eating anymore.
Thoughts raced through my head. I tried to convince myself that there was nothing we could have done. He would almost certainly have been dead by the time he got washed down past us. He would have been dragged under, and thrashed against the boulders that littered the river channel, knocking him unconscious, if not killing him within seconds. I still couldn't answer why. Why had he got swept away. He could have waited until the evening, when the river would have gone back down. There was no point in risking life and limb. Five minutes ago he was alive and having a normal day. Now he would never see daylight again. Life can be so harsh and sudden. "You can't take anything for granted," I thought. I was unsure as to whether we had lost a horse and its load as well or not, but this seemed insignificant compared to the loss of the horseman. Flash backs of the 1998 Mont Blanc disaster unsettled me further. We had been following a group over Mont Maudit. We stopped near the top to have a rest while another group who we had been following carried on down the slope. Minutes later a serac fell and swept them away. We had been sitting chatting away in the hut less than eighteen hours previously and now one of them was dead. Similarly we had seen the two horseman arrive and Sonam and Narinder had spoken to them. Now fifteen minutes later and one was dead. I felt as though I just wanted to break down and weep, but no one else was sobbing so I tried to remain strong. I think Jon could sense I was having difficulty coming to terms with what had happened as he kept asking if I was all right.
On the other side of the river, the shepherd had descended from his patch of grass high on the valley side and was explaining to the chef and porter and horseman what he'd seen. He was shouting at first and waving his arms about, but he soon calmed down. They sat down in a circle in silence.
Half an hour later Sonam and Narinder packed away the lunch and set off after the horses. We followed on with the porter and still not a word was muttered. Half way up the dusty track I rested and looked back down at the river. The shepherd was returning to his shelter while the porter, chef and horseman wandered up the other side of the river. I watched as they grew closer to the rope that was strung across the river. The porter saw it and walked over to it, tugging it. I jumped to conclusions, convinced he was going to try and cross. I shouted and waved at him not to try and cross, knowing that he would probably be unable to hold on and also get swept away, but he couldn't understand my English. I shouted on up to Alan to get someone who spoke Hindi so we they could tell the others not to cross. He looked at me blankly so I repeated it and told him to go quickly. He dumped his bag and went as fast as the altitude would allow. I started to run down the slippery slope, stopping after a few steps to dump my rucksack before continuing. As I reached the bottom they hurled the end of the rope back to our side of the river. I slowed down relieved that they had not tried to cross and were in fact just untying the rope so we could collect it. I pulled the rope in and then untied my end from around the boulder. I looped it round my hand and washed the silt off it in a small channel. The river had risen so much that the bank on which we had tied the rope had become an island with water flowing around it on all sides. Alan had returned with Narinder and they were watching from high up the scree slope. I slowly made my way back up the dusty slope, picking up my rucksack and continued to the flat top. I apologised to Alan, who had returned to pick up his rucksack and he agreed that he thought they were going to try and cross, which made me feel less slightly less stupid. We headed after the others, before long we came out on a flat grassy plain. Sonam, the porter and Jon were putting loads back on the horses, which had bolted. All loaded Sonam returned back towards the river while the porter took Sonam's rucksack. We ushered the four horses onwards. We definitely had more than four horses. Had we lost one or possibly a few in the river? My rucksack wasn't on any of the four horses. Maybe it had been swept down the river. There was nothing I could do, but I just wanted to know.
|photo © 2001 dan|
The campsite at Tokpo Gongma
A bit further on, Andy and Steve could be seen down on a lower grassy plain near the Chandra River. The remnants of old campfires told us it was where we would camp. There were four horses with them. I hoped that maybe my bag would be on one of their backs. They had had difficulty rounding the horses up and from keeping them going where they wanted. But the horses obviously knew the route and knew roughly where they had to go. Sonam caught us up again with a stove on his shoulder. He ran down the grassy bank to unload the horses who were starting to try and roll on their backs. We walked on down the slope and I could see not just my rucksack but everyone's on the back of various horses. We arrived at 2pm and helped unload the horses. My rucksack was torn, but this somehow didn't matter. It was better than no rucksack at all and was insignificant compared to losing a horseman. The campsite was lovely and green, but unfortunately littered with the remains of used tissues, scraps of paper, plastic wrappers and semi-burnt tin cans from previous trekkers.
We all lent a hand in setting up our tents and mess tent. Everything was done slowly and silently still shaken by the previous events. The sun was hot and scorched the unprotected skin, but the wind was blustery and cold. My head was spinning and felt as though it had been baked in an oven, while the rest of my body was shivering with cold. As I laid the rope out on the grass to dry so I noticed the outer had been slashed, leaving just a few strands in the centre of the rope holding it together. It must have been caused by a rock hitting the rope. I was glad that no one else had tried to cross using it.
The afternoon was spent sitting in the mess tent. Alan and I sat in silence for most of the afternoon. Andy, Jon and Steve tried to lighten the atmosphere by starting the occasional conversation. Narinder came and sat with us for a while, explaining that the horseman was not very tall and he hadn't been holding onto a donkey and the force of the water just took him.
At 3:40pm the chef, porter and horseman arrived, having walked up river to cross using a snow bridge. They sat down all together in the cooking tent. There were some raised voices but everything was spoken in Hindi. Although we couldn't understand what they were saying, it was clear they were discussing what had happened. Once they had finished they sat outside in the sun, in silence reflecting on the events. Tea and biscuits came but I had gone off food. No one wanted to do much. Andy and Jon went to rest in their tents, while Alan and Steve stared into open space. I went for a walk to try to clear my head.
Tomato soup came at 6pm and I forced some down me. I was glad I did as it was nice and I was soon going back for more. The sun had gone down and the sky was clear, making it bitterly cold. A full moon shone brightly overhead as I made my way to my tent to put some socks on and get another fleece.
Rice, dhal, mushrooms and cheesy-peas were eaten at 7pm and pineapple slices followed. Alan headed off to bed soon afterwards. Sonam managed a chuckle as he struggled to get Steve's water bottle to stand up after it had been filled. We drank our cups of tea and retreated to our sleeping bags at 8:20pm.