When the 4 Israelis, Shay (Tsnef) Shlomovitz, Suf (Chief) Kletter, Oren Kubani, and Raz Zitun, signed on for the quest for 30N 90E, they didn’t know what they were in for. Either did I. This was a difficult trip beyond all expectations; most of us suffered a physical toll (one of us was rushed to the hospital after the trip). It certainly helped that the Israelis had recently finished military duty. That kept their resilience and high spirits under the harsh conditions. More than anything, it was their determination which led to our success.
The successful trip to 30N 90E sets the record as the highest altitude confluence attained to date. At 5592 m (18342 ft.) it ranks about 9th place in the world’s highest confluences. The confluence hunt involved a 6-day, 75 km-plus (47 mi.-plus), pack-horse trip at altitudes continuously above 5000 m (16400 ft.) without any villages or human infrastructure, only a scattering of nomads. Two extra days were spent on road transportation. The approximately eight higher confluences are even more difficult to reach. I personally challenge others to beat this record – a very difficult undertaking which will not likely occur for a long time.
The poor horses stumbled, overloaded with bags while serpentining up a steep, rocky cliff-like gully. I already had a high-altitude throbbing headache and weakness with nausea coming on fast. Chief was in the lead but could only walk about 2 or 3 m (7-10 ft.) before stopping for a breath. The rest of us followed at about the same pace. Gust bursts of ice kernels pelted us in the face at about 100 km/hour (60 mph). The visibility was decreasing fast. Shay came back downhill to where I was.
“We should turn back. It’s too difficult to face this weather”, said Shay.
“Ok. But lets first find some shelter from the wind and wait and see if the weather passes”, I said.
After being signaled, the others came back to where I was huddled in a pit of rocks.
We didn’t even really know where we were. The GPS had pointed in this general direction to get to 30N 90N. The other valley we were faced with had excruciatingly steep and high pinnacle scarps. Our two Tibetan guides, Suodao and Denzin, acted as if we were making a grave mistake, but followed with the horses anyway.
Only minutes later bright sunshine burst out and the wind died down. We muddled up the last 200 or so m (700 ft.) to 5500 m (18040 ft.) to the pass, a whole brand new view none of us expected.
“Holy Shit!”, just about all of us said one by one.
After being confined to rocky hillslope valleys we were now perched over a wide open view of a towering snow-dusted Matterhorn-like pinnacle with ice falls careening down it and an entire blue-ice glacier plummeting off a seemingly bottomless cliff leading down to a gorge invisible from the mist billowing up from the churning streams below. Just a few m in front of us were precipitous cliffs dropping off to hundreds of m below.
This was our first pass to cross on our first day of trekking: the climax of the day.
It took a lot to get even that far. I met the Israelis in Lhasa after waiting 2 weeks for someone to join me on the expedition (and 6 months of mentioning it to friends and message boards). The Israelis were totally gung ho to get to the point.
Our jeep organizer Lhakpa was not. After organizing everything for us, he told us it wasn’t possible to rent a jeep. All the alternatives around town were several times more expensive. With no other choice we decided to go to the streets of Lhasa.
After bargaining in dusty parking lots amidst the lowest life-form of wheeling-dealing, creepy jeep drivers and their burnt out, busted-muffler, side-canting, backfiring jalopy jeeps, we found Losan. He had a tall black cowboy hat and a wide smile with about 3 gold teeth. Compared to the others he seemed remarkably reasonable and friendly. Maybe that was because he never said much.
We needed someone who had a jeep that could pass through the toughest of off-road conditions, and a driver who was willing to go there. Anyway, he was OK with our plan, and we liked his price. Because of our reservations we tried again to work out something with Lhakpa, but we were forced to come back to Losan.
30N 90E falls about 50 km (31 mi.) to the southwest of Namtso Lake, a scenic area visited by many backpackers, and a several-hour-drive north of Lhasa. Because of the confluence point’s proximity to Lhasa, it’s deceptively easy. Namtso Lake and the area around it is divided from Lhasa and its valleys by the northeast-trending Nyainqentanglha Mountain range which contains two of the world’s 70 highest peaks, Nyainqentanglha Peak (7111 m, 23324 ft.) and Qiongmugang (7048 m, 23117ft.), a staggeringly jagged peak, top-heavy with overhanging ice cliffs. We saw all sides of Qiongmugang because it was relatively close to 30N 90E. Beautiful, cold, and inhospitable to life, the peak ominously hovered near us almost every day of our quest.
There may be no roads near 30N 90N, but this actually remains somewhat of a mystery. The best of Tibetan road maps show many small roads, some which exist, others that don’t, and still others are not included in the maps. One that definitely exists is a relatively large dirt road that follows the south side of the Nyainqentanglha range. In November, 2002, Rainer, an Austrian mountaineer, and I attempted the point from the closest approach of this road but were snubbed by large peaks and glaciers as we got to the central part of the range (see previous attempt). The point is just beyond grasp to the north side of the range. Our approach now was to somehow cross the range and try to get to the point from the north side.
There were only a few possible ways to do this. Some of the maps we had suggested a road north from Yangpachen. The connecting point to Lhasa, it’s a town revered by local agencies as the highest-altitude hot springs in the world, where Rainer and I stayed on our last visit. There was some evidence and hearsay about roads extending north from Marjiang, further to the southwest. Rainer and I investigated one of these two years ago to no avail. Some roads swirled around the southwest of Namsto Lake. Lhakhpa called someone to find out about these and found out that while there was a road around the perimeter of the lake, none of them connected with the area around 30N 90E. Lastly, there was a possible roundabout road route from Shigatse, the second capital of Tibet, many hours to the southwest. Another possible route, days away, existed to the north. We had a mysterious 1990 Landsat satellite photo that showed a dirt road near the point, but it was impossible to see where either side of it led to. Because of what both Lhakhpa and Losan said, we decided our best for finding a road across the range was to look somewhere near Marjiang.
DAY 1. We had rented camping equipment and packed food for what we thought would be about a 5-day trip, and headed out of Lhasa on May 16th. Losan spoke bits and pieces of Chinese so I could communicate a little with him. We had breakfast in Yangpachen. The word around town there was that there was a trail through the range, only accessible by yak, but it was now closed by snow (likely it reached an altitude of 5900 m (19352 ft.)).
We continued on, past the location of my last attempt, to Marjiang. Losan thought there was a road through the range originating somewhere before reaching Marjiang. We talked to several locals. At one place with a large plain leading up to snowy peaks, including the towering, icy Qiongmugang peak, the locals said we could cross the range by yak. Losan thought that was the only way. There was a yellow sign off the road to that place so we labeled it on the GPS and referred to it as ‘yellow’. We thought we should check again the valley past Marjiang that Rainer and I checked two years ago. Losan was completely obstinate and unwilling to investigate other options. The bad side of Losan began to come to light.
Although it was like pulling teeth, eventually we convinced him to go. We stopped in Marjiang, itself, on the way. Marjiang is a pit of a town of only about 100 people in a surprisingly scenic mountain notch next to a river. It seemed to survive off the trucks and other traffic that passed through it. There’s no bathroom in the town – just the main street. We asked about crossing the range but it didn’t turn up anything.
Finally we made it to the valley past Marjiang. To our chagrin we found that just like two years ago, the dirt road didn’t go far up the valley. The Tibetan road atlas showed a brown road crossing the range here so we called it ‘brown’. Losan was becoming completely uncooperative and it was apparent he just wanted to collect his money and go home – he didn’t want to help us. With no jeep option across the range, we were faced with either having to go 40 km-plus (25 mi.-plus) with yaks or horses carrying our packs or try a more distant approach like from Shigatse or Namtso. Losan said he wouldn’t under any circumstance go to Shigatse, even though we had agreed on it as an option beforehand. Namtso seemed like too much of a long shot.
We asked nomads at the ‘brown’ valley about renting horses or yaks to carry our packs through the long journey. It was a very high altitude, very long journey and we had a heavy tent and other equipment, so, if we wanted to undertake such a long journey at all, we needed the help of a horse or yak. They would supply us with horses and guides but their prices were ridiculously high and they wouldn’t bargain. We headed back to ‘yellow’.
The nomads at “yellow” said they would only give us 6 yaks, no less, and 2 guides, and charged a ridiculous sum for this. We knew we didn’t need this many yaks. Again, we tried to bargain with no result. Losan just wanted to go home and was not being cooperative. Seemingly, our only option at this point was to go through Shigatse or Namtso, but Losan wouldn’t have it. The Israelis were so focused on reaching the point, they were considering very extreme options – our only remaining options. Unfortunately, they weren’t realistic.
Sadly, we pretty much had to go back home to Lhasa and call it a failure to have selected a driver like Losan from the street. We were supposed to pay for Losan’s trip home but we didn’t want to because he prevented us from achieving our goals, which we had explained to him previously – why would we want to pay him anything!? We spent a few hours trying to figure out how to ditch Losan with all our stuff and go back to Lhasa. Only the playful, singing nomad children kept us entertained while our spirits were down.
The Israelis were still in denial. Chief told us his father had enlightened him with the unflinching definitive: “You WILL make it to the point, I know”. Chief strongly believed this and suggested a last ditch idea to just go back to Marjiang to ask again about yaks. Most of us thought it wouldn’t amount to much but we though it would be our best bet to ditch Losan, the scoundrel, anyway. Losan refused. We offered a little extra money and finally he agreed, but by now it was almost nightfall.
Back in Marjiang, as I was finding out bus times and prices for returning to Lhasa, amazingly Losan struck a deal with some locals for 3 horses and 2 guides for only 300 yuen ($35) per day. Did Losan sense he needed to do something not to loose his money. I wouldn’t put that much past Losan – not the brightest spark in the universe. However, Losan redeemed himself – barely. We gave Losan his money and let him go home – thank god! This amazing turn of events put us back on track!
Now we were faced with the prospect of a very long walking trip, crossing the range and then traversing it to the point. I was hesitant, but the Israelis were totally determined. There was little time to contemplate, it was time to go to sleep.
DAY 2. We had camped the night on the grounds of the farm where the horses were; an altitude of about 4600 m (15088 ft.). It was a sunny morning with a deep blue sky and warm enough to wear t-shirts. Everything seemed fresh, comfortable and innocuous.
But this was no summer camp hike. This enormous journey began with us climbing up a wide rocky valley with several nomad dwellings. Eventually the dwellings and spring green grass disappeared.
Suodao and Denzin, wanted us to cross a small hill to the left which was in the opposite direction of the point, whereas the valley trended in more or less the direction of the point. After having dealt with Losan, we were hard headed, and demanded to follow the valley.
Suodao, a man with a cleft lip and a blank stare, spoke a little Chinese but less than Losan. Denzin was an older man with a leathery, weather-beaten face, nearly black in color. He wore large dark sunglasses and a white cowboy hat. He only spoke Tibetan, but still talked to us and smiled a lot. Occasionally he would talk aloud to himself.
Apparently the horses each had names, but when I asked the guides they said their names were all ‘Da’. Anyway, there was a brown ‘Da’ who was really mean, kicking some of us and purposely trying to step on our feet. There was a gray ‘Da’ who seemed really kind, came over to us often, and liked having us pet its nose. I didn’t really get to know the other brown ‘Da’.
“There’s nothing there, “ whined Suodao. Denzin just shrugged his shoulders. But the guides decided to follow our uninformed lead anyway. The sky turned gray, it got cold and we started to feel sick. Eventually, the valley led us up to our first pass crossing, described earlier.
We finished Day 2 after climbing down from the pass, into the ‘valley of churning streams’. We descended from 5500 m (18040 ft.) to 5000 m (16400 ft.). That valley was also not an option for crossing the range, because of the huge walls and spire peaks shrouded in cascading glaciers. We proceeded a little downstream to a confluence (of streams!). The other stream led to the west, whereas 30N 90E was to the east, but it was a gentle valley up to the center line of the range as far as we could see from a Russian topo map we downloaded from the internet. This was going to be a trip of many km.
We set up Camp 1 (5050 m, 16564 ft.) near the stream confluence. Surprisingly, we had ended up only 5 km (3 mi.) from the ‘brown’ valley. 30N 90E was still 20-25 km (12-16 mi.) away, as the crow flies – about the same as the distance from all of our roadside locations. It seemed like all of the day’s efforts had been futile. Perhaps it was our initiation day.
Every evening and morning the guides would make a very smoky fire out of Yak dung (there were no sticks or plants) and place a tea kettle on it. That night they didn’t think we would be bothered by the smoke billowing directly into our tent, but we had to politely ask them to move. It took them awhile to get the point but they finally figured it out.
I went to bed with a pulsating headache and severe weakness, but the next morning I was refreshed.
DAY 3. We made our way up the gentle valley to the west. Late in the morning we had a long delay, encountering our first problems with the Tibetan guides. While we were taking a hiking break, Suodao told us one of the horses had to go back. This would present a problem in carrying bags and severely slow us down. We paid for 3 horses, what was the problem? But when I asked why, Suodao just gave me an empty stare. Time dragged on and on. The Israelis got very anxious. Somehow a Tibetan woman had snuck in amongst the horses without my notice. It became apparent that there was nothing wrong with the horse at all. Suodao wanted to cheat us out of a horse so that he could give her a horse to get back. We would have been fine with it had the woman had some kind of problem – but she didn’t. After extensive arguing with Suodao, he finally asked us to give her 10 yuan so she could get back to town. Could we take it out of the 300 yuen/day fee? “No”, he said. After waiting a long time Chief gave Suodao the 10 yuan, as we all quietly planned to subtract it from the total fee when we paid in the end. We had to get moving on.
The valley curved northward as we approached the pass of the range, our second pass of the trip. This pass was more like a gentle saddle and didn’t have any spectacular views. However, it soon became apparent that, like the last pass, we weren’t going to be able to cross it with out event.
As we approached the pass, the sky became covered with dark clouds as the wind picked up. As if a massive rockfall had struck us, a bone-rattling thunder rolled and cracked across the sky and echoed off every cliff face. Suddenly, little ice crystals beamed into us and stung our faces like little needles. We felt vulnerable being in the middle of the wide plain of the saddle while lightning struck and thunder rumbled. I told the Israelis stories of people actually getting hit by lightning; they had been unaware that it could happen. The snow began to become the bigger problem. Wet splotches of snowflakes now plastered our front sides and slid down our fronts like crushed ice. We put on our best waterproof gear, which for me, proved better at spreading the water around my cold skin. The surrounding environment began to whiten quickly before our eyes as if turning up a brightness knob. Within minutes, before we could cross the pass, the area became a snowy environment.
At the top of the pass we reached Tibetan stony cairns adorned with prayer flags. The altitude was 5400 m (17712 ft.). Although the visibility decreased dramatically, we could see a wide, bowl-shaped valley down the other side. The pass across the Nyainqentanglha range had been fairly easy climbing. As we made our way down the other side, cold and wet, the wind died down, but heavy snow fell and accumulated while our concerns mounted. We were in a major snowstorm. The horses were stumbling and falling down. Oren was concerned about them, and we were all concerned our sleeping bags and tent, attached to the backs of the horses, would get drenched. Oren wanted us to stop and pitch a tent as soon as possible to protect our gear, but the rest of us were hoping that carrying on and proceeding to lower altitudes would take us out of the snow.
After passing through several yak herds as the valley widened, our hopes materialized. The bright sun poked through patches of clouds. We made it down to a stream appearing to emanate from the grand Qiongmugang peak, the ‘backside’ of which was now visible to us. At an altitude of 5150 m (16892 ft.), there was little snow there. We decided to set up our Camp 2 early to let our wet gear dry out. We were now very much on the other side of the ridge.
DAY 4. The morning was icy cold, but the confluence now seemed attainable – it was only 13 km (8 mi.) away. The Israelis thought we might be able to get there in a day.
There was no apparent way to cross the big stream next to our tent. This had bothered us since our arrival because we couldn’t communicate with the guides about how to cross it – their Chinese just wasn’t good enough. Another Tibetan, Bade, who came apparently out of nowhere, had joined our two guides. He looked like just a young boy and wore a baseball cap, sometimes backwards or to the side.
Before Suodao could pack the bags on the horses, I told him I wanted to ride a horse. I think it slowly sunk in that I wanted to ride it across the river. Suodao tried to see if we would pay money if Bade led our horses across the river, but we refused claiming that the full price of our trip should cover everything. I crossed the river, with each of the Israelis following suit. I’ve had experience riding horses, but I think the Israelis were a bit freaked out due to their lack of experience. We all crossed without incident. The guides packed up the horses from the other side and led the horses across, walking with their bare feet in the icy water.
Next, we had to cross a deceptively small ridge. It turned out to be a major undertaking and we quickly became exhausted. Fortunately, as we discovered after mounting it, it was more of a scarp than a ridge. On top there was a broad plain with a seemingly endless view. The gray and white tufts of clouds mottled the muddy, rocky plain in a horizon-pinching patchwork of light and dark brown. Yak heard after yak heard dissolved into speckles at the furthest distances of the high plain. The view was 360 degrees of vast volume, with the up-ramp of the plains decapitating snowy peaks of the Nyainqentanglha. We edged across like tiny insects with our only consolation the progress shown on our GPS. Basically the whole day was about crossing high plains with their undulations and small streams the only changing features of the day. We were traversing the lower plains of the northern edge of the Nyainqentangla range in the direction of the confluence point.
On the plain, as in many of the valleys, the texture of the ground was made up of strange hummocks which appeared as elongated mushrooms of spongy soil. The ‘mushrooms’ were really cumbersome to walk on and caused a lot of stumbling by us and the horses.
We were due for our big weather event of the day, and, yes, it did come. On one of the plains at about 5450 m (17876 ft.) snow started falling. Within minutes it was heavy snowfall. This time we lurched for the tent, set it up and sheltered ourselves and our equipment from the snow. There were no lower valleys to head to this time.
We invited the guides inside. We all huddled around in a circle with our jumble of gear inside the damp, musty tent and ate lunch. We were now only 6.5 km (4 mi.) away from the confluence. Almost all of us fell asleep while the heavy snow fell outside. The Tibetans became uncomfortable because they wanted to smoke and spit in the tent. We flatly refused them the right to do this so they left. They preferred to be plastered by heavy snow outside in an environment where they could freely smoke and spit.
We woke up as we heard the snow begin to subside. I had another splitting headache. Outside there was a thick fog. The straw grass and pits of the mushroom terrain were filled with snow.
The fog eventually burned off and little by little and a kind of gray, hazy sunnyness dominated the plateau. As we crossed the plain it undulated higher and higher. We reached the highest point on our trip: 5612 m (18407 ft.), a personal record for all of us. We were now only about 4 km from the confluence point. All we had to do now was to descend a large scarp to a stream valley which we recognized as being near the confluence from satellite photos. Of course, that would be too easy. We hadn’t yet had our guide problem of the day.
There was dissent from the guides. They told us we couldn’t go there, and in their usual form, when we asked why, didn’t give us a reason. We pressed on in move to get them to follow us. They just stopped near the top of the spine in the plain and wouldn’t catch up to where we were. They were pretty far away before we realized they weren’t moving. Completely exhausted and weakened from the day, we backtracked up the ridge to express our regret. I slammed my gloves down and yelled at Suodao. After explaining that our intended ‘point’ of destination was only 4 km away (2.5 mi.; I had previously said 6 km (3.7 mi.)), they changed their mind and decided to follow us.
We descended the very steep, large scarp down to the stream as a late afternoon, golden sunlight warmed up the environment. It was as if a different world existed in the lowlands below the plain. We were too tired to pursue the confluence point which was only about 2.5 km (1.5 mi.) on the other side of the stream, but seemingly perched up on a not-too-small ridge. We set up Camp 3 (5250 m, 17220 ft.) by the stream, likely within sight of the confluence, ready to pursue it the next day.
DAY 5 (The Confluence Day!). It was May 20th. Inside our 5-man tent, the alarms went off as usual around 6:30 AM, just when the first blue light of dawn usually filters through the canvas. But something was different this morning. It was a lot darker. The far side of the tent was bulging in where I lay my head and hugging the rest of my body. When I was asleep it was comfortable, but when I awoke I noticed it was cold. I slapped the inside of the tent and masses of snow slid off. I took out my earplugs, used so I could sleep amidst Shay’s snoring (!), and I heard flakes hitting the tent. We all decided to go back to sleep until the snow ceased. That wasn’t until 11-something-AM, but the Israelis had already picked up their favorite pastime and card game, ‘Liar’, the American version of which I told them was called, ‘Bull-Fucking-Shit’.
By this time there were some patches of blue sky looking like they would open up. Previously, the ‘confluence ridge’ had been covered in thick clouds. Chief reminded me he had promised me sun on our visit to the confluence.
We weren’t exactly sure which side of the ridge the confluence might be on. Since the ridge was nose-shaped, it made sense to go down to the low part and walk up the ridge, able to traverse down either flank. But once we walked down toward the nose, through triangulation of our GPS bearing and the GPS bearing we obtained coming down the scarp the previous day, we knew the confluence point must be on the side facing the stream and the tent.
We traversed uphill, closing in on the point tens of m by tens of m, calling them off aloud: “70 meters…60 meters…50 meters...!” It was really a slow process with our burnt out bodies climbing uphill at the high altitudes. But it was a time of great elation. All of our efforts and headaches of the past 4 days (and my 2 years) were now going to pay off. We couldn’t really believe it was possible to get here, but here we were!
I gave the Israelis my other GPS and we all documented the point. It turned out to be sunny as Chief had promised. However, it took a long time to get the GPS accuracy down to 6 m and get a good picture of it without glare. The Israelis wanted to celebrate more than anything, but I knew everything had to be documented correctly. Putting more pressure on me to hurry up, the weather suddenly and strangely turned gray, cold and windy (it had been nice and sunny when we arrived at the point). I had another pulsating headache. Finally everything was documented with my Etrex Venture reading an altitude of 5587 m (18325 ft.) and the Garmin 12 reading an altitude of 5597 m (18358 ft.; I took the average, 5592 m (18342 ft.) as the altitude of the confluence). The Israelis had made an Israeli flag with all of our names for a group photo. By the time we finished our group photos, there was no time to celebrate. Everyone was running away from the nasty weather which had now turned into snow flurries.
By the time we made it back down to our camp it was already around 6PM. We decided to sleep at Camp 3 another night. The Israelis were back to cards in the tent again, but I had too much of a headache to play.
DAY 6. With our goal having been fulfilled, it seemed almost a pain to have to spend multiple days just getting home. But home (Lhasa) was also a draw: warm showers, hearty food (like pizza, lasagna, and yak steak as opposed to noodle soup and crackers), comfortable beds, warmth, t-shirts and lower altitudes (Lhasa is 3600 m (11808 ft.)).
We woke up this morning with the same strange feeling of darkness, and yes, once again we had been covered by snow. Actually we had heard it snowing all night long and it was still snowing. Although the side of the tent bulged into me, this time I was seemingly below ground, with the snowy ground encroaching into the area where I kept my headlamp, water bottle and alarm clock. We had had a major fall of snow. By 8 or 9 AM the snowing had stopped.
Outside was a complete blanket of white – there wasn’t even a single rock or bit of brown left uncovered. Walking in the snow, we sunk up to our ankles and sometimes further up our shins.
We decided to head back across a valley which was at the lower side of the plains so that we wouldn’t have to climb up steep cliffs. The guides agreed it would be the best way. Although everything was blanketed in a heavy dressing of snow, the sun was very bright and it was actually hot. Even a thermal shirt was too much to wear.
This seemingly pleasant day became our most crippling day. The fuel had run out for our stove, so from here on we had to eat dry noodles. My personal food supply began to dwindle. The Israelis had run out of water on this day and were forced to eat snow for the first half of the day (which was little satisfaction in the beaming sun). Our feet, regardless of whether we had Gortex boots, became soaked and cold. The soft snow completely covering the mushroom terrain was extremely difficult to negotiate and tired us beyond explanation. Still worse results were to come.
We didn’t really cross through the valley proper, which was a point of contention between some of the Israelis and the guides. Basically, we crossed the same plains but lower down. There wasn’t really much else to report on this day except endless snowy plains and, at least on my part, exhaustion, exhaustion, exhaustion!
By the end of the day we had reached the stream of Camp 2 and actually set up camp near there. I had cold wet feet and very little energy. But Raz had the most serious problem. Raz had lost his sunglasses and his eyes were burning with excruciating pain from being sunburned. He couldn’t function at all, and just sat covering his eyes. Raz doesn’t speak much English, so everything I found out was through the other Israelis. Eventually they decided to inform me that Raz couldn’t see at all – he had been completely snowblinded. We went to sleep, but Raz stayed up all night tossing and turning in pain. He kept many of the other Israelis awake.
DAY 7. We put on our cold, wet boots to head off on our second day homeward bound. We put handicapped Raz on one of the horses and carried a little bit of gear. We had a newfound urgency to get Raz to a hospital in Lhasa as soon as possible.
Shay’s lower lip had swelled to a huge size, perhaps from being sunburned. The back of my hands also swelled from sunburn. We couldn’t explain the strange swelling. Oren’s eyes were burning too because he had let Raz borrow his sunglasses.
We made our way back over Pass 2, across the Nyainqentanglha range again. I was completely low on energy. Breathing at the fullest capacity of my lungs, I still fell way behind the rest of the group. The day was pretty sunny, but by the time we reached the pass and while climbing down the other side it snowed. I had never heard the group so silent before. We were completely exhausted and wanted to get home.
We wanted to try to make it back to Marjiang this day. Not only did we think it could be possible, but Raz still couldn’t see and our worries added an atmosphere of restlessness to get back to civilization.
But the guides, in particular Suodao, would have none of it, “We can’t get to Marjiang today, only tomorrow”.
We thought they had a biased interest in making another day’s salary, but we decided to press on despite what anyone said.
By the time we got back to Camp 1, at the confluence of rivers, the snow on the ground started disappearing. That was a welcome change because it had been so tiring. It was a sunny, golden 5 or 6 PM.
We decided we would try to reach the ‘brown’ valley which was only 5 km (3 mi.) away by GPS – just down the stream valley after the confluence. From ‘brown’ we could hitchhike or something back to Marjiang, and eventually continue on to Lhasa. Fortunately, the way the guides had in mind to get back home was down the same stream valley.
Oren joked that the valley was actually ‘brown’ because the snow had melted. But as we proceeded further it actually became green, fertile, relatively warm and full of grazing animals and nomad dwellings – welcome signs of life we hadn’t seen in a week’s worth of hostile, lifeless environments.
Finally we reached the part of the valley we knew well from our drive with Losan. We passed a few farm houses, down to one Suodao and Bade had directed us to.
“There you can get a ride on a tractor!”, they said. We were overjoyed at the suggestion.
Once we got to the farmhouse the skies turned dark gray and a downpour started to drench us. We walked into the dusk-lit, muddy farmhouse to continue negotiations. Many dark figures of yak-butter-smelling Tibetans hovered around us. We exchanged money to the guides for their services and to the tractor driver and ran out in the rain to the open-air two-stroke tractor.
We got even more soaked by rain and fumigated by diesel exhaust as the tractor jolted us at extremely slow speeds down the rocky road. It looked like our hopes would come true - we would make it back to Marjiang that night. Nightfall fell on us during the ride as we nearly froze in the near-freezing air. The tractor had no head- or tail-lights, but a nervous Tibetan who caught a ride in the back with us insisted the drivers use his flashlight to prevent head-on collisions with large trucks.
After about 40 minutes of slow going we jumped out at Marjiang (4600 m; 15088 ft.). They directed us to a grimy, dark restaurant where we warmed up on milk tea. We were extremely grateful there at the ‘Glad Resterant’. It was ecstasy re-nourishing ourselves with our first cooked dinners in a week – they were average but absolutely delicious. Most of us had two dinners. We dried out the best we could.
We tried to negotiate cars back to Lhasa that night but everything fell through. We decided to be satisfied we had made it as far as Marjiang, and found a place with beds (beds!, imagine that) to sleep for the night. We had a large audience watching us go to sleep and then the next morning watching us wake up.
DAY 8. This morning Shay’s lips were even bigger, and even Chief had huge lips too. Shay had real problems drinking his yak butter tea for breakfast. Raz still couldn’t see.
At about noon we finally found a bus which took us about 5 hours to get back to Lhasa. We got Raz to the hospital. At the time of writing he was recovering, and a full recovery is expected.
We thought the snowstorms may have been exclusive to that region, but we found out upon our arrival that it had also rained almost every day in Lhasa. Before and after our trip the weather had been clear everywhere, as it usually is in May.
We had not only made it a tremendous distance through sparsely inhabited land, through difficult conditions, to the highest confluence reached to date, but we had made it back home too.
Shay and Chiefs lips and my hands have returned to their natural size.