Saturday, 2 January 2010

Snow-Blindness and Dissent

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India; October 10th; Day 19; Chauki; 3696m


Trek: 3hrs 33mins starting at 11.00
Low: 3700m at 14.40
High: 4555m at 11.08
Descent: 931m
Ascent: 96m

Woke up before 6 desperate for a pee. Staggered out and staggered back. It’s freezing out there. Half an hour later I went out again to take some photographs. It’s still bitterly cold so I went back to bed with frozen hands. I lay in bed a long time but eventually got up shortly before the sun reached the tents. It seems to be quiet all around the campsite.

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Keith was, unusually, not about and it turns out he had snow blindness and very painful eyes. We later find out that half a dozen of the porters are also afflicted and are in a lot of discomfort. Everyone clubs together to find some eye-drops to help out. We don’t have much but every little helps.

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All these problems lead to plenty of discussions about how we should proceed. Many of the porters are favouring having a rest day so they can recuperate. Keith however is determined to continue as are all of us.

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It takes a long time for breakfast to be prepared but at least that gives us plenty of time to dry out the tents and our gear. We had a smattering of snow fall during the night. After some discussion it is agreed that the party will split into two and that we, with sufficient porters, will go down to Chauki, whilst the others will take a rest day and come down tomorrow. It’s not clear when we will rejoin one another! In the end this doesn’t happen and everyone comes down to Chauki today. It’s not a long hike today and it will get us down below the snow to a warmer altitude.

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Keith and I get fed up of hanging around and decide to go. We will take out our own tents and sleeping bags and enough snacks to keep us going. In our haste we forget to switch my clumsy black bag for Keith’s bag which can convert to a rucksack. Keith is carrying the most as we set off and it must be uncomfortable.

It’s 11am when we finally get going along a rocky traverse. after a while the trail becomes difficult to follow and we rely on a few far and between cairns. We are sure of the direction though as we head down into the valley below which seem to have green patches on either side which may be our destination.

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Sometimes the way is earthy and grassy but mostly it’s a rocky scramble. Several times we had to climb down and then out of rocky ravines which are filled with loose stone. It’s dangerous as the stones are easily loosed and then often come bouncing down around us.

We follow a ridge for a while before descending to cross a small river. On the other side we see a trail going up. We try it but it seems to peter out so we abandon it and take a lower route. We fid out later that this is the way the porters went. But it made no real difference. Instead we follow another ridge and another path. Ahead we notice a green swathe above a cliff with a glacial river running below. We convince ourselves that this must be Chauki.

The ridge finishes and we descend to cross another stream before climbing up a cliff to grassy meadow above. We don’t think it can be the campsite though as their is no litter or any evidence of fire. Looking back we can’t see anyone following us. We decide to wait here for the others to catch up just in case this is the place or perhaps we should be on the other side of the river!

After a while we are ‘hallooed’ and we can see the others on a high track in the distance. That’s the trail we ignored. They arrive within half an hour with several porters. They say that Chauki is another hour further down.

Me and Keith then leave, whilst the others take a break, and we take the comfortable grassy trail down the hill. The trail gradually meanders down to the river bed which we follow for a while whilst occasionally going up and down the small cliff on the river’s edge. Eventually we reach a grassy area which is obviously the campsite. It’s filthy with litter and in one area disgusting with human excrement. Extremely unpleasant. The views however are spectacular with huge mountains all around.

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We laze around until everyone else arrives and set up our tents as the sun disappeared over the horizon.

Again we are having problems with the disposition of the porters. Jim has a meeting with our guide Ajay. They are discussing our route which is supposed to take us over another pass, at 4700m, and another 4 or 5 days trekking to return us to our start point at Malla. The porters are not keen to go in this direction and want to take an escape route which would take us down the valley to Ghuttu; a trek of three days. Ajay is of the opinion that that the recent snow falls would make the pass dangerous and he’s also concerned about the eell-being of some of the porters.

We will have to contact the base in New Delhi to inform them where we are so that the bus can pick us up at Ghuttu for the drive back to Delhi via Rishjkesh. However we will not be able to make contact until we reach Ghuttu.

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Sitting by the fire we all get together to discuss the options and consequences. We agree to make the best of a bad job and agree that we shall not go over the pass to Malla but return to Ghuttu. We take into account that Jan is still suffering from his bad leg and has done incredibly well to get this far. We also realise that many of the new porters that joined us in Kedarnath are under-equipped. Some are still suffering from the after effects of snow-blindness and it’s even more obvious that many of them are not that bothered and have been causing trouble almost every day. It’s a great pity as our first porters were hired in Malla and we had hoped to complete our circular route back to their home. They will have to continue alone from Ghottu in one direction whilst the Gauri Kund porters will go in the opposite direction. It’s 3 or 4 days travel for each group.

Personally I am disappointed as the high passes are the highlight of the trip and it’s a waste to come all this way and not do it. I really liked the idea of finishing where we started too.

After all these discussion we have dinner in the Mess tent as it begins to snow again. It’ll be cold here tonight but nowhere near as cold as the previous nights.