We were woken at daybreak by Wangdu and Dorje shaking the tent and shouting for us to get up.
"Zou! Zou! It's already 6am - time to go!"
We emerged into another freezing and clear morning to see the pair of them looking very rough: bloodshot eyes, gaunt sleepless expressions, but still alive. And not surprisingly, given their night out in the open, very grumpy.
They hung around sullenly as we got out of the tent and started to pack, chivvying us along to get moving. Up above us, the clouds had cleared from around the icefalls and base moraines of Jambeyang, revealing a series of crags and buttresses, and some of the higher ice spurs as well. It was very beautiful but we were too cold, tired and hungry to appreciate it all. Peter and I were grumpy too. Being a long walk from the water source, we weren't given time to make a brew of tea for breakfast. Our water bottles were almost empty and I had no time for even a sip of water before we were urged onto the track by an impatient Wangdu.
I made quick visit to pick up the bits and pieces we had lent them for the night, and to pack up my mini tent and stuff it in my pack - it looked like they hadn't used it. There had been no snow, and the way back towards the pass looked clear. So much for Wangdu's excuse for getting over the pass yesterday in a rush.
We set off almost immediately, back up 'heartbreak hill', up towards some cliffs, and I was immediately running on empty. I tried eating a bit of a muesli bar as I walked, but I was so out of breath from walking that I was choking and soon gave up. I would walk hungry for the time being. After about an hour, the track levelled out and turned a corner around a cliff.
We had magnificent views down the Lawatong valley, but the track itself narrowed as it turned around the crags, and we had to negotiate a very exposed section of about ten metres of track cut into the cliffside that left me quaking in my boots. I'm glad I hadn't tried to tackle it the evening before when we were all exhausted. Even the usual imperturbable Peter remarked, "That was actually quite dangerous!" So it wasn't just me.
As was becoming commonplace on this trip, the overwhelming fear and panic that I felt was soon replaced by awe, as we entered another natural amphitheatre, this one on a massive scale, as cliffs and an icy peak like an inverted ice cream cornet - was this Jambeyang? - formed a semi circle around an expanse of meadow.
The idyllic scene gave us a welcome bit of downhill walking - and to top it off there was even a wonderfully clear stream running through the middle of this flat basin, where we were able to rest and replenish our empty water bottles. There were a couple of abandoned stone shelters beyond the stream, and at the base of the cliffs there was some kind of shrine made of stones piled up in a heap, and strewn with the usual strings of prayer flags.
A track headed off to the left, and this seemed the natural exit to stay along the upper reaches of the Lawatong valley, so I was surprised when Dorje instead walked over to the shrine beneath the cliffs and started walking up the slope to the left, that led on to higher snow slopes. "What is he doing?" I asked Peter, who had the GPS and also a copy of some screengrabs of the route taken from Google Earth. "He's going the right way," replied Peter, to my dismay. "That's where the GPS says the track is."
But I could see no track, only a bulge at the base of the precipitous cliffs that extended as far as I could see to our left, in a southerly direction along the rim of the Lawatong valley. Dorje reached the snowline and started sidling left, to walk higher, under the lee of the cliffs. "Surely, not," I said to myself. "Please tell me this isn't true..." Wangdu and Peter were already following in his footsteps, quite literally as he was now plodding through virgin snow.
I followed reluctantly behind, starting up the steep track to the snow, and then edging out into the footprints of the three who had already preceded me. As we edged up the edge of the amphitheatre the views became even more magnificent, but I was in no mood to appreciate them - I was beginning to get worried again as I slid and skidded on the snow. Some parts of the trail were quite safe, with rocks and rhododendron branches protruding from the snow to give an anchor.
Other sections, however, were smooth and dropped off to steep rocky slopes. Maybe a fall wouldn't be fatal, but I didn't fancy a sudden accelerating slide on the ice-encrusted early morning snow to find out what damage it would do when I hit the rocks below. I cursed myself for not picking up a stick to guide and steady myself with. We were now above the tree line again and there was barely even a twig to use for support.
On some of the most exposed sections of snow I took extreme care placing my feet in the deep imprints left by the others, but even this wasn't enough to assure me that I would avoid slipping. I started to use my right arm as a makeshift ice axe, holding my fingers flat together and thrusting my pointed hand down to break the surface of the snow and hold myself on the slope. It was exhausting to do this for every step, not to mention extremely painful after repeated 'stabbings' of the snow. By the time I finished the end of the 100 metre snow field, the tips of my fingers were numb with cold, and I had to put my hand down my shirt and hold it against my chest and then against my thighs to thaw it out - a very painful reawakening process as the blood came back to my frostnipped fingertips.
Having conquered this obstacle, I turned the ridge to find I was faced with having to cross another sloping snowfield of similar length. The others had moved on ahead and I was left alone to struggle on, feeling utterly miserable and occasionally extremely panicky on the difficult steep sections. "This is dangerous. I shouldn't be doing this," I thought, looking down into the depths of the Lawatong valley far below and wondering if there was an easy escape route down to the valley floor.
It was very odd country. The cliffs to my left were almost vertical, followed by the snow-covered steep scree slopes, which eased off into scrub and tree-covered gentler slopes a few hundred metres below our track. This was then followed by a second steep drop off, down into the invisible depths of the valley floor. Were there people down there? Who could tell?
Rock also found it strange country. On these slopes he sighted some wapiti (a kind of deer) and his hunter-guide managed to shoot and hit one: "but the animal rolled probably 2,000 feet, down to the bottom of the Lawatong valley."
When I first read this passage in the National Geographic I could not envisage how a valley could allow an animal to roll so far from reach, but standing in the upper heights of the edges of the Lawatong valley it was all too clear how something could continue on a long descent and disappear over the wooded lip and into the trench-like abyss further down.
The snow track crested another buttress, where the others were waiting for me, and I stopped to take stock. The track seemed to be heading even higher, onto impossibly steep snow slopes that merged into the bottom of the cliffs. I was definitely not going any higher, even if it meant abandoning the trek and heading down into the Lawatong valley to seek an alternative way out. If I remembered the geography of the area at all, the valley headed due south for a couple of days of walking distance, where it eventually led to a small village called Eyatong, which had a rough road track connecting it to Riwa.
If I abandoned the circuit and was able to find a safe way down, I would surely be able to find somewhere to stay down there and eventually get out back to 'the world'. If I couldn't go forward, I could hardly go back over the Yaka Pass, so down would seem to be the only other option.
Fortunately, even Wangdu and Dorje conceded that the slopes above us were too steep and dangerous to proceed on. "The snow is too deep at this time of year," they said pointing upwards. Can't get through ..." they said.
"Let's try a bit further down the slope and see if there is another way forward," I suggested. Peter however, was holding his GPS and pointing upwards "That's where it says the track is ..."
Wangdu and Dorje edged round the rock buttress and started looking for ways down the steep and jagged rocks to the scree slope. below. They eventually found a viable route, and we headed down, losing all the metres gained in the last few hours of painful, laborious and scary plodding up the snow slopes. We went down the scree until we reached the very top edge of the rhododendron tree line. In the snow we could see a set of footprints heading into the trees. We weren't the only ones to have abandoned the high cliff track.
The footprints led to a faint track that we ended up and down through the thick rhododendron forest, but overall it thankfully stayed relatively level so we stayed along the same contour, proceeding down along the edge of the Lawatong valley without losing any more height. It was a track, and it led somewhere.
We must have walked maybe a mile or more in this fashion, stopping every so often to rest and admire the view back towards the amphitheatre and its dramatic sky-piercing peak.
Peter was becoming increasingly dissatisfied with the fast pace at which we were being pushed along by Wangdu and Dorje. The trek was supposed to be taking us five or six days, but at this rate we would be done in four or even three days, he noted.
"This is magnificent country. We should be spending more time here, not rushing through," he complained.
It was becoming quite clear that Wangdu and Dorje wanted to get through the kora as quickly as possible and pocket their 1200 yuan. They had dropped very unsubtle hints that this is how much they expected to be paid for taking us and our bags round the mountains, whether it took three days or six.
Peter was all for paying them off early and letting them go back at their own fast pace, with us relying on the GPS for directions for the kora now that our guides’ knowledge of the route had been exposed as a sham. However, I knew I just didn't have the strength and endurance to lug my 20kg pack over steep snow slopes like the one we had just been on. I was dependent on these guides to carry my bag - even if they could not find the route or a decent place to camp.
We continued on our way along the cliffs, picking our way in the bright sunshine across the open scree and boulder-strewn slopes below the long line of crags. By midday we seemed to be nearing the 'shoulder' where our maps indicated that the cliffs emanating from Jambeyang ended in a peninsular-like feature that we would have to 'turn', and switch from our southwesterly progress into a north-facing valley that led towards Shenrezig.
By now we had become strung out and separated. Peter had been edging as high as possible, wanting to follow the course of the track as the markers appeared to show it on his GPS. Dorje was also up high, and lagging some way behind. Wangdu was up ahead, also getting higher now, and barely visible except for the bright green-yellow fluorescent colours of my pack cover, bobbing between the rocks. I followed them upward, crossing a deep gully and trying to keep to a faint track on the other side as we hit more snow patches and the scree go steeper and steeper.
The trail had now become quite exposed in places and I was getting jittery. The others were now all well above me, near the cliffs and I didn't seem to be able to find my way along the track. I eyed what seemed to be a fairly direct route that would take me straight up to where the others were now collecting, and started pulling myself up on all fours, up the steep slate slopes. It was a bad mistake.
Once off the faint track, I lost my bearings, and the others had disappeared over a crest, out of view. With nothing to aim for, I floundered on the slope, moving from one unstable pitch to another, with the loose slate crumbling away as I tried to grip it, and larger rocks falling on me as I grabbed onto them for handholds. It seemed a lot steeper than it had looked from below, and when I looked down I almost fainted with terror when I saw the fall I faced, straight down the mountain.
In my panicked state I was trying to climb faster than my already stretched lungs would allow me. I grew careless and clumsy, leaping and sliding over the scree, and panting in huge deep breaths, until I had to pause for a while at some stronger feature, trembling on the spot in a kind of animal fear. I was thoroughly fed up and just didn't want to go on, but I had no choice.
After all my previous scary episodes on the exposed cliff track and the snow slopes I felt like all my reserves of courage had been depleted. It was as if my adrenalin batteries were completely empty. I had used up all my 'fear fright and flight' responses and I simply could no longer pluck up the courage or energy to keep moving on up from this frightening exposed position. I felt like I was close to a breakdown, close to snapping. But I had nobody to shout or scream to, nobody to help - they had all moved up towards the 'shoulder'. I was on my own.
I continued clawing my way up, feeling futile, like a rat trying to climb out of a barrel. Two steps forward, one step sliding back. After about another ten minutes I saw Peter way up above me, sitting down by a cairn. This gave me something to aim for, and I set off, again, shouting myself hoarse in the wind, asking him to wait and give me directions. He looked down and must have heard me, and gestured that I should move over to the right, where the going was easier.
Pic: Peter Jost
Perhaps ten minutes later I managed to drag myself up to the perch where Peter was sitting, along with Wangdu. I flopped down on my back on a patch of turf and lay there, gasping like a fish out of water, feeling utterly spent. My fingers were scratched, my clothes were smeared in slate dust and soil, my legs felt like they had been battered with hammers and my jaw ached with tension from having borne an almost permanent grimace for the last hour. "Having a fun and relaxing time on your holidays?" I asked myself.
Five minutes later when I was able to sit up and look around, I saw that we were almost at the shoulder. The great final protrusion or rock from Jambeyang lay above us, and a final, relatively level circuit of a rock corrie would bring us to the upper corner. Who knew what lay beyond? I was certainly hoping it would not be more of the same, in reverse.
I followed slowly behind Peter as we continued up through the rock fields and then turned left, across a final bowl. Higher up I could see Dorje with the bright red backpack on edging along a set of tracks along a snow field. This was one of the two unpleasant final surprises the shoulder had in store for us.
The snow field was again not too steep in itself, but it certainly held the prospect of a sticky end if you failed to arrest yourself once you started sliding. Being higher up, it was almost solid snow, and this time I was unable to 'punch through' with my arm to get a satisfactory anchor. I got across, after an interminably long and slow crossing, footstep by precarious footstep, at the cost of yet more frayed nerves. As I stepped onto solid rock it was just a walk of a few yards before the final terror, a section of track that skirted a steep drop. So near, and yet so far!
As I edged out into the abyss, Dorje started to come back across to offer me a helping hand. This scared me even more than the prospect of a solo attempt, and I waved him away with a hysterical "Bu yao! Bu yao!" and almost loss my balance as a result of my manic gesturing.
Pic: Peter Jost
And then I was there - the Lawatong valley was behind me, I turned the rock corner and I was looking up into the Yechetsura valley - and to my relief it was a completely different proposition. No steep scree slopes, no sudden drop offs - just a relatively modest and manageable drop down across snow-covered rock fields into "a most peculiar valley" that Joseph Rock also found to be a strong contrast to the environment of the Lawatong valley, from which he had just emerged.
"Rocks here were of an entirely different nature, being composed of enormous slabs as smooth as a billiard table, the entire valley slope resembling a huge macadam road. Giant blocks the size of a small house, composed of many layers of such slabs, had fallen from the heights and lined the trail, which was still covered in places with large patches of snow and ice."
The valley also looked like a nice smooth road to me as well. Smooth, but covered in a glaring coat of snow.
We rested for some time having lunch on the tip of the shoulder, perched high up on the rocks, where we could survey the remaining grandeur of the Lawatong valley and its hidden green depths, then turn and view the prospect of the snowy Yechetsura that lay ahead of us. In the lower reaches of the Yechetsura canyon there was another hanging valley indented into the side of the valley, surrounded by steep cliffs and containing a green lake. The climb up from the Lawatong valley looked to be a most strenuous undertaking. I was glad we hadn't dropped down too far.
After the sweat and terror of my scrambling up the shoulder, the descent into the Yechetsura and the subsequent journey up its snow-bound length to a gentle further pass was like a dream. The only thing that marred my progress was the intensity of the glare from the sun's UV rays on the snow. Once again, Wangdu had purloined my sunglasses, claiming with complete justification that his eyes were painful because of the lack of sleep the previous night.
This left me traversing the snowfields fearing the effects of snow blindness. I had seen this in my trekking partner on my last trip to Yading, nine years before, when he trekked for much of the day on snow without wearing sunglasses. He woke the next day unable to open his eyes, and spent the next two days in bed with painful, swollen eyes.
I didn't want to repeat his experience, and so I took to walking across the snow with my hood up and my scarf wrapped around my eyes like a blindfold. I kept just one eye half open, in an almost permanent wink, peering out through the haze of my eyelashes to see where I should plant my foot in the next footstep left by Wangdu who was walking ahead of me. In this way I walked the several miles up the Yechetsura valley for the rest of the afternoon, until we crested a gentle snow covered pass and saw a fertile patch of green sward below us.
After the desolation of the depths of Lawatong and the snowbound Yechetsura, this green haven seemed to be alive with life. Descending across a babbling brook, we saw a few horses grazing on the grass, and a handful of Tibetans were out on their hands and knees, foraging for congcao. These were the first people we had seen since before the Yaka Pass, two days before, but they paid us little attention. They had presumably come up from another valley that seemed to feed in from the right, beyond yet another mighty rock spur.
Once we reached the bottom of this round basin, I suddenly spotted a large deformed rock about the size of a truck, sitting in the middle of the grass. I recognised it immediately. It was "Rock's rock" - a large lump of schist that had been the site of one of Rock's camps during his circuit of the mountains. He had assembled about fifteen of his escort and guides around the rock and taken a portrait of them,, which he entitled; "Where pilgrims stop for tea flavoured with yak butter and salt ..."
We also stopped for tea here, but flavoured with powdered milk. It was a lovely spot, overshadowed by hulking great ridges, and with the tip of Jambeyang's western face visible in the distance over another pass. A we sat drinking our brew, a group of local Tibetans came over and we showed them a copy of the picture of the rock taken by Rock 80 years earlier. They were curious and bemused, but otherwise kept their counsel.
I took a few photos from the same spot as Rock, lining up the mountain peaks in the background. This was another location that had remained unexplored and unchanged for the last eighty years.
The final part of our day was spent surmounting another relatively gentle pass after climbing out of the basin and up over some brown moorland that reminded me of the Yorkshire Dales.
Wangdu told us there was a most beautiful lake on the other side of the pass. I was lulled into a false sense of security by the gentle ascent, for when we reached the pass, partly covered in snow, the immediate drop on the other side was precipitous.
While there seemed to be a less steep exit to the right hand side, all the foot tracks led straight down a steep snow slope that terminated in a cliff edge, beyond which there was just a lot of thin air. It looked to me like a ski ramp at the Winter Olympics.
The footprints in the snow showed others had already made it safely down, and they stood around nonchalantly waiting for me to join them, but I lost my bottle. By now I was extremely tired, and I cried out like a petulant child, asking for help to get down - for me at least- this terrifying slope. Wangdu loped back up the snow, and took my bag, while lending me his wooden stick. I used it to steady myself as I shimmied down on my backside, looking and feeling pathetic. When I reached the 'cliff' I found the drop beyond was a mere ten or twenty feet, not the hundreds of feet my imagination had conceived.
We were now looking down over a great lake - Russo Tso (Wisdom Lake) and, to the right, the twin peaks of Shenrezig and Jambeyang in all their glory. Jambeyang was the nearer, and the slopes fro its twisted and foreshortened summit descended to the lake shore. Shenrezig was across the other side of the lake, in the distance, but its bulk was if anything even more impressive. We could see what looked like a route from the other side of the lake towards Shenrezig, which passed what looked like a small encampment with a couple of cabins or shelters on the slopes.
It was here that we said farewell to Wangdu and Dorje. They were still intent on returning to Chonggu Si that day, even though it was already 5pm and they had yet another pass to summit and another long valley descent ahead of them. We decided that we would linger around the lake, and so paid them off in a bizarre business transaction on the rock platform high above the lake.
They certainly had earned their 1200 yuan, hauling our backpacks over six passes, each over 4500 metres. They had stayed out in the open all night without shelter and then carried on another day to trek with 20kg packs, crossing more passes, eating only instant noodles. These Tibetan supermen - they made the SAS look soft.
We shook hands with them and I gave them a few surplus items such as my waistcoat and a lunchbox. They did us one final favour, portering our backpacks down the hill and leaving them in a pile at the bottom as we followed at a slower pace, picking our way over the rocks and trying to find a safe and less steep way down.
Around the shore of the lake was a thin strip of beach, and we headed down over the rocks towards it, losing our way a couple of times, until we finally got to the water's edge. We were now on our own, in the wild. We selected a flat area of the grey sand and pebbles that made up the lake shore, and eyed it up as a place to camp for the night. It was the only possible camping site, as the scrub on the hillside was too thick to pitch a tent.
The 'beach' looked firm, but some sections were distinctly springy and marshy, so we picked areas that appeared more firm and dry. As the sun went down we got our tents up and were soon sitting on the rocks, waiting for the water to boil, and then sipping tea and spooning the reconstituted meals into our hungry and shrunken stomachs. What a day! I wrote in my diary; "It was the hardest thing I have ever done. Like heaven and hell. Hellish effort, hellish scared, but heavenly views!"