The morning of Sunday 17th May dawned bright and cold in the valley in which our 'Hammersmith' hut township was situated. The massive crags that had looked so grim and foreboding in the grey overcast weather the day before, now shone with an almost golden glow as the rays from the early morning sun lit them up.
We had been woken up at 6am by Wangdu, who came over from the hut they had taken shelter in, to tell us that we must make an early start. Today's walk around the mountain would be a long one, he said; because we had to make it over a pass before sundown to reach another settlement where they could stay. Despite their claims of the night before, they still did not appear to have any extra coats or blankets for our planned multi-day trip around the mountains. We would have to stay with other people in settlements and huts such as the ones we had sought shelter with the night before, they told me. Their sack of belongings and supplies still looked pitifully small.
We quickly struck the tent in the nippy morning air, and stood around as the gas stove hissed away to boil some water for a Nescafe. The cold encouraged us to pack up quickly, and there were few other people round at that early hour to witness our departure from this isolated encampment. Dressed in all the layers of clothing we could muster, including gloves and warm hats, we set off down the valley to work our way around the large escarpment and back towards the rear (western) side of Chanadorje.
When I had planned this trip on Google Earth, my 'fly through' at ground level made it appear as if we simply dropped down to the right, off this ridge, into a deeper valley that ran in a perpendicular direction. On the ground of the real Earth, it wasn't quite so straightforward. Wangdu and Dorje took us almost immediately off the track that led down to Garu, and instead took us into the creek bed, where we hopped and hobbled over the many sharp rocks and boulders underfoot.
We followed the dry creek bed downwards, and it was hard going - there was no obvious track. Dorje claimed to know where he was going - he said he had done the kora once before, but I began to have my doubts when the creek suddenly disappeared over a steep cliff.
The cliffs dropped down into the forest of fir trees below, and the valley continued down, presumably in the direction of Garu and beyond that to the Shuiluo river canyon bordering Muli. We worked our way back round to the left, back to regain what seemed to be the track, which we then followed down in a steep descent into the valley, aiming for a makeshift bridge made of a couple of logs over the creek much lower down.
I wasn't happy about losing so much altitude - on the principle that what goes down has to come up again, at some point. But as we crossed the bridge there was a clear track rising up from the other side, and we found ourselves following this through the forest, contouring around the side of the hillside, now heading more to the south, and presumably back in the direction of the peaks. It was marvellous country, and through gaps in the trees we occasionally caught glimpses of a huge snow covered peak ahead of us - this had to be Chanadorje.
The track crossed a series of gullies and creeks, before rising again slightly and heading towards a more open area, clear of trees. After turning another corner and heading up a rise, we suddenly emerged into a clearing that could have been almost a man-made design for a campsite. And at the far end of the valley, the great flat-topped white triangle of Chanadorje rose directly up into the sky ahead of us, bathed in the sunlight - it was an amazing and breathtaking sight. I whooped in delight, and my camera clicked incessantly as we pressed on ahead.
At first the mountain was framed by fir trees and sloping hills on either side, but as we got closer to the mountain, these screens fell away, granting us an almost unhindered view of the west face of the mountain, where the sheer vertical snow and ice slopes plummeted straight down into glacier moraines. These were familiar to me from a well-known picture of Joseph Rock's, taken in 1928. He had snapped a picture of the moraines, with a tiny horse and rider included in the distance to give a sense of scale. Rock's picture had omitted the much more impressive higher sections of the mountain, perhaps because this was obscured by cloud - some wisps of which were visible in the top of his picture.
But in his account he says he gained a superb view of the mountain from this site that he said the local Tibetans called Shingara. This site was where Joseph Rock first reached the Konkaling area from Muli via Garu, and he started his circumambulation of the mountains from this spot.
"We were now on unknown ground, never before trodden by the foot of white man. My Nashi assistants and lama guide and magic provider, as well as I, were eager to penetrate to the mysterious peaks guarded by the Konkaling outlaws ... Here we crossed a pass where our lama and Tibetans yelled "Lha rgellah! Lha rgella!" (The gods are victorious!). Then they hastened to burn juniper twigs as an offering to the scared mountain Chanadorje, which we were then facing. But clouds enshrouded its hoary head. Proceeding up a rocky rail, we halted on more gentle slopes, and then at 15,300 feet decided to pitch camp.... Evening settled over our high camp. I sat in front of my tent, facing the great mountain mass which Konkaling Tibetans called Chanadorje. Presently, the clouds shifted, revealing the glory of the Holder of the Thunderbolt - a truncated pyramid flanked by broad buttresses like the wings of some stupendous bat. Immense masses of hanging ice and snow extend to the very foot of the mountain, where they form huge moraines resembling a vast amphitheatre. This the Konkaling people called Konka Djra-nsre, the Sea Dragon's Snout. It is the source of the glacier stream, the Konka Chu."
It was mid-morning when we arrived at Shingara, and the sun was shining in a cloudless sky, giving us fantastic panoramic views not just of the magical peak of Chanadorje, but also of the grey rocky peaks and ridges that formed a natural amphitheatre around it. Horses grazed untended on the meadow, and there were a couple of herder’s log cabins that appeared uninhabited. Apart from the sound of the horses’ bells ringing as they foraged for grass, we had this perfect Shangri-La of a place to ourselves. Our guides wanted to press on from this beautiful spot, but we lingered, taking photographs and simply marvelling at its wonderful views and enjoying the suns rays.
It was here that Joseph Rock had encountered some problems with his lama guide from Muli. The lama was petrified at the prospect of meeting the outlaw bandits of the Konkaling, and feared for his life. He tried to divert Rock's caravan from its circuit round the mountains, to a viewing point where they could see all three peaks. The lama hoped the explorer and botanist would be satisfied with this view and then turn for home without continuing into the bandit's lair. He was to be disappointed. Rock ordered him to run ahead and bring back the diverted train of mules and horses, and return to Shingara, where they would set out on the next stage of the circuit.
After what seemed like an hour, we also left this idyllic spot, heading to the left of the river bed flowing from the glacier moraine, and through a small swamp to start ascending a hillside towards the next pass. It was another long grind of a climb, and again I went into 'treacle mode', dragging one foot slowly ahead of the other in short sections of ten or twenty metres. We left the forested lower levels of the hills and rose up into a scrub-covered basin and what would be the first of three false crests of the pass.
From this first plateau we continued to ascend up to a second and then a third ridge, at which we paused for a breather with a group of three young Tibetan girls and their father, who were out on the hills foraging for congcao.
The girls wore ornate silk patterned jackets, offset by the more utilitarian Chinese army caps. The views from this lofty perch continued to be stupendous, but now we had turned around the side of Chanadorje, so from this vantage point it appeared to be a sharp pyramid, piercing the blue sky. We passed through another moorland basin and turned to the right, skirting the mountain and heading up to the true pass up a relative gradual grassy incline.
The pass brought us onto the rim of a whole new narrow valley, one which Joseph Rock called the Saiyo Katso. The floor of the valley was wooded and had some clearings where we could make out several huts or dwellings. Directly opposite us, across on the other side of the valley was a subsidiary hanging valley basin which contained a picturesque small lake.
Ahead of us we could see two round peaks on the opposite side of the valley, while far away in the distance we could also see a high icy wedge of a peak jutting into the sky - which may have been the peak described as Dzamabala in Rock's account of the journey. Or was it Jambeyang?
It was around this spot where Rock stopped for lunch, shot some snow pigeons and then found a group of Tibetans hiding among the trees.
"After they had been observed they stepped forth and called; whereupon several women crawled from behind huge boulders in the stream bed. Any shots heard hereabouts are always supposed to have been spent on sending some individual into the spirit world., since no one wastes shot and powder on useless pigeons, as we had done."
We also stopped for lunch just beyond this point, above the middle of the Saiyo Katso valley. We sat down below the huge scree slopes that formed at the base of this face of Chanadorje. I looked up the valley, to see if I could see where the next pass was. In our track notes copied from Lloyd Raleigh's account, he refers to a steep pass with a switchback track up it, but which he and his companion opted to climb by a more steeper direct route, hand over hand.
When I looked down the valley, I was initially puzzled to see there was no pass as such, because a wall-like ridge blocked the end of the valley. Then my heart sank when I realised that this 'wall' was the steep pass mentioned by Raleigh. From a distance, the sheer black rock looked too steep to climb, and it was topped with ice and snow, sitting on what looked like a razorback crest. This was presumably the Yaka Pass, which Rock had described in unusually understated terms as "an arduous crossing".
It was now mid afternoon and as we contemplated this dreadful prospect, I assumed that we would be tackling it the next day. The valley had several huts further down, and I thought that this was where Wangdu and Dorje had in mind for somewhere to stay for that night. But no, we must press on, they insisted. We had to get over this pass because it was threatening to snow and it could be blocked tomorrow, they said. And they insisted there was some place to stay 'on the other side'.
I wasn't having any of this. We had been walking hard since 6am that morning and I was done in after eight hours of almost continuous slog at high altitude. It was time to rest up for the night, and I simply did not have the energy to continue. Wangdu, however, insisted that we absolutely had to get over the pass. He dismissed my complaints about it being too steep, by urging me onwards to see it at closer range, where it wouldn't appear so bad, he said. Close up, it still looked bad.
It took us another hour or so to reach the base of the Yaka Pass and, from below, it looked ugly. Black rock, hard ice and snow loomed overhead, and there appeared to be no sign of the 'switchback trail' that supposedly offered an alternative to a straight-up hands and feet scramble. I sat down, feeing utterly exhausted and felt like giving in, telling Wangdu that I simply couldn't make it. Peter sat down as well, and as I stewed in rebellious silence, he pulled out the stove and started boiling some water for a brew. After a cup of tea and a Snickers bar, I felt slightly better. I would at least attempt a try of the first section of the pass, just to prove to Wangdu how impossible it was. Seeing how all in I was, Peter graciously offered to carry my day bag up the slope for me. So off we went.
Passing the last of the rhododendron trees, we reached the first section of snow as the incline increased. It was only a short patch of snow on grass, but I slipped and slithered and cursed. The weather was closing in now, clouds had formed over the pass and the wind was picking up. It was cold and I donned my jacket and gloves.
As Wangdu had predicted, the slope was not as vertical as it looked from a distance. It was walkable, mostly without having to resort to handholds, but it was a bastard of a climb. I put my head down and went into a zombie-like walking trance. I retreated into the hood of my jacket and counted out four steps and four breaths at a time. I developed a silent cadence, almost like a Marine drill instructor - Hup 2-3-4 ... Hup 2-3-4 ... and set myself a series of 'missions' - the next big rock, the next bush or the next cairn. I was ascending the pass, army-style, by numbers.
I don't know how long it took before I neared the top, but it must have been about an hour, to ascend perhaps 500 or so metres. The higher I got, the worse the weather, so that by the time I reached the continuous snow sections near the top of the pass, I had my hood completely zipped up and needed my scarf wrapped around what little was still showing of my face to keep out the bitter wind. It was snowing and we ascended into a black and white maze of rocks and snow. The last 100 metres was across a steepening snow slope, and I began to feel panicky at the prospect of slipping and shooting down over the many gullies and rock fields below.
Pic: Peter Jost
The others had moved on ahead, over the crest of the pass, and I cursed them for leaving me behind. What if I turned round and went back down? Would they come back to look for me? They had all my gear, I couldn't survive back in the valley by myself - so onwards I had to go. And besides, when I looked down at the steep snowfield I had crossed, I had no wish to retreat that way. "Why am I doing this?" I asked myself.
I crossed the last and steepest section of snow, in almost whiteout conditions. I placed my feet carefully in the footprints of those who had gone ahead of me, and trod nervously as my feet occasionally slipped from under me. With no ice axe or walking stick, I had nothing but my gloved hands to steady myself on the slope.
Eventually, the slope eased and I found myself on the top of the pass - and to my surprise it was not the razorback ridge I had been expecting. In the misty and almost blizzard-like conditions on top of the pass I found myself standing amid a labyrinth of black peaks, jutting up into the cloud. The way directly ahead was blocked by walls of black rock, but there appeared to be possible exits via misty corridors that led between the rock towers.
There were possibilities to both left and right, and Dorje headed off to the right. Peter, however, had his GPS which showed that left was the way to the exit, even though the immediate prospect was of more ascent. We climbed a short way to another sub-plateau and the corridor appeared to snake around in a zig-zag to the south. This seemed to be a way. The snow was now thick on the ground, and we 'postholed' our way through the snow amid this evil-looking jungle of jagged rock, until a final small ridge appeared, topped by what looked like a cairn. This was it - the true pass, and the way out to the world beyond.
Sure enough, beyond this small ridge the ground receded and I almost cried with relief when I saw that we would not be faced with a descent as steep as the way we had come up. Ahead, instead was a long and gloomy snow-covered valley festooned with rocks and boulders, leading to where, I had no idea. But down we went, into the Lawatong Valley. We had left the domain of Chanadorje and were entering the kingdom of Jambeyang.
Joseph Rock described his 1928 crossing of the Yaka Pass thus:
"We crossed the pass in torrential downpours. There was no trail, and the ground was littered with slabs of schists over which the water rushed in torrents, depositing everywhere a slippery grey mud, which meant torture for the loaded mules at an altitude of 16,300 feet. In the eyes of the pilgrims we most certainly would have acquired much merit, for the weather god could hardly have sent worse weather - or better - as the case may be, depending on the religious viewpoint."
On Yaka Pass wonderful primroses formed large round cushions, their roots embedded in cracks between bowlders, the leaves small and glossy. They were almost completely hidden by brilliant wine-coloured flowers. Other cushion plants vied with these, such as forget-me-nots of the richest sky blue. Other primroses sttod in rows upon rock shelves, their purple flowers nodding in the wind and rain.
The mules, climbing over the rocky pass, which resembled a stairway with giant steps, fared badly and had to be helped bodily over the bowlders. Climbing at altitude is difficult enough in good weather, but in a terrific hail and rain storm, with a howling gale driving the icy pellets into one's face and making one gasp for breath in this rarified atmosphere, it is doubly disagreeable."
I descended with big strides through the snow, elated at having made it over the pass and for having emerged from that threatening black devil's lair of snow, cloud and rocks around the summit. Gradually the weather cleared and the snow glare began to dazzle my eyes. Wangdu, however, had taken my sunglasses, claiming that his eyes were painfully sore. I just squinted and continued on down. We descended below the snow line, into a another bleak, rocky and desolate valley, where there appeared to be no signs of human life.
Where were the settlements and people that Wangdu had told us about - the place where we were supposed to stay for the night? Looking back over my shoulder, clouds still swirled around the summit, obscuring the higher reaches of the peaks. One of them matched the description given by Rock of the peak Tuparu, a truncated column "like a cenotaph".
Further down we started to pass small cairns, and piles of mani stones, signs that we were still on the pilgrim trail. Eventually we reached a flatter section of rough grassland on the left, in the middle of which was a small and very forlorn looking stone shelter.
Was this the great place that Wangdu had dragged us over the pass to stay at? Apparently not. Dorje loped over to take a look at the abandoned hut, and came away, shaking his head. There was nobody in residence, and no firewood, so it would be of little use to them as a shelter for the night. We continued on until we reached another scree slope beneath some grey rocky cliffs. At this point Peter cried out that he had seen some mountain sheep running off up the hill. I squinted up at the cliffs where he was pointing to a couple of specks among the rocks. They were too far away for me to see clearly what they were.
At the base of the cliffs before the scree there was a familiar jumble of rocks. I recognised this as the 'stupa cave', mentioned by Joseph Rock. His Tibetan guides had halted here for the night, using the cave for shelter. His photograph of the place from 1928 shows the mouth of the cave surrounded by a primitively assembled rock wall and a Buddhist stupa or chorten.
"Our escort and lama guide occupied a cave-like shelter under an overhanging cliff, part of the buttresses of mighty Jambeyang. Here pilgrims or lamas had erected chortens, or reliquary shrines, which rose to the rocky vault; a rocky balustrade encircled the long cavern, which serves pilgrims as well as bandits for shelter - and place of attack."
The cave was still there and appeared almost unchanged from 1928. A rickety stone stupa still stood at the entrance to the cave, and there were one or two faded Buddhist murals drawn on the walls. It felt eerie to be stood in exacty the same spot as where Rock had obviously set p his camera to take the picture. How many other westerners had passed this way in the intervening eighty years?
According to Rock's article, it was near this shrine cave that on his second trip round the peaks he came face to face with the feared chief of the Konkaling bandits, an evil-looking Tibetan called Drashetsongpen:
"He was circumambulating the scared peaks, perhaps in expiation of his heinous crimes or in contemplation of new predatory ventures. His entourage was composed the scum of the outlaws, their sullen faces hinting of loot and murder.
The leader politely uncovered his head, bowed, and motioned for me to sit on a rock. Then he ordered an underling to untie a saddlebag of yak hide, from the recesses of which he took large chunks of much fingered yak butter and loaves of a sort of cottage cheese. It rained in torrents while this took place, which prevented me from taking pictures of him and his thirty outlaws, all armed with rifles and pistols looted from Chinese soldiers in the north.
He asked me where we intended to camp that night. As I hesitated to reply, he placed his hand on his chest and said: 'You will have nothing to fear, for I have given orders that you shall remain unmolested.' This ended our interview."
Joseph Rock camped nearby, "on the southern slopes of Mt Jambeyang, at the foot of moraines and hanging glaciers, in an alpine meadow covered with a multitude of flowers." We could find no such alpine meadow. We were stuck in a bleak rocky mountainside below the cloud-wrapped moraines of Jambeyang's glaciers.
I kept expecting to see a village or some cosy huts appear as we continued on across a faint trail that ran over one of the massive scree slopes. Beyond it was a huddle of fir trees, clinging to the side of the mountain.
The track started to ascend around these trees, but despite my best hopes, there were no settlements to be seen. After ascending some way up this 'heartbreak hill', Wangdu conceded that he didn't know if there was anywhere to stay in the vicinity. He pulled a gormless face and shrugged when I asked him where we were supposed to stay for the night. There wasn't even any level ground to camp on. I was furious. He had dragged us all the way over the Yaka Pass on the pretext that there was 'somewhere to stay' on the other side, and here we were stuck in the middle of nowhere, tired, hungry and with nowhere to set up camp as dusk approached.
We retreated a way back down the hill into the forest, and Wangdu suggested a dried up creek bed as a place to spend the night.
"But where are you going to stay?" I demanded. "You have no sleeping bags, no shelter, and it may snow tonight.... what are you going to do?"
Wangdu again just shrugged.
"We can build a fire here and keep warm through the night, don't worry about us," he said in an offhand way.
I strode up and down the creek bed which was festooned with rocks and had barely a metre of flat ground where a tent could be pitched.
"This is no bloody good, we can't camp here," I shouted, kicking a rock as I tried to control my temper. I simply couldn't believe it.
Wangdu and Dorje had already dumped our backpacks and were dragging branches and sticks together to start building a fire.
"No problem, no problem. You can put your tent there," they said, pointing with their chins towards a sloping piece of ground that had marginally fewer rocks sticking out of it than the surrounding bits. I wanted to throttle these two clowns. Or at least walk off and leave them to deal with the consequences of their own incompetence. Here we were, 15,000 feet up a mountain in the evening, and I felt guilty for having persuaded them to bring us to this godforsaken spot with no prospect of shelter.
Once again, Peter came to the rescue, pulling out the stove to boil up some water. I calmed down a bit after I sat down and had some of the hot instant soup he made.
It was too late to choose another campsite, but we decided to pitch Peter's two man tent further up the track, where it was relatively flat. I would pitch my smaller one-man tent down in the creek be for Wangdu and Dorje to use, but not too near to the roaring fire that they had already created. I was doubtful they'd use the tent. They had no sleeping bags.
Pic: Peter Jost
We boiled up more water to make our dinner. I had a reconstituted freeze-dried lamb and vegetables, Peter made himself a curry with noodles. We didn't speak much. Wangdu and Dorje recycled the disposable instant noodle containers they had used the night before and filled them with a new batch of instant noodles from packets they carried.
I was worried about them spending the night out in the open, and they now seemed a bit pathetic, as they gratefully accepted all the items we could spare out of our backpacks. We gave them our woolly hats, our rain jackets and a bagful of teabags. Peter hiked off about half a mile to the nearest water source to get them more water so they could make tea on the fire through the night. I gave them some Snickers Bars, and then we left them, in the dark, out in the open and in the cold, to turn into our cosy tent.
When Joseph Rock camped here he wrote:
"The stillness of the cold night at the high elevation of our camp was often disturbed by the thundering noise of falling blocks of ice, dropping and sliding from the heights above."We had exactly the same conditions, except the stillness of the night was also disturbed by my nagging conscience and doubts. "Would our guides still be alive and in a fit state to travel in the morning?"