Thursday, July 07, 2016

Yading Big Kora Trek Diary: Day 3 - Chanadorje to Yaka Pass

Summary: On this day we spent the morning exploring the glacier at the foot of Chanadorje, then hiked over the second pass to enter the Saiyo Katso valley. The head of this isolated valley is blocked by what looks like a sheer wall of rock that leads up to the Yaka Pass. In actual fact it is not so steep and can be hiked up without any need for scrambling.

After waking up to the sound of rain, the morning fined up a little, and after a breakfast in the log cabin I hiked up to the glacier moraine with Qin Rey and Yue Qiang. I went ahead and they filmed me scrambling around on the tip of the glacier. I'd always thought that glaciers would be made of ice - but this one was snow, just like you get on the streets of Leeds - you could have a snowball fight with it. The snow was surprisingly white and clean - I ate a bit ... but only realised why this was an hour later when a huge avalanche of ice and snow crashed down the chute above where we had been standing. Fortunately by this time we had gone back to the tent and were away from the danger zone.

While exploring the glacier I also walked a little further up to see the beautiful waterfall cascading down the brown rock face.

When I walked the 1km back to the tents I saw that Xiao Yu had set up a drone and was filming from above. It was a very timely setup because as soon as we got back the first of several ice falls occurred on the mountain. With a huge booming and crashing noise, tons of white powder swept down the east face, to eventually spew out onto the glacier moraine where we had been exploring!

This shook me up a bit, and I packed up the tent in a subdued mood.

After a lunch of Vitawheat crackers, Laughing Cow cheese and another cup of tea, our mule train set off to tackle the next stage of the trek - the second pass. We hiked up the pebbles of the dried up riverbed and turned left into the forest to ascend up the south west corner of Chanadorje. Once again I went into my "Old Man Walking" mode that I adopted on any upward slope at this altitude. This basically means that I just breathe really slowly and let my breathing dictate my pace of walking rater than the other way round. In practice this means I resemble Neil Armstrong walking on the moon - taking slow deliberate steps and breathing slowly and loudly. It might sound daft, but it enables me to set a slow but sure pace that I can maintain for ages - while the faster walkers take breaks every ten or fifteen minutes.

This slow pace got me up to the top of the first 'false pass'. We paused here, with a view of what we thought was the real Second Pass above us. Qin Rey got me kitted out with a GoPro camera and also set up Yue Qiang with  telephoto TV camera and Xiao Yu got the drone up and running. All this to film me making my way up to the very picturesque Second Pass. I felt like a right wally trudging up across the open country o my own with the drone buzzing round my head like a big white plastic mosquito.

Once at the 'pass' we discovered this still wasn't the main pass, which lay about 500m or so to the right. The route finding here was quite difficult - there was a track branching off to the left, which went down to an isolated farmstead comprising a wooden hut and an outhouse with a few yaks grazing nearby. However the real track went imperceptibly to the left and was hard to find at first - but the pass above was visible as a guide. At this section I walked with our guide Gong Que, who proved to have remarkable eyesight - he could see stuff with his bare eyes that I couldn't even locate with my Leitz 8x32 binoculars! He had seen some birds flitting about in the bush on the ridge that he thought might be vultures. However once I found them with the binoculars they appeared to be large pigeons - they looked like black headed gulls crossed with wood pigeons: - presumably Snow Pigeon.

After cresting the pass we entered the right hand side of the beautiful Saiyo Katso valley. There were two prominent peaks on the opposite, as described by Joseph Rock as Zambala. There was also a mysterious looking green alpine lake set in a basin on the opposite side of the valley. All completely deserted. This really looked like Shangri-La.

It got quite windy as we walked up the valley, following the directions of our Tibetan porters. We assumed they knew where we were going. We  passed under a long scree slope and then had to cross a deep gully carved out of the mountainside by a fast-rushing stream. The opposite side was steep and muddy and I was the last to cross. There was one section of about 3 metres that had no handholds and called for a bit of rough scrambling. The TV crew had already got over this and set up their cameras at the top and were pointing them in my face as I struggled up over the orange brown crumbly rock and slippery mud. As I got near the top I suddenly ran out of handholds and desperately searched around trying to locate something to grip onto to stop me slipping back into the gully. The camera guys just watched dispassionately as I fumbled around, until I lost my temper and yelled to them that I needed a hand, not a camera lens! Qin Rey reached out his hand and pulled me up, just before I slid back down.

For the next bit of walk he posed the question of whether 'the media' should intervene in the events they are filming. He cited the example of the photographer who snapped the famous photo of a vulture looking hungrily at a starving Ethiopian kid. I replied that I didn't give a toss about media ethics - I just wanted a hand and not to break my neck by being left to fall back down the cliff!

As we approached the Yaka Pass at about 4pm the Tibetans led up to an open patch of hillside with a bit of grass about the thick bush. It was hardly suitable for pitching tents because it was covered with rocks and there were few flat bits. Nevertheless the Tibetans dumped our bags there and said they would see us at 8am the next morning - and with that they legged it back down the valley to stay with the locals at the farmstead we had passed.

We put up our tents but I wasn't happy - the site was located high on the hillside and seemed to be something of a wind tunnel for the strong gusts coming down from the pass. I wasn't the only unhappy one - Tibetan guide Gong Que was also thinking it was a rubbish place to camp - and he went to have a recce further down the track. Sure enough, about 10 minutes later he returned saying there was a perfect camping spot further down on the valley floor  sheltered and close to running water. We could see it when we looked 'over the edge' of our hillside perch. He suggested we shift, but Qin Rey and the film crew were reluctant because they had a lot of heavy camera gear that had been carried on horseback. But after some cajoling we eventually  made the move, and  relocated further down. The campsite seemed ideal - lots of flat grassy space, sheltered from the wind behind huge boulders and rock outcrops.

I got my tent set up again and was just starting to boil some water for dinner when a rain squall swept in from the pass. I retreated inside the tent, leaving my gs stove cooking away. The rain increased in intensity and  turned into hailstones. We were in the grips of a flash thunder storm. I cowered inside the tent as the water and hail absolutely pelted down for about ten minutes. When it eased off I re-emerged to find my pan of water almost boiling, and yet with hailstones floating in it. I'm sure a physics expert could calculate the changing thermodynamic equilibrium as the thermal heat from the cooking gas competed with the equal and opposite cooling force of the hail and ice on the pan water.

But academic musing aside, I soon realised I faced a much more serious problem - the flat grassy camping spot had turned into a marsh - and I had pitched my tent right in the spot where draining water was now flowing like a small stream. It was two or three inches deep, but fortunately not high enough to go over he waterproof sides of my inner tent.

Reluctantly I got out and searched around for higher and drier camping spot. By the time I found a place and relocated my tent I was exhausted and hungry. I couldn't face another disgusting dehydrated meal so had one of my 'emergency' rations - pot noodles.

Despite only walking for half a day I felt physically and mentally exhausted, and spent the rest of the evening in my sleeping bag, like a zombie. I must have dozed off at around 10pm but was woken again at about midnight when another thunder storm erupted around us. The tent shook and rain belted down very loudly on the whipping flysheet. Even with earplugs in there was no way I could sleep. To make things worse there was thunder and lightning crashing around very closely. This wasn't suburban thunder, but very real and forceful yellow explosive flashes followed within milliseconds by cracking thunder that echoed off the nearby cliffs. It seemed to be getting closer - and I felt like those Londoners in the Blitz who listened with dread as they heard a stick of falling bombs getting ever closer. I suddenly realised that my tent poles were probably the only bit of metal for miles around - and my tent was pitched near the highest point of the valley. I felt like a perfect target for lightning.

And thus it was a lay nervously in my tent, unable to sleep in the early hours as the lightning continued for about an hour. Just when I thought it had receded there would be a new and sudden eruption. Very un-nerving.

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