Tashi Labsta was the third, and most likely the final, out of the five high and technical passes we would cover on the high route. The pass is notorious because of a high danger of rockfall and the perilous glaciers that border it to the west. It was the final obstacle on the way to a break in Kathmandu. The closer we came to Thame, the more its existence stirred a nervousnessin the group. From Gokyo on we referred to it as “the one we shall not name.” Yet, if we wanted to get from the Solokhumbu into the Rolwaling, and we did, there was only one path forward and that path led over Tashi Labsta La.
We all succumbed to the cough and ended up staying in Thame for two days. The atmosphere in the group was grim: PJ had turned into a negative state of mind, unable to shake his cold, and had dragged me down while I was trying to take care of him. We were quarreling. Marylene felt the mood and turned on a stone face. She went down to Namche for a day to get us both some extra cash so we could pay the guides we fixed.
I was tired of getting sick, and I was tired of people. We overheard some Americans talking about how they were “roughing it”, here in the comfortable teahouses of the Khumbu, and how they once heard the Appalachian trail was much harder than this because of the bugs and the rain. We looked at each other in disbelief – the marks on our legs still bearing witness – but said nothing. The only questions we got were “up or down?” and when we pointed to the valley in the west and said “up that way” there was no curiosity, merely a confused look that said we were doing it wrong, as if there was no Nepal besides of the track to Gokyo, the passes and Everest Base Camp. In the end we were ghosts sitting in the corners of the teahouse, reading our books and avoiding conversation.
On the final evening a group of marathon runners arrived, running the same circuit we just completed in a series of marathon days. One lady in the company had completed the GHT in 46 days, walking 30+km on every one of them for 10-12 hours. I felt feeble next to that iron lady. That evening PJ announced that he would not be joining us over the pass: he would go down to Lukla and make his way back to Kathmandu to rest and go to a spa. I protested. He should at least come up with us to the final teahouse before the pass.
So he did. The following morning we set out for Thyangbo, a little village up the valley towards Tashi Labsta. PJ struggled: it took him twice the indicated time to arrive at the teahouse. He was still grim. Marylene sat waiting, still wearing the stone face. After a difficult discussion it was decided that he would sleep there and wait until morning to see how he felt. I was torn: if he was to go down I should follow him, but I was so close to the pass now and I wanted to cross it. He insisted I should go up. I did not want us to split up.
It was nice and quiet up in that teahouse. Save for a few people who bumped in for tea, we were the only ones there. For a long time Marylene and I sat and read our book quietly, each huddled up under our own blanket. PJ was asleep. After a while we began to talk: we talked through the tensions of the previous days and smiled again. Then we had a long chat about PJ. We thought that going back into the crowds would not help him: it was what made him negative and sick in the first place. It would be better for him to bite through the sour apple and get away from people, to the quiet of the Rolwaling. We talked to him after he woke up and he’d think about it.
The guides arrived during the afternoon. It had been a chaotic affair hiring them through the teahouse we stayed at in Thame, the Everest Summitteer lodge. We did not feel 100% comfortable about it. But in the afternoon the showed up, as they had promised in the morning. Their names were Kami and Mingma (not the same Mingma that helped us over Sherpani and West Col) from Thame. Fair enough we thought, so we payed them the 500$ we had agreed upon.
They announced that we would go straight from Thyangbo at 4200m to Tashi Labsta high camp at 5665. At first I thought about heavily protesting against that idea: already the way up to Ngole at 5130m was long. But then I thought about it again: it was only 100m up from there to the pass, and then down again. I would suffer sleeping above 5000 anyway. A day of brutal suffering, and then down. Up and across. I could stomach that.
PJ came along the following morning. I stayed with him. After two hours we reached the porter house, a little blue roof lost in the vastness around. He decided to keep going up. The day was longer and more brutal than we had imagined. From Ngole up, PJ grew weaker and weaker, coughing and stumbling as he went. I stayed by his side and tried to keep my head clear to be the strong one.
It was a beautiful day: the sun was shining, there was little wind. The mountains were peaceful and beautiful. The valley became more dramatic as we went up: glaciers hung at the ends of it, making big ice falls as they descended into the valley. Big black walls towered around us. When we reached the porter house we could see the immense slope leading up to the pass. As we went up and up the valley floor remained in sight, growing ever more distant, ever smaller. It was tough breaking in to carrying my own pack again for the first time in two weeks. Up and across I kept telling myself. Up and across, up and across!
That was the baldest ascent I have ever and probably will ever make. At around 5300m we passed close to a wall of ice. The glacier shot off rocks like shooting stars. Right in front of it, after a big climb, PJ sat down. We were not more than 20m away from the ice fall. I urged him to move away from the ice. That’s when I realised that he was really not well. He sat down much more frequently and his cough became worse. I tried to keep my head clear to help him, I owed him that. But at 5400, the altitude took the best of me.
The guides did not do much to help him. They just pushed him on, seemingly not caring about the fact that he was not well. The last 250m up to camp were a high-angle slope of scree and loose rocks. At the bottom of it some of the trail gave way underneath me and I nearly slid into a crevasse. A little ways higher some rocks slid again to twist me over, leaving me with a good gash in my knee. So far, the glacier with the shooting rocks taken aside, the trail had been fine, but this last part was tough.
As we worked our way further up we passed Kami and Mingma, sharing a beer. After that, they shot past out of sight. I felt so alone then, still doing my best to help PJ. When we had made it up the scree we came to a chimney of rock, where a rope had been fixed. There they came back to help us, at last. When we emerged out of the chimney a beautiful view of jagged peaks opened up before us. Ahead was the glacier that covered Tashi Labsta, and the peak Parchemuche towering over it. We made camp underneath a giant wall of overhanging rock. It was a surreal place.
The sun had disappeared behind Parchemuche when we arrived. I pitched the tent and did my best to have PJ do as little as possible. There was no water and our stove was not functioning again, so it would be a dry camp. PJ went straight to sleep. I was my usual self above 5000m: not with a hint of appetite and with a pounding head, so I went to bed, though I slept little. It was cold up there: around -20°C when dusk set in. Before I disappeared into the tent I watched the jagged white peaks turn bright red in the final light of day.
We were told we would start at 06.00 the next morning. There was no sign of breaking camp at the guides’ tent around that time, so we stayed inside until they started stirring. We left at 07.00 for a painful final ascent to the top. It was brutal: everything went black before my eyes and my head was exploding. I felt terrible watching PJ stumble up, sometimes on all fours, and I could do nothing to help him.
But at 08.00, it was all over. We were all on stop, strapping on our crampons and making ready for the descent. Up and across was a daring but efficient way, I thought. I glanced over at PJ and knew it would be good to bring him down. “You did it!”, I said. “I knew you could!” For being so notorious, and the altitude taken aside, the pass had not been difficult at all. A whole new world of unknown peaks and valleys opened up before us. That is the beauty of passes: they are a challenge, but one with a purpose of getting from A to B, and the curiosity of knowing what is on the other side will bring you there.
We were soon to find out that the challenge of Tashi Labsta lay there, at its western foot, where a maze of glaciers barred the way to Na (the first village across in the Rolwaling). We set off on a steep descent from the glacier. At the bottom of the slope crevasses gaped, we negotiated in between them. Soon after we stood above a 10-15m vertical wall of ice where, to my dismay, we were again not secured. A vision of me swinging and banging my head again got a hold of me and I froze. The guide from a group heading up helped me down.
For a long time after we walked in the shade of the mountains, in the ditch between ice falls and rock and the large moraine that separated us from the Drolambau glacier. Kami and Mingma seemed to grow more impatient, they were almost stressing me out. I felt increasingly worried about PJ, who stumbled and coughed more and more. We really need to find water. In the end it was Marylene who had the wit to whack with her axe into one of the many frozen puddles of glacial water.
A rocky know marked the end of the Drolambau glacier. The path became easier to discern, and more roped down a steep chimney led to the flat platforms of glacier camp. Kami and Mingma suddenly announced that they would be leaving us here and return. The maze of the rocky Trakading glacier lay 100m beneath us. We had payed them top lead us across that to Kabug, the final campsite before the village of Na.
I felt cheated. We all felt cheated, but were powerless. They had left their tents and sleeping bags at high camp. When we had asked them about it in the morning, they answered that they were no good and we were going to sleep in a teahouse tonight. I had never heard of a teahouse on this route, but then again I had never been here so I figured they knew more than me. It was a pure lie, and now that they were standing here with no gear there was nothing we could do. They pointed diagonally across the glacier and said there would be a good path. They pointed at a big white boulder in the distance and said there would be water there. More lies.
They had taken our money, pushed us over the pass, cared nothing for PJ and now left us here on the rocks to fend for ourselves. I had many words for them at the time but did not utter them. The mountains and the glacier were no place for bad words: bad words would mean bad omen, and that was the last thing we needed.
We sat and discussed for a while. PJ and I were exhausted: he from illness and me from the altitude and a lack of food, and we favoured staying at glacier camp. Marylene wanted to push on, claiming this would not take longer than crossing the glacier from Dragnag to Gokyo. I highly doubted that but peered at the cloudless sky above us. What if it would change tomorrow? Would we ever find our way over in a white-out? At least now we could hold a line with our goal in sight. So we continued.
I don’t know why, but even with concussions and illness the mountains have ruled in our favour when we needed them to. On the entire trail I can count the days when clouds didn’t roll in during the afternoon, when it did not rain, did not snow and winds did not howl loudly on two hands. For 19 days straight it rained, until we reached Makalu base camp, the sky cleared and we were granted safe passage over the passes. The day after, a thick fog rolled in. In Thame, threatening clouds hung every day in the valley towards Tashi Labsta, yet no foul winds or foul weather followed us. All those good days fell when we were crossing dangerous passes.
A power rests in these mountains, a power undeniable and strong. I have felt, we have all felt, that somehow this power has been in our favour. So we do our best to treat the mountains with respect. Tenzing Norgay’s son once said that no man is conquering a mountain: all we are given is a brief audience. I am more than grateful for what we’ve been given so far. In bad weather, this story might have ended differently.
Soon after glacier camp we came across steel cables bolted in the mountain, where a ledge led to the bottom of the knob by a 50mabyss. In Europe, we would have called that a via ferrata but here in Nepal we clung on to the cables for dear life. At the bottom another ice fall was eagerly shooting rocks so we quickly rounded the knob and set off on the glacier.
As I feared, progress on the glacier was slow and laboursome. Just descending from the knob had taken an hour. It took a while before we found the right line again and no matter how much we undulated on that rocky glacier ridge, the white boulder remained far away. Soon I felt my strength failing and my worry for PJ increasing. We both stumbled a lot. We came across a few places where platforms had been made for tenting. Marlene spotted one by a frozen pond, and halfway down the glacier we stopped.
I had never camped on a glacier before, I don’t think I had even set foot on one of this magnitude. That was pretty exciting. PJ rested while I set up the tent. Marylene did some excellent whacking again and I fetched us water. After a lot of stubborn fiddling the stove worked and we got hot food in our bellies before bed. That night was even colder than the one at high camp. The mountains turned bright red again.
PJ was in a miserable state the next morning. He coughed and coughed, until he almost threw up. Marylene and I were both worried sick about him. We were determined to get him to Na that day, and if it wasn’t going to be Na a helicopter would have to get him out. We could not linger here any longer. He needed a doctor, medicine, a safe and warm place to rest.
It was Marylene who was the savior that day. In that rock and dust she spotted the way like an eagle spots a mouse on a rock. PJ couldn’t cope and I worried he would collapse on the glacier. We pleaded to him several times to push the button but he would not have it. That man can be a stubborn fool to take care of. I was sick of worrying and the whole thing became incredibly stressful. There were more icy ledges to take care of, more unstable scree sloped that loved shooting rocks as much as the glaciers did. The final one before Kabug gave it a go just after Marylene had passed and I stepped on. PJ took a breather in the middle of it. I yelled.
He declared that he’d stop at Kabug, and we could go on and leave him behind. It was unfair that we’d stop when I was tired the day before, but he could not rest. I could not believe my ears. Kabug was a windswept, dusty patch of sand with no water. Another dry Camp would be a disaster. And who in their right minds leaves a sick man behind in a place like that? He insisted several times that we go on without him. Marylene and I would not have it. It was to stick with us to Na, or we’d all be in a chopper bound for Kathmandu.
There was one more steep climb over a ridge from Kabug, afterwards the going became easier. PJ said he had tried to signal us at the bottom of it to say that he could go no more, but we had not seen it. So he climbed. Marylene came a ways down again to take over his pack. The first part of the descent was steep and airy. She fell and we could see her almost tumble down the side of the mountain, alas she didn’t. We spotted a house in the valley, a house that was not on the map. I pointed it out to PJ. “There you’ll be safe” I smiled. I wanted nothing more than to see him safely in a bed in a teahouse.
When we finally reached the kharka (a high-mountain meadow where the yaks are grazed) it felt as safe as my own living room. We were far away from the glacier and the rocks now. A little stream ran through it, the sound of running water was like music in my ears. Upon descent we came across a second house which was a teahouse, but it was locked. The house we saw was another porter house, a shelter from the storm, but empty and cold.
We arrived there at 14.30. In our heads, we had given up on the idea of reaching Na a long time ago, painstakingly seeing the hours pass on the glacier and realising we would not make it in daylight. We had around 5km left at that time. A teahouse with a stove and hot food would still be better than a cold roof. If we’d make it to the valley floor, we figured, we could walk all the way out in the dark. Continuing to walk was better than sitting there in the cold.
Going on we climbed up again and around the lake. From the dam we could see Na. That was it. We set off with the end in sight, down on a trail that felt like a city pavement compared to the rocks and scree we had been confronted with all day. The trail snaked its way down the Rolwaling valley and we followed it to safety and comfort.
We left the porter house at 14.30. At 16.00 we were in safe distance from Na and realised we’d make it before dark. A rush went through me. Sometimes when you’ve done something hard, something that scared you, you feel so alive afterwards and it’s amazing just to be, to breathe. I said little from that point. At 16.09 we crossed the bridge and stood in the village of Na. When the mountains turned their bright red that night we had settled in a room and were sipping on a hot bowl of thukpa soup.
It wasn’t until then that I let the words about our guides come out. “They were selfish sons of bitches, who took our money, rushed us over the pass and left us to our fate at that glacier. If it wasn’t for the fact that we have been in the mountains for a long time, for our wit, for the good weather and for the fact that we are a good group who takes care of each other, this story could have ended differently.”
After that I put them out of my mind. We were all safe, that’s what mattered most. That night we sat around a warm stove with some other trekkers, telling our story to big eyes. To those who were heading for the pass we gave our advice. We were the last ones to leave the room and it felt surreal. We were really here. We made it. That night I sunk in a comfortable and uninterrupted long sleep. I still couldn’t believe we made it in the morning. PJ slept until midday, recovering his retired body. A sunny Rolwaling smiled at us.
“Fortune favours the brave.”