This day, Thursday 17th November, saw the start of our third week of trekking and there was to be no respite. By lunchtime we would be crossing the Nagdalo La, one of the highest passes in Upper Dolpo at 5350m (17,553ft), following a height gain of over 1000m. The anticipated distance to be covered was over 20 miles with the pass being around half-way. In light of this, and an early call by the monk who needed access to the monastery shortly after sunrise, we were up and about early clearing our bags and sleeping bags from the monastery foyer where we had slept. We could still can hardly believe the monk had shown us around the inner and most holy part of the monastery the previous evening. It was exceptionally moving and yak tallow candles were lit in remembrance of loved ones and distant friends. We had then been permitted to sleep in the foyer out of the biting wind with a view over the valley to the Crystal Mountain.
Following breakfast of tea and tsampa porridge in the monk’s kitchen, by 8 am we were packing our gear, loading the ponies and looking forward to the day. After crossing the pass we would lose over 600m of height almost immediately down a scree slope and then lose another 1000m following the steeply descending Tuk Kyaksa Khola to its junction with the Phoksundo Khola where we would camp overnight at a mere 3750m (12,303ft), 600m lower and hopefully warmer than the monastery.
Shortly before 8:30 we took the path down into the broad, flat and stony valley confluence. During spring this would be awash with snow-melt and a crossing would demand care. Today there was barely a trickle and what water there was had been frozen solid, but we nonetheless took the traditional route west across the wooden bridge before turning south.
Even in the morning sunshine the air at this height was still cold as we made our way to the left of the substantial maniwall with its prayer flags hanging limp. As we walked up the Hubaiung Khola the still low sun cast deep cold shadows across the valley and our duvet jackets and warm hats stayed on.
After an hour or so we emerged from the steep-sided valley gorge into more open land. The mountains either side were still high with scrubby, sandy, and rocky lower slopes and precipitous upper ramparts, but they had at least opened up to allow the sun to warm us as we walked. Several times we had passed frozen tributaries on the the left and right which required care in their crossing due to the ice, but towards 10 am the valley became broad and I was able to pick up a faster pace and get a toe-warming leg-stretch. After a while I found myself alone and guessed the others had stopped for a bite to eat. They knew I carried my snacks to hand and preferred to keep going so separation was now quite common.
Ahead on a yellowed grassy plain between mountain and the river I could see a group of around 20 people and the same number of fully-laden horses. They appeared to be just moving off following a stop as some horses were being led on while others were still being packed. Not wanting to spook the horses I kept my distance and allowed them to complete their preparations and move on. I had seen no paths other than the one we had been following so reasoned that this group must have travelled south from either Pho, Bhijer or Saldang via Shey Gompa as that would be the only viable southerly route for them. We had not seen them go past the gompa this morning so I assumed they had camped in the valley overnight and that this was why they were still preparing to depart. I was however a little confused as, if these people were indeed from one of the more northerly villages heading for their winter homes then where were the rest of their animals? I could see no sheep or goats. Nor for that matter any yaks although that wasn’t a surprise as yaks don’t do well below 3000m. I figured if there were sheep or goats perhaps they had gone ahead with herders while families followed-on.
My thoughts about their purpose and destination had to wait as the map showed that the Great Himalayan Trail went south-east from here, up the escarpment to my left and then over the Nagdalo La. While I could see no path it wouldn’t be the first time that a path was hidden in shadow. I checked the GPS and that showed me to be in the right place and the more detailed mapping which overlayed the data also showed the path heading southeast about now. I was keen to see where the nomadic group were going so followed at a distance, keeping a very close view back down the valley to see where Tim and the others went once they arrived as I was cautious not to become separated if indeed there was an earlier side-track.
A few hundred metres ahead the group crossed the frozen river and made their way up a steep path to the left. The path began with 2 or 3 metres of steep climb that some of the horses struggled with and had to be unloaded. Some of the people struggled too but eventually they and the weaker horses were assisted up the step and continued their journey up the slopes towards the pass. I could go no further without losing sight of the path from Shey Gompa so I sat down at the top of a rise to wait for the others; and before long they appeared. When they reached roughly the place where I had first seen the travelling group, they stopped for a break as that would be the last before the upward toil to the pass. Although still at some distance I could see a few people and ponies and mules, but there seemed to be too many. Our trekking group should number 7 with 6 nags but I could see around 10 of each. I was sure this was the trekking group so I just waited to see where they would go next. After a while the group separated and those which I could now clearly see was a well-dressed group of trekkers with 6 ponies and mules moved in my direction rather than up a hidden track.
This was the good news I was hoping for; I was on the right path and could now follow the Dolpo-pa ahead.
After a while the horseman and Sangye and their string caught up with me and following a short exchange of words and encouragement they moved ahead at a sprightly pace while I plodded on. It wasn’t that the route was especially steep but it was relentless and couldn’t be hurried. Once over the crest of the first ridgeline the majesty of the higher mountains was laid out in front of me. The sandy and scrubby terrain lower down had given way to something much more tough. The ramparts ahead were grey rather than sandy and with the sun directly ahead they appeared black in silhouette. Looking smooth from a distance closer inspection revealed the ground to be covered by sharp, angular rocks through which a rough path had been fashioned by the myriad feet and hooves that had passed before. Occasionally larger jagged rocks punctured the ground and the surface was rendered shiny either by patches of snow and ice or the coal-like patina of the strewn rocks all reflecting sunlight; sunlight rendered untra-bright and piercing by the clarity and rarity of the air as we climbed above 5000m.
Though not evident from the photograph, I could see Sangye and the horseman with his ponies ahead toiling up the path from left to right before it zig-zagged up the final steep and icy section to the pass between the middle two knolls just to the left of the sun. I could also see some of the Dolpo-pa still pushing upwards too, while those at the front of the group had gathered in the pass itself which offered a magnificant view back down the mountainside.
I continued my climb alone, glad that nobody else would witness my laboured breathing and slow pace. It was getting towards midday when I reached the final steep section and realised exactly why those ahead of me had struggled so. The steepness of the final 100m was exacerbated by a very loose surface eased only slightly by the gritty path and patches of snow and ice. In particular there were long sections of the path which were covered in ice, and to move off the path invited a slide down the sharp and unforgiving scree. I found out the hard way and having arrested my slide, which was just painful and embarrassing rather than anything worse, stopped for another breather to regain some strength.
There was a group of 4 people and 4 horses below. From their clothing I could see these were Dolpo-pa rather than trekkers and realised these were the people who I had seen at the head of the valley earlier, with Tim and the others. They must have come on apace as the trekkers were much lower down the mountain. As I watched the Dolpo-pa approach I could see three adults. While they were all wearing trousers only one, the leader, appeared to be male while the other two appeared to be women. Traditional dress must be impractical outside the home environment. There was also a child of about 10. A boy in an orange jacket.
They were following the path I had slipped on a short while ago and at that very moment the lead pack-horse, a handsome heavily laden white pony with a garland of yellow, slipped and went down on its neck.
Fearing the worst all the group started towards the pony shouting and hollering, but the sturdy animal was fine. After a few feet of sliding it regained its footing and continued uphill.
My attention was diverted from this drama for a while as a party of trekkers appeared across the pass coming towards me. This was only the second party of trekkers we had seen; the first being the Australians on the second day between Pilling and Ghok. I called “hello!” to no response. Undeterred I tried “bonjour!” but struck lucky third time with “guten tag!”. They transpired to be a very tired Austrian group which had left Juphal 3 days ago and were going as far as Shey Gompa before returning. They were intrigued by the route that I described to them but our halting conversation was drawn short as their team of 10 mules were bearing down upon us at speed now they were going downhill.
Looking back up towards the pass through the dust created by the nags I could see that the boy in the orange jacket and the people I assumed to be his family had overtaken me and pressed on to the Nagdalo La in the rising wind. All bar one of the horses had crossed the pass with the leader. The final horse and one of the women were about to cross, leaving just two people to make the crossing on their way to lower and warmer climes to the south. These were the boy in the orange jacket, and his mother now wearing a blue headscarf.
Unaccountably the boy stopped and from about 20 feet away looked round at me. In the whistling wind no words were spoken. I kept plodding onwards and after a few steps I simply stopped, smiled and nodded. He nodded too – if there was a smile I didn’t see it. He just nodded and turned to follow his mother over the pass encouraged by calling and shouting from those already at the top.
I turned my attention down the path again as I could now see Tim, Lizzie, and Jovi, with Gyalbu and Mark not far below. I waited a few minutes to allow the distance between us to narrow, then headed for the pass, every steep step a struggle in the wind.
By the time I reached the pass several minutes later the boy was gone. There was just a chough battling to make headway in the wind, a string of wind-beaten prayer flags, the most extraordinary views all around, and me with my thoughts on what life in Dolpo was like for a 10 year old boy in a transhumant family.