Day 9: Still I Rise To Cho La Pass

November 12, 2022
Start: Thagnak 4686m (15,370ft)
Via: Cho La Pass 5370m (17,614ft)
Stop: Dzongla 4830m (15,846ft)
Distance: 7km (4.3 miles)

It is a long, rough night. If I do sleep, it is infrequent. Caspar has trouble sleeping too and we both feel like we can’t breath. Caspar opens the door to our room in an attempt to get more air into the room. We don’t open the windows because the rats keep running back and forth on the ledge outside. The chewing is so loud at one point that I get up to make sure they aren’t in the room eating my precious snacks. Our efforts don’t seem to help and every so often no matter how many deep breaths I take I feel like I’m gasping for air. It’s a scary and uneasy feeling. Due to the challenging and long day of crossing Cho La Pass, breakfast is scheduled for 6am. We are awake long before the 5am alarm as Caspar and I discuss my options. I have not slept and still feel tingly, disoriented and weak. I thought I had heard mention of a lower alternate route. I am hopeful for this. Otherwise, my options are slim. I either have to helicopter out or proceed up the trail.

At french toast breakfast we talk with Tiger about the route and there are no other options to get to Dzongla. The only way forward is up and over Cho La Pass. I convey that I’m still experiencing the symptoms of low blood calcium and Sophie asks how it is that I know this. I try to explain but I have a hard time speaking and struggle to hold back my tears. Sophie, Tiger and Caspar start talking about me and my situation as if I’m not even there. Sophie decides that I need to take a helicopter. Given no alternate route, I weakly insist that I will proceed. I go to the room to make my final preparations, change my tampon and collect my backpack. I have a hard time making decisions about which layers to put on and gloves to wear given our frigid 7am start. I feel like I’m fumbling and can barely pull myself together.

We all step outside into the cold but I can see Silke already headed up the canyon. I remember her saying that she wanted to get a head start. Like almost instantly I can no longer feel my fingers. I can’t actually remember if I changed gloves but I do know that Caspar stowed my poles on his pack and I put my hands in my pockets. Caspar is also carrying a lot of my gear in his pack. Within maybe a tenth of a mile, Bikram offers to take my pack. It’s no time to be a hero and I willingly comply with his offer. Tiger questions me and I reconfirm that I’m willing to hike unless he believes that I should not press on. He agrees that I can continue and so I follow Bikram up the trail. Porter Jiban is just ahead of us. He’s got our duffel bags and hangs close by just in case I need a helicopter rescue.

We walk past Tibetan snowcocks who are in the creek to our right. One of them runs across the path while making its adorable call. I muster a smile. Maybe this is a good sign for me. While seated on a rock, I take my next dose of calcium. Not much farther ahead, we finally reach the sun’s edge as it creeps into the valley. I keep my head down and just keep putting one foot in front of the next. We come to a metal trail marker and look out across a wide undulating valley. Helicopter after helicopter after helicopter come flying over and we keep joking that they’re coming for me. We cross the plateau-like valley and start to approach a wall of rock. Tiny figures slowly come into focus and I’m a bit shocked by the challenge ahead of me. Holy shit. I decide to take the opportunity to pee and change my saturated tampon, knowing that it’s better to do it now than in the middle of the wall ahead.

Since the return of the sun, I have been using my liner gloves and my trekking poles. My hooded sun shirt reaches over my trucker hat, pulling it down into the sweat on my brow. In a practically involuntary motion, I constantly push my hat up against the pull of my sun shirt. Because my only job is to keep moving my feet, I don’t take any pictures on the approach to Cho La Pass. Check out this BLOG for some great shots of the western approach to Cho La Pass.

At the base of the rock wall I crank my head upwards. Wow! Just ahead of us there is a lady wearing a long pink jacket and her guide is assisting her. I put my head back down and follow every step that Bikram makes. When he grabs the cables, I do the same, When he transfers his poles from one hand to another to grab the cables, I do the same. When he stops for a break, I do the same. I just keep my head down and focus on the simple task of one foot in front of the next. It gets extra challenging when we meet people coming down and we have to take turns using the cable. Sometimes people skid and slide almost uncontrollably on the unconsolidated scree. CHECK out this ONE VIDEO from our climb! If you watch closely, you can see the lady in the long pink jacket at the edge of the video. At one point, we stop because we hear some people coming up behind us. You can imagine that there’s not a lot of room to pass on this steep rocky slope. But the French-speaking couple pushes by nonetheless. I face the rocky slope as they pass behind me. The woman has the audacity to put her hand on my back in order to assist her push past me. WTF?! I mutter a what the hell?! to myself and then a more audible geeze. I laugh out loud at these crazy people.

During a standing break, we look up the rock wall and see Silke’s reddish pink down jacket. She looks so close and yet so far away. She must be just a few steps from the top of the pass. Tiger says we have 30 minutes to the pass but I don’t believe him. We march onwards and then I can feel a slight tug of the wind. We top Cho La Pass at noon, having taken five hours since leaving Thagnak. Our porters are sitting at the pass and I’m not sure if they are waiting for us or just hanging out enjoying the view. After taking a few pictures, I sit down and eat a little bag of trail mix. I’m actually starting to feel a bit better and my stomach demands that I absolutely must eat something. There’s a little red bird about the size of a finch bouncing around the pass, undoubtedly waiting for hiker crumbs. The porters leave and I’m suddenly sorry that I didn’t get a picture with all of them. Another hiker arrives at the pass and starts taking pictures. It turns out that she’s waiting for the long pink jacket lady which totally blows my mind because I don’t even remember passing her.

We drop off the edge of the pass and scramble down a churned path. Once we reach the perimeter of the Cho La glacier, we are given microspikes to wear. Hiker 4 wheel drive! It takes a couple steps to test them and trust that they will hold me upright on the ice. We easily trot across the glacier and it’s a trip for me to see my backpack on the back of Bikram. Of course, guides Bikram and Tiger go without any spikes. Check out this Video!

I don’t know if it’s just the downhill trail but I seem to be feeling better and can move along at a good clip. After hiking maybe an hour, we stop for lunch. We have a packed lunch of Tibetan bread, hard boiled eggs and yak cheese. I skip the lunch and give it to Tiger and Bikram. I do try a few bites of Caspar’s Tibetan bread and it’s really yummy. For dessert, I take my next scheduled dose of calcium. I ask to take my pack back from Bikram but he insists on carrying it.

Not more than 30 minutes before Dzongla, we are met by several porters who have come back to meet us with steaming hot chocolate. I think this is the best hot chocolate I’ve ever had and drink a whole two cups. Oh yes, I’m definitely feeling better. We arrive at Dzongla at 3pm, eight hours after departing Thagnak. High fives and uplifted spirits all around! Thank you Bikram for carrying my pack!

Sophie and Silke are in the Mountain Home dining room when we arrive. After the numerous challenges of the last few days, I’m happy and astounded to have crossed Cho La Pass and arrived in Dzongla. I just kind of sit there in a state of wonder. Not that I expect it, but there are no greetings or inquiries about my health or how I’m feeling. My ears are buzzing and working overtime. I hear Sophie talking about how many hours it took her. Then I hear something like they get two guides. The closer I listen, the more I understand that they are upset that Tiger and Bikram were with Caspar and I. I hear Silke telling Sophie that she wandered lost with no one to help her. Then she says she did have a porter with her but that they didn’t know the way through the glacier. That certainly seems confusing since there are metal poles marking the way. I also wonder why Dipak, Sophie, Clearance and Jeremy passed Silke and didn’t wait for her. Is it a race?

Caspar and I head to our room to change our clothes. He tells me about this morning in Thagnak when he returned to the dining room and Sophie asked him if I had done any training. Caspar told her that I’d done more training than her and that I was strong. Sweetie, thanks for having my back! I could be really hurt by the insinuation that the size of my body is a reflection of my preparation. But I’m not surprised by such comments as there has been a certain superiority narrative emerging on this trip. Always know your audience. Maybe it’s just me, but the seriousness of my low blood calcium was far more important than the size of my body this morning.

A visit to the bathrooms at the end of the hall yields two squat toilets, each with a 50 gallon drum of water for flushing. Fun! I am feeling well enough so Caspar and I return to the dining room and hang out with Jeremy and Silke. Clearance is there too but he is on his phone. We enjoy hot chocolate and biscuits. For dinner, I celebrate with a whole plate of boiled potatoes. Damn, this is way better than bread! For days, I have been asking Tiger for a written list of the porter and guide names. With pride, he delivers a tiny piece of paper with everyone’s name on it. I’m surprised to learn that they are all from the same village which is about a one to two day hike down from Lukla. The name Tamang is an ethnic group and caste. As our hiking group chats after dinner, I see Sophie come into the dining room and make a beeline straight for Tiger. Even with my stellar hearing, all I can hear is she, she, she, she, she. As guides and porters huddle around the warmth of the yak dung-fueled stove, Sophie exits stage left.


When I started thinking about the title of this journal I kept thinking of And Still I Rise. Then I remembered that Still I Rise is an amazing Maya Angelou poem. Watch Maya Angelou read Still I Rise