“Woosh” my bamboo walking pole plunges effortlessly into the knee-deep snow. With the numbed fingers of my left hand I clasp at some sparse shrubbery. Suddenly, my right foothold slips. Then, my left sinks, deep into the wet snow. Fuck. I thrust my body into the mountain wall as if a lasso will eject from my stomach and hurl itself around the entire mountain to secure my safety.
Deep breaths. I have regained balance. Although I remain precariously perched, I am still on the ridge. I did not hurtle 600 metres down into the valley below. I need to regain composure and slowly, deliberately get to the next safe outcrop of rocks.
We are 100 metres short of the 4300m Biluo Snow Mountain pass and I was more unnerved than ever before. “How did I get myself into this?” raced rampantly through my mind.
One day before we had set out from Dimaluo – a quaint Tibetan village nestled alongside the Nujiang Valley in Yunnan province, China. The goal was to trek to Cizhong, a village situated on the Mekong River two valleys to the North East. Although the distance between the two towns was a mere 45 kilometres, we expected that crossing two mountain passes in mid-May would likely pose a strong challenge.
To help us successfully complete the trek we had hired a local Tibetan guide. Although it was a slight ordeal coordinating the details of the trek, we were assured the route was doable. We were excited. Also, the cost of the excursion was a beyond our budget, but a generous cash gift from my parents helped make it all go around 🙂
The first day it rained – all day. We trudged 2000 vertical metres up muddy herding paths before descending into an idyllic pasture for the night.
On the second day we would tackle the 4300 metre pass. The third and final day was to be a calm descent all the way to Cizhong.
The Mountain Pass
On Day Two we woke at 7 am. We were told we would start walking by 8:30. The rain had stopped and the sun was making an effort to peep through the dissipating clouds. The snow-capped mountains encircling the pasture were breathtaking.
Standing beside the gurgling stream in the valley floor, Em and I both felt anxious. The rain had continued through the night. Surely, the same precipitation we had received in the valley had also come down on top of the pass we needed to ascend (and descend) that day. Without a doubt this meant ample new snow on the pass.
Shortly after 9:30 am we began walking. The approach was wonderful. Still paralleling the river, we crossed several skirts of stale avalanches perforated by weeks of spring rain.
After an hour we began winding our way up switchbacks. The mountain pass ascent had begun. Almost immediately we were struggling to walk on an elevated path of rain-crusted snow. After a half hour we took a rest. It was our first opportunity to take in the grandeur of the mountain pass we had set out to conquer. It was stunning.
We would hike up a ridge on skiers` right. For the next hour we slowly clambered up intermittent snow and shrub patches. It was challenging.
Following another short rest we hit the steeper snow section.
It was now 12 noon and the languid clouds that had defined our past 3 days in the Nujiang region were now notably absent. The sun shone bright. Across the basin, the mountain began to shed pockets of fresh snow at 15 minute intervals. Although these small rock-filled avalanches posed no immediate danger to us, their rumblings signaled how unstable the conditions had become.
We walked single file up the ridge. Some sections were steeper than others.
After my heart-stopping slip, I climbed the 10 metre section that remained between me and temporary safety.
I unshouldered my pack beside Em. Although I had no mirror to confirm, my face was undoubtedly twisted in exasperation and fear.
Em and I surveyed the terrain that remained between us and the summit. For the second time in five minutes my stomach knotted and my heart raced. The final section looked steep and the level of exposure keen. We conferred between us. We had surpassed our level of risk tolerance. This realization made me feel sick. We had two options. Continue up or return down. I wanted neither.
I fought to banish presently useless thoughts from my mind such as: “This is too sketch!” and “How could we be so stupid?”
I called to our guide. Our shared communication thus far had been slim to none. And, thus far, it hadn’t mattered. He was nonchalantly playing with snowballs. His casual air deepened my despair.
I pleaded with him to communicate with us. How did he assess the final section? “Yes dangerous” was his response. Although anger mounted inside me, I fought it back. I was mad at myself for allowing this individual to lead me into this hazardous ledge in this sketchy situation, however I knew I needed to work with him to regain safety. After a few more attempts to elicit his opinion I made a final appeal:
“Aluo, you have a family. I have a family. Emily has a family. We all want to safely continue so we can see them again. How are we going to proceed so that we are each able to do this?”
We would go up.
The final 100 m ascent, while treacherously exposed, was less difficult than I had anticipated.
It was a bittersweet relief to be on summit of the col. Again, we were safe from immediate threats however the snow was thick on the slopes would we need to descend. There was already evidence of small avalanche sloughs and we had every reason to suspect that any untouched powder was primed for a slide.
We started down. The guide and porter went first. We followed. We sunk deep into the snow with each step and triggered many mini-avalanches, but got down quickly.
My main objective in writing this post is to reflect on the series of failures that lead to this misadventure:
While the hours spent trekking on either side of the mountain pass were blissful, navigating the crux of both the ascent and descent was a situation that Em and I never again want to find ourselves in. In fact, we cannot. It is unacceptable.
We love the mountains. We love physical and mental challenges. We both live for adventure. However, when embarking on excursions like this, we have a burden to take only calculated risks. In this case, we had surpassed our level of acceptable risk tolerance without realizing until it was too late. We were following a guide – something that neither of us have much experience doing. Although we both ultimately maintain responsibility for our own safety, we now understand that we had put too much faith in this individual.
Additionally, we had failed to retain complete control of our own decision-making. Subconsciously we had allowed our destiny to be outsourced. We needed to have been asking more questions. We needed to have advocated our concerns earlier. We needed to have taken charge.
Collectively, the late start, the absence of ongoing communication and the failure to appreciate the full consequences of the new snow were our failings.
Suboptimal footwear and heavy packs did not help, but alone were not necessarily ruinous.
Em and I have retreated from part way up mountain passes before. We take pride in adventuring intelligently. For me, this experience was extremely humbling. I`ve got a lot of adventuring left to do. Passing this risk tolerance cannot happen again.
Other cool pics from the trek (try clicking on a pic to view slideshow)
Before embarking on the trek we enjoyed exploring some cool villages around Bingzhongluo