3rd August 2016 – Knackered

Today was tough – our second training day after yesterday’s false start.  We walked for most of the morning, not a massive gain in altitude but four hours or so on our feet with minimal breaks, then scrambled up and down a big face in the afternoon before heading back to basecamp.  It was technically and physically very demanding and most people have gone back to tents straight away for a nap before dinner.  We tackled the same big scree slope as on the ice field day to start with, and then were on much looser scree all afternoon.  It’s mentally draining as every step needs to be considered, and it’s so easy to place a foot wrong and feel as if you’re either going to break an ankle or go tumbling down to the foot of the hill.

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The face of a broken man – the mountain beat me up today!

I had a bit of a heart to heart with my tent-mate this afternoon – he’s a bit homesick today and I totally understand where he’s coming from.  We’ve been sat in basecamp for nearly a week now, and although we’ve got out on a couple of days, we’ve spent the rest of the time performing a lot of menial tasks.  There’s a lot of time to think, and lack of sleep is affecting a lot of people’s moods.  Added to this is the perpetual frustration of having stoves that don’t work, dust everywhere, and the fact that we’re living in a goldfish bowl, mixing with the same few people day-in, day-out.  I genuinely like and get on with everyone in the fire, but a group of ten is an odd size.  It’s difficult to get a moment away from it all with such a small group, as somebody always notices you’re gone.

We just got news of the plan for our first five day excursion from basecamp.  In total we are to have three of these in the time we’re here, with a couple of days’ break between them.  We’re splitting the first one and using it as a recce for later trips, which means we’ll be in basecamp for two nights, and bivvying for three.  The day after tomorrow, the plan is to carry on past the snowfield where we had ice training, then up over today’s scree onto a big ridge leading up to a summit we’ve christened ‘Mordor’ as it’s shadowy and black and constantly has birds of prey circling round it.  We’re planning to carry on up the ridge until we hit about 5000m elevation, then come back down before dark.

Following that, we’re going on a big tour of a ridgeline I’ve called ‘Table Mountain’ on the other side of base camp, due to how it resembles the one in Cape Town.  That should last about three days with a couple of bivvys either on a plateau on the climb or up or on the ridge itself.  I’m gutted to be coming back to base-camp between the tours, but it will be good in a way, as we’ll have a night of reasonable sleep at low altitude after the first day and hopefully be better acclimatised for the big table mountain effort.  Tomorrow will be an easy day, with just river crossing training in the morning, and hopefully a final wash and maybe a swim in the lake before we pack for the tours in the afternoon.

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2nd August 2016 – Survivors

The expedition has been struck by the plague, and Nerak are the only survivors.  Some kind of stomach bug has taken a lot of people down, and this combined with the effects of altitude has meant that training is cancelled for the day and we’re staying at base camp.  Although we would all prefer to be out on the hill, it does provide an opportunity to catch up on diaries, fix up the camp, and recover from a big day yesterday.  On the other hand, it’s cold today, it’s raining, and we will have run out of things to do by lunchtime.  At least the rain has gotten rid of some of the dust.

So far, the most entertaining thing to happen is Alex chasing a Yak away from our water filters.  Yak attack is an ever present threat, and although docile they are big and clumsy enough to take down an entire camp just by getting caught in a guy line or two and getting into a panic.  They seem to particularly enjoy the taste of our soap and dish sponges, so we have to stow these inside the mess tent every night to keep them out of harm’s way.  The yaks soon run away if you make enough noise though, so as long as we keep an eye out it’s easy enough to stop them causing too much damage.

Apart from the Yaks, there is very little ground based wildlife around camp.  Marmots are everywhere, and can often be seen scurrying around during the night, their eyes flashing green in the light of a head torch.  Avian life, however, is diverse and breath-taking.   We see raptors nearly every day including rare breeds such as the Lammergeier (or bearded vulture), and waders are abundant in the lakes around camp.  Unfortunately things aren’t looking so good for our resident ground nester; her eggs are cold and it seems our presence has scared her away from the nest, even if we do keep hearing her call from the shrubs at the outskirts of the camp.  It’s a shame because we have been taking care not to disturb the nest, but also a reminder that humans really are strange visitors an area as remote as this.

Plans for this afternoon are to stay warm and dry, drinking tea and playing cards in the mess tent.  Naomi our science leader is enforcing high standards of hygiene with the other fires’ stomach bugs in mind, and although it’s inconvenient it will be worth it in the long run if nobody gets sick.  Living in such close proximity disease spreads fast, and there is little as energy sapping as a stomach flu.  We’ve got a lot of walking ahead of us so don’t want anything to put us at a disadvantage this early on.

Stoves are becoming a perennial problem.  We’re using Primus Multifuel models running on kerosene, and in theory they should light relatively quickly.  Unfortunately this isn’t happening, and often it takes over an hour to get enough heat to cook with.  In base camp this is an inconvenience, but while out on tour it could be downright dangerous, and leave us high and dry with nothing to eat, and no water if we’re forced to melt snow to fill our bottles.  A few of us have been throwing theories around about what the problem is, and it seems to be that the narrow diameter hose through which fuel flows to the burner nozzle is getting blocked.  We still don’t know what with, and theories range from the dust, to particles of rust from the inside of the Jerry cans we transported the fuel in, to impurities in the kerosene which have been solidified by low night-time temperatures.  Whatever the issue turns out to be, we need to work it out before we head out of base camp for longer periods, or people could end up stuck without anything to eat apart from a few crackers and tins of tuna.  Not ideal when walking eight hours a day.

Training should be back on tomorrow, and we will be focusing on steep ground, getting more time on the scree slopes and crags around camp.  We will also be looking at some of the local plant life, with our interpreter and botanist Urgen coming along too.  Hopefully the weather picks up.  It’s much nicer being sun dried than soaked by constant drizzle like we have today.

1st August 2016 – First Day of Training

At 6:30am, as I was fumbling to get the stove started with bleary eyes and frozen, kerosene-soaked fingers, Alex put a Prusik in my hand.  This is a small rope used in climbing to grip onto a larger rope, and some specific knots are needed to use it properly.  Within five minutes we had been through the classic Prusik knot, the French Prusik, and the Klemheist knot.  On top of this I had learned their relative strengths in different directions, and the merits of different Prusik materials when combined with different types of rope.  As interesting as it was, I was quite unprepared for such an information dump before I had even managed to make myself a cup of tea.

Unfortunately, this semi-conscious pre-breakfast knot class set the tone for the day.  Today was the first training day of the expedition – ice and snow skills on the icefield above basecamp.  At 9am we assembled at the HQ tents, where Taff handed out more Prusiks, slings, harnesses, helmets, ice axes, carabiners and crampons.  Gear explosion.  Taff is one of the adventure leaders – an ex-marine and possibly the hardest man I’ve ever met.  He can spring up mountain slopes like an Ibex and manages to maintain a positive outlook in the face of the toughest physical tasks.

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Charlie was keen to avoid both sunburn and snow-blindness during the day’s outing

Once we had been fitted with our gear the day’s objectives were revealed; we were to walk for an hour over the moraines and a loose scree slope, before reaching the snowfield around two km away from basecamp, with an elevation gain of around two hundred metres.  Following this we would spend six hours practicing skills such as step-cutting, axe arrests, crampon skills, roped movement, and crossing crevasses.

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Up an ankle-breaking scree slope to the snowfield

We took the walk up to the snow field at a slow pace, and the fresh air was a welcome break from the heat and dust of basecamp, which is rapidly turning into a blast furnace as the weather stays unrelentingly hot.  The basecamp dust is everywhere.  It’s a tan colour, extremely fine, and gets kicked up in plumes by the slightest movement.  Nerak springs is grassy so escapes the worst of it, but some of the other fires are suffering terribly.  The dust is everywhere; it’s embedded in the fibres of our clothes, up our noses, in our throats, and is rendering some of the equipment unusable.  Tent zips are particularly badly affected and many are jammed permanently closed.  The wind gets up every day in the late afternoon, shotblasting the entire valley – woe betide anyone who leaves a tent-door open.  The same drop in pressure that causes the wind brings cloud, and the temperature drops so rapidly that we are all in four layers by dinner time, turning from sunbathers to Michelin-men.  Dinner is crunchy with dust and typically serves more to warm us up before bed than anything else.  Thankfully we’re still fairly well stocked with chilli powder and tabasco for the moment, so it at least achieves that task in fine style.

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Nerak lining up for a photo opportunity by the rapidly melting snow (Image: Claire Bond)

Back on the snowfield, the sun was baking us and only got stronger as we climbed higher, its rays reflected back on us by the white snow beneath our feet.  As we put on our heavy waterproofs and gaiters, we began to sweat, and within minutes were wetter than if we had been rolling in the snow in just our base layers.  As I sat in a drift to cool off I couldn’t help but think what a bizarre feeling it was being ankle deep in snow in temperatures of thirty degrees plus.  The snowfield stretched upwards for probably three hundred metres at an angle of about forty degrees, with a plateau about half way up.  There was evidence of rockfalls from the summer melt all the way up it, with boulders ranging in width from a few centimetres to a couple of metres strewn across the snow.  Any strong gust of wind or sound from the valley had us all looking upwards, ready to flatten ourselves against the mountain at a moment’s notice.

The morning focused on using bare boots in deep snow.  We learned to cut steps with feet and axes, as well as a basic arrest with the axe shaft.  I personally went charging in at the beginning, and got a real shock when I struggled to stay upright.  Walking in snow requires so much more energy than on rock, as the snow grips on to shoes and crampons, so the same golden rule applies that I have learned in many years as a cyclist – always do your turn at the front!  Nobody wants to work all day cutting steps for someone taking it easy behind, so it’s only fair to rotate the leader every so often.  We were zig-zagging up the slope, so at the end of every traverse the leader waited for the rest of the group to come through before joining on at the back.

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Taff explains how best to fall down a mountain without impaling yourself on your ice axe

Lunch was a matter of some debate, as we had all been issued with instant noodles in a cup.  The fire is currently split between people who prefer to make them in the original cup, carrying water up the mountain in a separate thermos, and those who put the whole lot in the thermos first thing in the morning and leave it to stew.  I’m definitely in the former group, and looking forward to being proven right when they all have smelly, mouldy flasks five weeks into the expedition.  It’s amazing what you end up arguing about when you spend twenty four hours a day with the same group of people for weeks on end.

The afternoon brought the most exciting part of the day.  We gasped our way up to the top of the snowfield with lunch sitting heavily in our stomachs, running up the slope after Taff who seems unaffected by the thin air.  The post-lunch lull hits harder at altitude!  At the top, we found that Taff had cut some chutes down which we were to slide, gathering speed to practice our axe arrests.  It seems the lighter members of the fire are more at risk of disappearing down a glacier, as when I hit the top of the slide I stopped dead even before using my axe.  This must be the one time at altitude where being 195cm and 85kg is an advantage.  I finally managed to get moving when I dived down head first, and was initially so shocked at having gathered any speed at all that I didn’t manage to get my axe in and crashed face first into a heap of snow at the end of the chute.

After we had all had a good go sliding down the slope, we put on our crampons and roped up for the descent down the slope.  It was great to finally be heading down, as climbing to the top with a full pack was desperately breathless work, even if progress was slowed down by being roped.  I can see that it’s an important skill to learn as a team, but in this case the slope was far too benign for the rope to be anything more than an inconvenience.  We assembled at the bottom and crossed back over the scree slope to base camp.  It was at this point that Nerak showed our speed, with Charlie and Josh in particular leaving the rest of the group for dead as they bounded over the loose boulders.  As we hit flat ground-however, the physical challenges of the day made themselves felt, and trudged back to our tents rather than bounding as before.

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Nothing like a pair of flip-flops at the end of a long day

Getting the boots off back at camp was a relief, even if we did arrive at peak-dust.  My feet stood up fairly well today, and I think the soft ground helped to lessen the beating they took from my stiff B2 boots.  They’re still slightly sore though, and I noticed them sliding back and forth in my boots on today’s descent in particular.  I think the issue may be one of lacing, so I’ve decided to experiment over the next few days’ training.  We have another two days after this one, after which we will be heading out on a multi-day tour away from basecamp, hopefully taking in one of the surrounding peaks.  That will take us over 5000m for the first time, and I’ll be interested to see how my body stands up to it.

31st July 2016 – First Day in Basecamp

We’re 500m further up and the temperature has dropped!  I was in four layers including a fleece and a down jacket at dinner, and still chilly.  Thankfully lacing my rice and paneer with some of Charlie’s Tabasco sauce helped to take the edge off the cold and liven things up a bit.

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Early morning in Nerak Springs, sun coming up over the mountains

Our campsite, affectionately named Nerak springs, is in a grassy hollow by the main stream through base camp, which itself is within the undulating, rocky moraines in the lee of a large peak.  Because we’re in a hollow it feels quite secluded, even though we’re within sight of two other fires just across the stream.  They’re both camped on an exposed ridgeline, so I wonder who will fare better if the weather turns.  They stand to be battered by the wind, but we probably run the risk of being flooded.  We had to do some landscaping to start with, as the ground where our tents sit is tussocky and uneven, and we had to construct a windbreak out of rocks for to shield our cooking stove, but now Nerak springs is very comfortable, the mossy grass making for a springy natural mattress.  The camp is surrounded by bright pink wildflowers, and we have even made acquaintance with a little ground nesting bird, who is sharing our campsite while she incubates her eggs.

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Josh standing proud over our half-dug latrine

Today was supposed to be a rest day, but even so ended up being fairly physical.  Josh and I spent the morning in the heat digging permanent latrines and putting up a covering tent, and then after losing a game of fives I was nominated to spend the afternoon in one of the HQ supply tents located at the centre of the moraine field counting out steritabs for preparing drinking water.  Considering there are eighty of us here, this was no mean feat, but eventually it turned into quite a meditative task and it was a nice opportunity to sit on a rock and rest up for a couple of hours.

One of the nicest things about our base-camp is that there are ponds and streams everywhere.  The water is so clean and the rocks have become so neatly arranged over the years that it almost looks like it could be somebody’s garden.  In the afternoon, Harri and I were able to sneak half an hour for a swim in one of the lakes.  After four days of travel and no opportunity to wash, we were sweaty and dusty, and it was difficult not to holler out in euphoria as the ice cold water hit our faces.  I found myself looking out at the peaks in the distance and thinking, ‘how did I end up here?’  Going back five years, I couldn’t have even imagined ever seeing something like this.  The smell of the thin clean air and the taste of the water and the cold on my skin, combined with the view and the quietness of our surroundings made me feel incredibly peaceful.  The past year has been incredibly stressful with finishing my degree, training for Ironman and preparing for the expedition, it was astonishing to experience a feeling of such total relaxation, even for a few minutes.

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Lunchtime in the greenery of Nerak Springs

Tomorrow is our first day of ice and snow training, and we will be spending between eight and ten hours on the hill.  Unfortunately I am having a little trouble with my feet, and with each step I can feel hotspots developing.  I think it’s a hangover from the amount of running I did in the lead up to Ironman earlier in the year, and it doesn’t bode well so early in the expedition with all the walking still in front of us.  Tom the medic has dressed the hotspots, so hopefully they will start to feel better and at least won’t blister while out on the ice tomorrow.

30th July 2016 – Tired After a Tough Day

Today was by far the most physical day of the expedition so far.  We spent the morning on the bus again for our final two hour journey to the Pensi Lah pass where we have set up base camp.  We very nearly didn’t get there at all, as the drivers of one of the supply trucks managed to flood the engine during a cold start, and only made the problem worse by continuing to press on the throttle and choke the engine for the next half hour.

I got my first inkling of the dangers of altitude this morning, and how Acute Mountain Sickness can strike without any real warning.  I overdid it a bit yesterday, playing cricket for a good few hours and spending a long time hefting a pickaxe while digging out the latrines.  This morning I picked up a Jerry can after filling it with water at the campsite’s hand pump, and my head started to spin.  I sat down and the light-headedness faded, but I felt nauseous for most of the morning and extremely tired.  I know what to watch out for now so will be monitoring it well until I’m properly acclimatised – we’re nearly 1000m higher than Leh now so it will take a few days yet.

I had resolved to take it easy for the day, even on the 20 minute walk to base camp from the nearest road head, but circumstance meant this didn’t happen.  We were due to employ porters from Rangdum to help take our kit across to base camp, especially heavy food rations and science equipment, but they didn’t arrive until half way through the afternoon, so we each had to make three or four trips over the steeply undulating ground, sometimes with upwards of 20kg of kit.

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Finally in the tent shared with American Thomas after the hardest day so far

The journey from the road head to base-camp is about 1.5km, and mostly follows a yak trail threading its way through a cluster of alpine lakes.  The path is difficult, with no option but to head straight over four steep hills of between 50 and 100m in height with uneven, rocky ground underfoot.  The Pensi Lah is the highest col in the area and around 2km wide, separating the Suru and the Zanskar valleys, and the ground drops down quite steeply into Zanskar on the southern side compared to the northern side from which we approached.  We’re at about 4400m now, and the landscape is even more arid and really dusty.

We all found the day tough, but Tom our group leader worked particularly hard, making an extra trip back to the road head and taking far more weight than the rest of us.  He’s suffering for it now, and it’s a reminder than sometimes the fittest can be hit hardest by the altitude.  After we had finished lugging kit it was still necessary to put up our own tents and a shared mess tent, as well as conducting a few groundworks to dig temporary latrines.  Tiredness meant somewhat frayed tempers, particularly as our kerosene stove repeatedly blocked up with soot this evening, and it took almost an hour to boil water for dinner.  We were all happy to sit down with a cup of tea and a ration pack when our day’s work finally finished at around 8pm.

29th July 2016 – Road to Nowhere (or Somewhere)

This morning, I had the most beautiful visit to the bathroom of my life, face to face with the Nun Kun glacier and the peaks of the massif of the same name.  It seems I am finally well enough acclimatised to sleep through the night now, I woke up to clear skies, the light of the morning sun revealing where we had spent the night.  The farm consisted of a two-storey house, with stairs running up the outside and the bottom floor reserved as a stable, and the grassy garden where we had spent the night, dotted with thickets of willow.  To the south of the garden is a large sandy slope stretching up to the glacier, and dotted with rockfall from the mountains above.

As I brushed my teeth, Nick came over and told me about the view from the top of the hill to our left.  Nick recently finished a geography degree at UCL, and hopes to gain his expedition leadership qualification in order to lead expeditions focused on conservation and ecology.  He is a big guy, with long hair and a thick beard giving him away as a biker and metal fan.  I rounded up Alex, the trainee leader attached to our group, also from the New Forest, Thomas, Harri and Charlie and we started the hike to the top.  Our heart rates rose as we climbed the steep slope, and as we hit the summit of the hill and turned round a mountain vista exploded in white before us.  Clouds swirled around the peaks, and the brilliant whiteness of the snowy seracs meant putting on sunglasses.

After such and exciting first hour the rest of the day was dull, just sat in the bus.  This was somewhat made up for by the feeling that we were finally heading into the high mountains.  Vast slabs of glacial ice tens of metres across lined the river to which the road ran parallel, and yet more peaks and glaciers started appearing on the horizon.  After four hours being thrown around by the rocky road, we arrived in Rang Dum.  Far from being the sizeable town we had imagined, it was made up of two tea shops, a few mud houses, a police checkpoint and a public long-drop toilet.  The town lies at the bottom of a dry riverbed, with only grey shingle underfoot and little vegetation to speak of apart from the occasional medicinal shrub and a few grassy tussocks.  It is eerily quiet and seems to be kept going largely by trade from travellers on the main road through the Zanskar range.

On arrival, Thomas, Nick and I went in search of a cup of tea, and entered a dingy tea shop run by a stooped old man.  His skin was dark and deeply lined from years in the Himalayan sun and wind, and these features served to accentuate the piercing blue of his eyes, an unusual trait in the people of this area.  We spent thirty minutes or so relaxing and drinking in the sun, during which time I managed to cut off the last few millimetres of my index finger as somebody’s penknife snapped closed on it while I was fixing my watch.  It was sore to say the least and an alcohol wipe sent me through the roof!  We joined some of the others in a game of cricket when I had stopped bleeding, and the altitude really made itself felt as I panted my way through the last couple of balls of each over.

Tonight we are again camping in somebody’s garden, this time the local Amchi (being back in the Buddhist region).  I am again stunned at the generosity of somebody who doesn’t know us and has very little to give.  The evening was spent digging latrines with Nick and Charlie, cooking dinner, and chatting with the fire.  Interaction with other fires is dropping off a bit now, as we all cook, eat and camp separately, which is unfortunate in some ways.  The valley in which the Amchi’s house is located is stunningly beautiful.  On the western side is a mountain ridgeline, perhaps 1000m above our camp.  At its foot a stream trickles, contained in the vast riverbed of grey stone, ready to become a torrent during the spring melt.  Moving eastward was a great plain of tough, green grass, at the end of which stood the famous Rang Dum monastery.  It stands on a hill, imposing with its red roof and write walls in the Tibetan style.  The valley is dotted with white stupas and other devotions, clearly marking our return to the Buddhist area.

The final event of the day happened much later, and is the reason I am up late writing now.  At around 11pm I was woken up by the booming noise of drums.  It was deep, rhythmic, and almost threatening given the recent unrest in the area.  I pulled on my clothes and boots and went to see what was going on.  To my surprise, I saw three cars full of young people outside on the road next to the camp, up late partying to celebrate feast of the Tibetan Buddha’s birthday, starting the following morning.  I guess bank holiday weekends are the same the world over!

28th July 2016 – What. A. Day.

I’m writing this laying in my tent, which is pitched in the garden of a family living somewhere just outside of Kargil.  The Milky Way shines bright above, and the only sounds are the low hum of my expedition mates’ conversation and laughter in neighbouring tents, and the sound of a glacial river rushing somewhere in the distance.  Our campsite sits right at the foot of the Nun Kun massif and its glacier, and the towering, corniced peaks of the two tallest mountains in Ladakh, shimmering white beacons in the daylight, loom as patches of darkness in the starlit sky.

We weren’t supposed to be here, with the day’s scheduled stop sitting 30km further down the road, however a series of unforeseen complications led to an emergency camp before night closed in and the road went from treacherous to lethal.  It’s only down to the generosity of the local people that we have a place to stay tonight, and I will remember it for a long time.  I’m not sure whether I can imagine anyone at home opening their garden to 80 lost strangers in need at a moment’s notice, but here people consider it only the right thing to do.  It has been a manic day, and we definitely had a lot to talk about as a fire over tonight’s emergency dinner of rehydrated chicken curry.  As tough as it is at the time, these little moments of peace seem so much more significant after the stress of unexpected events, and make life on expedition so fantastic.

We started the day just outside Kargil with a drive of some 50km ahead of us to get into town.  The route followed a river the whole time, with the verdant tree-lined road making for a welcome change from the scree slopes of the day before.  We made it to Kargil with no problems, arriving after just an hour on the road.  It was only after leaving town that the problems started.  First of all, we were held up for around 30 minutes at a checkpoint, with the authorities questioning why one of our convoy’s trucks wasn’t present as scheduled (it was taking some of the expedition medics to check the facilities at the local hospital).  While at the checkpoint, a long procession of trucks and buses displaying black flags with Urdu and Arabic writing on them passed us, filled with sallow faced and tough-looking men.  This seemed vaguely threatening and we averted our eyes and cameras, particularly given the recent violent clashes between protestors and police in Kargil and Srinagar.

After leaving the checkpoint word spread that the medics had been majorly held up at the checkpoint for reasons that were unclear, and we were to proceed on without them.  Word came round that we would be taking a long stop in a village to wait for them to catch up.  There was a tense atmosphere and a feeling of unease until we got to the village, about an hour and a half later, as we had no idea where the medics were and if their hold-up was to do with any kind of trouble involving the black-flagged parade of buses we had seen.

It was probably the most authentic impression of rural Indian life we have had so far.  It was a drizzly day, and walking down the main street you could see groups of school children playing in the street’s overflowing drainage channels, butchers plying their trade with scared looking chickens on chopping blocks on the streets, and crowds of men looking out of dark tea-shops.  The response to our presence was mixed in the village, with some people showing wide smiles when we greeted them with ‘Wa Salaam Aleikum’, and others frowning or averting their eyes, and given the already present sense of unease this was difficult to ignore. I and some others eventually entered a tea-shop, however, and our unease was immediately dispelled by the owner.  He presented us with plates of green vegetable samosas and endless hot, sweet, milk tea at 10 rupees a cup, accompanied by excited chatter in his limited English and a brilliant grin which shone bright in the darkness of the smoky room.

Eventually the medics turned up, it turned out that there had been some issue with union licences to drive a truck from Leh in the Kargil district.  The road became rocky and narrow, and it was clear that we were entering the real wilderness.  Before long we hit another checkpoint which made the previous one seem like plain sailing.  In a spectacular piece of bureaucracy, the head man insisted on pulling all eighty of us out of the vehicles and checking our passports individually, taking over an hour.  The checkpoint will also always stick out in my mind as having the smelliest long-drop toilet in India, and the hand sanitiser was flowing free once we got back on the coach.  All told, delays had put us over three hours behind schedule, and if we were to make it to our night’s stop we had a four to five hour journey ahead of us with only three hours of daylight remaining.  All of this was on the most dangerous road so far, gravel and only just wide enough for our bus to pass through.

We crossed the Suru for the final time and after passing through a village full of smiling, waving children, the road turned sharply up until we were around 200m above the valley, on a single track road only inches wider than the bus.  Nerves quickly became frayed as we rounded corner after corner with one wheel over the precipice, so we distracted ourselves by examining the landscape.  The villages in the area were different to those in the Leh region, the traditional wattle and dawb and straw rooves having been replaced by concrete and corrugated iron, and the valley was green and fertile.  We also saw the first glaciers of the trip.  They were imposing indeed; the vast rivers of ice seemed poised to come crashing down to the valley floor at any moment, and clouds obscured their sources high among the peaks, making them look like great highways into the heavens.  Eventually, the scenery proved not to be distracting enough, and I could feel my heart eating harder in my chest as the abyss yawned nearer with each corner.  Then the singing started.

In the biggest morale boost of the trip, Charlie from my fire launched into a rendition of the Proclaimers’ ‘500 miles’, and before long the whole bus was singing.  This was followed in quick succession by ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’ and ‘Hotel California’, before the first sighting of a marmot provoked shouts of ‘Alan! Alan!’ from the right hand side of the bus (click here to see why this is funny).  Marmots are hilarious creatures; they look like overweight cousins of the Guinea pig, and as they hop along their fat rolls from one end of their body to the other.  By this point, the immediate danger was over and we could go back to enjoying the scenery.

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The Nun Kun massif (Image: Wikimedia Commons)
At around 7pm Nun Kun came into view on our right as darkness started to fall.  The coaches came to a halt and a few of the leaders got out and discussed whether to go on. Eventually some locals came out of a tea shop, and after much head wagging and gesticulating pointed us in the direction of one of their gardens.  Myself and American Thomas had wandered up the hill slightly, and turned to face one of the most spectacular sights I have ever seen.  Our buses were dwarfed by Nun, with its glacier falling in a wide arc to the valley floor.  Mountains and glaciers in the distance formed a backdrop for lush green fields and a river flowing with a torrent of grey-white glacial meltwater.  Tiny against nature, the minarets of a mosque could just be seen, sticking out like tiny blue sapphires in the immense landscape.

Today, we have arrived in the high Himalayas.  It was a rush to put tents up in the dark, but as I lay here with a belly full of curry, I feel invigorated.  It will be hard to go back to normal life after this, and I am already wondering what the next steps are.  I had planned to go straight into a grad job, but I am sorely tempted to step out of the rat race for a while and head back to the mountains as soon as I can.