From Laya, we head east, away from the villages and trails of habitation and into more remote mountains. Camped at 13,800 ft by a glacial river in a wind-swept alpine valley where yaks graze freely, this will become our home for the next 3 nights, longer than expected. We can see that snow is still on the pass, and it’s unclear whether we will really be able to cross. I’ve been anticipating this problem, but we haven’t been able to get any accurate information about current conditions. Herders don’t cross the pass in winter—it’s only in the spring when the yaks need new grass and the people search for Cordyceps that anyone comes up here…and locals have waited later than usual to come due to the weather, so there’s been no local weather report.
The cook tent is where all the staff gather, sitting on the ground for conversation, tea, and meals. Trekkers tend to gather in the tables and chairs of the dining tent for the same. Before I present any options or information to the trekking team, I want to talk it over with the local team. The cook tent quickly becomes our defacto office, where we sit on sacks and pads, drink endless tea, talk through options, ask questions, and come to consensus on best plans. After much discussion, we decide to send a reconnaissance team to check the conditions and try to clear the trail at the top of the pass, while trekkers head up the other side of the valley (visibly clear) for an acclimatization hike to prepare for the push over 16,000 ft.
For those of us not trudging through the snow, it turned out to be a gorgeous hike on a lightly worn path, which took us to summer grazing pastures hemmed in by rocky peaks and views up and down the valley. In contrast, for those who ascended the pass, it was hours of digging and slipping, with men occasionally missing a step and sinking into snow up to their hips, only to reach the top and see at least 3 more miles of trail sunk in snow more than a meter deep in places. It’s impossible to clear in advance, which means it will be slow going if the group comes this way.
Reunited in the kitchen tent, we have a long discussion about conditions and concerns. This particular pass is problematic for three reasons: the wind blows big drifts from the steep mountainsides down into the narrow pass where it piles up AND the sides of the trail are a mix of big rocks and big holes between them, all invisible under the snow AND there’s no way to shorten the hike and camp on the edges of the trail. We are entering an area where our only emergency access is a helicopter called by SAT phone—and neither is super reliable in tight mountains blanketed by clouds and snow. People could travel slowly and carefully, but it could easily be a 12+ hour day (rather than the planned 8-9 hour day) to reach a campsite. Given that the exact edges of the trail are mostly invisible in deep snow, trekkers or horses can misstep and get a leg caught in the rocks and fall over. For animals carrying heavy loads, it’s an easy way to break a leg—and there would be no treatment.
Perhaps the biggest issue is that if we risk it and successfully pass through, there’s no telling what the next 5 passes on our route look like—and there’s no other way out in between. We either cross 5 more passes that are likely snowed in, or we retrace our steps to get out. It’s disappointing to turn away so early in the trip, but I can feel that it’s the right decision—not so much for me, but for all the lives I’m responsible for, human and animal alike. We decide to hike together to the top of the pass the next day, both because it will feel better seeing it for ourselves and also because this valley is so beautiful and we welcome another night here.
The hike to the pass is challenging, with stunning views of rock and alpine pastures. By the time we reach the top though, the clouds have closed in, it’s begun to snow, and we are soon in a whiteout. The trail is a mostly visible line of footsteps from yesterday’s reconnaissance, but yesterday they had no footsteps to follow as they picked their way through the sheer white world. I’m even clearer that we’re making the right decision to not push farther in these conditions.