Life in the freezer

Our second blog from the Nangpa valley describes what a bunch of snow leopard researchers get up to in their spare time.  Silly nonsense, mostly.

All work and no play make Jonny & Co. a dull bunch.  Having time-off is therefore an important part of our schedule, and we take every Sunday as a rest-day.  Most evenings, though, the four of us can be found reading books and playing Uno, all the while sitting as close to the communal stove as we can get without going up in flames.

Sometimes we feel a bit more energetic and decide to venture out into the freezer that is the Nangpa valley in February.  On Friday evening, Maurice and I joined the local kids for a game of football.  Bad choice.  Running, let alone sprinting, is not recommended for lowlanders at 3,800m/12,500ft.  Soon we were gasping for breath, as wee nippers half our size and a third our age dribbled circles round us.  By consensus, we were relegated to goalkeeping duties on account of our general uselessness.

That same Friday that we trekked to the village of Thame from Namche Bazaar, it began to snow.  At first the wind was light and the snow fell softly, dusting the landscape in a beautiful layer of white.  The freezing mist that blew up from the south coated every shrub and tree in magical hoarfrost.  It truly was a winter wonderland.  We were soon pelting each other with snowballs.

 Hoarfrost

Then Maurice had a flash of inspiration.  There would be no building of a common snowman for us, no sir.  Only a snow leopard would do!  A heap of big rocks, a few handfuls of dried yak dung and generous helpings of snow later, and we had our big cat.  What a beauty.  And given that even our chances of seeing a real snow leopard were those of a needle in a Himalayan haystack, we agreed to make do with this one instead.

DCIM100GOPRO

By the time Sunday came the gentle snowfall had turned into a raging blizzard.  But there was a valley beyond ours that linked to the adjacent Gaurishankar Conservation Area, and which was also an important connectivity corridor between its snow leopards and the population in Sagarmatha (Everest) National Park.  In theory to look for snow leopards, and unperturbed by the weather, we all headed out for a Sunday stroll.

The walk was to turn into a fiasco, and a dangerous one at that.  Here’s how we cooked-up this recipe for disaster:

  1. Take one snow leopard researcher.  Clothe in two base layers, two t-shirts, one jumper, two fleeces, one body-warmer, a coat, one pair of leggings and two pairs of trousers.
  2. Add two pairs of sock, two pairs of gloves and a hat.
  3. Take three other ejits and clad in similar garb.
  4. Pack rucksack with chocolate, biscuits, water, map, first aid kit, GPS and satellite phone.
  5. Place said intrepid party onto path above remote Himalayan valley.  Add driving wind, heavy snow and sub-zero temperatures.
  6. Simmer for two hours, while gently increasing volume of snow and altitude to 4,200m/13,900ft.
  7. Decrease altitude and descend 200m into river valley to look for easy route back.
  8. Discover unstable frozen river where path was meant to be.
  9. Panic.
  10. Ascend 200m back up to path, thankfully way-marked by GPS, bushwhacking through deep snow, thorns and heavy scrub for 30 minutes.
  11. Leave ejits to rest in a heap for five minutes.  Add chocolate and biscuits.  Water frozen solid.
  12. Head like the clappers for home.
  13. Bake gently in front of stove and serve with unlimited cups of tea.

DCIM100GOPRO

We had discovered that our winter wonderland had a dangerous side.  In the treacherous conditions we had encountered, we had glimpsed just how quickly life in the freezer could turn into death.  We were safe, though, but once again, the mountains had humbled us.  We were as nothing before them.  The ages of human history wax and wane, nations rise and fall.  But these mountains – all mountains – endure.

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