High Altitude and Chocolate
Tall Boy was huge, six feet six inches or more, with the backpack to match.
Chekhov, not as tall, was a respectable 5 feet eleven inches. His backpack had a girth that matched his sizable shoulders.
Two men: one fit, experienced and seasoned; the other, young, strong and totally full of himself. They stood together, eyeing the contents of their backpacks, which they had both neatly laid out on top of a blue painted wooden dining table.
The entire expedition crew of eighteen were crammed into a small mountain lodge, the last before the team left the main trail to head up into a little visited and remote Himalayan enclave in Nepal. Outside, warm rain fell.
The crew milled around, drinking tea, checking supplies, making sure any last forgotten details were remembered. Stuff was everywhere, yet there was a sense of order in the chaos, as things were checked, packed, unpacked and checked again. But no one else had laid things out neatly as these two. It was as if they were presenting or selling something at a bazaar. They were showing off.
Sticky was leading a fourteen day expedition in search of elusive snow leopards and didn’t want a foolhardy competition between these two men.
Their copious amount of paraphernalia, although impressive, was complete overkill - so many unnecessary things. Chekhov was carrying 23 kilos at least; and Tall Boy, with an added camera bag containing enough kit for a professional shoot, had more than thirty five kilos. For an expedition in the Himalayas, on steep rocky ground above five thousand metres, this was madness. But before Sticky could voice her concerns, she had to stare hard at a sizable pile of what looked like silver bullion wrapped in brown designer paper wrappers.
Could this be...Swiss Chocolate?
Not just a few bars but a horde. How many kilos worth? She would never know, but ten would seem an underestimation.
After her initial bafflement, she laughed. The chocolate was for the crew she quickly learned, a gesture of good will. Then let’s share it out, she suggested, the crew was large and there was enough for... she didn’t know, a few bars each, at least! But Tall Boy wasn’t parting with his bullion, and started packing it all away.
If he wouldn’t part with his chocolate, then at least he could lighten the load by allowing one of the crew to carry the camera equipment; after all, that’s part of their job, to carry gear – they get paid handsomely, and besides, are used to it.
He wasn’t budging on that either and, to make the point, put the full pack on his back with the extra camera bag fastened to the top. He had not long returned from an expedition in the Altai Mountains, Russia, and should have known better. Sticky tried to reason with his stubbornness.
Chekhov did the same, put on his full backpack, unaware of the high altitude reality awaiting with open jaws and gnashing teeth. She tried to reason with naivety.
She lost on both occasions, and now they stood tall, grinning, and ready to take on the world and leave her standing in their dust.
Later, when everyone was eating, Sticky snuck outside to where the packs and baskets for the trip were all neatly lined up against the side of the lodge wall. She tried on the two demon packs. Although the packs were ridiculously too large for her back, she felt their full weight, the heavy pull to earth, knowing she wouldn’t have a hope in hauling them over a mountain range. Whose knees would crumble first: Tall Boy or Chekhov?
The following morning, in vain, she had one last try at convincing them to share their loads. She gave up. The team had snow leopards to track over a lot of high and challenging ground. Sticky had a scientist, clients and a crew to look after; high altitude weight lifting would have to wait.
Up and up they went for two days, twisting through pines, into clouded bamboo forest, then giant rhododendron trees before the vegetation thinned until they were finally hiking through juniper. They passed a man chopping the juniper with an axe and saw a filthy pit where it was being distilled to extract the oil. No doubt to be later sold in Paris and New York as a rare eco friendly sustainable Himalayan oil using secret and ancient methods – hack the forest down, without any thought of tomorrow. He was the last person they saw. Base camp was made where the juniper no longer grew, next to a fast flowing glacial stream.
Food is always central to any expedition. It gathers people at the end of the day, warms and soothes the weariness of altitude. But, it’s never that simple. The porters had been pilfering the dried yak meat, pulling it from their baskets as they hiked, scoffing it out of sight. So they thought, until Sticky caught them red-handed. The cook should have been on top of this one but he wasn’t, and she had to do a sergeant major shouting act to get things straight. All the menus had been carefully worked out – why weren’t they eating chocolate instead of Yak?
For Europeans, Swiss Chocolate is a treat. It is a kind of treasure. Nepalese, especially hard working porters, see rice as something special. They happily eat two large cereal bowls full of steaming rice with a sprinkling of watery lentil gravy full of salt and chilli. And, their tea is sugar with some hot tea added to make it into a drink. So, chocolate just isn’t their thing. However, someone was eating it: the trash was full of silver and brown paper.
Chekhov was a personal trainer and paranoid of losing his well earned muscles. To ensure he kept perfect physique, he turned to food. Not only did he eat two huge portions of client food (that meant a really large meal, twice), he also joined the crew to eat rice and lentils, with yak meat. Again, he ate two enormous portions. He did this every mealtime. No one could quite believe it. It was like a circus act, but instead of sustaining weight, he lost it, like everyone does at altitude. His unwanted weight and muscle loss, combined with the oncoming onslaughts of altitude sickness, was never going to be pretty. He would soon be in meltdown.
Sticky took a trip with two crew members to the top of a non-snowy peak. It was high with splendid views of the Himalayas. This isolated enclave is hidden by three six thousand metre peaks. She could view one glacier, an impressive gorge with a raging torrent, a huge imposing rock face below a massive snow covered mountain, and a six thousand metre monolithic rock spire overlooking a vast forest. The forest held red panda and black bear; the rocky high ground, snow leopards and blue sheep. She surveyed for routes and good places for research.
On her return, Sticky noticed the messy brown lips of chocolate scoffing. The team had tucked in. That would ease Tall Boy’s burden.
The following day, Chekhov wanted to go up the non-snowy peak. He went with two young porters who rushed him up. They all wanted to be the fastest. The problem being, the porters had lived here all their lives and the altitude was irrelevant to them. Sticky had warned Chekhov about altitude sickness – take it slow, she said. That had fallen on deaf ears. The others ambled way behind, taking time. Sticky had stayed at base camp, and now, looking up to the top, everyone appeared like tiny specks to her.
And this was when the trouble all began. The following morning, she found Chekhov’s sunglasses by the stream. He was uninterested in their return, shrugged, sat looking into space and irritable when expected to answer back. Altitude sickness is a strange thing: it has Stubborn as a best friend. Take a rest, go down for a day, take a porter with you and come back up tomorrow or the next day. All advice was duly ignored. Strangely, his appetite was not affected. Muscles before health, before all else! But some days later, he did go down, forced down by feeling very rough indeed. He descended at least a thousand metres to a lodge. Sticky gave him an English speaking porter to carry his heavy pack and look after him. He never did come back, consuming the lodge’s food supplies until the team returned to find him some weeks later. He refused to speak about what had happened.
The chocolate was being distributed. Sticky must have had three or four bars in total. It tasted good.
Tall Boy was still refusing to let anyone help him with his load. With the kerosene and food supplies going down, some of the porters had little to carry, so there really was no excuse. Sticky didn’t pay too much attention to him as she was distracted by snow leopard tracks in the snow – a mother and a small cub. So there was excitement all round. The tracking took the group to a pristine high altitude lake where they spotted twelve blue sheep, one with huge curled horns. Getting down from this high spot was very tricky. Sticky didn’t want to go back the way they had come, that was the wrong way on their circular route. The only other option was to follow the lake overflow. It quickly formed a stream. The stream seemed to cut a route through the rocks. On either side of the stream were boulders one could hop along. Sticky said she would do a reconnaissance, but the further she got, the steeper it became until she was dropping down from one boulder to the next, as the stream became a waterfall. Going back was going to be gruelling. She noticed the others watching her from above and edging along the top of the cliff she was descending. They indicated that they would try and go another way. All her focus had to be on her own descent. It was long and very physical and she broke out into a sweat thinking this might have been a mistake.
That morning, at the last night’s campsite, they had left the crew to make their own way to a designated spot and could now see them below in a small alpine valley. They had taken over an old herding hut. The welcome sight and smell of wood smoke meant food and tea. It drove her on.
On arrival, she looked back to the cascading stream dropping down and through the rocks. The lake was a very long way up. High above to the right, the rest of the team were toing and froing along the rocks trying to find a way down. They seemed to be having difficulties in finding a route and it wasn’t until some hours later that they arrived, utterly exhausted. Tall Boy collapsed, his legs giving way. His feet had problems, his shoulders hurt and he was unable to speak. The others told Sticky he had still refused to share his load. She didn’t mention the weight of his pack again.
Sick of chocolate, Sticky refused any more. Surely it all must have been eaten by now? The whole team had been enjoying it. The porters had even shared some amongst themselves, except they ate it in small cubes rather than whole bars.
Sticky didn’t know what to do with Tall Boy. There was a steep downhill descent that would take all day, non-stop, morning until dusk. He wouldn’t make it in his condition with a load. Time for a sergeant major episode, not exactly as he was a client; however, it took some convincing but Sticky did manage to get him to hand over his camera gear to a trusted porter. It weighed about the same as her own backpack. He then refused to hand over his backpack. Oh well, she had tried.
The descent was relentless and hard on the knees. The team couldn’t afford to be stuck in the forest after dark as there was no water and no flat ground for tents.
It was a silent event with a lot of slipping, muffled curses and a few hard landings. But everyone made it, unscathed.
Tall Boy staggered in last, bow-legged and half slipped, half fell to a resting position where the team and crew all sat. Nearby, no more than twenty minutes walk was a lodge, and that meant food and drink for all, even alcohol, always an important end of trek moment.
Tall Boy’s backpack had come open. More bars of chocolate than Sticky could count, lay strewn around. No, he even had some in his pockets! It was like contraband. He was off-loading it, leaving it all behind, now desperate to ease the load. There must have been at least another ten kilos. This chocolate had nearly finished him off.
Some kids sauntered by, eagerly eyeing the treasure, silver wrappers shining in the twilight. They were immediately rewarded but didn’t hang around too long, taking off in case he changed his mind.
Everybody laughed, at the kids but more likely at Tall Boy. Everyone was just baffled and perplexed.
Sticky looked across the inky sky. A few hours away, somewhere in the darkness, was Chekhov’s lodge. She wondered what the restaurant bill would be. That’s tomorrow’s problem. Now, the bar.