My harness creaks like an old saddle under the force of the thermal I’m riding. The ferocity of the thermals as they blast us upward through the rarefied air above 20,000ft is phenomenal. The terrain below, a savage world of scree, rock and glacier moraines adds to the hostility of the situation. I gasp for oxygen as the air thins further. It is becoming a fight for survival. Hypoxia is setting in and I know it.
Rob, Peter and I were engrossed in a packing frenzy back at my house. Mia, my 14 month old daughter, was wandering around picking up crucial pieces of equipment and secretively stashing them under cupboards, in washing machines and the dog’s basket. Every time we turned to admire our well-organised pile of gear it had shrunk instead of grown.The television in the corner of the room announced the evening news.
“President Clinton today ordered cruise missile strikes on terrorist camps on the Pakistan / Afghan border. The ‘Islamic Front for Jihad against Jews and Americans’ has issued a religious decree urging all Muslims to attack America and it’s allies. The terrorists say…….”
“Is that anywhere near where we’re going?” asked Rob naively.
“I’m afraid so mate. Just down the road from where we start flying. Shit! They don’t look very friendly!”
The screen showed bumpily shot footage of wild eyed Islamic youths in Islamabad burning the American flag and waving AK-47’s angrily at the cameraman, then cut to a shot of scared Americans scurrying to board their planes home; tails firmly between their legs.
We turned to look at each other, our dreams and plans going up in smoke with the Stars and Stripes! We had planned to go to Chitral on the Afghan/ Pakistan border and fly east across the Karakorum Mountains. Our trip had been timed according to the weather patterns and whilst we were to be baking in the dry Karakorum heat, the rest of the Himalayas would be awash with the monsoon until mid-September.
But with the Karakorum now out for political reasons this left us few options. Only one area would be out of the monsoon and not influenced by the growing Islamic unease towards the West the bombings had caused, and that was the remote Buddhist kingdoms of Ladakh and Zanskar of North India. We hurriedly changed our travel plans.
Late August 1998, Tibetan Monastery, Keylong, Himachal Pradesh, Northern India
It has been a dream of mine for years to travel to the remotest part of the Indian Himalayas, and Zanskar by all accounts holds that title. The Zanskar valley itself is 300 km long and closed at both ends by high mountains.
The only way in or out is to cross one of several 4500 m+ passes along the sides of the valley and with snow blocking them for 7 – 8 months of the year, even these provide an arduous and tenuous link with the rest of the world.
The best way in for the likes of us is obviously to fly in and over the last few days we have been formulating our plans. Our objective for today: to try to fly a ten day trekking route that will take us into the remote hidden Buddhist kingdom of Zanskar.
The first climb from take off gives me a taste of what’s to come. 6 m/s straight up, and the horizon expands and crumbles into a jumble of hostile peaks as I circle higher.
Rob is up already; a red speck far above us turning under a growing cloud. Peter and I shout at each other as we pass the 5000 m mark, quickly forgetting the morning’s discussion on staying low on the first day.
We’re up. Up big time and loving it. At 5500 m we join Rob at cloudbase and set off up the valley…
This is an excerpt from Cross Country magazine.
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