All I want to do is lie back down, curl up and rest. Sleep won’t come, but the lethargy is winning its battle.
“I accidentally put your drom in upside down last night” Jesse says in the four o’clock darkness. “I forgot about the leaky lid.”
“That’s fine. Hydration is overrated anyway…” I reply.
“That is what I would normally say too… but not on this course.”
We are camped at 15,000 feet on the shoulder of the Changuch Glacier. Above us the imposing peaks of Nanda Kot, Changuch, and Nanda Khat of India’s Kumoan Himalaya rise mysteriously into a swirling grayness of predawn light and clouds. For both of us it is our first time at this altitude and the first time working NOLS Himalayan Mountaineering course, erroneously called the GAR.
The GAR. Despite the misnomer (it is actually in the Kumaon region of the State of Uttarakhand as opposed to the Garhwal region, of which the term GAR is a shortened version) it has a reputation as a tough and challenging course. Elevation, logistics, pants pooping, heavy loads and the mostly self-contained nature are the main reasons given for the challenge.
This year, given the high snow levels, those challenges seem to be just a bit more prevalent. Post holing and wet weather only intensify the above list.
1,100 feet higher at Camp 2 I sit in the vestibule on the edge of the tent. I have my head in my hands. “Freaking headache” I mutter.
“Yeah, I have one too” Jesse says from behind me. She is lying on her sleeping bag, stretched out, resting.
“There hasn’t been a day on this course that i haven’t had one” I exaggerate.
“Yeah, who wants to deal with this altitude stuff. I mean, it makes you feel like shit.”
I take a hint from Jesse’s position and lean backward to lie on my sleeping bag.
I have worked a bunch of weeks in the field without ever taking my socks off. A liter of water per day is quite common on many courses (plus some hot drinks.) Sunscreen and lip balm are usually some sort of afterthought. Sunglasses only come out when I enter the snowy alpine. Lunch consists of a few handfuls of a random snack. Three hundred plus weeks with NOLS and countless other personal and professional days in the backcountry have allowed me to develop an astute self-awareness and understanding of my personal needs. I consider myself a mostly low maintenance co-worker or adventure partner. I eat whatever, drink whatever and have a decent level of tolerance for adversity and uncertainty. The concept of self-care usually comes second or third after caring for students, co-workers, partners or just getting the job done. A ukulele and toilet paper are my usual vices these days and that is all I need, or so I thought until I came to the Himalaya.
The Kumaon Himalaya has sapped me. Self-care is no longer an afterthought. Sunglasses are mandatory in this subtropical sun, even without snow. Water, water, water. Sunscreen, bandannas, homemade nose guards, zinc oxide and full coverage clothing is mandatory. Eat, eat, eat. Headache, headache, headache. The altitude’s affect on my body’s physical exertion is minimal. Even at 17,000’ I find myself steadily breaking trail only to forget that it should not be so easy. Having to care for myself to make that possible though is time consuming and taxing. The cold, dark starts challenge the mental game, making the need to be on top of self care even greater. When the sun hits, the brightness quadruples and the temperatures soar, the need for better self care is increased exponentially. Black or white. Hot or cold. On or off. There is little to no middle ground here in the Himalaya. Or, if there is, there is about 15 minutes of it per day.
To me the GAR isn’t difficult because of the pants pooping, the heavy loads or the altitude. The true reason that I would find it difficult lies in my need for a 180º about face in my self care. The altitude isn’t that bad if I eat. The sun isn’t that bad if I cover up. The heavy loads aren’t that bad if I walk slow. The bacteria aren’t that bad if I am careful and none of it is that bad if I stay hydrated, but changing years of habits, that is challenging and combined, they have taken a toll.
And now, even ten days later, people say I look tired. I guess they’re right; all I want to do is lie down and rest.