Crisis at Kauma
Tired porter perched on a rock in an island of snow
Pemba was accompanying me again. I was very glad of his help this morning, especially on tricky bits of descent on steep snow where the snow wasn't amenable to having steps kicked in it.
After we had completed the last ridge it seemed to take several hours before we reached the refuge of the hut at Kauma. In fact when I looked at my watch it was only 12 30 pm.
The hut hadn't been finished, although it was the nearest thing to shelter for many a mile. A sheet of its corrugated iron roof crashed to the ground when I was there. There were walls all the way around, but lots of holes in them.
Round to the right were a couple of primus-type stoves, with most of the remaining space being taken up by her bed. To get water, the young boy would be repeatedly dispatched to go and cut blocks of snow from further up the hill.
Wet, bedraggled and exhausted, we sat and ate our packed lunches on the benches in the lodge doorway. An elegant Canadian couple from the Yukon were also sitting on the bench, with their tent pitched just outside.
It was a strenuous, wet and unpleasant morning going over both major passes of the Shipton La - and the big saddle between them. The snow was deeper and less firm than when we were going up.
We had poor visibility all day; you could see just far enough to work out that there was another steep ridge to negotiate, but not see beyond it.
Pemba and the Shipton La
The Sherpani had the most marvellous flashing eyes. Her baby was in a cradle on her back, attached to a tumpline on her forehead. This left her hands free, so she could make cups of tea, cook noodles, sell beer etc.
If the baby began to cry, she just waggled her bottom and the baby soon quietened down. Watching her do this was particularly addictive.
I must have been paying too much attention - my gaping mouth must have given me away - when she turned to me, and with one balletic movement combining flourish of eyes and wiggle, said: "You like Sherpani?"
The well-bred Canadian woman leaned over and translated; "She means, 'Do you like Sherpa tea?'"
The hut at Kauma
is tea with buttermilk and salt and in truth one of the porters sitting
opposite was drinking some, but I knew what I had heard. Maybe there was
no husband; maybe there was a vacancy for a protector and provider...
By this time Eric and Rema and their porters had arrived. Everyone tried to crowd into the lodge, with some of the porters going around to sit on the bed. Suddenly, there was a commotion from that side. The atmosphere became charged with the potential for violence.
The poor Sherpani and baby jumped up on the bed and cowered against the wall. Pemba and others went around to see what was happening. One of Eric's porters had been taken sick so abruptly that he had thrown up over a porter from another expedition. He was now moaning and groaning on the bed.
The noise attracted in those people who had been obliged to sit outside. Medium sized men came in first, reasonably interested in solving the problem, and then bigger and bigger men arrived with heightened determination and shorter fuses. I soon realised that I had absolutely nothing to offer the Sherpani in terms of being a protector.
Amid all of this, Pemba seemed to be playing a role as peacemaker. The Sherpani heated up some Rakshi (a homemade distillate) for him and one or two others. It was good to be able to applaud Pemba's success, but I wanted to press on. One of the Sherpas cooked up some more Rakshi for Pemba and the others.
By this time I was getting a little agitated; I knew that from Kauma to Tashi Gaon was four hours walking and it was now getting close to 2 pm, while it got dark not long after 6 pm.
Eric's team began to set out, so I joined them. Eric's first remark was to say, "You're with us now, you can relax". His second was to apologise for not walking faster. At that moment I realised just how competitive and 'press-on' our group had been. I had been enjoying myself more in the last few days, when I had been mainly walking with Pemba and we were able to stop and look at things.
We soon approached steep downward snow. Pemba, who had quickly caught us up, was very animated and entertaining, showing us how we could slide down the slopes on our bums. We skidded down on our bums like some sort of Cresta Run, zigzagging at great pace.
Then I got overconfident, zigged when I should have zagged, and shot out over a steep slope. Thankfully I soon managed to stop.
At last the snow began to peter out. We were on a steep downwards path through a forest, which involved rough stone steps. Then Pemba started to wobble around. In a few minutes he became unable to walk. It was the Rakshi and the fact that he had missed his lunchtime Dahl Bhatt. He wanted to rest so we let the others go ahead. Half an hour passed but he was still no better. I tried to guide him down, but he was too unsteady. It was now 3 30 pm. It was going to be dark in less than 3 hours and we had at least 3 hours walking to do.
Just then we encountered one of Eric's Sherpas. He had a porter with him who also looked the worse for wear. We decided that I would take back my/Pemba's bags and go on down.
For the next two and a half hours I was on my own. It struck me just how quiet the forest was. There was only the occasional twittering of a bird rather than a constant chorus.
At length the forest seemed to be getting thinner, but so far there had only been one path to take. Nearer the village there might well be several paths and no obvious right choice. It was also beginning to get dark.
Just as I began to fear the worst, about 6 30 pm, I saw a figure coming up the path with a torch. It was Dendi. He had heard from Eric and the big Sherpa about our problem.
At last a gap in the forest
Dendi escorted me back down to our tents, perhaps half an hour away. We got in just before it was pitch dark and right on dinnertime. Everyone was keen to find out the story.
I tried to stress Pemba's heroism, rather than his incapacity. Dendi was furious, there was no excuse for Sherpas to be under the influence of drink when they were working; but Dawa was more understanding.
Next One More Big Effort Back Slippers Before The Snows