When we mentioned to a friend that we planned to travel to Leh and he became super animated and excited for us. “Beautiful! Leh is beautiful. But it has one problem.” In all seriousness he said, “Leh lacks oxygen.”
Leh is tiny Buddhist city nestled in the Himalaya mountains. The entire city is bathed in searing light and the white stone buildings glow against the mountain desert. Gompas, prayer flags and stupas line dot the barren landscape. Monks and women carrying prayer wheels walk in the shade of the huge Potala replica that looms over the city.
It’s a stunning site but our friend was right. You absolutely can not breathe.
It’s difficult to catch your breath as you casually stroll downhill. Simple things like showering too vigorously can send your head into a spin. I constantly found myself trying to take huge gulps of air and panicking when I couldn’t fill my lungs. It’s not uncommon to spot a tourist sitting on the side of the road, eyes bulging, chest heaving, trying their best to simply breathe.
So in that environment the only thing we could think to do was TAKE IT UP ANOTHER 1,500 KM!
Vin and I teamed up with a few Frenchies and an Englishman to form team ‘Full Power!’
India has many, many amazing expressions. In casual conversation people will bust out with things like, “No worry, no hurry. No chicken, no curry” and the ever popular “First Class!” (Vinnie heard this the street everyday. Someone would call out to him, “Boss! That is a FIRST CLASS mustache!”) One of the most famed Indianism has to be “FULL POWER!” Anything and everything worth buying/eating/visiting/seeing was FULL POWER!
So on the way when the car broke down, we continued on with FULL POWER!
When we hit a swiftly flowing river, we found a way to cross it with FULL POWER!
When the dizzies set in and we nearly fell off a cliff, team FULL POWER was there to help!
The hike had no trail markers instead we were told to follow the path of donkey crap to find our way. Surprisingly this worked. Donkeys and their droppings were are hiking partners the entire climb and honestly, they are the only creatures cut out for moving at this altitude.
Our first day of hiking ended at a nearly empty Ladakhi village 4,000 meters above sea level. Giant stone stupas lined the path to the village where the 50 villagers poked their heads out of their mud homes and welcomed us with smiles. It’s always amazing to realize how many cultural divides can be crossed with just a smile.
We spent the night sleeping on a mattress on the dirt floor in the home of a young family. After a fantastic dinner of potato and spinach momos (Love those momos!) we settled in for the night, only to be abruptly woken by the frightening bray of a donkey. And then the screech of a goat. And the wail of several unidentified animals. It was the soundtrack to a horror film or noises heard nowhere else but a delivery room. Clearly we are not farm folks.
It turns out we’re not billy goats either and the next day of a vertical hiking proved very, very difficult.
We started out early, aimlessly walking through a vast valley surrounded by soaring cliffs. How were were expected to cross? There was no break in the vertical wall of mountain, no pass or even a smaller looking mountain.
Our eyes did not deceive us. We walked over a vertical kilometer to the top of the Stok mountain pass. In the thin air, on a tiny gravel path used by donkeys and criminally insane backpackers.
We walked until we had to climb. Then we climbed until we had to crawl using every muscle to propel our bodies up another foot. We gave it a FULL POWER effort but every five minutes one of us would collapse to the ground, gasping for breath, fighting the dizzies and trying to stay on the path. We were in constant danger of passing out and rolling off a cliff.
It took four hours to reach the top. And I would love to say that once at the peak we enjoyed the sweet smell of success but honestly we couldn’t breathe at all. It wasn’t until we had walked down a good 1,500 meters before enough oxygen hit out brain and we basked in the euphoria of walking to the top of the world.
At that point we gave out a scream that echoed from the mountains that once again surrounded us. “FULL POWER!!”