The Yellow Brick Road

Definition of CAIRN
: a heap of stones piled up as a memorial or as a landmark

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Who needs GPS navigation, a compass, or a map, when you can simply follow the little piles of rocks indentifying the “path?” There is an art to cairn building, unfortunately not all have mastered the technique and too many have tried. The phrase “not all who wander are lost might actually have a literal translation of stumbling through a rock moraine looking for the next seemingly strategically placed piles.”
It was 5:30 in the morning at 16500ft when Ram and I departed from our secluded base camp armed with excessive amounts battery powered electronics, a radio, and a couple of snickers bars.

Destination: North Side Base Camp of Makalu, Nepal
Elevation: 19000ft
Directions: Head up the valley and turn right at the corner of the mountain, walk up hill until you see the tent city. Easy.

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Our base camp was nestled on the opposite side a gushing glacial run-off, treachery at early hours when the sun has yet to bake-off the ice buildup on the rocks. Ram slipped through soaking one shoe: a tortuous feeling to be not only cold, but to face the next hours of hiking with only one sloppy sock. We continued on until realizing that we had following the wrong trail leading up the left side of the valley. I headed, leaving Ram to check out another trail and go back to camp, believing that I was only an hour or 2 from my destination.

Gaining elevation with a loaded pack is not the easiest of endeavors when you have a 100% guarantee that the next rock you step on may or may not be stable. After 4 hours of hiking I was rewarded with the first sign of camp life, prayer flags flapping away in the mountain breeze. 2 hours of stumbling later I made it to the North Side ABC in time for lunch.

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A quick wander around camp, exchanging of pleasantries and a well earned view of Everest in the distance, I headed home knowing the sun would be swallowed by the peaks surrounding me before getting back to camp.

In the world of elevation gain, going down is always easier…or not. Using what I thought were those beautiful cairns left by all the thoughtful Hansel and Gretel’s led me through a labyrinth of grey glacial stone. I looked up to the right and saw a nice little stack 50 ft up hill, I looked to my left and saw another stack 50 ft downhill, straight ahead another little stack. Wonderful, which one is the real trail? I zigzagged for hours trying to figure out which was the right path.

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I took the road less traveled, or rather the non-road that looked like it might take me to the opening in the valley where the peaks met. In retrospect I think I overshot the trail turn by about 400ft. As I was straddling boulder on a thin rib glaring at the massif that was above me and the eminent slide below me I remember thinking the most obviously thing possible “I don’t think this was the right way.”

The 3 year old in me wanted to have a temper tantrum, and the 16 year old was “like, WTF,” and the 25 year old was thinking “well, you got yourself here, better figure something out.” Several icy traverses later I was back on track racing the final hours of daylight back to camp.

Check the batteries in your headlamp before heading out on any adventure, another fail. I heard the water from the river and thought I was close…”hoped” might be the better term. I followed the water’s edge knowing that at some point I would see the light beaming off the side of the mountain signaling our camp. Ram meet up with me about 45 minute out of camp with a flashlight, getting us back to our last obstacle, the river that had claimed his right shoe earlier that day. This time it got us both.

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9:30 PM: We arrived back in camp.

Lesson 1: Don’t leave home without a working headlamp.

Lesson 2: If you have ever “wandered” too far, find water and follow it down stream until you hit the road or in my case a camp. Well at least that is what my dad said.

Lesson 3: Don’t tell your mother about the stupid thing you did until you are home or maybe never depending on your mom.

And Finally: DON’T BELIEVE THE CAIRNS!

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