The Hongu River:
Wide, raging – impassable. From this point forward there would be no bridges, and no crossing to the West bank. What we did have was the experiences of the last two expeditions to draw on – and the disaster that befell them. Shneider failed because he tried to stay along the river, with its sheer banks and impossible bamboo thickets. That left one option: to climb.
For over a thousand vertical meters we climbed through verdant jungle; ferns, birds, heavy wet mosses, slippery black earth and melting snow. At last we crested, and found ourselves once again in the subalpine. Dense thickets of rhododendron blanketed the ridges, and worse – at this altitude the snow had failed to melt off.
The fog descended, blocking our visibility. Our guides, a pair of old Rai men who claimed to have crossed this pass searching for the valuable Yarsa-Gumba plant, were hours behind, out of reach even of our calls. As we trudged slowly through the wet snow, avalanche fields and mazes of rhododendron, we began to realize we didn’t know for sure where we were.
JB leads the way into the fog.
My thoughts strayed to the other expedition that had attempted this route: Jack Cox, in 1998. Also learning from Schneider’s misadventure, he too had attempted to climb to the ridges to continue down the river channel. Like us, he had met with harsh, unseasonable conditions, and like us, he had gotten lost.
Unable to continue upward and running out of food, his expedition had to rappel down a cliff to reach the river again. When they finally arrived they were literally beginning to starve, but between them and the villages to the West lay the Hongu river itself. At least 10 meters wide, violent, full of swift rapids and crushing boulders, they began to despair of being able to cross it.
Suddenly, Cox heard a scream. He turned to see his Sherpa sidar, or leader, sprinting towards the river. The man launched himself off of a boulder and into the air… and plummeted into the river. At the last moment, something incredible happened. The man apparently levitated back up, sailed the remaining 5 meters through the air, and landed on the opposing shore. At that point he lay down and promptly fell asleep for 30 minutes. When he awoke, he was able to catch a rope thrown to him from the other side, thus enabling construction of a bridge that became the expedition’s path to safety. And he remembered nothing of the incident.
Cox acknowledged in his description that he was starving, and that it does have an effect on the brain. But, he continues, he had 12 witnesses, and they all saw the same thing…
Snow-covered, fog-laden boulder fields.
As I worried over this strange story, the sun had gone down. Our campsite was nowhere to be seen, and in the darkness and fog, continuing was dangerous. I was more exhausted than I could remember being in my life, feet frozen, hungry, suffering from my various minor injuries. I sat on a rock, cold to the core, and lay my head against my arms.
“We should stop,” said JB, our guide, “But there is no water before the camp…” We were stuck between a lot of icy dark fog-covered rocks and a hard place.
At that point Omesh, the cook’s assistant, arrived. He concurred that we couldn’t move on, but said a little ways back there was a cave, where we could gather water painstakingly from the falling drops. Unsure if we were even going the right direction, it seemed to be our only option.
Our staff was incredible, even managing to cook us hot food with the slowly gathered water. Cold, exhausted, we crawled into the overhang and tried to sleep.
Our cave camp, morning after.
As the sun dawned, I woke to good news. With the fog lifted, our path had been spotted. We were far from having made it, but we could at least continue forward into the unknown…
A snow-covered slope on the way onward from the cave.
After all of that, we had to ask the old Rai man who was guiding us: was it possible there was a way along the river channel itself? He scoffed. “If there was,” he said (in Nepali), “Why the hell would we be up here?”
Almost made me feel better about it.