The Painful Mountain
The tummy bug had finally found me. Two weeks of successful evasion had tricked me into thinking I’d escaped the digestive abnormality which most travelers experience. But no. The day before we set off to climb what locals call “The Painful Mountain,” I came down with tummy pains and a mild fever.
My fever broke that night, and the next morning saw me chipper enough to squeeze myself into one of the airplane style seats in a Hani-Baba bus. In case I have not mentioned the Hani-Baba buses yet, I must provide a brief description. These two-wheel drive vehicles resemble giant versions of 1990s american minivans. Being very long, the Hani-Baba bus contains a great many rows of seats, arranged so that boarding the bus is only minimally inconvenient. Ostentatious decals reading “HANI-BABA YENI-MAH” adorn the rear windows. Velvety dash pads with long tassels conceal cigarettes, lighters, and other small items. All rear windows have curtains of a rather dull fabric, contrasting with the enthusiastically noisy patterns used on the seats and headliner. Finally a stereo blares the wailing sort of singing popular in these regions.
Our journey saw highway turn to mountain road and mountain road turn to rocky ruts up a steep hill. Occasionally, ancient fragments of asphalt could be seen amongst football-sized rocks which comprised the road surface. The bumps soon became so violent the driver made us exit the vehicle. Walking up the road, we watched our driver back the bus down the hill and take a run at the steep grade. Coaxing every last bit of power from the engine, he let the clutch out, spinning the wheels, kicking up rocks and moving the vehicle only minimally. I could almost watch tread wearing off the tires. The van fell into a deep rut. Dust clouds billowed out and the vehicle seemed to float sideways. With a sudden lurch, it exited the dust cloud, like a whale surfacing on the ocean. Things got worse when the driver’s helper decided to put rocks behind the wheels every few feet. Whenever the bus lurched forward, the assistant would stick his hand behind the rear wheel to deposit a rock. The van would roll back onto the rock and the assistant would whisk his hand out of danger. There is not space enough here to recount the myriad of dangerous driving techniques the Hani-Baba men have developed to get their vehicles up this road.
Miraculously, no crucial components of the Hani-Baba buses broke before reaching the road’s end. After our many bags were loaded onto horses, the buses tumbled and crashed back down the bumpy road, hopefully headed straight to the nearest service station. Meanwhile, we shouldered day packs and fell into line behind our local guide.
Volcanic rock, scrubby grass and thistles comprised the landscape. Eventually we came upon a collection of tents: a nomad village. Big fierce dogs roamed about. Little children with sticks tended sheep. Camp M had a satellite office of sorts here. A small forest of spindly poles supported a blue tarp and sheep hair canopy. In the shade of this nomad tent, a row of carpets and cushions had been laid out. We sat upon the mats, drinking murky chai tea populated with with floaty particles. The remainder of our day followed the same pattern. Hike through the volcanic rock and scrubby grass. Stop and have chai at a nomad village. Hike again. Stop for tea. Presently, we reached a wide grassy shelf occupied by yet another nomad summer camp. Wishful thinking brought us to believe this was our destination: the 3200 meter camp. No sooner had we thrown down our packs than our guide informed us that camp was yet ten minutes up the mountain.
Perseverance brought us to a second grassy bench. Unlike any of the mountaineering camps I’d been to before, 3200 meter camp was a regular mountain metropolis. Big cook tents and equipment tents occupied the lower regions of the camp. All the sleeping tents were further up the hill. In addition to our camp, there were two other 3200 camps of equal size, each a few hundred yards away. As I took in my surroundings, the sun set and temperatures fell. I felt desperately tired. Unfortunately, the horses carrying our luggage were about an hour behind us. I sat in the dust, cold and dismal but pretending to be warm and comfortable. The Painful Mountain was no joke.
The team spent three days at the 3200 camp, getting used to the higher altitude. Still recovering from my minor illness, I spent the first day alternately napping in the Black Diamond bombshelter mountaineering tent my dad and I shared and hanging out at the “Painful Mountain Cafe,” another nomad tent supported by poles. Inside, one could buy scarves, head bands, soda and beer. Yoda and I spent the afternoon there sipping on Fanta and discussing our plans for climbing the rest of the mountain.
The next day, I took an acclimatization hike up the mountain. The trail changed drastically after 3200 camp. Vegetation vanished, replaced by rocks of all sizes. Trails, comprised of marble sized stones and powdery dust, meandered through a scree field, winding back and forth across each other, much like the double helix of DNA. Far above, the pointy top of a white tent could be seen. Supposedly, that was the 4200 meter camp. Sixty minutes of a steady pace and hard breathing validated this assumption. For an hour, I sat and rested with two climbers nicknamed “The Wild Bills.” When a snowstorm moved in, I moved out; the hour at 4200 meters had been long enough to introduce my body to the higher altitude and thinner air. Upon arrival at 3200 camp, I was fed a meager meal of rice and chicken bones, washed down with a cup of chai tea.
An evening spent playing cards in an empty cook tent ruined my plan to retire early and rest up for the next day’s climb. But in all honesty, I wouldn’t have missed those hours of cards for anything. Eight of us, two groups of four, squatted on tiny stools, dealing cards onto slightly larger table-stools. While other campers spent long boring evenings in their tiny tents, we enjoyed outrageous bids; winning some hands, losing others. Finally, the card players grew tired and retreated to their tents to rest up for the next day’s climb. As I crawled into my sleeping bag, many questions about the climb swarmed in my head. But questions would have to wait.