Our guide Dustan allows a break and I devour the second Snickers like it is made of dust. We’re confused as to how we get down as we can’t see a path, but when he pulls out a rope we realise now it’s time for shit to get really real.
Dustan, all grit and no nonsense, lowers us down one by one past the 10 metres or so of slippery snow that marks the first part of the ridiculously steep descent we must make if we want to get to camp and not perish on the mountain. We then perch precariously on self dug spots wondering just how we will scale the next 500 metres and how much time we have left before the dirt collapses beneath us, sending us to our inevitable, skull crushing deaths. At this point I can only converse in expletives and wonder how I will be portrayed in the documentary they will undoubtedly make about our disappearances.
The instructions from Dustan are brief. We have to dirt ski down. I didn’t even know that was a thing. Daniel manages to slide down on his backside before mustering the courage to get upright and use a walking pole to ‘ski’ the last leg (and even take a picture). Phil gracefully runs down as if he was skipping through Hyde Park. That leaves me, quivering, whimpering me.
Dustan means business. He is going to take me by the hand the whole way down. I stumble and refuse to get back up. He is not happy. We try again. We stop and he tells me off for screaming. He says I shouldn’t panic because he is the one in danger, not me. He is carrying his backpack and mine, after all.
So we try yet again. Deep breaths. He creates mini landslides with his feet so gravity can help us rather than kill us. I have to follow with sideways squatting slide steps. It takes me a long time to get used to the fact that falling rocks are not a bad thing in this situation (small ones anyway) and that we need to skid rather than step.
We mercifully reach the bottom. All that’s left is a mere trudge through some flat snow and stroll through some rolling hills and we are at camp.
I hug the porters and cook as if they are long lost family. God knows how they did what we just did with their giant packs. I don’t care. I’m alive and the hell is over and that’s all that matters.
The open valley that is our campsite feels like the four seasons and our grubby two man tent for three the penthouse.
As we get ready to collapse into bed Dustan utters the most magical words: “Breakfast at 9. Tomorrow easy day.”
Day three and four
This is more what I had in mind. After the two previous full days, it’s a relief to do a mere four hours ambling down lush green paths with the odd river crossing to spice things up.
We reach the small hot springs settlement of Altyn Arashan, kicking off our shoes as we collapse into our yurt. The hot springs are too hot to submerge your whole body, but slowly pouring the warm water over our weary muscles is delicious.
On the last day we hike down a dirt road, bringing us ever closer back to the outside world. We pass fresh looking day trippers and smugly assess whether they could have survived what we did.
At the end, lunch is laid out on a picnic bench like the last supper. Our gold toothed driver can’t arrive soon enough. We wearily pose for a group photo and head silently back to Karakol, too drained to talk. But Dustan has one question for me: “Did you like trekking?”
(PS Phil loves hiking, so we will be doing more of this in China and Bhutan. Maybe after this experience I’ll have hardened up a bit and be less dramatic about those ones. Probably not.)