A few hours after our initial attempt we piled back into our jeeps and started back up the hill. The landslide had been cleared and traffic was well on its way. The paved two-lane highway soon switched to a one-lane dirt track, and that tired old word “harrowing” was made young again.
The trip uphill took a couple of hours, but in that time we changed elevation from about 11,500 feet in Leh to 18,380 feet at the pass. Now of course there’s a real danger of sliding off a cliff, but there’s also a danger of developing high-altitude sickness (if you didn’t already have it at 11,500ft). One common complication is high-altitude cerebral edema. HACE can really screw you up, but in all likelihood if you just take it easy and rest for awhile you can recover fairly quickly. High-altitude pulmonary edema, on the other hand, will kill you dead. It will start as a rough, dry cough, and then your lungs will be filling with fluid. Your options are suddenly A) descend as quickly as possible without exertion, or B) make a statistical contribution to the #1 cause of high-altitude death.
HAPE-free is the way to be!
Once we reached the pass we were able to stretch our legs and take a few pictures. I could definitely feel my blood desaturating… I was high as a kite! Our instructors cautioned us to take it slow, but we chose to have a snowball fight instead.
I decided if it’s the only time I get to visit the highest motorable roadway on the planet, I might as well climb a little higher. The first few meters up the hill were fine, but then my enthusiasm was washed out by a type of desperate dread that I’ve never experienced before. I was out of breath. Not just winded, but empty. I was standing in the doorway of panic, and thought “I feel it. I could fucking die right here, today, the jackass who decided to go a little higher, when he’s clearly already standing above all but a handful of other other people on Earth.” It was real. One exhausted lunge at a time I made my way a few dozen meters further up to an enclosed, circular building enshrouded with prayer flags. I could see distant mountain ranges in distant countries, a patchwork of settlements, rich biomes and infinite microcosmic complexity, all planted beneath the bluest, sharpest sky I’ve ever seen in my life. My worn out heart was screaming for air but the planet was alive and rested beneath me. The clarity and completeness of that moment will never be matched.