Tony passed us with his long-legged stride. "Keep going," he said, as I faltered. "Once you get to the top it will be downhill all the way." When we got to the top the path curved again, upward. "He lies," I said bitterly. Shipton laughed.
For the next three days I lived on that lie, which was taken up by some of the others. "Just a few more steps, luv, and then it's downhill all the way" or "Tomorrow will be an easy day, a brief climb and then it's downhill all the way."
Mountains, like some people, can't seem to make up their minds. First their trails go up, and just when you think you've got it made they go down. Wow, I thought, when we got to Ghorapani the fourth day out. T-minus 9,000 feet and still counting. The next day we started down, 5,000 feet to be exact. It took us another two days to climb back up to 8,000 feet at Sirkung. On the way there, via Ghasa (6,600 feet), the trail passed below a spectacular waterfall, and soon the Kali River itself was falling in a series of powerful cataracts. At Ghasa our permits were checked, a tedious business with interminable scrawling by Nepalese officials in enormous, fly-specked books. The operation apparently bored Gangway, who, when it was over, spat in a gutter and said, "Me no never not like this government, not never."
We arrived in Sirkung with six days gone and four to go to base camp. It was about now that I got rid of my rucksack to take weight off my feet, which were sprouting blisters faster than mushrooms pushing up in a pine forest. Dr. John shared his private porter, Purtemba, who was carrying his camera equipment. "Take care of memsahib," he instructed Purtemba whenever he wanted to rush up some impossible ridge to make movies, and a scrawny, brown hand would take a firm grip on my elbow. In addition, there was always Patooti, popping up unexpectedly from behind bushes and rocks.
"His name is Phudorje, pronounced Foo-door-jay," said Tony, "and our sirdar's name is Nawang, not Nosegay or Gangway." Phudorje gave me presents, stones and small rocks he picked up in the dry riverbed of the Kali Gandaki gorge, a river festooned with tributaries into which I fell with monotonous regularity. Phudorje, grinning self-consciously, would lead me into camp holding my hand.
"It's your utter helplessness, plunging into all those icy mountain streams and tottering off ledges, that gets his wind up," said Tony. "Your Patooti has something of a crush. Keep it up and you may find yourself bringing yaks down to pasture at his village of Kunmunjong."
"Oh, do leave her alone, for pity's sake," said Alison. "I think Pooh is sweet."
Steadily my endurance improved, which was both encouraging and necessary, since to reach base camp at 13,500 feet on the 10th day, as planned, we were going to have to double our regular distance.
Phudorje saw me through our first long day from Sirkung to Jhomosom (8,900 feet), loading my pockets with stones and taking me away from the trail the others followed to show me a rock monument inscribed to five Americans and two Sherpas who lost their lives last year while attempting to climb the southeast ridge of Dhaulagiri. Phudorje had been their sirdar. Snow-blind, he had been confined to base camp. "I tell them not to go, to wait one day. I smell bad weather. But they go. Then I hear avalanche and see them no more."
We were now in Alpine country. The terrain was rocky and arid, but spectacular. The mountains in the distance peeped over the ranges like white-capped nuns. It was doubtful that we would see yaks, said Shipton, since they rarely descend below 14,000 feet. But we saw plenty of dzo, a cross between a cow and a yak.