I woke before the others the next morning and went outside. The sky, a mass of bright stars, stretched overhead like a jeweled canopy. The air was crisp and cold. The subtropical vegetation of the lower altitudes had given way to juniper thickets, the Hindu shrines to Buddhist chortens. Ahead of me that day was our highest single climb of 4,400 feet which, according to Tony, would be "downhill all the way," a 15-mile trek involving steep ascents to a large grazing ground called the Nama Phu Yak Pastures, where base camp would be pitched. Our reward, said the itinerary, would be a fine view of Tilicho Peak, the Nilgiri mountains and, looking west across Kali Gandaki Valley, the highest peak (26,795 feet) of the Dhaulagiri range. I took an aspirin and crawled back into my sleeping bag.
"The Sherpas," said Shipton later, as I struggled up behind him on the way to our breakfast site, "have never understood why we do this. They must really be mystified when they see how much you're enjoying it. You've forgotten everything I taught you." He thrust his ice ax behind him and we did our me-and-my-shadow routine. Since there would be no water until we reached Nama Phu, the Sherpas had packed food for us. It was wrapped in sheets of soiled wax paper—a cold pancake, a slab of tinned meat poking out of a nest of grime and an orange. Shipton, oblivious to external appearances, munched happily. I settled for the orange and gave the rest to a gratified Purtemba, who crouched beside us. A minor headache that had plagued me at Jhomosom was getting progressively worse, and as we continued to climb, discomfort increased as I began to feel the first unpleasant sensations of nausea.
"You may be feeling the altitude a bit," said Shipton at about 12,500 feet, massaging my shoulders. Below us, Rosamond Twistington-Higgins slowly was making her way up the slope. Her usually steady shuffle had become a crawl, due to an inexplicably painful knee. We started up again, but I had another fit of nausea, and had to stop once more. Shipton, who speaks the language of the Sherpas, said a few words to Kanja, who was bringing up the rear. Kanja disappeared with long strides up the slope and over the ridge. I don't know how long we rested before I saw two horses emerge over the top of the hill. Phudorje was leading one, Kanja the other. We had met many mule trains along the trails, on their way to Mustang or Tibet with their loads of rice and yak pelts, but these were the first horses I had seen.
"Where did you get them?" I asked Phudorje.
" Dalai Lama's horses," he said. "I get them from Dalai Lama's policeman." The Dalai Lama has been living in seclusion in India since his flight over the mountains after the Chinese Communist take-over of Tibet, and a loyal little army is standing guard over the Nepalese frontier. Shipton helped me mount, while Kanja went down the slope to get Twistington-Higgins. Rosamond rode well. I did not, but I was grateful as I lurched along, perched on the Tibetan saddle of folded blankets. It isn't every day a trekker rides into camp on the Dalai Lama's horse. My tentmate put me to bed, and Tony angled his 6'3" into the tent to give me a shot of brandy. The temperature had taken a sharp, downward curve and my teeth started to chatter. A canteen filled with hot water was shoved into my sleeping bag. Jean covered me with two duvet jackets, but I could not stop shaking.
"Don't feel bad about not making it today," she said. "Almost everyone was in a state of collapse when we got here. And guess what? Tony has a blister." That was good news. Dr. Jack, who stopped in, had a "thundering" altitude headache. Joyce had fallen on a rock and bruised her hip. Dr. John had taken a spill crossing a stream and bruised his ribs. The altitude had given Muriel a nosebleed. Shipton thought he was coming down with Delhi Belly. Jean chattered on with news of our small, remote world, and I fell asleep.
Tony brought my supper to the tent and told me that because I was obviously feeling the altitude and because my progress through the hills made a turtle look like a rocket, I would not be allowed to go on to high camp at Tilicho Pass or up the unnamed peak. Rosamond Twistington-Higgins, her ailment diagnosed as a "stress fracture," would also stay behind, as would Dr. Jack and his wife Alison.
"Your Patooti is going to have to go on ahead with the other Sherpas and porters and help dig out a campsite," said Tony, "and he won't be able to look after you, which will be a blow to him, I daresay, but I'm sure he'll bring you some rocks with which to slow you down even more on the trek back."
The next morning all but three tents were packed up for the trip to high camp, and I moved in with Twistington-Higgins, who was now reduced to crawling about on her hands and knees.
Truth to tell, I was not exactly heartbroken to be left behind, except that I had brought along an American flag, hoping to plant it alongside whatever chauvinist emblem the British produced. It was not much of a flag, about an inch high, attached to a toothpick and had, as a matter of fact, come out of a Cracker Jack box. My headache was better, the sun was shining. I decided to climb a ridge behind the camp and leave my Cracker Jack pennant in some small niche. It took about an hour to get where I was going, inching my way around sun-browned shrubs and patches of scree. At the top I rested, then wedged the flag into a crack in a rock. The next monsoon will wash it away, but for a few months, somewhere in Nepal at 14,000 feet, a tiny emblem waves.