Grounded in Gilgit

A few hours after I arrived in Gilgit I was taken ill. It was nothing serious –  just a splitting headache, a sore throat and a fever – but it was deeply annoying. I had hoped to be back on the bike the next day, finally, after all these weeks of sitting around, launching myself onto the Karakorum Highway, a road I’d been dreaming about for years, and which I expected to be one of the high points of my trip, both literally and metaphorically.

And instead I found myself forced to spend another three days doing nothing. Anything other than lying still made my head throb and buzz unbearably. My skin prickled, my throat ached, and my legs were so weak that when I tried to walk round the corner to the shop to get myself some water, I very nearly fell over. My usually indomitable appetite was a thing of the past. I slept all day, worried that this would mean I wouldn’t get to sleep that night, and then slept all night as well. On the second day a bunch of local journalists turned up to interview me (not much happens in Gilgit, so my arrival constituted something of a scoop), and I heroically managed to stay upright, smile for the photographs, give them all the usual soundbites about what a wonderful and unfairly misrepresented country Pakistan is, and ride my bike in circles for the TV cameraman without fainting or crashing. After they left I crawled back into my bed and slept for another few hours.

Thankfully, kind friends had found me a room in the women’s hostel of the Karakorum International University, so I had somewhere safe and quiet to convalesce, and a constant stream of sweet, shy, but extremely friendly students and lecturers to keep me company. Unfortunately I couldn’t offer them very good company in return. As well as being exhausted, and at times barely conscious, I was deeply deeply annoyed with myself and my body, for getting ill at this inconvenient moment, wasting the precious final days of my dwindling visa and putting the final nail in the coffin of my fitness. But there was nothing I could do. The illness would pass in its own good time, and I had as little chance of hastening it as I did of changing the weather.

I’ve been thinking lately about the various factors that inhibit me on this journey. Some, like my own laziness and fear, like red tape and bureaucracy, like steep hills and Turkish winters, can be overcome with a little determination, toughness, hard work and optimism. Others I am powerless to affect. If I wake up and see that it’s snowing so hard I can’t see more than a few feet in front of me, I can’t do anything about that, and I’d probably be a fool to try and cycle in it. If the Baloch police force refuse to let me cycle (as they did), I can argue with them, but ultimately I have to give in and put my bike on the truck. If part of the Karakorum Highway is swept away by a landslide, I have no option but to sit and wait for it to be cleared. In a few days’ time I’ll be up above 3000m, and at risk of altitude sickness. There’s no telling how susceptible I’ll be – youth and fitness don’t always make that much difference, and apparently even seasoned Himalayan climbers are not immune. And if I do find myself suffering from acute mountain sickness (AMS), the only reliable treatment is descent to a more hospitable altitude. I can’t just gird my loins and battle through it. This is not something I can overcome with bravery and stubbornness – it’ll be a matter of recognizing the symptoms, judging the risks, and making the right decision, even if that decision involves stopping or turning back.

Sometimes the decision to back down takes more courage than the decision to carry on.

That’s what I was told by one of the many people who advised me to take the bus through Kohistan. And he’s right – it would be folly, and blind bravado, to throw myself at all obstacles in my path without any serious consideration of how likely I am to survive them, and whether I’m more likely to survive them if I retreat, regroup, rethink, and tackle them from a different angle.

But also – I’m coming to realize the virtue, and indeed, the necessity of patience in an expedition like this. Sometimes you do just have to sit and wait for the weather to pass, the road to clear, the paperwork to be processed, the seasons to change and the virus to work its way out of your system.

I spent my convalescence reading Ernest Shackleton’s account of his 1914 expedition to Antarctica. I picked it up on a whim, having read the first half of it in my tent between Sivas and Erzurum (to remind myself that there are worse things than the Turkish winter), but it turned out to be extraordinarily apt. You can read more about Shackleton here. He stands out as one of Britain’s greatest explorers, not because he was the first, or the fastest to achieve anything (he was beaten to the South Pole by Amundsen in 1912, and the 1914 expedition failed in its objective to traverse Antarctica from coast to coast), but because of the extraordinary feat of bringing back all 27 of his men alive after their ship, the Endurance was trapped in pack ice and crushed.

There was no swift, dramatic rescue operation. Shackleton and his men were trapped in the ice for over a year before they eventually took to the sea in lifeboats and made it to the remote and desolate Elephant Island (where no human had ever set foot), from which Shackleton and four of his team set out to cover the 800 miles of open sea to South Georgia, where they managed to make contact with human race again and sent a boat to pick up the men stranded on Elephant Island, who had been waiting there for over four months, and were almost out of food.

If you read Shackleton’s book (be warned; it’s long), you’ll be struck not so much by the expedition’s heroic feats of physical strength and daring, but by the fact that most of its three years were spent waiting – for the seasons to change, for the ice floes to drift in the right direction, for the rescue party to arrive. The real challenges were to provide constant food and shelter for 28 men in impossibly inhospitable conditions, to sustain morale, to maintain health and fitness and to stave off boredom.

I’m reminded, once again, that on a long-term expedition like this (although it would be absurd to put mine in the same category as Shackleton’s), the glamorous bits are few and far between, and the bulk of one’s time is spent either moving very very slowly, or actually sitting still. The tales of pain and glory that will populate my dinner party conversations in years to come are few and far between.

I’ve also been reading books on mountaineering recently, by writers like Mark Horrell and Jon Krakauer, and have come to understand that climbing an 8000m peak is similarly slow, careful,  laborious and frustrating. Mountaineers will wait for days at Base Camp, for their bodies to acclimatize to the thin air, for the snow to consolidate after a blizzard, and for that elusive window of calm weather that’ll allow them to make their summit attempt in relative safety. Then they climb up to Camp 1, spend a night there to acclimatize to the even thinner air, and descend back to Base Camp. And so on. No matter how skilled, experienced and well prepared they are, they have to accept and work within the limits of their bodies, and the whims of the weather.

And I’ve been following the progress of Sarah Outen, who’s now finally rowing across the Pacific, after a frustrating couple of weeks spent scanning the weather forecasts and waiting for the sea to die down so that she could actually launch safely. There’s nothing you can do under these circumstances; you just have to be patient and wait it out.  So I did.

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