I dreaded our 3-hour drive to Dege, a town in Sichuan beyond the Chola Mountain range close to the border of the Tibetan Autonomous Region (TAR). Our guide book strongly urged not to cross the Chola pass in public transportation but rather hire a private car and driver. So we did. This, at least, gave us the illusion we had some control over the speed at which our driver was going to take the predicted hair pin turns.
Our trip started out as trips usually do – by haggling over the price. We agreed on US $ 30 and got the whole minibus to ourselves in return. At first, I enjoyed driving through the river valley passing dozens of nomadic families living in their black-hair tents. No big drop-offs, only the occasional yak giving us a scare by running over the road without forewarning.
Once we began the 1250 m (4,125 feet) ascent to the Chola pass, I started to get a little edgy. At that point, the roughly paved road turned into a narrow dirt road which had been carved into the side of a mountain. No barriers between the road and the cliff edge, and no speed limit or warning signs to ease my mind. The driver tried his best but could not grasp why he should not be speeding around blind corners while honking furiously. I could have been freaking out the whole time but, thankfully, was distracted by the beauty of the towering mountains and the deep valleys below us.
What a relief when we finally made it to the top of the pass at 5050 m (16,600 feet)! I got out of the car, sucked in the little air there was and prepared myself mentally for the descent on the other side, mumbling prayers about German-quality brakes. 5050 m! WOW! Finally, I could all take it in.
This is the highest Tony and I have ever been. Prior to this, in 1994, the highest point we had crossed was at 4500 m (14,850 feet) during a 8-day trek in the Ruwenzori Mountains located between Uganda, Rwanda and the Democratic Republic of the Congo (then Zaire).
Tony and Thomas in the Ruwenzori Mountains, 1994
It is not going to be another 13 years before we break this personal altitude record, though. Many regions in the TAR are quite a bit higher than 5000 m. Let’s see how this goes.