Two hours before dawn I zip open my tent door and peer out. The beam from my headlamp illuminates six inches (15 centimeters) of snow. Last night, when the ground was clear, my three companions and I decided to get an early start this morning. We wanted to pull our gear-laden aluminum rickshas as many miles as possible before the sun melted the hardpan into soft mud. Now it doesn't matter: Pulling through snow will be just as difficult. I remind myself that tenacity is easier when you have no choice.
As I maneuver out of my warm bag and into my cold pants, I consider the work in front of us. We are five days into a thirty-day trek across Tibet's northern Chang Tang, a vast alpine steppe so sparsely populated we don't expect to see another human being for more than 200 miles (320 kilometers). This land is so desolate and high—the average elevation above 16,000 feet (4,900 meters)—that even the drokpa, the leather-skinned nomads of western Tibet, don't venture here. The animals are so unaccustomed to people that on the second day of our trek a wolf came within 50 feet (15 meters) and stared at us for 20 minutes.
By dawn we are each straining against the waist harnesses strapped to our rickshas, our wheels tracing deep furrows in the virgin snow. We have left the flat steppe and are pulling our rickshas up the foothill of an unnamed 20,000-foot (6,000-meter) peak north of Toze Kangri mountain. As the sky brightens, a snow finch sounds a morning chirp and the sun feathers through a reef of clouds. Behind us the slanting rays paint the snow-blanketed hills pink. Ahead the early light disperses through an icy haze into a long band of purple, green, yellow, and red.
"A circumhorizontal rainbow," Galen says. "You see it in high mountains and polar areas every once in awhile."
Best known as a photographer and mountaineer, Galen Rowell is famous among his friends as a font of information about the wilderness. Earlier, in his outdoor professor mode, he made us stop to examine an arenaria, a cushion plant that looks like an overcooked extra-large pizza. Later he gave us a mini-lecture on frost polygons—mounds of earth heaved up like gopher trails and frozen into geometric shapes. What none of us can imagine on this crisp morning is that this would be Galen's last expedition: A month after we returned to the United States, he and his wife, Barbara, perished in a plane crash near their home in Bishop, California. In the sad days following his death we would find solace in the knowledge that for all of us, including Galen, this adventure had been among the most fulfilling of our lives.
We started our journey on May 27 in Lhasa, capital of the Tibetan Autonomous Region of China, where Conrad Anker, Jimmy Chin, Galen, and I hired a four-wheel-drive SUV and a double-wheeled truck, and bought six drums of fuel. With a staff of four Tibetans—two drivers, a cook, and a liaison officer—we drove north for five days, first over rough dirt roads, then for three days following the faint tire imprints of the infrequent vehicles that had preceded us. Finally we reached a point where the tracks vanished into the muck and our trucks could go no farther.