GPT11 is pretty short, and the route connecting GPT11 and GPT12 first drops about a thousand meters in altitude, to promptly go back up the same amount. You’re basically hiking from one +2000m pass to another, with a 1000m valley bottom in between. Instead, if the weather is fine, the GPT provides an alternative route that stays above 2000m on the mountain ridge. This alternative is “cross-country” – there is no clear path, but someone has managed to cross the terrain previously and provided approximate GPS points.
As the skies were crystal clear, and as we had enough supplies to postpone a resupply in the valley, we opted for the high altitude alternative. Staying on top of the mountains should also yield the most spectacular views, right?
Mountain ridges are not uniform. From the peak, several spurs of a mountain stretch out like loving arms to the valley below. Between these spurs, the mountain folds inwards like a pleated skirt, often with a (former) stream gulley cutting into the mountain side. This inward fold is called a re-entrant. The trick when hiking along a mountain slope is to never move to an incline that is too steep to find stable footing. This is often manageable on the spurs, but can be challenging when crossing the steeper re-entrants.
In our cross-country case, the incline of the mountain slope started out pretty steep on rather loose small rocks. By concentrating on keeping balance and avoiding the most slippery spots, we got to some more gentle spurs after about an hour. The mantra “someone has hiked this before, so it should be possible” turned out to be true so far.
However, at some point, we stared across a particularly steep re-entrant. Though we were hugging the suggested GPS points, we could not see how to get to the next spur – unfortunately this part of the cross-country route lacked even the suggestion of a possible path. Looking up to the peak and down over the spur, we discussed our options.
In theory, going up should lead to the connection of our spur to the next, as in the end, all spurs are connected at the peak. The problem here is that one can climb up steeper inclines than one can climb down. If the slope becomes too steep to climb up before the connection, we might not even be able to safely return on our steps.
Going down the spur seemed doable, but it was not clear whether we would ever be able to cross the re-entrant. We could not see the situation at the foot of the spur: it might end in a vertical cliff, both at the bottom side and at the side of the re-entrant. The only hopeful sign was a visible good spot to ascend on the next spur further down the re-entrant. If we could reach that, we were out of the woods (proverbially – we had passed the tree line long ago ;).
So we went down. Looking back, this was a mistake. Not in the sense that going up would have been better (though it might have been the intended route) but that the right decision was to go *back*. We knew the steps we had just taken were doable in both directions. Backtracking to just take the regular path through the valley would have cost us time and energy, but it would have been safe. And in the end, negotiating a dangerous situation also sapped all our physical and mental strength for the day.
But we scrambled down, looking for safe spots to put our feet. The bottom of the spur indeed ended in a cliff, but we were lucky that we could clamber down to the re-entrant before that, often sitting down on the rocks to lower our center of mass. The re-entrant was small and cramped, with a trickle of water turning the smooth rocks to slippery pitfalls. With the occasional slide down and our backpacks and trousers scratched by the sides of the gully, we finally reached the spot where indeed a steep path led up the next spur.
We would not make it to our intended camp site that day, but we no longer cared about that. When we finally had negotiated the cross country and got back on the regular path, we were happy to just have some bruises and scratches. And to have learned a crucial lesson on traversing mountain slopes.