Tuesday, August 31, 2010

The Bivouac

Benightment in climbing jargon means spending an uncomfortable night for survival in odd conditions. There are few interesting stories around miraculous survival under odd conditions and my own experiences seem pretty cozy in comparison.

Yet, it seems appropriate to keep a log of the worst nights before memory fades.

I had survived my first Bivouac at Mount Matri at around 18000 ft in a crevasse during 1987 Expedition to the unclimbed mountain.

We were midway up the snow basin and the weather turned pretty bad ,midway.
The slope of the towering Matri wall had runnels.
It seemed prone to avalanches, so camping in the basin seemed ridiculous thought to which all agreed.

We sought shelter, in a shallow bergschrund (Crevasse between face and basin)that separated the basin from the hump.
It was spacious to accommodate all of us.
The only catch was a chandelier of Icicles (few were extremely sharp) loomed above us. The first few attempts to break the chandelier failed as it was too high for us to reach.
Finally we pulled over a tent cover and tried to disengage from the thought that it existed.

Hemya pehelwan had an acute headache. He mentioned it to the leader, who addressed his need from the emergency med kit. Hemya with a cowboy attitude spit the pill with a mention that meds are no use. It was a very cold night but he was reluctant to wear his sweater. His attitude was getting on my nerves. I waited patiently as this was certainly a character to observe when we had all the time to kill.

All of us had army sweaters and the only other layer of insulation was a Single layer Windcheater. Milind was worse dressed of the occasion, as he donned a thin Raincoat top over his sweater. I coughed a lot which others had nicknamed a TB cough. I couldn’t get worse after having sucked icicles for 3 days.
I took my usual nightly dose of a capful Brandy and others joined merrily to empty the bottle.

The clouds covered the valley. We were in an inhospitable terrain, where no human had set foot. Matri was one of the few tallest virgin mountains in Gangotri Glacier.

The temp was around zero, which is quite warm in a snow basin. But it foretold us that the weather was not going to get any better that night. The benightment meant a day less than our schedule. And we were carrying on Alpine style, with no load ferries.

We talked of known Bivvies under ruthless conditions. Narrations from books. With the talk we felt we were in better surroundings. Cramped conditions helped to retain heat. We had the Snow boot inners on inside the sleeping bags as we didn’t want to risk any frost "claims".

The Icicles were slowly melting on the sprit stove. We gazed into the flame and it made us feel warm.
The night was cold as I peeked outside the flap into a clear starry night. The milky way was a bright band. The face had a eerie glow under the soft moonlight. Fortunately we heard no avalanche rumbles.

The stories died and the climbers settled in their own private worlds sipping warm Tomato soup and munching the ruru chapatis.
I wondered what lay ahead. The route was unknown. Was this the best route? Was this the right team? Were we equipped well? I thought of the report from the Bengal team. Did they carry their dead down after the fall or were they still around somewhere in the glacier. Slowly the cacophony of thoughts numbed, as I slipped into slumber no longer able to focus on the candle flame.

The night was over and it was a cold day. Cold is good. Secure steps and no sinking.

The negativity of the night vanished as early sun rays hit the basin. We would unravel more mystery about the route, as we would climb higher.