Tuesday, March 1, 2011

A Casual affair- Mount Thelu

During a trip to Japan, I met a sales guy who was keen on climbing. He had climbed the Half Dome in Yosemite . The guy’s Kindergarten kid was also good at Bouldering. I explained through my interpreter that I was a keen climber few years ago but not so keen anymore.

After my comeback to Pune after the 3 week travel, a lot changed for me.

I received a promotion. The catch was that I was given a completely new team. My old responsibilities had been distributed to others and I had to define a goal for a new team that was for a product new to them.

The task was ambiguous and we struggled to find a good approach towards customer centric software testing. I was unsure of the future. Would I be able to steer the team in the right direction?

They were novices for my product, skilled at something else. Worse, they had a good market value for their experience and there was a high attrition risk.

What does a human do in a different environment? He tries to Acclimatize!

Had I become too used to comfort? Was I as good a climber, as before? 9 years had passed.

I began to think seriously. If I cannot adjust myself to my capability 9 years ago, was it right expecting a new team to adjust to something entirely different?

Ila was ok with the idea of me going on a trek with a porter.

I desperately felt the need to prove myself again. The call of the mountains was indeed getting strong.

In the worst case scenario, I would fail to climb. Perhaps I should engage a High Altitude Porter to assist me, the climb may be easier.

I talked about my idea with my colleague, Mangesh. He connected me with a Sherpa in Uttarkashi.
I mentioned my plan, gave a brief history of my experience and that I had not climbed for 9 years.

Mangesh mentioned that the guy was reliable and could take any person who could walk long distances, to a summit.
I started my 7 km run. It was already May and I had less than a month to prepare.

Uttarkashi was well connected and making a phone call was so easy. I planned my entire expedition in 2 days. My equipment was being arranged at Uttarkashi.


I carried my packed rucksack to work and at noon took the Delhi flight. At around 4PM I was in Delhi. I took the bus to Rishikesh and reached there at 1AM. I was carrying lot of cash. But who would try to rob a guy carrying a huge sack and an army kitbag on his neck. I set an alarm for 6AM and dozed off.


Early morning, I hired a jeep to Gangotri. During the journey, I found that the soles of my climbing boots were coming off at places. I bought some adhesive and hoped they would last the trek in the moraine. As soon as we reached Uttarkashi and I went to the agent. A team of 4 porters was waiting for me. I was irritated. I had booked only one guy. These porters had 5 kitbags. I was sure I did not need all the stuff. I started pulling out unnecessary stuff.

Quickly calculated the dues and paid them in advance. (Lesser cash to handle that way.)

I had only 5 thousand Rupees and a Return ticket from Delhi to Pune. My credit card was of no use till Rishikesh.
There were a lot of snow stakes, Dead men, Ice pitons which I knew for sure were useless on the peak (Mt Thelu).

The cook said to me, “ Sahib. Never underestimate a mountain. Anything can happen.”

I decided to give in to the more experienced porter and took the gear.

I mentioned that my flight return date was fixed. If we did not climb the mountain in the fixed period, I was going to return empty handed.

It also meant that if the weather turned bad for a day, I had only one more day to spare in the mountains.

From my past expeditions, I had known that my body adapted quickly to high altitude without acclimatization, if it were a short climb.
On longer climbs of more than 30 days, there was always a small period where my performance went down, to pick up again for a longer expedition. I hoped I could fool my body by a fast ascent.

I had planned a very short trip not sure of the success. It did not matter.
All I wanted is to find my current worth.

We reached Gangotri at nightfall. We settled in a small hotel overlooking the Gangotri falls. The porters smoked in the room and I went out for a fresh breath. I felt that I was where I belonged. The pine forests. Smell of Turpentine. The hustle bustle of the Pilgrims. I had been to Gangotri many times.

I missed my friends. I remembered the Satopanth expedition (May 1998), when I decided to retire from climbing. Yet, here I was.
A bit luxurious expedition for one person.

In the moonlight, the upper slopes of Mount Sudarshan shone.
Well everything was in its place, but was I still the same?

I wanted to use this expedition to find peace and perhaps re-discover the lost myself. I had crossed forty years of age.

The lone trek to Bhojbasa (12000’) had gone well. I had never walked so fast. The porters were a good 2 hours behind me with their heavy load. I had around 15 kg of load, which, I felt the necessary burden for acclimatization.

 The sun set behind Shivling and I was soon bitterly cold in the wind. The porters were not seen. My tent was with them. I pulled over my Joe Brown Goretex top. I spent my time outside, lazing in the sun, trying to get aquainted to the cold and the altitude.

Late in the evening the porters arrived with the gear. We quickly pitched the tent. I emptied the rucksack and pulled out ‘ Rebecca’ for reading.
The cook brought hot tea to my tent. I had never been served this way in the mountains.

I recalled the old expeditions when we used to take turns at the stove to melt ice and make tea. It was so much easier with porters. It was ending out to be a perfect vacation.

The light rain was soaking my tent. I was happy that I had dug a gutter around the tent.

The tent was old and soon the outer sagged and started wetting the tent inner.

I desperately tried to create runnels of water to the door. Tried to keep the sleeping bag dry.. The affair lasted for an hour and then, it got very cold.

I gave up on Rebecca as the night closed in.

The dinner of Soya and Potato curry and chapatis was gorgeous. I remembered that in the Himalayas, I had never slept peacefully.
I had always shared my tent with one or other friend.

Being alone, I had to find work for myself, as I had all the time in the world.

I lit a candle in my mug and went back to the book.


Gomukh was an easy stroll. As we climbed up the Glacial debris, I noticed that the Snout of the glacier had Longitudinal crevasses. Was the glacier dying fast? I recalled my early expeditions the crevasses near the snout were transverse.

We climbed up the loose scree near Raktavarna Hollow.

The hollow is a huge hole in the glacier and the Raktavarna stream vanishes into this gaping hole.

The porters were carrying heavy loads and the cursed a lot.
The land had changed a lot and it was a very risky climb.

As if it was not enough, a Mountain goat started a small landslide above us.

Soon, we cleared the loose scree slopes and walked into the green meadow like slopes.

Clouds gathered in. Through the mist, I heard someone holler. A small guy was waving his hands. My High Altitude porter, Vishnu.

Vishnu was back from an expedition from Nandanvan and had come to accompany me on my climb. We had a quick hand shake. He asked me about Mangesh. The common acquaintance helped to develop a better relationship.

The altitude had started affecting my pace. We were at around 15000 feet.

I walked slow and steady with the porters ahead of me. Through the mist I saw the moraine from the left . The Thelu stream was close and the base camp was at the junction of the two streams. The wind howled and Vishnu lent me his parka and got back to the task of errecting the tents.

It was afternoon, but the clouds gathered and the sun dimmed. I crawled into my tent. The porter brought me tea and Noodles. I lazed in my tent, reading the book.

A Himalayan Chough entertained me as I threw bits of my Biscuit.

As the clouds vanished I pulled out my video and shot the panaroma. Took some snaps of the basecamp as well.

Vishnu had considered the next day as rest day, probably to help me settle at the altitude.

I was keen to cover more ground and finish the expedition as fast as I could.

We talked it over and I stuck to my decision.
The night was pretty cold, a good sign that we were blessed by clear weather.

Day 5:

The cook and another porter helped me ferry my sack to Camp1. I was getting tired and I reluctantly handed them my sack.

I was no more the climber I was few years ago. The expedition was more of a photographic venture. After travelling through endless rubble of sharp rocks, Vishnu and I set Camp 1 at around 17000 feet. I could see the summit of Thelu and Sudarshan foreshortened. I thought it would be an easy scramble to the top.

However, things turned bad. The wind was high and it was carrying lot of clouds. A snow drizzle started and the barren rocky scape, devoid of vegetation, was covered with a white blanket.

I told Vishnu that if things turned worse we should get down the next day instead of going for the summit.

Vishnu was carrying some wooden sticks. He explained that the gas cylinder had leaked. I would have panicked at the situation but Vishnu was going ahead with his plan B. The Wood would last us for two meals.

Vishnu was not carrying his sleeping bag. He was dressed in his Goretex suit and was comfortable. I wondered how he could stay warm.

He narrated an incident an year ago where he had led a group of foreigners across the Pass to Kedarnath temple.

The weather had turned bad and the entire team had less food and fuel to make it across. Weather deteriorated further and there was causality due to hypothermia.
After wading in deep snow for two days, the rest of the team made it through to a army outpost. The experience had left a mark on Vishnu and he was a more matured climber. A survivor that I could count on.

Day 6:

The snowfall had stopped sometime at night. I crawled outside the tent for the call of nature.

The sun looked like a ball of fire through the clouds. Not a good sign. The weather could turn foul anytime.

I had a cup of tea and few biscuits. It was customary of me, to eat light before the climb.

Soon we started the glacier walk. The terrain seemed quite different since the last time I climbed Thelu. There was a huge hump and we crisscrossed up the slope.

There was a tongue of snow up the rock that would take us to the top of the ridge.

Vishnu pulled out the climbing rope. He mentioned that he had left his crampons at base.

I cursed silently.

The main reason of taking a Sherpa was that I could rope up with him and the climb would be more secure.

I decided that I would not rope up with a guy who was a risk.
The wall had thin film of smow and ice underneath. It would be disastrous for me to rope up with a guy who had no crampons.

We decided to climb solo. He was using a crack in the rock to climb up and I was on the snow gully. Mentally having him to climb with me was a big relief.

I could not have climbed this solo after all these years.

I must have climbed for an hour and then I looked down the glacial basin.

The world seemed to reel. I had no strength to go on. I sank to my knees Plunged my Axe shaft to secure my position. Vertigo! I was certainly out of touch.

I looked towards down at Vishnu.

“I cannot go on. I need to get back safe.”

“Sahib, just keep going to the right.”

I followed Vishnu and soon the slope eased out. I looked up.

It was a dream come true.

Soon, I was on the top ridge. Vishnu climbed up. The Thelu Summit was a gentle slope toward the left, Already covered by Clouds.

I quickly shot the 360 degrees panaroma. I mentioned to Vishnu that this was the crux. I wanted to focus on a safe descent. The Summit walk was simple but time taking. I remembered my family. Would they be happy for me?

I took a last look at Mount Matri and the twins. There was quite a history there. I saw the Hump where we had camped.

Towering high on my right was Mount Sudershan. The mist did not allow me to see more.

I descended the snow slope carefully. I did not even take a risk to descend with side kick. I front pointed the entire slope till I felt safe. My toes ached.

Once we were back in the basin, Vishnu started off in a fast descent.

I rolled on at my speed. We collapsed the tent, wound up Camp 1 and started a descent to base camp.

It was quite a white out. I could not see Vishnu. There were boulders all over. Few were human shaped.

Anyways, I was in this gully for the second time. I could not miss my way. I crossed the stream. The water had risen and I could clear it with few jumps. The boulders had verglass.

The maze was lifting. I saw the tents at Base camp. The cook welcomed me with a glass of tea and Onion Pakoras. I looked around. The veil lifted I could see Mount Shivling.

I had a severe cough. I retired in my Dome tent into my sleeping bag.

This was the most wonderful expedition I ever did. I had climbed a mountain 19700ft high in just 6 days. Simple plan and Sherpa support. Yet the crux was soloed.

I felt good about myself. Mountaineering is all about feeling good!

The mountain had allowed me to barely finish the climb.
If the white out was an hour before, I would not have pursued the climb.

The journey back home was rapid. I reached Delhi in two days. I caught a taxi to the airport and flew back to Pune a day earlier than planned.

Life @ 40 is not bad at all!.