Wednesday, April 6, 2011

Mount Kedarnath- My first expedition

Mount Kedarnath is the peak that towers above the Kedarnath Temple. Half the people feel that the trek to the pilgrimage and the expedition to the mountain are the same, much to the disappointment of the climbers in India.
The face on the side of the temple is a sheer vertical wall which has a successfull ascent.
The Main Kedarnath peak has three satellite peaks, Mt Kedar Dome on the left  and Bharte Kuntha and Kirti Stambh on the right.

The invitation to join the Mount Kedarnath (22770’) team was not a surprise. Anand was grooming me for his tall plans and Kedarnath was a tough goal for an alpine style attempt. The route was on the opposite side to the rock wall. The Entire face was of Snow and ice.

The expedition was in May 1987. I had a brief experience of early winter in Himalayas Oct Nov season and the scene in May was entirely different due to lot of snow deposit.

Anand had calculated 3000 ft rope that needed to be fixed on the face. We had ordered rope from Garware Nylons that came at half the cost due to their donation.

Girish and I were the least experienced climbers. Pravin Narkhede, Hemant Kashikar and Bhushan Bapat were veterans.

The group used to assemble in a small room at the heart of Pune to pack the equipment and rations.

The much awaited start date arrived and we moved the gear to the station. Each kit bag load was 25kg. At every transfer point these were to be unloaded and reloaded to the transport.

As the train chugged away from the Pune railway station we bid farewell to our families and friends.

I was reading a Maurice Herzog book, The first ascent of Mt Annapurna. (The first 8000mt peak that was successful.) I had dreams about reconnaissance of Mt Kedarnath and about us ending up at the Kedarnath Temple after a month of travel. Someone pointed us the real mountain which was 11000’ above us. Once I dreamed that the mountain was bare rock, devoid of Snow and I saw a leafless tree at the summit.

We acquainted well in the train. Anand gave SLR handling lessons. How to frame a scene? What’s the best time in the day to shoot etc..

We caught a bus from Delhi to Rishikesh and then to Uttarkashi. We were to hire equipment at Nehru Institute of mountaineering and arrange for porters.

At Uttarkashi, a black sheep dog kept following me. He would not let go of me. Soon, I saw that he climbed into the NIM bus. It was Kalu, the dog I befriended, almost 6 months ago during my Basic mountaineering course. He had not forgotten me.

We had a meeting with Col Bajaj the Principal of NIM. He was eager to know our plans about climbing the mountain.

He was blunt and mentioned that there was a lot of snowfall in the season.

We might be wading through Knee deep Snow. He reminded us of the Satopanth accident a year ago, where the team from Pune was avalanched off the base of the mountain with lot of fatalities. He mentioned that we should be careful on Kedarnath, as it had huge snow laden slopes. He had been on the satellite peak of Kedarnath called Bharte Kuntha and the team had to wade through thigh deep snow.

We had all the equipment, but we did not get a size 12 climbing boot for Pravin. An expedition without the boot would mean Pravin would be grounded at base.

We were having our dinner at Patiyala Dhaba, when a large frame European entered. Pravin enquired if he was a climber. He was a Austrian engaged in fishery research at Dodital. Did he have a mountain boot. Yes!

He was kind enough to give us the address of his cottage at Mussourie. Pravin left the next morn for Mussourie.

I truly started believing that if you have guts to talk with an open mind, you may get solutions to the worst problem that may seem not feasible. The world is full of resources that one needs to tap. There is a good chance to get out of tight corners.

There is a small gap from the possible to the impossible. There is a lot to learn during travel.

I believe that I got over, my shy nature, through the mountaineering expeditions.

The loads were arranged and the lead Sherpa was a guy called Jagdamba from Mount Support. The drop of all loads was to be at Kala Patthar on Higher Tapovan.

There was time to kill and we spent time on physical activities.

I tried to mimic Bhushan, who was a fitness freak. One of the exercises was super dips with a quick jump on the arms and clap while going down. Being the weaker guy, I landed on my chin as my arms gave way and the chin bone was seen through the wound. Anand sprayed the quick heal so that I would not need stitches. I still carry a small scar, a trouble when shaving.

A team of 3 climbers from Indonesia were friendly. They planned to attempt Mt Vasuki. They presented us with an altimeter. Unfortunately its highest limit ended at our base camp.

In the mountains

Gangotri was a much smaller place than I had imagined. The bridge at Bhaironghati fascinated me. We stayed at a small guesthouse. The Panditji was a good talker. He narrated many stories that matched with a Bollywood gangster movie. I could not imagine him, connected to Smugglers at his age and thought that he probably needed someone to talk to. His ramblings were surely an effect of Rice liquor and abundant time to kill. Apart from Bollywood stories, he also had some knowledge about the folk tales around the peak names, which were interesting.

The loads were distributed to the porters in the glow of an oil lamp. Gangotri had no Electricity.

The porters grouped for a camp fire; as we slept the Garhwali folk songs faded away.

Gangotri road head at 11000’ is a big advantage for Climbers. The base camp can be set at 14000+ feet in two to three days time. Our first halt was at Bhojbas, 12000’. It was an easy walk compared to my first experience during the basic mountaineering course. We stayed at a vacant hut which was used by the local Police. Bhojbas had traces of snow and the conditions higher up could be quite bad. At 5.30PM we tuned to listen to the AIR weather broadcast that we had subscribed to.

NIM was running the advance mountaineering course nearby and Girish got his pair of boots as promised by the colonel.

Next day we started on our way to Tapovan. The NIM team was training on ice craft on the snout of the glacier. I met my Instructor “Guruji”. We crossed the river over a snow bridge and started plodding our way up the slope to Tapovan. Snowcraft at the basic course seemed fun; when laden with a heavy sack , it was a pain.

As we reached the upper slopes, the sun scorched. The UV radiation from the snow all around burned my skin. I pleaded for a cloud and saw that my prayers were answered.

But as soon as the cloud covered the sun, the temperature dropped rapidly and I longed for the sun to crawl out of the cover.

Late noon, we reached Khada Patthar camp. A team from Mumbai had set up their campsite. They were to attempt Kedar dome as a Pre-Kangchenzonga expedition.

Our cook, Buddhi Singh prepared the dinner of Khichdi and Tomato soup.

Establishing Advance base

It took us 3 days to ferry loads from base camp to advance base. The route skirted around the slopes of Shivling and then entered Kirti Glacier. There was huge snow deposit (Knee deep) over the moraine. We established the camp a little farther into the glacier than the Mumbai team.

The tents were of Polish make, Triangular three pole; camping equipment but not meant for Mountaineering expeditions. Budhi was in a small canvas tent that was our “mess”.
The heat at 11AM was almost unbearable. The thermometer showed 40 deg C and we were camped in midst of snow. At night the temp climbed down to subzero. The huge variation was having a toll on my body.

The food was restricted to a soup and rice. Tea was sugared with Sweetex tablets.

Budhi and I went back to Base for a load ferry through a snow drizzle. Budhi felt that I was strong enough to attempt a smaller peak, in given conditions, probably Bhagirathi-2. Mt. Kedarnath was not an easy target.

The snow cover was a big hurdle to our plan of climbing Kedarnath peak. We held a council of war to decide on the fate of the expedition. The gully that led to upper slopes was avalanche prone. The Kedar Dome ridge was not easy either as it was an easy slope that sheltered more snow. Anand decided that Pravin and he would try to attempt Kedar Dome. The idea of climbing Kedarnath was dismissed.

I was shaken by this decision as Anand swapped his leather shoes with my Double layer Koflach. I was one of the stronger members, but least experienced and the call made by the leader was correct.
The Australian team Campsite- Kedar Dome-East Ridge

The Attempt

Anand and Pravin left Advance base. They traversed the glacier and set up Camp1 at the base of the Kedardome Ridge. They tried to get higher on the ridge but were forced to retreat due to Thigh deep snow. The snow would get soggy after noon.

Two days later as they arrived the Advance base, we saw our friends had a high sun burn.

The very next day, I helped Anand to ferry wind up Camp1 and retreat from the mountain.
Through the retreat, the crossing of the Bhagirathi below Gomukh (Snout) at 2PM was a thrill. Ice cold waters gushing, and thigh deep.

All expeditions in the season except peaks lower than 20000’ were failures in that season.

Anand had tall plans for next year and Pravin and he went for Recee of Mt Nilkanth in Badrinath. He also bought some used equipment from the ITBP team attempting Mt Chaukhamba.

Girish and I returned via Mussourie to return the pair of Size 12 Boots to the Austrian gentleman.

The team re-grouped at Delhi in the midst of a heat wave. Soon after the expedition Anand and Pravin got married.

Though the expedition did not provide me a climbing role, I learned a lot.

As a junior member, I yielded to the experience of the leader without fuss. The leader listened to the opinion of the NIM principal and did not put his life or that of the team in danger.

The leader perhaps had set a very high goal without checking the feasibility. A higher goal may not be reachable but it prepares the team to strive for beyond limit.

The expedition was supported only by one cook. No High altitude porters were used. It was hence, pure adventure and exploration.

The expedition had a very low budget. The experience helped us decide higher priority to invest on basic climbing gear.