Friday, December 28, 2012

Meru- The center of the universe

I had applied for the post of a Liaison officer to the Indian Mountaineering foundation and my application had gone through. I was to accompany a British expedition to Meru. I had been to the Meru Advance base during my reccee of Mt Shivling. This was a very serious climb compared to what I had done. This would give me a chance to see a serious climb and I would like to support it.

I travelled to Delhi and stayed at the IMF hostel. I got the Telephone number for the place where the team had lodged and I called the leader. This was the first time when I talked to someone from abroad and I could make very little from the talk. The leader mentioned that he would come to the IMF and pick me up and introduce the team.

It was late afternoon when Paul and John came to the campus. We had a round of introductions. Paul mentioned that he had to clear the gas canisters that were on a different flight. We went to the airport and it shocked me to see the pain in clearing such a simple thing. What would these foreigners think? Then we travelled to the Connaught place to meet the team. I had no equipment of my own and Paul arranged for a jacket, an ice axe and he bought me a pair of Approach March shoes. I also met Noel, Dave and Phil. Phil was from South Africa.

We were to leave the next day. I met a Sherpa from Mount Support, Uttarkashi and we went off for dinner. He had climbed Nun and was on the way back, He was carrying a Yak Skull with horns and he asked me for a favor, by carrying it to Uttarkashi.

The van arrived at IMF and it was packed with equipment and the climbing team. I sneaked in. It was hot and I removed my t shirt to join the bare naked gentlemen.

I asked Paul if he had seen the 1000 ft free climbing film by Patrick Edlinger. He smiled and mentioned that his film featuring John Dawes had won the IMF award.

John gripped my hand and looked at my fingers. I felt that they were too delicate for a climber of John’s match. John was just over 5 feet but he seemed like a very powerful climber.

We travelled via Rishikesh to Uttarkashi and reached at nightfall.

The next day, Paul and I went to the Mount support office where he had arranged for porterage. Paul had already been to Gangotri to climb a new route on Bhagirathi-3 pillar. He also mentioned that John had purchased a simple bike and had cycled all the way from Uttarkashi to Gangotri which is a height gain from 3000 feet to 11000 feet. John had negligible experience in ice climbing but was a renowned rock climber.

We went to the Nehru institute and hired a tent for me. We started for Gangotri early morning and reached by noon. Phil, Noel and I reached Bhujbas and on the later day trekked to Tapovan.

The rest of the non-climbing team had set up camp at Tapovan and I made few aquaintances.

The rest of the climbers arrived on a later day.

For a few days the team spent time in bouldering at Tapovan. I could now see ace climbers at work. Whenever I had time I would try my hand at bouldering easier stuff. The approach march shoes were bulky and slipped off . They did not have any grip on the tiny holds on granite.

Dave surprised me one day by giving me brand new Rock shoes with brand name “Kamet”. I was overwhelmed as I never dreamed that I would have my own rock shoes. (Kamet is the highest mountain allowed for climbing in India. The sacred mountains, Kangchenjunga and Nandadevi were banned for climbs.)

Phil gave me few lessons on rock climbing and I realized that I had very less strength. Phil mentioned that I should practice Yoga. The importance of Yoga was told to an Indian by a South African. One seldom has value for home grown stuff!

Everyone gathered in the mess tent for dinner and there was a round of Quiz. Steve Quinlan and his wife had trekked to Tapovan. They would join the group. Steve was a guide in Yosemite Park. Dave’s would in father-in-law would draw some wonderful water color paintings. I was influenced by his style of using Water proof pen over water colors. I was carrying a small sketching kit and I started to sketch to mountains around me.

We swapped cassettes. 'Joline' was a hit. I was introduced to Reggae through Gregory Issacs\ Dennis Brown. My 'Indiana Jones' hat changed heads. Although I was very shy with girls, I started talking to Celia and Alison.

I carried a load to the advance base with Phil, only to realize that I had carried all the unwanted stuff.

I liked the fact that this was a free team that had similar ideals. No porters used above base.

I started taking afternoon baths in a nearby stream. We visited the Upper Tapovan. I met Col. Bajaj, the NIM Principal. He had retired long ago and was the first Indian to reach Antarctica.

The weather turned bad and there was lot of snowfall. One of the guys was hellbent on cooking apple pudding. A stroke of bad luck and he poured in salt instead of sugar. He started again. I felt cold in my tent and Johnny lent me his feather jacket. The team left for the climb.

Steve and his wife were going to trek across the glacier to Vasuki Tal. They had left already and I decided to catch up. I started with a water bottle and an apple. I got down on the Gangotri glacier through a small breach in the moraine that allowed me a gradual descent. Soon I was making way through the medial moraine ridges. There were lot of small lakes with emerald green water. I got across and I started up to Nandanvan. I met the two at late afternoon. I ate the apple and then I turned back. I saw the remains of a campsite probably for Mt. Bhagirathi-2. I made a safe return to base. It was a nice one day trek, which I had completed very fast.

One of the day's Dave and I went off on a scramble to Baby Shivling and we almost climbed half of it. Celia and Alison were very good rock climbers and they did a nice route on Baby shivling ridge with Noel.

The Meru attempt succeeded in setting a high point on Meru Sharks fin which was still virgin.
Johnny had escaped a fall while descending from a snow cave; his mountain boot fell off.

My travel date had approached and I bid farewell to my friends. I had tears in my eyes as I moved away from the camp, where I had stayed almost for a month. It would be nearly impossible to meet my friends again. With the equipment from them, I could start on my own.

Two days later, I caught a train from Delhi to Pune. I returned to my work and the memories of Meru started to disappear.

I had a Phone call. It was Paul. Paul and John were in Pune to meet me. They had been to Goa and had thought of visiting Pune on their way back. I invited them for a dinner. As they arrived, Johnny put a string of 20 carabiners around my neck with a 250 ft of Expedition rope. I was so moved at this gesture. Then, Johnny added his tent. They had given me all the essential stuff that I could not have afforded then!

I thanked them from the bottom of my heart.

They had a flight to catch at Delhi. The train was completely booked and then I found them a place on Ahmedabad coach. They had a very long travel ahead of them.

I had a nice mail from Phil after he reached South Africa. He was going for climbing in Peru.

In December, I got a mail from Paul. It was sad news.
Philip Lloyd had died in a fall during a rock climb in Patagonia.

I mourned for the loss of a new friend and my Climbing instructor as I wrote a letter to his family. Phil's father wrote back to me expressing, " I never knew that, my son had friends all around the world. He talked about you and the Meru climb after he was back."

Till death does us apart, we humans rarely reflect on the impact.

Meru, according to the Hindu Mythology is a sacred mountain at the center of the world.

Mount Meru (Sanskrit: मेरु), also called Sumeru i.e. the "Excellent Meru" and Mahameru i.e. "Great Meru", is a sacred mountain in Hindu, Jain as well as Buddhist cosmology and is considered to be the center of all the physical, metaphysical and spiritual universes. It is also the abode of Lord Brahma and the Demi-Gods. The dimensions attributed to Mount Meru, all the references to it being as a part of the Cosmic Ocean, along with several statements like that the Sun along with all the planets (including Earth itself) circumbulate the mountain, make determining its location most difficult, according to most scholars.[1][2] However, a small handful number of western scholars have tried quite hard to identify Mount Meru or Sumeru with the Pamirs, north-east of Kashmir.

The Suryasiddhanta mentions that Mt Meru lies in 'the middle of the Earth' ("Bhugol-madhya") in the land of the Jambunad (Jambudvip). Narpatijayacharyā, a 9th century text, based on mostly unpublished texts of Yāmal Tantr, mentions "Sumeruḥ Prithvī-madhye shrūyate drishyate na tu" ('Su-meru is heard to be in the middle of the Earth, but is not seen there').[4] Vārāhamihira, in his Panch-siddhāntikā, claims Mt Meru to be at the North Pole (though no mountain exists there as well). Suryasiddhānt, however, mentions a Mt Meru in the middle of Earth, besides a Sumeru and a Kumeru at both the Poles.

Wednesday, December 26, 2012

Telbaila ascent- Just a slice of bread

Telbaila Left-right side

With the successful climb of Khada Parsi Milind and I turned our attention to Telbaila. I had seen the walls during a trek to Dhangad. The route to both the walls was through the col between the walls.

One fine day, Milind and I motorcycled to Lonavala. I was the pillion rider and was carrying a sack full of equipment. The road was a dirt track and Milind was driving the bike to its limit. At several spots I had tough time managing the overloaded sack which hung on my back in overhang state. By the time we reached the village close to Telbaila, my arms were already taut.

The people in the village showed us a route to the col.

We lost our way in the jungle and traversed the walls. We did not find any route from the back we traversed the two walls till we got on to the ridge. The travel and the detour had cost us lot of energy. I roped up to be the first man. The left wall has pitons driven in at anchor points and I started climbing. As I had climbed the first pitch I heard a screech from the top.

A monkey was looking down at me. It was trying to fetch my attention and to dissuade the climb. As I looked up again it was in a leg up head down position screaming. I was terrified as it might easily toss a small pebble at me. I was not even anchored to the first piton. Although I appreciated the climber in the monkey I ignored and continued to the piton. I hooked myself and continued to traverse to the left. I anchored myself and belayed Milind to the ledge. The ledge was wide but the route above the ledge has a slight overhang. Just underneath the expansion bolt there is a small cave with water. (The villagers prefer to use a ladder to get directly to this place.) I had to use the etriers, as my arms were already to stiffened to pull up my body. It was an easy climb to the top.

We had planned to climb the Left side of the right wall on the same day but it was very late.
We had to get down and bike to Pune and so we decided to climb it on a future date.

Telbaila Right-Right

The right wall of Telbaila had only two ascents and it was a good goal. The route faces the village. Milind and I travelled to the village and it was evening when we decided to stay in a small cave dug in the rock. It was late afternoon and I decided to start the climb.

I climbed for around a 100 feet and there were 2 anchors for safety. The route took me to a sharp edged ridge and I descended after hooking on the climbing rope. A few villagers had climbed up to watch the climb. Milind gave the belay to one of the guys and I self anchored to a piton. Milind took few good snaps of the climb.

At night we had food and slept inside the small square shaped cave.

Early next morning Milind led the climb. He quickly ascended to the top spot without Jummars. I joined him as he reached the arête. The ridge is so sharp that I had to ride with legs on either side.

The next pitch was the crux of the climb. It consists of a loose scree and the climber has to be very fast. Milind cleared it with some effort and he yelled that he had reached a large platform. I joined him. The final pitch was along an overhang that already was secured by bolts. Milind continued the climb using the etriers. The portion above was easy and we quickly got to the top.

We descended the wall in a single rapell as we had sufficient rope.

The entire climb was done in only 2.5 hours. We rode back to Pune after celebrating the ascent, rewarding ourselves with Beer.

Monday, December 24, 2012

Small is beautiful

“Any intelligent fool can make things bigger, more complex, and more violent. It takes a touch of genius — and a lot of courage to move in the opposite direction.”

― E.F. Schumacher

After the ascent of Khada Parsi and Telbaila pinnacles a long time had lapsed. We longed for action. I was in the final year of Diploma in Mechanical engineering and after the exams I had a slot that could be used for a climb in the Himalayas. It seemed that the previous year had gone a waste and I had not had a glimpse of the towering Himalayan peaks. I had lost touch with The ice, the cold wind and the chill. My Shoulders longed for the loaded Haversack and most importantly I missed the comradeship.

Milind had shifted to Mumbai but we still met once a fortnight. One fine evening in July 1991, we decided to go on an expedition. Gangotri region was an obvious choice due to the close approach and to wrap up an expedition in 25 days. Mt Saifee in the Raktavarna glacier was our first choice. But we felt that we should attempt a peak in a different valley just for the kick of treading in unknown territory. Mt Gangotri-3 (21,500’) seemed like a better proposal. Prasad had suggested the same to me a year ago, a peak perfect for an alpine style climb. It also posed some technical challenges. I gambled for a date that would not clash with my exams and I chose 15 September, arbitrarily. I was glad when my exam dates were declared. My last exam would get over by 9 September.

We decided to hire good equipment from the Kangchenjunga foundation in Mumbai. We could not afford a compromise in Quality of equipment. The hire charges were Rs 4500/- for Goretx suits, Sleeping bags, tent and brand new climbing boots with foot fangs and goretex gaiters. We decided for a third climber and the only person who could fit in was Girish. We had been together on Mt Matri. He had lost touch with climbing but he could be a good person to support. Our team was well knit and we knew the strengths and weaknesses of others and we had been together during tough times.

A 3 man expedition is not easy to propose, especially to our parents. Especially, Girish and Milind were engaged and the marriage date was fixed at 23 November. It was easier for Milind and me to break the news to our parents. Girish had to be more stubborn and he even spun a story. We were to be accompanied by 7 fictitious members who will join us at Delhi.

I met Uday from Kanchenjunga foundation and selected the equipment. Then Milind and I went for a lunch at his fiancées place. This was the first when I met Swati. The three of us went to Churchgate station in a bus. I tried to be inattentive, as the couple as they made the best of their time. I was sure that I would not marry for another five years.

As we said goodbye to Swati, I assured her that we would be back safe and sound. In my mind, I knew that such assurances are feeble as you can never be certain. I felt guilty as I was the only bachelor and perhaps had lesser concern for the other two climbers.

Fund raising was an obstacle. We guesstimated the amount to be Rs 15000/- If we paid shared the amount; we would be spared of the exhaustive paperwork. I did not want to approach the State government as my last visit had left a bad taste. I would not yield to bribery. We were climbing the mountain for our sake. Climbers from other parts of the world had set an example for us. I remembered Joe Tasker worked in a meat factory, his training in ice freezer. The foreigners also had to pay a royalty to climb in India. I felt that our large share to the expedition fund would make us more committed.

The expedition was planned in a short time and we did not apply for permissions in fear that it would already be occupied by another expedition. It also meant that the Indian mountaineering Foundation would not support us in case of an accident. We decided to take this risk. Anyways, we would not need help if we were already dead.

I was doing all that I could for physical fitness. My routine consisted of a daily 8 km hill run. It was effective as my stamina and patience as my run was solitary. I pursued the exercise doggedly even during rains. Anyone who watched me would take me as a nut case. My mind was focused on Gangotri-3. Milind practiced Yoga as he did not get a good place to run at Thane. Girish had not focused on exercise at all. I was irritated by his negligence and I showed no mercy. I would not lose any opportunity of criticizing him, if he showed any weakness in the field.

My exams went very well even though I was more focused on my training. My classmates found it hard to believe and were even shocked when I topped in my class. I maintained, “ It is all about confidence and ..a bit of practice.”

Two days before departure we finished packing the food and equipment into siz Army Kitbags and 3 Haversacks a gross weight of 142 kg. We planned for 5 litre of Kerosine and Solid Fuel for upper camps. The food consisted of Condensed milk, Noodles, Soups, Prepacked Chapati, Rice, Groundnut and Chocolates. We had packed medicines for Frost bite, hypothermia, Pulmonary Edema, Diarrhea, Dysentery in a small quantity.

With a few words of caution we are seen off by our friends and relatives. As the train moves away from the station, Girish and Milind, are in a very different world than mine. My thoughts are only around the mountains. “I have trained and it better pay off.”

Milind broke the silence, “I seem to have a small leak in my Camera. The edge of the film burns off.”

“Our Khada Parsi climb was well captured. Let’s check.” I said.

I observe the camera. The back flap seems to have a small play. I push in a slide roll and close the flap. We secured the back with an adhesive tape. The play is negligible. The Yashika SLR was completely mechanical and it had fetched us excellent photographs.

“Let’s tape it, every time we change the roll.”

The train arrived at New Delhi, an hour late. We ferried the 6 kitbags and sacks to a small restaurant in front of the station. I ordered for food while, Milind enquired about transport to Rishikesh. The stench of a nearby gutter overpowered the aroma of the food.

The coach did not arrive till late night. It was supposed to be a video coach and there was no trace of a TV inside. But the driver did think of providing us the entertainment. At midnight, loud Bollywood music howled through the speakers.

We decided that Girish and milind would go straight to Gangotri while I would get down on the route at Uttarkashi and make arrangements for porters and kerosene.

Girish had forgotten to get the safety valve for the Pressure cooker which had to be purchased at Uttarkashi. I would get to Gangotri on the later part of the day.

In the town I heard sad news. Bachan Singh who had supplied Porters for Mt Matri had closed down the agency. Gopal Singh (who wanted to with us on Matri) had died on an expedition to Gangotri-2. I lodged at the Bhandari hotel and figured out a deal with Khemsingh. I decided to pay porterage for five Days approach, though the trek was less than 2 days.

We left the next morning in a densely packed bus. At Bhatwari a man got on the bus with his goat. I was amused when he paid ½ the bus charge for his goat. The goat seemed much disciplined and it stood on its legs obediently, trying to avoid the other standees. But every time the driver steered, it pushed its horns into the butt of the man ahead, much to his irritation. Fortunately the man got off with his goat at the village of Harsil. Harsil was flooded with apples although the quality was inferior to Himachal apples.

Our bus reached Gangotri at 1PM. Girish and Milind were waiting at the bus parking. They had booked a room close to the parking area. We asked the porters to meet us in the evening and we went for a lunch. I met Chinmoy Pal who was my rope mate during the basic course. He was going on a trek to Kalindi pass. We heard from him that a team from west Bengal was attempting Matri. From his account it looked almost like a raid rather than an expedition. The team, was using 80 low altitude porters, 20 high altitude porters and the budget was Rs. 3,00,000/-. Prasad had made the first successful ascent of Mt Matri and this team would eventually be guided by pre fixed ropes. Our attempt of Matri looked like a cheap joke with a budget of Rs 25,000/- , 13 low altitude porters and no high altitude porters.

Most of the people we met were surprised by the size of our team. Milind, Girish and I laughed at the gap of us versus the traditional Indian expeditions. It was high time that we set a trend. Towards evening, we went for an acclimatization walk along the Kedar Ganga Valley.

On 19 September, we started from Gangotri towards the base camp. Two of the porters had lost their bedding. They were keen on completing the two day walk in one day. I was all for it as it would give us an additional day. We crossed a log bridge across a stream. The valley was very beautiful and right ahead; we could see the summit pyramid of Mt Gangotri-3. The slope started to steepen and it took lot of effort to walk small distances. Girish was going very slow and I was irritated as he had spent no time for fitness. The incompetence was showing up. So far, Milind and I had not let any of the porter’s catch-up with us. Now, we had to slow down for our weaker member.

I wanted to push the porters to set the camp at the crossing of the stream. With Girish getting delayed, the porters would force us to set camp at Rudugaira base. This meant extra load ferry distance of almost 2 km along the moraine for us. I asked Gyan Bahadur to go back and fetch Girish. The Rudugaira base was a nice green meadow. The main problem was we had to walk almost a kilometer for water, there being no streams around the campsite. Fortunately, we found an abandoned tin besides an old kitchen.

It was almost 3PM and Gyan Bahadur arrived with a flabbergasted Girish. Girish almost looked like a fish at the end of a string. It was then that Girish narrated his story.

“I stopped to attend the call of nature. A strange smell of herbs around me made me drowsy and I vomited. I tried to wave to you for help but you were out of range.”

When Gyan Bahadur reached Girish, he found him deep asleep. He awakened Girish and kept talking to him, helping him with his loaded sack and walked him up to the base camp.

I said, “Gyan. You have helped us a lot. Can you accept some money as a token of appreciation?” Gyan Bahadur felt that this was a part of his duty, but he took the money when we pressed. The porters wished us luck and started their descent.

Apart from the three of us, there was no other expedition in the area. We pitched the dome tent and Girsh lay inside cozily in his sleeping bag. Milind had managed to clear some space I struggled outside with the kitbags to find necessary things. The cold wind made me shiver inside the Goretex suit. Finally I found the plastic sheet to cover the kitchen area and we weighed it down with rocks. My hands were completely frozen. Inside the kitchen, Milind was struggling to get the stove alight. After half an hour things were somewhat settled. Girish came out feeling a lot better and took charge of the kitchen from Milind. We cooked Rice and soup. The Pressure cooker valve was not of the right size and we were forced to eat uncooked rice. We ate like a hog and slept like a log. We planned a recky the next day. The surroundings did not look familiar to the photographs I had seen.

20 Sept

We woke up at 5:30AM. Girish was feeling ok. Milind and I decided to let him rest while we did our reconnaissance. We quickly prepared some noodles. The weather was spotlessly clear. Rays of sunlight bathed the summits of the mountains above us. The sun rose slowly and we were cold in our suits. Milind and I started walking towards a col on a ridge that leads to Rudugaira. I was tempted at the thought of climbing Rudugaira and Milind was also hooked. But then we thought of Girsih. We decided to go for it only after Girish recovers. We also wanted to concentrate on our prime aim ie. Gangotri-3

From behind the moraine we could see a sharp pyramid rising high behind a ridge. It was none other than Mt Matri. Milind and I talked about our past expedition on Matri and we even located our Highpoint on the Matri face. We climbed up and down many moraine mounds towards the Mt G-3 till we came across a stream. I managed to find the narrowest place to jump to the other side. Unfortunately I landed on a rock that was covered with verglass. I slipped and fell into ice cold water. All of the boulders had a thin sheet of ice as the sun was still low. Milind got across safely. We found the ridge which led us straight to Gangotri-3. We trekked almost to the end of the ridge to make sure. Marker poles left by some previous expedition confirmed that the route was correct. We also found the real site of the G3 base camp. Our porters had conned us. We returned to our base camp in 2 hours and we found a better route during our return.

Gangotri 3 did not look very difficult. The challenging portion was the summit cap which was separated from the lower slopes by a bergschrund. Below this was a dome shaped ice field which may have been 60 degrees at the steepest. This was approachable from below by a snow ridge. The ridge had some exposed rocky portion. But the ridge could be approached by climbing a steep ice wall that ended in a wide crevasse.

The next day, we would have to ferry all the equipment along with some food. Girish volunteered to help with the ferry.

I said, “Gentlemen! We should be very proud of ourselves, having setup base considering that we were in Pune 5 days ago. We are now at 15000 feet and ready to go! Cheers!”

; a note to which everyone drank their tea. At dinner, Milind was feeling nauseated and did not eat much. Girish was ok. I was feeling healthy and did not even have the headache that I usually get at higher altitude. The only sign of altitude was my runny nose.

21 Sept

We were ready by 6AM. We ate some Chiwda and downed the dry stuff with some tea. We loaded our sacks with around 10kg each. The jump over the stream was easy as most of it was frozen. I was careful with the verglass on the boulders. Girish had not thoroughly recovered and was going slow. I wondered, if we should push him to the upper camp. Milind and I could take care of ourselves and taking Girish along would only slow us. We sped as we reached the final moraine. Suring the brief rest I had another idea and I discussed it with Milind.

“What if we took a route through the icefall on the right. It does not look as difficult as the ridge on the left. The tongue of snow directly leads to the icefall.

Milind was a bit reluctant at first but then he agreed. “ We can place the advance base camp. The upper part of the icefall cannot be seen but if we could camp just below the snow dome? Let us see how things shape up!”

We lost the track of the marker poles and we left the equipment in a flat regionthat could house our dome tent. Girish was quite late and I decided that we should not take the risk of taking him along us up the icefall.”

During our return we had trouble crossing the stream which had flooded during the noon. We saw a large herd of Bharal (Himalayan deer), but it vanished when we tried to get close.

Back at base I was bent over tying my shoe laces and someone said “Hello!” It took me by surprise. It was a European guy dressed in Goretex fabric and his quiet approach gave me a turn.

In my mind I thought! “Here is some company for Girish.”

“My name is Martin. I just climbed Bhrigu Patthar. I came to this valley to plan a climb for the next year.”

I introduced myself and my plan to climb G3. Soon Martin’s liason officer, Praful, arrived and they went to pitch their tent. Praful was from a town called Solapur, . Praful was also to be married on his return. “It makes three of them.” I thought.

Milind had talked Girish into staying at base. His feelings might have been hurt but its always better to be blunt in the mountains. After all, everyone is for himself. I have a strong opinion that personal friendship should never rule choice of fellow climbers for an expedition. Expeditions can get derailed due to stubborn friendship. A commitment to help a weaker friend reach a summit reduces momentum of the entire team. The summit team should leave out a unfit person. After all! All that matters is you and your safety.

22 Sep

We woke up late. We pitched the triangular tent for Girish. Fortunately he had good company for two days. We were to move the dome tent to the upper camp as it had to stand speedy winds. Milind and I packed with essential stuff for 3 days.

Milind and I were in different moods and we hardly talked to each other during the walk, each was occupied in his own thoughts. When we reached the moraine ridge, Ice cold winds blew at us at almost 70-80kmph. We had pulled down our hood to leave a small hole , just enough to see and breathe. We hurried to the Advance base site and immediately started clearing space to erect the tent. After Milind fetched some water we sat for dinner. The condensed milk was used as a spread over the readymade chapatis. I had developed nausea for the smell of the cumin in the chapatis and the solid fuel fumes. Four more days to go, I thought.

We studied the icefall. It was bare ice with a scattering of snow. The angle was around 45 degrees and we may not have too much trouble climbing up. The next day’s stretch was vital for success. I tried to sleep. A rock edge poked my back through the carry mat and I was at discomfort.

23 Sep

We decided to wait for the sun as it was bitterly cold outside the tent. We had some chiwda and tea. The oiliness made it unpalatable. Both of us decided not to rope up as it was an easy angle. Also, if one of us slipped the other guy would be pulled away as well. Caution was the key. Both of us wore a waistline, Karabiners and ice screws. I carried a coil of rope in case the ice slope got grimmer. I set of the tongue of the glacier and Milind followed closely. The crampons bit well in the ice and I felt secure. I walked like a mechanical toy, stopping after every 5 kicks. Splinters of ice flew, at the blow of the crampons. All of my thoughts were switched off and I walked like a zombie.

The lower portion of the icefall was climbed and we had reached a broken icefall. To reach the ridge was going to be very difficult than we previously imagined. The crevasse filed was dense. Milind joined me and while munching on a chocolate we started the survey for a good route. It was like a maze. Every trace ended up in a large gap in the ice that we could not be able to bridge.I found a nice unbroken slope on my left at around 60 degrees. I front pointed to around 200 feet and Milind followed me close.

Milind asked, “Can you go to the left of the slope? I think it will get us to a better ground.”

When I climbed up the slope I found myself surrounded by a horrid maze of seracs, which was worse than before. We climbed down again and got on my previous route. The crevasses were very deep. Finally I found a snowbridge that was a foot wide. A boulder blocked the access at the other end. I tiptoed over the snowbridge dug my axe in the ice and swung the foot over the boulder. Balancing my sack, I slowly eased myself to the other side. It was a tough time as we had not roped up. I climbed another slope at 60 degrees and came to a wide crevasse. There was a place where it narrowed but it was not a safe jumping distance. A slip at the other end would be disastrous. We roped up. Milind took off his sack and got inside the crevasse belayed by me. He reached the other side safe and sound and was very cheerful after overcoming the obstacle.

The clouds started getting dense and in a few minutes it was a complete whiteout. The crevasse zone was not seen due to poor visibility. We had crossed one crevasse. What next?

We were about a thousand feet above the advance base. Milinds call brought me back to my senses. I tied his sack and slowly lowered it down the crevasse as he pulled it across. It began to snow and there seemed to be no end to our troubles. Our hands were frozen. My sack was hanging haphazardly in the middle of the crevasse. The wind began to howl at us and soon we lost patience.

In the midst of the snow storm, Milind asked, “What should we do now?”

Why is he asking me when he can see for himself?

I replied, “I don’t see any point in pursuing today. Let us pull back to my side of the platform and pitch the tent.”

Milind climbed back to me. The slab looked like the only safe spot for a tent. Milind had wet gloves and I pitied his condition. Milind was still in a jolly mood. He scoffed at me, “Why are you so damn sulky? Do not be so negative!” We had pitched our tent.

I did my best not to show my feelings. We had landed in a mess owing to my poor judgement. I even wondered if we could find a way back through the maze. We lay inside our tent. Milind had a lot of sunburn on his checks and nose the rest of his face was well covered by his beard. My nose was sensitive and I could feel the raw skin as I breathed.

I opened the topic for discussion as I wanted to know his thoughts.

I said, “ What do you think about the circumstances.”

Milind answered, “Why are you so damn negative? Tomorrow everything is going to be fine! We are going to find our way to the upper camp site.”

I wondered how he could be so positive! I could see few chances of making our way through the scrambled ice field. If we decided to go further, Milind would get all my support. He was a much better climber than me and I remembered the top head free climb on Khada Parsi. But I also observed that since we did not have any fixed ropes, the idea of climbing down the same route through the chaos of Ice blocks was unthinkable. We had to climb down via a completely different route.

A lot of time had passed and we needed to take a joint decision. Both of us were unwilling to accept defeat. We had 2 days food with us. I peered outside the tent. The white out was there to stay! Both of us were tense.

Milind broke the silence. “What is your opinion?”

I spoke (guardedly), “ Well! We still need to find a way to the top of the icefall. If we have a dead end we have to trace back our route and withdraw.”

Milind chirped, “ We have to find a way to get down too. I think there is a way near the hump.”

I remembered the steep ice wall on the way he had mentioned and said, “ It’s not easy to get down the icewall. If we get near the hump, we cannot turn back. We better try for the summit and descend on the other side.”

I decided to drop the sledge hammer, “I am confident of getting down the way we climbed up only to this spot. If we go any further the return will be full of risks and plenty of chances of goofing up. On the other hands it is also risky to descend on an unknown ground.”

Milind asked, “Can we finalize? We are not getting anywhere with this talk.”

I suggested, “ We pack up tomorrow and descend to advance base camp. We should stop this climb and I am responsible as it was my bad judgment that cost us this peak.”

Milind was much moved. He replied, “It is not your fault. None of us knew about the field above us and we took our chances. If we have to go back we should just focus on the retreat.”

My mind had raced through all the consequences when I suggested the retreat. Milind was to be married. I owed a safe return to Swati. Girish was alone at base. In case of an accident, it would be difficult for him to go alone to Gangotri and fetch help. If we did not return in 2 more days he would have to climb up to advance Base to make a check. What could he do alone? We were on a mountain without a permit. There was absolutely no hope of getting evacuated.

I did not have any hope of descending our route and climbing the peak from the regular route as we would be burned out during the descent.

I narrated my thoughts to Milind and he saw eye to eye with me after my disclosure. The decision was taken. One more unsuccessful peak would weigh down my conscience. After our descent, after getting rest, I would obviously forget the rigorous climb and the retreat and perhaps unable to forgive myself that I did not give it enough time.

I realized that both of us were very relaxed after taking a decision. I switched on my cassette player. Geeta Dutt started singing in the grey atmosphere of the tent. Soon, we were in a normal mood and started talking of things that we would do after returning to Pune. I sipped Benadryl syrup as I had a bad cough. I feet had bad blisters and I dusted them with antifungal powder.

We were unable to sleep at night as we heard a eerie creaking sound from the block below us. The glacier was moving. I hoped that our ice block would last the night.

24 Sep

The clouds had not cleared in the morning. The valley was also filled with clouds. We dismantled our tent/ I tried to remember the way we had come up. This time we were roped up. My feet hurt at every step. The snow fall had wiped out our tracks from the day before and I had many hit and miss situations to find our way down. Milind had to maintain same pace as me. I warned Milind a bit too late and he stepped on thin ice. His foot was drenched in icy water. He was worried of getting frost bitten. I advised him to keep his fingers moving. We undid the foot-fangs and poured out the water from his boot outer.

We exchanged some hot words and were silent for some time. Without further debate we started on our way down. Milind corrected me once when I was descending in a wrong direction. Soon we reached the top of the snow tongue. From here it was easy climb down to the Advance base.

It was 12:30PM. We had a brief rest and started loading our sacks with all the stuff. The sack was almost 35kg and we staggered when we started the walk.

Milind mentioned, “ We can do a load ferry rather than pushing to the limits.” I replied, “ OK. Lets go slow and steady with adequate rests. Let’s not push ourselves.”

We met a herd of Bharal. This time they did not shy away from us. Perhaps, even they knew that the worn out climbers could not lift a finger. We reached the stream at 2PM. It was extremely flooded. I wet my boots for a safer crossing. Milind did not mind getting wetter than he already was. We started up the slope that led to our base camp. Girish came for help. I asked him to help out Milind, who was having a tougher time.

At last we were at base and could relax. Girish cooked a nice dinner and we gormandized. It was the first lavish meal we had, after 3 days. We explained the story to Girish.

Girish was very worried as he too had experienced fierce winds. His tent had blown away and the Liaison officer had helped him to set it up again.

We decided to take a day’s rest. We were glad to be together. We decided to climb Mt Rudugaira the day after. I hoped it would offer some consolation.

25 Sep

We woke at 7 AM. I glanced outside our tent. The maze had lifted and G3 summit was visible. I was depressed. One more failure? How would I explain it to my friends? What would Prasad say? People love to talk about a failure and point out the flaws in planning. But..

This was MY venture. I did not publicize this.

What right do others have to comment on my failure? I used my money and my vacation to get here. Do people ever see that it was a small team? The budget was lower than they party with!

Milind said, “Why should we care? Why should we accept criticism from anyone below us?”

I walked up the long slope towards Rudugaira. The lone place gave me peace of mind.

26 Sep

We started the Rudugaira climb at 6:30AM.Milind had walked up the ridge. Girish and I were climbing up through the boulder slopes. Birds were chirping. I thought, “ What kind of food do they get here? Are they as crazy as us to fly as high, just for fun?”

We climbed steadily till we came to a leveled meadow. It had served as a Camp for some past expedition.

Mt Matri had shown up along with the satellite Twin peaks. I could see the hump on which we had placed our final camp and the hanging glacier. My Olympus SLR seemed to have some flaw as the shutter speed sounded too slow for 1/500. Girish was too slow and I started to climb alone.

It was a long climb, almost a marathon. Milind had reached the summit first. There was snow on the summit and I trudged my way towards him.

This was our first successful summit but we did not feel any excitement. Behind us, stood Shrikant Parbat. It was connected by a long ridge to Gangotri-1 peak. On the left stood G-2 and G-3. Further on left were the Jogin group of peaks.

If we had climbed Rudugaira first, we would have known that the route taken by us was treacherous.

We looked down the valley and could see the green meadow that housed our basecamp.

We had made a very fast climb in 4hrs and 30 minutes we had climbed from 15000 feet to 19000+ feet.We spent 30 minutes on the summit.

Mt Thalaysagar and Bhrigupanth were the most prominent. The Manda Massif was smaller but looked very challenging. We started taking photographs of the panaroma and eventually Girish arrived at the top. Milind waved the Saffron flag and then the tricolor.

We started on the way down and every step dislodged a volley of stones. While climbing down I took an entirely different route. But nothing could go wrong as long as I had the basecamp in my sight.

I descended to base in just two hours and it was my fastest descent so far. Milind was ahead of me. We sipped Glucon-D. I peeped into a broken mirror. My face had heavy sunburn. My nose looked like a roast potato and it was bleeding slightly. We ferried water from the stream to camp. Girish had returned. After dinner we relaxed in our tent.

We had decided to wind up the camp the next day and ferry load to climb down at the half mark to Gangotri village. We would set up an arbitrary camp at a 2 hrs travel distance and do a reverse load ferry, then pump the load to Gangotri in two load ferries a day.

27 Sep

We packed the sacks to around 30kg. We descended to a good camping site near the stream just before the start of a pine forest. We erected our tent. Girish was to cook and Milind and I climbed back to the base camp to get the second load ferry. When I reached base, I felt completely sapped. Two load ferries a day was too much. A new German team was at Rudugaira base. We had tea with them and discussed around the state of affairs if the Unification of Germany. They mentioned the reforms to increase of taxes on the west side for ten years to help to bring

Both countries to same level of economy.

We started on the way back and Milind was a bit slow as he was carrying more stuff than me.

I said, “I bet that Girish will have Glucon C ready when we get to the camp.”

We roared with laughter as Girish brought out our glasses. We decided that the next day all of us would ferry loads as it was a burden for two.

28 Sep

We wrapped up the camp and hid all the loads from the roadside. Then we started on our way to Gangotri. We met an expedition from Jamshedpur heading up for G-3. They had 7 High altitude porters and eight members. (They had twenty low altitude porters. ) They were shocked to hear about our alpine attempt. I was relieved that we had pulled out just in time from a booked mountain. We reached Gangotri in two hours. We found a room in a lodge. The room looked like one from a Tibetan monastery. We had a quick snack and then headed back to the camp . We moved down all the stuff and we had saved around Rs 1500/- worth porterage.Girish was to move with the equipment to Uttarkashi while Milind and I paid a visit to Gomukh after a day’s rest.

We lazed in the room, fully relaxed as there was no more tension, no load ferries.

The value of luxury is realized only through hardship.

Friday, December 21, 2012

The Godfather calls

Action is a great restorer and builder of confidence. Inaction is not only the result, but the cause, of fear. Perhaps the action you take will be successful; perhaps different action or adjustments will have to follow. But any action is better than no action at all.

-Norman Vincent Peale

The Advance course had trained me for Advance climbing techniques especially artificial climbing. I had an old account to settle. Revisit Khada Parsi pinnacle! Milind and I prepared for the climb. Prasad helped us with basic rock climbing equipment. He was to make the first highest rock climb of a nearby rock face called Dhakoba.

We had prepared for a high risk climb without any support from bottom. Both of us were influenced by Peter Boardman and Joe Tasker’s climb of the Shining Mountain, Changbang. We felt we could at least do our bit in Sahyadri.

We travelled on the Suzuki motorbike to Ghatghar village. We traversed the fort wall and climbed a gully to enter the fort. We pitched our tent close to a water tank and laid out the gear needed for the climb for the next day. It consisted on a pair of home made ettriers, 20 Carabiners, 200 feet of rope.

We were using canvas shoes for the climb as we had no rock climbing shoes. For protection of head during any mishap, we wore two wheeler helmets. I was wearing a red T shirt, so that Prasad could spot me from the Dhakoba wall with his binoculars.

We descended from the fort to the base of the pinnacle. I started the lead. I mentioned to Milind that he could Jummar up as soon as I reached the first ledge. (This was the point where I had given up the first attempt.)

I climbed fast, full of confidence. I finished the open traverse, removing carabiners and tying off with small pieces of rope to save on the carabiners. The advance course two piton technique had built my confidence. I was leaving strings that were bare essential for my safety.

I approached a small ledge that could barely accommodate my feet. I clipped my self anchor and attached a 100 ft rope through three bolt anchor for Milind to Jumar up directly to the ledge.

Milind took a long time to abseil and as he approached I found the reason. I had not adjusted the Jummar strings of proper length for him. The leg string was too long and the waist Jummar was far away. I was not surprised when he expressed that it was easier to climb directly than jummar up a fixed rope. As he clipped on his self-anchor, I made the necessary adjustments.

I started off up the next pitch which was an overhang. I climbed up the ettrier, but this time my legs did not shake. There was no panic that I had felt during my past climb. After 6 or 7 bolts I stood on another ledge. Milind followed, a lot faster this time. We decided to change the lead. I snapped on the jumars.

Milind was a lot more confident than me and he proved to be a lot faster when climbing directly. I jummared up to him. We had a single water bottle and we wet our beaks.

The next portion was critical as it ended in a neck that has loose rocks and scree. I gestured to Milind that he had to be very quick on his feet. He vanished above the rock shaped like a bookshelf. He cried out that he was close to the head of the pinnacle. As I followed him I found that he had traversed to the right of the pinnacle in a hurry. The head of the pinnacle was supposed to be bolted but we found none. We were at high places hooked to a single piton with no lead to follow. Not a good situation, especially when we had absolutely no one at the base. Milind said, “ I feel very confident that I can free climb to the top. It is just 50 feet away and no more critical than the free climbs we do at Sinhagad.” Judging by the speed of his climb and the confidence, I agreed that he open the new route. In ten minutes I heard a shout from the top. Milind was on the top of Khada Parsi. He had anchored the rope. I quickly followed him after removing my self anchor and winding up all the extra rope. Finally we were on the top of a well-known pinnacle. I looked around and the top was no more than 5 feet in radius. The abyss fell more than a thousand feet towards the east. On the right was the fort wall from where I had watched this great pinnacle when I was in my teens. We had realized our dream with training, practice and a bit of confidence. I was overjoyed and I wished that Prasad was watching me from the Dhakoba wall. I could not see their team as their route was under a shadow. We still had to make a safe descent. I tied a short string to the top Piton and looped the two ropes. We were confident enough not to use a belay when rapelling. In the first pitch, we got to the neck which was close by. The next pitch took us to the bolt station near the ledge. As we reached it, we had to slip off the rope. The rope would not budge! It had got stuck in a cactus near the neck. I gave a few sharp jerks and fortunately the rope slid off to us. We descended to ground zero safe and sound.

We wrapped all the gear and got back to our tent. The limbs ached from the full day activity. We were on our toes for almost 8 hours. We had absolutely no energy to prepare food and we slept. I had not put on the tent outer. Through the tent fabric I gazed at the stars in the dark sky.

The God father had blessed us with a success.

Milind spoke, “Two man is easier and faster. Next attempt Tel Baila Pinnacles next.”

I nodded. Milind and I were the perfect pair of climbers as we complement each other. Now, we could take the world by storm. We had filled water bottles from the side by tank for the night.

We were very dehydrated and I kept sipping water throughout the night.

I woke up with a swelling in my throat which made it difficult to swallow the tea or the noodles.

But all was well, as we were in high spirits of finishing the climb. We yet had to descend the fort and ride the motorbike to Pune.

A few days later, Prasad called me. "I watched most of your climb. The red dot spent 1 hour at the neck. Why so?" He had seen me untangling the ropes from the cactus.
Prasad had reached a bigger goal of the largest alpine style rock climb in Sahyadri. The NW face of Dhakoba.

At the Shaolin Temple

We live as we dream…alone.

-Joseph Conrad

The downpour seemed never ending, to my annoyance. Cold shivers ran down my spine. I wished that I should have left the rucksack on, to retain warmth. The rain drops trickled from the leaves of the old banyan tree. A mangy dog rubbed his back and edged close to me. The rain rode on the gust, aimlessly, drenching me to the bone. There was no escape.

I recalled the early morning train to Lonavala.

I had walked to the bus station to put on my shorts. The load on my back was around 25kg. I had put on my windcheater and walked out, well prepared to get soaked.

I had chosen to be alone on this journey; a 25 km trek to and from Rajmachi fort. It was to prepare myself for a bigger ordeal, Solo expedition in Himalayas after the Advance course at Manali. The hike along the dam backwaters into the valley was eventless. I enjoyed the waterfalls that played hide and seek through the mist.

The lush green forestry dripped with morning dew. The drizzle in the morning had helped to ease the burden of the sack and I had felt fresh. I had reached the Rajmachi fort, and started back after an hour’s rest crossing the streams on the way. After a brief chat with villagers at Rajmachi village, I had started on my return trek to Lonavala.

As the rainfall re-started, I sought shelter under the tree.

I glanced at the rivulets that formed beneath me in a pool of water. Each drop created a disturbance of itself. Was it same with the human mind?

The calmness of the mind disrupted by thoughts or the feeling of discomfort.

The tree had sheltered me from the down pour. The tiny drops were now a nuisance.

What if the tree did not exist?

My body was only getting colder and the better way was to continue. I crouched to pick up my sack. “It is all in the mind. No level of comfort can please a human mind forever.”

With a heave, I slung the sack and walked out into the torrent, planning for the expedition. It would be just like this in the Himalayas.

“Comfort is all in the mind. Comparisons with a worse situation help to build a cocoon. For this, I should face tough situations through my training.”

I walked thoroughly drenched into the bus station and changed into passable clothes, disregarding the glances of people around. Laymen would never understand.

Perhaps, Buhl had been through this too. Hermann Buhl and Reinhold Messener, were my role models.

My thoughts raced at the pace of the train, my hair blew down the face with the draft. My eyes searched the compartment for imaginary holds and crevices. I hardly realised my empty stomach ; and my mind raced ahead with future plans.

I would buy equipment and food after the course and attempt Mt Manali. A week’s climb seemed viable for a solo expedition. The fear of being alone was not the bother.

But would I be able to erect his triangular tent?

Another worry was Size 11 Climbing boots.

I remembered the ordeal at Sinhagad a week before. I had climbed a 45 feet rock with a laden sack. The descent was tough and I had to choose an easier route. In Himalayas there would be no escape routes. Perhaps I could hurl my sack down the slope and retrieve it later after climbing down.

As the train entered Pune, announcements echoed in the station and I was back to reality. The super thoughts vanished and I was now just another face in the mob.

Back at home, I switched on the cassette player. Ghulam Ali reminded me of my unfinished Oil painting. I used to play it repeatedly as this only cassette on the stereo, when copying masterpieces. My latest one was Sir Reynold’s Mrs Siddons as Lady Macbeth, that I intended to submit for an art exhibition.

The painting had engrossed me and it was too late to go for the regular run. I lay on my bed and stared at the ceiling. The empty hook, provided for the chandelier, caught my eye. It would make a good purchase for training pull-ups, if the burrs were covered by rags. In few more minutes, my pull-up gadget was ready.

I tried hanging on the left arm then with the right. The arms soon got heavy, the forearms taut like wires and I dropped down exhausted on the bed. I wished; I could put few small holds on the wall to train better.

The quarry behind the Fergusson college ground was a good place for practice. The rock was not very high and I tried the moves from a Patrick Edlinger film on free climbing. The challenge was to swing and hook the heel to same level as the handhold and I could now do it reasonably well. After the climbing practice I cycled to the polytechnic for late night school. The brand of the cycle, ‘Robinhood’, was at least 30 years old and had large heavy duty frame. I had fixed a 3 speed internal gear hub and cycling was a lot of fun. I missed my friend circle and our cycling trips.

I made frequent visits to the quarry. Someone had opened a few good routes that were protected with expansion bolts.

The part time course left me with very less time for exercise. The weekend treks were a respite. The advance course at Manali was a relief from my studies. I had applied for vacation from my work. My form for the advance course was accepted and I went ahead with the travel plans. This time I was to travel alone.

Byrdes of on kynde and color flok and flye allwayes together.

- William Turner

The Jhelum express had conveyed me to Pathankot. I had the impression that Manali was closer to Pathankot which proved to be incorrect. I reached the bus station and there were 4 hours to kill till the night bus left for Kullu. I had plenty of time to kill and lot of folks to watch.

A couple of twin German girls waited for a bus to Dalhousie got lot of attention from everyone (and me). An “Ayurvedic” swindler was trying to sell some ointment that would remove the plaque and decay from the teeth. He was very good at marketing the stuff and sold 6 bottles in a single bus.

“No. I do not have bad teeth. I do not want to try it. Thanks!”

He waited patiently for my bus and his would be customers. Meanwhile, the eye candy German twins had vanished.

The solitude forced me to think, why I was alone. It was a conflict of multiple priorities that Milind, Girish and I were facing. Milind was making moves to secure a higher post in another department. Girish was busy with exams. We just could not find any time to get together for a climb. I refused to believe that this was the end of climbing for us.

I had to get the advance certificate so that I could lead expeditions. Further, I was still weak at rock climbing and had absolutely no awareness of Advance techniques and gear. My investment would pay off for the three of us.

The solitude was actually making me stronger. The rebel was more rebellious without a team. If our band had disbanded, I should get stronger to pursue my passion, alone. With luck, this would draw my friends back into climbing!

I was carrying plenty of cash and I was alone. Credit cards were unheard of. Traveller checks had to be cashed in state banks. National holidays and weekends put me at more risk if I ran into an emergency. At every bus stop I had to climb out of my bus Window to check my Haversack. I did not get a wink of sleep that night, till I dismounted next morning at Kullu.

Early morning, I travelled from Kullu to Manali. The Orchards on the side of the road were laden with Rosy Apples. Manali had not yet developed into a commercial tourist hub. It was due to the simplicity of the village, I had developed an immediate liking for the place. I stayed in a hotel close to the Bus station. The floor was varnished wood with wooden furniture and closets. The room had a unique taste of “Luxury.” I caught up with my exercise with few rounds of pushups. Later, I enjoyed a nice meal of Roti and Malai Kofta.

In the evening, I walked the turbulent Beas river. I saw a plaque that showed the institute was a few miles further down the road.

I felt like the monk at the Shaolin temple.

The road side was flooded with rotten apples dropped from the orchards. The trees loaded with apple crop, ripe and ready to be plucked. After a short walk, avoiding temptations, I reached the Mountaineering institute. It was a wooden palace erected for the Dalai Lama when he travelled from Tibet to India. ‘No Smoking’ signs were displayed at many places. Fire hazard was a serious threat to the Heritage building.

I was greeted by two guys from Himachal. They had directly lodged at the Institute and saved the hotel charges. I walked into the room that was secured for the advance course. It had few bunk beds. I claimed my place and put on the shoes. I struck my first friendship in my group.

The Tibetan looking lad was barely 19 years old. He beamed at me and introduced. “Dorje. Dorjey Tundup.” Dorje wore a T shirt that Protested..FREE LADAKH FROM KASHMIR.

Dorje was from Ladakh, a man born to climb.

I had a vague idea of Ladakh though I was better aware of the Kashmir situation, I was aware that most of the Ladakhis were peaceful people. The Banner told me that all was not rosy at Ladakh.

I asked Dorje if he was willing to join me for bouldering. He happily agreed. We walked to the boulder field behind the Institute. I observed that Dorje was quick on his feet and exceptionally well balanced. He had weaker arms but he used his strengths well.

I asked, “ Did you climb any major peaks? I am going to attempt Mt Manali after the course.”

Dorje: "I climbed only two peaks. The big one is Mamotsong Kangri which is 23,000’.

I was impressed at the utter disregard that he treated a major climb. It was like a day in his life task.

I asked, “Would you like to join me for climbing Mt Manali?”

He answered, “ We should think about big things in life. Why spend time in approaching small peaks if you can do the same in a week in Ladakh.”

Dorje was younger than me by 6 years. But he had opened my eyes to think big and dream bigger. We struck an instant friendship. I opened another topic of discussion. Even if I did not go ahead with my climb, I still needed to purchase gear for future expeditions.

I had my eyes on a pair of Goretex approach-march shoes in the Tibetan market. The Old Tibetan Lady had not budged to my offer of Rs 750/- Perhaps Dorje would negotiate better?

We walked to the Tibetan market and Dorje opened the talk in Tibetan. The Old woman was watching me all the time. I gathered from the tone of the conversation that she knew that I was using my new friends to bargain and she stuck to the price of Rs 1000/-.

Dorje finally managed to close the deal at Rs 800/-. The Shop owner still cribbed about the quality of the boots and maintained that she had cut her profit to benefit a Mountain climber.

Dorje then took me to a Tibetan hotel where we had a dish of Thupka and Momos.
I was completely new to this food but I liked the taste.

The first few days flew and we never had time to take a bath. The training sessions were so hectic that many of us complained of no bowels. The instructors said, “Its good. You are consuming every bit that you eat. Perhaps it’s just too many apples.”

I had always thought that the apples had a good cleansing effect or was I wrong to think so.

The Daily schedule was packed to the brim with morning workout, Equipment handling, Weather forecasting and rock climbing sessions. By Bedtime we still had to complete create a write-up for plan of expedition for any nearby peak by studying map. I chose to write on Deo Tibba. After Dorji’s chat, I felt that Mt Manali was not suitable enough for advance course candidate. My “project submission” was done and I joined the line to collect my equipment. During the equipment distribution I was shocked to find 10 point crampons in my kit.

How would I climb steeper walls if I had no front points?

The basic course left for the Solang Valley in a bus. The advance course team had to carry their heavy sacks from the institute to the valley. We had lunch tiffin to keep us full. It was a very long walk and we were dreary as we walked into the Ski hut. The good part? No one hitch hiked to Solang. The walk was a part of acclimatization training and everyone agreed with this.

During the next day, someone mentioned that the log bridge was washed away and we may have to stay at Bakhartaj. This was the highest spot that shepherds grazed the cattle. Higher above, the vegetation was thinner. As soon as we erected the tents, a heavy rain started. We had luckily dug gutters around the tent and were saved of the water seepage.

At the dinner call I walked out to the mess tent in midst of a heavy rain. Chapati and Vegetable was served was immediately disintegrated into a soupy unpalatable mouldy mess.

My training in the rains was useful, but there was no return on investment to relish a nice warm dinner after a days trek.

Next morning, we crossed the log bridge and climbed the grassy slopes that converged into a glacial moraine. We scrambled on and found a flat space to erect the advance course camp site. This was closer to the glacier, where we would be training for ice and snow craft. Negi the quarter master was my tent mate. During the talk he mentioned that he was studying for the IAS where the Advance certificate carried lot of value for the overall score. I was amused as I only lost my vacation and money to get a certificate that would only provide more fuel to my crazy climbing pursuits, eventually to lose more money and perhaps a slower progress in the corporate ladder for the “abnormal behavior”; whereas, these guys were getting true return on their “investment”. A large part of their fees was waived off being Himachal citizens.

Yet, it was good to have the Quarter master as a mate as he would get in some of the food stuff from the Kitchen tent.

When talking with few other instructors I met a good personality, who had attempted the Southwest face of Everest. I had Chris Bonnington’s books on his success on the face and anyone who had touched it seemed like a god. Our instructor was a local Skiing champion. I wish he had the funds to travel abroad and show his skills.

The next day we climbed up the glacier towards Mt Hanuman Tibba. The lesson was on Self arrest. Self arrest techniques are important for climbers:

1) During a fall the climber has to decelerate the fall and stop

2) During a fast descent the climbers can glissade down a slope and put on the brakes using the ice axe.

I hope that climbers take this training very seriously. Any control lost can be disastrous to the entire climbing rope. The slope was around 45 degrees. My First glissade was in sitting position I sled down the slope and braked when the instructor shouted to stop. This was easy.

But Life is not easy! So I climbed up again.

The next step: I slept on my chest head facing down the slope and ice axe held above the head.

As my friend let go I rushed down the slope accelerating.. my heart pounding to hear that “STOP” signal. And it happened. I dug the pick on the side and the body swung.. I then forced the shaft deep into the snow. “Wow! This was something. And it works too.”

As I was thinking of what could be worse than head down position, I was asked to climb up the mound again.

This time, I was asked to sleep on my back, my friend held me by my shoes.

“Oh God!” I saw the blue sky and the rock walls tower above me.” I was scared. I knew that this was going to be really tough. “GO.”

I slid down on my back gathering speed my ears yearned to hear the “STOP”..This was exactly the position, if I ever fell on my back.

“STOP!!” I rolled to chest down position. This time, the speed was too much. I dug the pick of the axe as soon as I rolled and swung. Crack..The axe came off. I hit harder as I slid and again and again. The slide stopped. As I stood up and I did not have to put my hand on my chest to hear the heart beat. I could feel the throb above my ears.

I shook off the snow from inside the jacket. Now, I could do the same to my mate!

A few days of Ice craft followed where we were asked to climb a steep ice wall with only two Ice screw pitons. The process was simple. Screw in the first screw at around the position of the head. As I turned it, I had the same feeling as a hole threading exercise in a fabrication Workshop. I hauled myself to the screw and then started drilling in the next screw. Now, I had to anchor myself higher up, reach for the bottom screw, unscrew it and nail it again above my head. The process was simple, but the progress was very slow. I gained the confidence that with artificial climbing almost anything is possible.

Climbing using two ice hammers was the next step. This was very awkward with the ten point crampons. I ended up doing a long series of scratches on the ice The Axes dig well but the feet don’t listen.. Soon I found that the left arm was not used to hammering the pick at all. The pick came off and I slid down.

“Shame on you! This is not expected from an Advance course cadet.”

I held my head low. Dorjee tried to cajole me. I was sure to make a better effort only if I had 12 point crampons.

My Instructor danced on the vertical wall on the front points, without his Ice axe. It seemed so easy for him. Was he reading my thoughts when he loaned his crampons to me. I found that looks could be deceiving.

It’s easy to covet others prosperity, but it is difficult to live in their shoes.

Ice craft needs practice. Every kick into the rock hard Ice caused a pain in my toes. Less forceful the kick, lesser the purchase, more the slippage. The kick should be well angled and impactful.

The lessons in icecraft were done. The day was clear as I packed my sack. We were now to make a summit attempt. The peak chosen was Mt Ladakhi that offers average rock and snow climbing. The important aspect was height gain and to gauge the team performance at High altitude. Dorjee had teamed with me and Raj. The team climbed along a long ridge to Mt Shitidhar. After a The camp was established. The cook brewed some hot Maggi Noodles in the pressure cooker. The “2 minute noodles” needed 30 minutes to cook, in a cooker.

As the sun sank behind the ridge the summit of Mt Hanuman Tibba shone with a strange light. The peaks far were perhaps the Deo Tibba and Indrasan massif . The cold came with the night and a ran a shiver down my spine. I was the only climber with a sweater and a thin windcheater and the sleeping bag was comfort.

The night slept as the dawn tookover. It was 4AM when Bed Tea was served. I was fumbling with the icy crampons and they would not fit. Dorjee was a big help as he tied the laces on to my shoes.We formed two ropes each was tailed by the instructor. As we climbed the Shitidhar slopes I was breathing heavily. The nose was choked up and I was slowing down my rope. I cleared the phlegm and it was an instant relief. The sun was now up and the rays caressed and warmed the body. With my vitality upgraded I swapped to the lead position. Soon we were at the top of Mount Shitidhar. The weather was getting cloudy and the Ladakhi summit was hidden. I had a glimpse of Mt Manali which looked very easy from our location. We got to the top of Shitidhar and clicked some photographs. Our instructors decided to call off the climb as the weather was turning bad. I retreated with my instructor and Dorjee. They removed their crampons and started a standing glissade and I could see the skier in him, as he swept down the slopes effortlessly. I forgot all the glissade lessons and was safely following the bucket steps that we had carved during our ascent.

We wound up the tent and started the descent to base camp. It was a pleasure to switch from my heavy mountain boots to the lightweight Goretex shoes. My investment was paying off well.

Dorjee and I paid a short visit to Beas Kund. Was it true that the Mahabharata epic was conceived at this peaceful place? Dorjeee said, “It is believed that if you ask for a wish, it shall come true.”

I thought of things that I would wish for. My carrier was in my hands and I knew that I would be able to struggle to achieve what I wanted. But there was something that I was unsure about. I rarely interacted with any females. I always fearful, that a woman would pull me away from mountain climbing. I knew what to pray for. I asked for a good wife, who would understand my passion for adventure. I opened my eyes and looked at the pond. There was no wind and the water seemed like a mirror. The rock wall in front of the pond merged into its reflection in the water so well that I could not locate the partition.

I had been without a bath for a fortnight. Since all was done, Dorjee had a thorough bath in a stream. We wandered and brought some shrubs for camp fire. Someone sang “I believe in Angels” and I joined in to ruin the song further. The effort of the climb was paid off with a sumptuous dinner.

It is a fine morning. The clouds had retreated, plenty of sunshine to bask in and no more labor is expected. I join my colleagues for our last lecture. The topic: Rescue operation.

Negi has offered to be the injured. We fumble with ways to use the rope, ice axe and carry mat to make a stretcher on to which, Negi is helplessly tied on a carrymat. We carried him all over the boulder field and slopes. It was fun. We were paid with a hot halwa made of pure ghee, which is saved for the last day. The Instructors called us out for a final session and we are to bring our empty haversacks. This time, Negi did not a volunteer.

The initial thought is to get more firewood for a late night campfire but as it turns out, its only partly true. The instructors have something else on their mind and it is almost evening.

The Session is benightment. We are asked to go to Bias Kund and pick up some wood on the way. We are to stay there for one night without food. The sweet desert was catered just to add few calories that would eventually be burned out in the cold night. I had not eaten much for detest of sweets.

Solemnly, we gathered few shrubs for the night fire. The day was clear and we expect the night to be subzero. Beas Kund is a flat place and there is no shelter. We grouped together in a wall of rocks made that had served as a kitchen for an old expedition.

All of my mates wore their feather jackets and I cursed myself for not having carried one. I felt colder. No one suggested to light the camp fire, as we wanted to postpone it to a late hour.

If the fire died and we ran out of fuel, we would feel colder. There being no firewood at Beas kund our only hope was to kindle it only at the right time. I remembered my Bivoac on Matri and the crevasse. This was a much better place devoid of snow field, icicles or avalanche hazard. I narrated the story to the folks. Soon each of us started reciting some anecdotes. In later rounds the topic turned to adult jokes, which is subsequent talk converged into sex stories. Dorjee narrated a ghost story about a climbing team that had died on an expedition to Ladakh. He mentioned that he was a porter and he swore that he had seen this in real life. To add fuel to the fire, someone started an argument about ghosts being nothing more than illusions of cobwebs in the minds. I cajoled Dorjee to ask for few more details and he went on and on.

I had lost the sensation in the bottom and I snuggled my feet inside the rucksack. Soon others followed the same. We had started working on the training to put it to practice.

We all realized that this was not a night to sleep. We had to keep awake and keep moving to retain the heat. We had agreed that the fire could be started at around 1AM.

Our faces glowed as the fire crackled. We tried to keep it low. Everyone thawed their frozen hands. I drew my feet out of the sack and pushed them close to the fire. It brought life to my toes till someone told me, my socks were on fire. There was a roar of laughter, as I gaped at the hole. I drew back into my sack.

Fortunately the fire went on till 5AM and we had a massive fire with the remaining wood before retreating to the base camp. Back at base we had hot food waiting for us and the instructors listened to our stories. There was so much to learn from a forced bivouac.

We packed our gear and the tents were loaded onto the mules. We climbed down to Solang valley. A renowned Bollywood hero was shooting for a film and the basic course crowded around him to get an autograph. Someone told that the actor was he was suffering from High altitude sickness. We felt that we were the real life heroes and the Bollywood actor was a softie. No one in the group went to meet this guy.

At noon we had the final interview. The chief instructor asked a few technical questions during the oral examination. Then he asked a pointed question.

“What do you think about the decision about retreating from the mountain?”

“ I felt sad at not being able to climb the Mt Ladakhi. The instructors said that the weather was turning bad. Probably they thought it was the right thing to do.”

“What would you have done if you were the instructor?”

I pondered and I realized that I had always thought about my goal and not the situation of the team as a whole. If I led a team, my wish would not matter, but I would think about the weakest member in the team. My instructors were capable of judging the team and thus would have favored the decision to retreat.

I answered, “ I would have asked to retreat, as safety of my group was worth a lot more than my personal ambitions.”

It was the last day at Solang. The Basic course climbed onto the trucks to travel back to the Institute at Manali. The Advance course walked by road to Manali. The trek was easy as we were well acclimatized “Advance” climbers.

On the following day, I was awarded “A” grade for completing my course. However, along with the joy, I also grieved as my favorite singer Hemant Kumar had passed away. I said goodbye to Dorjee and hoped that we remain in touch for Mamotsong Kangri plan.

I travelled back to Delhi with a group from Mumbai via, Macleodganj. I touched the prayer wheels at the Dalai Lama’s palace and someone told me that he had travelled abroad.

I knew the reason a few days later. Dalai Lama received his Nobel Pize for Peace.

As I rejoined my duties, it was a sad period for my company. We were facing a crisis. The Union had called for a factory closure and many of my close friends were influenced and involved. There was not much that I could do apart from catching up with my share of a months work.

Friday, November 9, 2012

The Matri Affair

      In 1987, Mt Matri was a less visited, unclimbed mountain in Gangotri region. Perhaps, this attracted Anand  to plan an attempt. The taller goal was Mt Nilkanth that overlooks the Badrinath temple. The reccee had not resulted into a planned expedition as, there were some missing pieces. The approach to reach the base was longer than any peak in Gangotri. Longer approach blew up the expedition budget.
      Mt Matri was one of the unclimbed Jewels in Gangotri Himalayas. It had fetched the attention of the American alpine journal. The main problem for foreign expeditions being, the peak was within the inner-line zone. Inner line is a band 80 kms wide from Tibet border and any expeditions inside this needed some documentation work in obtaining permissions from the Army.
Only one camera with 50mm focal length and a single film roll was allowed on such expeditions.  The roll has to be handed over to the army for screening. It would be handed back to the expedition team, usually 2-3 months later.

   Anand had obtained a Swiss topo-sheet of Matri. I was engrossed in plotting the profile of the climbing route to understand the slopes better. We had no details about past 3 attempts to plan the route.
The expedition needed lot of reconnaissance.
There was one person in Pune who had climbed a mountain opposite to Matri and I arranged for an interview with him. 

    The senior climber lived in a small wada at Laxmiroad.  I secured an appointment and went to visit him. The door was locked and there was a note lodged in the lock.

“The key is under on the door parapet. Please open and be seated.”
I smiled at this needless “security”; leaving a note to get robbed? But as I entered into the room, it had nothing but few papers, files and a few climbing journals from Calcutta. An old wooden ice axe hung around.
Soon a fragile, bearded old man in bell bottom khaki half shorts stepped inside.

“You plan to climb Matri?”
“What have you climbed before?”
“Attempted Mt. Kedarnath”
“You should consider yourself lucky, even if you get to the base of Twin Peaks”
“Twins?” I was completely confused.
Yet, I was pleased that the old man knew more, as he had climbed Matri-Trisul.

    He talked of an tedious approach March, where ropes had to be fixed even to approach the Base camp. The access was through a gorge. He quickly sketched the Matri and the twins and the icefall. With a typical Puneri sarcasm he mentioned again, “If you even reach the base of the icefall, consider that as success.”
     I was confused as I left the old man. Were we attempting a large feat, alpine style? There were two other reports that I now carried. In one a team from West Bengal lost two climbers in a fall from the face of Matri.
    The relic mentioned that the route was wrong. The only way up was through the icefall. “Get to the base of the Icefall”.
    The Topo sheet, on the contrary, showed a more gradual east ridge and a steeper climb to the col between the twin peaks. Perhaps the old man was wrong. The peak was definitely difficult to approach and climb. Perhaps that was the reason of its virginity.
   The budget of the expedition was around 25000 Rs. With funds from the Indian mountaineering foundation and the State government sport department the amount was raised.
A senior member from our club "arranged" a meeting with the state sports official for adventure sports. As they discussed on the "cut", I was completely nauseated by the "business" for the sport that I loved.
   Anand planned 500 feet rope for fixing and a 250 ft line for belay. The equipment was hired from the institute in Uttarkashi. For Food, Anand had a better plan. Mixed rotis from Jowar and bajra flour at base. Ready-made chaptis and soup for Camps above Advance base. Every alternate day Rice and soup. Weikfield sponsored Jelly and jams, Brooke Bond sponsored tea bags.
      Before the expedition, I floated an idea of a 3 day trek and climb a 450 ft Pinacle called Vanarlingi (Monkey’s Phallus) near Junnar. The pinnacle looked like a Godfather that stood over the valley, adjacent to an ancient hill fort.  The idea was to build confidence within the group and understand strengths and weaknesses through the climb.
        Moreover, it was to be a realization of my dream since my first trek, when I saw the pinnacle.
We had manufactured our own pitons from car leaf spings, which I had got done from a local road side worker. The hard steel was tough to work with and had to be tempered. The ettriers were made from Steel rungs (Construction steel) and nylon rope.
Khada Parsi (Vanarlingi)

Girish , Hemant  and I travelled to Ghatghar, a village close to the pinnacle. We reached at nightfall. We met Anand along with two (twin) girls. Anand had met them at the Bus station in Mumbai and they had planned the same trek.

     Ranjana had completed Basic Mountaineering course and her twin sister was an avid trekker. They were thrilled and wanted to watch the climb.
      It was my first climb as a lead. The first anchor was at 70 feet and I reached it fast. I went too much on the left and I hammered in a piton for the first time. I had no rock climbing shoes and was using Bata canvas shoes.
      I started the traverse to the right to and approached a small ledge. After securing self anchor, Girish followed me to the ledge.

       An overhanging rock started right above the ledge and as I slung the ettriers they swayed in the space, away from the rock. The heat had sapped me after the 1 hr climb and I was around 150 ft from the ground.
       I was exposed to a precipice of 2000 feet that dropped into the Konkan region. I was uncomfortable seeing two vultures flying around the pinnacle. Were they looking for dead meat or the would be dead?
      As I stood on the rung, my feet started wobbling. Was it fear or just too much time on my toes? There were 5 climbers at different stages of the pinnacle roped up and anchored. It was impossible to get them all to the top with so much delay.

    This was a wrong plan! I realized the mistake too late.
The sun scorched my arms and I hung on to the next anchor. The knees were weak and my stregth had sapped. I decided to give up.
“Girish. I simply cannot go on. It’s too tough for me. Perhaps you can try.”
    We exchanged the places. I shook my arms to ease out the muscle pain.
Girish could not climb up either. We decided to call it off.
When we abseiled down and I was glad to stand on ground zero.

Despite the failure, the team had come together and climbed a part of the pinnacle.
I was aware of my weakness.

As I did my Root cause analysis I realised;
Every climb needs to have a plan.
With only two climbers on one rope, progress is fast.
In case of 4 climbers, I could have split the team in two groups.
Speed was not the only advantage. Two teams reduced risk.
If something went wrong, the other rope could always go for rescue.
Also, two separate ropes have two lead climbers.
Each lead can further switch to belay position and let the other lead.
    It was so elementary! I cursed myself for not giving this a thought earlier. I was learning through my mistakes.
     The rest of the team members jummared to the first pitch and abseiled (reached their personal goal of having attempted the climb.). They wrapped up and we climbed up the adjacent fort, through a narrow gully.
    We decided to camp near a waterspot. Anand lit fire and started cooking Khichadi. The moon rose to the cacophony of the group songs and the weariness was lost.  The discussion started around the expedition plan. Team building was a vital step for a serious expedition. 
Ranjana decided to join the team for the expedition.

Uttarkashi Again!
     When we had reached Uttarkashi the rains were still on as it was mid August.  The road was cut down by a massive landslide close to Uttarkashi. We spent two days in arranging porters to take us to the base.
     We relied on Bacchan singh Gusain. Anand knew Bachan singh well. His brother, Govind Singh wanted to climbwith us as a high altitude porter. He was dejected, when we explained that we were not using any porters at high altitude.
      Vasant Limaye from Mumbai invited us for a slide show on his expedition to Kangchenjunga in a nearby hotel. The slide show was inspiring and I was in high spirits.
Next day when we talked with the porters, we realised that none of the porters had been up the Matri nalla. I was a bit concerned, as it would be tough without a guide to open route into unknown territory, especially the steep gorge. We got on the bus to Gangotri and we reached before nightfall.

      Early morning we walked to Chirbas (12000')  and continued on the way to Bhujbas where we took a diversion to the left. I saw a hermit in a small cave in meditation.
I was inside a gorge which had steep walls and plenty of rockfall.
The porters were scared to stay in such a place. They dropped the loads and went back to Chirbas. They promised to be back early morning.

    The seven of us sought refuge under a huge truck sized boulder. After sunset, we cooked the meals and stretched out in our sleeping bags. The rock fall stopped as the temperature dipped. The rain had stopped.
Day-2 (Exploring the gorge and setting examples)

      The porters arrived early and we loaded our sacks. They were reluctant to enter the gorge and I noticed that the only way was to lead them and show that a person from plains could break way.
I entered the stream closely followed by Milind. Early morning, and my shoes soaked with ice cold water was not a condition to relish. I hate when my socks are damp with sweat and this was far less convenient.
     At places I was knee deep into the flooded waters, but I kept moving probing with the ice axe and keeping balance. Soon, I found a flaw in the gorge. The relic had told us that we would have to fix rope on a rock band of 40ft high. I had wet my feet, I could keep moving against the stream further and there was an easy slope that did not need to be secured by rope.

      Milind and I came to an old campsite in a grassy meadow. It was too close a distance to set a camp and we continued. The stream gushed by on rock slabs at 45 degrees. We climbed the slabs and were close to the glacier snout. We waited on a flat ledge for a long time, drying our boots. I pulled out my windcheater to keep warm. None of us had a feather jacket or a Goretex suit for the expedition.
      The progress made by the porters was slow. My heart sank, when I saw Anand and others set up a camp at the old site far below. It meant that we had to retreat all the way back.
As we arrived at the “Base camp” we found the reason.

      The porters had rebelled. They had found the route too difficult and they had made a good point. After dropping the loads, they had to go back all the way and the water floods during the noon. Crossing the stream would be dangerous, if they get late. We pitched our triangular tents. I was sharing the tent with the ever enthusiastic Milind.
      The roar of the stream was lesser as the water froze.  The Chaturbhuj peak and Mount Sudarshan glistened in the moonlight. On the opposite side of the valley, Mount Manda looked strangely alike the South west face of Mount Everest. I pulled out my brandy and sipped a cap full. My cough was getting hoarse.

      Establishing ABC

      The plan was to ferry loads to the Advance base Camp and locate a safe site. The progress was slow over verglas smooth granite at 45 degree inclination. At one juncture, my haversack fell down and the Zenit camera escaped unscathed, after the fall.

We found a gentle slope away from the rock fall zone and higher than the glacier. It also had a water stream nearby. For next 3 days our team kept ferrying the Equipment and food to the Advance base.

      At one occasion, the water in the Matri Nalla turned black all of a sudden, perhaps due to some shifts in the glacier or a landslide. The entire stream was Black mud flowing down by our camp. We had no palatable water at base, until I located a stream after further down the campsite.
We moved all the gear and belongings to Advance base on the third day.
Recee Camp 1

     We studied the lower part of the matri glacier. On the South was the Thelu Needle Further dominated by Mt Sudarshan. A huge avalanche shoot formed at the base of Mt Sudarshan.
Ahead of us was a big icefall, that seemed impregnable. It started from under the Twin Peaks and descended upto the glacier. However, we found a way moving along the rock face in a debris of sharp rocks. A stream gushed by and vanished into the rocky morraine.

      My Huntershoes were reduced to Rags in just one day.
The upper part of the glacier was heavily crevassed and we established the Camp1 along a tongue of snow. We could start the glacier walk with the climbing shoes and crampons.

We moved the rations and gear to the Camp 1 site the very next day. From this camp the push would have to be purely Alpine style, as we could not afford load ferry days. We spent the evening adjusting crampons and doing catwalks on the glacial ramp.

CAMP 2 -The gull who flies the highest sees the farthest!

      As we walked up the glacier we chose to move along the true left bank of the glacier as the right bank was marred with many deep crevasses. Mt Matri was now completely visible. The Slope to the west ridge was bare rock. This was not our plan of ascent. We were challenged to find a route up the wall ( North West face).

     Camp 2 site gave us a splendid panoramic view of the lofty Kedranath Massif and Shivling. However it was a bit dangerous as we could see small rocks dislodged from the face speed towards our tents.

     I shared a tent with Girish and Milind. We were elated that we were close to the mountain. A rump of ice blocked us to see the other side of the basin and the Matri face.

            The sun rise was late the next day as we were in a shadow, eclipsed by the Face of Mt. Matri.  We put on our Mountain boots and crampons and tied on the Gaiters. The most detested task of winding up the wet tent and loading the sacks was done and we roped up.
            Girish led the rope, as he was feeling weak that day. (Keep the weakest guy in front!) Kick plunge! Kick Plunge! Repeat 6 steps! Gasp for breath. I could see that Girish did not have a warm start. He was afraid of the slope. All of us joined in an effort to cajole him.
We were now in a huge snow bowl. I cursed at our slow progress as I was curious to see beyond the basin. What would it be like, when we get close to the face?
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.

      We were midway up the snow basin when the weather turned bad. Clouds rushed from down the vally into the basin and visibility was low. 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 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 medicines 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 his 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. Mt. 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 bivouac incidents 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 as it made us feel warm. The night was cold, as I peeked outside the flap to gaze at a clear starry night. The milky-way was a bright band. The face had an 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.

         The team crawled up the Matri basin. The packed snow made the climb easy, though I felt the rarity of Oxygen. The bivouac on the earlier night had not allowed me a good sleep. We soon came to a larger bergschrund. This One started on the Rock face on left and ended up in a ridge almost a kilometer long. We nicknamed the “ridge” as Gyani ridge. We traversed to the right after crossing a few easy crevasses.

        The wind and occasional clangs of Axes on the shoe crampons to remove the Snowball, my occasional cough and the rasp heavy breathing, cracked the otherwise silent world around us.

         A huge hanging glacier loomed 500 ft above us and we tried to move as fast as we could, to get away from its path. Soon we came to the edge of the ridge. 

        I started to lead the crossing of the Bergschrund. Unfortunately the Bergschrund gap was even higher than my Arms could reach. The axe sank in a conglomerate of icicles which clinked and broke off as I tried to pull myself up the gap. I soon was completely exhausted and dropped off.
Girish took the lead and crossed over to the end of the ridge.  The ridge un-mountable, as its hidden face was at 60-70 degree. The face dropped a 1000-1500 ft into the glacier and I tasted fear for the first time during the expedition. My “super spirit” had evaporated, and I was sad and afraid.

          Below us the glacier lay in Pink and Blue colors, marred with numerous crevasses, as the glacier steered towards Mt Sudarshan.
With Girish back after his quick recee , we decided that we had to stay on this hump till one of us found a route.  The hump was sloped and had large wide open crevasses.

Anand: Can you climb down into the crevasse? Let's camp inside.
Me: No point in spending another night in Bivvy. It’s useless. I plan to camp outside.
Anand: This is just your second expedition! No arguments.What do you know about the avalanche risks? Please climb down and test the bed of the crevasse.

Anand was offended. The altitude had both of us, on the edge.
I decided to get into the crevasse without further arguments with an experienced climber (a lot older too).
As I got inside, the crevasse was full of snow and I sank to my thighs. It was not the same cosy little cave, we spent our earlier night.

This was an icy world and we were aliens. I climbed out to announce it as not habitable. After further acidic exchanges, we started hacking platforms in the snow for our tent. It was not an easy job but with a technique of cutting blocks of snow, it cleared space a lot faster. I panted heavily as I dug around. We were almost at 17000' with a drop of a 1000 feet close to our tent.

I chose to stay with Girish.  The other tent was occupied by Milind with Hemant and Anand.

The sky burned red as the sun set. It was a beautiful scape with vivid colors. The climb was paid by the panaromic view. The only colors we saw throughout the day were white and blue.
Even a glance at the Ochre rock was soothing, though not much skin was bared by the mountain. The Yellow Ochre turned into Golden brown as the evening set.

I find my highpoint..

       Next morning, the Matri face ensured that we got the sunrays the last. We were on the west face. Milind took over lead climbing.
He did an excellent job by crossing over the face to hammer in the first piton. Anand and Hemya were at belay.

      Girish and I were on the task to melt ice and prepare food. The spirit fumes burned my eyes and the heated exchanges had spoiled my mood and I felt worse at 18500’. I started calculating.

      We had overall 500’ rope. The face looked ~ 1000+ ft, without any ledges to camp or even belay. The highest we could go was 500’ with fair chance of a ledge to stand might climb another 500’.
This meant that we had no bottom rope, which was risky as we were 5 days away from civilization in a terrain known to very few climbers.
       Milind was back after fixing the rope. Anand jollied me to jummar up and take a look.I rose (to the occasion). I had taken my decision though I hadn’t voiced it yet. I slid up the rope on the other face. I returned as I neared the rock patch. With my personal ambition to climb further satisfied, I declared that I wasn’t fit enough to go up. The thought of 5 team members on a sheer face with a 500 ft of rope reminded me of the failed Khada Parsi pinnacle climb, prior to Matri expedition.

       Girish had decided to retreat with me. Anand, Hemant and Milind were going to try another go the next day. As the two of us descended into the basin, we could hear hollering on the face; mostly Anand’s. I was glad to have escaped the waiting period between each move, but was sad at Milind, who had lost the last chance to continue to the limit of his ambition. The team is only as strong as the weakest link.

      Back at the glacier we saw many  newly yawning crevasses. So we walked towards the right bank of the glacier. As I moved ahead crossing one crevasse and other I saw a red cloth. Yelled to Girish as I found it was the hood of a Feather jacket. Pleased with my new win, I bent to pick it up.

Suddenly, I had an uneasy feeling.
Was there more underneath the cap? Perhaps the dead Bengali climber?

The cap wasn’t worth it and we carried on busy in our thoughts.
Over the tea, at Advance base, we chalked plans for the next day.

Retreat from the virgin

           We were to help the other three as they descended to Camp1.
Ranjana was keen to camp near the glacier camp (C1), having been at Advance base moraine for 5 days. We walked up early morning to C1 and were amazed to see the rest of the team already descended at C1. They wanted to retract from the mountain ASAP.

             The team was soon back at Advance base making further plans to descend, packing equipment. Ranjana was unaware of the gruels of the climb, and was perhaps sulky, as she had been deprived of her personal height gain target. 

             I thought; All well that ends well. For the equipment we carried we had reach a pretty high point of almost 20000 ft on a mountain that we were completely unaware of.
It was the true reconnaissance that had allowed us the pleasure of discovery and exploration.

Point of no return?

Ambiguity encountered in a situation, fades away with memory and time.
Reasons around the decision to retreating from a set goal, are often forgotten. At a later point, the decision might be looked as callous or imprudent by humans around.

After a failure to climb a mountain, at a later date, I have been troubled by “Ghosts”. I attribute a “Ghost”, as a thought invoked by a fading memory of the dire situation. One cannot precisely remember everything that happened, when the objective decision was reached.

It is critical to physically log the details of the circumstances. An individual’s record is often a rapid description of his/her point of view that has gaps, sometimes as best, as he recollects. But lethargy rules at times and the report, has wide gaps that cannot be remembered and back filled.

There is always a third person to point these out OR the self, when he wanders into the haunted past. Haunted? I feel; the “Gaps” are the “Ghosts” that trouble the conscience later, however objective a human can be in a situation. It is not easy for a third person judge a situation, when he is absent and has not endured. He may not be a physical or mental equivalent to pass a judgement. His own personal beliefs play into judgment, so would his values.

It is important for young climbers to understand this, so that they don’t flay them self for failure. The real judge that one faces is his own conscience. If everything went as planned, would there be any learning for future? Root cause analysis that also covers the human side in given circumstances.

The ‘success’ is in terms of Photographs on the Summit of the mountain and a safe return is a priority. The resource is not so important to a layman. He tries to make the news easy for himself. Climbed, Not climbed. Further an interest in Number of porters, Duration, length of rope and equipment carried.

I often felt that the journey and the resource, as more important aspect to truly appreciate the experience. Norton’s world record on Everest, with his primitive equipment, has a lot more value for me. Lack of knowledge of the mountain, no exposure to high altitude, may have been the factors and I presume, he may have thoroughly enjoyed his adventure.

With the world so explored and the knowledge available on web, Contour maps, the real taste of adventure gets bland and the real climber now tries to make ascents on tough routes and face seasonal challenges solo.

There is a growing “market”, where a layman pays to get to the top of the world with a guided tour, something that I personally detest for the values I follow. Causality due to lack of knowledge or climbing experience are heard of now and then.

I feel; drawing the line for every individual pursuing a “goal” and deciding the point of return is extremely important.

Does one have courage to face the world? How does one define success? Is reaching the top everything?