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?