Wednesday, May 15, 2013

Mount Satopanth – The heavenly path

IT WAS MY 3rd EXPEDITION in 6 months. The porters had abandoned us at the moraine of Bhagirathi glacier which was much before the scheduled Base camp at Vasuki Tal.

I had been to this place thrice before. The first was during a solo hike from Tapovan during the Meru Expedition. The second was during the failed climb of Bhagirathi with Surendra when my Boots broke. The third was during the pre-Everest attempt on Bhagirathi2.

THE MORRAINE TOP had barely enough space to house two tents and my tent hung over a slope. But it was just for a day or two. I was glad to be with the five man team, Sunil, Mahavir, Vikrant and myself with our porter Sonam. Sonam was glad to climb with Mahavir as they had a past alliance for an old expedition.
We had travelled for two days from Gangotri to reach this approach camp. It was a good old alpine attempt that I had missed for many years. Vikrant had tried to woo a girl and she had brushed him off. Perhaps this was a good time to climb Satopanth and show her his caliber. Mahavir and I smiled at this pursuit. I said, “You should be good enough only to please yourself. Rest falls in place. She may not be good match for you after all. You will find a better girl!”

WE DESCENDED into the glacier crossing a few crevasses.  Since the porters had left us we had to perform two load ferries to the base. The moraine wall on the other side was pretty steep 50 feet and frozen ice lay beneath. Sonam found a way. None of us wanted a fixed rope as we would be travelling over this ground only two times during approach.
It was early may and we descended on the other side of the moraine in a large snow bowl. It was knee deep snow and we plunged the axes to find solid ground. None existed.
Sonam mentioned, “ We just walked over Vasuki Tal.” It was hard to believe that this was a lake. We marched ahead along the Sundar Glacier and the Morraine ended into a small green basin. This was a perfect campsite. Sonam mentioned, “ This was the base camp that I talked about.” We had a quick snack and travelled back. The same day we did another load ferry.
We moved our tents and gear to the “Base camp” at 16000 feet. Satopanth was just over the shoulder though we did not see it from the base.
Sonam made tea under the Kitchen canvas and I went trigger happy capturing the various moods of Vasuki Parvat that towered above us. My Nichormat camera was working well. The spotlight meter was out of order and I was using my judgment.

      WE TRAVERSED the debris from Vasuki and descended onto Satopanth Glacier. We were marking the terrain with Red flags. The glacier was under lot of snow, which meant good early progress and a late tiresome return when the snow turned into sludge in afternoon. We pushed all the gear and rations in the first ferry and shifted to Camp1 (17000’) on the later day.
The progress that our small team made in deep snow conditions was commendable. We were aware of the fact that we did not reach the start of the icefall to lay the camp as per our plan. It meant a longer travel over the glacier, up the icefall and up the wall towards the camp on ridge.

In 1986, when I was learning the ABC of rock climbing, Pune lost three of its veteran climbers on Mt Satopanth in an avalanche.(Dr Minoo Mehta, Nandu Page and Bharat Mangre).
We passed along the region. Nasty seracs on the right side and the wall on left, we reached a tiny chute. There was an old rope hanging from the exposed rock . We agreed that it was easier to enter the graveyard and approach the snow slope. Mahavir led the climb and the others followed. I had a bad blister above the heel due to the smaller climbing boot and front pointing was the last thing on the mind.

  I was alone in the graveyard with all sorts of creepy thoughts. It was the worst place to be in case of an avalanche, as the entire face of Satopanth rose above me and the sheer wall that rose to the Sharp ridge on my left. With luck, in the two hours of loneliness, there was no avalanche and My friends returned after fixing the rope upto an easier slope.

We were carrying less rope, just enough to push us up the slope towards easy terrain. The same rope would have to be removed and fixed wherever needed on the razor sharp ridge. I hoped that there would be plenty of rope left by prior expeditions that we could hook to in dire conditions.
We descended to Camp 1. I was the last one in the team as the descent left worse wounds on the tender skin above the Heel.

I DECIDED TO WITHDRAW from the climb as a snow snail like me would disrupt the speed. Mahavir had counted on me heavily. Sanjay was not at his best. The good team was Mahavir, Sonam and Vikrant. It took me some time to convince Sanjay. He was not a good climber for a touch climb. I believed that Sonam would be a perfect support for Mahavir. The weather had been perfect and I was sure that the three would be able to return in 4 days. Since we had no Walky Talky, we would blink the torch. The Torch would be waved up and down in case there was a disaster and we needed to climb up.

  The trio left us and we watched their progress on the slope.  Since they were loaded, they took some time to reach the pinnacle base. Then they vanished from our site. We were happy that they had reached the high camp before the ridge. Sanjay and I chatted and cooked. He told me of his Mumbai Pune Cycle race and we talked about cycles and technology. I was not aware why the imported cycles were so expensive, but he mentioned that they made a big difference.

      At night we so the torch on the ridge at the scheduled time. All is well!
I said, “So, tomorrow is crucial as they cross the ridge.” We were in a much cozier situation than our friends on the top ridge of Satopanth. I wished that I had some way to numb my feet. I missed this climb a lot. Anyway, I had taken the decision and the harm was done. It was a bad idea to take Sanjay to Camp2 as he would need some assistance at high places.

      We woke on the next morning and gazed outside. The sky was spotless and the snowy glacier bathed in the sun. Snow had gone soft and wet and underneath our tent had a pool of water. We saw the three spots on the last hump approaching the ridge. From here, we would not see them till they reached higher up on the ridge. We cooked some noodles. Around noon, we saw the three dots again. Something had not gone well. I knew that they would not come back otherwise.
At night we again saw “All is well” signal and we went to sleep.

      Next morning we saw the three come down from the slope. By late afternoon, they were down at the basin. We melted water and travelled to the base of the icefall. The snow was soggy and I had tough time with my injury. I met Mahavir and took his load. He narrated the story of the earlier day. He and Vikrant had roped up and started along the ridge. There was lot of snow and they could not find any fixed rope on the ridge. Vikrant slipped on the ice and took a fall. Mahavir was on guard and arrested the fall. They decided to return as there was lot of risk.

Mahavir said, “I am sure that with you, I could have done it.” I felt sad to let him down but only I knew my real condition with the injury. I would be a far worse support than Vikrant.
I said, “It is still a great achievement to start on the ridge. The accident was small and nothing bad happened. We should be greatful for the good weather to achieve this with a small team of 5 climbers. I believe that no Indian team has done this before.”
We were glad that we were in good shape. We wound the gear for return. I was keen to get into my sneakers as the wound was painful. I was sick by the thought of previous “accidents” and “retreats” with no success and it was an anchor that dragged me to my negative lows.
Next day we were back at base near Vasuki Tal. It reminded me of the arduous retreat of Bharat Mangre after the 1986 Satopanth Mishap, with a porter. Whilst the others were buried in the avalanche, Bharat and a porter were blown off and managed to escape the blast.
I have high respect for him.  (I am told that towards the end of the crawl he gave away his boots to the porter to save him.)

      At Vasuki tal, we saw a plaque with the names of Vijay Mahajan and Arundhati Joshi, who died i at Kalindi khal crossing. I had read of this story in my school days and we paid our respect to this plaque. We were overloaded with equipment and decided to stretch to Gangotri the same day in a fast descent. At upper Nandanvan, a Blizzard greeted us and I was numb with cold till we got to lower Nandanvan. But I could now hang my mountain boots on the ruck sack and walk in my sneakers.

At Gomukh we hired porters and that shed off some of the weight. I decided to keep the mountain boots with me, remembering my cracked boots on Bhagirathi expedition.
The return to Chirbasa was slow. I was tired and moved like a zombie. We reached Matri Nala and ran down the slope. My foot was caught in shrub root and I fell flat on my face. I spat the grit. Never in my life have I felt so negative about my ability. I decided to give up Mountain climbing. With that small fall, I had concluded that I was not fit to climb mountains.  Perhaps the ghosts of previous failures rode high on my mind and I was not in a positive mental state to drive them away.

      An Australian trekker on route to Bhujbasa chatted with me. I mentioned that I was a climber but I retire after this expedition. And she said, “That is a funny decision. Once a climber, A climber for life. I am certain that you will forget it soon.”
      We were back at Delhi. I had to travel to Nagpur to my Inlaws. I had no train reservation and hence had to stand for most of the journey. I had a beard and heavy sunburn and I am sure I smelled like a goat.
      The beam of my year old son, made me forget the gruel of the expedition. I had learned to “fall” and give up, but my son was on his toes. He had just learned to walk and wanted me as a witness.

      The news of the Everest expedition was bit of a joy, as my old friend Surendra had made it to the top. Yet, something had snapped in my mind. I did not feel connected with the Everest team anymore. I had no feelings, when I went to the dias as an ex-member of the expedition. Good news that builds strong propaganda? I was the odd man out.

I was certain that I did not belong here. I was happier with the tiny Satopanth team.  I was glad as my Everest friends were happy and they had the chance to prove their mettle. I had blown up my only chance on Satopanth for whatever reasons. If I was strong enough, I should have pursued the climb.

      I distanced myself from the mountaineering circle. I severed ties that would make me return to the mountains and I stopped reading Mountaineering literature. The heavenly path was not for me.