Wednesday, October 24, 2007
Wednesday, October 17, 2007
however, i see no reason to rest unless there is actual redress. and actual punitive measures taken both against the police officers involved, and the todi.
r has written about yesterday, and the days before. as also here.
Monday, October 15, 2007
Nabs made tiny videos of some moments on our way from Base Camp to Kedar Kharak, when we were on our way down. When he later showed these to people who had been to Kedartal (BC) in the past, they simply wouldn’t believe that the footage had been taken between the Tal and KK, such had been the difference between the before and the after. Through the days of the build, and then through the confinement in the snowfall, I kept a journal.
For once, the Doon Express wasn’t quite so late. So we reached Uttarkashi well in time for a good lunch.
And we are the full team, now. Sarbandada came in for tea. And then Gajpal Rathore, with whom we shall go out for supper in a bit.
The drive was nice, actually. A very golden day, and we saw the river intermittently, and that river is quite relentlessly beautiful.
We have been moving the equipment around now, and it feels good to even touch rope and carabiner. And I find I don’t like bathing quite so much, after all. I mean, it’s fine enough once in a while, but no more. I think I have had enough bath today to last me the next couple of weeks. And after mountain-time I’ll want to bathe again, and that must be a good thing.
Just back from the ghat. The river flows like silk. And looks softer than the light that falls on the water when it is dark. But these are very, very powerful waters.
I am becoming human. Going to bed at 10. Have plans to go running tomorrow early in the morning.
Just finished packing (read ‘jumping up and down on my sack’) and I’m most surprised to learn from the spring balance that my camera stuff weighs no less than 2 kilograms. Which means that equipment and camera included, my sack will be blastedly near 20 kilos all over again. In spite of my taking nothing other than the technical stuff and the sheerest needful in outfit.
An expedition is a lot of running around. We started out that way. Nabs has decided we aren’t in as good a shape as we could be, so he hauled us (Kingshukda and me) out of bed and out of Bhandari’s by 6 a.m., and we ran uphill for a bit, and then did weird contortionist exercises.
Then NIM – for equipment, etc. Then porters – 3 HAPs, including cook. Then arranging for kerosene, then testing of stoves, and fitting of crampons. Then marketing for green vegetables and a few other necessities, like multivitamins. We’ll make history the day we use one of those, by the way.
Today, on the drive down to Gangotri, I saw a butterfly with the entire sky on its wings.
And I realised that I am completely enamoured of this river. That’s only normal, and true, I’m sure, of everyone from this land, but I realize that I dream about this river and its kindness and its beauty. I know we are supposed to think of this river as feminine, and I’m sure that’s right, but I don’t quite know what to call this river. And I haven’t had very direct contact or consequence from the river in my life, ever. Never had my life or livelihood depend on the river – and yet, I am very dependent. It’s one of the ordering forces, if you like, of my world. Without which my world wouldn’t exist. I don’t very well know why I love this river so desperately.
For the rest, well, in Jhala, just past Dharali, whom should we meet, but Jainderji. Here was Parthada with another cook in tow, and for some reason, unwilling to take Jainderji along this time. And then we had to walk right into the very man. Anyway, this means that Jainderji will join us at Gangotri by tomorrow, and will be with us through the trip. I am quite glad Jainderji’s coming, and it goes without saying that Parthada is, too.
We have to use tomorrow well. We need 8 LAPs to come up with us, and we have to engage them from here this time.
Rest day before the trek’s begun! The kind of thing you can’t avoid, because the LAP-and-load negotiation is still on.
Beautiful day, just now. I was up much earlier than the sun today. And as everyone was dozing soundly, I went out to the river. And watched the people and the water. Also saw a white wagtail, very sprightly. And a white-capped redstart and a plumbeous redstart who played and played by the Suraj Kund. And a tiny warbler, who then joined a lot of other tiny warblers, and then they all flew away.
Parthada had a bell he wanted to hang above the
Sun, and t-shirt warmth. As I have declared I’ve had enough cards to last me a lifetime and some more (although that’s probably how I feel now), they’ve caught hold of Rathoreji and are trying to teach him 29. Only, he’s got them playing something else entirely, which also involves partners, and I can see fierce competition.
Kedartal (15,523 ft)
Conversation on the last day at Gangotri:
Kingshukda: ‘Kalker rastata kemon?’
Nabs: ‘Ektu laddu khele hoto.’
Illustrating Kingshukda’s quite justified fears upon hearing that the first day’s approach march would be as far as Kedar Kharak and not simply until Bhuj Kharak, as we had initially planned. Also illustrating Nabs’s remarkably one-track mind.
So we started from Gangotri in 2 teams yesterday – Rathoreji, Kingshukda, Joyjitda and I with Jainderji, Agraji, and Sadhandada (by 8 a.m.), and then in the second lot, Parthada, Nabs, Sarbandada, Hardev Singh, and the LAPs – the LAPs took their time getting breakfast, as a result of which the second lot got very nicely delayed right at the outset.
The Kedar Ganga river gorge is quite ravishingly beautiful. Peculiar to this time of year, it is autumn in the mountains now. As we walked, we first left the trees behind, then the scrub behind, and then almost the grass behind. Kedar Kharak is considerably high up, at 14,640 feet, and to cover that distance and that altitude in a day certainly takes a long march. It was a long march. But we had the sun turning everything golden, and then we had the rains with a sharp wind, and that was very cold, but then it cleared up again, and all the colours of autumn showed, washed and entirely bewitching.
When we reached Bhuj Kharak, we thought it only reasonable to wait for the second lot. But after 40 minutes of waiting, we left their lunch with Sadhandada and Agraji, and walked on. By the time we were having our own lunch an hour or so later, only Sarbandada and Hardev Singh had caught up with us – we moved on again.
After lunch were the Scree Slopes and the Rockfall Zone. It was at this point that I somehow got on in front, and kept going, because scree doesn’t allow you to wait, and then, right until KK, I ended up having the entire land to myself. That is to say, there wasn’t a soul in all the range that my eyes could see. After a point, it was clear to me that P.da and co. must be quite some way away yet, and would be very exhausted indeed by the time they got to camp. I wanted to go on ahead and, if possible, send folks down to help carry their sacks, and come back myself for whoever could use some relief. Anyway, I went round and round the bends, higher and higher, and there wasn’t a soul for kilometres that I could see, and the whole land was mine to drink. Kedar Ganga on the left, the last red-and-green grass dying with every step I took, and the sky clearing up to reveal that clearest, dark, blue. Until just the tip of Thalay Sagar showed, and the great grassy plains of KK, where we were to make our camp. That was at a .
Within the next hour and a half, the entire team had drifted in. As had the clouds.
My sleeping bag sucks. That is to say, it isn’t for altitude. Anyway, I hadn’t any socks on, and spent a very bad night, very cold, sleepless. On top of which I had to go out once to pee. Blasted…
Everything put right this morning circa , when the sun decided to show. The advantage of killing ourselves yesterday was that today’s march was a stroll.
When the last high ridge was cleared, and suddenly the huge blue-green expanse of Kedartal opened up below me, I was again quite alone. Last thing before the beginning of the trek, in Gangotri, I had gone to the beautiful
It’s 7 in the evening now, and way too soon for the supper Jainderji’s trying to feed us, and we are still surrounded by the blasted clouds. But once, I hope, we will get to clearly see the waters of Kedartal holding Thalay Sagar, with Bhrigupanth watching.
Taking photographs is very difficult with a sack with full gear. And no telling what we’ll find after tomorrow’s reconnaissance and ferry to Advanced Base.
The only other expedition team here is that of the IMF ladies’ expedition to Bhrigupanth. They had had great weather, they said, and been successful with the summit. They will go down tomorrow to Gangotri.
Jainderji is getting very insistent. Will go.
Base Camp (15,523 ft)
Got the boots and crampons out, and we should have been testing fittings furiously, save that the sun and the little breeze from the Tal, and the benevolently watching peaks, have induced an incredible indolence. In any case, rest-day today, and the ceremonious 29 is on again, and that gives me the opportunity to write.
I had to leave the tent in the middle of the night again last night. Methinks I’ll have to get used to the blasted business. Anyway, there I was, and all the stars out, and Thalay Sagar glistening in the light of a setting moon. I was in only a t-shirt, and to try to get the camera out would had meant getting lynched by my 3 tent-mates, but it was frightening, and I really don’t know what I would have been able to take even if I had managed to click. There’s this weird thing about mountain photography – either because of very pertinent and pragmatic reasons like the cold and the (often) precarious situation, or because of completely irrelevant reasons like the enchantment or even fear of a moment, one is simply unable to click. I know I am, and I don’t even pretend to know why.
After that I would have slept well, but for tremendous hunger. Jainderji’s dinner at 7 behaved like it hadn’t existed, and onwards, I was ready to eat my sleeping bag. It’s a complete myth, I must say, that appetite decreases with altitude. I mean, I’m sure that’s true at 24,000 + ft or so, but not here!
The pujo was this morning. Very beautiful, as usual. Sarbandada in his jaunty hat, and Jainderji whispering/singing his prayers into the wind, and all of us bareheaded and barefoot, and not cold at all. The sun came out, and the Bhrigupanth lot gave us sweets before they set out on their way down, and we prayed as best we could.
I went out across the Tal after breakfast to see if I could get the peak in the blue-green water. But the peak already had a snow-plume, and the wind made the surface of the water shiver, so it wasn’t such a great reflection. But I was again alone in the beautiful land. I do think that the generosity of this landscape is only imaginable by a human being, for who else is as small and as beautiful in this land?
Our sorting of food and equipment should begin shortly.
BC (15,523 ft)
Advanced Base is a calm, collected, altogether composed place – nothing blows there save one force nine gale after another, there is no other sound but that of the wind, and there is no sight save the absolute rear of Thalay Sagar, Bhrigupanth, the first of the Jogins, and a few unnamed points. I am very strongly persuaded that the only reason I stayed put on earth at all, was because I had a heavy-ish sack on my back.
In other words, the load ferry to ABC. A good day for it, and I should say that I haven’t seen a cleaner stretch of moraine till date. A very clear trail, albeit very high, and with
The sun is most important. We stood shivering this morning outside the tents after the morning jobs (which froze the hands entirely, by the way) and then the sun cleared the high horizon, and in a minute we were warm as toast. Only, ’twas the front, and the back was still cold, and so you had to turn round to bake your back, and then the front was cold. So turn round again, and then again.
Sorting of food and equipment continued. We are shifting wholesale, and ABC will for all practical purposes be BC, after we have shifted. We are leaving just enough rations here that we will need immediately and on our way down, and moving on with the rest. Most of the food got shifted today, and we took the gear as well – everything save the axes.
We started generally south at , and followed high skies along ridges, until Thalay Sagar moved to the left, and billowing clouds and wide open plains opened up on the right, and Jogin I came into view, and we had reached the site for ABC. In a little over 2 hours. 16,122 ft. The wind is relentless, there. And probably the only variation in sound we will hear in our time there, will be of the avalanches cascading down from the high peaks. We saw one today.
We got back to BC in record time, and Jainderji provided beautiful lunch.
Will go play now, and yet there are bits of concern. Rathoreji hasn’t been eating well for the last 2 days, and last night said that his headache had been relentless since KK. He’s walked fine enough today, but there’s no telling what more exertion at altitude will do. And Kingshukda has clearly never been this high, and we are hoping a good rest will do him good.
Also, saw something of the Route today. But more of that as we go to the mountain.
’Tis after dark, and little bits of snow are coming off a completely hopeless sky. Hopeless, because I was hoping for a good view of Thalay Sagar and Kedartal while the moon was this big. But the morning should be better, like it usually is.
So, the Plan So Far. We saw J I today, and now at least the more experienced among us have an idea of the terrain and the stretch involved. Given the general trend of the weather so far, which is producing a clear frost about 1-2 a.m. onwards, and leaving clear skies until about 1-2 p.m., it makes sense, as P.da has pointed out, to have parallel teams attempt the two peaks at the same time, so that any ugly weather might be absorbed within our duration at the higher camps.
The good news is, Rathoreji’s feeling better. As things stand, then, he and Nabs, together with Sarbandada and Hardev Singh, will make up the Jogin I attempt. P.da, Joyjitda, Sadhandada and I for Jogin III. The first and most important challenge is the fairly considerable ice-wall that will have to be negotiated after C1. Given that we occupy ABC tomorrow, we’ll load ferry for C1 the day after. On 27th, then, we leave ABC for the push. We occupy C1 that day. On 28th, the idea is to make direct establishment and occupation of the next camp – Summit Camp for J III, and probably C2 for J I (for they will probably need another camp – otherwise the last stretch, though gradual, may prove to be too much). Thereafter, and even hereunto, we’ll have to go by the mountain. Post attempt, a quick (but careful, as we are banging our own heads to emphasise, for ’tis a fact that one just can’t be too careful) descent is desirable. And on the whole, we have three days that we can wait bad weather out, and that’s not a terribly bad number.
And tomorrow I have a lot of cleaning up to do. As I am now not surprised to find, the area is loaded with non-biodegradables from earlier trekking teams and expeditions. I have been assembling some of the stuff in one place near camp now, and I intend tomorrow to pack the stuff up and ready for us to take and go down when we are on our way back, for we will probably not halt a night at KT on the way down.
BC (15,523 ft)
Only, there is no general blasted trend to mountain weather, as every mountaineer must find out sometime, to his or her great consternation. It snowed all night yesterday, is snowing fine flakes now, and all the sun there is, is a heavy and murky haze. A complete obsession with the weather is a mountaineer’s prerogative – each time any of us leaves the tent and then comes back in, a weather report is expected. When I went out last night into a whitening world and ended by dusting the tent-outer mildly, it didn’t bode well. And we’ve left our snow boots at ABC, so we went to sleep muttering vague displeasures.
This morning, it is perfectly still, every blade of faded grass has little crystal drops on it, the ground is generously patched with white, and all sounds carry over large distances. It’s very pretty, really. But we’ve had way more than enough. Breakfast’s over, and there’s no doubt we’re stuck here for the day. There is surely no greater ennui imaginable than that of having teams and rations and moves planned, and then having to sit out inclement skies. Also, most of our food’s been taken to ABC, so we haven’t a great deal of sustenance here. Everything’s wet, and I’ve reconciled myself to the fact that my feet will warm up again only in
Spent a good while following a very cheeky, very fluffed up little accentor. He is rust-breasted, and doesn’t seem to mind the snowfall at all.
BC (15,523 ft)
The waiting game, and the living game.
We have had more than 40 hours of continuous snowfall, and our chief occupation has been not to get buried under the tons coming off the murky above.
To pick up where we left off – in the snow. Last afternoon showed a consistent low in the barometer – not good. So we made plans for move today, should things clear up, or to go get provisions from ABC, should things not enable move. Because rations, fuel, and equipment were all up at ABC.
It was when Nabs and I got out of P.da and Kingshukda’s tent last evening, that things began to look seriously different. Our tent was already bent at the ridge, from the weight of the snow on the tent-outer. And it was pouring. What had been gentle, almost invisible flakes, had now become bigger, rounder, wetter, heavier, stickier. Consequently, Nabs and I spent to simply scooping the snow off the outers of both tents, with mess-tins. Not a happy job, as our shoes were patently unsuitable for wallowing in the snow, and we were soon sodden wet, and hadn’t any waterproof suits. Feet very cold very soon, and my right ear very cold. This last got put right with some pulling and rubbing and tweaking, and all I have to show for the pain now, is a bit of weird skin behind the right ear.
However, we ate well, not least because Jainderji had concocted beautiful rajma-roti, but also because we had now exhausted all our food, and almost all our fuel, and there was no telling where the next meal was coming from.
And that began the long night. For a long time, we were unable to even lie down, because the snow fell and fell on the tent, and our little triangular home got visibly smaller. Every few minutes, we would strike out at the walls on the inside, and hear the snow slide off on the outside, and breathe a little better. Clearly, a nightful of sleep was out of the question – everyone knew there had to be some version of taking turns to keep awake and dust the snow off. And with the sheer volume of the white stuff coming down, there would come a time when we would have to get out physically to get the snow off the tent-outer. The only glitch being, no snow shovel at camp just now (the shovel was at ABC, too), and goodness knew what we would use. The ice-axes, presumably, and whatever else came to hand.
Eventually, we did lie down. And woke at with some ado, because the tent was silent as a tomb. Silence meant that enough snow had accumulated on the tent to prevent the noise of the newly falling snow, and that meant a lot of snow, and we didn’t want the tent to collapse on us. The drill, then, of getting dressed – very inadequately – and moving out and starting to dig and dust. With ice-axes, and using flimsy plastic rain-sheets as cover for ourselves, if those were available. Again an hour of work and wakefulness, and then back into the tent. Nabs even checked Joyjitda’s palm to see whether his lifeline was likely to hold. As a result of which I had to tell them about Shakespeare’s man in The Tempest who would surely not die in that first shipwreck, for hadn’t he the gallows written on him? On this cheerful note, we started to rub and thaw. And keep dusting, of course, from the inside.
’Twas about 3 in the morning when the avalanches started. The distant rumbles sounded several times, and I thought that it was in fact curious that they had only started now, and not earlier, given the amount of snow coming down, for we already had a fair foot of the stuff building around us right here. One of the avalanches lasted quite a while, and the rumble went on and on, and we couldn’t tell where it was sounding from, and it is a very ominous sound indeed, this that tells of the making and shifting of the very earth.
Not surprisingly at all, P.da & Kingshukda were having a drill similar to ours with their own tent, and the HAP team with theirs. Head-torches bobbed in the vanilla-white of the snow pretty much every 15-20 minutes through the night, I should think.
Another hour later, my tentfolks were at least semi-sleeping, but I had to sit up when the oxygen got perceptibly lower. The outer had locked again, and unless the walls were dusted very regularly (every 5 minutes or so), we were clearly running low on oxygen, and I decided to sit up so as not to doze off, and so as to keep dusting. Until Jainderji got out to look after their tent, and aired our outer as well, and I breathed much easier, and then did drop off sometime.
About My discovery of claustrophobia, in the absolute flurry in which we now sat up (or tried to), because as we lay down, one wall of the tent was touching our faces, and it was clammy and wet and cold, and the ridge of the tent was so low that we could hardly sit up straight. On with the still wet wind-cheaters and gloves and socks, get out, grab the ice-axes, and start digging. This time with a wind blowing. Even as we were finishing, it became morning and we saw what a very even and very white world we were in. All landmarks had been erased, and there was nothing to tell earth from sky, and the snow still fell, in both dry and wet varieties, in alteration. Shivered back into the tent, and simply moved into our sleeping bags, unable to bother about the wet, and the burns of cold that came from touching any exposed metal surface at all. But it had been a frightening sight when we had stepped out, this time – for the snow had fallen heavily indeed, and no sooner than we managed to clear one side that the other got snowed under again, and then while we cleared that, the other again began to require attention. Fortunately, the vigour of the fall abated a little even as we worked, and then we went back in.
Slept beautifully until the quarter served tea at 7 in the morning.
Our programme can sustain 3 days of bad weather. Of those, one was spent yesterday, and today was going to be another, for the snow fell with relentless speed and regularity, yet. In the morning, Sarbandada was taking a team of 3 HAPs to ABC, to get back absolute essentials like rations for a day, snow boots, shovel and fuel. We already had more than one and a half feet of snow now, and if this picnic continued, we would have to move back to KK tomorrow.
It’s almost 12 (noon) now, and it is my great relief to note that after having been badly stopped and inconvenienced by the snow on the moraines, Sarbandada has just walky-talkied to say that the HAP team has reached ABC safely, and will be on their way back after some rest and the necessary sorting of food and equipment. It is an indication of the present challenge of the terrain that Sarbandada and Hardev Singh and Sadhandada have taken over 4 hours to cover a distance that we lot covered in a little over 2 hours a couple of days back.
Here, we have just managed to scoop most of the snow off the outers of the tents, using saucepan covers. And we’ve reinforced the ridge poles and guy lines of the tents, and particularly that of the HAPs’ tent, which has gotten a pole bent entirely. Everyone’s still wet from the process, of course, but this is now beginning to seem almost normal.
For want of something to do, Nabs has furrowed a path connecting our tents, and he’s now telling an interested audience of Joyjitda that that there is the main road – M. G. Road – and that the other is the road that leads to the ‘toilettes’ point. Only another reminder that the body continues to have its asks. Speaking of which, I should mention the magical materialization of some dahlia this morning, with which Jainderji fed us all a very good breakfast.
And now I’ll go out again to dig around for the ice-axe which is missing in our count. We should have 8 in all, and I know I kept one near one entrance of our tent, and we’re not sure, anyone, if that one’s been taken up, or whether it’s now buried under more than a couple of feet of snow. I feel most uneasy, because of it’s buried there, that can only be because I didn’t stand it properly, and that’s a very serious lapse. I’ve dug around there for about 20 minutes once already, but I am a little dry now, and I’ll go look again.
Sunglasses are a must. There’s no sun to speak of, but even daylight on such fresh snow will easily blind in about a couple of hours.
Jainderji sings through hail and snow. Literally. Very lovely. Something in Garhwali, just now, while he is clearing the kitchen of the ever-accumulating snow.
No luck. Very cold. Dug around for a good while. No axe. And now, I’m not to sure. I kept with the niggling doubt that it was this one that was lost, but I have now actually exposed earth and several of the stones nearest our tent entrance, and haven’t seen a thing. Not so sure, anymore.
But the wind is now blowing from the mountains, and not from the valley, and that’s a good thing, for this wind can clear the air of the muck it’s supporting. Only, it is blowing fit to burst the tent. P.da’s smaller tent already has a ripped outer, and we quite seriously need all other tents to be worthy of full use, or we will freeze over one of these nights.
I mention this because I feel it so strongly just now. Sometimes, things we know come back to us as in an unforgivingly insistent light. The mountains – they are capable of the strangest things. As is love. Impossible to walk away from. Impossible not to trust with the last vestige of dignity, and the last breath of life. I believe in training and in will, and in survival. I hold that all compensation is always a thousandfold, and yet I don’t know. The absolute unknowingness of the human condition leaves scope for nothing but that strangest of trusts.
Now into some 50 hours of the storm and snow.
Joy, no less. Sarbandada and company are back – safe, sound, and with gear and rations. Hardev Singh has twisted his ankle a little, and P.da has applied the spray. Sarbandada looks absolutely in his mettle, as if you couldn’t imagine him walking in anything but driving snow!
Jainderji, most prompt, whipped up a wonderful lunch, and if anyone ever had any doubts about the improving influence of food, they have only got to ask this lot.
And, with the shovel here, we’ve dug up little canals/furrows around all the tents, and for the first time feel that the tents might not collapse on us. Still blowing, and in an almighty stream. I went out with my cameras – the Tal looks out of this world, and the whole steel-gray surface of the waters is rising in huge swells and waves.
BC (15,523 ft)
Nicely into our third day of the fall, and past three nights of it. Not very much the expected, I must say, given the way things were late last night, about A full moon, with its face taken and revealed by flying clouds, and all the white world glistening. Bhrigupanth showing almost entirely, and a bit of Thalay Sagar as well. Some stars. Very fast-moving clouds, following almost normally from the very fast winds – easily 50 kmph, or 60.
Earlier, last afternoon, the falling snow had become very dry, and fell in tiny homoeopathic pellets. When the wind blew on those, they attacked the tents in a frenzy of blow and noise, and there were occasions when the four of us inside wondered if even the best we could do could prevent us getting blown away en masse, tent and all. The little (P.da and Kingshukda’s) tent was suffering heavily, and it is certain that it can never be used at altitude again, perhaps not at all.
But the wind had been an encouraging thing. For surely, now, all the mess and moisture would be carried off down, and we would have peace.
However, shortly after, the fall died, although the wind didn’t. The land was now a completely featureless mass of white, and the sky remained murky.
Until night. When the sky cleared, the moon suddenly appeared, and, well, I hadn’t seen anything quite like this before. Utter, crystal white for as much as the eye can see, and dark skies with very fast, very streaky clouds. I went out with my camera, and manual shutter-speed of a minute gave me a photograph as bright as I saw the world around me. Only, my fingers suffered and I couldn’t see very well to focus. So I don’t know quite what I got. Went to sleep unusually content, for morning should bring reasonably consolidated snow, so we could perhaps move to ABC. Perhaps, just perhaps.
Then at , Kingshukda calling with some urgency. Dress, get out with axe and shovel. The point is, had Kingshukda not called when he did, this time we would have gone under a collapsed tent. For when we did finally survey things from outside, no more than about a foot of tent was visible above the white mass. A murky dawn again saw Nabs and me cleaning up on a fast accumulation, blowing on our hands ineffectually and stamping our feet, and little able to talk, out of breathlessness and the cold.
So, yes, these things happen on the mountains and one cannot but be prepared for them and accept them, but that was probably when I realised that things didn’t look good for an attempt at all. With continuing fall (and it had evidently fallen through the night, for there was now near 4 feet of snow), even the clean moraines on the way to ABC would not be negotiable. Until the sun came out and consolidated that snow for at least 72 hours. And from ABC to C1, there would be more than 6 feet of snow, if not more, and any and all features would have been obliterated. And heaven alone knows about the ice-wall after.
Back to the tent, in the middle of that abnormally beautiful landscape. Beautiful, because everything was pure white, and in the softest folds, the first light of approaching day making everything very gentle, and in the distance, the waters of the Tal steel-gray-blue. Utter desolation, and enormous helplessness. We cannot go on up, and we cannot go down, until things get at least slightly more decent.
Sleep, until called at 8.30 with tea. ‘Conference’ inside our wee tent. P.da well aware that we had a very good and very healthy team this time, and could have made very viable attempts at both summits, and therefore quite sorry at the present situation. Sarbandada sorry for the same reasons, and I remembered the absolute and unreasonable joy he had displayed after the completed trek across Kalindi last year. The man likes working with us, and would have liked to go on to the Jogins along this season’s first route that way. Nabs declaring he was now going to take up desert trekking, no less. Rathoreji unhappily and acutely aware that this kind of stretch of leave isn’t coming his way for a long year of 6-day weeks. Joyjitda rightfully worried about getting back down safely, and this is his first expedition. Kingshukda a great sport for having put up with us all this while and now really wishful of home. And I am enormously sorry, above all, because I had accumulated a good bit of those non-biodegradables from the area (the work of a few mornings put together), and all of it is now buried under feet and feet of snow. And I don’t want to tell of the heartbreaking beauty of the rising land that we had seen beyond the wide sparse-watered plains of ABC, into which we should have gone to establish C1 today, and which I must now not look to photograph.
I am irreversibly drawing to the conclusion that a Himalayan expedition, anywhere, must keep at least a month entirely in the mountains. For the mountains will have their moods, and we will get to see the splendour and the power and the strangeness that is a fall like this, and that is a wait like this. Heaven knows when such a thing will be possible with us (for we do almost better than our best already, and can you do such things if you don’t do them purely professionally?), an expedition that can accommodate such a lot of waiting, but there it is, that one simply can’t talk back to a mountain about these things.
Gajpal Singh Rathore has just made his ninth of Ten Most Useless Fantastic Inventions – a tent, just like ours, but with slots for feet on its floor, so we can just get up, get our feet out and start walking, and we can have a walking tent, and we won’t even have to get out into the fall. Nabs is nodding gravely.
Sarbandada agrees with P.da – about descent being priority, now. They brought rations back yesterday, quite as much as they could, and yet that will only last us this day and night, and we will have to see about movement tomorrow if the stuff clears and visibility improves. For otherwise, even to go down, we will simply succeed in walking ourselves off the next cliff.
Very cold. Fingers barely within control. And this afternoon, even without any sun, it was so hot within the tent that we could only keep t-shirts on, and all this because of simple daylight on the fresh snow, although it was still snowing bits.
And now, just now, there is nothing but heartbreak, for the weather has opened at last and the world is blue in the sky, white on earth, and then the mountains of Thalay Sagar and Bhrigupanth. The sheer clarity of the light is blinding. Little wind, littler movement, even of the birds. Perhaps they know of the breathtaking hush of this weather window. Only, we are quite undone. I know 3 days of waiting was well to be absorbed within our programme, but we hadn’t, and no one could have, prepared for this tonnage of snow. In places, at BC, it is already more than waist-deep. ABC (and our supplies there) must be very deep indeed, and upwards, utterly un-navigable until the sun shines steadily for at least 2-3 days, and then a clear frost consolidates the snow by night.
Great beauty. And tremendous physical well-being – for now, we breathe here almost as easily as at home. In the midst of natural forces that are altogether overwhelming. This morning, it was blowing so hard that when I went out for my composition, I was glad simply that the snow was soft enough to dig an easy bucket in. And of course, thank God for the Scarpas that Sarbandada and co. had brought back. Without the snow boots, all movement would have been severely restricted.
We are very well. I know that it’s a weird thing to say in the midst of living quarters that are 6 X 8 feet, and that shared with 3 men, and when one has spent the last 72 hours digging snow intermittently, but there is a curious pleasure in this land in the physical well-being I find in it. I can’t look very good, but an acclimatised body is enormously strong, and it is a great shame now to have to head down. No body is strong enough to battle more than a waist's depth of fresh snow.
Was just out photographing. The Tal looks like something in a dream. With the weather somewhat cleared, it’s gotten very cold very suddenly. All this while, we have had chill and wet and blow, but tonight the water will freeze in our water-bottles even after we place them inside our sleeping-bags. We really are outrageously ill-equipped. Have always been, but we find out at instances like these.
As it stands now, tomorrow will have to be spent in essaying a recovery of the important stuff at ABC. And then away. Great sadness, somehow. Even in and perhaps because of the absolute majesty now opening around us, after almost 60 straight hours of absolute muck. This sort of loveliness is very unnerving. More so now than ever, because one doesn’t know what to do in it, and yet knows one will have to leave.
BC (15,523 ft)
Put six people in their respective tents for days on end, and expect fireworks. As I have been made to recall with painful clarity, we are in our sixth day here. In that same tent. Still snowing and blowing intermittently, and yesterday I did think we were through the temperamental weather. Very hot now inside the tent because of the glare, but certainly not as hot as it could be if the sun were fully on.
And so Nabs and Gajpal are picking each other's brains. Extreme cases of mountain madness everywhere. Today, the HAP team (all 5 of them) has gone to ABC to retrieve the gear and some rations (we are down to nothing, in terms of food, now). P.da has made tea, and asked me for my thermometer, meaning my spoon. Kingshukda is poking his head out of his tent every few minutes and he evidently needs to go, and he is shaking his head at the falling snow. Rathoreji is starring in his new film Horizontal Limit (the protagonist lies on his back, baking in the midst of filth and sleeping bags, inside a tent, for hours every day, and all days), and Nabs has discovered that his watch isn’t ‘water resistant’ so much as ‘resistant water'. And he has dreamt that a Brazilian defender has challenged Rooney, and Rooney’s got a broken leg, and as a result both he (England) and P.da (Brazil) are hoarding huge quantities of bricks, absolute truckfuls of them, and so far in the dream, everyone’s very hot-headed and hot-blooded, and saying: ‘Ekhon sudhu jogar kor.’ It is my impression that I’m going gently bonkers. For want of activity, I’ve gone and fallen on the snow a few times this morning, and the snow is now high indeed, and even where it is packed, it is more than 2 feet high.
Last night was the coldest I can remember. Was quite sleepy, and yet had to actually wake up and sit up thrice through the night to rub my feet. And now I can’t keep anything save a t-shirt on.
Completely maddening. Blowing wind and snow like mad, and we’re stuck inside the tent, and it’s very hot inside the tent!
Walky-talkie update: the HAP team’s reached ABC safely.
It has to stop sometime. Or how will we even get down?
Everything in and of the tent smells – of us, of down, of mudded ice, of wet.
Wind still blowing fit to tear the tent at its seams. Rathoreji is therefore advising Nabs against going out for his job, and the two are sitting holding on to the tent-inner. And Rathoreji thinks it would be a good idea to go swimming in KT. Nabs is occasionally yelling to match the noise of the wind, all the while holding a cordial conversation with his creator: ‘Ne, aro de, jato achhe dhele de…’
And now he asks me how many zippers, exactly, there are in this tent. Things really don’t bode terribly well.
We have an absolutely marvellous team of HAPs. They are now back safely, and have recovered not only all the technical gear, but also most of the food. We are now as secure as it is possible to be in these conditions, therefore. Marvellous, because even in the present wind, one is reminded of the relentlessness with which it has been blowing since morning. And trust me, if it was bad here, it was at least five times as bad at ABC, and worse still on the exposed ridges on the way. And the journey shows, actually, on the faces of these people. Moving through this kind of fresh powder snow is not only physically enormously exhausting, and progress very slow, but enormously desiccating. And yet, this team of HAPs has accomplished the journey, and safely.
Today we provided them with hot water, tea, and now lunch. They are now resting.
Further, although the wind has died down not a whit (picked up a bit more, perhaps), the snow has, somewhat. Perhaps, finally, the lot of trekkers and climbers in this area who have been held up for so long, may expect respite, or even a window large enough for a move down. So, this afternoon, we pack. With our gear retrieved, we will, given that the break holds, try and move to Gangotri tomorrow. However, we have suffered too much already not to carry some extra rations and fuel, just in case things are impassible somewhere along the way, and we have to stop for a night at KK, say, or BK, or even both.
Blast it all, for even as I write, it has started snowing dry again, and the wind effortlessly picks up the powder from the surface of the fallen snow, and outside, it isn’t wise to leave any part of one’s skin exposed, for even the fine grains can inflict the finest scratches and bruises, and it is only normal to have a burning and smarting face after one has been out for a bit.
On the train home, and the last of the outdoor days now seem believable only because they were lived so terribly.
The men are now all shaved and very spruce (they went out en masse to get cleaned up, at
So I have a long story to tell, and as the men are all dozing, and we have a long way to go on this train home, I may as well tell the story long.
The early morning of the 29th, then, about 4.30. The night had been exceptionally peaceful. As a result of which, the shout of alarm, when it came, was most annoying. I felt a thousand years old – we were getting snowed under again. P.da was outside, and his voice barely audible in the howling wind. No less than 80 kmph, those gusts. And so, on with the drill again – when neither gloves, nor socks, nor wind-cheater, had had nearly enough time to get anything close to dry – and then out in the storm to start cleaning up the tents and around. This snow that was falling was powder and dry, and to put one’s face outside the tent was to gasp at the cold and the dry. And it took but a few moments to have a fine (and then growing) coating of snow dust on one’s exposed parts, especially on bits of hair, on the eyebrows and eyelashes, on the ears. Nabs and I again saw the dawn in in the in-between light of beginning day, and again, the snow was falling so heavily that by the time we had finished on one side of the tent, the other side needed doing. We were done in in some 30 minutes, and had to go in.
Back in the tent again with burning eyes, and some wondering whether the exhaustion of these nights would ever go away.
Because, because I didn’t yet have the experience or foresight of P.da or Sarbandada, who were already planning to move that day. The powder snow, you see, and strong wind, make for very dangerous conditions – those that trap mountaineers, and soon make any movement at all impossible. Which is why they had decided to move. For it would soon get to that point where if we didn’t get out then, we wouldn’t get out in time at all.
Tea at 7, with exhortations to hurry.
Says volumes for the kind of team we made, I think, that camp was dismantled by , breakfast over, and all accessible non-biodegradables dug up, some packed, and some burnt. The last packing, too, only happened with the greatest speed and co-operation. We would inevitably be leaving quite some rations, and some pieces of shelter, like rain-sheets, kitchen-sheets, etc. And yet, we would have to carry the gear, our personals, and at least some rations – enough to see us through at least another camp.
Very heavy sacks, therefore, and full gear. Not comfortable in the best of circumstances, and we were about to start our trek over snow-covered boulders and moraines in near whiteout, intermittent snowfall, strong winds, and the recently fallen powder being blown into our faces. The thing was, there simply wasn’t time to be scared.
I don’t think I have yet mentioned the trekking team of two elderly men and their guide-cum-porter, who had reached KT on the same day as we had, and had been, like us, trapped by the snow before they could go back down. These last few days, they had, quite reasonably, been scared out of their wits. Certainly, anyone would have been, with tons of snow coming off the sky. And we had, countless number of times, had to dig their tents out. And they had no equipment, and we were seriously worried about their exposure to the cold. If they weren’t very careful (although they should be, given the pain of the cold in the hands and feet), they could well have their feet chilblained, or even frostbitten.
Now, on this trek back, they were coming with us. They would have to, or they would surely die. They had no provisions, no fuel, no equipment. The idea was, we go first with our boots on, and make a ‘trail’ of packed and beaten snow for them to walk on, and that would provide a lot of protection for their feet.
And so, we started. Led by the HAPs, who opened route in turns, and rear brought up by P.da. Some description of the journey is perhaps in order, but I don’t very well know what I can say. I may talk about the excruciatingly slow and painful progress, our sinking to our knees and waists in soft snow, the tumbles, the interminable upwards, the occasional misty appearance of the sun (and even that made us start sweating in a minute – so we had very hot torsos, and very cold feet), and the frequent whiteouts, and yet nothing will communicate our collective exhaustion, our apprehension, and our collective strength.
If I think about it now, the journey that day was an enormous learning experience, and we all acquitted ourselves rather well. Just then, however, when all we had to do was to retrace the steps of the ‘stroll’ to KT, we only felt the suffering immensely.
One thing is certain – no one in their right mind would have started on the boulder march to KK that day, given that everything was under feet and feet of soft snow, the land entirely featureless, and there no telling how far in one could go if one went/stepped wrong. We knew we only went because we hadn’t a choice, but even so, we wouldn’t be validated in our decision until much later.
And I will attest to the feeling, inexplicable, vague, but very real, of a sort of fear. Where directions are uncertain, visibility is less than a few metres or sometimes a few feet, where the whole world is a swirl of grey-white, where one’s body isn’t very well fed, and one’s feet are getting colder by the minute. Of falling, falling almost noiselessly, and never being found. Of being noticed, and yet passed by, for who has the extra (enormous) energy required to support another person indefinitely? Of being so exhausted, that any more wading through that sapping soft snow is just unthinkable. Many apprehensions, in fact, and all of them tremendously real, in turn.
For instance, I fell once, on a steep upward where the snow had fallen to obliterate where the ridge was, and where there were concealed gaping holes into nothingness. I fell through one of these, with the white dropping away way below me, and I got stuck at the waist, with my sack. Righted myself with some twisting, turning, shoving. And then, once, Sadhandada, who has a wiry strength not apparent in his slight frame, fell while making steps on a steep slope. Of course, everyone made the routine little tumbles in the snow.
Once, just once, as we caught our breath on a ridge, the south cleared dramatically, and Thalay Sagar and Bhrigupanth showed fully, against a very blue sky. While the wind swirled around us where we sat.
And I found out that direction-finding is a very tricky business. The HAPs have, as we had already seen, a tremendous sense of direction. But a whiteout will make anything fallible. And we had the GPS which told us which way to go (and can tell us so even step for step, should we so wish), but in storm conditions, that kind of directive is simply not enough. It is my firm belief that it was the combination of HAP acumen and GPS technology, that finally saw us through.
Other than all of that, well, the journey lasted forever.
It was not until we had gained the high ridge from which we looked down and were able to somewhat discern the contours of KK, that we finally felt safe, and that we had any real certainty of getting back down to Gangotri, of going home. We will probably all remember the opening out of the white valley at our feet then, and visibly, many miles into the distance, brown slopes, slopes that weren’t all covered in snow.
When we finally reached KK at , some of the HAPs (like Agraji) had very cold feet and wanted to go on to Bhuj Kharak, where we would be relatively warmer. The folly of such a move was apparent even to us, for we were already quite well gone into exhaustion, and Kingshukda was looking positively haunted. And the way to BK is nothing other than the fairly infamous rockfall zone that we had smoothly enough crossed on the way here, but which was now under snow or partial snow, and therefore rendered dangerous.
So we pitched camp on the snow at KK, and in our tents, nursed our feet. Or tried to. Spirits were quite high, and we had a nice enough supper with the only remaining meal-food we were carrying – Maggi. It would have been a pleasant night, but none of us had anticipated how cold it was going to be. And it was very cold. Just the mattresses we were lying on seemed to be using our body-heat to try and melt the enormous snow sheet under, and to touch the mattresses with one’s fingers was to receive a shock of cold. And how does one escape, when the very surface one is on, is what one is trying to avoid?
At this time (I must somehow have banged it somewhere), I had developed a good bit of pus and swelling on my right middle finger. This night, the pain was so bad that I simply sat up and rocked myself for minutes on end, on two occasions. Until Nabs woke up, remembered Arnica, and then I tried to get some sleep. Unsuccessfully.
Come morning, ’twas evident that the night had been bad for everyone. But once the sun cleared the high horizon, it was a beautiful day, and we breakfasted (saltlessly – we had now run out of both salt and sugar) and dismantled camp fairly quickly. Today, we would start with our snow boots on through the rockfall zone, and then change into regular hiking shoes as we cleared the snowed areas.
And so into the rockfall zone. Imagine quite unstable rocks and boulders, through which a climber somehow makes his/her way by deciding safety by sight, all the while trying to keep alert about any rocks falling from above. Imagine a very long stretch of this. And then imagine all of it under a cute feet or so of soft and melting (with the sun out) snow, so that all judgment by sight is rendered null and void, and everything operates only by feel of feet.
Progress here took an absolutely furious, and draining, level of concentration. Speed, weight, balance. I was walking with Scarpas on anything other than unalloyed snow for the very first time, and found myself stepping uncertainly on several occasions. I only began to get used to the fantastic clutch of the Scarpa soles towards the very end of this stretch. And I must be crazy to admit it, but each stretch cleared resulted in a strange and utter exhilaration, of demanding physical work done to success, and of great mental alertness.
Once, Rathoreji fell. In the bat of an eyelid, he had missed his footing and gone down 30 feet before he arrested with his axe. And once, immediately in front of me, Jainderji made a sharp command to move fast. I did, and a few rocks then hurtled past just where we had been moments before. Any one of those rocks, had they hit any of us, would have taken us directly to the Kedar Ganga.
On the last and least dangerous bit of this stretch, I had stopped for a breath, when way below, I saw a string of bharals queued up to gain access to a high rock, from which they were, one by one, jumping to cross the Kedar Ganga. I took 16 shots, not being able to focus very well on the LCD screen with my sunglasses on. I think I got a few exposures of the animals actually on the jump.
Finally, finally, off with the snow boots, because we were beginning to gain grass and earth. But the boots went into the sacks, and the shoulders had things to say about that.
On that first day, when we had come relentlessly uphill, and been very tired, if anyone had told us that it would be the way back and down that would really try us here, we wouldn’t have taken them very seriously. Now, with very heavy sacks on our backs, we were finding out differently. The relentless downhill is perhaps the single most excruciating exercise in hill-walking. And with the moraines and rockfall cleared by 12 (we had started at ), all the way to Gangotri (which the full team reached by ) would be down, down, down. There were occasional stops, in the guise of rocks slabs to be negotiated, and tricky little stream crossings, but on the whole we were just walking down, down, down, unwilling to camp another night, unwilling to delay, unable to rest (for the feet will remain at the downward angle, no matter what, won’t they?), tiring all the time, and to the increasing and absolute punishment of our toes.
Meanwhile, it was a beautiful day, with even the high pyramid of Thalay Sagar visible this way out, against a very blue sky. And all the scents of life around us, with moist earth in the sun, and its heady smells.
The beautiful day remained with us all the way to Gangotri, where we drank water finally, and saw that other people still existed, and that the world wasn’t all dead and blowing with wind.
It was at Gangotri that the full scale of the disturbance really hit us.
At Gangotri, we called home. My parents, astonishingly enough, had so far not heard or watched anything of the weather whirlwind, and my conversation with my folks was most equable. But Kingshukda’s wife had sounded strange, he said. It was not until other calls, and the gradual reactions of the people around us at Gangotri, and the rumours of figures and counts, that we came to know that more than a hundred trekkers and climbers were at the moment being searched for, and were yet inaccessible (trapped in the higher reaches of the several valleys in the area). In the Kalindi route, in the Kedar Ganga valley (our two elderly gentlemen and their guide being a case in point) in the Rudra Ganga valley, and in the Dingad valley. P.da met an old acquaintance, a HAP named Dharmiji who told the frightening story of a women’s expedition from Bengal, to Satopanth – this team had, a British team had reported, summitted on the 24th, and till date (the 30th), had not been able to find their way back to their BC at Vasukital, and no one knew if they were even alive. A while later, we heard of an ITBP effort at Nanda Devi, which was entirely missing (later, at UK, we would see their equipment draft at NIM, amounting to more than Rs 1,60,000, and all the equipment, and all the climbers, feared lost). And we heard that helicopter rescues had been initiated in several pockets, but we knew only too well that in several areas, wind speeds would still be too high to allow these.
We had not thought the storm had undone so many. Yet, all through that day and the next, and the next, we would continue to hear of climbers who had remained trapped, or who had escaped with barely their lives, and had lost all their gear and personals, being unable to take away even their rucksacks with them. Just then, we were very, very tired. Almost too tired to realize the full significance of our own good fortune, although I suspect P.da knew. Anyway, he fed us, then, and then we took a trekker, directly, to
At Bhandari’s, we dumped the stuff and were about to go out to EAT, when Sarbandada discovered that we had lost our dome tent. Somehow, in the whole shuffle and lodge and dodge in the 2 trekkers, yes, we had lost the tent. Very sad, really, for this one had been a particular favourite, but as P.da couldn’t stop reminding us, we were all here, and, well, all he wanted to do was to go out and have chicken. Which we did, all of us, and I discovered with surprise that I wasn’t too tired to stuff myself, at all. And so we ate, and ate, as possibly only those who have run almost out of rations can.
And to add luxury to comfort, we even bathed that night, and put on clean (as clean as we had) clothes before we slept. It was about before the last of us were in bed, and P.da tried to help my finger, which was now twice its normal size. And then we slept.
Everything else, including the abnormal waking up at 7 the next day, is weird history. There was even a strange emptiness in not hearing the roar of the wind constantly, and Kingshukda had actually woken up in the middle of the night to dust his tent. Next morning, all ten men went out and got shaved, and then bathed and cleaned up, and I thought they look remarkably nice, their bodies tuned to perfection by the time in the mountains. We had been a very strong and healthy team – any other how, we might not have had things this good or this safe.
As for me, I am still surprised that I look back at the mountain-time with something akin to enjoyment, even exhilaration. It’s a function of survival, surely, but it is immensely intoxicating, and comes from having lived very close to the last that could be lived. And I realise that I am very fortunate in my leader, and in our team of HAPs. No other team of HAPs would have done this much, or so well, and my leader has a priceless perception of the value of life, and of the irreversibility of loss. Also, we love the mountains desperately and couldn’t bear not to go back, and we keep ourselves alive for that reason, or try to.
Yesterday, while we were boarding the train, Kingshukda had a call from his very young son. They spoke, and left me feeling very unattached, dangerously free, and very homeless. There is a great deal that I don’t know.
Bhuj Kharak (BK)
Kedar Kharak (KK): 14,640 ft
Kedartal (KT, BC): 15,523 ft
Advanced Base Camp (ABC): 16,122 ft
Sarban Kumar Thapa (Sarbandada)
Jainder Singh (Jainderji)
Parthasarathi Dutta (Parthada, P.da)
Nabarun Ghosh (Nabs)
Gajpal Singh Rathore (Rathoreji)
Kingshuk Banerjee (Kingshukda)
Joyjit Goswami (Joyjitda)
 It wasn’t until we were at Haridwar that we had news that this team had been able to return safe.