Thursday, April 30, 2009

Kamet - a soliloquy

“It’s really cold,” the funny guy in the red jacket exclaimed through chattering teeth. He rubbed his frozen palms together and grimaced. His companion, the Sherpa, looked equally miserable but remained silent. Perhaps he had accepted such miseries as part of his occupation and had learnt to accept them with equanimity.

What else do you except! I chuckled. At 25,450 ft with gusts averaging around 80 km per hour, it could be anything but warm, and so it has been around my head ever since. As long as I can remember, when I started emerging out of the sea, I have been cold. My memory now fails me but I think it all happened around 60 million human years ago, when I grew out of the continental collision and kept on growing till I stood as one of the highest peaks in the Indian Himalaya. Dwarfed only by my cousin sister Nanda Devi in the neighborhood, I reign supreme across the Indo-Tibet border.

Quite a few have reached where these two now rest, but I think they outclass the earlier ones (thrill seekers) by their stupidity. I have been eyeing their slow progress since they stepped out of their cozy tents around midnight, hoping that all my defenses would eventually turn them back, running with their tails between their legs. But I guess it’s true what they say about such people (who climb up and down icy heights for no reason at all), that they are mad. They even untied from each other short of the half way up and went around to my northwest ridge where no man had ever stepped before. Anyhow, fools will be fools… so I held my peace and now watched them silently as to what would happen next.

“Does he know we are here? Are we welcome or are we intruders?” I addressed Ang Tashi who rubbed my palms hard to get some sensation back. We had been on the move for 14 hours and in the failing light the weather was worsening every minute. We had little time to celebrate. Though Tashi wanted to linger and savor the moment longer, this being his first summit, I knew that time was running out. I looked at Tashi, who glowed from ear to ear under the moribund sun, unable to hide his glee. “Maybe sir, maybe… we believe that the mountains are gods and I am sure we are welcome since we come to Kamet humbly. As you always tell us that climbing is like a pilgrimage, where we come to visit our friends and families and not to conquer them!” Tashi screamed over the hurricane blizzard.

Though both of us looked like Martians and I was sure that even our parents would not recognize us in the picture, we clicked few for the records and quickly shared the flask of cold juice and the last piece of bulletproof chocolate bar. We both said our prayers. Just before we stepped off the summit towards the endless slope of the northeast face, Tashi dropped a solitary cashew nut into the depths of a crevasse and gave one of his contagious grins, “You are correct sir it is bit cold.” I patted him on the back for his sudden enlightenment and off we went. Nothing tied us and we just ran down, slipped, tumbled and kept on going towards Meade’s Col, crunching hard ice, negotiating crevasses and soft patches of snow. Being younger and fitter of the two, Tashi took the lead and I followed his footsteps through the tawny glow of my headlamp. Retreat was uppermost for my body but my mind went back to the days when we had just arrived at the breathtakingly beautiful lake girdled base camp.

I think it was on 23rd May when I first noticed the ant like human figures making their way slowly but steadily over the boulders, skirting the frozen Vasundhara lake. Though quite far from where I stood, I could see them clearly across the intervening ridge. Over the years, I now know when these humans would start arriving. I was expecting them. After a long and harsh winter I too needed some company of the mortals. Though my court comprised of Mana, Deovan, etc but they all were such serious fellows. I liked these descendents of the monkeys who had not advanced much from the tree jumping days. They were like kids, excited and scared, boisterous and awed. I liked to shake their egos every now and then. My only source of entertainment… so I eyed them. From the way he behaved, I could pick up the one that was the head of this group. He did least amount of work and was always served first and of course he carried the smallest pack. I was sure like most of the earlier groups; he too would remain within the comfortable confines of his tent and order others around. However, he proved me wrong on that count at least.

Much to my delight, the way ahead from the Base camp was covered under thick snow and it was much easier to negotiate the moraines in search of our Camp 1. It took us 5 days to shift to Camp 1 at 4950 m. We were in a strange world of snow, lake and crystal blue azure. To our east a huge rock needle speared the sky, rearing its head far above the rest of the ridge. It hadn’t been visited by a human yet and I doubted if it would happen in near future. Up ahead, Devban stood in its regal splendor, showing some of the finest ice lines I had ever witnessed in my life. To commit to any of them would be sheer suicidal as avalanches roared down the chutes relentlessly. To capture up close one of those thundering clouds of snow and ice had been my dream for long. Though I have had my share of being buried under avalanches and near death suffocations, none of those occasions were designed or timed by me. I had only been a hapless victim of ignorance or bad luck or may be both. But this time on our way to Kamet, I decided to go where only fools go. Armed with my SLR and cautioning my team that they might have to dig me out later, I sprinted towards one of the slopes as soon as it dislodged a gigantic avalanche. I had already seen the path that the snow took and had calculated where I must position myself to take a good shot without being caught under the downpour. My heartbeat raced and accelerated as the avalanche grew in my viewfinder and all other noise was hushed by the thunder that roared and echoed in the narrow valley like the mortal cry of a leviathan.

If this won’t kill him then nothing will. Though we are often termed as murderers, we are actually gentle beings. We don’t like to harm anyone who comes to us for a visit. But those who offend us by disobeying the decrees of nature do get their share of misfortunes. I really liked this guy, always running around, gesticulating, laughing in his red jacket. I asked Devban to careen its flank a bit to the right so that the avalanche will not hit him directly. Devban moves slowly and in a bat of an eye the avalanche engulfs the red jacket. I thought that was the last that I would see of this group. But alas, if only fools had imagination and the intellect to leave!

Beyond Camp 2 the going got little tougher. We had to negotiate a steep ice wall and frozen gully with towering rock walls throwing pebbles at us all through. We fixed few ropes up this gully beyond which we exited on a wide snowfield where we pitched our Camp 3. Now we were above the proverbial 6000 m and we forced ourselves to move slow lest the altitude took its toll. Being right on the flanks of Kamet, we could not see its summit dome any longer while Mana filled up our horizon as well as our imagination with the surreal play of light and shade that danced all day long on its snowy slopes. The way to the next camp lay through a mixed ground of rock and ice that towered about 500 m forming a treacherous wall. We adopted the classical siege tactics and fixed the wall over the next two days. Few of the traverses were hair raising to say the least as we front pointed sideways over empty air with freezing gales patting us from below. Ice screws and static ropes disappeared like magic as we hammered our way up and eventually topped up on the ice plateau to establish Camp 4.

These guys were definitely not going to give up easily… I pondered. Do they know that a fellow climber’s body now lies very close to their tents? Would it scare them off when they discovered the cadaver! Did they realize that most of their tents were pitched right on top of a deep crevasse with a narrow neck that could widen through the next few days and could swallow the tents while they slept unaware? I wanted to tell them, caution them… but how could I do it? Now it was up to the red-jacketed guy, who was among the first lot. But look at him, he is busy slurping that rancid cup of tea with no concern in the world while his jolly band of men are singing the praise of the Lord. That made the place festive, I too started to jiggle my head. Seeing my nodding head, the truant clouds over Tibet thought I wanted them around. Soon the blue sky turned dark and somber with clouds rushing in, driven by the blizzard.

We abseiled back to Camp 3 in a hurry as the clouds bore upon us from all sides. By the time I plunged inside my tent a full-blown blizzard had hit us. The night temperature dropped to 18 degrees below zero. Over the next few days, while we ferried load, the weather seemed to be deteriorating each day as the winds picked up speed early noon and blew in blizzards soon after 1 p.m. I estimated we had another week of weather window to climb and retreat from the mountain. Anything beyond may become unpleasant. On 7th June, I lead the first team up the rock wall and occupied C4 around noon. The day was windy and definitely cold. The evening turned crimson as an orange plume enveloped the crests of Kamet and Mana. The night sky lit up brilliantly with blinking stars. Next day we started off for route opening through the heavily broken ice field that lead up ahead. Being high up the sun came upon us rather early and soon we were sweating in our clothes as we progressed slowly through the tottering ice seracs. We went through several crevasses before reaching the vast ice field that gradually ascended to the Meade’s Col. It was like going through a snow desert with no conspicuous objects in sight. We labored up slowly as the peaks of Nanda Devi sanctuary rose along with us to our south. The moment we crested the Meade’s Col a strong blizzard literally blew us back as we had not expected anything of similar magnitude. It was a sheer struggle to even stand up against the wind and the snow flurry.

It was like watching a movie in slow motion. They stood hapless, struggling to hold on to the ground, half-crouched, head bend and body extended into the raging blizzard. 150 km per hour wind battered them while the snow hit them like shrapnel. What would they do now? I wondered. Much to my astonishment, soon two orange dome tents mushroomed within a wall of ice blocks that they erected out of the snow like igloos. Then they ran down. After a quiet day, when no one stirred, they reappeared and I think some of them stayed back at Meade’s Col. Knowing the likes of them earlier I estimated that they were planning to head for my head the following day. I planned otherwise.

We placed C5 at 7100 m on the Meade’s Col at a place that was equidistant from the Kamet and Abi Gamin face. To our south the massive northeast face of Kamet rose like a gigantic column of ice and snaked away and beyond our vision into the azure. While to our north, the south face of Abi Gamin looked a nice and easy proposal. The severe blizzard continued unabated. It was one of the windiest and coldest places I had ever been to in the Himalaya. To step out of the tents was an ordeal and even the thought of stepping out was horrendous. We had planned to start off right after midnight for the summit of Kamet.

When my watch said just two minutes short of midnight between 10th and 11th June, I opened the zip of my tent to discover what I had known even earlier. The night was fully overcast and the raging blizzard made visibility zero. It was around 26 degrees below zero and no way could we go out in this weather. The sharp ice chips cut across my face and filled up my tent even before I could quickly withdraw inside. I shouted across at the top of my voice to inform others that the attempt was out for the night and they could relax and try to get some sleep if possible. I huddled my limbs together and sought some warmth inside the sleeping bag. The storm abated around half past four in the morning of 11th and as it was too late for Kamet, I sent two members and one Sherpa for Abi Gamin. They left an hour later and I watched their progress over the ice field as they gained height steadily towards the flat summit of Abi Gamin.

What’s happening! I said to myself. I could see three tiny dots moving up towards Abi Gamin summit. Had they abandoned their plan to visit my crown! However, I was glad to notice that the red jacket leader was not among the pack. Perhaps he was conserving for an attempt on my summit. Soon the trio reached Abi top and retraced their steps towards the Meade’s Col. Poor guys, no sooner had they reached the two orange tents, they were packed off by the leader to go down further to the lower camp. Presuming that there would not be any more activity for the day, I contemplated taking a siesta. But even before I could shut my eyes, I saw the red jacket tottering out of the tent and take off towards Abi Gamin summit, following exactly the footsteps of the earlier three.

After the three had gone down I felt a tug to go for Abi Gamin. The day was still young, bright and offered an enjoyable outing. Only the young Ang Tashi Sherpa was with me at C5. He was on his first expedition and was highly charged up to climb Kamet. Asking Tashi to keep an eye I left off alone. It took a little under three hours to reach the top of Abi Gamin. Soon I returned to C5 and dipped my parched lips into a hot cup of tea.

Tashi woke me up at half past midnight on 12th June. After donning our paraphernalia and shouldering our sacks we finally left a little before 2, into the freezing night. The sky was clear but the howling wind cut through my bones. The mercury showed 36 degrees below zero. My hands were totally frozen and I had to force my fingers around the ice axe. Though draped in 4 layers of clothing, I felt naked. Soon the slope became steep and we climbed slowly. I studied the map and felt that it was time for us to veer further to our right and get on to the northwest ridge so as to attempt Kamet over a new route. Except the map in hand I had no knowledge about the northwest ridge at all. No one had ever attempted it before and no photographs existed of it either. On the map it seemed decidedly steep, much steeper than the usual northeast route, where we now rested. It also showed distinct rock bands, which would give us mixed climbing condition. My companion, Tashi was a novice at high altitude climbing; he had never climbed any peak in his life. We were poised at around 7300 m, higher than anything in sight, except Abi Gamin that seemed at level. When I inquired, Tashi assured me that he was willing and confident to follow me wherever I went. We clipped on to the rope and surged up and ahead without putting any protection. I decided that we would belay each other from ice axe if the situation demanded; else we would just keep climbing as fast as we could with only a rope connecting the two of us.

The moment we stepped around the northwest ridge and I looked up at the sheer wall of rock and ice, poised at a tottering angle, I knew that we had some tough time ahead of us. We had only two ice screws and no rock pitons and just that one climbing rope and each of us carried an emergency bivouac bag. Food we had little, few chocolates, biscuits and dry fruits and a bottle of water that had almost frozen by now. We carried no gas. It was around 7 am and we had been on the move for almost 5 hrs. We climbed steadily and rhythmically, almost copybook style. But I knew that we were slow and I was the one to be blamed for it. My right leg (which has a torn anterior cruciating ligament) felt stiff and throbbed painfully and I rested often, digging my heels and the ice axe into the steep slope. Around 2 pm I cut a ledge in the ice and slumped down to review the situation. The altimeter read around 7600 m and we had another 150 m to go. We were certainly beyond the point of no return. The wind was far too fierce for my liking, it threatened to uproot us from the slope and the temperature was around 30 deg below zero with wind chill factor much lower than that. I could not feel my hands or face. Uttering anything was an ordeal in itself. Clouds had marred the sky and soon we would be in dark. I was not very certain where exactly we were on the ridge since it was rather wide. We were close to the top but not close enough.

About an hour later, suddenly the slope eased and we found ourselves on the summit ridge with the two distinct humps ahead. From the top of one of them, the nearer one, a series of prayer flags fluttered in the wind. It was close but we still had to overcome the huge crevasse that girdled the hump like a castle’s moat. We had to make several detours, switchback trails to go through the crevasse, and at 3.54 pm we stepped on the summit of Kamet. After 14 hrs, the climb was finally over.

What goes up must come down, they say. So they all went down while I remained where it is my destiny to be. Why do they come, why do they climb. May be it is true as someone said, that great things happen when men and mountains meet or perhaps because we are here so they will come, or even metaphorically because though you can take a man out of the mountain you cannot take the mountain out of him. Perhaps the red jacketed leader was correct when I heard him say, ”we come to the mountains because they teach us humility, where we learn to prevail over our pride. They show us how weak, how insignificant we really are as well as how strong we can be when we wish.” That being so, I could only add, Amen!


  1. that's an interesting way of writing, but u really give me goosebumps!!!!

  2. I too can only add 'Amen" after reading this! God bless you and am so glad that you are still around.