Sunday, November 1, 2009
Life off the Edge Part 3 - Hanging from High Places
I wake up with a start. The tiny tent is swinging gently, brushing against the rock every now and then. A strange sound permeates into the wild night. Switching on my headlamp I look at my companion sleeping peacefully on the space-starved floor. I know there’s nothing but empty air beneath us. My Suunto (watch) says it is 1.20 am with inside air hovering around 14 C below zero. It’s in mid July, right in the heart of winter of Southern Hemisphere. The swing of our tent tells me that a buffeting gale has us in its grip. Nearly 3000 ft vertically above ground is a very exciting place to be, though not necessarily a comfortable one… certainly not for what I have in mind.
If any observer could even see us from ground, stuck as we are like a fly on that massive face of rock and ice, rearing up like the raised hood of a serpent into the dark sky, he is certain to wonder if this fly is ever going to fly or fall away. I smile to no one in particular as I gaze again at my supine companion. With this particular climbing partner of mine I had gotten into the habit of getting stuck at such places. Not that I am complaining… who would!
Natalie or Nat, as I called her, is a gorgeous Ukrainian blonde with mind and eye boggling gymnastics skills on rock and ice. Standing well under five and half feet in her climbing shoes, Nat, when she climbs is an awe-inspiring sight. I consider myself lucky and blessed to have known her closely for over two years and in that period had her next to me in nearly a dozen major climbs that hovered on the horizon of insanity, interspaced with countless hours on smaller walls and boulders from one corner of the world to the other.
Nat is smiling in her dreams. Must be soloing some outrageous wall somewhere, I wonder. I extricate myself from my sleeping bag as unobtrusively as possible when you are literally stuck to your partner and remaining as quiet as possible take out the poop bag and gathering myself near the foot end of the tent (if it had any ends at all) do the needful. Within those few minutes my limbs freeze and my brain fogs. I cannot resist and poke my head out of the tent flap and look out. The lunar dazzle as it reflects back into my eyes from the chiseled ice flutings of one of the most dangerous and difficult peaks in the world blinds me momentarily. After a brief moment I open my eyes and stare out at one of the most amazing and breathtaking vistas possible on planet Earth.
I am yet to meet anyone who did not hold his breath and simply gape in complete awe when confronted with the endless columns of icy peaks rising like jagged teeth into the azure in the Cordillera Blanca of the Andes in the Huascaran National Park, Peru. That’s the effect one has from ground, right from the moment one steps in at the nearest town of Huaraz. But from where I am, I have the entire glacier filled valley right beneath my feet and I am occupying a spot that perhaps none had ever occupied before or hence. I am hovering (literally) barely 200 ft beneath the main summit of Chacraraju, on the North face under a bulge on the knife-edge ridge connecting the two summit cones. What the hell am I doing here, I curse out aloud even as my mind refuse to believe what my eyes see.
Nevado Chacraraju, literally meaning a small farm of snow capped mountains is a peak that is on every Andean Alpinist’s dream since it can mostly be climbed only in one’s dream. It is among the most photographed peaks in Cordillera Blanca and also the least attempted and even less summitted. Simply put one needs to be completely out of one’s mind to even think of climbing Chacraraju. Many give up around half way up the Japanese Couloir or the American direct route, most give up right after crossing the first néve up the glacier as they hit the wall and stare up the tottering angle till their necks reach its breaking point. Even by its easiest route, the climb to the top involves anywhere between 800 – 1000m of ice and mixed ground without any break at all with the gradient never easing below 65 - 700. All its faces are ribbed with ice flutings and overhangs with cornices. Universally rated at ED2+ WI 7 M7 by the easiest route you can well imagine what any other route would be. To my knowledge no one has even thought of attempting the 20,000 ft high peak solo, not if you are planning to stay alive. Not only you needed to be in that nigh impossible zone of peak physical fitness combined with the right kind of experience and the finest techniques you also needed a partner crazy enough to come along. In our case I came along.
When Nat had popped the suggestion few months back in the most casual manner possible while we munched Kanelbullar (Swedish cinnamon buns) at the Kiruna National Park cafeteria at the end of an exhilarating week of climbing and skiing I had almost choked on the piece of morsel still above my gullet. You can’t be serious, had been my first reaction, followed by, why not! Though I had seen Chacraraju several times while passing through Cordillera Blanca over the years climbing one peak after another and had wished to be there, in reality I had never given it a serious thought. It always boiled down to the right timing and the right partner. Well with Nat I would pretty much go anywhere, even to the back of hell if needed. So few days later as we parted at the Arlanda Airport departure terminal for our respective destinations we hugged each other fondly and promised to unite back if we were still alive at Lima in the first week of July. Over the next two months I trained like a maniac.
Though the blizzard swirls up from the bottom it does not obliterate much of the view. Luckily the above is all clear. The moon, now a glowing and pulsating dome of light in the clear sky, spill out its mirth on the mountains. I stare hypnotized at the white mass of the glacier nearly 3000 ft right underneath and wonder how did I manage to reach where I was! The shadows from Huandos and Chopicalqui (summits I had already climbed) have now lengthened and merge into the darkness below. To my right there is only the creaking and groaning mass of ice that is somehow holding us up and alive against gravity. Far and impossibly distant as it looks to my left lies civilization and safety. A place from where we had come up less than a week ago. It all now seems so distant and ephemeral.
The journey from Huaraz along the winding Callejon de Huaylas through the towns of Monterrey, Jangas and Tracia had thrown up one wonder after another. Though I had done the same route few times earlier the wonderments doesn’t cease. After the proverbial ice cream stop at Carhuas (must-do ritual for everyone passing through the region) we enter the Huascaran National Park. From the road head we hike up along the trail and pass the shimmering lakes of Chinancocha and Orconcocha finally to stand at the moraine beneath the glimmering face of Chacraraju and ponder if it had been a sane decision after all. The nitwit blonde by my side throws up her arms into the sun and dances like a Zulu warrior after a lion kill. With such antics I can’t stay poker faced for long. Soon I join Nat in the celebration we call ‘Life’. Though we never say it, we both know that this could very well become the last mountain we would climb together or with anyone else for that matter. Though we were still a few hours away from the beginning of the deadly walls we were already committed and into the climb. All we had to do was to turn around and go back down the valley, but we had already crossed the point of no return in our minds and in such places that’s what it finally comes down to and that’s all that matters. Being late afternoon we don’t go further up but pitch our tent beneath the ice line. Even if these were our last few hours on earth there was no reason not to enjoy them to the fullest.
We cook pasta and cheese and sing songs till fatigue takes over. The adrenalin is coursing through our bodies in anticipation of the unknown and of our indeterminate future and my eyes refuse to shut as my brain refuse to rest. We hop out of the tent intermittently to take one more look at the face where we would soon be battling for survival. Once up there we won’t have the time or luxury or the perspectives necessary to view the spectacular face and we make hay while we are still on ground. Even with my past exploits on the three great north faces of European Alps and other luminaries of the Patagonians’ I have no idea how I would match up on our present objective. Until the first swing of my axe finds a purchase on the ice I cannot predict how the face will go. I am still young, competitive and want to prove a point. I trust my God, my mountains and my friend and companion on this voyage. Our collective will, expertise and madness would surely keep us alive. We chat gibberish through the night and with the crack of dawn wind up our camp and head up for yet another tryst with destiny.
Though mid-winter the tropical glacier is still full of open crevasses and fissures that we negotiate carefully, probing the snow wherever it is soft and fresh. We study the face intricately engraving each and every curve and contour of our intended line. Nat suggests we go for the American direct variant instead of the Japanese Couloir and around 2/3rd up the face traverse further to the right for few hundred feet to exit under the corniced summit ridge of the higher peak. As I follow her finger and her words I just nod my head in agreement, much relieved that at least one of us has something close to a plan. We finally stop and carve out a platform at around 5200 m leaving around 2800 ft of vertical ice and rock above us to complete. With a 100m 8 mm rope between us and an exhaustive array of ice and rock gear we should not take more than 30 pitches and three days tops to complete the climb and get back down in one piece. We eat our pastas to bursting point since we would climb only with chocolates and cheese cubes to reduce weight. On such a climb where duration is short, it is prudent to reduce weight on food since one could starve for a short time but it is suicidal to forego even a single piece of equipment. We carefully segregate our load and after checking that we were not under any avalanche chute we go off to sleep for an early morning alarm.
When we leave the next morning at around 5 a.m. we carry only two gas canisters, two titanium bowls, 500 gm of chocolates and 500 gm of cheese cubes each, the lightest and smallest possible Hellsport that could double as a portaledge and our complete rack of ice and rock. We walk silently and head for the start point around 300 ft above and to our left. Thankfully the weather is clear and there is no fall in barometric pressure. We were already on 45 deg gradient. I test the ice and find it comfortably sound and solid with hardly any fresh snow on the surface. I suggest we go free for the first few pitches to save time and to build up warmth in our frozen limbs. Speed and skill were of essence. We decide to climb in parallel lines staying around 10m apart. In perfect unison we plunge our axe and crampons into the ice and leave the ground beneath. Ice climbing under ideal conditions even when the gradients are steep is not a difficult task to accomplish. All one needed is a steady nerve and strong shoulders. As we climbed into steeper grounds the glacier fell away that I could see through my boots. I stopped after every 100 counts to catch up on breath and to admire the scenery. It was my way of building and keeping to a rhythm. Nat stayed slightly above me and I enjoyed watching her climbing with the grace of a gazelle. She barely made a sound as her ice tools followed one another like well oiled arms of a Swiss chronometer.
An hour later we take our first break. We had gained around 300 ft. At that altitude it is not a very fast rate of ascent but it is steady and safe. I hack out a seat wide enough for two and clip myself to the axe. By now we are well into the 600 plus gradient. With two sharp strokes Nat joins me at my stance. She gives me a wink and laughs showing her bright teeth under the dawn. At this point absolutely nothing holds either of us to the mountain or to each other. It is an amazing feeling when standing at such places where one knows that one tiny insignificant move could well be your last. The morning breeze ruffles my eyebrows and brushes at Nat’s hair sticking out from under her helmet. I look at her and nod my head sideways without saying anything. I smile back at her. What is there to say, no words or human expression can ever describe or explain where we were and what we intended to do. We could only share our happiness of being together at that place at that time doing exactly what we were engaged into. Smile was and still is the best option under such circumstances or under any for that matter.
Nat uncoils the rope from around her shoulders and prepares for the belay. The bottom half of the face is totally encrusted in severe ice with severe mix on the upper, where Nat would certainly surpass my skills. Till then I would mostly lead as it always was between us. Ice I take over, rock or mix Nat goes ahead. In under two minutes Nat has a pair of screws deeply embedded into the face and she is hanging out like a skyscraper cleaner. She passes the running end of the rope to me and raises her eyebrow twice. Deciding to keep my words and breathes for the climb I return her a wink and clip the rope into my harness. Taking off from a sitting stance is always tardy and difficult. I wriggle myself back on the line and place my right axe with infinite care into a thin upper crust. I pull down hard letting my entire weight come on to the axe and it holds. God-willing, I mumble to no one and swing my left axe higher than the right.
The pitch is near 700 with bubble ice for the most part and I go slow. With infinite care I place my tools one after another like the tentacles of a wary spider. Gradually the morning chill dissolves into the morning sun. I start feeling incredibly hot. I stop and open the pit zips and the trouser vents. I wriggle my toes in between rests. I climb in a rhythm as afore, 50 steps, stop, 50 steps, stop. Mechanical, careful, rhythmic… not easy, not very difficult either, not safe, not unduly risky either. I leave a trail of screws and quickdraws in my wake. A pair of tugs around my waist tells me that I have less than 15 ft of rope left and I find my nose almost touching the icy face. The slope is too steep for hacking a ledge; hence I dig in two screws at eye level with two daisies looping into one another and tie the load evenly. With utmost relief and care I lean back on the anchor and ask Nat to come up. I look down at the rapidly ascending red helmet as I take in the rope and coil it around my shoulders. On such steep slopes one must never allow the rope to fall below the belay stance. Soon I have Nat panting beside me. Her rack is now heavier than mine; loaded with all the gear she had cleared from my lead. ‘That was tough,’ she mouths, ‘good lead partner’. I smile indulgently. I pass on the rope to her and let her clip into the anchor. I lead off into another tottering pitch.
The next pitch comes even slower with greater effort and caution. Barely few meters into it I realize that the ice is progressively and exponentially getting rotten and brittle by the minute. Most of my screws would simply burst through air pockets, requiring me to scrape deeper to find hard solid ice beneath. It is tiring, difficult, dangerous and annoying to say the least. As I take longer and longer to place protections Nat waits below patiently watching, I know, like an hawk ready to brake my fall if I did… though I am not sure if that would do either of us any good. If the lead on such a climb falls then both would surely plunge to their deaths. I place screws after every 30 ft. Very soon I am not certain anymore of their veracity or strength.
We climbers often place PPs (psychological pros) for lack of choice and just for the heck of putting in a pro rather than nothing at all. It serves as a placebo and gives us psychological net of safety. With all caution and prudence thrown into the wind if we ever stop to ponder about PPs, then most would certainly not climb any further. But we don’t think of falling, only of going up and as we climb higher the sight of another colorful screw or nut with a web hanging out of the face below us seems assuring, even if at the back of our mind we know that it would not hold even a falling fly.
At the end of the pitch Nat comes up and leans heavily on her axe. She is breathing heavily, a sight seen to be believed. ‘You are good?’ I asked anxiously. ‘Jesus, Satya, that was so blasted, how did you come up?’ Nat asked while taking the water bottle from my hand. ‘This is way crazy,’ Nat said between gulps, ‘the ice is so rotten. Hoping like hell it gets better higher up.’ ‘I am sure it will,’ I say. I look carefully at my companion. Though ice was my forte and I was more experienced in the medium than her and had trained hard for the last month I had no doubts that Nat was far fitter of the two. Irrespective of the difficulties or objective hazards I had never seen Nat so explicit about a route. Is she not well, some ailment she did not tell me about… though she looked fine and gorgeous as usual! I pondered. I indulge in an extra five minutes break gulping two cheese cubes meanwhile and take off to lead the next pitch as well. As I climb up I am in a state of mind I have no business to be. I am worried. Instances, when one’s entire focus and goal must only rivet on survival and the next step does not allow the luxury of any other thought, least of all worry. Yet I am worried. Despite knowing that I must be tired she did not volunteer to lead the pitch that is logically hers. Neither did she protest when I took off. We knew each other intimately and I am sure Nat would not keep anything from me, yet I am sure she is hiding something. Did I really care for this summit more than any other? I would be happy to rappel off right at this instant and return to climb another day with Nat. But I do not push Nat. Let her fight her own demons, only hoping that I would soon see her in her true elements.
The face is now so steep that I dare not conjecture about the gradient. To climb up and to see the line I must remain away from the face so I claw my way up. Even before I reach the half way point I feel my shoulders and legs burn due to the intense strain that my muscles undergo. The oxygen demand of the muscle fibers increase beyond the blood’s delivering capacity and to produce this extra energy in the absence of oxygen, my body begins anaerobic glycolysis thereby building up lactic acid that goes to lock my muscles and sets my muscles aflame. Few more strokes later I cannot take it anymore. I cry out loud into the thin air and stop to rest. Plunging the pair of axes into the ice I clip myself securely into the loops and lean out and rapidly rotate my arms and limber up and down. I look down to find Nat looking up with acute anxiety writ clear on her face. I tell her not to worry. Few minutes later I am back to work.
More and more ice shatters away from my blows showering me with ice particles and often few big chunks which fell down further on my belay. The line is incredibly difficult and dangerous and to ponder that we have only covered so far less than a third of the face. The sun keeps moving the day keeps lengthening. The breathtaking panorama around dissolves into the intensity of the climb. I drive every thought out of my mind and solely focus on the four points of tempered steel which is all that now lies between me and eternity. I see nothing except where I must place my tools, and I think of nothing save for the inch of ice where they must go. I climb mechanically like an automaton on a pre-programmed loop. I complete the pitch and hang out like a ragged doll. I am knackered. I don’t remember if I had ever done something so severe at such altitudes. The thin air saps away every bit of energy from my weary limbs. I watch without seeing, as my partner joins me. I simply clip her into the anchor and weave the rope through her harness. We don’t talk, there’s no need to. We both pretty much hover at our technical and physical edge. We drive the thought from our head that with every foot we gain the climb is only going to get tougher and more punishing. No one even remotely thinks of quitting or going down. The weather is perfect and the sun adds to our confidence and certitude that the line will fall sooner than later.
When I think back of that day now as I write this post, and wonder what pushed us ahead, I am sure that if given the identical scenario today I would back off from this point. I am seasoned now with age and foresight thus gained, while then I was young, crazy and fully confident of the elements and of course very much in love with what I did and love can indeed make you do crazy things.
Soon Nat led off and I was much relieved to see that she scrambled up with those gravity defying moves that had first attracted my attention towards her. Now as the belay I do not need to keep looking up. My neck hurts anyways. So I sit back into my anchor and keep a sharp eye on the rope now running through my abseil. Every twitch and strain on the rope tells me what is happening above. When Nat is moving or stopped or hanging out to rest. What I do not know though what is happening inside her head. The half length mark runs out of my fingers and Nat is setting up a pace I doubted I could match. Ice chunks rain incessantly, some of them bounce off my helmet and shoulders and disappear in a shower below. The cool air is only punctuated by the rhythmic swing of my partner’s axes. Very soon it is my turn to climb. I take my weight off the anchor and onto the ice and clear the stance. Two tugs to tell Nat that I have started climbing and off I go. The constant tug of the rope around my waist feels so assuring. The poor and bulging ice falls away as I climb with caution and speed. Nat had placed only half a dozen screws that I take little time to clean and then join her atop. Thus we followed one pitch after another, alternating lead at every stance.
Eight hours later we stand at around 19000 ft beneath the smooth granite slab without any cracks anywhere. ‘All yours,’ I offer as Nat joins me. She leans well out into the air to look at the rock face that reared at an overhang for around 150 ft disappearing beneath ice thereafter. It stood like a void between us and the summit ridge. We have no drill or bolts only nuts and pitons. There was no way that even Nat would find any purchase in our crampons on the smooth surface. I do not even contemplate the problem, for me it does not exist. For me it seems to be the end of the road. I munch chocolate, sip water and generally look around and enjoy the spectacular view. Nat comes back up. ‘Watch me,’ she says. ‘Are you climbing through this?’ I can’t hide my shock. ‘No harm in trying.’ She returns. Well, that’s Nat for you. ‘Do you have suction pumps attached to your shoes?’ I can’t help throwing my incredulity at her. Nat clips her axes and crampons to her harness loops and takes off her gloves as well. Even as I see her getting ready I can’t believe that it is happening. We have absolutely no rack for such a rock face. Even to aid we at least need a web or etrier… we have nothing. Even if Nat could and I have no idea how she could, there was absolutely no chance of me following her in the next billion years. Nat breaks her knuckles few times and takes off. And right in front of my eyes unfolds a spectacle that I find hard to believe ever happened even today.
Even at sea level such a rock face would only go with drill and bolts and solid placements and that too to only the top few climbers in the world. Here we were at 19000 ft on a cold icy face tottering at near vertical angle. Bloody hell, we were on Nevado Chacraraju, among the top three least attempted and climbed peaks in the world. It was not a place for monkeyshine or any shine at all. Nat left my side and gained ground inch by inch, stopping often like a watchful lizard on the rock weighing her options. I had by then created a bombproof at my feet for I was certain that she would fall. And since there was absolutely no place for a protection till she topped the rock band she would fall hard and long when she falls with every possibility of taking me off and away with her as well.
I said all my prayers possible, laid homage to all the gods I could think of even creating a few then and there just to be on the safer side. My heart stops beating as I watch the golden girl shimmy up. On every second count I expect her to slip and fall but she continues crawling up. I wish I had a video cam to capture Nat. I am certain on that day she had created an entirely new grade in rock climbing that is yet to be surpassed. I keep the rope really tight and pay out with utmost caution only when I feel the tug at the other end. Nat is now more than 100 ft above. She was hovering on the thin air. She must have turned into an angel on that fateful day since she was literally airborne. Only a creature with wings can do what she did.
It is totally impossible for me even to begin to imagine what her mind and body is going through. She is tight-roping right on that non-existent line between life and death. She had absolutely no choice but to succeed and stay on that line. If she falls now nothing will stop us from becoming a part of the mountain’s history. Blood pounds my head and my heart thumps my ribs, I am shit scared. My lips must have turned white and my throat is dry like the Sahara. I am not even certain if I am here, if I am real or am I dreaming or if I am already dead. Only the free rope moving out of my fingers one tiny jerk at a time tells me that it is real. I curse Nat, I curse myself and I curse the mountain we are on. I have never been so certain of dying as I am at that moment. At the back of my mind I also realize that even if Nat does make it to the top without killing us both how on earth would I follow her lead.
Nearly an hour later Nat is up and secured safely in the ice. She lets out an air-wrenching victory cry that resonates from the glaciers and the mountains all around. She flings few yodels down of which I can make nothing. But soon I feel the tug at my rope and I realize that it is now time for me to move. Given a choice I would be happy to stay where I am. I pack my bag with all the stuff and tighten the straps tight to keep the CG really close and into my body. The next 150 ft would perhaps be the most committed climb of my entire life with or without a top rope.
I really can’t describe what happened over the next forty minutes since my mind had frozen in terror. All I remember now is that I was so intensely petrified that I had all but turned to stone with each step. Nat literally pulled me up against gravity. My loyal axes and crampons were of no use neither were my limbs since there was absolutely nothing to hold or to step on to. Post that day Nat would never be a human in my eyes. She would remain an angel till her last day as she must be right now. My limbs shook uncontrollably as I reached Nat above and collapsed into her arms. Amazingly she had carved out a tiny platform where she pushed me in while passing the rope in front and then wriggled under and squeezed beside me. She hugs me tightly and we sit thus for seemingly an interminable amount of time. I have absolutely no hesitation or shame to admit today that I have never been more scared or dead than I was on that day on that pitch. Nat knows how much I dislike rock. ‘I am sorry Sat, I should have traversed to the left and looked for an ice line.’ Nat says. I stay silent, withdrawn completely into my inner shell cut off from the rest of the world. Nat is seven years my junior and I can’t hold a grudge against her for long. I hug her back and lighten up. ‘Don’t ever do anything like this again, not even when I am not around!’ Nat promises that she won’t and we get back to our line.
Though time and destiny proved that she would break that exact promise a year and half later on exactly every count and end up crushed and dead right at my feet. But that’s another story for another time or perhaps never.
Three more pitches including one tension traverse and few switchbacks takes us across the 6000 m contour. Though not planned our route has taken us under the corniced ridge near the higher summit rather than directly underneath. From here we have two options; either to keep climbing straight up and break through the cornice then walk along the knife edge ridge (though how, it escaped me at the moment) to the summit or to traverse to the left till we reach under the overhanging top and then climb straight up. Both options seem equally outrageous. Night has already crept in and we decide to stop. It takes us around an hour to sort our gear and get the tent up and organized. All our stuff and sack hang outside from the ice while we wriggle in with bare necessities. We carefully light up the stove and drink to our heart’s fill. We laugh and roll like children. We crack jokes and tease each other. Nat makes faces as she mimics me while I crossed the rock band. I slap her back playfully. If viewed then it would seem that we were just having fun by some seaside resort or at some really safe spot on Earth. Viewed in reality we were two insignificant mortals hanging literally from one of the most deadly and dangerous mountain faces on Earth. Barely a couple of 16” steel ice screws and carabiners keep us alive. Every moment we linger at the spot our chances of survival diminish exponentially. Every bite of food we eat dwindle our ration by that much. Every groan or shake of the mountain can spell our doom.
With a shake of my head I return to present. Though my limbs are freezing I reluctantly get my head in and zip up the tent flap. As I wriggle inside the sleeping bag Nat opens her eyes. In that dim lit interior she looks radiantly beautiful and hopelessly vulnerable. I feel intensely protective and caring for this little girl with whom I often cruised around the globe chasing dreams that did not exist and did not matter to anyone else besides us. I pat her head and put her back to sleep. I lie down and drift away into the night with no idea what the dawn would confront us with.
The whiff of fresh coffee brings me out of my slumber. Nat is fully up and dressed stirring coffee in the pan. ‘Good morning,’ she brightens up the tent instantly, ‘how’s the boss today?’ she asks playfully. ‘Still alive and no thanks to you for that,’ I say while taking the coffee mug from her. ‘Come on Sat, you did fine there and I ain’t gonna tell anyone what I saw and even if I did who would believe! Now get ready to go. It’s your lead today and the ground is perfect for what you seem to prefer over my rocks.’ That was all that was needed to spur me on. Quickly we munch coffee dipped chocolates and drink up as much liquid as we can. Nat went out first and I hand her all the stuff from inside. By the time I step out it is nearing six and the sun hovers at the distant horizon like the golden yoke of a fresh egg poach. It takes us another half an hour to pack in everything inside our sacks. The vertical precipice at my feet makes my head go dizzy though the proximity of the ridge above looks inviting.
It takes us less than a minute to unanimously conclude that it is suicidal to traverse at such an angle to the left and our only option is to top out the ridge cornice and walk few hundred meters to the summit from there. Nat got her screws in and took stance. I checked my axes and crampons and prepared to strike up. I looked up and studied the face above. The angle of ice is well over 800 and the ice is really cheesy with magnificently gaping air pockets and brittle penitents. Right above a huge mushroom clings to the face desperately, seemingly ready and willing to crash down at the slightest provocation. There is absolutely no way through that, I surmise. The line will go around 100 ft up and then I will need to traverse to the left to go around the bulge. I start climbing.
The night’s rest and the proximity to the summit add vigor and joy to my movements. Though I totter at the very edge of my expertise I feel light and easy. ‘No worries,’ as Nat would surely say. The rhythmic hammerings soon warms up my limbs and I feel free and uplifted like the soaring birds above. Ten minutes into the climb I feel a faint shudder as if the mountain moved from within. I stop dead in my track and listen. It comes again, the surface right under me moves in small shakes. I look down at Nat and point at the ice and move my hands to mimic the vibration. She gestures up to confirm that she too has felt it. There could be more than one reason for such a phenomenon. The most obvious and also the most calamitous would be an earthquake.
Suddenly the earth collapses beneath my feet and I fly out into the void like a base jumper. At the precise moment of death I feel no fear and simply enjoy my levitation. Shortly the lower anchor jolts me back and I crash with a bone jarring impact on the face and continue sliding rapidly as the anchor shoots out of its base. I lose sense of direction as tons of ice cascade over me. Even through the white deluge I watch incredulously as I zip pass Nat and continue plunging down in a senseless tumble that would soon have two people flying at the end of a rope, for I am sure that Nat would not be able to break my fall and would join me in the deadly plunge. I even register the look of sheer horror and disbelief in her eyes as I zoom past her stance. But destiny had some other plan.
The jolt of the shock rips through my body from head to toe through the spine as I suddenly stop and swing maddeningly like a broken pendulum. I have never been as thankful as then for a piece of rope and since then I have always relied on Mammut to stay alive. The 8 mm fiber must have stretched to its promised 40% and then takes me up in short jerks till the mountain calms down and the missiles stop falling from atop.
Every part of my body is encrusted in ice and I can’t see for a while. My head spins, my neck aches and I am certain I have dislocated shoulders. When I open my eyes I meet with darkness though I know it is broad daylight. Have I lost my vision too, I wonder. Soon I feel a presence next to mine. She shakes me hard, ‘Are you ok, Sat, are you ok?’ panic clear in her voice. ‘Oh my god, say something!’ Nat is on the verge of tears. I open my eyes and slowly adjust to the light. Million stars pop out and in my retina. I must have burst few blood vessels. My head throbs incessantly like an electric drill. I open my mouth to speak but can only garble. My mind is clear though but none of my senses seem to be under its control. Nat brings her face close to mine and looks deep into my eyes. She brushes the thick crust of ice from my face and my vision begins to clear up.
We hang thus for a long time till I regain my senses and strength and then start climbing back up to the place where Nat had left her sack and other equipment. As I look up all my hopes evaporate instantly. Chacraraju must remain bereft of our presence as of now. The face had been ripped off most of its top layer of ice revealing underneath a honeycomb that even I or Nat were unwilling to go through. Miraculously the mushroom still remained as many others had now emerged forming a horrendous defense to the ridge and the summit. It doesn’t take long for my frozen brain to realize that I probably had one of the narrowest escapes of my life and once again I had escaped only with minor bruises and injuries. As I always say the end of the road is where one decides to stop, for the two of us, the road came to an end at around 19800 ft barely 200 feet under the towering summit of Chacraraju. We have had some superlative climbs along with incredible luck and it is time now to return home. As we have less screws for rappel all the pitches down, we decide to down climb few pitches and then start rappelling.
I take the first lead down. I lose altitude rapidly while placing protections at regular intervals. Nat follows and then leads. Few hours later we are back to our cache of tent and food. We jump up in joy and only when I land back on the ice do I realize that my right leg is soaking wet and it buckles under my weight.
P.S. The two pictures of Nevado Chacraraju accompanying this post were taken during a recent trip into the area. This time around while I walked up to the base from where we had started our climb on that eventful July morning I looked up and tried to decipher the spot where Nat and I had hung on that night. As my eyes tried to recall the line we had followed I allowed my gaze to linger across the magnificent face and realized that it would always remain unclimbed for me. I had no more stomach for such climbs. If only Nat was still here then perhaps she would have been able to pursue me with that heart-stopping smile of hers, but without her I would always leave Chacraraju alone. From wherever she was I hoped that she was watching me and I hoped that she would understand why certain things in life were meant to remain only in the realms of our dreams.
With a smile as radiant as the cracking dawn I turned my back to the majestic mountain and headed down towards civilization and hope.