Tuesday, June 30, 2009

A Weekly Interlude

I wrote the following story more than a decade ago, based on a real life incident. I just discovered it, somewhere far back into my hard disk and I am publishing it here just to prove to those people who think that I can not write mushy and romantic stuff... at least this proves that at some point of time I could. Read on and enjoy. The pictures accompanying this post are just random beautiful shots.

“Excuse me! Could you get me this book please?” A soft voice with crisp enunciation broke the afternooon torpor that the library always had when everyone retired for lunch.

Though Shruti stopped tallying the books with the catalogue held in her hand, she did not turn around. Finding books for members or issuing them wasn’t her job. One of the clerks would do it. She was about to resume her interrupted work when the erstwhile voice uttered again:

“Excuse me, madame! Could you please help me out?”

The persuasive tone made Shruti glance over her shoulder. Preoccupied as she was, she only discerned the pale outline with a head full of dark hair and the delectable fragrance of Drukk Noir. She approached the `Issue’ desk. Finally when she stood at the long desk and peered over the counter at the man standing on the other side, she could only catch her breath and feel her pulses quicken. Around six-foot, he had broad shoulders and a luminiscent countenance with sparkling brown eyes. Close-cropped hairs nestled coyly over the ears. His marine-blue shirt accentuated the fair skin. Both his hands rested easily on the counter and the right held a requisition slip.

As the coffee-hued eyes bore into him, Tushar dropped his smile abruptly. Amidst such learned sorrounding, so far away from the hustling world, on a commonplace Tuesday, he was gazing into the most alluring eyes he had ever imagined. But he recovered quickly.

“Oh! I am sorry. I thought you were a staff. As you see, there’s no one else around…” Tushar gestured helplessly with a disarming smile.

“That’s alright,” Shruti heard herself declare, “I am a staff.” Which wasn’t true actually since she was temporarily attached to Central Library for six months from her college for a project in Library Science.

“You are? But I have never seen you before? I know everyone.” Tushar said.

“When did you come last?” Shruti posed as she took the slip from him.

“A month back.” Tushar offered a generous smile.

“I joined after that. I must say you have rare taste.” Shruti held up the slip she had taken from him. “That book is out of print for over half a century. Are you into some kind of research?”

“Not at all. I just love reading these things. By the way—hi! I am Tushar. I have a little enterprise of my own.”

Shruti took the extended hand and felt the comforting grip.

“I am Shruti. I’ll get your book from the underground store.”

She left him in the hallway and hurried outside. She found the book in five minutes, then spend another ten in the bathroom putting her make-up back in place. Not that she needed it. At 170 cms with a perfect willowly figure, if Shruti was not into modelling then it was solely due to her scholarly inclinations. Luxuriant raven hair fell wave-like around her shoulders and a perpetual dimple rendered her face a childish charm that men found irresistable.

On returning, she found Tushar drumming lightly on the counter.

“That was fast. Thanks.” Tushar took the book and carefully dusted the covers. “I must go now. See you around.” Tushar departed. It was nearing two and he must be back at his office before the calls started coming from all over the world. Nearing thirty, Tushar was the CEO of Data Infosys, the fastest growing software firm in the country. The previous year he had entered into a 50 million contract with Microsoft.

After Tushar left, Shruti did something unethical. She opened the library computer and accessed Tushar’s account.

The next Tuesday, sharp at five to one Shruti took her post behind the `Issue’ desk. He visited the library every Tuesday and she remembered he had entered around one and stayed till two. She was smart enough to deduce that his office was close by with lunch hours from one to two and for some reason he spend that hour every Tuesday in the library. At least he has done so for the last three years.

At the precise hour Tushar entered the hall and headed for the `Return’ counter. As expected no one was in sight. Shruti quickly vacated her chair and came around to the `Return’ desk. Eyeing her supple frame draped in sheer chiffon of olive-green, Tushar beamed through his ears. This was a most pleasant surprise.

“Hello again! How are you? Do you work only during lunch time?” Tushar said, and added chidingly, “Don’t you take your meal, no wonder you are so thin.”

“Someone must work. You have finished the book?” Shruti said while accepting the thick volume. Tushar nodded.

“Cover to cover? Without missing a word?”

Tushar only smiled and blinked twice.

“I don’t believe it. One thousand sixty two pages!” Shruti remarked as she wrote out the reciept.

“Quiz me.” Tushar said lightly. Shruti opened three different pages at random and asked whatever came to her mind. After few minutes when she shut the book finally, she knew she confronted a genius.

“Which one can I get for you today?” Shruti asked coyly. She desperately wanted to fall in love with Tushar. Feel his hands around her and his lips on her.

“I’ll find it myself.” Tushar walked away towards the bookcases and shortly disappeared from sight.

The next Tuesday and the one after that too went uneventfully as Shruti tried in vain to draw him deeper into some meaningful conversation while Tushar maintained his normal buoyant self and conceded no further advantage to Shruti than his dazzling smile and the ocassional hand shake. The fifth Tuesday, Tushar slipped from the wooden ladder while exploring the topmost shelf of a tottering rack and with unusual deftness, Shruti managed to bring his bruised hand tantalizingly close to her bosom while administering first-aid to his elbow. By now Shruti was helplessly in love with Tushar, while he remained his normal friendly self. She thought of no one else but him and lived only for that hour every Tuesday, when the shadowy corridoors of the deserted hall palpitated with the vibrant joy of Shruti’s love and the mute volumes played Cupid’s sentinel, keeping an eye over the young couple. But in God’s own world if everything happened predictable then no one would ever have a story to tell. And the hero of our saga remained blissfully unaware of the whole affair. He only found her a nice company to talk to and never broached any subject other than books. Gentle bred, as Shruti was, the brazen attitude of a modern girl was alien to her. Silently she suffered the torment.

Two weeks later Tushar surprised Shruti by asking her to join him for a light meal at `Caribbean’. It was one of the most expensive joints in the city, around ten minutes walk from the library.

“Should we walk?” Tushar asked on stepping outside.

“Do you have a car?” Shruti knew he had to have one. Anyone who resided in Green Park and had two phones and a cellular would own at least a pair.

“There, that blue Porsche.” Tushar pointed at the parking.

Her heart almost jumped at her throat. Shruti had never seen anything as beautiful as that. “Let’s walk.” She said gaily.

As Tushar skipped alongside, she sensed his joyous mood. For some reason he was extremely happy and could barely contain his mirth. He stopped at a flower shop and bought her a yellow rose. Though disappointed, she accepted it with a deep inward sigh. How many Tuesdays more, before she got a red.

After the table was cleared and the waiter had departed with the hundred-rupee tip, Tushar placed his elbows on the table and leaned forward.

“This is a very special day for me.” He said contentedly.

“For me too…” Shruti stared deep into the brown pupils and felt her eyes watering. It was impossible to shield her emotions. Her lithe body was shivering in anticipation.

“You don’t understand. Today is someone’s birthday.”

“Whose?” Shruti managed to say.

“Someone who means everything to me. Whom I love the most, who has been with me at every step of my life. Without whom my life has no meaning…” Tushar trailed off merrily.

“And who is the lucky person?” Shruti asked casually. Had her senses been slightly alert she would have vaticinated something suspicious.

But before Tushar could reply, his cellular came alive. He spoke into it in a low voice. Finally he said, “I am on my way.” He stood up hurriedly. “Shruti I am sorry, some emergency has come up. We must leave immediately.”

After Shruti saw the Porsche take a U-turn and hit the main road, she remembered that for the first time Tushar had left without taking a book.

The succeeding three Tuesday’s Shruti waited in vain as Tushar did not show up. Her anxiety heightened each day. What could be the matter? Was he ill or out of town. Finally she decided to call up his home. Did she have enough right to do so? How deep were his feelings for her. Was she anything more than a mere acquaintance? She did not know anything about his family, or about him, other than his address and phone number that she had got from his library account. But if love followed logic then half the world’s literature including Romeo and Juliet would not be born.

“Hello!” A subdued male voice answered.

“Is this Mr Tushar Bhatia’s residence?” Shruti asked shakily.


“May I talk to him?” Shruti asked.

“He isn’t home. He has gone to the hospital.”

“Hospital?” Shruti gasped. “Is he alright? Which hospital?” Shruti wanted to drop the phone and run outside.

“He is fine. He has gone to see madame, she is admitted. May I know who’s calling?” The man at the other end inquired politely.

Shruti was struck by lightening. Her legs buckled as she slumped to the floor. He was married! Oh my God! Let me die at this very moment. Holding the wall she managed to regain her feet. She felt like throwing up. The whole world blurred in front of her eyes as silent sobs racked her body. Dropping the phone she ran out of the booth.

That night, on returning to her hostel she shut herself in and cried tilll morning. Eventually when all her tears were spent, she stared at the pink dawn creeping through her window and remembered what her father had told her on his deathbed: that life must go on. And she knew that she would live. Wasn’t she happy before Tushar entered her life? She resumed her work in all earnest but despite her incessant efforts she could not, even for a moment, forget those kind eyes and the warmth of his body. She did not wish to meet him again and dreaded when Tuesday would come. But as each day passed she looked forward to the hour when she could see Tushar. To her utmost disappointment, Tushar did not show up for the next two weeks.

It was Monday morning, and the hour had just crossed ten. Shruti kneeled beside the rack of `Oriental Poetry’ when someone touched her from behind.

“Hi! Sorry, I couldn’t come for so many days. How have you been?” Tushar said playfully.

Shruti dropped the books on the floor and whirled around. She lost all color. Blood pounded at her ears. Her breath came out in short gasps and her limbs tremored uncontrollably. Though she wanted to scream and claw at his face, Shruti stood immobile, silent and stupefied.

“What’s the matter? Say something.” Tushar lightly touched her right cheek.

“Today is not Tuesday?” Shruti spoke in a trance.

“Yes I know, but things have changed. I need your help. Could you get me few novels—light and romantic ones!”

“You never read such books, or that has changed too?” Shruti managed to add some edge to her voice.

“Not for me. They are for Ritu. She is in the hospital, and she loves romantic novels.”

“Is she okay?” Shruti mumbled, as she pulled down a couple of modern romances.

“Of course, fine as a fiddle. The baby is expected any time. God, I am excited. To hold it in my arms, change nappies. First child in the family. If my parents were alive they would be very happy. Oh! By the way, Ritu is dying to meet you. I told her about you.” Tushar took the books from Shruti.

“Give my regards to her.”

“Sure. Thanks a million.” Tushar waved and bounded away.

Shruti went to the deserted Research hall and sat down at an empty table. The nightmare was only growing in proportion.

Three days later just as Shruti had completed her application to the Librarian for voluntary withdrawl of her project, Tushar entered her cubicle holding a bunch of freshly picked tulips.

“It’s almost closing time. I was about to leave. I am going away.” Shruti spoke harshly and strode towards the door.

Tushar blocked her way. “I know, that’s why I came. This is for you.” He gave her the flowers. The bunch was held up with a red silk ribbon.

“And this too.” Tushar brought out a tiny velvet box from his pocket. “But don’t open it now.” He cautioned.

Reluctantly Shruti took both the things. Anyway, after he had gone, she would throw them into the garbage-bin and leave the city for ever.

“I have come to take you home. The baby was born at five in the morning. The cutest creature in the world. It’s a boy and everyone said he looks exactly like me. Ritu is waiting for us. Let’s go.” Tushar clasped Shruti’s right hand.

“Leave my hand, I am not going with you.” Shruti hissed.

“What’s wrong?” Tushar stopped smiling. “Aren’t you happy?”

“Of course I am happy. I want to dance all night. Walk upside down. :Look at me, see! I am bursting with joy—“ Shruti pointed at her tear-laden eyes. “You are so selfish Tushar, wrapped only in your own world, you are blind to the misery of others. Please go away and let me die in peace.”

Shruti covered her face and started crying her heart out.

Tushar looked completely crestafallen. After a long silence he spoke.

“I don’t know what I have done, but I have hurt you terribly. Please don’t cry, I cannot bear your anguish. Give me any punishment, I will accept it gladly but please do not speak of dying. I have always considered you my best friend. Since I met you I shared all my happiest moments only with you. I am leaving now with the hope that someday you will let me know what my mistake was so that I could repent for my sin. I wish you all the happiness in the world. May God bless you.”

Shruti heard the door shut after him. She opened her eyes and stared at the empty room. Suddenly an inner voice jolted her senses. What did she do? She turned away the only man she loved in the whole world, and made him feel guilty throughout life for no fault of his. He had never promised her anything. How could she be so cruel. She picked up the tulips and the velvet box and sped outside.

The Porsche had started. Shruti leaped across the road and stood waving her arms. Tushar downed the window.

“Tushar, I am sorry. I don’t know what got into me.”

“Never mind. Happens to the best of us.” Tushar grinned broadly and Shruti felt her knees wobble. “May I presume you are willing to accompany me home.” Shruti nodded silently.

“That’s my girl.”

Shruti never realized when the journey ended or when she entered the palatial bunglow or the people who came forward to greet her warmly. Suddenly she found herself in a dim-lit room painted in sky blue, comfortably cooled by a Carrier AC. The center of the room was taken by a four-post double bed and a baby swing close to it. A strikingly beautiful lady lay half-supine on the bed.

“You are Shruti! Please come here.” The lady spoke softly.

Shruti discovered that Tushar was nowhere in sight and she was alone with the lady in that room.

The lady took Shruti’s hand in her soft palm and laid her right hand on Shruti’s head.

“You are more beautiful than I imagined. Tushar was right, I am very happy for both of you. That’s my baby, doesn’t he take after Tushar?” The lady gestured at the baby swing.

Despite her wish, Shruti had to peep into the crib and what she saw melted her heart. A tiny semblence of human life, sucking his thumb through the pink mouth. All her maternal instincts welled up and her eyes watered on their own.

“God! This is a miracle.” Shruti looked at the lady. “You are Ritu, aren’t you? You are indeed very lucky to have such a marvellous family. In my whole life I have never seen anything so wonderful.”

“You like him?” Ritu asked brightly.

“Who wouldn’t?” Shruti gazed longingly at the sleeping child.

“Then you can have him for life.” Ritu cupped Shruti’s face in her hand and said, “Will you be my sister-in-law?”

For a moment Shruti’s heart stopped beating. She found herself falling endlessly through a vortex.

“What? What did you say?” Shruti stammered.

“Will you marry my only and younger brother Tushar?”

Shruti could only gulp and stare goggle-eyed. Faculty of speech had deserted her long time ago.

“Had our parents been alive they would have done the needful, but I am the only guardian Tushar has, and I know that despite wishing it dearly he would take ages to ask you the question. So tell me…”

“Where’s your husband?” Shruti asked the most irrelevant and inopportune question.

“He is in the merchant navy, presently in Cuba, and over the last one month Tushar has taken complete care of me. You wouldn’t find a better life partner than my brother, and he is madly in love with you. He has confided everything to me. But he was afraid to ask you.”

“At least he should have given some hint…” Shruti frowned. She knew she ought to spring in merriment and dance through the night but certain things needed to be clarified.

“Didn’t he give you a tiny velvet box? Have you opened it?” Ritu asked.

Shruti brought out the box from her vanity case.

“Open it.” Ritu suggested.

As Shruti lifted the top lid, she gasped in sheer delight. A solitary De Beer diamond, brilliant cut, with a dazzling fire within, reposed inside. Shruti knew that the gold ring would fit her right hand third finger perfectly.

“Do you want me to do the rest too, you idiot. Now come out from under the bed.” Ritu suddenly spoke looking downwards. Shruti jumped up in alarm.

A sheepish looking Tushar, grinning from ear to ear, emerged and stood facing Shruti. He went down on his right knee and pulled Shruti’s hand over his heart. “Will you marry me?”

“Yes. Oh yes.” Shruti spoke in a broken voice. Her streaming eyes brimmed with unbound happiness.

“The groom may slip the ring to the bride.” Ritu played the priest. Tushar followed her instructions.

He stood up and embraced Shruti with all might who reciprocated accordingly. Their lips met and they drowned in each other’s eye.

“At least wait till I say: the groom may kiss the bride.” Ritu mumbled blithely.

But the only two people capable of hearing her were lost in a world of their own.

When I Did Humpty Dumpty (of course i have done it so many times)

For a nanosecond, my entire world froze, and stood still. Everything around me merged into a swirl of mist and white, and each cell of my body stopped their designed functions to await the inevitable – the inevitability of danger, the inevitability of destruction, the inevitability of death. For I was going to fall. Stuck like an insignificant spider, at 5800 m on the sheer ice wall of 80 degree on the southwest face of peak Sujtilla (the Needle Peak), I knew that I had lost my purchase – the four points of tempered steel that had held me so far, were now nothing more than extra weights, only aiding gravity to propel me down faster. In that billionth of a second my entire life took an abject distance and I looked at myself with utmost clarity. This is what happened when it happened. I thought of nothing, no last words of wisdom, no visions of how life could have been, no pining for anyone to be close to me, no regrets, no sense of exhilaration, and certainly, no terror. I knew that I had been tiptoeing my way up without clipping even a single protection from the belay stance and when I do fall, my body would fling through a vertical distance of nearly 80 m. There was only a non-existent possibility of deceleration since my tools will not find any favour on the black bullet hard ice, all running down into a chute to the glacier below. My mouth opened instinctively and I screamed the most dreaded word that a mountaineer hopes he will never have to hear, and certainly will never have to utter: FALLING. Even before my voice completed the word, my body flung out and hurtled towards eternity upside down. My eyes blackened, vision fled, and I felt the uplifting rush of ice-cold breeze cut through my bones and engulf my head, even as the helmet took a series of sickening ‘thuds’ on my journey towards oblivion.

If I did not stop… I would land straight inside our tent, nearly a 1600 ft below, and if luck would be so kind then into a boiling pot of tea that my cook might be concocting right at that moment.

Resembling the shape of a needle, towering high above the Yankchari Dhurra glacier, deep into the lush Ralam valley of Kumaon hills, Sujtilla has been claimed by many as the finest piece of mountain architecture in the Indian Himalaya. The mountain remained unclimbed even after four previous attempts by some of the best mountaineers. The complex maze of ice flutings, rock falls, and an impregnably complicated ridge and face system kept the summit of Sujtilla devoid of human presence. I had chanced upon Sujtilla first in 1989, whilst on a trek to Brijganga Dhurra, and twice thereafter, and it had remained dominant among my dreams ever since. I always knew that I would return some day to meet Sujtilla, for it had become a familiar friend who beckoned me time and again. I finally heeded the call in the autumn of 2002.

Leading a team of young boys from the Navy, I reached the road head of Munsyari in the late evening of September 16, with the sky clearing up at the precise moment to give us a moonlit view of the glistening Panchachulli massif. Our support staff of Sherpas and Kumaoni high altitude porters (HAPS) too welcomed us. I eyed the sturdy Sherpas with pride and fondness as three out of the five had been with me on several occasions. We had many memories of danger, death and high climbs to share. They were a hardy bunch on whom one could rely for life and loyalty. A four day trek through deep gorges, landslides and river crossings brought us to the Base Camp at 4260 m.

The Base Camp site was ideally located next to a glacial stream, providing us with the much needed running water. The member and support staff tents were rigged up and soon the white landscape took on the festive colours of red, orange, green and yellow. We sighted a group bharals (mountain deer) up on a ridge towards the south, quietly descending into the adjacent grass field. Much of an expedition’s success later in the higher regions of the mountain depends on the base camp site and its stocking up of equipment and ration. This forms the foundation on which the rest of the expedition climbs further. Promptly we got down to the routine of organizing the area into several fields and also allocate certain tents for storage, etc. The climbing gear, clothing, ration, medicine, miscellaneous items, emergency gear, etc. were opened, taken count of, and then made into carry packs for load ferry to the subsequent camps.

Next morning I emerged from my tent into a clear crisp dawn and drew the feather jacket close to the body with satisfaction since the day was perfect. We were still in the shadows of the eastern ridge and a light breeze made the air decidedly freezing and nippy. Very soon our mess boy poked his unruly head from the kitchen tent and declared at the top of his stentorian singsong that the tea was ready. With the breakfast safely tucked inside, the first batch comprising the lead Sherpas and the members took off at half past seven for the Yankchari Dhurra pass. I left an hour later, primarily to ensure that everything had been taken as planned and to take pictures of the team, already appearing like tiny black ants over the vast expanse of white. Immediately above the base camp, the path led to a rushing stream and a huge ice basin that had several feet of soft snow atop. The trail gradually became steeper and we eventually entered the scree and loose-rock infested narrow gully that will take us to the pass right above. Far away and up I saw the Sherpas and the lead members cresting the pass ridge. It was quite a feat to reach the pass itself since the path was steep, made up of snow covered loose rocks and we had to gain a little over 500 meters as well, before we would descend sharply on the other side. As we gained height, we had to pause at regular intervals, not only to catch our breaths but also to gasp and gaze in wonder at the surrounding panorama that unfolded magically like a Japanese fan. The mesmerizing peaks of Nanda Devi, Nanda Kot, Burphu Dhura, Suli Top, Chiring We, etc. stood like silent sentinels guarding the Himalayan heritage. Though I had seen these mountains many times earlier the sight was equally wonderful and memorable. What was most poignant was the towering Nanda Devi massif to our west that dwarfed everything else on the horizon. Rising to 7817 m, Nanda Devi is the highest peak in India (except Kangchengjunga) and is considered by many as the most stunning mountain to behold in the world. Nanda Devi seemed supremely poised and bewitchingly attractive from afar.

Finally after two and half hours we gained the 4828 m pass. As we topped the ridge, Sujtilla rose majestically like a monolith of sheer ice and rock. Seeing it up so close, we finally realized the gravity of the task ahead and also the audacity of our ambitious enterprise. After a frenzied photo session we followed the trails left by the Sherpas who had already descended onto the Yankchari glacier where we would establish the advance base camp (ABC). The 200 m descent was not only steep but also the soft snow made our progress rather tiresome and trying. Soon we opted for glissading (sliding over the snow). Save for some ungainly tumbles all of us made it safely to the bottom and stepped on the glacier. A further easy amble of half a kilometre over snow and ice got us to the ABC site and quickly rigging up the Satellite tent, we dumped our loads inside. To the southeast, the huge glistening summit of Chaudhura watched us silently as we made our journey across the glacier. By 2:00 P.M. everyone was back to the BC, much to the delight of the cook, who liked to see us well fed and cared. No sooner had we commenced our lunch, the sky parted and a heavy snow started pouring down. Was it a blessing of the gods or a warning, I couldn’t decide for the moment.

Our first task at ABC was to look for a water source, which we found about 200 metre from the camp after breaking through a six-inch thick layer of ice. The ABC comprised of two extreme high altitude Bibler tents, one 3 men tent, and the Satellite tent for general purpose and kitchen. Immediately beyond ABC the snow slopes went down to a seemingly endless longitudinal crevasse – which we crossed over a narrow snow bridge – and then the slope curved up to the central glacier ridge. The ridge had equally steep slope on the other side riddled with crevasses. At a point we found a connecting ridge joined almost perpendicular to the one on which we walked that led safely to the beginning of the icefall through which we would climb for the southwest face of Sujtilla.

Our load ferry above ABC commenced on a cold and cloudless morning. We carried fairly heavy loads of ration, equipment and tents. The initial height gain was gradual through mixed ground of ice, rocks and transverse crevasses. As we looked back over the Yankchari Dhura ridge, the towering summits of Nanda Kot and Nanda Devi filled up the horizon, standing proud and overwhelming all the numerous peaks that dotted the skyline. The electric blue sky was brilliant and we got some excellent shots of the peaks around. Around 4 hours later we ascended to5300 m, on a tiny flat patch of ice surrounded by huge crevasses and bergschrunds, which would serve as the Camp 1 (C1) for the rest of the climb.

From C1, I studied the face carefully through which we would climb. As I swept the 1 km near-vertical southwest face through the binocular, I realized with some amount of dismay that contrary to my earlier belief and plan, there was not even the tiniest possible ledge or protrusion anywhere to pitch another camp on the entire face, nor even a bivouac. I estimated the gradient to vary from 60 to 80 degree all along with perhaps higher gradients on the final pitch close to the summit. Suffice it to say at this point that my estimate did prove rather accurate in the days to come. The verdict was clear and certain – we had to do the ascent at one go from C1. Not an insurmountable task I admit, but difficult nevertheless with an inexperienced team and certainly riddled with objective hazards as the rock and ice conditions were very rotten. The ice was black and blue and bullet-proof to the end with millions of small rocks embedded that started shooting down like missiles once the sun touched the face and the ice surface started melting. We would have to do most of our climbing in the dark hours.

Sujtilla, besides being a technically difficult mountain, was also very complex with several ridges falling on all the sides, all of which were heavily corniced, broken and rocky. The temperatures were plunging day by day as the winter neared. The night mercury dropped to – 100C with a gentle breeze ruffling our tents mirthfully.

Next morning was gay and sunny as usual. We were now used to the weather pattern and knew that the bright morning was only a prelude to the cloudy and snowbound afternoon as snow would commence to shower around 2:00 P.M., relenting only around dusk. We soon reached C1 and set up our tents. Sujtilla SW face, sparkling like polished glass under the glaring sun, looked bewitchingly captivating and alluring. The complete face was avalanche and stone riddled and through all the maze of ice and rock we managed to trace a possible route all the way up.

Though we left the refuge of our sleeping bags next day at 4:00 A.M. we could only strike out from C1 around 5:45 A.M. due to some last minute hitches in equipment sorting and gear packs. It took us around an hour to climb over the bergschrund. Judging a firm section of ice across the bergschrund as I put my weight on it, I plunged deep into the opening as the ice parted to reveal a dark dungeon below. Momentary lapse of caution could cause grave situations in the mountains and holding my attention firmly fixed on the task ahead I led further. With a large team of climbers, for most of whom this was the first expedition of their lives, I had never doubted that we would adopt the siege style of climbing right from the beginning. Our gear holding had been planned accordingly. The five of us carried static ropes, ice screws, rock pitons, snow bars, ice pegs and friends for the first day’s route opening that should ideally take us five to six hundred meters above from C1. Shortly we laid out the first roll of static rope. The slope was about 60 degrees and apparently safe from rock falls or avalanches. The morning was windy and chilly as an overhead breeze blew down from the summit of Sujtilla. To our west, Nanda Devi and Nanda Kot bathed in an orange glow seemed out of the world. With further height gain, the south ridge of Sujtilla came in profile and it seemed exactly like a knife. Beyond the south ridge, Chaudhura (that has seen only one ascent to date) reared its massive summit dome like a mythological giant. The slope steepened right after the first pitch. Sidestepping the icefall chutes we headed for the rock bands falling down from the south ridge. We planned to reach the bottom of the rock bands and then traverse along the lower edge of the rock bands till they merged with the ice chute. We gained 400 m by 9:00 A.M. and I called off further climb since the sun was well up and rocks had started shooting down the face. Leaving the balance equipment behind we reached back C1 within 40 minutes.

Sharp at 4:30 A.M. next morning we made our way up the trail lit with the headlamps piercing the inky darkness. Jumaring up the ropes we reached the previous day’s high point around 7:00 A.M. The way ahead was very steep and prudently I took a double anchored belay and started further route opening. At this point we were abreast to the upper edge of the first rock band. Deciding to avoid the ice chutes directly upwards, I climbed onto the ice plateau atop the rock band that seemed safer for a zigzag route to climbing further. But the moment I dug in the four points on it, I realized that I was in a really bad spot. The appearance of ice was highly deceptive, as it was only 2 – 3 mm thick; covering a field of loosely stacked flat rock slabs. None of the four points had any purchase and I was simply standing on a gravity-defying slope due to a momentary inertia of the body’s upward attitude. Very soon the attitude would change and I would perhaps take a fall. I shouted a warning to my belay (Tsange), who was hidden beneath a rock overhang, and extracted the right hand ice axe as my first move to descend. In less than a billionth of a second I fell. Instinctively I splayed my feet apart and plunged both the axes into the snow. But I had already exited into the natural fall line of the glistening ice gully of black and bullet-proof ice, and I tumbled headlong. A cascade of rocks followed my hurtling body. My helmet encrusted head banged several times with pounding shocks against rock and ice projection, rattling every neuron within. Initially, when I realized I had finally stopped falling, I opened my eyes and saw only white. Expecting to see blue or sky, I thought that I was actually dead and had reached heaven, where angles played harp amidst the clouds. When my head settled down a bit, I found myself dangling upside down, alive and surprisingly without a broken bone. It took a while to orient my vision and get my bearings straight. While I extracted my limbs from the impossible knots that they had gotten into, I felt shearing pains on my left leg and left shoulder and a benumbed right arm. The goretex shell jacket was in tatters too. I waved at my belay above who peered down with severe anxiety and proceeded to stand upright with some gravity defying gymnastics. I had fallen about 250 feet and as I inched my way up following every instructions in the books, I could see right between my two crampon front points all the way down to the ice plateau bellow, which was about 1600 feet distant.

My story must pause here for today, but for the records, we did climb Sujtilla eventually, through some harrowing days and superlative climbing. We wound up the Base Camp when the weather gods turned ruthless and I realized that the mountain now wished us goodbye and we must not linger there any longer. We gathered everything that could show our presence and headed down towards civilization. Each step took us away from the glaciers and the valleys where I had been on three occasions earlier and in all possibility would not return again. Nearing the Ralam village we came across some of the porters resting beside the trail. I took the last shot of Sujtilla, rearing its needle shaped summit through the clouds, looking so indomitable and supreme against the azure. It showed no signs of intrusion and remained pristine as it had been since time immemorial. I couldn’t take my eyes off from the plume that the wind etched on the blue sky. I gaped at the snow summit dome, so distant and impossibly difficult, and wondered if we were really there, or it had all been a dream. We did not conquer it, but we did conquer our weaknesses and I thanked the mountain once more for being so benevolent and kind to all of us. I took many pictures of the receding mountain and also bid it the last goodbye. Soon the clouds gathered around and with a final wink, the majestic Sujtilla immersed finally amidst the cottony clouds and was lost to sight forever. I don’t know if I will see it ever again, and as we walked away, I felt I was leaving an old and trustworthy friend behind. A friend who had been merciful, hospitable and benign. I turned back one last time and saluted at the place where I guessed Sujtilla would be.