This is not a tale of courage, or intrepidity. This is a story about a promise made by a fool, influenced by foolish chemicals rushing through his non-existent brain; a promise he fulfilled and in the process almost did not make it back to the one he had made the promise; much to the predicament of the latter. But overall it’s a story of how minds react and body overreacts at high altitudes where air is thin and summits even thinner. Enjoy this harebrained tale of a foolhardy cavalier, who has since then learnt his lessons; or has he!
It has often happened in my life that when I disappear for long extreme adventures, I had an amorous interest; but not after I return. The person either presuming that I wasn’t going to return, would herself disappear or would opt for someone else more earth and civilization bound. This has been and is an oft repeated reality of my life – no complaints though. The fault, if any, lay clearly on my court since I simply refused to promise that I would return; it wasn’t for me to make that promise since it was out of my powers to keep me alive in the days to come and I never make a promise that I can’t fulfill. But for once a particular woman with beautiful eyes and an enchanting trill to her laughter got a promise out of me just before I left for the mountains.
For the sake of this post, I would call this particular woman A. To keep her anonymous in other senses I wouldn’t mention the year as well, neither the name of the peak on which this little episode was enacted. Such details are not essential to the moral of the story.
When A came to bid me goodbye the evening before I left for the Himalaya, she handed me over a thin gold chain that she always wore around her neck. I had never seen her parting it off from her person. She takes it off and puts it in my hand and says, ‘Satya, I want you to promise me that you would bury this chain at the highest point on the mountain.’ Perhaps the moment was delicate, perhaps there were tears brimming in her eyes, or perhaps my mind wanted to believe that such promises can be made, even when you can’t predict the future. I promise that I will. We embrace and we part.
It was a long and arduous expedition, we were making first ascent of a peak that had been rarely seen before. It was massive, grand and the ice pyramid we were upon defined everything that I hold dear in my life. Despite all the severities of weather, perils of ice, cold and rock falls, clubbed with near vertical pitches of extreme nature, I finally find myself along with my companion on the summit ridge of the peak that till then had no name.
As I top the face, which had kept me and my team busy and sweating over the last ten days, I realize that the true summit could well be out of our reach. I also realize that over the last forty days I haven’t forgotten the promise made to A and neither have I lost the chain she had given me. The chain lies snuggly inside the breast pocket of my climbing jacket, urging me perhaps that I had promises to keep. Only two of us of the first summit team, my companion and I have managed to reach the summit ridge and a knife-edge ridge lay before us like a shark’s fin. It’s not really long, perhaps few hundred meters till it rises to its crest, which is more like gossamer of an icy wave, as if carved and sculpted by some truant waft of Himalayan breeze. It defies belief that this crest or summit hadn’t yet crashed due to gravity or hadn’t been blown away by the wind. The summit ridge is corniced on the other side and I have to lean out really well, held by a rope around my waist by my companion, to see the sheer ice wall zooming down to the glacier below like void into nothingness. The empty air howls up at me and I shiver in my duvet.
Vertically, we are less than ten meters below the summit crest-which is actually a huge cornice-while horizontally we are around 250 meters away. Technically if the actual summit is not a part of the summit rock feature (like it is right now) and it is objectively too hazardous to step on it (like it is right now) then any point reached within 10 meters vertical separation from it is considered a summit and one need not approach this summit feature any closer than 50 meters horizontally to claim the ascent. In other words, we have absolutely no need to climb any higher, though we must close the gap to the summit crest by about another 200 meters.
I take the lead and we walk on the ridge, keeping our two foot steadily on either side of it. Thankfully the day is sunny and the cross wind is moderate enough for us to stay upright. The sheer drop on either side of me keeps me on my guard, as there’s little room for any mistake. The rope between us stays taught and I walk with my sight fixed on the summit crest at the distance, which is gradually reducing as we approach on a literal tip-toe.
Mostly on such climbs and at such places, even if there is more than one person, words are superfluous and each prefers to submerge in his own world of thoughts and dreams. I always think of my next horizon, where would I see my next sun set and rise, and if I would see the next one at all. I think of the promises I never made but should have, I think of the paths that could have been my way but never would and I think of all the lives I could have lived but I didn’t. And I am always happy. After all, living each moment as my last, I normally am doing what I exactly wish to do, so I have every reason to be happy and content with life, wherever I may be.
Gradually the ridge keeps getting thinner and narrower as we walk on lose piles of snow and spindrift frozen in the morning chill. We literally walk on extremely thin ice. My companion urges me to stop and turn back; I too echo his thoughts. Our estimated horizontal distance from the summit crest is no more than 20 meters and we definitely have the summit in the bag (if such a thing can ever be done) and there’s absolutely no reason to go any further. We both are tired and famished and tethering at the brink of physical collapse.
I stop, digging my crampons and ice axes deep into the ice and allow my companion to catch up with me. I look back at the corniced ridge behind him and catch my breath at the vast chasm we have to walk back through. It’s dangerous enough to walk once on thin and broken ice, but to repeat the feat is almost suicidal, though we have no other option. As it is the stakes are extremely high stacked against us. I feel the chain with my gloved fingers and wonder. My partner sits next to me and looks around at the amazing world we are encompassed within. This is his first big summit and he is euphoric, but not enough to want to go any longer. He hadn’t made any promises, he longs for home and his family. I long for nothing but can’t let go off my promise. I am still not on the highest point on the mountain.
I show him the chain, tell him of my promise and he knows what I want to do. He says I am mad, I smile, he says I had lost it, and I agree, he says no ways, I say just one more time hold my life in your hand; if I fall you are free to cut the rope and descend. He prepares a snow bollard and digs into the ice. I shake his hand and stand up. A promise made out of free will must be fulfilled, or one should fall in the attempt.
As my distance from the belay open up I feel like a trapeze artist, swinging free thousands of meters above ground with no safety net below. The cornice is so pronounced now that I might as well be walking on thin air. I can go down to more solid ground on the face but that will take me away from the summit crest and my objective. I stick to the knife edge cornice ridge and with every step kick the snow hard before I rest my weight. Unbeknownst I am sweating profusely with the effort, a tight knot coiled like an anaconda about to spring lies at the bottom of my stomach. If I am still breathing I do not do so consciously. My entire world is focused on my next step. I clutch the chain in my hand and reach out at the wave that forms where the summit is buried somewhere deep down. If I extend my ice axe standing on my toes I can nearly reach the top of the wave, but I wish to climb it, stand there and then bury the chain. I plunge my ice axes and they hold long enough for me to pull myself up. My crampons find purchase and I scramble the last few feet to the top and then I am standing at the highest point on the mountain.
I let out a long breathe of relief. But before I can take the next breath, the ground beneath my feet collapse and I hurtle out into empty space like a skydiver without the benefit of a parachute. And as I fall, I wonder if I would uproot my belay or break the rope, and how far would I fall before I crashed and smashed into smithereens and should I scream or just go silently from this world.
While tons of ice breaks beneath and above me, huge ice blocks hitting my body mercilessly, I watch in slow motion both my ice axes tearing away from my hands and hurtling and disappearing into the void that would be my world soon. Death is my constant companion and I live in her shadow so she is an ally but what horrifies me instead is the gold chain that follows the ice axes, shining and shimmering in the forenoon sun, now out of my reach forever. Though I console my mind; I did fulfill my promise, it did reach the highest point on the mountain, even though it stayed there for less than a minute.
The jolt around my waist that brings me to an undignified halt nearly breaks my spine. I can literally hear the rope fibers willing to part and release the weight. I am dangling like a free pendulum nearly 6000 ft from nearest ground and I am smiling into the radiating sun; would I, could I once again shake hands with eternity and return to tell the tale.
Like I said at the beginning this is not a tale of courage or intrepidity so I must not divulge any more of this story but go back to the one in which a promise had been made and had been fulfilled as well.
When I return and tell A that I had left the chain where she wanted though it isn’t there any more, she gives me a queer look, which doesn’t make her look very happy. I am surprised, since I am elated, while she didn’t appear to be so. I am happy as well to see that she was still there. But to conclude this story I must confide that soon thereafter A left my world for another which she hoped would be better than mine.
I hope it was and still is.