Saturday, June 11, 2011

Life on the Edge – Night without End

As another scoop of powder avalanche fell on top of my chest, compressing the tiny tent roof into my ribs further, I knew it was time again to hop out and shovel away the continuous debris of ice and snow that was falling from the top, burying us slowly but surely within our tent. Anyone who has ever used a Helsport Ringstind Superlight would know that this tent doesn’t come with elbow room. It’s the ultimate all thrills tent without a single frill.

I nudged my partner in the rib, who remained listless as ever, looking in a daze at the roof of the tent. In the ghostly pallor of my headlamp he looks more dead than alive. I wriggle my wrist out of the sleeping bag and immediately recoil at the dense cold that claw at my innards and skin like a starving griffin. My right hipbone is pushing into the tent wall and I know fully well that beyond and right outside the thin tent fabric lies a 3000 ft void that simply drops down into a smooth wall of ice. But for the tent, my right side outer body would now be hanging above the dark vortex of mayhem.

We are perched like a tiny spot on the vast SW face of an unclimbed Himalayan Peak. Our tent is pitched or rather squeezed into a tiny ledge, which we had hacked out earlier from the ice wall, at around 6150 m. We were barely 200 m short of the summit of this fantastic peak that many had attempted before but never reached even as high as we had. I was leading a team of seven crack climbers attempting a fast ascent of the peak in true Alpine style. The climb had been thrilling and challenging so far and exhilarating and we were optimistic of making it to the top. But now, as I pondered what should I be doing next, lashed and hounded by the roaring blizzard outside, I felt as if the summit was too far away and high from where we were.

After two weeks of climbing and severe conditions finally my partner and I managed to reach where we find ourselves on that fateful night. We had struggled earlier to hack out this tiny ledge out of the ice wall since there wasn’t any other place to pitch our tent and we didn’t carry a porta ledge. This seemed to be the only place where we could rest for the night and then dash for the peak the next morning. The day had been cloudy since morning with gentle chilly breeze but didn’t seem alarming in any way. Climbing at this altitude on unknown routes with such technical grade is always insane and anything can go wrong at any moment. These are pre-conditions to the kind of climb I do, so that hadn’t bothered us even a bit. Only a tent as tiny as the stretch of our bodies could fit on the ledge. The Helsport was perfect. In fact we had to keep our knees folded slightly lest our shoes would push the tent fabric. The roof was barely six inches above our chest. The width of the ledge was such that only two of us could lie on our back, tightly squeezed against each other, even then a good portion of the right side of my body (since I chose to lie towards the drop) hung on empty air. The night had descended quick and fast and we had melted some ice and drank a cup of tea each with dry biscuits dipped in the brew. Food was not our priority, neither was any kind of physical comfort or succor. We both prayed for the night to wither quickly for us to begin our climb.

Words meant wasting our breath and energy, so we remained silent; we lay down fully clothed loosening our climbing boots little lest we have frost bite at night. Into the dark night we silently shared and munched through a tiny packet of peanuts. And then all hell broke loose.

The face and the mountain above us exploded as thunder storm and blizzard started with such ferocity that the entire mountain vibrated and shivered. The storm came suddenly without any warning. Avalanches started falling on us. Thankfully we were barely 90 ft below the summit ridge hence none of the avalanches were big but each of them pressed into the side of our tent between the ice wall and our tent wall, pushing us away into the drop. Though we had screwed down our guy ropes, it could break any moment due to the weight and the vibration. Every twenty minute or so I had to get out of the tent and shovel away the heap of ice from the roof and also clear the gap between the mountain face and our tent wall.

The first time I came out of the tent, the fury simply blew me off. But for my safety line clipped to the anchor, I might have been blown away into the storm. Lightning played magical designs all across the sky and the air crackled with static. I felt as if my nose and skin is on fire. Under such conditions one must be careful not to touch any metal as there’s chance of getting electrocuted and we were not only surrounded by metal and climbing hardware but I had metal gear looped all across my body. I dug my crampons deeper into the ice and got on with the job.

My tiny headlamp barely reached few inches beyond my eyes. I couldn’t keep my eyes open as tiny ice shreds would tear at my skin or jab into my eyeballs. I flinched and squinted and with barely open eyes shoveled not only for my life but to generate some sort of warmth. The thunder is deafening and I don’t hear anything from my partner, even if he did say something and I know that if I fall and disappear at this moment, he won’t know.

Out in the open, though facing the fury of nature and battling the elements, I am mildly glad to escape the tiny tent tomb, into which I actually felt as if being buried alive in an Egyptian sarcophagus. I can’t breathe into the blizzard; neither can I stand upright against the onslaught. I am covered from head to toe in a complete white plaster of snow and ice. Every bit of my skin is soaked too into cold as tiny ice particles have penetrated deep inside my clothing. The Goretex jacket and trousers is no match against the ice and snow. I clear the ice as much as I can, shoveling huge scoops of the debris from the tent roof and then throwing it above and over my shoulders into the void that looms right behind my boots. My heels are standing on empty air. I can feel the void pulling me from behind. The blizzard gusts occasionally and I have to balance and see-saw to keep myself on flat ground. I am as powerless as a rag doll. After few more shoves, I get back inside the tent. The moment I open the zip, I hear a flurry of expletives from my companion and along with me enters a sizeable part of the thunder storm into the tent.

Minutes drag like hours and we only feel the roof caving in and the jolt of avalanches that batter us from all around. Breathing is difficult, we can’t remain like this for long, sooner or later our tent would either burst, or we would be pushed off the ledge for good. The night seems endless. We are thankful that we have each other for company at this point of our lives. We both are veterans with decades of climbing and we don’t panic and remain calm accepting whatever the mountain would deal us with. We don’t speak as words are superfluous and what could we be talking about anyway! We both knew our roles. I had to step out to clear the avalanche debris while he had to stay inside to weigh the tent down.

Soon enough I step out again, this time better prepared to face the storm, yet it topples me over and for a brief second I am hanging from my safety clip as I flounder into the lip of the drop. My heart races fast but I don’t panic; I know my clip will hold me. I kick into the ice and get back on the ledge and leaning full into the wind start clearing up the snow. The ground beneath my feet shakes like in earthquake and the mountain seems to be falling apart. When our very foundation is splitting up we stand no chance of survival at all. I look up into the lightening and can’t help wondering in complete awe at this amazing display of nature’s forces. I wonder what the rest of my team; around 1200 m below us were going through. I wondered if we would survive the night. I get down to work and keep clearing the snow that piles up faster than I can work. And soon enough I realize I am fighting a lost battle. I could never outrun or out maneuver this snow. But even then there’s nothing else I can do since I have no other option and at times that indeed is the best option.

The heavy work makes me feel warm from within while I know my partner would be freezing inside. I enter the tent once more, keeping my legs dangling outside since I would have to exit soon. I close the flaps over my legs as tightly as I can and simply collapse inside in exhaustion. My friend remains silent. Our peanut packet is empty and so are our water bottles. We don’t have any space to start fire and neither the energy or inclination. I sit half upright and now the snow starts battering on my helmet through the tent fabric. I wonder how soon the tent fabric would finally burst exposing us completely to the elements. There’s absolutely nothing that either of us can do, except while away the minutes and bear the cold and the pain and the hunger and thirst silently. Mountains teach us patience and perseverance and also foolhardiness. I am never certain what I am at a given time upon a mountain.

The night deepens and so does the thunder and storm and the lightening. They gather force and fury with every passing minute. My ears are ringing and my head is buzzing and my body is full of static. My hair feels on fire and I smell of singeing skin… or that could be my imagination. Lightning strikes the ridge right above us and a huge ice block breaks off and hurtles barely few meters away from us. Our tent shakes and shivers in the aftermath as the ice block roars away like a jet plane. We are so tired and frozen in our mind that neither of us react. The darkness is our veil and it’s a comfort that we don’t see the bedlam raging all around us. Soon enough it is time for me to emerge again. I grip my knees and struggle to get out. My toes are totally frozen and my shoes weigh like lead with all the snow and ice fixed to them. I kick them on the ice to dislodge the extra weight. I can’t see my ice axe as everything that we had left outside is somewhere deep inside the piling snow.

I pick up the shovel and start clearing the roof and sides of the tent. The fiberglass shovel feels heavy as my shoulders are numb and so are my arms and face. At a point my hood slips a bit and immediately a torrent of ice lash on my face, cutting my skin like shrapnel. Few minutes of digging and shoveling and I am ready to collapse. The night went on endless.

In the morning, with the new dawn, the sky cleared up a bit and we crawled out to find ourselves in dire straits. Our tiny ledge had been completely deluded by the snow avalanches and it was now merged into the ice wall. It was a miracle that we hadn’t gone over the edge. I look down into the void from where swirls of fog and mist rise up like fumes from hell. The sky is still dark with clouds and we are not out of danger. We break the tent, make tea and gulp few biscuits. After an hour when I lead up towards the top of the ridge, I felt like wading through waist deep surf of the oceans. One step up and I would slide down few and then collapse gasping for breath. After several more attempts we finally give up and abseil down to the lower camp.

Few days of rest later we climb up to the ledge and then onwards towards the summit. The summit was not meant to be. Barely 70 m vertically down and around 300 m horizontally away, tip-toeing on a knife-edge ridge, I finally called off the attempt as it was getting far too dangerous. The success of the summit could not be justified or evened out by the risk we were taking and the possibility of an impending fatality kept on growing. On a mountain I am mostly a fool, but a cautious fool, and on that day I let my caution rule the hour. We came down triumphant and not in defeat.

The mountain, as always, is the ultimate victor. We humans can at the best pantomime the victor. No matter where we reach, even on the summit, we are never stronger than the mountain and neither have we achieved any sort of conquest. We have only reached the end of a climb, from wherever we decide to descend and to me that point is always my summit.


  1. Hey Sat, Awesome post as always, ending with your usual dose of philosophy. Brought back memories of our Eiger, I was so wasted while you pulled on and on... when can we climb again? Mail me sometime Ok, I am still in Croatia. Love you... xoxo

  2. WOW, S this sure is something.. god it makes me feel totally wasted sitting in an air conditioned office all day :-) makes me shiver too just thinking how you ever did all this and still doing it. love you.

  3. Wonderful post, thanks for sharing!

  4. The Helsport is an option that’s new to us and worthy of mention – and not just because of the cool Norse mythological reference.