Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Prelude to Madness


They (I would really like to know who this ‘they’ are!) say, there’s method in madness while I say there can never be a method without madness, at least not the kind of methods I follow or apply. I am shortly heading for another madcap enterprise of mine that is not my creation or concoction. Since the chances of getting back from it is remote and slim (just like my physical entity) I thought a prelude is in the order if not the conclusion; which may or may not be in the offing in the days to come. So here goes.

I am headed for Afghanistan in less than two weeks, which, if I do manage to cross the obscure borders and enter, and get the entry stamped on my passport, would perhaps become the 137th or 138th country of my nomadic life. This does make me happy on one hand and also excited on the other. Excitement and thriving on the edge is my way of life, I know of none other even then this very exciting and decidedly dangerous expedition is not my doing; not entirely in a manner of speaking. And this expedition marks several ‘firsts’ in my life as well – now that’s a tall claim indeed.


Learnt from reliable sources this Afghan expedition was conceived (in a vague manner perhaps) during the latter half of the previous year by my friend Pat from New Zealand, who is arguably one of the finest alpinists in the world today. One day I learned of this enterprise where Pat was going to attempt an obscure mountain in an obscure part of our world, a part where I have always wanted to go, with her sister as a two-woman team. Out of pure jest I asked Pat if I could come along, hoping that she would decline, since to agree to climb with Pat one had to be at a standard that most cannot achieve or conceive.

Pat returned forthwith consenting to have me in the team under the following conditions: -

I will do all the cooking, cleaning, washing
I will haggle with and handle the unruly Afghan porters
I will volunteer to be kidnapped in case Taliban’s attacked
I will be the security guard for the ladies
I will learn Afghani lingo to save on an interpreter
I will do everything possible to take care of the women

I, promptly agreed, though I should have noticed that there wasn’t any word about my abilities as a climber. But then such silly simple things don’t and shouldn’t matter between buddies. I was happy on two counts: chance to go to Afghanistan without much hassle (for Pat was doing all the mind and brain breaking planning and negotiations with the Afghan people, which itself can be killing) and that I was the only male member of a all woman team (a first for me) and to that some of you might even say, ‘lucky you.’

And from that day on, when my proposal was accepted and we agreed to form a trio, things just turned from stupendous to phantasmagorical with such rapidity and alacrity that my slow and often absent-brain just couldn’t cope up. My mail inbox filled up with things I had never heard of or even imagined would have to hear one day. And then a nice and big spanner was thrown into our well-laid plan by none other than Mr Barak Obama, Osama Bin Laden and whoever controls Taliban in Afghanistan. Mr Obama tasked CIA to annihilate Osama, which they finally did (completely erasing my chances of catching Osama and winning the 50 million US $ prize tag), annoying and pissing me off completely, not that I had any love lost for CIA to begin with. And with that all hell broke loose in exactly the place we intended to travel. Our contact in Afghan disappeared, replaced by someone else, who only piped up to tell us what all was impossible and that included almost everything. Pat fumed, her sister fretted and I smiled like Buddha, since he says when one can do nothing then one shouldn’t do anything – a dictum I follow all my life.

Now a brief brief about what we are trying to do (other than being killed or abducted or blown up by landmines of course). The plan is for all three of us to travel to Tajikistan – hang on, let me explain, I know what you guys are thinking; where did Tajikistan come from!

We intend to attempt a new route on a peak called Koh-e-Baba Tangi that is located deep within the Wakhan Corridor of Afghanistan. Wakhan Corridor is a spoon handle shaped narrow corridor bordered by Tajikistan (Pamirs) to the North, China (KunLun Mountains) to the East and Pakistan (West Karakoram Mountains) to the south. It is the heart of the Hindu Kush Mountains that used to get many climbers in the early 70’s before severe unrest and turmoil, fights, Soviet invasion etc made this area totally hostile and out of bounds for outsiders. There are sky kissing peaks, mostly unclimbed or uncharted in this area and it is a climber’s delight. The ideal way would have been to fly into Kabul and then travel to Faizabad, which is the HQ of Wakhan Area. But Afghan presently has no internal flights and the roads out of Kabul are completely taken over by the Taliban. So the only recourse we had was to enter via Tajikistan.

Now for the plan. We would assemble at Dushanbe, do our local food and grocery shopping and then travel to Khorog (in the Pamirs) in a 4X4 vehicle. Cross border at Ishkashim where we would join a representative from Wakhan tourism. After gathering our porters, guide, and vehicles (if there are roads left) we would travel to Kezget (a remote village in the valley) and from there onwards to the Base Camp. Our porters and guide would leave us here to our own destiny. From BC above we would be completely on our own, self-supported in terms of everything. No outside help or communication would be possible thereafter. It would be a pure alpine style attempt of a big mountain. We would again return via the same route. This all looks devastatingly simple and puerile.

I soon discovered that there was only one weekly flight (Tuesday) from Delhi to Dushanbe operated by East Air. So I had to book myself a ticket for 12th July and would be there for few days on my own before Pat and her sister arrived. Next I had to look for someone in Dushanbe where I could park myself for free during the waiting period. The cheapest hotel there would cost me 50 $ per night. I located a friend who kindly agreed to host me.

Then I visited Tajik Embassy in Delhi and befriended the all-purpose officer. Who took three weeks of smiling before issuing me with the visa right in front of my eyes. I couldn’t figure why he had to wait for three weeks, whereas he could have issued it to me on the very first day! It was simplicity itself. Both the days that I went to the embassy, it was absolutely devoid of any human or action, save the all-purpose officer and the Indian receptionist and the tobacco chewing gateman. I filled up the form, attached photocopies of my passport first and end pages along with one picture and a self declared letter as to my intent of going to Tajikistan. Visa fee is 1750.00 for 45 days and I paid additional 500.00 for obtaining double entry. This I paid in their RBS bank branch. Once I handed over the payment receipt to the smiling officer, he took out the visa stamp and stamped my passport right in front of me.

Next I headed for Afghan Embassy, where again there was no one on that day. But soon few people trickled in, all from security agencies who would be joining UN peace keeping forces there or those traveling for work. Again very simple process, though my heart was thumping at the prospect of getting an Afghan visa on my passport. Just fill up form, paste one photo, photocopies of my passport, a self declaration letter and no visa fee for Indians. Within fifteen minutes of handing over my form, I was called in for an interview. The visa officer was hospitality itself and he was shocked when I told him my purpose of visit. He smiled broadly and shook my hand profusely and wished me luck. He claimed this was the first time he was processing Afghan visa for someone who was going there to climb and enjoy the beautiful landscape. He told me that I should publicize my trip as much as I can and tell the world that Afghanistan is not about war or Taliban or poverty or danger. I got the visa in a jiffy.

Now I am assembling and putting together all the stuff, equipment, gear, food, etc that I need to carry with me for the climb. These last few days are always hectic. In between I also went up for a short ten day long intense climb and hike trip just to train myself and get my fitness back (I would write about it in the next post). I now have less than a fortnight to go and so much to do. Meanwhile Pat and her sister are finding it hard to get the Afghan Visa for reasons that are beyond logical comprehension.

As I always say, the toughest part of the expedition is always the one before you reach the Base Camp; thereafter everything is simple and natural and are very much welcome. The climb itself is never complicated though mostly dangerous and exciting. Our Afghan expedition is proving me right on every count.

We still don’t know if we would be able to make it, or if we do, when we would be able to make it. Our visas could run out or our flights could all get jumbled up, canceled or mislaid. There’s a good chance of you all seeing me on CNN or BBC as a Taliban hostage trying to convince them that I am an out and out penniless pauper. We have no idea if the roads ahead of Ishakashim still exist or have been washed away by recent rains, earthquakes or floods. We have no idea who our guide would be, and as Pat says, in all possibility it would be the first guiding job for the guide (whoever it might be), so he would be as lost as us.

We have no idea how many porters would we be able to gather, or how much load would they carry, if there would be a vehicle or if we would get a cooking tent or kitchen items at all from our support agency. We have no idea if we would be able to buy the food we intend to buy at the places we intend to buy from. And we have no idea as to the kind of weather that would accompany us during the expedition. There’s much that we don’t know, yet, in true climber’s spirit, all three of us are gung-ho about the trip with as much joy and happiness we can ever muster.

For us what matters is our intent and our attempt in realizing our intent to make it a reality in whatever manner possible. So Pat is fuming, her sister is fretting and I, characteristically, am doing absolutely nothing.

So that’s my prelude to madness and if we return I would let you all into the conclusion. Till then, as they (again that ‘they’) say, ‘when a great man sees empty space he sees infinite designs; when an ordinary man sees empty space, he sees nothing’. I am not sure what I am seeing right now and since this applies only to men; I am not sure what Pat and her sister are seeing as well.

We climbers are certainly among the maddest of people on this planet and we laugh at our own madness and make fun of ourselves above all, only by doing so can we retain our sanity and purpose in life; only that makes us ‘conquistadors of the useless.’ Else imagine, whether we step on a virgin piece of ice on top of some godforsaken mountain summit or not, what difference would that ever make to us or to you or to humanity at large. Yet you are reading this piece; now if not for some humor, then for what! And with that I will take leave for now, since I got to take out my sleeping bag from its hibernation and give it a good dusting and sunbathing before it goes where very few have ever gone before.

Note: All of what is mentioned in this post is true though certain things have been exaggerated and I hope you will read it with the intended humor rather than in the literal sense. Picture courtsey Pat

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.