Tuesday, June 30, 2009

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.


  1. Awesome, Satya. Thanks for sharing.

  2. You not only have the gift of adventure, you also have the gift of words. A truly remarkable combination.


  3. You also have a gift of attracting danger! LOL... interesting post!

  4. Am glad Sujtalla put humpty dumpty together again. LOL