DIFF : 2nd – 6th Nov 2017

The flight touched down at Guggal (what a name!) and I stepped out with some trepidation. All around was a smokey haze. Previously I was in Dharamshala in 1992. The memory that had stayed with me was the majesty of the Dhauladhars hanging low over Dharamshala and McLeodganj. I had never before or since seen a Himalayan range so close at hand.

IMG_20171105_173051(Somewhere in the background are the Dhauladhars which were earlier always so “present”……)

I had sent many visitors to Dharamshala and always described the Dhauladhars to them…..and yet now 25 years later I couldn’t see them! I panicked! Though I remained seemingly calm and nonchalant for the sake of my fellow Gadabouters. I tried to find within me the wise traveller that I claim to be! Stay in the moment….. Don’t hang on to memories…… Experience the here and now…… etc etc…..

We found our Innova and driver with ease and headed off from Guggal weaving our way through the concrete jungle along the metalled road from Dharamshala to Mcleodganj.

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Glenmoor still seems to be the oasis that I had remembered from all those years ago. Set deep in a deodar forest. Its owners have left the forest on their estate well nigh alone and not been hit by the construction mania that the rest of Mcleodganj seems to have succumbed to.

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(Glenmoor……..)

We were here to attend the Dharamshala International Film Festival DIFF. As the days went by, DIFF seemed to be one of a few good reasons to visit Dharamshala. My nostalgia for my own “film days” came flooding back as we went from one viewing to the next and the next and the next. We watched at least 3 films a day and sometimes four. It was a complete immersion. It was a never ending feast of mostly very good films. DIFF is now into its 6th year since its inception and is well established. The venue for the festival was the Tibetan Children’s Village, TCV, which could be approached through a lovely forest walk from Glenmoor. We could not have chosen our lodgings better.

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(Rubina and Banda Man Singh vending their way through the Deodar Forest for the Film Festival opening night)

We slipped into an easy routine over the next three days. I discovered that another good reason to visit Dharamshala, apart from the Film Festival was the numerous bakeries and cafes with evocative names such as : Illiterati, Nick’s Place, Morgan’s Café, Snow Lion, Moonpeak, Lhamo’s Croissant and many others. Between films, we would head off to a different café each time to sample the varied (and often very similar!) menus.

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(One of the colourful cafes……)

On two of the four evenings we had dinner with the Film Fest frat and that was enjoyable too. We met up with some actors and directors and an eclectic assortment of residents of Dharamshala.

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(The Norbulingka Institute in Dharamshala that promotes Tibetan culture, arts and crafts)

Once I left myself open to experiences, I met some fabulous people. On one of the days I had DD Contractor sitting next to me during a film. Introductions had been made already and common friends spoken about. Just before the lights were dimmed in the auditorium, DD turned around and showed me the time on her mobile phone. It was 10:01. She said she loved symmetry! She was thrilled to see that number on her mobile at that very moment! And I was just as thrilled that she shared it with me. On another evening while walking between one auditorium and the other in the TCV, we were beckoned by a teacher to follow him through a short cut. We got talking with Gyalpo and he told us that he had fled Tibet 30 years ago and had not seen his parents since. He was teaching Science and Math to the primary school children at the TCV and just like him there were children there who had not met their parents since leaving Tibet. The school has resident students from all over the Himalayan belt and most of the 1000 residing there have a connection with Tibet.

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(Rubina in conversation with a Tankha Artist at the Norbulingka)

On another day while lounging at a cafe between films, the owner came across to tell us that the Dalai Lama would be passing by the café soon, incase we wanted to see him. Of course we did! We rushed outside to stand at the side of the road and soon enough we heard the siren of the Dalai’s pilot jeep followed by his SUV with him sitting in the front next to the driver. He raised his hands in blessing as he drove passed. And it seemed like he might have seen us and actually blessed us all individually. On another day while waiting between films I met Nyima, a reformed addict of substance abuse who now spends his time counselling substance abusers and is in the throes of setting up the first de addiction centre in Dharamshala. Another special and memorable meeting was with the tall and ethereal Mariko and I hope that she will get in touch in Delhi in between all her globetrotting and transgender activism.

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(One evening, memorable chanting by three Buddhist monks, collecting alms outside a temple in McLeodganj…..)

And during the 4 days of watching films and sampling food and having chance encounters with fellow travellers, I also went on a few desperate walks trying to discover bits of McLeodganj and Dharamshala that I had found so special 25 years ago. I walked up to Dharamkot one day and also paid a fleeting visit to the Dalai Lama’s settlement.

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(The road to Dharamkot)

I desperately looked all around for the Dhauladhars that seemed like a figment of my imagination. Thankfully I discovered fragments of the images that had stayed with me from all those years ago. I was relieved to know that my experiences and images were not only the result of an overactive imagination. That indeed the images were present only living cheek by jowl with other realities that had been created by the ever increasing population.

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(Its there! The Dhauladhars)

The mountains and the forests were there. Only less obviously so amidst the concrete jungle of myriad shops all selling the same Tibetan jewellery and the same funky clothes.

(Everyone lives the Buddhist philosophy in Dharamshala. Even the shop signages are a constant reminder!)

I will come back to DIFF next year in the first week of November 2018. I think that what Ritu Sarin and Tensing, The Directors of DIFF, have achieved is something phenomenal. And while I believe the growth has been organic (as it should be with everything!) DIFF has become something special. And if one has the ability to “slow down” and let oneself be steeped in the Himalayan culture then DIFF and Dharamshala together is definitely an experience to savour.

 

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(A question I ask myself every day!…….Alice In Wonderland. These were signages in the forest leading to a cafe)

Pachmarhi on the Wild Side

I did this Gadabout a few years ago. It was a short one of about 5 days, designed and directed by Pradip. I had two other travellers with me. Pradip had invited us to stay at his home in Pachmarhi. He had worked out a packed itinerary and it took into account his naturalist’s passion. It included full day excursions to different parts on the Central Indian plateau that were his absolute favourite spots . They were little gems tucked deep in the jungles and most of them were accessible only on foot.

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The three beautiful days in the jungle all involved water and swimming. In fact, on one of the days there was no way of reaching the destination from Point A to Point B, without swimming through a steep bottomless canyon. I had a very real problem with this. I don’t mind getting wet in waist high water and paddling through a shallow pond if I have to but actually flapping my legs and arms in a synchronised way is beyond me. To learn swimming has stayed on my List of Resolutions for a very long time. That box never gets ticked. And not for lack of trying. I promise myself every New Year that this will be the year when I become water borne. I started swimming lessons with ‘Mah Boyz” when they were 7 and 9 years old. That was 10 years ago.

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So when Pradip proposed that all his favourite spots required swimming, I thought of abandoning “Pachmarhi on the Wildside”. I could bring along a buoyancy aid from our very own Himalayan River Runners. But wearing a life jacket still means I have to propel myself! And I am not capable of that. Finally we settled on a tyre tube from a truck that I could wear around my waist as a floatation device. Elegant! But first it had to be lugged kilometres down into every gorge and then back up again, and even though it was light, it was cumbersome and unwieldy. I was embarrassed to let Pradip carry it, but the tube was bigger than me. Needless to say I haven’t been invited back for a Gadabout in Pachmarhi ever since.

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We awoke daily at the crack of dawn and would stay out all day, either walking, swimming or driving through the Pachmarhi wilderness.

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Complete novices observing everything through Pradip’s eyes. A blade of grass, the varied shades of green of the leaves, the shapes of different trees, the texture of the bark on the trunks and it seemed everything had a story to tell. And Pradip had many more. We became fairly good at his “Tree spotting” quizzes.

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Towards the end of those 5 days I could appreciate the sculpture like beauty of a Kulu, or the flowering profusion of a Kardhai, even the smelly mahua. I began making notes for our own indigenous garden at the Himalayan Hideaway which grows only native species of plants and trees, that Pradip had helped us start many years ago. Oples Menis, Haldu, Mahul vines, different grasses….. I made a note of growing them all at our Lodge as the Pachmarhi plateau and the Shivaliks share a similar eco system and they have many trees in common. In fact Pradip’s “Jungle Trees of Central India” has become a Bible!

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Most nights, one other travelling companion and I slept on the upstairs verandah of the house under a mosquito net. Fire flies, bats, geckos and crickets. What an orchestra. I slept like a baby! One night though we all slept under the stars on the banks of the Denwa. This was a new experience for me. Camping in a tent in the Himalaya is very different from being totally exposed with no canvas for cover. It was a surreal night with a full moon reflected in the river and the canyon walls rising steeply around us.

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I manage to achieve a semblance of equanimity the moment I find myself in the outdoors and I try and do this as often as I possibly can. The outdoors gives me a perspective like no cityscape can! It’s when the layers start peeling away. Its when  understanding dawns that Laws of Nature are far superior. When a human’s life span seems like such an inconsequential blip in the Grand Design of the Universe. Pachmarhi felt like that for me even more so than a trek in the Himalaya or trans Himalaya. In Pachmarhi there was less physical effort involved. The environment was gentler. It left me with more time to ponder.

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Perhaps I’ll plan another Gadabout to the table land armed with Pranay Lal’s “Indica”, Peter Wohlleben’s “Hidden Life of Trees” and Pradip’s “Jungle Trees…… and maybe if I can swim by then, Pradip won’t mind coming along.

 

 

 

 

Leh

I first visited Leh in the 1980s. For me, it was love at first sight with the charming, quaint and friendly village that Leh was in the 80s. Barely three streets in total and a handful of shops and cafes. I have the good fortune and privilege of counting many Ladakhis as my friends.

In those earlier visits as I learned more about Ladakh and read about its culture and history, I found many families with inter-marriages between Buddhists and Muslims, the two predominant religions of Ladakh at the time. It seemed that they were intensely proud of their Ladakhi culture and religion was not given the same over riding importance. Over the years, as tourism increased, and with “outside” influences, tensions between the communities grew. The socio-cultural fabric started fraying.

Leh slowly transformed from a small village, to a town, to a city. The same streets these days witness daily traffic jams of fuel belching vehicles and impatient noisy drivers.

In all these years I have always stayed at the Hotel Lha Rimo. It is one of the first few hotels in Leh. In my opinion, the family that owns Lha Rimo remains quite unintentionally, head and shoulders above the rest of their compatriots in the tourism game. Apart from the Lha Rimo hotel the family own a farm in the charming village of Gyamsa, 8 kms outside Leh. The ambience and setting of Gyamsa lends itself to Yoga and meditation retreats and I am planning one for August 2018. They have another hotel in the Nubra valley called Lha Rimo North.  I have known the family from my very first visit to Leh. Their authenticity, honesty and ingenuity reflects in their work. There is no artifice in them as human beings and there is none in their product. The interiors of all their hotels are clean, simple, authentic and aesthetic. The food is hygienic, wholesome and delicious. The Lha Rimo hotel is not trying to be a bad or even a good copy of any other hotel. Neither are they trying to cater to the whims and fancies of travellers who might come with expectations and preconceived notions of what they would like in a standard hotel.

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(The Lha Rimo, Leh)

In fact as travellers we often forget to accept and experience what we are given in the environment that we find ourselves in. We sometimes travel with so many expectations of what we are used to seeing in “other places” that we are more comfortable and secure when we find “the sameness” every where rather than the novelty of the different.

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(A corner of Lha Rimo Retreat, Gyamsa and the willow trees surrounding it)

Unfortunately, though arguably, the corporate team building and off sites culture has ruined the market for the leisure traveler and adventurer. The hotels and service providers have found safety in presenting standardized sameness and bad copies of some dumbed down version of what a corporate traveller expects in hotels and tourism related services.

While in Leh, I always try out a few new restaurants and do a quick check of the older ones. Tibet Kitchen continues to serve good food. Bon Apetit and La Piaziatta are two new “happening” places in Leh. We had good meals at both places. “Mah Boyz” enjoyed a surprisingly authentic “real hot chocolate” at one of the cafes in the corner located on top of the main water channel that intersects the main street. We have all forgotten the name of the cafe.

Ladakh has never failed me in all these years and I always manage to find my comfort zone. I can only explain it as a spiritual connect to this trans-Himalayan landscape and the feeling of “coming home” that envelops me, every time I visit it. I will not go into rebirth and previous lifetime experiences……!

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(Different aspects of Ladakh)

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Kongmaru La – the penultimate!

6th & 7th July : From our camp at Nimaling we could clearly see the 17,000ft Kongmaru La (Pass) ahead of us. It seemed a rather long pass which ascended in parts both gradually and steeply.

 

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(Atop the Kongmaru La)

By now the trail was crowded with other trekkers of the Markha Valley and local villagers. It was fabulous to see how strong our own walking pace had become as we continued to over take and pass other trekkers along the way. There was a batch of boisterous trekkers who were listening to a “boom box” while walking! The music was grand and orchestral and I too might have enjoyed the same music walking in those vistas provided it was plugged into my ears! I couldn’t quite believe their disrespect for the environment, the locals and other trekkers. I had only a moment’s indecision whether I should intervene or let this impoliteness pass. I couldn’t resist. I stopped the trekkers and quite breathless as we all were with our trudge, I gestured that the gentleman should plug the music into his ears or switch off the boom box. I think he was quite taken aback. He looked at me a little incredulously, but perhaps grey hair helps! He didn’t argue and quietly switched off the music. I thanked him and moved on. When I reached the top of the pass the same group was there, sunning themselves feeling heroic and the same victorious orchestral military music was playing again. Not loud enough to start avalanches but disturbing all the same. However as soon as they saw this grey haired woman, they switched it off. I think sometimes we let people get away with small misdemeanours and we should not. Small misdemeanours embolden such people to greater anti-social behaviour and leads to greater social problems. Keeping  peace and harmony in the environment and our own social networks is our collective responsibility. I walked away from them, positively sensing a halo around my own head……..

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(Along the trail)

The walk down Kongmaru is steep and I was thankful that we were not walking up that way! The next four hours were spent negotiating a narrow and steep canyon from the base of Kongmaru La to our final campsite at Shamsumdo. The canyon had a rocky stream running through it, which in parts became a raging river and in the steeper bits became a waterfall. This water body had to be crossed multiple times during the walk. Fifteen times according to Takpa and he was not exaggerating. Although an uphill walk at altitude can make your lungs scream and gasp for air, a steep downhill, through a rocky action packed river can make your knees turn to jelly and absolutely “give up” and cry “no more”! Takpa stayed by my side, as I have a penchant for falling into the smallest puddles! Though this time around I negotiated the waters, all 15 times, scarcely getting my boots wet. My walking sticks helped. I would recommend walking sticks to anyone who wants to walk in the mountains until a ripe old age. They definitely take a lot of weight off the knees and exercise the arms too in the bargain. Even “Mah Boys” realised the value of walking sticks as they had read some of the younger mountaineers these days start using walking sticks at barely 30 years.

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(In the gorge…sets of McKenna’s Gold)

The canyon is part of the Hemis National Park. All through the trek we had seen many different types of birds including golden eagles with their massive wing spans flying low overhead looking for marmots, a variety of finches, Tibetan snow cocks in plenty, snow pigeons, field mice. And then we had an incredible sighting of a herd of mountain goat coming down to drink water from the stream.

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(Mountain goat)

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(Marmots)

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(Tibetan snow cock)

The campsite at  Shamsumdo, was hot and dusty and most unattractive. Not far from us across the river was a spring with carbonated water. There was a queue of trekkers lined up for a bath. We didn’t bother with any of that. We were all waiting to reach Leh the next day for tending to our toilette.

We busied ourselves with our last game of Cambio on the trek and catching up with our reading. We all had books of our choice on the trek except for Iqbal who was catching up with Freakonomics which was one of three prescribed books for reading from school! And with a 6 weeks summer break which included these 2 weeks on expedition there was no choice but for him to carry the book along and read and make notes along the way.

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7th July : We were clearly at the end of our adventure now and it was a short two hours walk to the road head where a car had come from Leh to fetch us. The road is slowly inching its way closer into the Markha Valley from both ends. This landscape which is so rich in geology is experiencing massive road works operations with drilling, dynamiting and chipping away at mineral rich rocks. Takpa pointed out many different and interesting stones through out the trek. Garnets, crystals and different types of quartz.

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(Climbers, miners, panners……)

On reaching Leh we were to happy to arrive in the sanctuary of the beautiful Lha Rimo hotel. Relieved too to scrub away the sweat, dust and grime of the previous nine days. The sun tan and peeling noses would stay with us for a few days longer and we would proudly wear these as our badges of honour.

For now we would spend the rest of the day meeting my Ladakhi friends and eating at a couple of places that we had planned on before leaving for the expedition.

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(Mah Boyz and Takpa Le)

(A little note on Leh, will be my last one in this Kang Yatze Gadabout. I hope you’re still travelling with me!).

Back to Base and onwards to Nimaling

4th & 5th July : We received a hero’s welcome back at Base. Dawa had baked many cakes and pizzas and other delicacies.

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(Dawa Dai chef par excellence!)

It was wonderful to be a couple of thousand feet lower! It seemed like a different climate zone. In the last 24 hrs BC had been populated by three other groups! Two out of them were going to climb Kang Yatze II and one Norwegian couple was going to be at BC for many days acclimatizing fully to climb the more challenging Kang Yatze I.

It was a happy homecoming to see Farid fit and cheerful. It seemed like the traumatic night had been in our imagination and not a reality. He assured me that the kidneys were functioning well. We each had become very particular about observing our liquid intake and comparative output etc as part of our acclimatization ritual. The descent on the morraine had been challenging for Farid as he was quite disoriented and fell a number of times but Padma was a great help and support. The vision in his left eye became blurred during the walk down. On reaching BC he spent the first few hours close to Dawa in the dining tent. They continued to coax him to drink liquids. Soup, water and tea. Until I suppose the cells in his body started getting rehydrated and he went for his first tentative pee. Soon after he says, he could start talking and generally feel normal. What a relief.

Finally when Iqbal came off the morraine after his numerous naps along the way, we had a happy reunion in the dining tent and a game of Cambio! It was good to know that the grey matter was still working.

I was relieved to note that no one was unduly disappointed about not bagging the peak. We had all had a wonderful experience. At that moment of our reunion I had to do a quick calibration of my presence among “Mah boyz”. Although for Takpa I continued to be the boys’ “Mama Genius”, I was actually very much one of the team. I was not their mother or aunt taking them on an outing and making sure they were having a good time. I would not take it as a personal failure that I was unable to provide them with the peak as the lollipop. These wonderful young men were not thinking of my age or my role in their lives. Age no bar. Gender no bar.

Iqbal developed a fever that night due to sheer exhaustion. Tejas caught up with his much needed sleep, though I continued with shallow sleep and very vivid dreams. Not very restful at all.

I was keen to get a glimpse of the other climbers on the mountain at 5am the next morning to check on their progress. One group returned to Camp having barely crossed the morraine and a few hundred feet on the snow. The other climbers summited that morning. I’m no saint, and I can’t say I was ecstatic about their success. It was interesting though to see their progress on the mountain sitting in the comfort of my tent at BC. Especially since they were using the same route as us. The route that we had opened up the day before. Our’s would have been the first ascent of Kang Yatze II this summer and now it was their’s.

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(A telephoto of the climbers….following our footsteps!)

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(Another telephoto, a bit hazy but our path is visible….and the other climbers)

We left BC soon after breakfast and almost skipped and danced our way to the next campsite in record time! Fitness is a wonderful thing having trudged up and down 20,000ft one starts feeling a bit invincible.

Nimaling was a most beautiful campsite though crowded. We had got spoiled for privacy and were used to being by ourselves and feeling like we owned all that we beheld while we were in the vicinity of Kang Yatze. At Nimaling we were back on the main Markha valley route and campsites had to be shared.

 

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(while walking to Nimaling….Kang Yatze behind us…..)

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(….and Kongmaru La, 18,000ft ahead us. A pass we had to cross the next day.)

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(…one last look back at the Markha Valley and in the direction of Kang Yatze to the left not in photo)

19 hours at ABC and beyond……(III)

4th July : Once we started climbing, the four of us, Takpa, Iqbal, myself, Tejas and Rigzin, roped up in that order, we pretty much continued over the next 3 hours from 5:30am until 8:30am. There were a few short standing up, “catching our breath” breaks. The rhythm was set and we noticed we were gaining height and the ABC soon became a dot in the distance and the desert landscape of snowy Ladakhi peaks was at our feet. We were sort of above it, surveying around us from a higher perch. It felt good.

I wouldn’t say that we were clipping away the meters or the feet with any speed but we were quite steady with our plodding pace. Certainly we were all gasping for breath as we continued to gain height, while walking with our big boots, and with the ice axe fully buried in snow with each step forward. It took a lot of effort.

Takpa might have wanted us to go faster, I’m not sure, but in those first three hours he seemed to have got back some of his characteristic enthusiasm and that was encouraging. He even remarked that now he was confident we would make the summit and he was not worried about the time either. The summit he said was “around the corner”.

The snow slopes couldn’t have been more than 40 degrees but the sheer expanse and exposure of the slope made it seem steeper and much more challenging. There was nothing really to “hang on” to, as we traversed, other than our ice axes. And those too would sink fully into the snow with each step.

At 8:30am we came across  a small garden of rocks and without a word we all sat down for a much needed break. Just as we sat down, still tethered to each other with the rope, and as Takpa started to warn us to secure our water bottles and ice axes, I took off my helmet (Farid’s helmet) to remove a layer of fleece from around my neck, in that split second, my helmet rolled right off the mountain. It was both mesmerising and frightening to watch! We were all still, scarcely breathing, watching the bright blue dot disappear on the ever brighter snow which was catching the first rays of the rising sun.

While resting on this rocky perch, we decided that perhaps we could extend the turnaround time from 10am to 10:30am because as Takpa said we were “almost there” and 10:30am was good too.

We might have sat there for about 15 minutes when lassitude struck Iqbal and also to some extent our samurai. When we started walking again, Iqbal was almost sleeping on his feet and had to be prodded awake! I had read about lassitude at much higher altitudes but I suppose there is no hard and fast rule about altitude sickness. Curiously, Takpa too changed his lead with Rigzin and sent him ahead to cut the steps on a vertical piece of slope which we were negotiating soon after the rest break. In retrospect I think poor Takpa was tired from the double ferry to ABC the day before and had not quite recovered from that.

With the sun beating down on the slope the ice soon started to turn mushy. The vertical slope was giving me the nightmares now. The steps would melt almost as soon as Rigzin would cut them and step up which left each one of us in our positions on the rope clambering, clawing, scrambling up the exposed slope, trying to be quick and agile! But the vertical ladder of steps would soon become a chute! It was frightening to say the least. We bravely carried on for another two hours. I was kind of determined to “turn that corner” that Takpa kept promising.

Then wisdom dawned on me from my young team members. Tejas was keeping track of time. I was avoiding looking at my watch, my camera, the scenery, everything. Crazed. I was only looking at the edge of the slope ahead, the supposed “around the corner”. It was 10:30am already. We had already changed our turn around time once. The snow was becoming like melted vanilla ice cream. We were weighed down with each step. Three steps up and two down. Was this worth it?

We stopped to take stock and an important decision. Both Tejas and Iqbal reminded me again about the turn around time. Iqbal in a small voice reminded me about how we’d always discussed that to be safe on the mountain meant respecting one’s turn around time. Turn around times are set at the beginning of a climb always probably keeping in mind an exhausted mind while climbing that may or may not be making correct decisions later on!……..

I made one last crazed plea about going just 20 more feet ahead to see what was “around the corner”. Mah wise boyz stood quietly and said they would go with whatever decision I took, but they wanted me to know that we were way beyond our turn around time.

We turned around.

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(A few pics that Tejas had the energy and the wherewithal to take!)

I will forever be grateful to Tejas and Iqbal for being patient with me. It was wonderful to see a steady head on young shoulders. No greed about bagging a peak. Just good cheer at having tried. Was I disappointed? A little. My own personal best had been 20,000ft before now. “Mah boyz” tell me I probably crossed 20,000ft by a few feet on this climb! Takpa says we were short of the summit by 167 meters. Why that precise number? Why not 200 or 150 meters? I’m not sure. I didn’t ask. He did not argue with our decision to turn back. Even though we were “right there” he said. But he couldn’t quite tell us how long we would take to get to “right there”! And meanwhile snow conditions by 10:30am were becoming progressively worse and a cruel joke.

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(The slope and the “round the corner” that I never saw…..)

The snow under our crampons started to weigh more than our boots and was balling up under our boots with each excruciating step. Dusting it off with a tap of our ice axes with each step became tiring, annoying and irritating.

And so began our arduous climb down from the mountain. If it was the pumping hearts on the way up, it was tired, uncoordinated limbs with heavy boots on the way down. I was trying to negotiate the traverse without looking around too much at the steep slope. I mustered up all my skills from meditation to keep my nerves calm and my mind focussed.

 

At about 12:30pm we reached ABC and I was impatient to get down to BC to check on Farid. Tejas and I had gone without sleep for about 28 hours by now. We were kind of exhausted, though still alert and focussed. The adrenaline was still coursing through our veins.

Phuntsok received us warmly at ABC with hot soup and puree-aloo that Dawa had sent up from BC. We had not eaten since dinner the evening before. The food tasted divine. Phuntsok also reassured me that Farid was well. Eating, drinking and urinating!

Thereafter Tejas and I pretty much skipped our way down to BC while Iqbal took double the time because he kept falling asleep and taking long naps on the morraine. He got back back down close to dinner time.

 

19 hours at ABC and beyond……(II)

4th July : I let the boys go ahead to settle in to our tent. While I sat around with Takpa, Padma and Rigzin, inhaling the intoxicating kerosene fumes (that I was enjoying very much!) and generally planning for the summit bid a few hours hence. Morale was high. We didn’t give Farid’s sudden setback too much thought. There was no way he wouldn’t be better after a few hours of rest.

It was decided that we’d have a cup of hot tea and some maggi noodles at 2am and then generally lace up our boots and rope up and be ready for the climb by 2:30am. This meant that I would nudge the boys awake by 1:30am, so we could get into our harnesses, gloves and helmets etc. have some time for a quick pee or something…..no one was thinking of any elaborate midnight ablutions. We were in fact praying that no one would need more than a quick piss at that time of night. We were going to sleep with all our clothes on, to save time.

After our short and precise plan with the time etc, I got over to our tent and was surprised that there was no sound. Our boots were still lying outside, and wearing frozen boots at 2am would have been a nightmare. So I slipped 2 sets each into either vestibules of the tent so that the boots had some protection and were within easy access and crept in to the tent. All three boys were lying inert. Tejas, though, was awake and I explained about the boots to him. Farid was groaning and I wasn’t sure whether he was awake or asleep. Little Iqbal was definitely asleep and snoring! I was full of envy for him.

From 10:30pm onwards began Farid’s hellish rigmarole of stepping out of the tent every 20 minutes or so to try and urinate. Between his headache, nausea and the urination, he and I spent the next three hours taking sips of water, popping asprin, paracetamol and nimulid and generally just biding our time. Farid’s walk to the summit was becoming distant with each passing minute. Neither of us wanted to discuss it. He was in no condition to think about it and I was dreading bringing it up. At that moment the summit didn’t seem important. Farid’s health was all that was on my mind.

Tejas through all this had been lying awake as well. Just trying to rest up as much as possible with his eyes shut. At 1:30am we awoke Iqbal. I was relieved that it was time for some decisions and action. The last three hours with Farid had been excruciating. Tejas, Iqbal and I slipped into our harnesses and helmets and the inners of our boots and sat around and awaited Padma’s arrival with some tea. It occurred to us that there was no movement from the kitchen tent. Odd.

I gathered enough reserve to step out into the howling, cold and lashing wind which arose and died intermittently through the night. All three in the kitchen were fast asleep! I was dismayed! Having woken them, they made some mumbling excuse about the stove not working…….I said that was Ok. Then Padma came to the tent entrance and said that Takpa said that it was ok if we left a couple of hours later.

Having spent the last three hours awake, a part of me was relieved that we could squeeze a couple more hours for some rest. Another part of me knew that it would just be a continuation of the nightmare and not much relief. Another part of me doubted whether we’d ever get to the summit at this rate with this lackadaisical attitude towards time. Time on a mountain is to be treated with as much respect as one’s equipment as would be made amply clear shortly……..

I was disappointed with this disrespect for time. Anyway I walked back to our tent and told Tejas and Iqbal the latest plan. No one spoke and we all kind of continued to drift in and out of a dazed slumber with poor Farid carrying on with his own nightmare.

At about 5am Padma came to our tent and handed us a cup of tea each. No one even asked for Maggi because we just wanted to get on with it. Then came the decision regarding Farid. Takpa’s first reaction seemed to be to rest up and try for the summit next day as a full team. I was not expecting this from him.

I knew that Farid had to go down to BC definitely. If we delayed the summit bid by another day, would he be fit enough to come back up this same evening to try the summit the next morning / tomorrow? And even if we went with a “day later” decision would Tejas, Iqbal and I be fit and willing to continue to occupy ABC at 18,000ft which had fabulous views but was cold and windy and generally uncomfortable? I was very quiet while Takpa was trying to boost Farid’s morale by giving him the option for climbing the next day. In a way, I am glad Farid was given that option because he was the fittest member of the team and he deserved that chance. However, my silence might have made Takpa realise that this was not an ideal option for all of us. If Farid had shown even a slight amount of enthusiasm, I might have considered it but he was too far gone to be disappointed or enthusiastic about another opportunity. He just needed to get down and lose height as quickly as possible. Padma was deputed to take him down. I sensed disappointment there because Padma was by far the fittest in the group and he had been looking forward to the chance of bagging a peak!

Then came the difficult task for me, “Mama”, the genius, to decide whether I wanted to continue with Tejas and Iqbal or return with Farid. I did want a chance at the peak and yet I had a sick son. “Dharam sankat”. Farid very magnanimously whispered that I must go and that I should take his helmet and torch. I didn’t need any further encouragement.

We were ready and geared up by 5:30am and then Takpa had his second wave of indecision! He felt it was late already. The sun had not risen though it was daylight and we didn’t need torches. The snow was crisp and compact but it was a clear day and the sun would be out in an hour. This was most demoralising. This kind of indecisiveness. Then he walked around and beat the snow around a bit with his crampons and said it was OK and we would “make a go” for the summit. We gave ourselves 10am as our turn around time. Mind you, a “normal” turn around should be about 7:30 / 8am in order to deal with better snow conditions.

We started off all roped up. Takpa in the lead, followed by Iqbal, then myself, followed by Tejas and Rigzin bringing up the rear. Three feet from our tent I saw a bright red patch in the snow that looked like tomato juice or soup. It couldn’t be either because that’s not what we had for dinner the previous evening. Takpa pointed out that that was Farid’s urine. I was shocked! I wasn’t sure I wanted to carry on.

What was happening? Three precious hours late on the mountain. Illness. Oversleeping. Indecision. And yet I felt that it was only fair to the healthy ones to have a chance. Especially Tejas who had not only been up all night with me, but was now totally cheerful, awake, sprightly and willing to give himself a chance at the peak. Unroping myself and staying back would have taken another 20 minutes off of our already delayed schedule. Farid would never have asked me to go if he was even slightly unsure about himself and his health even though he was so weak…… And so began our summit bid under a lot of cloud, doubt and dilemma to say the least……….