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.
(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.
(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.