As I mentioned in Spiti Diaries I, after days of acclimatizing ourselves to the sparse air in the valley, we make our way to the Bara Shigri Glacier Base Camp. Training starts the very next day. The trek from the base to the glacier is tedious and long. The sturdiest and biggest rock you step on, moves under your feet; and where there aren’t unpredictable rocks, there’s a layer of tiny slippery stones called scree. It’s crazy. We practice two-piton, single-traction, double-traction, fix rope techniques of climbing on ice on the ice wall.
Our training schedule largely depends on the weather- sometimes we wrap up early, sometimes we reach camp late in the evenings.. sometimes it’s harsh sunlight, sometimes fierce winds (God! Even the sound of the wind makes me sick now), sometimes there’s triumph, sometimes there’s just dry throats and sore legs. Sometimes there’s laughing and singing, sometimes there’s loneliness. Sometimes I can’t wait for the summit. Sometimes I just want this trek to end!
And it did end for someone, and very painfully too. We had some very experienced and talented mountaineers with us at Bara Shigri; who’d move up and down the ice walls like a walk in the park. This was years of practice. Where I was practicing fix rope (a way of opening a route) on the ice wall, exhausted, besides me, one of the instructors was setting up an anchor. There was some commotion in the background, and I was completely engrossed in doing what I was doing. And in the next second, I see my instructor slipping down beside me; maybe he’ll arrest his fall. No, I feel a trudge on my ice axe as it is pulled down with him. Of course he’ll reach the bottom safely, we aren’t too high. No, somehow, he goes down sideways. Everything is a matter of just a few seconds. His crampons losing their grip, the sound of the ice axe scratching against the wall, the thump as he falls to the base… and the dead silence that follows. I grasp the gravity of the situation only once I have retrieved all the pitons and am back on the ground.
In those 10 minutes, everything has changed. We’re packing up. He is being fastened to a rope-stretcher. The leg is secured with a splint, it’s a broken bone. He knew it the minute he hit the ground. But something else has also changed significantly. We’re no longer a group of trainees, meek, unsure of what to do; we’re an organized group braced for a rescue. We’re split in a team of two – one carrying the stretcher, one carrying the luggage of the 1st team. Since the area is complete moraine, the only option is to carry him back to base camp and then to Batal on foot. We split the load among ourselves and set out without a minute’s delay.
The arduous trek seems tougher still this time. And yet there is not a word of complaint. We’re carrying twice the load we usually would. There’s a team carrying the stretcher. It’s risky business, but there’s a confidence I’ve never seen before. There’s a strength I’ve never felt before. It’s true – It’s a lot easier to be stronger for someone else than for yourself. Not one person stood down. I realise, at the end of the day, this is who we are, more than trek-mates and adventure junkies and trainees, we’re a family- an extended, connected family. And once again I am thankful for being a part of it.
He is taken to Batal safely from where he is driven to Shimla. We would wait for news on him as we aren’t connected to the world beyond Batal. While Team I is carrying him to Batal, the next day, we make another trip to the ice field to retrieve the remaining equipments. The entire operation takes two days. The exhaustion lasts longer. I see some guys more charged than ever before. I see some friends growing weaker by the day. I really don’t know what the next morning would bring here. And neither how the day would end.
But one thing is for sure. Kullu Pumori isn’t happening now. And we aren’t giving up. Not as yet. So we set our eyes on an unnamed peak to our west. It doesn’t pose the same challenges as Kullu Pumori, but it is at a decent height, and more easily approachable than the former. And the simple truth is, we just can’t afford another casualty. The plan is revised. The ration and equipment readied according to the need of the peak. We were to leave for the load ferry the next day. We would have to set up only a summit camp after the base.
The next day we start moving towards summit camp. As we have to find our way on the first day we take a slightly longer traverse to a place that seems like a decent campsite. We make it our Summit Camp (4848 M). The summit camp is set in the shadow of the peak. We clear some space to pitch tents the next day, dump the load and are back at camp before sundown.
We now have a better idea of the route. Next morning we start on the west ridge to the summit camp. Making it there in decent time, we pitch our tents and have lunch. The weather is kind to us. No, it is splendid actually. The sky is changing shade every minute. The snow capped peaks drenched – once in orange, purple, magenta… the valley below, the CB range peaks and the Chandra. And our base camp just a speck in the gigantic landscape. The night is the “prickliest” night of my life, since we’re pitched on a platform made of large flat-ish plates of stone. The wind of course blows wildly as always but nothing can deter us from attempting the summit now.
Next morning however, I can’t see 10ft. ahead of me. There’s rain, there’s fog. Finally, we start around 5.30 am. We follow the north-west ridge gradually up to the summit through the snow. Taking short breaks, catching our breath, we keep moving forward. Even now, for a good while we can’t see the summit. The weather isn’t perfect but it is good enough for the summit.
As my partner and I reach the summit, the doctor accompanying us says, “19th July, 08:30 am, first summit today”. I can never forget that all my life. The first summit of that day was also the first summit of my life. 5520 M. I was ecstatic, I was proud, I was in tears. Soon everyone else joins us. The energy is crazy! We just can’t get enough of it! – photographs, hugs, laughter, congratulations… everything!
After spending a while there, we start our descent. We make it to the summit camp. Have coffee, wrap everything up and start for the base camp. After the summit, I’m longing to go to the base camp. There is a kind of an attachment to it. Going to that camp feels like going home. We are treated to the most delicious meal of the camp that evening. I have the most sound sleep I’ve had in days that night. After a day of rest, and some lectures, it’s time to leave.
I’ve seen good days here and I’ve seen bad ones. In my mind, just as much as with the weather. I am longing to go back home, and yet, as we start to leave, I look back one more time, hoping to capture this entire extensive scenery in my mind. What if this is the last time I’m looking at it? Breathing this air and feeling this wind against my face? Leaving is always tough. When you are in the mountains you are always so sensitive to everything around you. In the end, there is an attachment even with their unpredictable nature, their unforgiving conditions and the numbing pain. Under wild winds and invincible mountains, this is home too. And I leave this home with a triumphant spirit and a heavy heart.
But the mountains weren’t done with our lessons.. there is, as always, more to learn. Of which I’d talk about in our final post.