(Not many snaps clicked thanks to extreme weather conditions in the night)
May 28 2016
(continued from) At around 12:00AM I heard from other tent Madhuri and Lucky discussing how much water each are to carry. Along with Manasa, they were all set to leave base camp with one of the Sherpa. I din’t know what the temperature outside was, but my face felt cold inside the tent and I was all still very drowsy. I and Achyut stayed in the tent, while we heard guys say goodbye to some of the Sherpas who were to stay in the base camp. At around 1:00AM our guide called us out, and in half an hour we were all geared up to start the hike.
With the temperature around -15° C, we considered ourself to be fortunate of the excused absence of the wind. With the head torch lighting up the narrow trail, we started our climb. It started off with steep climb, that I am sure warmed us up. We stuck to a pace and walked one behind the other. But as soon us we reached the top of this hill, the trail was all covered in snow. This is when the reality stuck. We were to walk around these mountains, on an inclined terrain which at its first sight can definitely absorb all your attention. Looking at the amount of snow cover our Sherpa asked us to fix the crampons to our snow boots. This was a challenging task given how cold the weather condition was. To take off the gloves and tie the crampon to the shoe, almost had me in tears, for it was that cold. I couldn’t take it. With some drama we somehow managed to tie the crampons to the shoe. (My crampon din’t really fix well to my shoe which I believe was because of the wrong size I received from one of the Sherpa the previous day. But our guide gave me his own and decided to walk without one.)
Vigilantly, we took one step at a time to get use to the ice axe, crampons and the terrain. And so far no altitude sickness, good for me. It was 2:00AM and the wind had slowly caught up already. It wasn’t really long before we saw some flash lights, once we walked around a corner. And there we saw Kalyan helping out Madhuri, Manasa and Lucky to tie crampons to their hiking boots, which at that point I wasn’t sure as to how effective it would prove to be in keeping their foot warm in these extreme conditions. When we reached them, both the Sherpas had a conversation and decided that I and Achyut will continue with Kalyan while the other three with the other Sherpa once they’re ready. I really sensed some panic in Manasa’s voice and she looked very worried and uncomfortable already. I mean that was expected with anyone given the fact that this was our first expedition at this altitude. But the challenge was to endure through it.
As we took one step at a time attentively, we still couldn’t avoid the slips and falls which were scary, for a fall means you’re going down rolling in the snow for some 40 feet which might not be fatal, but enough to break your bones. Also a small injury could still prove to be fatal, because help will arrive only after 5 or 6 hours. Remember Helicopters can’t help at this altitude and we had to resort on the Sherpas carrying us down hill, beyond our first camp (Manokorma) till the point were mobile help can reach us.
After almost half an hour of walk (maybe), we still saw the flast lights of guys far behind us standstill, which meant they hadn’t moved yet. And we lost sight of their torch when we turned around a corner. Our pace was not really great, but thats understood given the terrain we were walking in. Hit the axe hard on the snow, strike one of the leg’s crampon hard in the snow at 45 degree angle and step forward such that the other boot accumulated some snow underneath to make sure you din’t slip down. But that din’t always go as planned for we did have some slips and falls. Achyut got a hang of it faster than I did. But eventually we paced ourself better and managed to walk all the way around these mountains before reaching the Advanced Base Camp (ABC) at 19000 feet (ABC is the base camp during summer expeditions, but during these times the temperature here is so low that camping is not allowed). Just before reaching ABC I had realized what altitude sickness really meant. At times when Achyut and Kalyan walked in the front, I held my head and kneeled down not able to bare the pain. And I was really foolish and stubborn to not tell them how I felt. We had to Summit, that’s all I told myself, not worrying about how bad I felt physically. But it wasn’t long before Kalyan realised that I was struggling to breath. Meanwhile Achyut looked a bit uncomfortable taking deep breath too, but he was way better acclimatized than I was. My head started pounding hard on the rear side and I had to give up. I sat on the ground for good, and both Kalyan and Achyut stopped walking further. And I knew I was retarding their pace. Kalyan walked to me asking if I was alright, I told him that I need few minutes to catch my breath. The pain was bad, and I could hear my heart pounding. I was totally not prepared for this expedition. I knew it. This was not just about physical fitness, but more than that. To get acclimatized at this altitude, is inevitable and I was in the wrong place when I realized this. But my stubbornness was not going to give up. All the deep breadth I took (which I am sure Achyut who was 20 feet away from me would definitely had heard clearly) helped me in alleviating the pain in the back of my head, and before I realized, I was off my knees and ready to walk again. From there on, I stuck to this rhythm focusing on my breadth and the hike was lot more comfortable. We kept up to Kalyan’s pace and walked right behind him. From ABC, it was dense glaciers all the way till summit. At around 5:30AM the sun was out of the horizon, and from there on the scenic view of the vast stretch of Himalayan ranges made my life even more easier. We persisted walking till around 6:50AM when we could see the summit far off.
We stopped for food, and with all the difficulties took the gloves off to grab some steamed potato we had carried with us. The temperature was easily less than -20° C. Not easy at all. We hadn’t clicked any snaps until then. Both the water bottles that I and Achyut carried were frozen. We had tried our best to keep it warm as much as possible covering it with many layers of cloths, but that still din’t help. Kalyan’s was cold but not frozen. Good for us. The carb enriched potatoes really helped replenish the energy lost and we were all set again to send the steep glacier climb.
Kalyan before the hike had warned us that if we don’t make it to the summit by 9:00AM we will have no option but to return. The reason being the fact that, after the sun is out, the snow becomes soft which makes the climb to the summit along its shoulder (which is like around 100 feet(approx)) very dangerous. It’s supposed to be really steep and required of us to climb with snow axe and crampons.
Meanwhile Achyut had a tough time after eating the potatoes. Apparently it’s very common to have severe stomach ache after eating at this altitude. So far I was good. And it wasn’t long before Achyut started taking stops to take deep breath. He felt the pain in the back of his head too. Getting close to the summit, we both were very tired, but still managed to walk along this zigzag trail which Kalyan lead, until before we realized the terrain had gotten really steep.
I was looking at myself walking out of the Bangalore airport terminal, all happy that I am back home and that I was going home after two years to visit my family. And damn! I was dreaming. All that lack of sleep the last two days means I will dream and fall asleep while I was here climbing at this altitude. It happened more than once. Kalyan had warned us that it’s easy to fall asleep while hiking at this altitude and that it was very dangerous. While we slowly tried to pace ourself with Kalyan, I didn’t give a hint to both of them that I was falling asleep. As I and Achyut endured for two more hours, we were breathing hard and living through the pain in the back of our head. We were tired. Super tired in fact. I could feel my body being drained off all the little energy left and there came a point while climbing that I had fallen asleep standing during our regular pause for a minute as we climbed in a zig-zag trail. This time when I opened my eyes, both Kalyan and Achyut were looking straight at me. Kalyan insisted on a short break, and we grabbed some more potato and energy bar. It was almost 9:00AM by now and the snow had become relatively softer. We started again, both of us breathing hard, enduring through probably one of the most uncomfortable experience one can voluntarily engage in, with no prior preparation. We continued hiking.
By now the sleep was gone, but the body gave up. And it was pretty much the same with Achyut although he I am sure could have gone some more distance. We dropped our head regularly and took more and more stops. It was around 20100 feet altitude and the summit was 500 feet from us. At 10:00AM the snow was so soft that the hike became more and more laborious with every step we took. Our feet got easily absorbed in the soft snow for almost a feet. At this point having noticed how tired we were, Kalyan stopped us and insisted on taking a break for a minute or two. I and Achyut sat admiring the beautiful view in front of us, not really worried about making it to the summit. The view infront of us was mind-blowing and was worth every pain we went through for the last nine hours, walking relentlessly in conditions we had never imagined to be exposed to. We clicked some snaps, and in silence enjoyed the unique overwhelming view that only the mountains of Himalayas can offer.
At around 10:30AM Kalyan shouted out at us and said, “I think we’re done”. We knew that we wouldn’t be able to climb further with the snow being so soft that it could almost swallow our leg up till the knee. We looked at each other, me and Achyut, and smiled. We could see the summit not far from the spot where we sat. We had to give up at that point, because more than being capable of it mentally, physically we dint have much to offer anymore. And whatever the little juice we had leftover in our muscles, was needed for the long walk back to the camp.
Man wasn’t that a tough call to make and digest. I felt so bad, and pretty sure Achyut did too. I told myself that, if only I had gotten better acclimatized, we could have definitely sent the last part of the climb end, and cherished the summit-ting experience forever. Just one of those moments in life…
to be continued…