A Winter Mountaineering Expedition – Part 1

Road head to Bakarthatch. Manali-Leh Highway. March, 2021

The following is an account of a winter mountaineering expedition to Friendship Peak, 5289 meters, from 20 – 24 March, 2021. The account is published in parts. This is part 1. Part 2.

20/03/2021

Day 1

We set out on a winter climb to Friendship Peak (5289m) on this day. 

Preparing for a climbing expedition needs one thing done well above all – logistics. It all moves only on good logistics. For a person new to mountaineering and especially the expedition style of it, I could not help notice that the preparation was substantial – rations, gear, evacuation support and vehicles. For the amount of time we intended to spend there – about eight days in all, living comfortably and well fed was necessary. This makes expedition style mountaineering a logistics heavy affair. Is there an alternative? I do not know. I have near zero mountaineering experience. This winter climb is my foray into this sport.

We had our personal gear sorted out the previous evening – warm layers, trekking poles, shoes, snowshoes, gaiters and a few miscellaneous items that we would need from the rental store. 

The Seven Sisters massif, from left to right. Bakarthatch, March 2020.
Approach towards Friendship Peak on top right (not visible). March, 2020
Friendship Peak basecamp at Bakarthatch. March, 2020

The peak lies in the Pir Panjal range. There is Hanuman Tibba peak to the West, and a range of short peaks called Seven Sisters in South. The sisters look gorgeous.  We are camped facing East, looking down into the valley that leads up to the road head at Dhundi. 

The highway at Dhundi leads up to the newly opened Atal Tunnel, a nine kilometer long road tunnel at about 3000 meter altitude and connects Lahul-Spiti district to Manali. This was a major development in the region last year. 

We are not too far out from Manali in terms of road distance, but it feels remote in this pocket of hills and especially with the winter landscape that brings a tinge of isolation with it. The basecamp is about 3-4 hours from the road which I imagine would be even less time consuming in summer. 

Mountaineering is not my sport. I have not climbed mountains nor felt particularly interested in scaling them in the format in which it is done currently. Man seems to have the same strategy for every natural challenge – throw enough at the challenge (in terms of support, tools, equipment, tech, backup etc) and the challenge will yield.

Take the case of the very first time an 8000m peak was summitted in recorded history. It was Annapurna I by a French team led by Maurice Herzog. His book ‘Annapurna’ is an absolutely fascinating account of the expedition. With due respect to human ability to imagine and set oneself against such an attempt, the format is of excessive loading with an intention to last and perhaps sit out bad weather conditions. It is war style.

The team of nine Frenchmen were taking six tons of equipment and provision on the expedition. Herzog’s account offers a glimpse into how this expedition was being framed. From this day on 28th March, it took two months for Herzog and Lachenal to stand on the summit of Annapurna I on 3d June 1950. 

On the evening of March 28th the Himalayan Committee met for the last time with all the members of the Expedition present. Licien Devis, the President and chief promoter of the Expedition, outlined a history of Himalayan achievement and specified just what he expected of us:

‘The Himalaya, by their size, fully merit the title of “the third pole”. Twenty-two expeditions of different nationalities have tried to conquer an “eight-thousander”. Not one has succeeded.’

Then he defined our objectives:

‘Dhaulagiri, 8167 metres [26,795 feet],or Annapurna 8075 metres [26,493 feet] in the very heart of Nepal. Should these prove impossible – and that would be no disgrace – “consolation” summits out to be attained. With its six tons of equipment and provisions the Expedition must cross the Indian frontier and penetrate into hitherto forbidden Nepalese territory. 

After reaching Nepal, Herzog writes of the onward journey up into the mountains:

The preparations of the main party dragged on endlessly beneath a burning sun. The loads were being gradually made up to weigh one maund each, 80 lb., and then distributed to some 200 coolies.

The first successful summit of Mount Everest was three years away from this experience of standing on an 8000 meter peak. The British Mount Everest expedition led by Colonel John Hunt would outdo the French in its preparation and support  Of course, it was Everest, one would say. The team’s load was ferried in two batches of 150 and 200 porters each. This expedition’s Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay stood at the summit of Mount Everest on 29th May 1953.  

Back to our own little expedition, the rations and equipment for two climbers and two guides, for an eight day long foray, were carried by nine porters. I did not have the time and money for this kind of outdoor foray in all these years. Even now, considering the pace at which a typical expedition happens, it seems less engaging in comparison to endurance running or cycling.

We walked from the road head to the base camp today. This being winter, the snow is deep. The porters had a tough time carrying loads. They were sinking in waist deep snow on some stretches. Even as it looks like four to five feet of snow, the guides observe that for this valley, it is not a lot and at this time of the year. In their view, the snow cover is deeper here in a good year. 

I looked at the valley. Scanning the base of the hills and the peaks rising up, it did not appear intimidating or worrisome. It felt inviting. The snow conditions looked friendly and not hard to negotiate.

It was a quiet day as all of us – a party of twelve people, walked the trail that rose up from the road head and curved along the sides of the valley, crossing the Beas river at one point and continuing along the other side. There arrives a location when the trail is just ringed by massifs, nearly 360 degrees of it. Only a little opening remains, that heads back down to the trail head. 

On a small, finger like ridge that is softly separated from the landscape by two shallow gullies sits the basecamp. We arrived here after a three hour walk. The part consists of seven porters, a cook, two guides, a fellow climber and me. Soon, the winter stillness soon takes us over. The porters made a hasty return after depositing our camping loads at the basecamp. It was afternoon. They had a quick lunch of aloo parathas and made a noisy retreat. Now that the loads were off, the sight of them walking through the snow was less worrisome. 

For the next few days, we, a group of five, are the only ones in the valley. There are no climbers. Even though this is classified as a ‘trekking peak’ by the Indian Mountaineering Foundation (IMF) there are barely any winter attempts on it. This is what brings us here – a winter climb. The exclusivity is a privilege which is of course brought about by a variety of reasons. It is not lost upon me.  

After the basecamp was set up we had lunch and got some quiet time for ourselves. We were at 3400 meters altitude.

Eastern view from basecamp at Bakarthatch. March, 2020

21/03/20201

7 AM Basecamp, Day 2

Every foray into the mountains brings such a range of sights and experiences that as they are happening even a short day can overwhelm. 

It is the second day of the climb. A good weather window meant that we went up to set up the Advanced Basecamp (ABC) at 4500 meters. It included a load ferry to stock up the ABC for the summit night. It was a brief half-day window. We climbed up with our loads, pitched a tent, stocked essentials and by noon started on our way back to the basecamp as the weather seemed to be closing in. It was a three hour climb and much shorter on the descent. On the last kilometer to the basecamp it began snowing. It was about 2 PM.

The morning sun was a hazy disc. ‘Not good for summit attempt’, said one of the guides. The evening felt clear. The day also happened to be my birthday. Knowing this the cook, Pasang, and the guides, Manohar and Naresh turned creative and managed to make a ‘cake’ with the rations that we had here. It was a very generous and affectionate gesture.

We sat in, five of us, in the kitchen tent,discussing the day’s climb, weather and mountaineering stories. Too many of them for me to make a note. There is an unexplained draw for mountains and being in them for some people. It is hard to understand. The three men here, whatever might be their personal ethics and ideas, seemed pure and united in their attraction for the mountains. They spoke of weather, clients, expeditions, disasters and deaths. In their stories, people often just disappeared. Not to be seen again.

Mountaineers seem to inhabit a different world. Even if this is for short periods of time. Moreover, mountaineering is so significantly ruled by weather. It is striking to me as an outsider. The fact that weather doesn’t lend itself, rather yield, to man’s plans keeps it adventurous and unpredictable in ways that very few modern sports are or can be.

The night was windy and cold. The temperature fell further at night and for a while the night felt strenuous and crappy. But it passed.

8 thoughts on “A Winter Mountaineering Expedition – Part 1

  1. Beautiful photos. I had no idea there would be such a cast involved just to get two humans up a mountain. And a belated happy birthday (I seem to have lost all reference to calendar time lately)—sounds like a good, if cold, place to celebrate the passing of such a strange year.

    1. Thank you for the wishes, J. And, for reading. It has been a stranger year for sure. Being there on a mountain on birthday was coincidental. We didn’t know if this was happening. No expedition company has been operating in the region since the season before pandemic. Ours was the first in the region.

  2. belated birthday wishes, excellent choice in celebratory location. This is all I need as I sit with withdrawals from reading about George Schaller and co. in Nepal, awaiting next parts!

      1. Rereading parts of Peter Matthiessen’s Snow Leopard, features Schaller and Sherpas and porters.

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