A Winter Mountaineering Expedition – Part 2

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 2. Part 1. Part 3.

Basecamp at Bakarthatch. Day 3. March, 2021
View to the East. Basecamp. March, 2021

22/03/20201

7 AM Basecamp, Day 3

We are completely snowed out at the Basecamp. It began snowing by late afternoon yesterday. It has continued uninterrupted since then, through the night and continues even as this is being written. There is about 3 – 3.5 feet of snow deposited overnight here at the basecamp. 

It is cold and the weather does not look like it will clear up anytime soon. 

Mountaineering hasn’t usually been spoken of in terms of ‘pace’. There are fast ascents and record times, but they are a recent phenomenon. This is not a short, fixed duration sport. It requires patience and keen eye to identify the safest route and weather windows to approach the peaks. The route to advanced basecamp that seemed easy yesterday is impassable today. The variables in a climb are more in comparison to other sports, with most of them being high risk. There is weather, terrain, gradient, ice conditions, crevasses, equipment failure etc. Above all of it is the human ability to endure these changing variables and along with it also withstand the high altitude. 

In other sports, one is seldom at risk from a cumulative effect of variables as in mountaineering. The courses in running and cycling are known and they are manned. As for aid, it is often too late in mountaineering. The rapid onset of changes causes phenomenal impact in a short period of time. 

To be at a basecamp knowing and accepting a significant possibility of the occurrence of adverse events makes mountaineering different. It is a conscious and wilful consumption of danger. 

We are looking at two full days of sitting inside our tents, waiting for clear weather. The forecast is of bad weather – snow and clouds, for three days. If beyond that it doesn’t clear up then we are likely to abort the summit attempt and head back down. 

We are climbing up a mountain with the summit altitude similar to that of a high altitude pass. And yet, it is a two day affair from the base camp. I have cycled up 5000 m passes where there are roads. We sit here, unsure of everything about the peak. 

The basecamp or even this valley is not a high risk zone. But bad weather can turn things around in a striking manner. A meadow turns into an avalanche zone and makes a traverse risky. 

We have to clear the snow from above our tents every couple of hours. We did the same through the night. The snowfall is heavy. It is falling with the sound of a tropical rain, which feels louder in the silence here. The ground outside the tent has risen by about three feet and continues to rise. 

Prospecting a route to Advanced Base Camp. Day 3. March, 2021
A brief clear weather window in the evening. Day 3. March, 2021
View from the tent. Day 3. March, 2021

~ 6:30 PM

It has been a long day. It has snowed for twenty six hours straight. There is close to five feet of snow around us. There is a mild sense of worry looking at the way the weather is persisting and with heavy precipitation. It may overwhelm us at this rate. We have been shoveling snow and keeping a perimeter of clear space around the tents. We heard the snow falling against the canvas of our tent all day. After a point it became a bit meditative, but laced with concern when it increased. We had to shake the tent’s dome vigorously to let the deposited layer slip down and unburden the canvas. In the kitchen tent, the guides were worried about the horizontal pole of their German army tent. It was likely to give in if they didn’t shake off the deposition at intervals. 

At the time of writing this, snowfall has stopped. I have taken a few photographs of the hills around us. The visibility has improved and with it our spirits have lifted too. 

Mountains unravel us in ways that life is incapable of. That sliver of clear light in the sky and a faint glimpse of evening sun caught on the peaks is uplifting. 

As of now, our chances of summiting look weak. The route has been overwhelmed with snow and there is risk of avalanches and falling. We have heard snow sliding down from the mountain faces all day. It is not hard ice. But fresh snow in a larger volume also carries a significant force.

Besides, there was no let down in the intensity of the snowfall through the day. 

It hasn’t yet reached a concerning level but it must stop for us to feel safe, sit it out for a couple of days and then attempt the climb again. 

I am reminded of the conditions that Sir Edmund Hillary writes of on South Col in his book A View From the Summit. (The quote has been added after I returned to Bangalore from the expedition). 

Tenzing called it the roar of a thousand tigers. Hour after hour it came whining and screeching in an unrelenting steam from the west with such ferocity it set the canvas of our small Pyramid tent cracking like a rifle range. We were 25,800 feet up on the South Col, a desolate saddle between the upper slopes of Everest and Lhotse. Rather than easing off, the gale grew more violent the longer it went on. I began to fear that our heaving and thrashing shelter must surely be wrenched from its mooring, leaving us exposed and unprotected amongst the ice and boulders. (…) A terrible sense of fear and loneliness dominated my thoughts. What is the sense in it all? I asked myself. A man was a fool to put up with this! Then my air mattress deflated, freezing my hip where it rested on the ice. It was the worst night I have ever spent on a mountain.

By the end of the evening, we caught a glimpse of sunlight on the Seven Sisters before the day faded. 

Tomorrow’s plan is to sit in and watch how the weather turns by noon. If it stays clear then the guides would go upto ABC for a recce. They will check snow conditions to summit and also retrieve the gear and supplies that we had left up at the ABC earlier. 

We heard low intensity sounds of avalanches from several corners in the valley. The visibility was poor. Therefore, the avalanches felt a little more than their actual intensity or if we would see them happening in clear light. It did make us think of the possibility of being stranded here in case of a heavier slip along the route that goes down. 

Without a doubt, these natural phenomena happening around causes a rush and awe within. The stimulus from the external environment is far too high to process risk and threat with the seriousness that one would have, had it been a more amenable environment. But here, it is a spectacle first. That it can turn in any direction and manner of outcome, is a far second. 

One of the finest articulations of high mountains and their formidable power, not to mention the now cliched idea of ‘human insignificance’ in front of them, is by Eric Shipton. ((The quote has been added after I returned to Bangalore from the expedition)) He was a trailblazing mountaineer who with Frank Smythe was among the first climbers to stand on the highest peak climbed in 1931. He writes the following in his autobiography Upon That Mountain in 1938 – 

No, it is not remarkable that Everest did not yield to the first few attempts; indeed , it would have been very surprising and not a little sad if it had, for that is not the way of great mountains. Perhaps, we had become a little arrogant with our fine new technique of ice-claw and rubber slipper, our age of easy mechanical conquest. We had forgotten that the mountain still holds the master card, that it will grant success only in its own good time. Why else does mountaineering retain its deep fascination?

The day has been a lesson in the force and strength that these geographical forms hold. Looking forward to our chances of climbing up to ABC and onward to summit in the days ahead.

7 thoughts on “A Winter Mountaineering Expedition – Part 2

  1. Thanks for sharing this account of the fascinating mountain terrain and conditions, as well as your own feelings, interspersed with accounts of other mountaineers. Eagerly awaiting Part 3, as this is a real cliff hanger 😀

  2. Incredible. Picking up Eric Shipton’s book. On a lighter note, nothing as strenuous as deciding to head out into a cold mountain snowstorm for a bowel cleansing. Curious, what kind of rations were carried?
    Also, you might enjoy Saravana’s videos (India in Motion) on YouTube. Less about climbing, more about life in the high unforgiving mountains. https://m.youtube.com/user/indiainmotion

    1. Rations – all that is required to serve a good Indian meal with rice, lentils, rotis, vegetables, canned fruits etc.
      Toilets – lol! Tedious and mentally draining even before any physical movement.
      Thanks for sharing India In Motion. His photography is really nice. As is his desire to seek company of the mountains.

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