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 the last in the series. Part 1. Part 2.
~12 Noon, Basecamp, Day 4
After the snowing stopped last evening it was a restful night, although very cold. The weather changed by the hour in the morning. It was foggy to start with, then it began to snow 10 AM and a whiteout followed. Visibility was very low. More troublesome were the gusts of wind accompanied by watery snowflakes that crystallize on the tent’s canvas and stick.
The guides made an attempt to find a trail through, to the advanced base camp. They set out during a brief clear window around 8 AM. They made very slow progress for over 200 meters. And then, it started to snow heavily and visibility got poor. It wasn’t safe to continue and plod through the deep snow to higher mountains. They had to return.
Following this aborted attempt, as it happens, we gathered in the kitchen tent for a cup of tea and another round of stories follow. The conversations generally have been interesting when they are not anecdotes of someone dying or disappearing and the aftermath. Mostly, they are about peaks in the Indian Himalayas across the states of Himachal Pradesh, Uttarakhand and a bit of Sikkim. The experiences and quick analysis that they dispense make an interesting perspective. One only gets to know from the ‘climbers’ who return to write books or in some cases amateurs like me who return to write blogs on their experiences. The world of guides and supporting staff seems to be different – in manner of what they think about skills, capabilities and what passes as a big deal or achievement.
It is striking that a lot of their anecdotes are about expeditions with teams from armed forces or similar departments of governments. On a closer look, one figures that there is a less visible yet firm bureaucracy in place that is gate-keeping the access to Indian Himalayas. Indian Mountaineering Foundation’s rules and restrictions should be the main reason for the state of Indian mountaineering achievements and capabilities. If it comes to this, I am immensely thankful that all the major 8000 meter peaks are in Nepalese territory. The gatekeepers there are driven by collecting permit fees and leave the rest to the market.
The uncertainty about our next move continues. We rule out an attempt to climb up to advanced base camp and to the summit following it. The route is completely covered in snow and the steep sections can turn dangerous with avalanche and the risk of falling off the ridge. We were to climb without roping up. It didn’t feel safe to do that. For the amount of snow that has fallen in the last two days, the senior guide estimates that it might take upto three days for it to settle down and for the route to be safe for climbing again. This was probably spoken more from the amateur level consideration. Either way, I would not have bothered to climb a ridge with fresh snow that has piled up about five feet. With a whiteout possibility, this would be the surest way to screw one’s safety. Shoveling snow and preventing the basecamp site from not getting overwhelmed seemed a better option.
The last time I was in this kind of snow on a ski trip in Gulmarg, there were clear prohibitions on not going off-piste for everyone – skiers and snowboarders. The volume of snow can turn the whole scene around in minutes.
The situation left only one option – to descend. Even with clear weather, it was not safe to attempt the climb. Instead of sitting at the basecamp, we decided to find a weather window to get down to the roadhead. However, the decision was pending till lunch time.
Meanwhile, I was processing the past few days. There are recollections of mountaineering expeditions, legendary mountaineers and summit stores that come to my mind as I sat huddled in the tent. The mountains are voids into which climbers disappear. These voids are metaphorical and sometimes literal. These are voids because unlike other sports where a remains self-aware and mindful even at higher levels of effort, here a mountaineer begins to lose awareness and coherence with increasing cold and altitude. The mountaineer enters a different world where his senses diminish and can do little. The motivation seems hard to understand.
One of the most aptly named books, not surprisingly, is Lionel Terray’s autobiography ‘Conquistadors of the Useless: From the Alps to Annapurna’. He was a team member on Herzog’s Annapurna expedition. In his book ‘Annapurna’ Herzog takes a chapter to describe the condition of each of his teammates as they arrived at Camp II after an exhausting and near fatal successful summit of the Annapurna I peak. He writes ( this quote from Herzog’s book is added after returning from the expedition),
Lionel Terray followed closely behind them, held on a rope by Schatz, who was still in fine fettle. The little group drew nearer to the camp. The first man to arrive was Terray, and Marcel. Ichac went up towards the great cone to meet him. Terray’s appearance was beautiful. He was bling, and cling to Angtharkay as he walked. He had a huge beard and his face was distorted by pain into a dreadful grin. This ‘strong man’, this elemental force of nature who could barely drag himself along, cried out:
‘But I’m alright. If I could see properly, I’d come down myself.’
When he reached camp Oudot and Noyelle were aghast. Once so strong, he was now helpless and exhausted. His appearance moved them almost to tears.
It continued to snow. Sitting inside the tent there was only the sound of falling snow. I drifted in and out of sleep. All of us were literally sitting out the spell of bad weather that began two days back. I continued to think about these expeditions and motivations of people.
There is hardly anything comfortable about our situation. The sleeping mat is slowly turning wet, the sleeping bags freeze from the outside, the tents are damp and every trip outside the tent requires a prolonged mental preparation to will oneself to put on the boots, gaiters, windbreaker and gloves.
To make up for the lack of activity, I shovelled the snow out from the path from the kitchen tent to our tent and onward to the toilet. This made a 40 meter track set deeper than the snow around. On this track, I walked several paces and had a short workout of 1.2 km. That felt better.
At lunch, the decision was made. We were to abort the summit attempt and head back down to the roadhead.
~7 AM, Basecamp, Day 5
The morning was clear from the start. Seven Sisters sparkled in a high definition glory. All the spaces around were completely filled up in a way that their topography would have turned to a flat pan if it were to snow for another day. My only fear was to spot columns of shifting snow mass. My lack of experience showed clearly.
It was quiet and serene, as though pausing for a thought after three days of intense churn. Last night was windy and it got very cold after dinner time. At lunch yesterday, the group confirmed that all of us would go down. Summit attempt was completely ruled out.
We were in a wait and watch mode, hoping for a brief 3-4 hour window that can get us well past the halfway point on the trail to the road head. The trail would have to be broken into. It would take time and energy from the leader. The guides took turns to break the trail. Each step needed a check before placement. The rest in the line would step into the steps of the leader.
The condition was not good for porters to come up and get the basecamp gear down. They would be sent up only after the conditions improved. From advanced base camp to the basecamp, all the gear and tents were left in place to be retrieved later. We were to carry only our rucksacks and make our way down safely.
~9 PM, Hotel, Manali, Day 5
After breakfast this morning, the weather cleared up for a couple of hours. We packed up and hurried down to make use of the opportunity. The progress was slow. The gullies along the ridges where we saw avalanches on the previous days, we were to cross through the same stretches on our way down. The risk seemed less as we neared them. But the column of fresh snow above some points got me concerned. Low altitude was the only comfort. And that there wasn’t a bottomless gorge next to us.
We set out at 9:15 AM. After breakfast, the guides began breaking a trail in turns. After a four hour trek, we reached the road head at 1:30 PM. If it was to be done reverse, I am not sure how far we could have gone. Descending is easier.
Now that the expedition is over, with us managing to reach only upto 4500 meters, I have a renewed sense of appreciation for weather in the Himalayas. Summer doesn’t match up in challenge. It is a space that teaches much. It can turn a person respectful and submissive to the will of the mountains. It also holds a possibility that the person gets addicted to the thrill of the unknown and pushes the boundaries of what can be achieved despite those forces of nature at play. The latter makes the bunch who choose to return and try newer ways of being at play with the mountains, often shortening their own life spans.
The standards of our times have changed significantly from the early days of mountaineering. K2 was the last of the 8000ers that was successfully climbed in 2020. The next boundary pushing in this sport will more likely be about winter ascents. The other area is likely to be about the format of climbing. Faster and lighter attempts might get common.
Looking back at the week, I can only say that I have returned from the expedition with a renewed appreciation for mountains and human ability to play with them. The lines are very thin.