It’s always difficult to swallow a Himalayan expedition failure, even more so if you’ve voluntarily retreated off a route when others have gone on to summit. Add to the failure the months of effort that have gone into just getting to the Himalayas – the endless grant applications for funding, the bureaucratic wrangling over peak permits, environmental permits, rescue bonds, the last minute scraping together of finances- and its not hard to have a lapse in confidence, a “why do I bother “ moment about expedition climbing.
Malcolm Bass, Paul Figg and I settled on the West Face of Vasuki Parbat, in the Indian Garwhal, as our objective for 2010 after being declined a permit by the Uttaranchal State Government for a mountain in the head of the Gangotri Glacier. Vasuki was located somewhere none of us had been before, looked fine climbing and had a history- British icons Mick Fowler and Paul Ramsden had turned back on it in 2008. It would be a long shot if we climbed Vasuki, but the expedition looked good on paper we thought, and this allowed us to raise some good funding. We met in Delhi in mid- September, the others from Britain, myself making my lonely way up from New Zealand.
Meanwhile next door Pakistan was under water, the result of the worst monsoon rains in history. Political borders don’t deter monsoons, and Delhi sat under thunderous clouds while the local Yamuna River threatened to inundate the city. We drove three days north to the delightful little pilgrim outpost of Gangotri, on the last day just making it up the road before rain and slips closed the route for the next two weeks. Waiting four days in Gangotri while the downpours kept the track to the snout of the Gangotri Glacier impassable, we relaxed and enjoyed ourselves- our cook Chandar fed us well and Liaison Officer Satya entertained with tales of his 25 years as a submariner in the Indian Navy. None of us had met a submariner before. At last the weather began to improve, and we could head off– a ramshackle group of 30 porters, three climbers, Paul’s wife Rachel, Satya, Chandar and his Nepali assistant Shanka.
But the bad weather left its legacy and by the time we reached our Base Camp site we were wading thought several feet of snow. Undeterred we dug out tent sites and settled in to BC to plan the next three weeks itinerary; first to acclimatize, and then to make an attempt on Vasuki, which by now loomed above us, dark and mean. Could we climb it? No one was jumping up and down saying ‘Yes’ with confidence, but the three of us were each quietly excited about giving it a try.
I’m a poor acclimatizer and this expedition was no exception. We put in three staged acclimatization camps on the slopes of Bagarathi II, the final camp at about 5,500m with superb views of the route we were to take on Vasuki – a tight gorge with a series of frozen water falls, several hundred metres of steep snow, a band of difficult mixed climbing before a number of interlinked snow ramps leading to the summit to finish. Not feeling my best, I spent an extra night at the top acclimatization camp alone as the others retreated to BC, then wandered up to 5,800m the following day. I felt cold (temps were down to -15C at night), unnaclimatized and out of sorts with a persistent hacking cough. But the weather remained superb.
Four days later we couldn’t put off starting up the route any longer- we were rested, Malcolm had recovered from a cold and we’d managed to filch some forgotten snow stakes off a neighboring French expedition. The three of us waved goodbye to Satya, Rachel, Chander and Shanka and trudged off up the Vasuki Glacier to the base of the route. The next morning I lead up the first of the frozen waterfalls. We were off!
Three days later we’d reached a height of 6200m and were perched beneath the mixed band. With night time temperatures around -25C I was struggling with the cold and the bivis’ and was worried about my ability to acclimatize higher on the route. Several of my fingers and toes had no feeling and I was moving more slowly than the other two. I convinced myself I was holding them up. The others had a better chance of success without me, I angst. With an artificial knee and a recently broken back, I was too injured and at 51 to old. I shouldn’t be there. Late in the day I decided to turn back, convinced Paul and Malcolm I could get myself off the mountain alone, and retreated, armed with the 60m haul line, one ice screw, one abalakov hook, two wires and a bunch of rap cord. I climbed back to the previous night’s bivi site and spent a lonely night lying on a small snow ledge shivering and wondering if I’d done the right thing. Two days later I arrived back at base camp, exhausted and secretly distraught.
Meanwhile basecamp life for the remaining four had settled into a pleasant routine; Rachel (an artist) was painting, Chandar and Shanka cooking and Satya (a keen photographer) was out and about with his camera. I destroyed their peace by immediately starting to worry about Paul and Malcolm.
For three days there was no sight of them through the binoculars, but finally their headtorch lights were spotted at the top of the mixed band. What on earth had they been doing, we puzzled? They had in fact; a) gone off route, and then b) Malcolm had taken a big fall, clonked his head and necessitated a retreat to a previous bivi from which he had eventually recovered. Late on their eighth day on the mountain we saw the pair reach the summit ridge. I knew then they were going to reach to top and the next day rushed around to the far side of the mountain with food and gas, expecting them to descend down the route of the original ascentionists. But it wasn’t until two days later that they appeared again, rappelling down the NE ridge. They arrived back at basecamp at 10pm that night, exhausted and frost bitten, but knowing they’d pulled off a remarkable ascent. The best Himalayan climb of the decade, Satya predicted.
Back at home, memories of the trip are dulling around the edges. The cold is becoming less cold, the altitude headaches a distance recollection. Did I do the right thing in turning back? I guess I can only trust the instincts I had at the time, and be happy that the expedition was in fact, successful. Already next year’s expedition is on the horizon. The first grant application has its deadline this weekend. Time to get back on the horse!
All photos by Satyabrata Dam