On the 11th day of our expedition in October this year, Arjun (our Assistant Expedition Leader) found himself in a precarious position.
He was 200 metres below summit camp with our team members.
Hinged at their waists to the dewy white slopes of Black Peak, the team sunk deeper into fresh snow as they moved forward.
Wakeel Ahmed, our Expedition Leader, was headed in the opposite direction accompanying one of our participants back to the previous campsite.
With dark, dense clouds looming threateningly ahead in the horizon, it was now up to Arjun to make a call.
Do they set up summit camp or do they turn back?
We have shared many stories with you on the necessity of prioritising safety in the mountains.
But with each situation encountered being a unique one, how do you decide when it is safe to stay and when it is prudent to give up?
Arjun has a helpful tip he picked up from this expedition for us.
In his words, it is a rule of thumb that could never go wrong.
Our climb to the peak was riddled with setbacks right from the first day.
At every step of the way, we had to decide whether to proceed or to turn back.
As frustrating as it was, oftentimes a journey teaches us more than the destination.
This story of our expedition to Black Peak was one such for us.
Alpenglow on the Black Peak. PC: Wakeel Ahmed
A Rainy Beginning
29th September: Set Back No. 1
Today is the second day of our expedition. Our team was at their guest house in Sankri. They had arrived the previous day from Doon and were to start their trek to Seema, the next campsite.
“We had an excellent team this time. There were five participants. All of them were fit and had the necessary experience to attempt an expedition like the Black Peak. Some were also certified in mountaineering courses. And one of them had done the Kang Yatse with us and was attempting Black Peak back to back” – Wakeel
It was pouring outside and it didn’t look like the rains were going to give up anytime soon. So our team decided to stay put at the guest house for the day.
“At one point, Wakeel bhai was wondering if we should cancel the summit attempt. Heavy rains here meant heavy snowfall in the upper reaches of the trail. According to the updates we had received through our sat phone however, the weather was expected to clear up in the next two days. So we decided to wait it out” – Arjun
30th September: Campsite of Seema
The weather continued to remain moody with spells of rain scattered throughout the day. The team decided to trek to Seema. It took almost five hours to reach the campsite.
“There was something almost heavenly about Seema that day. The entire area was enveloped in a fresh hue of green. The locals had planted the Ram Dhana crop which sported bright pockets of red against the serene green of the landscape. Complimented by the Supin river flowing with casual deliberation through the valley, it was one mesmerising view to behold!” – Arjun
Clicked enroute Camp Seema. PC: Wakeel Ahmed
1st October: Seema to Rainbasera
Dark clouds continued to hover over the valley today.
Our team decided to proceed to the next campsite nevertheless.
Enroute Rainbasera. PC: Wakeel Ahmed
“There was a section of the trail where we had to descend down a slope towards the river. It had started raining once again. The entire section had turned slushy and slippery. It was tricky to navigate. The mules and the porters slipped, we slipped and a descent of 15 minutes took us more than half an hour that day” - Arjun
Our team made it to the campsite at around one in the afternoon. It had begun raining heavily by then.
It started raining heavily by the time we reached Rainbasera. PC: Wakeel Ahmed
“So we decided to wait in the shelter present in the campsite. Roughly rectangular in shape, this crude structure of river stones and cement is what gives the campsite its name: Rain-basera. We collected logs of wood and lit up a rudimentary campfire inside the shelter to keep us warm while we waited for the rains to slow down”- Wakeel.
2nd October: Our first clear day
After days of waking up to brooding skies, today was bright and sunny much to the delight of our climbers. To add to the elation, Black Peak and Bandarpoonch were visible from the campsite.
“Sporting an altitude of 6387 metres, the Black Peak or Kala Nag (Black Serpant) derives its name from its uncommon shape (head of a cobra) and color (Black). From where we stood, the peak was snow-capped and white in color. Yet it is referred to as the Black Peak because of how it looks on the other side.
The gradient is steep on the other end (almost 90 degrees). So the snow doesn’t stay on the slopes and the rocky terrain underneath is exposed giving the peak its peculiar color as opposed to the other snow covered mountains around.” – Arjun
A close up picture of the Black Peak. It is shaped like a Cobra's head. PC: Wakeel Ahmed
Being a technical peak, this expedition provides a beginner experience in mountaineering.
“Anyone who has done a BMC or/and a 5000m+ peak can attempt the Black Peak expedition” – Wakeel
After enjoying the views for a while, the team broke camp at 8 a.m and began their ascent to Ruinsara Tal. The trail for most parts ran along the Supin River. It took around 4 hours to reach the campsite.
“The campsite of Ruinsara is a beautiful one! On a clear day, you can see the Swargarohini Peak rising imposingly against the skyline in the horizon. Closer to you on the ground level, the placid green lake of Ruinsara faithfully reflects the mountains above in her crystal clear waters. The lake is surrounded by green fields beyond which two paths diverge. The path on the left takes you to Black Peak while the one on the right leads to the infamous Bali Pass.” -Arjun
Two Steps Forward, One Step Back
3rd October: Base camp of Black Peak
We began the day with an early morning Yoga session before beginning our ascent to the Base Camp.
Yoga at Ruinsara Tal. PC: Wakeel Ahmed
The scenery changes from here. As you walk towards the base camp from Ruinsara Tal, the treeline disappears and is instead replaced by alpine meadows and uneven rocky patches.
The shift in scenery to alpine meadows and rocky patches. PC: Wakeel Ahmed
Some sections of the route are so narrow that only one human can pass through at a time. So, the mules had to take a longer route to the Base Camp.
“By the time we reached the Base Camp, the weather had turned cloudy giving way to heavy snowfall. The mules hadn’t reached the campsite yet.
There was a huge boulder with a grassy patch underneath it. The space was enough to accommodate all seven of us! So we quickly snuck under the boulder to take shelter from the snowfall.
As a stroke of genius, we then opened up the matching umbrellas we had purchased at the Sankri Market and placed it in front of us to create a make shift structure!
Well protected from the snow outside by seven wide umbrellas, we snacked on packed rotis while singing songs and talking in general until the mules arrived. It is one of my favourite moments of the expedition till date! Who knew umbrellas would come in this handy during an expedition?!” – Arjun
Our make-shift umbrella structure under the huge boulder. PC: Wakeel Ahmed
Once the mules arrived, we set up Base Camp and began planning our next course of action.
“Technically, we were supposed to spend the next day acclimatising at BC. Since we had to use one of our buffer days on the first day, we decided to push forth to ABC and spend an extra day acclimatising there.” –Wakeel
4th October: A Standstill
The weather however had other plans.
“There was heavy snowfall, almost 8-10 inches the next day. There was no scope of moving to the next campsite. So we stayed behind. On the 5th of October, the weather had cleared up. But we needed to wait an extra 24 hours for the snow to settle. So we spent the day exploring the area a little and practiced walking on our snow boots.” –Wakeel
Base Camp at Kyarkoti. PC: Wakeel Ahmed
6th October: BC to ABC
Starting here, each member of the team carried their own ration, sleeping bag, mattress and other equipment.
There was a clash of plans with the weather once again. And the terrain wasn’t friendly either. We were entering a landslide prone zone of the trail.
Our team walking through a landslide section. PC: Wakeel Ahmed
“When we started, we had planned to skip ABC and move to Camp 1. But by the time we reached ABC, dense dark clouds were moving towards us. So we decided not to risk an ascent to Camp 1. While summit is a preference, safety is always the priority. So we set up camp at ABC instead.” –Wakeel
ABC with a view of the Black Peak right behind the tent. PC: Wakeel Ahmed
There was palpable dip in the mood and enthusiasm of the team that day.
It almost felt like our team was playing a game of chess with the weather. For every step they tried to take forward, the weather seemed to have a check in place.
With time running out, all they needed was a small window of opportunity where the weather dropped guard. It would be more than enough to make it to the summit and back.
The Game is On
7th October: Camp 1
Our team woke up to cloudy skies.
“The trail to Camp 1 ran through landslide prone areas as well. There were 4 such sections to cross. We couldn’t afford to risk bad weather. So we broke camp a little late at around 10.30 that day” – Wakeel
Gearing up for the climb ahead. PC: Wakeel Ahmed
The trail today was challenging.
“Sections of what once used to be proper pathways lay in rubble of rocks and mud because of landslides that had occurred there. These sections were narrow, steep and slippery. The added weight from the sleeping bag, equipment and mattress made navigation tricky and exhausting. And needless to say, we were advised to keep moving and not pause anywhere in these sections” –Arjun
About three hours away from Camp 1, the weather made her move calling a check once again. It began snowing heavily. Whipping our umbrellas out, we set forth to Camp 1.
“When we began the expedition, umbrellas seemed unlikely accessories to carry with us. I don’t know what prompted each of us to buy them at the Sankri market on the first day. But I couldn’t be more grateful for having gotten one. They turned out to be handy during the expedition.
Ponchos sometimes hinder movement on harder trails. And water proof jackets keep the water out only for a certain period. Beyond that, the water starts seeping in through the stitches. These umbrellas however not only kept us warm and dry but also protected our backpacks from the rain and snow.”- Arjun
Our team reached Camp 1 that afternoon with dampened spirits. The likelihood of a summit seemed less plausible the closer they got.
The snow needed to be leveled before pitching the tents. Arjun began dancing on the snow to level the ground. One of our climbers joined in by singing a song that matched the rhythm of his movement. And within a matter of minutes, laughter and joy had permeated the glum surroundings of Camp 1 warming up our team’s spirits once again from within. PC: Wakeel Ahmed
8th October: Our Counter Move
The window of opportunity our team had been waiting for finally opened up today in the morning. The skies had cleared and the weather updates received over the Sat phone were positive.
“We were unsure of how long the clear weather would last in the following days. So post a quick discussion with the guides, we decided to skip summit camp and directly push for summit from Camp 1 that day.” - Wakeel
Charged up from the unexpected change of plans and the possibility of a summit seeming feasible for the first time, our climbers quickly armed themselves with the required snow gear and began their climb at 8 am that day.
“The trail begins with a crevasse crossing section. Challenging and tricky, this 400-500 metre long section took almost an hour to cross. It helped that our guide Sulekhram has led several expeditions to the peak before us. Well experienced, he was familiar with the route and knew which sections to avoid while navigating the crevasses.” – Arjun
Meanwhile the weather, much to the relief of our team members, continued to remain clear. The terrain, however, wasn’t as conducive.
“There was soft snow on the ground. As we climbed higher up, the snow level rose steadily. At one point, the snow sat above our calves just short of our knees.” -Arjun
Enroute summit. PC: Wakeel Ahmed
Our guides were having difficulty opening up route as well because of the soft snow.
By 1 p.m that day, post a gruelling climb, our team was 200 metres from the Summit Camp. In snow that was waist deep now, it did not seem feasible to move further ahead.
The higher we climbed, the deeper the snow got. PC: Wakeel Ahmed
“We decided to set up camp there and wait for the snow to settle. But our tents and sleeping bags were there at Camp 1.
I got a list of items each of the climbers needed along with where I could find them in their backpacks.
The plan was to ask Arjun to lead the team forward while I headed back and collected their personal items. Then with the help of our High Altitude Porters, I would climb up to Summit camp with the tents, sleeping bags and mattresses.
One of the participants wanted to forego summit attempt and accompanied me on my way down.” –Wakeel
“As per plan, we proceeded forward while Wakeel Bhai made his way back to Camp 1.
After some time, those dark clouds we had gotten all too familiar with began appearing in the horizon.
It looked like it might snow once again that night.
So even if we set up camp, it wouldn’t be possible to attempt summit the following day.
Fresh snow needs time to settle.
The guides felt the same way too.
I had no way of contacting Wakeel bhai because he didn’t have a walkie-talkie.
So I contacted the porters at Camp 1 instead, asking them to update him once he reached there.
The porters too had seen the dark clouds from Camp 1 and felt it would be prudent to return.
If we turned back now, it would be an indefinite return.
There was no time to attempt summit once more.
Hoping I wasn’t making the wrong decision, I made the call to turn back.” –Arjun
Altitude was recorded and pictures were clicked before turning back. PC: Wakeel Ahmed
“I didn’t know if my decision was right.
I had only spotted the dark clouds at a distance.
It may have snowed that night, it may not have.
There was no way of telling at that point in time.
To top it all, we could have still stayed at the summit camp.
In case it snowed, we would have returned to Camp 1 the next day.
If it didn’t, we would have pushed for summit.
Yet I made the call to turn back for the following reason.
It was past two in the afternoon that day.
Even if Wakeel Bhai and the porters started from the campsite at 3pm,
it would have gotten dark by the time the porters made it back to Camp 1.
If there was no snowfall, this wouldn’t be an issue.
But in case it snowed, it would have gotten risky to navigate the crevasse section on the way back.
This was not worth it.
And the porters were not too keen on making the trip either after seeing the clouds.”
As it turned out, Arjun was right in his decision.
It snowed liberally that night.
A summit attempt would have clearly not been possible.
“Looking back, this moment has been my biggest takeaway of the expedition.
When you have to make a choice between moving forward and turning back under un-certain circumstances, it might help to stick to the following thought process.
First, picture the worst possible scenario under the given circumstance: in my case it was the possibility of a snowfall that evening or night.
Analyse the pros and cons you would face.
In case it isn’t risky for you, analyse the pros and cons for every other member of your team.
This includes other trekkers/climbers, guides, cooks, trek/expedition leaders, porters and every support staff member.
If the situation turns out risky for even one of them, it would be wise to turn back instead of proceeding ahead.
While we may miss a couple of summit attempts this way, personally I feel it would be impossible to go wrong here in terms of safety.
And safety matters more at the end of the day.” - Arjun