Sometime on the eighth day of our expedition to Mt. Gangotri III this year, one of our climbers for the first time wondered out loud if we should continue the summit attempt. Our team had returned to the Base camp from Advanced Base Camp that day. With rains and snow shrouding the slopes for over three days now, the weather seemed inconsolable.
Rohit, our Expedition Leader was not ready to give up yet.
What if the weather cleared up in the following days? They would still be able to make it to the summit!
As it turned out the weather didn’t and our team decided to turn back.
Around the same time, another team from a different trekking group that was attempting summit alongside us chose to stay behind. Each of their members was well experienced and they had come prepared with flexible schedules and enough rations to last the bad weather.
The story we are going to narrate to you today is a series of unforeseen events that unfolded afterwards.
This story is not about right or wrong decisions because there were none in this scenario. Instead, it is about a lesson we learnt in retrospect, a general rule of thumb a trekker/mountaineer could keep in mind when heading into the mountains.
Our team had been trekking for three days now. The weather had been clear, bright and sunny. The route up to Gangotri Base Camp is the same as the one we take to Auden’s Col.
We were a team of five: Rohit (Our Expedition Leader), Thyagaraj Annaswamy (Climber), Binod Shankar (Climber), Mingma Sherpa, Lakhpa Sherpa. PC: Rohit Mishra
“We had an excellent team. Both our climbers were fit, seasoned mountaineers and were well prepared for this expedition. Our Sherpas were no less. Mingma Sherpa had summited Everest eight times. Lakhpa Sherpa had summited Everest three times. And as for me, this was the second time I was attempting the summit to Gangotri III. During my first expedition here, we went up to Camp I after which we had to turn back because of unstable snow conditions.” –Rohit
Day 4: Gangotri Base Camp
The trek to the base camp was a slow but steady one. It took the team a total of six hours to reach the campsite.
Enroute Gangotri Base Camp. PC: Thyagaraj
The base camp is a visual treat in itself setting the stage for a stunning panorama of some of the renowned peaks of the Garhwal Himalayas of Uttarakhand. Basking in its spotlight lay the three Gangotri Peaks striking an imposing pose against the skyline: Gangotri I (6672 M), Gangotri II (6590 M) and Gangotri III (6577 M).
Flanked resolutely by Mt. Rudragaira on the right and the infamous Auden’s Col on the left, the summit of Mt. Gangotri III still seemed far away from here.
“When we reached the Base Camp, we met another team from a different trekking group. They had been staying here for three days now, acclimatising and carrying out load ferry to the Advanced Base Camp in a systematic manner.” -Rohit
Day 5: Acclimatisation and Lessons
The Sherpas began their climb up to Camp 1 to open up route today.
Meanwhile Rohit and our climbers set out to a slope nearby to practice some climbing techniques like jummaring, rappelling and arresting fall on snow.
The other expedition team started their ascent to ABC to establish camp there.
Lessons in progress. PC: Rohit
“Perched at an altitude of 6577 M, the Gangotri III peak in Uttarakhand is perfect for anyone looking to graduate to climbing 7000M+ peaks. Being a technical peak, mountaineers who have prior experience in roping up procedures, use of ice axes and crampons are more suited for this expedition. For a trekker looking to take their first step into mountaineering, they could possibly start with Deo Tibba expedition before attempting a summit like Gangotri III.” –Rohit
Day 6: Load ferry to ABC
The Sherpas conducted load ferry up to Camp 1 while our participants and Rohit carried their materials up to Advanced Base Camp.
Their climb today started with crossing a steady stream of water flowing close to the campsite followed by steep ascents up narrow ridges.
“We followed a different route from my previous time here. In the last expedition, there was so much snow that a snow bridge along the way offered a shorter but steeper ascent to ABC. This time, the snow bridge had melted. So we walked all the way up to Sukha Tal (similar to Auden’s Col route) and then turned right to go to ABC. Turning left at Sukha Tal would have taken us to Auden’s Col.” – Rohit
Views on the way to ABC. PC: Thyagaraj
Although our team maintained a brisk pace, the climb turned out to be a tiring one. It took them roughly four hours to reach ABC.
The weather had turned cloudy by then. So the peaks were not visible from here. After securely covering the goods with a tarpaulin sheet, our team retraced their path to base camp.
“Since it was afternoon time while returning, the snow had melted and the water level in the stream was higher. We had to hop/jump across several sections to cross it. One of our climbers missed his footing once and ended up drenching his shoe in the water”- Rohit
Higher up our Sherpas were simultaneously pitching their tents at Camp 1. They felt opening up route to the Summit Camp would be easier and quicker from here the next day.
Day 7: Occupying ABC
Post a quick offering of prayers to the Mountain Gods, our team began their ascent to ABC. The route was the same as the one they had taken the previous day.
Although the morning started off foggy the weather cooperatively cleared up when they began their climb.
The base camp was surrounded by fog in the morning. PC: Thyagaraj
And by the time they reached ABC, it started snowing heavily once again.
Tents were quickly pitched and our team rushed in to warm themselves up. Once comfortably settled inside the tent, Rohit contacted the Sherpas at Camp 1 through his walkie-talkie for an update of the weather and terrain conditions higher up.
“The Sherpas told me that the weather was miserable at Camp 1. They couldn’t open up route all the way to summit camp. They had to stop 200 metres below because of low visibility and snowfall. Dropping the technical gear and equipment they were carrying with them at this spot, they began their descent down the slope. Instead of staying in their tents pitched at Camp 1 however, Mingma and Lakhpa Sherpa continued their climb down to the Base camp. They planned on staying there until the weather improved. Both our participants and I chose to camp at ABC since we had pitched our tents not too long ago and had just settled in.” –Rohit
En route the Sherpas stopped at ABC to have a word with Rohit and the team.
“They were soaked and drenched and still in their climbing boots. Words weren’t needed. Their appearance more than conveyed what the weather was like higher up.” – Rohit
Day 8: Back to Base Camp
It continued to remain gloomy and foggy throughout the day.
According to the updates the other team had received on the satellite phone, the weather was expected to improve in the following days. So they chose to stay put at ABC.
Contrary to the positive weather updates, the overcast skies didn’t look like they were going to open up anytime soon. After a quick discussion with the Sherpas, Rohit and our two climbers decided to wind up their campsite at ABC and join the Sherpas at Base Camp.
Perspective shot of the Base Camp. PC: Thyagaraj
There were two reasons behind this move:
- The altitude is lower at BC, so it is better for their bodies.
- They could consume nutritious food (instead of the high altitude ration available at ABC) thanks to the kitchen tent set up at BC. This would keep them better protected against the bad weather.
Day 9: The worst weather till date
Much to everyone's dejection the weather turned worse today. It started snowing heavily at 5 a.m in the morning. By 8 a.m that day, this snowfall had turned to rainfall and had begun lashing at the slopes unceasingly.
A dense, impenetrable cloud of gloom had settled over the campsite.
“We pretty much did nothing today. We ate, we rested. Everything was cold, wet and foggy. For the first time, one of our participants suggested we turn back and quit altogether.
I wasn’t ready to give up yet. We had already opened up route to summit camp. To top it all, we had a team that was capable of pulling off the attempt within the given timeframe even if the weather cleared up by tomorrow.
So, to keep their spirits up, I narrated stories from other treks and expeditions where we had faced worse weather and terrain conditions and still made it through.
But the stories didn’t seem to help. Since the route between Camp 1 and Summit Camp is prone to avalanches, we would have to wait a good 48 hours for the fresh snow to settle before attempting summit. We would have to cram our schedules to make it to the summit and back on time.
It was a risk both our participants couldn’t afford to take since they had commitments at work post the expedition. So it was finally decided that I would drop both our participants back at the road head safely the next day. Post that, I was thinking of returning afterwards to attempt the summit once again.” – Rohit
Day 10: The journey back
Contrary to Rohit’s optimistic musings the previous day, the weather showed no signs of changing its stance today. ABC and Camp 1 were no longer visible from where our team stood.
It struck Rohit for the first time that he might have to abandon the idea of a summit attempt altogether.
“We packed our bags quietly that morning to begin our descent to the main road head. The Sherpas headed up the slope to Camp 1 to collect their tents and equipment that they had left behind” –Rohit
In contrast to the grim gloom of air that pervaded the base camp, the walk back to the road head was surprisingly pleasant and uplifting.
The views were spectacular while returning! PC: Thyagaraj
“As we lost altitude, the skies got clearer. The trees looked greener. There was no snow or mud on the paths. The sun wasn’t out. The rains weren’t either. Instead there was a light refreshing breeze in the air. The walk back was gratifying enough visually that we felt our spirits rise up once more.” –Rohit
Later in the day, Rohit received a call from the other team on his walkie-talkie. They had reached out to update him about the weather conditions higher up.
“At ABC, the weather had continued to remain foggy and misty. To add to the dejection, an avalanche had taken place not far from where they were camping. In fact, it had stopped just 200m above them. Had it continued on its path, it would have wiped out their entire campsite! Unsettled, they returned to BC to wait out the bad weather. Worried after receiving this news, I contacted the Sherpas to update them since they were on their way to Camp 1 to collect their tent and equipment. They assured me that they would take care and would turn back in case the terrain seemed unstable.” –Rohit
Ten days later:
Our team members were back in their highly scheduled fast paced lives settling into the rhythm of routine as they managed their day to day tasks.
Rohit, now in our office in Delhi, contacted one of the members from the other team to enquire about the expedition. The story that followed was a chilling one, both figuratively and literally!
“The weather had cleared up soon after we left the place. After waiting the required time for the fresh snow to settle, the other team had begun their ascent to the summit once more.
In a matter of two days, thanks to the good weather conditions, they had established camp at the Summit Campsite. They were planning on pushing for summit the day after.
Little were they aware of the near death experience that awaited them in the wee morning hours. Each of them was fast asleep inside their tent when a huge avalanche hit their campsite.
In a matter of seconds the avalanche had buried their tents along with them inside it under the snow! Thanks to their expertise and knowledge, each of the members quickly tore open their tents and dug their way out of the snow.
Their belongings however remained buried underneath.
While the route between camp 1 and summit camp is an avalanche prone zone, the summit campsite is generally considered safe. In fact, no avalanche has been reported in this campsite until this point.
Thoroughly shaken, they abandoned their equipment there and made their way back to the base camp with just their climbing shoes on.
To think I was there on the very same slopes just a few days ago contemplating attempting the summit once more was a little terrifying after hearing their story!
But on the brighter side, I was also relieved that there were no casualties. Except for some minor bruises and cuts, each one of the team members had made it back safely.” – Rohit
Looking back, there was nothing good or bad about the decisions each team had taken.
We decided to turn back because we were working on a tight schedule and couldn’t afford to wait a few more days to attempt summit.
The other team had featured in a generous allowance for changes in weather and terrain conditions and were operating on a more flexible schedule.
Each member was knowledgeable, fit and was embarking on the expedition after meticulous preparation.
There were no reckless moves made and safety aspects were taken into account at every step.
In retrospect Rohit felt this expedition has left him with a different perspective to ponder over in mountaineering.
“When there are changes in weather conditions at high altitude, it is perhaps better to return to a campsite at a lower altitude and wait, even if the campsite you are at currently is deemed safe.
Although Mingma and Lakhpa Sherpa could have stayed at Camp 1 when the weather turned bad, they made it a point to climb down to BC (not even ABC) unmindful of the snow and rain they had to face on their way back.
The altitude at BC is lower, the temperatures are bearable and on mountaineering expeditions, this move not only means better safety but also access to nutritious food instead of high altitude ration.
Maybe 9 times out of 10, a move such as this might seem unnecessary.
But it just might make all the difference that one time an avalanche decides to visit you at a campsite” –ROHIT