So the journey started. Every time I sit in the bus to the starting point of a trek or expedition, I feel as if a Start button has been pressed. The preparation typically begins many days in advance for any expedition that we plan but somehow the moment finally clicks when I am in the bus! May be its because we are busy with so many things in our daily work schedules and when finally the journey starts, the mind space gets finally allocated and focussed to that particular expedition.
I had reached Manali one day prior to the beginning of the biggest Exploratory Expedition that we had planned this year, Friendship Peak. Recently I wrote about how Bikat explorations are different & raw and got so many calls or texts getting curious about the same. We have done such explorations in the past as well but somehow I guess, when you pen down something, it starts playing on people’s mind. I was a bit more cautious of this fact this time before I met the team. I had a few permits to clear and some last minute tasks to be checked off my list. Most of my day was consumed in the same. Before I went to sleep in our rented accommodation in Jagatsukh, I suddenly started feeling some butterflies! It was truly strange. Had not happened for a long time and I was not sure why would this happen today! This was the first time I was leading an expedition and too many things were clocking in my mind, the biggest was team combination. I had never really chosen a team for any event ever but this time I said ‘no’ and ‘yes’ to people. I was feeling a bit guilty for all the “No’s” and apprehensive for all the “Yes’s”at the same time. I have this habit of counting my plans to the mind whenever I am in doubt because it’s shit scary for me to remain in confusion. All this ordeal continued for a long time in the night and I did not realize when I dozed off.
So the morning light was shining and I was ready for it. Whatever happens, I always tell myself at the beginning that this is what always mattered and all is ‘as per plan’. Those who have trekked with me would have noticed that whenever we start late in the morning (I mean later that what was planned) or if something planned has changed at the last minute, I always bury it at the formal beginning ground and declare loudly that “we are perfectly as per plan!”. I don’t really do it for anyone else but only for myself… It is just important for me to believe so. This may sound like confession box sounds but.
We (the team) had to meet at Mall road, Manali on 21st May morning from where we all can move in a common vehicle till Dhundi. When I met the team and we started the road journey, the same questions started rolling in my head again but that’s when loners get their learning. One of the team members, Taral started talking on very creative notes. Hash and alcohol were the creative topics and I was the sole respondent to imaginary situational queries by Taral and her friend Dhruvi, I say imaginary because they did not have or wanted to have anything like that … they had just made up something for me! Just imagine. Did they know what I was thinking?
So we reached Dhundi by around 1015 hrs and quickly started hiking towards the Base camp with our sacks. Today would be the only relaxed day of the exploration because some mules decided to help us till the Base camp. Off course their owners charge for these cute animals! When we reached the base camp, our Head Cook, Panna had already set up the kitchen tent at a stable place covered by boulders from 3 sides. Since, Bakkarthatch can witness strong winds sometimes, carefully picking up points for tents is necessary at the Base Camp. Let me take the honour of introducing my climbing team now:
- Ritvij – Self-proclaimed leader of this expedition who was trying to sound all confident & strong but was nervous
- Rajat – The guide! A young and strong climber who has just been selected for Climbathon, was looking for some good climbing practice with this expedition.
- Irshita – She is one super excited individual full of enthu and energy. She looked to be the most prepared among all team members (as it would turn out she actually was). She had done two snow treks with us in the past.
- Dhruvi – Another certified mountaineer, she was a silent killer. Talk less deliver more seemed to be her funda for life and the sincerity on her face cleared many doubts that I had.
- Ananth – The only male team member apart from me & Rajat. He had attempted Stok Kangri in the past and was a regular trekker. Deceptive looks, less words, a bit carefree, the guys had ‘promise’ written all over.
- Taral –Miss lazy J (as I would name her later). An extrovert and very friendly girl who ensured that ice-breakers are left for axes and crampons, none required between team members.
- Panna – The head cook and logistics in charge for the expedition. A strong local man, who was excited for the new challenge that he had also taken up for the first time.
Another cook for the base camp and 3 porters (ibex as we call them for climbing expeditions) were adding to the strength of the team.
On the way to Base Camp
Since most members were new to Mountaineering, I thought a detailed briefing about the equipment would help before we distribute the same among ourselves for the rest of expedition. The session went really well with all members getting fully involved and asking questions. Crampons were also adjusted to size today itself.
Day 2 – The Load ferry
I knew this would be a unique day because all those who trek are used to moving through camps but load ferry in usually reserved for expeditions. Although Friendship is a trekking peak but we were giving it full honours of an expeditions for 3 reasons:
- We were one of the first groups of this season to attempt the snow clad peak (5289 mts)
- Although the altitude is not so high but the peak has certain features that pushes it towards expeditions like crevasses, sharp altitude gain from Summit Camp (4033 mts), walking on sharp ridges that require roping up, and almost perpendicular climbs that require fix rope for ascend as well as descend.
- This one is a bit selfish but we as Bikat adventures wanted to learn expedition style. We have organized Stok in the past but that does not include much technicalities, so this was a good opportunity.
The route today was easy but one of us had a phobia of falling from boulders that caused a bit of excitement through the day. I was feeling relaxed and we kept moving at a steady pace. Crossing Beas streams near the Beas Kund was a beautiful experience and captured the day for me. We kept moving at a steady pace till we finally reached highest point of the day – a small gully through which you cross sides on the spur of the mountain on the eastern side of the Beas Kund. Top view of Beas Kund from here is awesome!
After reaching “Lady Leg”- our Advance base camp for the expedition, we quickly set up our kitchen and had lunch. The weather was starting to behave tricky already and we did not want too much rain to drench us. As we were gearing up to turn back, we saw someone coming down to the site from behind. People guessed but I knew who the surprise package was. I had thoughtof revealing the surprise later but as it happened, even I was surprised by the super-fast ascent by Jeelani, our final team member. He had to join us a day later but he somehow had the strength to climb all his way up till ABC from Dhundi in record timing and catch up with the team at ABC itself!
8. Jeelani – Another certified & tough mountaineer, who has numerous photons of energy and patience packed in himself. He joined us as the Technical Support Guide.
The journey back was a little wet and fast. The evening was very windy and we spent a lot of time sitting in the kitchen tent, trying to remain warm.
On the way to ABC for Load ferry
First View of Friendship Peak
Day 3 – Move to ABC
The target today was to start early morning today because the weather was forecasted to be bad afternoon onwards. We started at around 0730 hours and reached ABC by 1130 hours. The climb today was steady, fast and encouraging. For the first time, I and Rajat were feeling really confident that the team has everything needed to scale the Summit. This was the last time I thought about the team and from here I had no doubts but only plans. I guess all may not go smoothly for a great learning experience. So, the weather decided to get worse much earlier that forecasted. Another phenomenon that was building up, which was actually worrying me, was the huge cumulo-nimbus cloud formation in the valley between Friendship Peak and Shitidhar. We spent most of our evening in the tents with stories, jokes, songs and what not. By the evening it was almost clear to me that the weather won’t clear up soon.
Moving to ABC
Friendship Peak View from ABC
Day 4 – Planned for Summit Camp but turned out to be the Snow craft day.
Morning was a bit clear and hopeful. We had plans of moving to the Summit Camp in the afternoon from where we could attempt the Summit in the night. However, the hope soon turned into despair with full white out and hailstorm. Rain, Hailstorm, and snowfall relentlessly tested us through the day and made sure we missed our movement window. Not just that, we also spent most of our time again stuck into tents. When it was almost clear that movement to Summit Camp was almost impossible, we sat together to discuss the future course of action. We decided to make good use of the extra time we had and practiced some snow craft in the afternoon (around 1600 hrs). The session was extremely fruitful where all our new members got a chance to feel the third leg of the mountaineer, jump around, learn self-arrest, toe kicking with snow boots while climbing up and plunging with heel on descent. By the end of the session, all of us were very confident and positive. All the inaction through the day had dulled us a bit but this was truly refreshing. While having dinner, the discussion began for Summit Attempt and we decided to attempt Summit directly from ABC in case we get good window of open weather in the night. The plan was to start a bit early (around 0100 hours), so we went off to sleep early. Despite trying too hard, I just could not sleep. Was my decision correct? Can we make it from ABC? Would the weather give us a window enough? The questions were many and my mental jugglery was continuously active. For the first time, I had respected weather so much that my target was becoming doubtful. I was feeling responsible for all actions and was getting a bit jittery on my decisions for team. As it happens all the time, I dozed off as the mental exercise started plotting roadmaps for me and situation was getting clear in my mind. Summit is the target and we shall wait for a reasonable attempt, may be another day here, but I was hopeful because forecast was of clear whether for the next day.
Day 5 – The Summit attempt
At around 0015 hrs, I heard Rajat calling out and appreciating the clear whether outside. I jumped out of my sleeping bag and saw the stars shining bright in the sky. The excitement was high since we had got the window that we needed for the Summit attempt! All of us got ready, wearing our Snow boots, Gaiters, helmets, head torches, gloves, and harnesses. We could start only by 0125 hours with a small briefing by Rajat and some motivating words by me ( I tried my best. Hope they really were). The team movement order was set last night, Rajat would lead, followed by Taral and Dhruvi, I would be next followed by Ananth & Irshita, Jeelani would be the last man. I was bit of a floater to start with because of my camera but settled in my position when steeper climbs approached.
The first hour of climbing was swift and we reached the Summit Camp site in 57 minutes to be accurate. From here the snow was going to be a bit hard, so we all applied the crampons at this point. The activity took much longer than expected. Members were feeling cold and could just not remember the trick of applying crampons on the boots. Rajat, me, and Jeelani had to pitch in for everyone. When we started from here it was already around 0300 hours, so I recommended focussed and swift movement from here. As we started building up some rhythm of climbing up, I noticed that Ananth was struggling a bit, trying to catch his breath more frequently than normal. Irshita, the super-strong lady of the team, was trying to cheer him up with songs, counting, pep talk and more. Soon, I also joined her in her attempts to motivate Ananth but he was not comfortable at all. I changed the order and asked Irshita to move ahead of Ananth. I and Jeelani were walking with Ananth, carefully watching his situation while I was continuously trying to cheer him up and set some rhythm for him. By around 0630 hours, we were very close to the Shoulder of the peak and Rajat, was feeling very confident of our timing but Ananth’s situation did not improve and he started reporting some symptoms of AMS. I Rajat, and Jeelani did a quick meeting and the decision was to send him down. One of us had to leave along with him. Both Rajat and Jeelani looked at me and I said hell! Why do I have to call out now! Why am I the “self-proclaimed” leader!
Jeelani was the man because Rajat had to guide the remaining team and I was needed by him. It was a terrible moment … I could feel the disappointment that Jeelani felt! I cant even talk about Ananth, poor guy was not just feeling bad for himself but was also feeling guilty for Jeelani. We were not even sure whether he was just tired or it was AMS but as they say whenever in doubt, assume that it is AMS. So we did that and descent was our best option for him.
Almost 45 minutes were spent in organizing all this, I never knew time could be so fast on mountains. Meanwhile, something else was happening with others in the team. The chill in the air was making this uninvited rest into an exhausting experience. Not just we lost our rhythm but Taral, Dhruvi, and Irshita also got a bit frustrated. They even started moving ahead without Rajat or me. We had to shout and call them to halt before Rajat resumes the guide’s position. Putting all this behind, we started climbing again and soon reached by shoulder, around 0800 hours. The weather had started worsening and I estimated that we might have only the 2-3 hours for our Summit climb and back to the shoulder. This is because the climbs ahead of the shoulder would be very steep as we enter into the crevasse zone and the approach route is very narrow.
We used roping up and fixed rope climbing at various points but we were definitely slower than what we did a couple of hours ago. Taral had lost her rhythm and was finding it difficult to cover up the problem of lack of time with faster pace of climbing. Irshita, with all her energy was feeling limited by the team but I guess that would be her learning from this expedition. She is very strong and energetic but mountaineering is much more than that! Dhruvi as always was determined and steady but I guess the altitude or tiredness caught her as well. A small quarrel between 2 fast friends, Taral and Dhruvi erupted at 4700 mts while being tied to the same climbing rope! By the time we reached our “Duck – Worth Lewis” target – The Solo Summit of Friendship peak, emotions were at their peak. Irshita was almost completely frustrated and about to cry, Dhruvi feeling bad for her heightened temper, Taral feeling totally exhausted and a bit guilty. These emotions are my guesses, I could not talk to the team members openly about them, so they may be completely wrong guesses altogether. I was feeling all mixed up, I just could not assimilate my feelings at all. Before anything could really sink in me, I had thoughts of the already arrived white out covering my mind. We did not even get a nice photography window at the Summit. It was all white out by the time we reached there. So, my mind was getting restless about the problems that we are going to face against a safe descent. Now I can say that may be I overreacted there! Had I been on the trail before, I would have been more confident but this was not the case and I was not feeling completely sure. Amid all this, Irshita dropped her phone while trying to shoot her monologue. She was anyways feeling quite heavy, this turned out to be the turning point! She went into tears and the search for the phone turned into an emotionally taxing exercise on snow. To see her crying and searching the phone valiantly in snow was as surely depressing and sad sight for all of us. It was only the energy of the Summit that kept us pepped up.
At the Summit
However, as has always happened to me at such glooming moments, moment of shine arrived. As we were preparing for descent and coiling the rope before fixing up the anchor, the mobile phone appeared and we all went into a huge cheer. This loud and clear cheer raised all of us and soon I realized that the descent was not that difficult at all. With rope being fixed, descent was easy and all of us quickly covered ground till the shoulder. It was relatively safe walking zone from here. That was the moment I tried to look back and see the top. In all this hustle, I had missed my own moment of accomplishment. I should have been feeling a bit sad but I was feeling strangely peaceful and relaxed.
After we reached ABC back, we had a quick lunch and moved towards the base camp. We all wanted a super dinner and comforts of the Base camp now, so, it was decided that we move today itself. The only opposition was from Taral but India is democratic J
After reaching the base camp, I sat down alone for some time to absorb the day. It was around 2030 in the night and we had already had one of the toughest days of our lives, 15 hours of climbing and descending. I don’t know why but the fact that made my day was that I was not bad as a leader of the expedition Jjust kidding … but despite being a team of very young & inexperienced climbers that had a leader who was so nervous to start with, we did something that seemed well beyond our limits. Not just that but we were also among the first few groups to have climbed Friendship Peak this season. I guess we can be proud of ourselves!
This might not be Mt. Everest and we might not be a team of celebratedmountaineers but it was my first time and hence, it would always remain special for me. We were safe andI am sure we all felt accomplished (in our own terms) by the end of it.
On the way down to ABC
Day 6 – The party day
Our morning was one of the laziest I have ever had on mountains. All of us had had a tough last day and a good long sleep was expected. We moved back to Dhundi by around 1100 hrs. The highlight of this day is the Expedition party we had in the evening. I won’t reveal much from here but just to mention that the party was also adventurous!