1 AM, 23rd June 2021: We walk through the darkness in a straight line; headlamps illuminating our path on a bed of soft snow. The cold breeze served a twin purpose – its soft, monotonous sway lulling me to sleep as we waited after every few steps for the others to catch up. But, every once in a while, one of its violent blows would almost smack me in my face to jolt me out of my reverie. The walk was straight, the weather was clear and the soft snow held every climber’s footprint like the imprint of fresh memory much before it starts to fade.
This was the first hour of our climb. Unsynchronous, cold but comfortable.
8 AM, 24th September, 2019: It was the most beautiful morning I had ever witnessed. Innumerable ranges of mountains – layer after layer – stretched into a haze at the line of horizon in all four directions. This was right after I had crawled my way slowly up to the summit of Goleb Kangri which is just below the mark of 6000M. The extreme fatigue of the climb, however, kept me from appreciating the beauty, at the time. I had continued to climb, my first Himalayan expedition, against everyone’s better judgement. Coughing, breathless and extremely tired one hour into the climb, I was advised to climb back down to base camp. I didn’t.
11AM, 21st June, 2021: Third day into our trek to Friendship Peak; we were walking from Bakarthatch towards Advanced Base Camp which goes by the queer name of Lady Leg. Walking through towards the end of the greens; there was a deeper appreciation for the orange of the dried, rolled-up ferns littered across the land.
The many colors spread on the bed of the mountain’s slopes, the curious animals taking turns to sniff your neck like gentle lovers, the fresh blades of grass, the distorted reflections in the dew settled comfortably on every surface it could find, the tall trees of the forests we left behind, the nip in the wind, the swooshing of over-zealous clouds above, and the most formidable peaks of the range indulging in childish doings – playing a game of hide and seek. My mind was racing to capture every tiny detail along the trail, memorize the scent of every turn, the touch of every cloud and listen close to the concert of the winds. It was sensory overload. I marvel at people who feel rested – at peace – in the mountains. Me; my mind goes 500 miles an hour trying to soak in all the information at my disposal, continually reminiscing what I left behind every second to go into the next second. The sense of urgency brought on by not wanting to miss anything, and the undivided focus required to walk on these precarious slopes required me to create a balance between the two and the process fascinated me to no end.
We made it to the camp at 12 AM, but my mind was still busy at work.
05:30 AM, 24th September, 2019: Faltering on the 55–60 degree ice wall, I would have to stop after every 10 steps on this near vertical wall in order to steady my labored breathing. The sun was starting to come up now – but the warmth and light did little to renew my energy. Once at the top of the ice wall, I sat myself down to take my crampons off and was ready to give up. I tried.
I got here. I am exhausted. I want the sanctuary of my tent and at least 72 hours of uninterrupted sleep. That’s what it will take for my body to recover. All this was going through my mind – I was readying myself to make peace with not having reached the summit, when I heard my co-climber yell out to me,
R: “Get your ass off the ground”
Me: No, thank you! I think I am done…
R: No way! The summit is just 100 M from where you are, just behind this rock! You HAVE to see it. It is beautiful!
Me: No thanks…(I had been hearing the end of the climb is just around the corner for the last 5 hours. I had lost all faculties of trust to the cold by now)…Why don’t you go ahead, I will wait for you here…
R: Dude, I’m not even kidding. I swear, it’s right here. You are not sitting there. Get off your ass, right now!
I don’t know what got me to get up but got up, I did. Although, I didn’t expect it, summit actually was around the corner this time! I did make it after all. I felt invincible.
5 AM, 23rd June, 2021: After the first (comfortable) hour of the climb from Advance Summit Camp on Friendship Peak, we hit a peculiar patch. The strange ice boulders jutting out of the snow bed below required us to watch every step, and constantly shift our weight. The incline of the slope was no help either. The gradient only rising, I figured this queer patch would only be a temporary nightmare before we hit some smoother slopes. I couldn’t have been more wrong! What makes climbs manageable for me is the monotony and rhythm of placing one foot after the other; the movement going on auto-pilot after a while so I can then focus on the terrain and the internal movements of the self. The three hours of seemingly never-ending slopes with the massive boulders blocking my way, needing me to adjust the length of each step, was wearisome to say the least. I found myself lagging behind at the end of the group now. I had ambled onto Goleb Kangri, a 6000M peak, how was it that I was now struggling to keep up with the group on a peak which was 5389M – I had hit this altitude before – it should have been relatively easier for me. It wasn’t.
5 AM, we finally make it out of this galactic land, onto the smooth slopes I had so long been waiting for. Morning light was starting to make an appearance too. Everything was finally starting to look fair weathered. This put me in my comfort zone again which I can say now, is not a pretty place. Three of us were climbing up the 50-degree slope to reach the col. The others had already made it up to the col where we were to finally take a break – eat our packed breakfast and take some time to soak in the mighty views. Col offered an expansive view of both the peaks – Pir Panjal and Dhauladhar – and provide you with a bird’s eye view of the entire city of Manali. I could see the backs of my co-climbers who were sitting in a straight, horizontal line on the col, facing the magnificent view which was slowly coming to life in the rising light of the sun.
The Fall: Comfort had seeped into my body again, after hours of plodding through the mountain; I was slipping into a reflective and literal slumber. It didn’t last long. Exactly 10 steps from the col, I suddenly find myself sliding down the smooth slope I had spent the last hour and a half climbing - head down, on my stomach. This fall seemed to have come from nowhere. One second, I was about ready to be introduced to 5 inches of flat land and rest my feet to a view I would have earned. The next second I was on my way down; my skin burning from the brush against the ice. This wasn’t supposed to happen. Jolted out of my languid state, I was flailing my hands in all directions trying to find something to hold on to – where were those annoyingly jutting out snow boulders when I needed them? The evenness of the slope seemed to have accelerated my slide. After what seemed like a few seconds, I couldn’t help but think that I was going to fall to my death. In retrospect, it seems a bit too dramatic, but at the time the scare was real. I was to slide down to the base of the slope, head first, smash it on impact and that would be the end of it – everyone would know how abhorrent my packing skills were!
After a few more seconds had passed…
There was no way I could break my fall, now also adding flailing legs to the equation. I was to now come to terms with the very dramatic possibility and the very visual image my mind had already sketched out and presented to me. I found myself thinking – “Oh! I might die. It’s been a good life – it actually wouldn’t be so bad if I did!” (who knew my mind is so into theatrics). The second I eliminated the theater in the fall, my anxiety found its purpose defeated and decided to retire. From the corner of my eye. I saw the ice axe, very loyally, following behind me; the loop still stuck in my wrist. One look at the ice axe, and I immediately knew what to do. All the training during my certification courses and the many practice runs during the trek suddenly kicked in. I retrieved my ice axe while still sliding down, dug the front end into the ice to arrest my fall and turn myself over so my feet were down towards the end of the slope. Next, I stabbed the front of my crampons into the ice and used those footholds to lift myself up. I walked back up the slope three times faster than I had the first time!
The beginning of the end: Extremely embarrassed by the fall, I sat silently down next to my co-climbers and nibbled on the sandwich we were given the previous night before we started. I refused to look up – I didn’t deserve this godly view. Now shaking from the shame I felt, the walk forward was a bit harder. Roped up to my team, I was constantly nagged by the loss of pride and the bitterness of defeat – it wasn’t supposed to be this hard, not for me – the mental battle and the growing fatigue slowly shutting my body down.
The retreat: All of this was too much weight to carry. After pushing myself on for two more hours – the summit was still 2 hours away – I finally made up my mind to climb down. When one of my co-climbers requested the trek leader to assist him to the camp, I took the liberty of tagging along – turning back 300M from the summit. It was disheartening but seemed like the right thing to do. My body needed rest. The burning on my exposed skin, from the brush with the snow, was intense – every touch of air made my skin sear like it was on fire.
You first climb the mountain in your mind: Each climb starts much before you set your first foot on the mountain; it starts in the mind. You climb the idea of the mountain before you climb the actual mountain. I guess every climber makes the journey from fear of the mountain to arrogance that comes from having succeeded once to reverence for the sheer force of this formidable structure. My journey of fear started way back in 2019 with my first peak, transformed into arrogance of having reached the summit despite the odds, to realizing, on Friendship Peak, that we can never be stronger than the mountain. That it isn’t just about the altitude. That success does not depend on your previous achievements – the mountain does not much care for them. These lessons in humility have stayed with me on all my future climbs and expeditions and have definitely made me a better climber. I was made to realize that our relationship with the mountain is not just transactional – the joy does not come from being on them, but being ‘in them’. A fall is not a failure but a learning. And the ability to stand up and still keep moving forward is the ultimate truth of challenging yourself. These are the small wins that need to be acknowledged and celebrated. These are the experiences we need to extract from our time there.
There is no such thing as unfinished business when it comes to mountains.
There’s only pure joy!