The sun was down, wind grew cold – another day was almost over. The sight that was in front of me, however, held me captive, arresting my gaze. Peaks so distinct and misshapen as if they were modeled with clay stood so high. They seemed like they were paying the skies a friendly visit. The color of the skies changed with every little movement of the sun like it was blushing all shades of golden and red from the attention. There was so much action, all played out in the utter silence of the last evening light.
This was day 3 of my trek to Pangarchulla in the chilly month of November. The day was literally a breeze, it whizzed by in a jiffy but left me with a sensation that would last for much longer after it was gone. The campsite was not at a really high altitude – 3,400M to be precise. It was extremely cold for that height. I, for one, had certainly not expected it. I have gone higher, and my down jacket usually doesn’t come out up until 5,500M but here I had to fight the urge to keep away from it. One reason for that was the location of the campsite, which is literally a massive, open field with nothing to block the icy winds from getting to you. There is no guard for protection. We were 7 of us, each one shivering to our souls. If you stayed real quiet and listened very close, you could probably hear the rattle of our bones playing to the beat of the cold winds. It was also true that each one of us had willingly sought out these inhospitable conditions and each one of us was smiling through our chattering teeth, from the experience.
A Tender Conversation
All of us huddled together in the dining tent once we were able to tear our gaze away from the theatre the peaks and the skies had put on for us. Rejoicing the warmth of the crowded shelter, we knew we had to, at some point get out and make our way to our individual tents. Conversations in the tent, with perfidious attacks of infectious laughter, were a stark contrast to the tender dialogues playing out in the dying light of the day outside.
Under the cover of incessant chatter, we were secretly delaying going out into the cold wind. But given that we had to start for the summit in a couple of hours, eventually forced us to push through our reluctance so that we could rest our bodies for what’s to come. As we tucked ourselves in for the night, the performance of the elements of nature outside went on about. Now with deepened colours and an additional cast in the form of the almost full moon and an army of shining stars, it was getting more dramatic by the minute. Sadly, we couldn’t stick around for the climax.
Changing Hues of the Night
If I had thought last evening was spectacular with its burst of colours, I was in for a surprise when I woke up at 2AM to start our climb to the summit of this 4,590M peak. Although it was the dead of the night, the almost full moon and the million stars were enough to keep the poetry outside my tent, alive. The deep purple of the night skies held the bright moon steady in its place as it drenched the innumerable peaks in its silver light.
The outside had deepened in colour but certainly not dampened in its beauty. The nip of the night air was enough to jolt me out of my slumber – packed and ready, with a surprising spring in my step, I was all set to start the climb.
There was a lot of ground to cover before I had to worry about exhaustion, however. Alternating between feeling cold and getting mesmerized by the virgin beauty of the landscape dressed in fresh moonlight, flashes of cold wind swooshed past me jolting me back to the reality of the place. As we waited for our co-climbers to catch up with us, all bunched up behind a rock, to keep ourselves from the over-zealous winds, the spectral peaks stood in layers of gray, fading into the dark of the night. The very peaks which were shining golden just hours ago in the last light of the sun now took on a ghostly appearance with the ones closest to us standing taut in solid black with each subsequent layer behind turning a slighter shade of gray. The shift in colours was almost surreal turning the romance in the place to a dark, mysterious horror.
Colours of the Mountain
Winter is usually dreamt of in a monotone of white. This winter trek, however, does not equal a bland terrain. It takes you through lush landscapes and verdant mountain faces filled with deodar, oak and birch trees right up to the last day before the landscape turns dichromatic with the beginning of the boulder section - painting the mountain in patches of brown and white.
Every Climb is a Unique Puzzle to Solve
Pangarchulla was a realization in real time that every climb is a conversation between the trekker and the terrain, like a dancer with a song. How else would each dancer find their own way to move to the same song and each climber experience the dance of the climb differently by the end of it? This tiny mountain was a firm teacher which showed by the way of experience that we bring so much of ourselves to the mountain. There are so many ways to engage with it and the way each of us talks to it and lets it drive our climb says so much about who we are. We just bring all of ourselves and our personality to the mountain and the way it interacts with the personality of the mountain determines the nature of each trekker’s climb up that very peak. And that is how climbing is an indulgence – a very individual experience which is shared with others but is still personal to each climber. There were seven of us who were climbing this peak – each one reaching different points on the mountain and each one with a different story to tell of the experience of their time on the mountain!
This trek is known for its summit climb. Usually treks make you forget the weight of your body when you trek on a beautiful trail, but not this one – you are completely aware of your body and your feet and its cumulative weight which seems to get heavier and heavier with each step.
I had lost count of the number of times I had heard from my colleagues that this peak which is known for its insanely long summit push is not one to be taken lightly. Narrating countless experiences of not being able to convince trekkers to continue on as they abandoned their climb just 50M short of the summit, because they were that exhausted. The summit push is so long that it could knock the air out of even the most experienced climbers, I was told. Some said a climb up this little peak was more challenging than some of the 6000M peaks like Stok Kangri and Kang Yatse II. It didn’t seem at all surprising to me that all the rumors about this peak would be true when I learnt that we will gain a total of close to 1,200M of vertical height which is literally 25% of the height gain through the entire 6 day trek – in one day! I was, however, prepared for extreme exhaustion and had a mental plan to push through.
Pangarchulla’s Summit Push – A Hurdle Race
What I did not account for in my mental plan, however, was the peculiarity of the terrain that the peak has to offer. The boulder-strewn landscape blanketed in snow and ice presented us with challenges which the last 3 days of the trek did nothing to prepare us for. This arduous terrain which was in complete contrast of the previous days of the trek took us all by surprise. The sudden gain in altitude, the sudden change in terrain, all required a sudden shift in the mindset to achieve this goal.
Pangarchulla is a complex peak, very difficult to predict and understand fully. It has a dual face – one that it acquaints you to in peak season and the other completely different personality it unveils in the winters, when no one’s looking!
Some say that it is unwise to climb the peak in winters for the massive boulders and the many hidden gaps between these boulders. The brittle ice left behind by the strong winds make the climb more technical, exposing climbers to the brutal cold for longer periods as compared to climbing the peak in other seasons. While it did force a few of the climbers to abandon their climb as soon as the boulder section began, I would go back to the claim of every climb being a very intimate conversation between an individual climber and the mountain. There is special joy in climbing this peak in the winters. The treacherous boulder section along with near vertical climbs and sections with heavy snow and hidden gaps make it essential for you to focus on each step forward. The sense of satisfaction, which is the single most prize of climbing any mountain, is the highest when it is much harder to do. This is, however, in no way saying that safety must be compromised. But I would think it does its share in connecting yourself to your body, forcing you to communicate with it better, and listen to it beyond a sliver of doubt – a way to connect with yourself deeper. This definitely was my experience by the end of this endless climb.
Do Mountains Develop an Inferiority Complex?
Another question resolved itself in my mind during my climb to the top of Pangarchulla which sits bang in the middle of some of the tallest and most revered mountains in the Garhwal Range of Himalayas. Some of the biggies which Pangarchulla finds as its neighbours are Nanda Devi, Dhronagiri, Kamet, Mana, Hathi Ghoda and so many more, each a proud owner of fancy titles such as the tallest mountain in Indian Himalayas, the third tallest mountain on the Indian side, the tallest in the range and the like. I wondered if this humble peak finds itself lost in the midst of these giants. But a climb up this beauty sure left me better informed of the personality of Pangarchulla. It left me with the realization that this humble peak with its modest height feels anything but small sitting in the middle of these giants. It stands tall and it stands confident making a place for itself in this vast range which boasts of more reverential peaks than can be counted on both hands.
This was all about my climb up the top of this gorgeous peak in the winter of 2021. I share this because you can’t and mustn’t own an experience like you can’t own a certain truth. It exists and needs to be released in the world for it to flourish, for it to make the journey of its own, meet other experiences and forge meaningful relationships in the process.
And for this I share my experience; for it to meet yours.