The date in our office calendar read 2nd of August, 2019. A Security Advisory had been issued by the Home Department of Jammu and Kashmir, following which tourists were busy scrambling out of the state. Higher up on the very same day, in what seemed like another world, four of our climbers and three Sherpas were diligently setting up camp on a resilient mountain face in the District of Kargil. They were blissfully unaware of the commotion unfolding 5400 metres below them.
Today, I am going to tell you a story that is funny in some places, daunting in others and inspiring throughout. It is the story of our expedition to Mount Nun (7,135 m), the highest peak in the Zanskar range of the Himalayas.
A view from the South face of Mt. Nun. PC: Wakeel Uddin
The story begins on the 22nd of July this year: a pleasant Monday afternoon.
Our expedition team of four had just returned from their acclimatisation walk to the Leh Palace. Allow me to introduce the team to you.
Wakeel Uddin (second from right)
(Quality Check Manager at Bikat Adventures and Expedition Leader)
Climbing Mt Nun is a six year dream come true for him.
“I first came across Mt. Nun in an article six years ago. When I read about the dangerously beautiful crevasses and ice walls one has to traverse to reach the summit, I was immediately hooked. It has been on my list of peaks to climb since then.”
Rohit Mishra (First from right)
(Trek Leader at Bikat Adventures and National Level Judge of Sport Climbing, India)
Of the lot, Rohit has probably had the most terrifying introduction to Mt. Nun.
“In 2017, a friend of mine who attempted the Nun summit lost a fellow trekker to HAPE. Another trekker lost 4 fingers to frostbite during the expedition... It wouldn’t be fair to judge Mt Nun based on these stories though. Mountains never take your life. Lack of knowledge, judgement, preparation and experience do.”
Lalit Yadav (posing with his face covered)
(Trek Leader at Bikat Adventures)
Upbeat and light-hearted, his narration of the expedition is vivid, funny and downright engaging! Do make sure to ask him about it sometime.
“Camp 2 is both my dream and my nightmare, my most favourite and most traumatic part of the expedition!”
Soumen Sarkar (First from left)
(Participant and a long term member of our community)
Although he doesn’t have formal BMC training, years of trekking in the mountains ensured he navigated the hard terrain of Mt. Nun competently. Perhaps, it also has something to do with the fact that his Whatsapp status always reads ‘At the gym’.
“I trained hard to be at my fittest physically. And I trained harder to be fit mentally.”
With a twenty day itinerary set in place, Wakeel, Rohit, Lalit and Soumen spent the next few days trekking to the base camp of Stok Kangri. Although Stok Kangri is not a part of the route to Nun base camp, this detour is required in order to get thoroughly acclimatised to the altitude before attempting the summit. It took a total of six days to complete the trek from Leh to Stok Kangri and then back to Leh again.
28th of July: The beginning of an adventure
The team set forth to Kargil from Leh. The drive took place through long winding roads running past landscapes that were stark and captivating in their isolation.
It would be a lie to say we felt no pressure. According to the data from the Indian Mountaineering Foundation, no team had had success in reaching the summit this year. Between this and dismaying stories of summit attempts heard through the grapevine, we were unsure of what to expect from Mt Nun.
We chose to place our faith and confidence in the proficiency and experience of our four steadfast climbers instead. They were now in Kargil segregating their luggage to prepare for the ascent to the Base camp of Nun.
30th of July: The Base Camp of Nun (4600 m)
It took two days of steady trekking through the quaint village of Tangol to reach the Base camp of Nun. The campsite was rocky and barren with colourful prayer flags playfully crisscrossing through the grey of the landscape.
It was essential to spend a couple of days here to get acclimatised to the altitude and to carry out load ferry.
The basecamp of Nun with prayer flags fluttering in the breeze. PC: Wakeel Uddin
Each day’s schedule was fixed. The Sherpas would leave the base camp an hour early. They will mark the route with tiny red flags and set up ropes where needed. Wakeel, Rohit, Lalit and Soumen would follow these red flags an hour later, carrying essential gear and luggage to drop off at Camp 1.
31st of July: Meeting crevasses for the very first time en route Camp 1 (5440 m)
“I have heard quite a bit about the crevasses of Mt Nun. I was told they would be big, deep and one too many. Having crossed a few during expeditions in the past, I thought I was ready for what Mt Nun had to offer. But nothing, absolutely nothing could have prepared me for the sight that lay ahead of me that day! These crevasses were HUGE!” ― Wakeel Uddin
The terrain from Base Camp to Advanced Base Camp was a steep ascent made of scree and moraine.
Navigating a steep section on the trail. PC: Wakeel Uddin
This was followed by a thrilling crevasse crossing segment. Full of deep, bold and tantalisingly beautiful crevasses, this section needed a considerable amount of technical expertise and time to cross.
A crevasse of Mt. Nun. PC: Wakeel Uddin
“Some crevasses were so wide and so deep that they could easily accommodate, say 500 people and still have space for more!” ― Rohit Mishra
To the relief of all four of our climbers, once the crevasses were crossed, it was a gradual ascent all the way up to Camp 1.
After three days of consistent load ferry, acclimatisation and catching up on some much needed rest, Camp 1 was finally established on the 4th of August.
Camp 1 set up at Mt. Nun. PC: Wakeel Uddin
“We got our first glimpse of Mount Nun at Camp 1. Thick clouds were hovering over the summit. We stayed outside our tents hoping for the weather to clear so as to get a wholesome view of the peak. Luckily enough, the clouds did move away after some time and we were treated to our first grand view of the mountain. It is one memory that is going to stay captured in my head for a very long time.” ― Lalit Yadav
The grand memory that Lalit said would stay with him for a long time was super imposed by an even prettier view of the mountain the very next day. When he stepped out of the tent in the morning, he witnessed a second glorious version of the mountain: the snow covered peak of Nun glowing a fierce reddish orange in the early morning rays of the rising sun.
From Camp 1, the summit seemed deceptively near but Lalit knew better.
From Camp 1, it felt like you could just reach out and touch the summit. PC: Wakeel Uddin
“After settling down at Camp 1, I sat outside and watched the Sherpas making their way to Camp 2, opening up the route in advance for us. An hour into the climb, these life sized humans looked like tiny caricatures against the larger canvas of Mt Nun. It hit me for the first time that we still had miles to cover to reach the summit.” ― Lalit Yadav
5th of August: Is this a legit campsite?! (6000 m)
Camp 2 truly pushed the limits of everyone. It took around nine hours to reach the campsite out of which seven hours involved jumarring on steep slopes of ice and then rock alternatively.
The air was chilly and the terrain very unfriendly. With crampons attached to the shoes, it was no easy feat to climb these rocks. To complicate matters, water was limited in availability. Each climber had exactly one litre of water to subsist on for the nine hour stretch.
9 hours later:
The team found themselves huddled together on a narrow ridge with a sharp fall of 800 metres on their left hand side, not far from where they were standing. Mingma, Dawa and Norbu Sherpa joined them here. The ridge strangely felt crowded even though it was just the seven of them standing there. Exhausted and worn out from the day’s climb, they wanted to know how much farther the campsite was.
The answer the Sherpas gave was enough to jolt them out of their debilitated states.
The ridge was the campsite for the day!
“The ridge was so narrow that it could hardly accommodate four tents. And we couldn’t possibly step out of our tents without anchoring ourselves to a rope. You get it right? We will have to anchor ourselves to a rope to even tend to washroom needs. None of us wanted to step out that day! ― Wakeel Uddin
A tent precariously pitched on the ridge that is Camp 2. On the left hand side of the tent is a sharp fall of 800 m. PC: Wakeel Uddin
6th of August: Summit camp (6,380 m)
It was a moderate climb all the way up to Summit Camp the following day.
“At higher altitudes, the terrain and trails change rapidly with time. Glaciers here move at the rate of 1cm every 24 hours. So, a route that existed last week may not exist this week.”― Wakeel Uddin
In fact, two of the Sherpas who summited Mount Nun the previous year were saying the same thing. The trails between Camp 2 and the Summit Camp had changed drastically in the last one year.
5 hours later at the Summit camp:
Mount Nun now stood closer than before. In fact, it stood right behind the tents pitched at the campsite.
Three hours after setting up camp, the weather turned moody with light snow showers drizzling down on the camp site.
Enroute the Summit Camp. PC: Wakeel Uddin
Owing to the weather conditions, it wasn’t going to be possible for the Sherpas to open up route that day. So they decided to leave at midnight instead. The team would follow at 1.30 am that morning.
7th of August: Climb to the summit (7135 m)
12.00 am: Sherpas leave summit camp to open up the route.
01.30 am: Wakeel, Rohit, Lalit and Soumen start their climb to the summit.
03.00 am: For the first time in the expedition, the weather turns unfavourable.
“We weren’t sure if we should proceed given the unstable weather conditions. We decided to keep climbing for another hour. In case the weather did not stabilise by then, we would have to turn back and attempt the summit another day.” ―Wakeel Uddin
04.00 am: Things take a turn for the worse. A section of the trail has a crevasse so huge that it isn’t going to be possible to cross it. The weather on the other hand seems to be stabilising slowly.
04.30 am: The Sherpas and the team choose to re-route and re-rope the entire section of the trail. The alternative route is longer and is going to cost them three extra hours of climbing in the cold.
“The only thing that was harder than ascending the steep slopes to the summit was waiting for the route to be roped while doing nothing. The sun wasn’t out and standing still in the cold wasn’t helping with maintaining the core body temperature.” ―Lalit Yadav
07.00 am: The summit ridge was 300m away. To everyone’s utter dismay, the entire section was full of soft snow that ran knee deep and sometimes even waist deep in certain sections. It takes a total of three hours to traverse the last 300 metres.
“The air was getting thinner. And the presence of soft snow only made things worse. I would take one step, pause for a few minutes to gather my energy and then take the next step. The progress was painfully slow.” ― Soumen Sarkar
10.30 am: Our resolute team reaches the summit. It is the first successful ascent of Mt Nun for the season and the first successful 7k+ expedition for Bikat Adventures!
With no food, a litre of water to go on for the entire day and an additional three hours of climbing due to last minute changes in the route, there was so much versatility in the emotions coursing through each of our weary climbers at the summit.
“There were moments on the trail when I wondered why I was doing what I was doing right then. All of that, however, was answered the moment I reached the summit. The feeling was priceless and it was totally worth all the hardships we went through. A part of me felt happy. A part of me wanted to cry. A part of me was proud. A part of me wanted to express it all. A part of me wanted to express nothing at all. It was just overwhelming!” ―Wakeel Uddin
“I felt happy and proud. I started the trek with some trepidation about the technical sections. But the team and the sherpas were a wonderful support system to have and they made traversing the tricky sections easy. Especially the sherpas! And I will never forget the 90 degree ice wall I had to climb to reach the summit!”―Soumen Sarkar
“To be honest, I was too exhausted to even feel anything. The thrill of completing the summit hit me much later that day when I descended down to the summit camp and had my first sip of water!” ― Lalit Yadav
“I felt the same way Lalit did. Too exhausted to feel anything at all.
The descent factor was weighing in on my mind too. Did you know that almost 80-90% of the injuries happen while descending during an expedition?
A successful summit is never really about making it to the summit. It is about making it back to the base camp safely after touching summit point. I truly felt the exhilaration of the summit seep in after reaching base camp the next day.” ―Rohit Mishra
Looks like Wakeel and the Sherpas felt the same way about descent too. After a brief photography session, they gathered the team members around and reminded them to be extra cautious while descending that day.
The temperatures were steadily dropping and it was beginning to get foggy. It took around two and a half hours to reach summit camp. Cold, exhausted and worn out, they settled down in their tents for the day to catch up on some much needed rest.
Post getting some food and water into their system, the reality of the summit climb finally began to sink in.
That night, each climber drifted to sleep with the satisfaction of having summited Mount Nun safely despite the odds that faced them that day.
8th of August: Bidding adieu to Mt Nun
They retraced their path back to the base camp, all the while recounting memories they had shared over cuppa noodles and green tea just a few days ago at the very same locations.
A little happy about returning to civilisation, a little forlorn about bidding adieu to this wonderfully tough mountain, they drew the expedition to a close in a little dhaba fit snugly into a remote corner of Leh, the only one that happened to be open that day.