On the 11th of June this year, a little after the sun had risen to clear blue skies, mild confusion clouded the snow clad slopes of Mt. Deo Tibba. The source of this confusion lay in a cryptic message Somenath (Expedition leader) had left on Rohit’s (Expedition leader) walkie-talkie.
Our team of six were attempting summit that day. To reach the top, one had to brave a climb through a 450m long precipitous gully. Somenath had just reached the top of this gully. The summit was 300 metres away from here.
Meanwhile, a little below, one of our participants who was accompanied by Rohit, resumed her climb up the gully with new found vigour. They had received gratifying news from Somenath. The weather, the terrain and everything else was perfect at the top for a summit attempt!
Twenty minutes later…
Somenath’s voice crackled over Rohit’s walkie-talkie once again. Eager to find out more about what awaited them, they strained their ears to make out his message through the static.
Four words rang out loud and clear this time:
“Turn back RIGHT NOW.”
Backtracking a couple of days:
5th of June: Lessons in Mountaineering
Today is the 5th day of our expedition. We were at our base camp, Seri.
“Perched at an altitude of 6001 metres in the valley of Kullu, Mt. Deo Tibba is perfect for trekkers looking to take their first step into mountaineering. In fact, Stok Kangri (6,153 m) is higher in altitude when compared to Mt. Deo Tibba. Yet Deo Tibba is recognised by the IMF and Stok isn’t because of a unique blend of technical challenges it provides to a trekker.” –Rohit
Post a leisurely brunch, personal equipment (boots, harness, slings, ascender, helmet etc) were divided between our participants. Our team then set out to a nearby slope covered in snow to practice snow walking, ascending and descending techniques using their equipment.
“We had an interesting mix of participants this time. Some had a BMC/AMC in their portfolio. One of our trekkers had just attempted Friendship Peak with us and was embarking on the Deo Tibba expedition back to back. As for the rest, it was their first experience with mountaineering” –Somenath
6th of June: Load ferry to ABC
Our robust participants conducted load ferry along with our porters today to Tenta Top, Advanced Base Camp.
“The trail was a good mix of taxing and challenging. The ascent was steep. And we also had to navigate our way to the top of a frozen waterfall. Some of our participants slipped once or twice but they were adept at self-arresting their fall.” –Rohit
Views on the way to Tenta Top. PC: Rohit
After reaching Tenta Top, our team dumped the load they had been carrying onto a big rock nearby.
Ensuring that the goods were securely covered under a tarpaulin sheet, the team sat down to soak in the view around. The peak of Deo Tibba rose imposingly on the left while Jagatsukh sat reposeful and tranquil on the right.
Some of our goods securely covered under a tarpaulin sheet. PC: Rohit
Dhuangaon Col, the summit camp was also visible from here. Somenath recalled the events that had unfolded in the col last month when he was leading a different team.
“When our previous team reached the Col, we met another batch from a different trekking group. They had been camping at the col for more than two days waiting for the weather to clear. Since the skies were cloudless today, the other group decided to attempt summit in the night.
Wishing them the best, we settled into our tents once the sun set. The next morning, while our participants acclimatised, our guide went to the gully to open up route for summit.
He was taken aback by the sight that lay in front of him. A part of what would have once been a ginormous glacier was dangling precariously at the very top of the gully. The other group had decided to ascend the gully despite this. Sometime later, a huge chunk of the glacier had unhinged itself and tumbled down the slope creating an avalanche.
The guide and a trekker from the other group had gotten caught in this avalanche. Although thoroughly shaken, they were thankfully safe. Our guide quickly helped them get their team together and brought them back to the campsite. Since a part of the glacier was still hanging at the top, our previous team did not attempt the summit.” –Somenath
Looking at the col now, Somenath wondered if the glacier was still there. He did not know. But he did know what his course of action would be if the glacier were present. They would turn back at once.
The next day, on the 7th of June, our team along with the help of our High Altitude Porters successfully established camp at Tenta Top.
Campsite at Tenta Top. PC: Rohit
8th of June: Strenuous ascent
The team was busy with load ferry to the Summit Camp.
“Umesh (our guide) and the porters had trekked ahead to check if the anchors and the ropes were fixed in place. Rohit and I went with our participants. Some of them were feeling the first effects of the altitude today. By the time we reached mid-way, Umesh and the porters were already at the col. Since the weather was turning bad (black clouds were approaching us), we left our things at a spot nearby and covered it with a tarpaulin sheet. We then retraced our way to Tenta Top.” –Somenath
Enroute Dhuangaon Col. PC: Somenath
9th of June: Establishing Summit Camp
Ascent to the campsite was no easy feat. Inclined steeply at 70 degrees, it required considerable technical skill to navigate. The excess load from the previous day that our team picked up en-route only made the endeavour harder.
Ascent to the col. PC: Somenath
Seven enervating hours later, summit camp was established at Dhuangaon Col.
“The bigger of our tents and a considerable portion of our load was left behind at Tenta Top. We only carried the ration and goods we would absolutely need for the next two days.” –Rohit
Our summit camp at Dhuangaon Col. PC: Rohit
Day 10: Preparation
Umesh, Rohit and Somenath set out early to open up route while our participants stayed at the campsite for acclimatisation. To summit Mt. Deo Tibba, one had to negotiate a narrow, steep gully that was 450 metres long.
“For people trained well in mountaineering, this gully provides an excellent terrain to practice some alpine style climbing using ice axe and crampons alone. Since we had participants, we fixed a rope to make traversing easier and safer.” -Rohit
To Somenath’s relief the rest of the hanging glacier that was dangling precariously at the top of the gully had fallen off. The path the glacier had left in its wake as it slid down the slippery slopes of the gully was still visible. It was now safe to navigate this section.
Somenath clicking a quick selfie with Rohit while opening up route in the gully.
“We returned to the camp at around 1 in the afternoon that day. Post a quick lunch, we slipped into our sleeping bags to catch up on some sleep.” –Somenath
05:00 pm that evening:
The team gathered together for a meeting. Our participants were updated about the terrain, the challenges they might encounter and the things they should carry with them for the climb.
A little nervous and a little excited about the summit, each member packed their bags before sneaking in a quick nap in the late evening hours that day.
Day 11: Summit day
12.00 am: Rohit steps out of his tent to a stunning Milky Way spread across the sky!
“In my five years of trekking in the Himalayas, I had never seen a Milky Way so bright! It was burning reddish orange and had left a fiery trail across the dark skies. This was a promising sign of clear weather” –Rohit
12.30 am: Our team has dinner/breakfast, whichever you would like to call it.
“One of our participants looked fatigued. It did not seem prudent to push him through the gruelling summit that awaited us that day. So, Rohit and I suggested he stay back at the campsite. Co-operative and understanding, he agreed to rest at Dhuangaon Col. I double checked his oxygen level before leaving. It read 87, which was safe. We requested one of our medically trained support staff to take care of him nevertheless and then got our team together for the summit” –Somenath
01:00 am: Our zealous team begins the trek.
02.00 am: The team reaches the base of the gully. They start the climb up the treacherous slopes using the rope Somenath, Rohit and Umesh had fixed the previous day.
With every step our members took, the gully sloped steeper unsparingly. The climb was fatiguing and the progress seemed slow but our relentless trekkers kept at it nevertheless. The clear weather and the possibility of a summit left them in high spirits.
05.30 am: Three and a half gruelling hours later, four of our team members make it to the top of the gully one by one. Somenath and Umesh reached first followed by Pradeep (participant) and Sameer (participant).
“The sun had risen by now. The weather, much to our relief, was perfect. On my left hand side, the sturdy peak of Deo Tibba shone contentedly in the early morning sunlight. With just 300 metres of ascent left, it already felt like we had reached the summit. On my right hand side, Mt. Indrasen stood a little taller. And all around us, the skies were clear and the terrain was friendly. Elated, I pulled the Walkie Talkie out and told Rohit that the summit was happening”-Somenath
Meanwhile, 100 metres below, Rohit and one of our participants had just received Somenath’s message.
“The excitement in his voice was palpable. We resumed our ascent up the gully with a fresh burst of energy. It seems funny now but at that point in time, we had even begun planning our after summit party because we were so sure of reaching the summit” –Rohit
05.50 am: Rohit’s walkie talkie crackles once more. It is Somenath on the other end. Eager to find out what he has to say, Rohit listened closer. Four words ring out loud and clear this time: “Turn back RIGHT NOW”.
“The seriousness in his voice was evident. But I couldn’t fathom what could have possibly happened in a matter of few minutes that it required us to abort our climb and turn back immediately. The weather and the terrain, the two main impediments to any expedition, still seemed fine.” –Rohit
Meanwhile, higher up at the top of the gully, Somenath had just noticed unusually dark clouds closing in on them at an alarming speed from the left hand side of Deo Tibba. The right hand side continued to remain clear.
These clouds were BAD news and he couldn’t quite believe this was happening. The look on Umesh’s face when he pointed it out to him confirmed his suspicions.
What looked like black clouds was actually a FULL BLOWN BLIZZARD and it was headed their way at a rapid pace!
The sun was still shining on the peak of Mt. Deo Tibba as the clouds rushed in from behind. PC:Somenath
“No sooner had the word blizzard left Umesh’s mouth that it started snowing. All of a sudden there was soft snow everywhere: in our eyes, mouth, seeping in through our sleeves...” –Somenath
By 6 am that morning, in a matter of ten minutes, the perfect world that our trekkers had been exalting about no longer existed. Our team now found themselves in the middle of an untamed blizzard. The winds were fierce, the temperatures had dropped and the visibility was dismayingly low.
As much as Somenath didn't want to, he pulled his hand out of the glove to click this picture for record purposes. PC: Somenath
Staying was not an option. So, a plan was quickly put in action.
Rohit was to descend down as quickly as possible and ask the cooks to prepare some tea and hot khichdi. It was essential for each member to get something warm into their systems as soon as possible to fight the bitingly cold winds they were being exposed to.
The descent was nerve wracking to say the least. Heavy snow-fall and the cold winds had frozen sections of the rope which made it slippery to hold onto while negotiating descent. To make things worse, chunks of ice and snow were tumbling down the slope as well.
Battling a white-out, snow fall, ice fall and heavy winds, the exhausted team finally made it safely to Dhuangaon Col at 9 am that day.
“Rohit had arrived an hour early. So by the time we reached the campsite, there was piping hot food waiting for us”-Somenath
The team quickly gulped down some tea and food and rushed into their tents to warm themselves up. The blizzard continued to rage outside.
Now that they were sheltered from the cold winds, Somenath and Rohit discussed the unfortunate turn of events from within the cosy confines of their tent. The news was hard for either of them to assimilate.
“I had joined the team a few days after the trek had begun. I was on the slopes of Gangotri III before that. Bad weather had prevented us from reaching the summit. I took a bus to Deo Tibba immediately afterwards hoping the weather here would be kinder. This was my first time at Deo Tibba.” -Rohit
It was the second unsuccessful attempt to Deo Tibba within a span of two weeks for Somenath as well. Considering he has never been to the summit of Deo Tibba either, the unsaid vexation each faced was understood by the other.
They had after all missed the summit by 300 metres with no warning whatsoever.
It almost felt like a cruel prank.
In a moment of whimsy, Rohit made a suggestion to Somenath then, an idea he retracted as quickly as he had suggested it.
“Let’s attempt the peak once more after dropping off the trekkers safely, what say?” –Rohit
It was a rhetorical question that both of them knew the answer to. Attempting a summit was going to be dangerous in the prevailing weather conditions and it was not worth it.
A few minutes later, Umesh came knocking on their tent door. The porters from ABC had arrived.
“As soon as we arrived at Dhuangaon Col, I reached out to our porters at ABC and requested them to climb up to the Col. The snowfall was heavy. At this rate, presence of soft snow on the slopes would make descent nearly impossible the following day. So, we had to climb down to Tenta Top today itself”- Somenath
Wrapping up camp at Dhuangaon Col. PC: Rohit
Somenath’s trepidation was confirmed when the team braved yet another harrowing descent through the cold winds and white out all the way back to Tenta Top.
“We were carrying everything we had load ferried over two days at this point: right from our high end equipment to the garbage since it was important to leave no traces behind. It continued snowing heavily throughout our descent. At some places, the snow was knee deep! We fell so many times and were completely wet and cold by the time we reached Tenta. Thinking back now, we had trekked almost 25 kms that day. Add in a brutally reckless blizzard and the only thing we yearned for a little more than food was sleep!” –Somenath
Day 12: Bidding Adieu
It had snowed heavily through the night at Tenta Top and our team had to shovel their way out of their tents first before beginning descent to Manali. PC: Rohit
This story needed narration through the eyes of our expedition leaders to show you an inside picture we seldom see while on the trails with them.
It is a picture of Rohit telling Somenath that they should climb Deo Tibba independently that week despite knowing both of them wouldn’t if it came down to it.
Many alternatives and possibilities were running through their heads that day as they sat in the warm confines of their tent in Dhuangaon Col while a snow blizzard raged away outside. Missing summits back to back and missing this summit by 300 m were hard to accept.
Despite all this, if someone had expressed their wish to attempt summit once again that day or in the following days, their answer would have continued to remain a No.
And it remains this way primarily because expedition leaders remember something we as participants often forget.
“Going up is optional but coming down is a necessity.”-Rohit
Each course of action is planned keeping this in mind.
“Because reaching the highest point of a mountain never marks a successful summit. Making it safely back to its base does.”-Somenath
And despite the two unsuccessful attempts they had endured in the last two weeks, Rohit and Somenath headed back to Manali content.
For they had promised each other that one day they would come back here, probably with a couple of their fellow expedition leaders from Bikat Adventures and climb the capricious terrain of Mt. Deo Tibba once again!