It was one of those moments in life that definitely count as strange and vie strongly for the title of strangest. I was halfway up a steep ice and snow covered slope, leaning forward and thinking every move carefully because this was really slippery and really steep and one small slip would send me sliding all the way to the bottom of the slope that I had climbed laboriously over the last hour. Just a few feet to the right of me, an ice axe lay in the snow, abandoned. I didnt have an ice axe with me and was now calculating if the sideways movement to reach the axe was worth the risk of slipping. Far below me, I could just make out the shapes of half a dozen trek mates who had abandoned attempts to climb the slippery slope. Above me, halfway to the ridge at the top, lay M., holding on tightly to a small rock projecting from the snow. He was stuck there for the last half an hour at least and his screams had quitened down to a whimper now. Above that on the ridge, there was some movement against the skyline and I could suddenly see the back of one of our trekmates. His bright red jacket blew a little in the wind and I could suddenly see he was an inflated dummy actually and that a fair was on at the top of the ridge. There were clowns, balloons, shops, a merry-go-round and a ferris wheel. Great, I told myself, I will be up there soon, joining in the merriment and getting something hot to eat. Like I said, it was one of those moments.
Far to the east, over ranges and rivers, lies a single, solitary peak.
And you promise that I will come back?
No ... and if you do, you will not be the same.
You'll have a tale or two to tell when you come back
- Gandalf in The Hobbit
Millions of years ago, when the Indian peninsula drifted up and collided with the landmass of Asia, the force from the collision threw up rugged range of mountains along its northern edge extending from west to east. At the western end of this mountain range, rainfall is less and the landscape resembles more of a desert with snow absent except at the highest points. One of the highest points in this part of the Himalayan range is Stok Kangri, a piece of rock jutting into the sky in Ladakh and easily seen from most places nearby.
For our planned trek to the summit of Stok, we reached Leh by road from Shimla over two days, but that was still not sufficient acclimatization. The first few days of the trek, we were only walking short distances but I was having a rough time from the beginning with constant nausea, a poor appetite and sleepless nights. The last day of the climb to base camp was especially a struggle. I was stopping for a break after every 10 steps and barely managed to crawl into camp at the end.
After 3 days, base camp at 5000 m, where we would spend a day to rest and acclimatize, was already higher than anywhere I had been before this. We had planned initially for a 4 am start, but brought it forward to 10 pm after many returning climbers reported slow climbing due to heavy snowfall.
I was almost certain that I would not be able to carry on beyond a few hours, but all the same I did not want to give up before starting. We spent the day resting, doing acclimatization walks, practising putting on the crampons and finally caught some sleep after an early dinner by 5 pm. At 10 pm sharp, we were queued up and ready to go. I was ready, encased in five layers of warm clothing, with a woolen cap, headlamp, gaiters over my shoes and my camera, some food and water in a bag. I was part of the "slow team" and the "fast team" was scheduled to start 2 hours after us.
The first part was a moderately steep climb zig-zagging up a slope. Our guide, Sandeep did a fantastic job, encouraging everyone and keeping the team together. 45 minutes later, we were at the top of the initial slope. As we stood there and took some group pictures, we could see bobbing headlamps at the camp where the impatient fast team were already starting off.
From here we were walking on sloping sides on ice covered paths lit only by our headlamps, blissfully unaware of how far we would fall if we slipped. At some point, the fatigue and cold takes over and walking becomes an automatic act. Sometime towards midnight, the fast team overtook us, seemingly in high spirits. Our first setback came here when our guide, Sandeep decided to switch places with the other guide P., who had been with the fast team until now.
Right away, things took a turn for the worse. Our new guide lacked the people skills that Sandeep had. One of my co-trekkers, Ravi asked me to help while he had to adjust his shoes. While I stood there holding his sticks, the group, led by our guide, kept moving forwards. By the time we started again, they were about a hundred meters ahead and it seemed impossible to catch up with them. We were walking over a glacier and were cursing as we stumbled into streams, hurrying to catch up. When we did catch up with the group when they were on a break, they got up to leave immediately. We could not help having a word with the guide, asking him give us a break in between and keep the group together. Next thing we knew, he stopped us for a break after a few minutes and we were freezing as the break became interminable, begging him to resume walking. It was going to a be a long night!
At about 5.20 am, the first rays of the rising sun showed us were walking on a vast sloping snowfield. After about 8 hours of walking in the dark, we finally found ourselves looking up at a snow covered slope reaching up to the ridge of the Stok. On the right, the ridge climbed to the summit itself. Our guide came to a stop here, declaring that we had reached and anyone who wished to proceed further could do so themselves. Much later I would enquire and find out that he never reached the summit himself. While I stood there, soaking up the scene, a few of the others started climbing the slope. Covered in snow in which our legs went in upto the knees, the slope reared up at a steep gradient all the way to the top. One by one, those who started climbing would lose their grip a little way up and come sliding down to the bottom. As I started climbing slowly, the scene unfolding around was like one from a disaster movie. Two people, Arundhati and Shimoj, were well ahead of me and progressing slowly. Behind them M. who had managed to reach half-way up the slope, was hanging on to rocky outcrop there and screaming out something unintelligible. My friend Arun who had managed better than me on the climb until base camp, became acutely sick from the altitude after climbing part of the slope and so slid down to the bottom.
One of our helpers also developed acute mountain sickness and the guide got caught up with arranging for him to be accompanied back down to the camp. And all around, the other climbers seemed to be climbing part way and then sliding down repeatedly. Looking up, I could see the fast team led by Sandeep proceeding towards the summit. They did not seem to be far away and snatches of conversation floated down from them intermittently. But I could see Arundhati and Shimoj calling out to them repeatedly and they didnt appear to hear any of it, nor did they seem to be aware of what was happening down here. At this point, although I was not aware of it at that point of time, a haze seemed to be enveloping my mind and I was experiencing a curious mix of clarity of thought and hallucinations. Years later, climbing Kilimanjaro, I would learn that crossing an altitude of about 5500 m always seems to affect me in a similar fashion. I could muster the concentration needed to place each step carefully, not making the mistake of putting one foot wrong which would take me down all the way. And I could see that the crampons and hiking pole were inadequate to get a good grip in that snow. An ice-axe would be wonderful. And thats when I looked to the right and saw the ice axe. And looked up and saw the fair with the balloon and the merry-go-round.
I decided to leave the ice axe alone and reached M. after a few minutes. After ascertaining he had not broken something and that he had enough water with him, I decided to proceed. He was too scared to climb further or slide down and there wasn't anything else I could do at that moment. Step by cautious step, I pulled myself up and at about 7.30 am, climbed over the lip onto the ridge.
Arundhati and Shimoj were stranded in the small space there which I now shared with them. Without support and equipment, we were unable to proceed further up the ridge towards the summit. So we sat there and waited in case someone will arrive to help us onwards. The two appeared morose and downcast, so there was little conversation and I took just a couple of pictures before settling down for some rest.
After about 30 minutes, the sun was getting warmer and the snow was beginning to get softer. It was becoming obvious that we were not going to get to the summit which was just about 100 m higher at this point. Getting back down now seemed a bigger challenge. One tenatave step onto the slope showed that I was sinking up to the hips into the now soft snow. With signaling back and forth, it appeared that the guide who was at the bottom was telling us not to slide whatever happens. The risk of sliding was that you could lose control going down. It was also risking injury if a leg gets stuck in deep snow as one slid down fast. But there seemed not other option and Shimoj first took the plunge, sliding gingerly towards M., picking him up from his lonely spot and then both of them slid down all the way. Next went Arundhati and then I followed, braking intermittently to keep the pace under check and keeping my legs up so they didnt sink into the snow. We thus reached safely down the slope. Another 4 hours walk brought us to the base camp and another 3 hours down to the next camp. In two more days we were back at the start and looking back at the summit from the busy streets of Leh. The summit was different now, and we were different now. The promise had been kept. Whatever had happened, we were not the same people who had started the climb 8 days back.