9:40 pm - Stok Kangri Base Camp - 16,300 ft
Why climb Everest ? Because it’s there.
I crawled out of my tent after a 3 hour restless sleep. We were supposed to leave at 10:30 pm for the summit. It was a perfectly clear day, something that we had really wished for. There was a storm at the same time the night before. I looked up and saw all the stars. It was an unbelievably beautiful sight. I could easily make out some of the constellations and the milky way galaxy. In those 15 mins, i saw atleast 4-5 shooting stars.
Navendu and Dinesh were already walking outside. I went back to my tent to do a final check on my gear. Apart from all the heavy clothing i wore, i was carrying crampons, some chocolates, an extra pair of socks, an extra pair of gloves, a prayer flag for the summit, a camera and 2 extra batteries. I went through my stuff over and over again. Did I really need this? Did I really need that ? Anything that i felt wasn’t of much significance was left behind. We were all wearing a head-torch each. Jai, Raghav, Mohana and Divya soon joined up. We stood there for 15 mins, cracking jokes and gazing at the stars while waiting for our dinner to get ready. Divya made a joke about having headaches. Even i have had sleepless nights over the past few days acclimatizing at this altitude, however i was feeling pretty good today.
Soon our porters told us that dinner was ready. We all went into the dining tent. Steve, a member of our team, called it “The Last Supper”. Steve was probably the most experienced and strong candidate among all of us. He had served as a British marine for 25 years and had also participated in the first Iraq War. We all knew beforehand that he was going to be the first one to reach the summit. It was a very quiet dinner. We all were a bit nervous, but really happy that the weather had held up tonight.
Finally at 10:30 pm , we were all ready to begin our summit attempt. The first hurdle was this steep ascent. As a part of an acclimatization walk, we had climbed up to the top of this mountain the previous day as well. However, this time we had to climb it in the dark.
Once you climb to the top, its a 2-3 hour hike up to advanced base camp. The route can be seen on the right in the image below and the summit can be seen on the top-right.
Once you reach advanced base camp, there is a massive glacier that you have to cross to reach the foot of the mountain.
From here on, you start climbing a face of the mountain that leads up to the shoulder. You are above 19,000 feet on the shoulder and from there on it’s an extremely hard climb of 1000 feet to the summit. The instructions were very clear by our guide Sandeep. If you don’t reach the summit by 8:30 am, you turn back. We had also received training on how to put on crampons and how to use them. Our lead guide Sandeep had put up these rocks to give us an idea of the route that we will be following on the summit day, so we pretty much knew what we were going to expect, atleast that’s what i thought.
What are men to rocks and mountains?
10:30 pm - Stok Kangri Base Camp - 16,300 ft
Finally, we started the steep ascent from Base camp. We were a team of 11 and i started moving up the slope, just second to Navendu. I kept a steady speed and tried to conserve my energy as much as possible. After about 20-25 mins, we were halfway up the slope. I looked up and saw Navendu’s headtorch about 20 metres ahead of me. Behind me, i could see atleast 12 more lights poddling up the slope. 9 of them were definitely my team members and the rest must be our guides. I was already out of breath at this time. I decided to take a small break and let some other trekkers pass by. If this was at sea level, it wouldn’t have taken us more than 15 mins to reach the top. However, at this altitude, it was a grind. Then a porter came up to me and grabbed my hand. It was Tensing, one of the porters i have made good friends with during the trek to base camp. He grabbed my hand and started pulling my hand up the slope. I immediately let go. “I can do this myself. Let me walk at my own speed”, i said. Tensing then went back down the slope to help the other climbers. I continued on for 15 more mins until i could see the top. It was just 50 metres from where i was standing, but the terrain was quite steep.I again decided to take a quick 2 min break. Tensing returned again and again grabbed my hand and started pulling me up. “Let’s reach to the top in one go.”, he said. If there is one thing that i have learnt from my trekking experience, it is that one must walk at their optimum speed and not try to push it. Still, i decided to follow Tensing and we climbed 30 metres higher until i was breathless again. I stopped to get my breath back and made one more sprint towards the top. This time, i was literally holding on to Tensing’s hand. Even though he wasn’t pulling me, just holding on to his hand meant i had to walk at the same speed as he was.
We reached the top of the initial slope. Only 2 people were still to come, Pragna and Raghav. The rest have already begun walking up to ABC. Tensing asked me to follow them. However, i was so tired that i decided to wait for the remaining 2 climbers before carrying on. Here is a picture from the top that we had taken the previous day from our acclimatization climb.
I tried to breathe hard but just couldn’t get my breath back. At this time, i had begun doubting my own ability to reach the summit. We had been climbing for just about 45 mins and i was already so tired and exhausted. I stood there at the top of the slope for atleast 10 mins thinking about whether i should carry on or not. In the meantime, the headtorches of some of the other trekkers in my group seemed to fade away in the distance as they headed towards ABC. I remembered about how one of the previous summitters Amir had told me that its all a mental game. I remembered how much i had trained for this climb and how badly i wanted to do it. I was also disgusted by the fact that Tensing had held my hand and tried to drag me up the slope. This is not how i want to climb a mountain, i thought. I started towards one of the guides to tell him i was going to go down when suddenly Pragna appeared to the top.
“What’s up ?” – She said with a smile on her face. “Let’s move on.”
You could see she was tired but you could sense a determination in her voice. She had climbed slowly but at a steady speed up to the top. I realized it was a mistake to make that final sprint to the top instead of going at a normal pace. I also realized one more thing, i was breathing normally again. My mind started to think more clearly and all the negative thoughts vanished away.
“Okay”, i said, greatly thankful to her in my mind. “Let’s move on”.
11:30 pm - The hike up to ABC - 16,800 ft
I have found a dream of beauty at which one might look all one’s life and sigh.
We set a slow and steady pace up to ABC. Initially there was no guide with us and we were instructed to follow the headtorches of the trekkers in front of us, with the consolance that the guides will catch up soon. Raghav still hadn’t emerged to the top but the guides told us to start moving on. So me and Pragna started walking on the curvy terrain up to ABC. Pragna wanted to move in front as she told me it would help her mentally. Pragna hadn’t even stopped to catch her breath after climbing that steep slope and it was phenomenal that she was still going on without stopping. Me and pragna both had completely different styles of walking. Pragna used to walk at a very slow and steady pace without stopping at all. While i used to walk a few metres fast and then i used to stop to catch my breath. It was working for me. I felt like i wasn’t getting tired and still we were able to move at good pace and keep up with each other. I also used to rejoice that 3 second break that i got after every 10 seconds. I used to look around, see the stars, see the summit that was still nearly 1 vertical kilometre above us.
One of the main reasons i had decided to come for this trek was because of the climbing that had to be done during the night to the summit. I have always wanted to climb during the night, with the view of the stars, a backpack on my shoulder and music on my ears. It couldn’t get better than this. I was living my dream and it was fucking awesome.
We carried on for a steady pace upto an hour until i heard a voice from back. It was our lead guide Sandeep who had caught up with us. I looked up ahead and i could see the lights of my other teammates in the far distance. There was one light that was moving in the front. Must be Steve, i thought. The group was moving expeditiously and was going more and more ahead of us. After another 30 more minutes, Pragna had now started to feel the tiredness. “Let’s take a break”, she said. We stopped and i took out my water bottle. Pragna was too tired to take out her water bottle so she took mine. Pragna complained of having headaches. At first i thought it was due to AMS. At this altitude, AMS was a common thing, and we were ascending fast as well. During our acclimatization walk last day, one of our teammates had suffered from severe headaches and had to descend fast back to base camp. Sandeep asked her to take out her headtorch from her head and put it around her neck. It worked for her and she felt better after that.
We were just an hour’s walk from ABC. Even though the term ABC suggests that there must be a camp there, this was not the case. There was no camping allowed on ABC. I was feeling very confident now and the tiredness seemed to have gone away. As we stopped to take another break, i started to feel the cold. I looked up behind me and could see 3-4 lights approaching. It was raghav with the rest of the guides. We waited until they caught up to us. I quickly took out my iPhone and took some pictures. Here is a picture that i took of Pragna sometime around 1 am.
Raghav soon caught up with us. He told us he was feeling tired, so i gave him some Snickers from my backpack.“Let’s continue”, pragna said. So we decided to carry on. Raghav wanted to rest some more and told us he would catch up with us. I looked up in front to spot the headtorches of the trekkers in front. It looked like the lights hadn’t moved at all in the last 15-20 mins. Weird, i thought. Something wasn’t right. We carried on for some more time and then i saw a light moving towards us. Someone was turning back. Soon, Divya came into view.
“Are you turning back ?”, i asked, really surprised to see her.
Over the last few days, Divya had shown that she was one of the toughest members in the group.
“Yes”, she said.
She told us she wasn’t feeling well and had an unpleasant feeling of being about to vomit. She also told us how she thought she hadn’t acclimatized properly and it would be dangerous for her to move on as she was having symptoms of AMS.
“So take it out”, i said. “You will feel much better”.
Ofcouse, even in the back of my mind i knew that it was in the best of her interest to turn back. One can’t just ignore the effects of altitude at this height. It’s right in your face. We were at about 17,000 feet and rising fast so things might become worse after this. It was a bit disappointing to see her turn back as she had become one of my good friends during the trek and i wanted her to reach the summit. As she started walking back towards base camp with one of the guides i realized that she had made a very wise (and brave) decision.
“A good climber possesses the courage to turn back - even when the summit is in reach. He never forgets that the ascent, climbing up, is only half the trip. You have to get down, too, and most casualties in the mountains happen during the descent. The greatness of a climber is not measured by his or her ability to reach the summit on the first attempt. What matters most is your attitude, your will not to give up, to try again.”
After another half an hour, we decided to take a break after seeing a steep rise ahead. It was about 1:45 am now. Raghav soon caught up with us. He looked exhausted and was having symptoms of AMS.
Raghav: “I am thinking of turning back”.
Sandeep told me and Pragna to carry on with two guides who had been with Raghav and told us that he would stay with Raghav. I was a bit surprised at this decision.
“Dude,i would rather have you for the summit”, I said.
The other guides looked a bit inexperienced to me. We didn’t see Raghav again that night. We later learnt that he had decided to continue the summit attempt again with Sandeep but had made the final decision to turn back after crossing the Glacier. In the end it was a great achievement to cross the glacier even after suffering from AMS.
2 am - ABC and the Glacier - 17,000 ft
Long, blue, spiky-edged shadows crept out across the snow-fields, while a rosy glow, at first scarce discernible, gradually deepened and suffused every mountain-top, flushing the glaciers and the harsh crags above them. This was the alpenglow, to me the most impressive of all the terrestrial manifestations of God. At the touch of this divine light, the mountains seemed to kindle to a rapt, religious consciousness, and stood hushed like devout worshippers waiting to be blessed.
As we reached the Advanced Base Camp, the sight of the massive glacier came into view. It is recommended to cross this glacier in the night when its cold and at its most stable state and this is why everyone attempts Stok Kangri during the night. I was really excited about crossing this glacier. It was filled with hidden crevasses (though not too big) and melted water streams. As we step foot on the glacier, i asked the porter whether we should put on our crampons, and he said no. He was looking a bit nervous as well. We already knew both these porters had never reached the summit of Stok Kangri before. But i was surprised to know that both of them have never even crossed this glacier. They explained how their job was to be as helpers, and they had previously only assisted in taking tired and exhausted climbers back. Ok, today we will take you to the summit, i thought. It also made things a bit more exciting for us as we were all heading into unknown territory. Ten minutes after finding our trail through the glacier and crossing small creavasses, we bumped into our first big hurdle. It was a melted water stream and it required us to jump on top of it to cross it. Even though the jump wasn’t that big, there was a downward slope just after the jump. The stream was also flowing very fast and it was tough to figure out in the dark how deep the water was. There was also patches of blue ice just after our jump which increased the chances of us slipping down after the jump. The porter first crossed the stream followed by me. The two porters then helped Pragna cross over. I looked back and saw a german team of about 12 climbers approaching us. They quickly passed us. After 15 mins more minutes of crossing more water streams and crevasses, we finally crossed the glacier. It was about 2:30 am. I looked up at the face of the mountain that we were about to climb. I could see some lights about 500 feet above me whom i guessed must be our team. I looked back and saw 3 or 4 more teams approaching ABC. One of the teams down below had started blinking their headtorches, maybe asking for help from their guides who must be in somewhere in front of them.
2:30 am - The South Face of Stok Kangri - 17,100 ft
And if these mountains had eyes, they would wake to find two strangers in their fences, standing in admiration as a breathing red pours its tinge upon earth’s shore. These mountains, which have seen untold sunrises, long to thunder praise but stand reverent, silent so that man’s weak praise should be given God’s attention.
We started climbing on the south face of Stok Kangri leading up to the ridge which was at about 19,000 feet. The terrain was steep but not too technical. Pragna was showing signs of severe exhaustion and moving at a snail’s pace. She was muttering incoherently and you can really feel the tiredness in her voice. We had 2 porters with us, one was with me in the front while the other one was with Pragna. Every 15-20 mins we had to stop and wait for Pragna to catch up. The longer i waited, the more i felt the cold. But relatively i was feeling much better now. In essence, we were just breathing and climbing. Could it get more simple and beautiful than that ? However, i was a bit worried as well. Why was I going so much faster suddenly ? Was this just some enormous surge of adrenalin rush ? Would it suddenly run out at any moment and leave me in a wasted and spent heap? After some more climbing, Tensing told me that i had every chance now of reaching the summit.I was ecstatic.
The south face was filled with atleast 20 headtorches now. It was also getting extremely chilly now. As we climbed higher air became thinner and we got slower. After going on for another hour, we noticed that Pragna had literally stopped moving. Tensing came to me and told me that Pragna should now turn back. It was taking us a good amount of time to climb the south face. I refused instantly and so did Pragna. I really wanted Pragna to reach the summit as even though unintentionally, she had stopped me from aborting my summit attempt. After another 15 mins, Pragna shouted me to wait for her. I waited for some time until she caught up.
Pragna: “I am feeling very sleepy and cold”.
I understood the part about the cold, but sleepy ? Here we are at 18,000 feet on the most epic adventure of our life. How can someone feel sleepy ?
Me:“So are you thinking of turning back ?”, i asked her.
Me:“Take 5 mins of rest, catch your breath and then decide. Think of this as a picnic. You have come so far and all i can tell you is that we will reach the summit even if it takes us more time”, i tried to motivate her.
Tensing: “But if she carries on at this pace then we can’t reach the summit.”
For some reason, Tensing was adamant on having Pragna turn back. I looked at my phone which i was carrying for music and checked the time. It was 3:45 am. Yes, we were moving slow. But on the back of my mind, i felt that things will become better when the sun comes up. I quickly looked around and noticed that none of the porters were wearing a watch. I had a lot of respect for these porters, their helpful nature and their spirit. Their immense physical strength compounded by their experience made them the indisputable kings of these mountains. But for now, i think it was in the best interest of me and pragna to silence them.
Me: “Look, its just 3 am right now. We have climbed from the glacier to this point in just 30 mins, and you are saying we wouldn’t be able to make it to the summit. Are you kidding me ?” . I lied.
None of the porters spoke about turning back after that. I gave Pragna a Snickers from my backpack.She cut it in half and we both started eating our half. Both of us could only consume a quarter each in the end. At this altitude, i had almost lost all my appetite.
Pragna: “Okay, let’s carry on”
Me: “Ok”. I then turned to the porters and asked how much time it would take us to reach the summit.
Tensing – “2 hours to the shoulder, 4 hours to the summit”
Me: “Wait, let me take some pictures.” I quickly took out my camera and clicked these pictures.
4:00 am – Higher Slopes of the South Face – 18,300 ft
For the stone from the top for geologists, the knowledge of the limits of endurance for the doctors, but above all for the spirit of adventure to keep alive the soul of man.
We continued our ascent for one more hour. Pragna was suddenly feeling very energetic after having that bite of snickers and she was leading the way. We carried on at a steady pace until we reached a big patch of ice. Over on the left side, we could see a route that would take us to the shoulder. This meant we could either cross that patch of ice or just avoid it by climbing over it. We thought of using crampons but quickly decided against it. At this altitude, it would have taken us a lot of time to just get them on. Tensing came up to Pragna and told her to cross that patch without crampons. I could already see that it was a dangerous thing to do. If you slip on that ice patch, you fall about a 100 metres down the slope of the mountain. I had previously seen videos of climbers crossing this patch with crampons and even fixed ropes.
“No, Pragna. Do not cross it.” – I shouted to Pragna from 10 feet down.
Tensing: “It is very easy. We can make it to the other side. Watch me.”
Tensing step foot on the ice patch. As soon as he stepped on it, he slipped and fell a couple of feet down before landing on hard rocks that prevented his fall. If he had slipped a few metres ahead, he would have fallen through the entire ice patch.
Me: “What is the official route ?”. I shouted in a raged voice.
Tensing: “There is no official route on a mountain.”
He was right. We all knew he was trying to help. I calmed down and walked towards him and explained that it was dangerous to cross this ice patch and it would be better if we just avoid it and climb over it even if it takes more time to do so. But he didn’t listen. He attempted to cross the ice patch again and this time he crossed it.Me and Pragna talked about following Tensing but in the end decided to go our own way and to avoid this ice patch by crossing over it. The second porter came up to us and we climbed through a route over this ice patch. We were soon on the other side. The shoulder was just about 45 mins away. Breathless and exhausted, we finally reached the shoulder. Tensing was there, waiting for us.
6:00 am – The Shoulder- 19,000 ft
There is no such sense of solitude as that which we experience upon the silent and vast elevations of great mountains. Lifted high above the level of human sounds and habitations, among the wild expanses and colossal features of Nature, we are thrilled in our loneliness with a strange fear and elation – an ascent above the reach of life’s expectations or companionship, and the tremblings of a wild and undefined misgivings.
I was completely breathless once i reached the shoulder, so we decided to stay there for 10-15 mins and get out breath back. It was so tough to breathe up here. You can definitely feel the lack of oxygen at this altitude. From the shoulder, we could see on the other side of the mountain into Markha valley. It almost felt like the summit. I told Pragna i wasn’t thinking of climbing up to the summit as i felt like being at the summit already.
Pragna: “Are you mad ?. We have come so far. We can’t turn back without reaching the summit.”
She was absolutely right. We had to reach the summit. The summit was still a lung-busting 1000 feet above and the path led along a ridge with good exposure. At 19000 feet, it was incredibly strenuous climbing. The terrain also looked challenging.
In the meantime, our other team had almost reached the summit. Here is a picture of them somewhere higher up the mountain.
And here is a picture of Pragna looking down from the Shoulder.
Tensing: “Com’on Sir, we are almost at the summit.”
I stood up, drank some water and started to get ready for the final push.
6:20 am – The Ridge – 19,100 ft
There are two kinds of people. Those who climb mountains and those who sit in the shadow of the mountains and critique the climbers.
Climbing on the Ridge of Stok Kangri is the most difficult phase of climbing i have ever encountered in my life. You walk a few steps and suddenly you feel like your lungs are about to explode. You just move so horrendously slow that its unbelievable. At some points, we had to climb up some rocks and it felt almost like rock climbing. There were a few ice patches along the way and we tried to avoid them as much as possible.The trail was getting a big dangerous at some places, with vertical drop of thousands of feet on one side. Crossing through these trails, i could easily feel the thousands of feet of exposure under my feet. Pragna was now absolutely rushing to the summit. You could see that she can sense it. As if that bite of snickers had somehow given her some kind of a superhuman power. Here is a picture of me on the ridge.
At about 19,500 feet, after climbing for about an hour and almost halfway up the ridge, we met the rest of the team. They were returning from the summit. They told us how beautiful it was at the top. They also told us that the summit was still one hour away and that we should go carefully now as the terrain was difficult.
8:10 am – The Ridge – 19,900 ft
There is wisdom in climbing mountains… For they teach us how truly small we are.
Up we climbed, exhausting work, step by step. We crossed an exposed traverse along the side of the ridge with downwards sloping rock slabs. You cannot afford to make a mistake at this part of the climb, otherwise you are history. After climbing for almost upto 2 hours from the shoulder, i could finally see the final slope that led up to the summit. On this 50 degree slope stood a guy, his back facing towards me and waiting for his breath to get back so he could take the final steps to the summit. Suddenly, I felt completely dehydrated. I also had no water with me. I called to Pragna who was a bit ahead of me and asked her to leave her water bottle where she was. I decided that i would take 5 steps and then stop and recover my breath and energy. In a few minutes, i reached the point where Pragna had left her water bottle. I drank all the water in one go. I felt much better. Pragna was now nearing the final slope. After 10 more mins and taking a sharp right i reached the point which is at the bottom of that slope and just 20 feet away from the summit. I was suprised to see the guy whom i had seen probably 20 mins back on the same slope. He had not at all moved in those 20 mins.
8:30 am – SUMMIT – 20,187 ft
How to get the best of it all? One must conquer, achieve, get to the top; one must know the end to be convinced that one can win the end – to know there’s no dream that mustn’t be dared… Is this the summit, crowning the day? How cool and quiet! We’re not exultant; but delighted, joyful; soberly astonished… Have we vanquished an enemy? None but ourselves. Have we gained success? That word means nothing here. Have we won a kingdom? No… and yes. We have achieved an ultimate satisfaction… fulfilled a destiny… To struggle and to understand – never this last without the other; such is the law.
Pragna had now reached the summit and so had the porters. The porter helped the guy climb that final slope. I realised how dangerous this slope was. I took a sharp right turn and reached the slope. It was a 50 degree ascent with a 3000 feet fall at its bottom.I thought of climbing it one go. I took a deep breath and started climbing but could only climb half the slope. I stood there for 10 more seconds, trying to get my breath. Finally, in one deep breath and with immense relief, i climbed the final 15 feet to the summit.
I met Pragna on the top and we high fived each other. I could see the Prayer flags scattered over the summit. I sat down on the snow and admired the view that i was looking at. Pragna was shouting at the top of her voice.
Pragna: “I feel so happy”
Me: “Yeah, finally we made it.”
Pragna: “I feel like shouting”. And she began screaming at the top of her voice.
Me: “Just don’t fall off. You are standing on the very edge”
Pragna: “I don’t care anymore”
She then took our her phone and started calling her family members. I wondered if i should call someone. My parents didn’t even knew i was here. I had told them i was just going to Ladakh. If i call them now and tell them i was standing at the summit of a mountain at 20,000+ feet, they will freak out. So i decided against it. I took out my camera and took this video from the summit. You can see Pragna in this video as well as the two porters with whom we had climbed to the summit resting near the prayer flags.
After resting for 5 more mins, we decided to take some pictures.
Another team reached the summit and their guide was pointing towards the Karakoram range. I asked him if he could pinpoint the location of K2. He pointed his finger towards it. My eyes became fixed towards a massive mountain in the distance. It was “The Savage Mountain”, “The Mountaineers Mountain”, it was K2. Just next to it was another big mountain which i thought was Broad Peak.
Pragna: “Where’s K ?”
I have decided to withhold the name of one of our team members to protect his privacy. So i will refer to him as K in the rest of the blog.
Me: “What do you mean ?”
Pragna: “He was right here. I can’t see him anymore.”
It then dawned on me. The person whom i had seen at the slope just before the summit was actually K. He had reached the summit well before us and for some reason he came a bit down the slope and had decided to climb to the summit again. This meant he had been at 20,000+ feet for atleast the last 90 mins. We found him at the other side of the summit. I didn’t have any energy left to ask him why he had been at the top for so long. It was time to go back down.
People ask me, ‘What is the use of climbing Mount Everest?’ and my answer must at once be, ‘It is of no use.’There is not the slightest prospect of any gain whatsoever. Oh, we may learn a little about the behaviour of the human body at high altitudes, and possibly medical men may turn our observation to some account for the purposes of aviation. But otherwise nothing will come of it. We shall not bring back a single bit of gold or silver, not a gem, nor any coal or iron… If you cannot understand that there is something in man which responds to the challenge of this mountain and goes out to meet it, that the struggle is the struggle of life itself upward and forever upward, then you won’t see why we go. What we get from this adventure is just sheer joy. And joy is, after all, the end of life. We do not live to eat and make money. We eat and make money to be able to live. That is what life means and what life is for.
When you’re on top of a mountain, keep climbing
We started descending from the summit along the steep slope that K had been stuck on for nearly 20 mins. We had 3 porters with us now. One of them had stayed back on the summit to help us on our way down. While coming down this slope i realized how dangerous this was. The trail curved 90 degress towards the left on descent, and if you slip on this section you fall straight down the mountain. Pragna was moving in front followed by me and K was following me. After reaching the bottom of this slope and heading down a few more feet, i heard a scream from one of the porters. K had slipped but the porters had managed to hold his backpack and prevented him from slipping down further. K was sitting down on his hips and the porter was holding his backpack. For the first time, i could see worried expressions on the face of the porter and you could feel that he felt it was a close call. If the porter hadn’t caught him, he would have fallen thousands of feet to his death. K was however not showing any emotions or expressions.
We started heading back down and after a few more feet, K slipped again. This time the terrain wasn’t that steep and he was able to prevent himself from slipping down further. It was quite clear that he was having problems descending.I asked the porter who was with me to stay with K. One would be in front of K and the other behind him. After a few feet he slipped again. It looked like he had no control over his body.
However, what happenned after that was more shocking. K stood up on his feet and asked me to take a picture of him with the porter. What ? I thought. Without saying much, I took out my camera and took his picture. We started to descend towards the shoulder. It was not easy by any means. There were trails with very large exposure and near vertical drops. It would be very difficult for K to descend in this condition. Pragna was already 50 feet down and totally unaware of what was happenning. I had my camera outside my backpack now so i decided to take some pictures of our descent from the ridge to the shoulder.
As we neared the shoulder, one of the two porters Tensing who was with K started having severe headaches and was having symptoms of AMS. He was instructed by the other porter to quickly descend. As he walked past me, i shouted out “Thank You”. Pragna was now way in front descending fast and i decided to stay a little in front of K in case something happenned, as he only had one porter with him now. We reached the shoulder and started descending the south face. Thousands of feet below, i could see the glacier that we had crossed in the night.
Not bad, i thought. Within 90 mins, we would be near the glacier. Then its about a 2 hour walk back to the base camp. Things were finally starting to look good. K had descended upto the shoulder and we were going at good speed down the south face.
Something hit my head. I looked up and saw the lump of ice that had fallen on top of my head. It was a hailtone. Within seconds, 2 or 3 hailstones hit me right on the head again. Shit, i thought. Soon, we were flooded with hails falling at trememdous speeds. I looked around to see if there was a place where i could hide, but there was nowhere to go. The porter who was with K asked me to go down as fast as possible. I looked at Pragna who was now at the same height as me but about 50 feet away to the right. We exchanged confused looks and started descending down. We continued down as bigger hailstones started to hit us right on the head. But K was still strugging so i decided to stay just a bit in front of him.
We also learnt later that K was hallucinating things. I have heard stories about these before, stories about how climbers thought that they were climbing with mysterious partners when in fact they were climbing alone. These Hallunications at high altitudes occur because of a severe form of altitude sickness known as High-altitude cerebral edema (or HACE). Having exposure to such low levels of oxygen for prolonged periods of time (K was at the summit for almost 2 hours) causes the swelling of your brain and your mind starts disfunctioning. The symptoms include loss of coordination (ataxia), ecreasing levels of consciousness including disorientation, loss of memory, hallucinations, irrational behavior etc. There is only way to prevent someone from HACE, DESCEND to lower altitudes.
When you’re high on a mountain you cannot be anything but what you are
Within those 5 mins, the whole area was covered with fresh snow and the terrain had now become very slippery because of it. For every 5 steps, i was slipping once, however everytime i used my walking stick to prevent the fall.Suddenly i heard a shout from behind.
I looked around and watched in horror as K slipped and starting tumbling down an icy patch down the face. He bounced off 2 rocks like a football, one of which i thought must have hit hard and started rolling down. For 2 seconds, he had desperately tried to prevent his fall but after that, he had given up, and he covered his head with both his hands. Luckily, his guide has been walking in front of him and he caught him after he had rolled down for almost 15 feet. For 30 seconds, we stood there. No one spoke anything. I was in complete shock. I looked at the porter with a worried look and he signalled me to go down. Without saying anything, i started descending. I was feeling very selfish at that moment. I then came around a thick patch of ice that was very steep and we had to get to the other side of it. None of us wanted to put on crampons at this stage. I waited for the porter who was with K. He came over, crossed the patch, and put some rocks and mud on the ice for us. By now, we had descended about 1000 feet down the south face. I started descending fast and soon reached Pragna at the bottom of the South Face.
Me: “What now ? Shall we cross the glacier”
Porter: “No, this glacier is too risky to cross now. We will have to cross another one.”
We were now waiting for K come down. I sat down and took some water from Pragna.
Pragna: “K is not looking good ?”
Me: “I know. I watched him slip a couple of times. He was lucky to escape.”
Pragna: “No, i mean he normally doesn’t behave like this. He hasn’t spoken for about 2 hours.”
She was right. He hasn’t spoken in almost 2 hours. His face was completely expressionless as well. It was evident he was showing some signs of AMS.
Pragna: “Let’s get to base camp ASAP and ask sandeep what to do.”
The porter who was with K came down after a few mins, but he was without K. He also told us that K’s condition was not well and how he had prevented him from so many falls. We looked around and K was still about a hundred metres above us.
“Come down K. Come down. You can do this.” – Pragna was shouting.
K didn’t say anything.
We watched him for 5 mins. He just moved about 10 feet in that duration. Both me and Pragna then asked the porter to go above and help him. He quickly ran up, grabbed K’s hand and started to help him down. We waited for 20 more mins and in that time he had only descended about 100 feet.
“Come with me”, the second porter said. He was taking us to the other glacier that we had to cross. After 20 mins, we reached just in front of the glacier and waited for K to come down. I looked at Pragna and she was literally crying. She looked at the porter who was standing with us. “Please help us get to base camp ASAP so we can help K”. She then turned around at K and shouted at him to come down.
As we waited for K to come down, i realised how exhausted i was. We hadn’t eaten anything for the last 15 hours, and the base camp was still atleast 2 hours away .I felt completely wasted. I remember murmuring something to Pragna about how fucked up i was feeling. I lay my backpack on a rock and rested my head on it.
Pragna: “No, Prateek. Do not sleep. We have to get to base camp soon.”
I couldn’t help but admire how much strength she still had left in her. She was screaming at the top of her voice and trying to motivate K to come down. Her efforts made me think i was being a bit selfish. So i got up and started shouting over to K as well. Within 20 mins, K was at the bottom with us. We now had to cross the glacier. This glacier was a bit easy to cross as it was day time and the melted water streams in this glacier were not that difficult to cross as well. Soon, we were on the other side. One of our porters had left for base camp for some reason and now we were left with just one porter. We slowly walked towards a path that we thought was a direct route to the base camp. K was going very slow. He stopped after every 20 metres and sat down before he was forced by the porter to get up. After walking for about 30 mins, the porter pointed towards a trail.
Porter: “You see that ? Just follow the route. It will take you to base camp.”
Me: “How much time ?”
Porter: “2 hours”
Damn, still 2 more hours left. But we had to get K to the base camp. Me, pragna and K started towards base camp.K used to stop after every few steps. But he must have been feeling much better now. He had descended about 3000 feet in the last few hours and that must have helped him. His body was getting more oxygen now and hence he must be able to think very clearly.
Walk away quietly in any direction and taste the freedom of the mountaineer.
We kept walking for an hour. I looked around at Stok Kangri and was amazed at its size. I was feeling proud of what we had accomplished. I thought about taking out my camera but was too tired to do it. However, here is the closest pic that i found to what we were looking at.
After walking for an hour more, we finally came to the top of the sleep slope that we had climbed the night before. It was 4 pm. We had been climbing for over 17 hours now. From there, i could see the base camp. It was a wonderful sight.
Mountains are not Stadiums where I satisfy my ambition to achieve, they are the cathedrals where I practice my religion.
I looked at the cafe. Finally, it was time to eat some good food. I quickly urged Pragna and K to go down but they wanted to rest a bit more. Pragna asked me to carry on and told me she would bring down K. I started heading down, one last time through this path. I met a few trekkers on the way down the slope and they asked about the climb. One group was attempting the summit tonight. I told them that they will have to use crampons as the mountain was all covered with fresh snow. I reached the bottom of the slope and reached the camps. I looked around for Sandeep but he was nowhere to be found.
Divya called me from her tent. She, Raghav and Jai were playing cards. Both Divya and Raghav were now feeling fine after they had to turn back because AMS the previous night. We chuckled about the name Kung Fu Panda that Diyva had given me. She thought that i could actually make it to the summit even though i had been a bit slow during the acclimatization walks. She was sipping a cup of tea and i looked at her cup like a wolf. She immediately passed on her cup of tea to me. “Here, take it”. A sip of tea never tasted that good. She then got out of her tent and went to the cafe and after some time came with an omelette for me. I was so thankful to her, she was such a nice person.Dustin came out of his tent and we bumped our fists in celebration. I told everyone about K and the conditions that we had to face while coming down. Within 20 mins, K and Pragna were back in the camp. K was feeling good now and he was talking as well. Later that day, Sandeep told me he would be fine as he had descended to the safety of base camp. We all went to the cafe and celebrated with some good food and beer.
The secret of the mountain is that the mountains simply exist, as I do myself: the mountains exist simply, which I do not. The mountains have no “meaning,” they are meaning; the mountains are. The sun is round. I ring with life, and the mountains ring, and when I can hear it, there is a ringing that we share. I understand all this, not in my mind but in my heart, knowing how meaningless it is to try to capture what cannot be expressed, knowing that mere words will remain when I read it all again, another day.
It was Aug 19, 2013. I had been in Leh for another one week and me and Dustin had explored different places around Leh. I took a taxi at 6 am to catch my flight back to New Delhi. The driver was playing my favourite song “Om Mani Padme hum”.It suddenly reminded me of all the beautiful things i had experienced over the last 2 weeks and literally brought a tear to my eyes. I saw Stok Kangri with its peak enveloped in clouds as we drove to the airport.I had already decided in my mind to come back next year and climb some more peaks. I knew the mountains had cast a spell on me and atleast for the next few years, it was here to stay.
Cheers to my teammates who made it possible. Let’s call them The 11 Wanderers :–)
From Left – Dinesh, Steve, Jai, Prateek, Navendu, Divya, Raghav, Pragna, Dustin, Mohana and Arunay.
I hope you enjoyed reading this post. If you have any questions, comments, suggestions or criticism please add a comment and i will get back to you.
Until next adventure !
Climb On !