One proven way of turning neurotic is to attempt to prepare for a Master's Examination and a mountaineering expedition simultaneously. In St. Stephens College, this peculiar privilege has traditionally been reserved for the President of the Hiking Club. Come April, he must work morning through evening on devising methods of raising monies, formulating plans, and reeruting members, a leader, equipment, Sherpas and slog through all the mileage of paperwork and motorcycling that this involves ; and shut the door securely on all this after dinner to ponder in seclusion on Whitehead or Spinoza or Hegel on whom he must be examined in a fortnight. On his days depends the success of the expedition and on his nights depends his passport to Yonder and Beyond. Such was the fate of Ashok Bamzai, known to all as Bammy. The chief function of Mr. Balbir Singh—that eight foot tall Patriarch of Stephenian Mountaineers—then reduced to ensuring that it was only neurosis and not nemesis that finally overtook our anti-hero. So while the melancholy of Raag Asavari mingled with the stacatto bursts of our typewriters, he pottered about his book-lined rooms (which were being used as expedition headquarters), propounding dis- jointedly the structure of obscure raags, or offering us cream- crackers with Marmite; or weak tea with vintage anecdotes. Dusk naturally found us all exhausted. But the chaos accumulated through the day was invariably drained away by a few repeats of Vilayat Khan's Darbari. Osmosis. Later still, when Pradeep, Vijay and Rajneesh joined the show and the work became much more frenzied, the old 78?s of Abdul Karim Khan had to be summoned to do service as pace-setters to the letter- writer, the typist and the despatch rider. Under such curious conditions this May and June was the bulk of the organizational paperwork done for the St. Stephen's College Bara Shigri Expedition.
For months we slogged, but now as the days flitted faster and faster towards our scheduled departure date, we became more and more shorthanded. The leader, Major Baljit Singh, and his wife, known to all as Chappu, could only sympathize, for they were in Pathankot and would meet us all when we landed at Manali. Pradeep—known as Pnuts, for obvious reasons—and Rajneesh, both old Manali hands, had contrived to be despatched thither to make sundry arrangements covering high altitude porters (HAPS) and equipment and transport into Lahul. .. Bammy engineered a well-timed escape to Darjeeling to book three Sherpas and stacks of climbing gear—our sadistic consolation being that on the unreserved third class rail journey he would shed several pounds of flesh as price for a view of the Kangchenjunga Massif—which left Balbir, Vijay and myself with our hands full; very full. This seemed sufficient condition for the obverse of Parkinson s Law to come into operation, so it wasn't until the midnight of 11 June that we heaped the expedition stores called 'stuff' on to the truck, and after a few yodels to the world at large, set off to Mountain Country. We were six days behind schedule.
One half hour later we were intrigued to find our truck still loitering about the campus lanes. We discovered that our rough- hewn driver had fixed his gaze uncompromisingly on the horizon; apparently, he could find his way only on the Grand Trunk. Amidst unrefined, though imaginative abuses from the driver and further yodels from us, we hit the road to Pathankot—where we arrived 18 hours later, well caked with dust, sand, saw-dust (the crates with bottles had sprung leaks at us) and quite distracted by the travelling in the truck. The anti-climax had lasted 17 hours. Balbir's theory—that communal truck travel makes for Fraternity—became explicable. Suffering must be the common bond. The new truck from Pathankot that night stripped us of our enthusiasm before the hour was out. It was particularly leaky and jolty, for it was raining and we had to avoid the road barriers every now and then to bypass bureaucratic objections to our presence in a goods carrier. We amused ourselves considerably, albeit briefly, with the truck cleaner, who spoke (too much) Tibetan and had a variety of other non-accomplishments in boot e.g. alleged invitation from a Woman's Expedition to serve as a handy-man.
After 18 further hours of bone jarring, bouncing, seat-shifting, non sleep, exquisite boredom (for we could neither read nor see much), beer for some and tea, and tea, and tea for others, our truck laboured into Manali Bazar around dinner-time. We hopped off, stiff, as stiffs, and announced our arrival to the town by a string of practised yodels which, to our immense delight, elicited replies from one of the eating houses. Reunion. We had anticipated that our generally raucous and non-mild behaviourisms would scandalize the immaculate Baljit and Chappu, but they withstood it all bravely, and even smiled occasionally. Camp was set up immediately in our favourite grove opposite Banons Orchards, and we repaired to Kapur's for a burra khana over which we exchanged notes and discussed our plans, which could now be formulated concretely.
Firstly, Rajneesh and Pnuts had booked four Ladakhi HAPS. All of them had been with us earlier, and we were delighted to be with them again. Warm hearted and impulsive Chering Namgyal, steady and sincere Zang Bo, and Chamba had been with us through our marathon Zanskar Expedition of 1968 ; and Lama Tashi, a man of distilled excellence and a willing worker, was known to Balbir for almost a decade and had walked with us in Parbati, Lahul and Spiti only last autumn. But we had not known about this arrangement and had therefore got Sherpas Thondup, Sonam and Pasang from Darjeeling. Thondup, soon to be known as The General, thanks to his tremendous ability to take things in hand, was a Khalifa. He had been on Chau- khamba and on South Lampak and just this summer had been on the first rope that climbed Chomolhari in Bhutan. Sonam had carried for the NDA, Kulu Pumori Expedition, and we hoped that his experience would be useful. Pasang was the baby of the expedition, this was his first major outing. In fact, he was just two years out of Solu Khumbu. We had originally planned to hire low altitude porters for the task of helping us move our stuff to Concordia, where we were to establish our Base Camp.
This was now possible financially only if we ditched the HAPS (who had missed two big expeditions to be with us again)—and this was inconceivable. So we decided to see through the expedition in all with seven Sherpas and HAPS, and not to employ any low altitude porters at all; we would ourselves ferry the one ton of stuff to the Base and higher camps. A corollary of this was that we would be cutting off some of our climbing time on the glacier—but that seemed unavoidable. We would, however, all acclimatize better. Secondly, our trust in the Himachal Pradesh PWD had proved to be misplaced, for while the road across the Rohtang and downstream the Chandra to Kyelang was open to traffic, the road branching off upstream to cross the Kunzam La into the Spiti Valley was unlikely to be commissioned till much later. We would have to revert to the alternative of employing mules to lug our stuff till the snout of the glacier which was about 60 miles from Manali. This process would consume five precious days. Thirdly, our delay in Delhi, trip to Darjeeling and transportation to Manali had made big unscheduled dents in our finances, which meant that we would have to prune the expedition and spend fewer days on the Bara Shigri. And thanks to the economy drive—the first thing to go overboard was the luxuriant bus-ride from Manali into the Lahul Valley across the Rohtang. This would have the additional advantage of giving a strong start to our physical conditioning drive. Job's Comforter.
We stayed on in Manali for two days—pursuing muleteers (we needed 22 mules), provisions, some more climbing gear from the WHMI, and a long, long hot bath at the Vashisht sulphur springs. Then on the warm morning of the 16th, we crossed the Beas and followed the mule train out of Manali with a view to camping at Marhi that evening. Greeted by wide, wrinkled smiles and jovial Julaes’ from Tibetan refugees labouring at the road, we walked briskly upstream, wending our way through flocks of sheep, trucks and road gangs—to Palchan. This village had welcomed us once with folk songs and dances one gay colourful Dusshera night. Now in the strong, still mid-morning sun, it was dominated entirely by the sawmill that seemed to have become the vitals of the village, securely in the grip of the truck driver, the sawmill operator and the road-gang contractor. The romance and the social ethos of the old trade route to Tibet and beyond had long been disintegrated and replaced by the grinding of the sawmill and the blasts of dynamite that had ripped a road out of the sheer mountain side—once so aweinspiring and forbidding. Tea shops had sprouted all over, and in one of these, I found Pnuts, Rajneesh, Vijay, Namgyal and Lama Tashi ; some sipping tea, and others swigging chang. Over tea, peppered liberally with ancient dust loosened from the rafters by nearby blasting operations, I was told that a Nissan one- tonner had managed to locate and destroy the expedition's egg supply. We had packed the 200 eggs with extreme care only the night before, but no crate of eggs can stand a direct hit. Consoled by another around of tea, we heaved off to Rahla, which we made around lunch. Palchan's gain had been Rahla's loss; for Rahla was something of the ghost of the traders' township we had seen when passing through in 1968, when it was a staging station for mule trains to Lahul, upper Spiti, Zanskar and Ladakh. Now with most of this area accessible by road, Rahla was on the wane-the jingling of the mule-bells was replaced by the distant drone of labouring TMB engines; the slap-happy, camera-toting tourists looking for excitement in sun glasses and terylene suits bypassed Rahla and went in the luxury coach to 'The Top'; and no tea shops flourished. The scene was dismal and stifling, so after a short visit to Parbat Hotel (which had survived the decay) and a brief breather to limber up for the stitt staircase climb of 3,000 ft. to Murhi, we set off on the last lap of the day's walk.
Just a hundred steps out of Rahla, I acquired a set of cramps for my legs, and I remember the rest of the walk to Murhi as one interminable sequence of fifty yard stints—for that was the maximum distance my legs would work at a go. The thought of being so grossly unconditioned was more painful than the actual cramps—but it was infinitely preferable to do penance here, than on the Shigri.
Desolate, wind-battered and inhospitable Murhi stands on a high shoulder of the feature that stands between the Beas and the Solang nalas, and I dragged in towards sundown and collapsed happily beside the kitchen fire with a mugful of steaming sweet tea. Balbir and Bammy were still missing, and as we anticipated, they trooped in gaily on unsteady feet, wearing that snug look of content which comes only after the third kettle of chang. Lama Tashi had outdone himself we were told, and laid low at Rahla; he would join us at Choti Dhom, where we were to halt the next day. For our benefit, Murhi unleashed its winds that night, and lived up to its name. Murhi means burial or cremation grounds, and legend has it that on this exposed feature below the Rohtang, an army of Ranjit Singh's perished in the snow. But even so, the expedition's pulse rate settled down and the tension of the previous month slipped un- obstrusively out of the wildly flapping tents. For now the demanding waiting and preparation period was over—the action had begun. We could relax in the comfortable myopia of immediate planning.
The next day we crossed over into the Chandra valley, and camped as planned at Choti Dhoni. In the next four days, we covered the remaining fifty miles to the snout of the glacier, which falls into the Chandra at Bara Dhara from the true left. Despite the fact that we were carrying heavy loads along a motor- track, the approach march in itself became quite pleasurable. For meeting an old friend is always pleasurable, and the Chandra was greener than ever before. The contrast with the crumbling, black and grey peaks rising sheer from the valley bed was once again breathtaking, Like degenerate gypsies, we measured our daily walk in stops for tea and chang at the stray Tibetan or Lahuli ‘hotels' that had sprouted up in the wilderness in anticipation of the start of the work on the Kaza Road. The road, despite the light snow that year, was in poor condition, and quite unserviceable.
Even as we reached the snout of the glacier on the evening of the 20th, memory compressed the five-day approach march into a sequence of random but vivid impressions—a scrappy collection of still shots by a photographer with insufficient film. But preserved carefully was the impressive view of Gyapang Peak1 from the slopes of Rohtang; the red, yellow and the blue potentillas, the anaemones, the camp at Dadarfok with its boulder strewn alps lined with marsh marigolds, the favourite haunts of the plumsell and the white-capped redstarts, the yellow headed wagtails, the meadow burstings and the yellow billed choughs ; the lingering tea halt at the lonely, lovely rest house at Chettru with its view into the Chotta Shigri with its inviting medial moraine jutting into the Chandra ; the ramchukor- hunting chowkidar of the rest house; the profiteering shopkeepers of Chhota Dara, who after appraising Balbir, took seriously-—much to our delight—his jestful proposition that he send a pitcher of chang to our Base Camp each day at dawn. I tried to imagine what I had looked like, as Chappu wrote: ‘obviously bitten by the camera bug ... goes crawling and creeping up to every living thing with his cine glued to one eye' (I was using a 16 mm Bell and Howell loaded with colour film); General Thondup came into focus—clutching the transistor (they had long become inseparables), with a permanent bemused look on his smoke enveloped face; the 60 lb. loads were carried all through Bhag Singh, the muleteer, sulking after we rejected his perfectly hair-brained scheme of fording the heavy, rolling, emerald green waters of the Chandra, rather than walk a few miles more; and the tingling thrill when we first sighted Bara Shigri from Bara Dara—the snout looking—as Pettigrew had written earlier—like 'the mouth of hell', and promising a scale to the glacier dwarfing the ones on which alone most of us had walked before—the impatience to get its measure, and come to grips with Kulu Pumori, that beautiful, geometric peak still unseen, that dominates the entire glacier till Concordia.
The mules deposited our stuff beneath the snout of the glacier on the afternoon of the 20th, and by the hour, our PWD wing had constructed a massive kitchen-cum-dump with boulders, empty crates, ‘Alkathene' shelters and climbing rope. Tea arrived and we systematically transformed our excessive reserves of impatience into a demanding plan for setting up and stocking the glacier camps, including the Base Camp at 16,000 ft. at Concordia, the massive, flat snowy expanse at the head of the glacier from which rose the solitary Kulu Pumori.
We had to move up ten days of high altitude rations for the climbing and support teams to Concordia as soon as possible at the camp below the Base Camp (Concordia) we wanted to stock rations for fifteen days. The climbing and camping gear was also to move up completely. Once this was done, the larger part of the Sam could base itself at Concordia while the camps were setup on the mountain. All the written and oral reports that we had had on the glacier had been ominous, if not discouraging and the porters were also carefully reticent when we asked them how long the ferrying operations would take. That evening we made out the loads for a light ferry-cum-recce party for the morrow. Eight of us-Baljit, Pnuts, Vijay, The General, Zang Bo Sonam, Pasang and myself moved off at seven with our packs-some tents, some kerosene, some climbing ropes, the rest being food articles. Since the route was unknown and the moraine looked bad, and since it was imperative for us to have just one ferrying camp on the glacier between the Snout Camp and the Base Camp at Concordia, Baljit had asked me to make out light loads of about 30 lb. each for all of us In the event it turned out that most of us were carrying considerably more-the spring balances had been out of commission, and I had let my enthusiasm affect my judgement when 'weighing the loads the night before.
The route into the massive chaos of the huge glacier could roughly be decided on from a distance of about a mile, for at such a distance, the main features retained their relative magnitudes, and registered their respective elevations and positions thus making crude route identification possible. These features, however, imperceptibly dissolved themselves into unrecognizable, unidentifiable masses of boulders as soon as the distance between them and the eye began to encroach on the original perspective. As we went along, we laid stone markers in a manner that they should stand out on the skyline distinctly visible, when approached from either direction. When walking through the exasperating maze of lateral moraines (in vain did we search and strain our eyes and toes for a sight of a walkable medial moraine), often we had to skirt around or just climb across nasty 80-foot ice walls out to trick the unwary into stepping unguarded on the, loose thin layer of scree that invariably hid the black ice beneath. As a relief, we sometimes hit a patch of sand, or a good firm stretch of boulders, and then we quickened the pace. After walking for ninety minutes, we came upon a stack of rusted tins and empty bottles. This, we were told, was the first glacier camp of the Calcutta Ladies' Expedition which had visited Bara Shigri last autumn. This camp was dominated entirely by the first big icefall, that tumbled into the Bara Shigri from the true left. We pushed on, weaving through the jungle of rock and ice. After four hours on the glacier, we came laterally across the second big icefall, and Zang Bo led us to a spot where we found further slacks of old tins, bottles and some wrappings. Sonam and Thondup unearthed a bottle with some sugar and a tin of jam— l hey were both promptly despatched. We were about six miles from Snout Camp, and we decided to set up camp here, as the daily ferry parties would have to get back to the lower camp each day. We were now at the Ladies' Camp II site. So after setting up the tents, and after cooking up a kitchen with the usual ingrediants, we cleaned out our packed lunches, and set sail for home.
The return trip was a joy ride; it took us just two hours, and in retrospect, I felt sorry that we had not pushed our first glacier camp a few miles further up. But Baljit was right—bad weather had also to be reckoned with. Over the next four days we moved up between 160 and 200 lb. each—and the first glacier camp earned the name—'Camp Labour'. It was rough going on that monster moraine where we could presume on nothing, and every day had to alter route, and every moment had to spot out the next sequence of half dozen boulders on which we were to read It was disconcerting, every now and then, to see the man in front step on what appeared to be a perfectly stable giant boulder only to pull back just as the boulder went crashing over. And while the true left was split up by a succession of hanging glaciers and icefalls, the right wall, in contrast, was for miles unbroken. It was an unaesthetic wall, displaying ugly mud brown and grey cliffs, but mostly it was one unending stretch of scree and loose boulders. Way on top one could see whole faces ready to crumble and tumble down and lower down were the scree slopes smoothened by the continuous avalanches during and after the snow. Now there was no snow, but after mid- day-when the sun hit the north wall-these slopes became very active and one stretch around the Ladies' Camp I sent down rocky reminders every hour or so. We wondered what the going would have been like when there was a foot or two of snow remaining on the boulders; no one we knew of had come in those conditions-and quite understandably so. Lynam had come in August, when there is no snow; Pettigrew had come up early n season when there is so much snow that the going is fairly straightforward in the early hours of the morning and the N.D.A and the Calcutta Ladies' Expeditions had visited the glacier in October, when the whole moraine is just one unending stretch of white—like in the fairy tales.
Now Baljit, Vijay, Namgyal, Sonam and myself were constituted as an advance party deputed to fix the route to, and to set up the Base Camp at Concordia itself, if it were at all possible to do so. Our apprehensions were due to the fact that Pettigrew had had to use two camps between the Snout and Concordia, as had all other teams, except Lynams. As it turned out, we struck Base Camp just a few miles short of Concordia on a massive medial moraine-where sheer black ice glistened between patches of boulders. We had noted with some relief, the appearance of the medials after the nala from Central Peak bisected the North Wall of the glacier, some four miles short of Concordia. The entire walk that day had been dominated by beautiful Kulu Pumori which stood out alone at the head of the glacier. This constant view was the anodyne to the unremitting labours of the next few days during which the Base Camp was stocked enough for us to begin the occupation of the mountain. In the meantime, the supply chain would be maintained from the snout up to Concordia as the need arose. The date was 25 June.
That evening at Concordia we stood on the crest of the medial moraine, snug in our heavy, colourful down jackets, and gazed at our surroundings. We were waiting to see Pumori in the rose- the violet and the gold of the sunset-a phenomenon that permeated the bowl of Concordia in its entirety-filling it to the brim with a diffused glow. Then darkness blotched it all out-and after dinner the glacier woke up, and to the ominous, fearful cracks and rumbles deep under us, we dropped off to sleep hoping the glacier would not choose to gobble us up that night. For tomorrow we would be on our way to the peak.
We had decided that given the limited time at our disposal, the team should drop all secondary occupations till Kulu Pumori/ was climbed, or vacated. Glaciers extending in all directions beckoned us with their promise of untrodden cwms and unknown peaks—but before that, Kulu Pumori demanded our undivided attentions. We (Baljit, Vijay, General Thondup, Namgyal, Sonam and myself) were to move up to Concordia proper, branch off on to the Kulu Pumori glacier and set up the Advanced Base Camp (ABC) comprising two Meades and a kitchen shelter as close as possible to the Pettigrew site at the foot of the southwest ridge at the end of the Kulu Pumori cwm.
27 June: Advance Base Camp; c. 17,000 ft.
We set off early and made brisk time—now that we were on the medials and the icy corridors of the glacier—to Concordia proper. However, two things threw us behind schedule. Firstly, Namgyal's claim—that after the maidan,2 the mountain walks with you—came true. Secondly, the slopes and snow fields leading to the Kulu Pumori glacier were crevassed—and had already received many hours of strong sunshine. So we had to plod through miles of slushy knee-deep snow, and freeze in the knee- deep ice water channels—the whole slope was one huge net— with their false ice roofs waiting for us to step through them. Under these conditions, the detection of crevasses became all the more difficult. Thondup went in once—right up to the neck and was saved only by his rucksack and by Baljit who pulled him out unceremoniously by the scruff of his neck. For a few rare moments, the General's mien dropped into the crevasse, and I have not been forgiven for having missed freezing. The General- sans-aplomb on celluloid. We pitched camp at noon, midway on the moraine running along the base of the sheer 3,000 ft. west face of Kulu Pumori. We were still well short of the foot of the SW. ridge, but this was the best we could do, considering the deteriorating weather in which Baljit and Thondup would have to return. After a round of tea and a change of socks, Baljit and Thondup started off towards Concordia, and Namgyal and I roped up and set off to recce the route to the foot of the SW. ridge. We clung to the true right of the glacier, and when the glacier opened out into the Kulu Pumori cwm, we moved on to the lower snow slopes of the west face. We kept running into undetectable crevasses and soft deep snow. We slopped after an hour, when at last we could sight the neve from which the SW. ridge took off in a hurry towards the summit. The recce promised a difficult two hours on this stretch to the foot of the ridge. We returned to find the cooker hissing, and soon thereafter, feasted on 'pish-pash— a khichn with all kinds of things thrown into it. There was no problem about packing the loads for we had to move up everything to Assault One, which we were to establish at a height of 19,000 tt. on the ridge. Then we were to return to ABC, in accordance with the rigorous acclimatization plan that Baljit and Balbir had worked out.
28 June: A.B.C.
None of us had a watch, and partly as a result, we moved off late-and without Vijay, whose eyes showed the early symptoms of snow-blindness. He was to stay at ABC and go downwhen the day's ferry to ABC went back to Concordia that afternoon. His load-a Meade and some food rations-stayed at ABC when Namgyal, Sonam and I made off in that order. The one mile crampon-walk on the ice and the hard-packed snow was a delight -but this ended abruptly when my right leg disappeared up to the thigh into a narrow crevasse which had obviously decided to bear no more burdens ; my knee suffered for this. This was portentous, and for the rest of the way to the foot of the ridge we had to thread a meandering route across a slope and through a snow field criss-crossed with unpatterned, unfriendly and undisciplined crevasses. Most were hidden and could be detected only by the plunging ice axe ; but the naked ones were nasty indeed with their green corniced lips yawning into the murky depths below, from where we could hear the roar of the ice waters rushing through underground corridors. We cleared this area without further mishap—and faced a choice. We had almost made it to the rock ridge, but there were two ways of actually getting on to it. Either we could make a longish de- tour—along a crevassed neve—which would bring us around to the south face of Kulu Pumori, and then strike up and left on to the ridge, as Pettigrew had done—or we could ascend a 40 to 50 degree steep ice and rock gully that would lead us practically on to the rock ridge at about the same point as the other route. But this gully was firstly avalanche prone (and this was a matter of concern as the sun was already lighting up the crest of the gully in gold), and this 400 ft. climb would not take us less than an hour and a half. Secondly, the gully was split right across by two converging crevasses which had flimsy snow bridges of dubious reliability. In the event, we decided to go up the gully; and now I took the lead from Namgyal, who now brought up the rear. It was a strenuous and fairly difficult climb, but exhilarating all the same. Cutting steps in the ice as we went up, we all missed the front points on the crampons. At the top of the gully, we found we would have to climb up another steep snow slope on the south face contiguous to the rock of the SW. ridge. Having gained the top of this slope, we traversed sharply across the face on to the SW. ridge itself. Here we dumped our crampons, and over some hot coffee, tried to locate without success—the natural shelf on which Pettigrew had put his first camp. After climbing some 1,200 ft. along the highly unstable loose rock slabs and boulders of the ridge we came upon a shelf (at 20 degrees to the horizontal) barely large enough to hold a Meade. While digging up the platform for the Meade, we chanced on some old rusty tins and some remarkably well preserved match-box wrappings. This excavation added zest to the proceedings, and after a hastily packed lunch, we bolted downwards, for the weather had closed in—all of a sudden—for the first time on the expedition. The air was charged with a fine granular snow, and a white curtain cut visibility down to about 100 ft. Namgyal, who was ahead, looked other-worldly, for he alternately appeared, and faded away into the nothingness very gradually. We got back to ABC in the late afternoon and were greeted by Pnuts (who had replaced Vijay, whose eyes were worse than before) who managed to produce some steaming hot Horlicks in record time. In minutes we were making loads for the morrow, and by the hour, we had dined, discussed and disappeared into the security of our sleeping bags, happy that Assault One was up where it should have been.
Pnuts had also brought messages from Baljit. The three of us (Pnuts, Namgyal and myself) were to occupy Assault One on 29 June where we would be joined by Thondup and Sonam later that day On 30 June, all five were to move off to establish Assault Two at 20,000 ft., which Pnuts, Thondup and I were to occupy while Sonam and Namgyal were to return directly to ABC where Vijay (who had recovered from his eye trouble) and Rajneesh (who also had recovered from his bout of altitude- sickness compounded by home-sickness) would meet them to from the two ropes (of two each) that would form the second assault team. On 1 July, if all went well, Pnuts, Thondup and I were to attempt the peak and return to Assault Two, or to ABC; in the meantime, the second assault team would come and occupy Assault One, move up to Assault Two the following day and attempt Kulu Pumori the next day. By this time, we would be down at ABC, and on 3 July, a team would move up to Assault One to help in the evacuation of the camps on the mountain. All through this, Chamba and Pasang would be stationed at Concordia and would maintain supplies by ferrying from the Snout and 'Labour' Camps; Baljit and Chappu would man the Base Camp at Concordia; and Bammy and Zang Bo would occupy the Advanced Base Camp and complete the chain to the assault camps. While the first assault team went up, the second team would work in support, and vice verse. We were aware that we were thinly spread out, but this movements plan was optimal in the light of three considerations—firstly, the attempt on the peak had to be made as early as possible, seeing the steadily deteriorating weather; secondly, the interdependent consideration to keep the supply line active right through the climbing operations; and thirdly, the tremendous fitness of the party The climbing teams would now have to move up heavily laden to the assault camps, self-sufficient for three days— which meant that each assault team could have one crack each at the top. Ideally, we would have stocked Assault One for a week, but shorthanded as we were, we could not afford the luxury of two more days of ferrying; and our brief honeymoon with the weather seemed to have run out of its allotted time. It was what game-theorists would call a maxim in strategy, but we were confident it would succeed so long as the weather held out.
The weather was a major factor making for uncertainty, and instrumental in making us work on a wider-than-normal safety margin. Baljit had heard bulletins giving news of the imminent arrival of the monsoon and its virtual arrival in the adjacent valleys south of the Pir Panjal—and had heard the disconcerting news that Ladakh and Rajasthan had been subjected to violent cloud bursts. Nimo, a 30 house settlement in Ladakh, having been completely destroyed. Our retreat down the 14 mile length of the chaotic moraine would become nightmarish if the glacier took two days of heavy snowfall—a possibility which weighed heavily on our mind while making the plans. Bara Shigri was the monster glacier that had—by itself—wrecked havoc some years ago, destroying all riverside settlements along the Chandra between Bara Dara and Gramphoo—a 25 mile stretch. Impulsive Namgyal was saddened—Nimo, he said, was a beautiful village, and he had known it well.
Pumori is Tibetan for Girl-Mountain—and we wondered how this graceful Kulu woman would take to our advance. She could hold us up anyhow—by sending down avalanches or simply by calling in snow clouds to her rescue, and covering this already treacherous ridge with an impassible layer of snow. Till yesterday, she had not shown herself to be adverse to our poaching... Was she now just playing hard to get?
And so we dropped off to sleep, four apprehensive men huddled uncomfortably in a droopy moisture-laden Meade,
29 June: Assault One ; c. 19,000 ft.
We emerged from the tent that morning at ABC straight into a soft breezy barrage of granular snow. It had snowed continuously but lightly last night, and now, hemmed in by heavy snow clouds, we feared the worst for the day's plans. We prepared to move in the icy cold. The Meade, which now weighed an extra 8 lb., was packed up; rock and ice pitons were rechecked and dumped into rucksacks, as also were climbing ropes, a 500 ft. length of hemp rope to be used as fixed rope, slings, carabiners and a host of subsidiaries; high-altitude rations, comprising dates, dry fruits, chocolates, cream-crackers, cheese, sardines, fruit juices, soups and noodles, Ovaltine, Horlicks and condensed milk, tea and coffee, glucose, some tins of meat... some kitchen stores ; camera equipment; and medical kit. With our heavy loads we set off to occupy Assault One. Thanks to the humidity and warmth of the night, the snow bridges over the crevasses had softened up, and thanks to the snow- fall of the night, all identification signs had been obliterated, Nninpyal and Pnuts both went in on this trip; and we cleared the avalanche gully much later than schedule after climbing laboriously, clinging to the gully's left rock wall all the way up to avoid getting bogged down in patches of soft snow in the middle of the unfriendly gully. When pitching the second Meade at Assault One, we heard, and then momentarily spotted Sonam and Thondup as they moved up the gully. That night was comfortable, with Pnuts and I in one Meade, and Sonam, Numgyal and Thondup in the other. In the continuing bad weather, we made out the loads for the morning, and at about six o’clock retired for the night.
We moved later than planned, as we had to wait for the layer of snow on the loose, loose rock of the ridge to disappear to make it relatively safe for the climb over what Pettigrew had called the difficult Coxcomb arete. Assault Two had to be placed in a niche somewhere on the ridge at about 20,000 ft On the way up, we fixed 200 ft. of rappelling rope as a handrail twice This ensured that we would not take the short way down to the ABC, seeing the state of the rock, the snow on it, and our loads The weather had been miserable ever since we had set up ABC, and it did not seem as if it was going to let up either. Namgyal and Sonam had to make it back to ABC after depositing their loads at Assault Two, and were therefore m a bit of a rush in leaving Assault One on the way up. About twenty minutes after leaving One, we saw Namgyal reappear on a crest some 200 ft. above where we were climbing. He was obviously very shaken up; he brought the news that a massive ice and rock avalanche of the first magnitude had swept down the west face, and had penetrated the Kulu Pumori cwm by something like 500 yards. He wasn't sure if it was in line with the ABC, We quickened our pace till we reached the vantage point from where the cwm (from which the impossible west face rises) became visible. We had to wait for some time before we could derive our bearings, for the snow cloud cover that shrouded everything would lift only momentarily, revealing the cwm in patches of slightly differentiated shades of white. But we could confirm that ABC was safe ; however, the route from ABC to Assault One would now have a big dent in it. We hoped that no party of climbers had been negotiating the west slopes at the time of the avalanche, which must have swept the mountain face that night. During our occupation of Assault One, we had heard— if not seen an avalanche thunder off some close-by mountain practically every ten minutes—which was the reason why we had not noticed this gigantic one—even though it had taken off not more than half a mile from where Assault One was sited.
The route from Assault One to Assault Two comprises a series of sharp rock pitches that are highly unstable, and often very treacherous. Occasionally, on particularly nasty ones we affixed a handrail, which was a mixed blessing, for with every other slight tug to free the handrail, boulders of no mean size rocketed past, giving the eye barely enough time to register the movement— and almost never time enough to move oneself. The last stretch to Two was quite bad, a dicey, very steep stretch of rock waiting to slip under you. I delayed the impatient Namgyal and Sonam while I hurriedly scribbled an apprehensive note to Baljit, recommending that the second assault on the peak be postponed till the weather improved, or otherwise, till we returned to Concordia. The likelihood of our being stranded on the mountain for a few days was fairly strong, and it would not help at all to have seven climbers stranded on this ridge instead of three. So down they scrambled, leaving us to ourselves, our efforts, and Kulu Pumori,
Below the great rock face that stands over the Assault Two site, we discovered not one, but two separate platforms (even though in bad shape) for one tent each. They were removed from each other by something like 200 ft., and at both we found the usual odds and ends—a rusty sardine tin, a fruit juice tin, a tent peg, etc. We decided to camp on the higher shelf—the closer we got to the peak the better. The bright red Meade went up, and in minutes, our lonely little camp was cheered by the hiss from the stove and Thondup's lilo inflation pump.
I was drawn out by the sunset over the distant Lahul mountains, and by a mountain raven which was perched a few yards from the tent. Both obliged, unaffected by the whirr of the camera.
The chough and the mountain raven probably understand the essential loneliness of humans in these desolate expanses, for they had kept us company wherever we went. But they also knew well the imperatives of survival—they disappeared as soon as the weather deteriorated to reappear only once the skies cleared. Now at 20,000 ft., this Himalayan raven thrilled our hearts by a truly fantastic display of aerobatics, describing perfect loops, effortlessly graceful; dropping like a stone for a thousand feet ; performing a series of 180 degree flips with ridiculous ease in his long swoop into the cwm, some 3,000 ft. below us. He knew he had an appreciative audience. Now he stood out just as an accelerating dot on an asymptotic curve. And at that moment Icarus' costly but very human folly became explicable. To this display, the sunset provided a more real and permanent back-drop.
We thought and wondered what Bammy would be up to at ABC. I could only too easily picture him sitting cross-legged in the lent and solemnly counting his stack of one rupee notes; Silas Marner. We retired into the tent, a third of which had been requisitioned by Thondup for his kitchen, and dined on I tinned kcema mutter fried in cheese, and a tin of sardines eaten with cream-crackers, chocolate and aampapad (!) for pudding with a tremendous brew of Horlicks, Ovaltine and condensed milk for a night-cap. Our appetites were, if anything, on the increase, and we were feeling a hundred per cent fit. The weather had been clearing up for the last two hours, and it was in the warmth of the optimism generated by this happening, that we dropped off to sleep. Pnuts was too excited, and couldn't go off to sleep just like that; he lay in his sleeping bag munching cashew nuts and dry khubaris.
I kept waking up—acutely conscious of Pnuts' breathing beside me and of Thondup's smoke enshrouded figure, leaning out of the' tent, gazing towards the western mountains where the sun had just set. The next time I woke up-thinking I was still trying to go to sleep-I heard, before I saw,-for my balaclava was all over my face—the stove being pumped. It was four in the morning, and Thondup was making coffee. The weather outside was chilling. It had closed in completely, and though it was snowing lightly and intermittently, the visibility was nowhere more than 100 ft., and we couldn't see anything at all upstairs—all was shrouded in swirling clouds. Only after ten or fifteen minutes' vigil could we sight fleeting dissolving patches of a brighter white—which we now knew to be parts of the magnificent peak (opposite the SW. ridge) which accompanies the climber till Assault Two, or glimpses of the cwms below. Pnuts took some APC tablets for overpowering his shadow of a headache. Over brew, we discussed, in guarded monosyllables, the plans for the day. The planned five o'clock start was given up without any resistance, and after deciding to inspect the wicket every half hour, we repaired for another round of tea to buck up our flagging spirits. At seven, the weather was worse than ever before, and for that reason, we launched on a debate—for now we had to decide whether we were to go up or not-a decision consciously made was imperative—we could not let the indecision caused by the weather decide the issue. We felt that if we went down, it would need a major logistical effort to mount another assault after waiting at Concordia for the weather to improve—and for all we knew, this might be the permanent cloud drift-over of the Himachal monsoon. On the other hand, if we did go up, we would have two disadvantages—firstly, a photographic documentation of the climb and of the region from the peak would be almost nonexistent. But then, not being able to photograph very much was infinitely preferable to not being able to climb the peak at all. Secondly, and more important, we would have to climb the most difficult section of the route in treacherous conditions. This would create special problems on the way down if we did not get off to an early start. All considered, we decided to give it a go, subject to some minimal improvement in the weather. Secondly, we decided that if we must go, we must leave before ten, or not go at all; if the weather stayed the way it was throughout the day, we would stand a fair chance of making it back to Assault Two in daylight only if we kept to this dead-line.
Seven o'clock came and went, and quite disheartened, we waited now for eight. It arrived—and brought in its tow a feeble sun; feeble enough that you could look it straight in the face, but all the same, not a non-existent one either. This elicited yodels from the camp, and as if in response, large patches of the cwm and sections of the faraway Kulu ranges now appeared on the scene. In ten minutes of sun, the thin swirling cloud virtually disappeared. Joy. We gave up yodelling and started packing. We left at 8.45 a.m. Thondup with the rope length and the pitons, Pnuts with a stock of food, and I with my movie and still cameras. But the ridge above us and the complete massif was as shrouded as ever in cloud which refused to lift despite the sun, which happily was becoming stronger.
The scene at Assault Two is dominated completely by two features: the Kulu Pumori ridge upwards, and the rock peak opposite the SW. ridge, downwards. As one looks up the ridge, what one sees is not Kulu Pumori, but a huge impassive rock face, something like 200 ft. high. Alongside it is an ice field shaped like a parallelogram resting on its base—a steep ice slope hanging precariously over rock cliffs that gaze straight down at the snow fields at the base of the south face. We knew that Pettigrew had thought this rock face impossible, and had avoided it by traversing diagonally across the ice field, and later cutting back on to the ridge. When we arrived at the foot of the face (from where we could get a closer look at the ice traverse), we found neither route practicable. The ice slope was covered with a two-foot soft layer of old and fresh snow. The time was about ten o’clock, and the sun, along with the warmth of the preceding nights, had left this exposed layer of snow in a state in which it would not just bog us down, but in all probability, also deposit us in one heap (or many) on the slopes some 4,000 ft below us. The rock face looked tough, given the constraints set by the weather and our loads. And we did not want to have to fix permanently our 200 ft. of fixed half weight nylon rope we might need it later. The route would also eat up a lot of lime. As it turned out, the third way out was also the quickest Thondup had, the evening before, deposited a 500 ft. length of hemp rope somewhere above Assault Two at a point where he could sight some fixed rope creeping up one flank of the rock face. We located this now, and after testing it vigorously, decided that it would hold. With the help of this unsolicited—but welcome-aid, we went in quick time over a succession of fairly difficult chimneys and smaller faces-the difficulty as usual, being more because of crumbling rock rather than the absence of holds, as such. The length of this fixed rope-probably left behind by the 1966 N.D.A Expedition- was about 200 ft. and as we climbed along the right flank of the great rock face, we came upon two very uncertain shaky pitons that had somehow been holding the rope up. We said thanks and swerved back on to the main ridge stopping finally at a shelf-one two-foot by four-foot ledge-that clung on to the ridge precariously—and rested. The height was something like 21000 ft, and from here we got our first unrestricted view of the Bara Shigri as well as the Kulu Pumori cwm and glacier. The snow fields were ripped open impressively by large clusters of cold massive crevasses-whose green depths gave them _an illusory image of the calm of isolated mountain tarns-elhptica in shape. The Bara Shigri reminded me vaguely of Charles Houston's photograph of the Baltoro glacier from a shoulder of K2—only I couldn't count half as many medial moraines on this glacier. The glaciers-strips of white sandwiched between the dark medial moraines-gave the impression of being great highways sweeping outwards into the Chandra whose western mountain wall was visible in the diffused misty haze of the mid-morning.
But had we time to stand and stare, or Cortez-like, to survey the scene? From the ranges to the south and west of Kulu Pumori masses of nasty snow and rain cloud crept stealthily- but so swiftly—over the Shigri Divide and rolled down into the subsidiary basins of the glacier. But for these portentous indications-yet some distance from us-the skies were a clear blue, and we could see the ridge above us, though we could still not see the peak. Occasionally, small tufty clouds breezed past the top and disintegrated completely into flimsy wisps that themselves evanesced. But the movements of the main cioufl banks was alarmingly rapid-now it would be a race against the clouds. To make things even more precarious, Pnuts complained of nausea. So we jettisoned his load after taking on some of it ourselves, and gave him a Marzine tablet to help him hold the fort for a spell. By our reckoning, the top was yet one hour away. We climbed now over difficult terrain—each of us isolated in a personal box of his own—linked only by the sling, the carabiner and the rope. All of a sudden, and without any warning, at one o'clock, we came on to the summit ridge which led on to the peak, 150 ft. to the left of us.
The summit ridge, extending to the left for a hundred feet before it curved outwards to the right, was sharp, and would permit one person to crouch or crawl along it to the peak. We could actually spot two peaks—separated by a heavily corniced ridge of about 30 ft. The climb along the ridge (from where we stood to the first peak) was not more than ten feet—it was almost level. The first stretch of about 120 ft. was bad rock, and it led to the rock peak—on which there wasn't place enough for one person to stand, for it was virtually one conical, jagged rock jutting outwards. This peak was just beyond the bend in the ridge, and beyond it stood the snow peak—thirty feet away. Half an hour's tense and concentrated belaying saw us in turn on the rock peak. The improvised orange coloured flag (a marker flag that Thondup had brought along as a souvenir from Chomolhari) was affixed amongst the rocks, and the conventional photographs taken after considerably complicated manoeuvres to ensure the security of both the photographer and the photographed. But perched atop the rock peak, I discovered that the snow peak was higher than the rock peak by about four to six feet. Despite its great proximity, we decided after a pow-wow not to attempt it. The 30 ft. ridge was precarious indeed— and it reminded me of some stretches of the Manali Peak— Muker Beh ridge as we had seen it from Manali Peak. At our end, the corniced snow ridge fell down in a step by about 15 ft. ; it then led up in an exquisitely horrible cornice to the snow peak. The ridge was all rotten and soft snow, with a few big boulders delicately poised on it. A mild disturbance, it seemed to us, would be sufficient to make the whole contraption fall apart. All this was only disconcerting—but given the conditions, and the desire to maintain a minimal margin of safety, these obstacles became formidable. The two deciding factors were Pnuts' altitude sickness—which had made his responses and reflexes slow—and the weather—it was cloudy all to the south and west of us, and snowing heavily a few hundred feet down the face. (The view to the north and east was unrestricted hut would be blotted out in ten minutes as the clouds swarmed upwards towards the peak). The climb to the snow peak would take not less than an hour from the rock peak, with all the necessary rope engineering, the problem being compounded by the tact that we couldn't locate any suitably stable rock that would take a rock piton, and further, because we had no ropeto leave behind. We decided it was better to let the flag flutter at 21,495 ft. rather than risk a bivouac with Pnuts in the dubious condition that he was in.
The stay at the peak was grim. The traditional cups of tea and the slabs of chocolate were not consumed, probably because it never struck us to do so. Not many emotions held us either, and for me, the effort of the climb was something much more real and concrete than standing on the summit ridge with senses blunted—working out mechanically the details of the retreat. It was as if the music had been stopped half-way through a movement.
The return journey to Assault Two was nightmarish, but mechanical. Thondup's purposeful harangues finally elicited some response from Pnuts, and he gained control over circumstances every now and then. We had hammered in four pitons on the way up, and now these came in handy as end points for a handrail. We leapfrogged with the 200 ft. rappelling rope and at 6.15 p.m. after hours of climbing, we were back in the welcome warmth of dry clothes and sleeping bags in our snow- plastered Meade.
With the tea came the thaw; we talked of Chomolhari and Darjeeling and Thondup's earlier expeditions; of Delhi in winter; of fluffy stuffed omelettes ; of Brazil and the World Cup ; of next summer. Now imperceptibly, with its roots in the distant fading colours lighting the Chandra Wall, approached the rumble and the crash of the crescendo. It swept past each of us at different moments—bidding us in turn to the serenity of silence.
Snow continued. On 2 July, on our way down, we met Rajneesh and Namgyal, and Vijay and Zang Bo at Assault One ready to move up to Assault Two. We armed them with advice (unnecessary as ever) and caution, wished them luck, and after watching them disappear into the snow cloud, started ourselves on our way to ABC. Pnuts who had spotted butterflies at 21,000 ft. was still in form. He kept sending down huge boulders towards me, then shouting 4 Sorry, yar.1 Thought this one was O.K., yar!' and kept on repeating the performance every other pitch. Finally, he succeeded in his design, and consequent on this was the final demise of my right knee. After further experiences amongst the crevasses, we arrived at ABC, where Bammy provided the traditional welcome. He had stayed alone for three days at ABC without anything hot or cooked to eat or drink, because he couldn't light a stove. He had occupied himself with an exchange of Limericks with the Concordia Camp —manned for so long by those excelent people, Baljit and Chappu. No, it had not struck him to play solitaire with his currency notes. At Concordia, Baljit and Chappu had laid out a ‘Burra Khana'—army style—for all of us. We bade them good luck, for while the second assault team was trying its chance on the peak, they were off, with the redoubtable Thondup and smiling Pasang to keep their date with Old Foggies' Peak, an eighteen- thousander which stood sentinel at the snout on the true right. They climbed it in style on 5 July, the day we evacuated Base Camp and arrived at the Snout Camp with back-breaking loads. Rajneesh and Vijay's loads of 70 lb. would have done any Baljit proud, considering especially the state of the glacier. We had come down the length of the completely altered glacier in a day, after the second assault team—working on a dead-line—returned to Concordia after having been foiled from the peak by the weather. Now the Snout did not look like the ‘mouth of hell'. It looked fearsome, but not out to do us in.
We walked for three days through a richer Chandra—richer in smiling people, flowers, grassy meadows, and rain. We were all weary, but something egged each of us on. Pnuts couldn't think or walk straight because of ‘chhangor the thought of it, stones stuffed in his rucksack would not slow him down. Chappu, inexplicably, kept thinking of gulabjamuns; and I, as inexplicably, kept thinking of fluffy stuffed omelettes. Rajneesh, noble spirit, got soulful over the beauties of Delhi—Maurice Chevalier-like—and kept walking faster and faster day by day.
We drove over the flower hidden slopes of the Rohtang into Manali on the evening of 10 July, bearded, weary and in rags, but brimful of that mysterious commodity the French call joie de vivre.