THE launching of the St. Stephen's College Satopanth Glacier Expedition is a saga of idiot single-mindedness which needs a separate chronicle. Tangling with the combined bureaucracies of the Indian Mountaineering Foundation and the University Grants Commission is an enervating experience and one wonders why one repeats the exercise year after year. Probably because they are there. However, it suffices to state that on 4 June we left Delhi, decrepit with fatigue, enfeebled in body and, not least, in mind.
The objective of the Expedition was to attempt Parbati Parbat peak (6275 m., 20,587 ft., as marked on S.O.I. sheets 53 N/5 & N/6) on the south wall of the Satopanth glacier in the Alaknanda valley and some 5 kilometres west-south-west of Nilkantha. It was attempted by the New Zealand Garhwal Expedition in 19511 and by S.S.N. Ganju's Mayo College team in 1967. To the best of our knowledge it was still virgin. The peak was mentioned to us in 1972 by Ganju on a rock-climbing trip to Ajmer and over the following year the idea slowly crystallised into a plan for an expedition to the Satopanth glacier in the summer of 1973 with Ganju as leader. The nine-man team included Pradeep Misra, Karamjit Butalia, Prithviraj Preni, Sadeev Sandhu and Parash Moni Das, students of St. Stephen's College; Ganju, Sandeep Bagchee and Ashok Bamzai, old students; and Dr. Trilochan Singh Jain of the All India Institute of Medical Science.
As so seldom happens, we got just the number of porters and mules we required. Bahadur Singh Pal, Bhirn Singh and Govind Singh of the Niti-Gamsali-Bampa complex of villages on the Dhauliganga, men we had known well on a previous foray in 1969, joined us as high altitude porters while we recruited 15 mules and six porters in Mana for helping us establish Base Camp.
Leaving, with relief, the Badrinath Mana metropolis (between the Army and the pilgrims that is just what it now is), we made for Lakshmiban, the first padao, an exposed meadow on the true left of the Alaknanda, almost directly opposite the Vasud- hara Falls. The walk was pleasant, mainly across grassy meadows not quite with summer flowers abloom. It would have been pleasanter but for the first occurrence of a malaise which was to lay low, by turns, almost everyone on the expedition- severe stomach upset. Holy or not, the waters of the Alaknanda are lethal.
The next day the mules covered themselves with glory. They heroically planted the Base Camp almost farther up the lateral moraine of the Satopanth than was good for them, some 3 kilometres above the junction of the Satopanth and Bhagirath Kharak glaciers and at about 13,200 ft. The area around was as bleak as moraine can be except that the Base Camp site, awkwardly perched on a high point, could boast of some grass and even, later, a flower or two. We fell to making the place livable and within the hour our construction gangs had levelled living quarters and a kitchen, not without a terraced track leading from one to the other. Bagchee, our ecologist was disgusted.
Instead of using the next day, 12 June, for rest, acclimatisation and reorganising, we decided to use the four Mana porters to help us establish and stock Camp I before being paid off. Meanwhile, the mules left with the promise to return on the 27th for evacuation.
The Base Camp was almost directly abreast of the battery of ice-cliffs, rock-faces and hanging glaciers which set off the northern approaches of the Nilkantha massif from the Satopanth glacier. Adjacent and parallel, and separated from these forbidding features by a rock spur, were the steeply descending bouldery slopes which rose some three thousand feet from about 13,500 ft. to about 16,500 ft. in three kilometres, and up which we had to go. They lead to a snow basin, some two kilometres square, which lies midway between Nilkantha and Parbati Par- bat and just below the ridge which connects one to the other. The low point on this ridge is the east col (of Parbati Parbat) roughly 18,500 ft., and a natural camp-site enroute both to Nilkantha and Parbati Parbat.
The bottom of the climb to the snow basin, a point named Majna (13,500 ft.) lies two kilometers from Bas Camp in our yet blubbery state, was gained in an hour and a half. Thereafter, the slopes, an unremitting thirty to fifty degrees all the way, were easier going than they were to be later on when the stretches of hard packed snow had disappeared totally to make the ascent an unrelieved boulder-hop. We took some five hours in all to a point just short of the main snow basin, where the gradient eased off a bit. The afternoon clouds had moved in to reduce vision to a ghostly fifty metres which, nevertheless, was far enough for us to take in our fill of the horrendous ice- chasms which lay next to what was going to be Camp I. To complete the effect, ever so often the gloom rumbled. That clay we managed to move up all the Camp II loads as well as most of the Camp I stuff. So, modestly optimistic, we spent the next day at Base Camp, reorganising, sun-bathing, rafting, making jelly and photographing each other's legs.
A word about the mofussil: when clouds were not hugging the valley floor, which they did oftener as the expedition wore on, we got magnificent views of Balakun (6471 metres, though wrongly marked on the map3 as 6108 metres, which is an adjacent feature) imperiously dominating the Satopanth-Bhagirath Kharak watershed. Further up-valley, the horizon lay on the Chaukhamba ridge. This is precipitous country and down-valley, over the tops of the rock spires which flank the Satopanth and Bhagirath Kharak, peeped the ninteen—and twenty—thou- sanders of the Bangneu complex, on the true left of the Alak- nanda and just behind Vasudhara. It is high glacier country, over eighteen thousand feet, such that the peaks seem mere pimples on the surface of the glaciers.
The plan for the first attempt was now clear. Bagchee, Das, Misra and Bhim Singh moved up on the 14th to occupy Camp I. Their job was to reconnoitre the route to Camp II, which, it was assumed, would be on the east col while the second team of Ganju, Butalia, Prem, Bahadur Singh and Govind Singh joined them on the 15th at Camp I. The report of the first team was discouraging: though the snow basin with firm snow and open easily identifiable crevasses was simple; the first of the several bergsehrunds, which crease the slopes leading to the east col, almost totally separated these slopes from the snow basin. This coupled with the fact that the first five hundred feet or so of the slope are also exposed to falling debris from one of Nilkantha’s numerous avalanche couloirs, made them look for an alternative approach. This was when they discovered that Parbati Parbat has a col to the north as well, some 18,000 ft., and approachable via a rock rib which starts off from the north-west corner of the snow basin. From where they stood, the way to the summit from this col seemed fairly straightforward, no crevasses and an even sixty degrees to the final summit slopes.
A decision was deferred till the next day when the second rope of Ganju, Butalia and Prem joined them for a second reconnaissance of the bergschrund. After prolonged probing a snow bridge was found. Thereafter, a possible route could be discerned through the labyrinth of bergschrunds though the feasibility of taking laden porters on this face, fifty to seventy degrees all the way to the col, seemed low.
The weather which had to date been playing games with our choler finally packed up for the whole of the next day. On the 18th the assault and support set off towards the rocks rib determined to set up Camp II on the north col and to occupy it. But they had reckoned without the mayhem wrought by the previous day's sleet and snow. The spine of the rock rib, alternately loose boulder and soft snow, was now treacherous. One did not know whether a patch of snow had more snow underneath or yet another crazily perched boulder which would move at the slightest nudge. Bruised, battered and wet from repeated duckings in soft snow, they dumped all Camp II loads at about 18,000 ft., just short of the high point of the rib, directly below which lies the col.
Retreat to Base Camp for a two day rest: either the attempt continued via the north col with no guarantee of even getting through to the col itself, given the snow conditions, with perhaps even greater problems on the final slopes beyond; or the main effort switched to the better known route via the east col where no rocks existed to compound the problems of soft snow and where at least a camp could be set up under the col with a fighting chance of making the summit. As the Expedition languished, opinion favoured the second course even though a somewhat more comfortable route had been reconnoitred and followed by Sandhu and Bamzai on the 19th. Meanwhile, it rained steadily day and night and the two days stretched to three. Enforced inactivity brings on its own hysteria and Prem was heard loudly declaiming from Neruda's love poems. Mercifully, the fourth morning, June 22, was clear and we moved in for the second, and last, attempt. Once more, Camp I was occupied by Ganju, Bagchee, Prem, Butalia, Das and Misra and the HAPS. There was no time now for opening the route to the east col for porters and setting up Camp II there. The loads were recovered from the dump site and moved to the foot of the face below the east col. On the morrow, starting early, they would try for the summit. It was going to be bit of a long shot, but, under the circumstances, the only thing feasible.
Struggles to don boots and crampons commence at 0030 hrs. while coffee is brewed in the scooped-out hole in the snow which is the kitchen. The night sky is cloudless with a small moon. The only hues are black, midnight blue and silver blue; Nilkan- tha looks other-worldly, even benign. The ascent begins at 3 a.m. but stomach problems and faulty crampons force Misra and Prem to drop out. The snow-bridge across the first bergschrund, located earlier, has shrunk but another one is soon spotted. In the pre-dawn cold, the snow is perfect for cramponing and spirits are buoyant. There are no long halts but somehow as they weave first to the right, then to the left, circumventing one bergschrund after another, they fall further and further behind schedule. Instead of being at the col a little after dawn with time enough to make the summit by noon, 10 a.m. finds them barely at the col with the whole long summit ridge still to go. They tread the razor's edge of decision; already the sun is wreaking its havoc on the snow and they know that the next attempt can only be in another season. Humble before the enormity of the moment, they think of many things. In the end, caution has its way.
But the east col had its delights: views of the Bangneu group with all the peaks now clearly visible, the Chaukhambas, and Balakun, in its own way, more striking than even Nilkantha. At 11-30 a.m. the descent began and the worst apprehensions were confirmed. The snow was execrable now and crampons kept balling up constantly. Where the going was the steepest it was thought more judicious to move with face inward and kick steps all over again, one man moving and three belaying. Just when it all seemed mercifully over, at about 2-15 p.m., with just 500 feet to go to the last bergschrund, the whole rope found itself sliding down. The slide was halted repeatedly with ice-axe arrests but each time the ice-axes popped out of the slushy snow till finally all four arrived in a heap next to the bergschrund, But for a cut Ganju sustained on the forehead which Trilochan saw to in Camp II, there was no damage to anyone that a tot of brandy did not set right.
The next day, 25 June, everyone rendezvoused as planned at Camp II which was cleared and, after some heroic loading up, so was Camp I. Coming in from the cold, the damp and the gloom, we wallowed in the comfortable cocoon of Base for a day, reading, washing, packing and gawking at Bagchee's photographs. We loitered back to Mana on the 27th through meadows now ankle-deep in yellow and crimson potentillae, forget-me- nots and literally acres of purple thyme. Summer had finally arrived in the Alaknanda and it was time for us to go home.