NANDA NORTH FACE
PAUL LLOYD took off his boots, roiled up his trouser legs, heaved an enormous rucksack on to his back and waded into the glacier torrent. Our four-week training session in the Ladakh mountains of NW. India was nearly over. Once we were established on the far bank, there would only remain a long trek back to civilization before we could set about our real objective. A two-man, alpine style ascent of the north face of Nanda Devi.
'What's it like?' I yelled above the noise of the river; he didn't answer, but his normally resolute features paled as the water raced around his waist and the undertow tugged at his bare feet struggling on loose stones below.
Are you O.K.?' I shouted. He turned unsteadily and headed back towards me, stumbling on to one knee so that only his head and shoulders remained in view.
'Can you give us a hand, Matey' he said without fuss, I'm 'aving a spot of trouble.' He has a habit, due to an appalling memory for names, of calling everybody Matey. Keeping one foot in shallower water I extended an arm which he used to haul himself back to land. We found an easier crossing, but nevertheless it was a hazardous business and we arrived on the opposite side wet, cold and a little shaken.
Back in Delhi we presented ourselves to the Indian Mountaineering Foundation to complete what they had described as a few formalities. The pace of life at the Foundation is not hectic. Pillars of dusty files line the walls of the dingy room which serves as its headquarters and bundles of paperwork and unanswered correspondence littered the one central desk. Everything flaps gently in the breeze caused by an enormous electric fan which clatters overhead. In a dark corner a typist pounds deliberately at an archaic typewriter.
How many climbers, I wondered, had sat in this clammy little office so far from the hills; and what sagas of endeavour and achievement lay buried in these interminable files.
1978 was an unfortunate year to have chosen to climb Nanda Devi. Only months before our arrival the extraordinary story of a nuclear-powered bugging device being lost there in the mid- sixties was reported in the international press. Reacting with speed, the Indian Government closed the area and cautiously admitted to the world that they had, at the time, been in conspiracy with the C.I.A. who attempted to place it on Nanda Devi in order to spy on the Chinese. The C.I.A., naturally, denied all knowledge. As this political crisis was bandied around between heads of state,
I was shuffled from one junior civil servant to another trying to persuade them to reverse a decision, taken at Cabinet level, by enthusing about our adventurous plans and ethics in the Himalayas. For three frustrating weeks I laboured through the stifling bureaucracy and not until the Home Secretary himself had pleaded our case with the Prime Minister, were we allowed to set off for the mountains.
After all the doubts and delays, Nanda Devi was a reality again; but there was one proviso. We had to take two liaison officers with us instead of one.
'Oh, really,' said Paul on hearing the news. 'One each, very useful.' They were military men, officers in the Indo-Tibetan Border P'olice and somewhat bemused by the small size of our team and our rather informal methods and attitudes. 'What is the programme ?' was Bali's favourite question.
'We 'aven't really got one,' Paul would reply. 'We are sort of flexible, see.'
'First class. First class,' consented Bali, snorting down his nose and strutting around stiff backed.
'Yes, but how many porters shall we be needing ?' This time it was Bangue, a solidly built Sikh with a pink turban and a big appetite who continued the inquest.
'Actually Paul, it's Bangue.'
'Oh. Well Matey, it's like this. When we've packed the bags we'll know how many porters we want.' Our native vision of the two of us slipping quickly and simply through the Rishi Gorge, as if we were nipping up to an alpine hut, rather than approaching a remote Himalayan peak, turned into a chaotic entourage.
'I shall be bloody glad when there's just you and me left,' said Paul on the first night of the walk in. We were squatting under a sheet of polythene because Bali and Bangue, our liaison officers, had the only tent that we could find in our jumble of luggage. 'If Bango asks me what the schedule is once more I'll go berserk. . . . It's a good job we've got a sense of 'umour, Matey.'
'Yea. Don't worry about us out Jiere in the rain, lads, we're only paying for all this.' After another two days' march in the worst monsoon of this century, Bali and Bangue decided to turn back. Paul continued with the bulk of the porters to establish a base camp below the north face; and I took the remaining three to place a small tent and some food at the bottom of the south face to safeguard our descent down this, the easier side of the mountain. We were reunited four days later, at the point where our paths had diverged and began to swap stories.
'I'll tell you, Matey, the route looks very hard and very, very, very big,' said Paul.
'The descent looks horrible too.'
'Oh Jesus. How horrible. I've been ill, by the way.'
'It's very complicated, if there's mist on the summit we're going to have big problems. I felt pretty bad too. I went a little way
up the descent route and kept getting heart flutters,'
'Heart flutters? What the hell are they? Oh, I forgot to tell you, we lost a porter load in the river.'
'Oh no. What was in it?'
'Food and all the paraffin.'
'Oh no. Heart flutters are . . . well ... it feels a bit like valve bounce, you know, when you rev an engine too hard.'
'Yea, 'course I know, I'm an engineer, mate.'
'What happened to the porter?'
'He was O.K.'
'Did you pay him?'
' 'cause he looked so sorry for 'imself.' In pouring rain I followed P'aul to Matey's base, the camp that he had prepared. During his absence the tent had collapsed under two feet of snow and rats had broken into it, making off with three cartons of chocolate, all our sugar, throat sweets and all the toilet rolls.
'Must be a rat with a sore throat and diarrhoea somewhere round 'ere.' For another five days it snowed without a break, confining us to the tent. We chatted intermittently, slept intermittently, used precious gas intended for the mountain, to make sugarless tea, thought about home, and saw nothing of the face.
'We're going to do it, Lloydy,' I said during one of our lucid spells; 'we've got to do it now.'
'Yea. Yea. It's Nanda Devi or bust, Matey.' When the weather cleared and I saw our objective in the flesh for the first time I tempered my pompous declaration with a little concern. It was a breath-taking spectacle. A steep icy ridge towered into the sky, plumes of spindrift billowed lazily from its thin white crest. Above the upper ramparts of this immense spur, the summit pyramid loomed, detached in lofty isolation.
For seven days the weather remained perfect. We did two more short training routes and explored the approach to the bottom of the face. Life in our lonely valley became a countdown to the big day, which vms set for 15 September. As it drew nearer we wrestled anxiously with second thoughts and better judgement. We worried over how much food to take, how many pegs, and whittled away at the huge sacks we had prepared. Our acclimatization suddenly felt hopelessly inadequate, we wished we had been higher, wished we'd done some running like Beim hold Messner, and knew in our hearts that the smoking should have stopped months ago, not minutes ago. Sleep was fitful except for the last few nights, when with the aid of Valium, the climbers' little helper, we slumbered into a trouble-free coma.
On 13 September two figures appeared on the horizon and began pounding towards our camp. Our liaison officer, Bali, had returned. The following day he and his companion, a sergeant, helped us carry our gear to the bottom of the route where we spent the night. Bali fell into every hole the glacier had to offer and kept shouting for help and then apologizing politely as his legs dangled uselessly above yawning chasms.
Throughout the night it snowed and we were lulled to sleep by the delicious possibility of not being able to start. The dawn, however, was clear. With little or no exchange of words and with minds firmly blinkered to the alarming uncertainty of our future, we buckled into harnesses and tied on the rope. The first one hundred feet took four hours. Instead of the lightning opening gambit we had anticipated, galloping upwards and gaining plenty of altitude in the first few days, we were hard pushed to actually get our feet off the ground. We paced back and forth below a steep rotten wall, liberally endowed with bosses of unstable snow, searching for a weakness.
'How about up there?' suggested Paul, pointing to a thin runnel of snow plastered to the rock.
'We can't go up there,' I said. 'That's . . . that's vertical.'
'Well, you're supposed to be able to do that sort of thing.'
'Yea, I know. But not here. Anyway it's just a smear of powder. I can't do that. How about over there?'
'Over there? You're joking. It'll be all pegging.'
'But you're good at pegging, Matey.'
'There's a waterfall coming down it, Kingy. I'm not going up there.'
'It's my Mum's birthday today, you know.' 'Really? You can lead the first pitch then.' The ascent of this initial step was a slow cumbersome ordeal but above it a broad gully sneaked along the side of the ridge, avoiding the crest itself. Doing straight alternate leads, on predominantly mixed ground, we made up a lot of time. In the afternoon, when some fairly hefty avalanches began trundling down the gully, we broke on to its right bank, which formed a kind of subsidiary spur to the main one that we were heading for. At the point where it steepened up' to join the ridge proper, we made our first bivouac.
It was not a spacious affair but Paul chopped away at the snow to extend it a little while I brewed up on our custom-built cooker,, a gas stove inside a metal cylinder. Blue flames leapt out of the gas tap at irregular intervals and ominous hissing noises filtered through crudely punched ventilation holes, but it worked remarkably well.
During the night it began to snow again and it was still snowing in the morning. Little spindrift downpours kept swamping everything as we tried to get packed up.
'These sacks are just too heavy, Kingy.'
'They are a bit big.'
'What do you say we dump a bit of stuff? Say half the food, half the! pegs, one of the ropes and a few other bits and pieces . . . like half the gas.'
'Mmm.' A light sack was an attractive idea. 'It's a bit drastic."
'Yea, I know.'
'Mmm, well, let's have another brew.'
'Yea. That'll get a couple of tea-bags off our backs.'
'What if we have to retreat though, with only one rope and three or four pegs, we'd be buggered.'
'Suppose you're right.'
'Can I borrow your spoon?' I asked.
'No. I lost it down this 'ole.'
'Oh. Do you know where mine is then?'
'Yea. I lost that down this 'ole as well.' I was annoyed; it felt absurd to be upset about a spoon when so much else was at stake but I couldn't help it. Lost in cloud and whirling snowflakes, glued to the side of Nanda Devi with everything in the balance, and I was getting excited about a spoon. We didn't speak for a while.
Instead of continuing directly up to the ridge over what would have been very avalanche-prone territory, we decided to stay on the flank of it and hope to find an easy access couloir higher up. It snowed until well into the mid morning, slowing us to an agonizing pace once more. When it stopped, a thin steamy mist lingered on, bottling in the heat of the midday sun. We were dressed for the ultra-low, sub-zero temperatures we had been warned to expect at that time of year, superheated in three layers of everything the latest technology had to offer, struggling across ribs of brittle ice with our bulbous rucksacks and showered, periodically, by little swirling avalanches.
The second bivouac was very comfortable, a flat ledge hacked from a shale outcrop. Ensconced in a red bivi tent and tucked up in big sleeping-bags, we slept well, oblivious, for a few hours, to the spartan world around us. I woke at dawn to find the frost-coated walls of our nylon home pressing into my face and heard the now familiar whisper of snowfall landing gently on its roof. I turned over quietly and slipped away into a pleasanter land of feather beds and firesides.
The scale of the face was wretchedly deceptive. Even a whole day's progress seemed hopelessly insignificant against the bulk of the mountain. Each step cost several deep breaths, every pitch required frequent rests, slumped over buried axes, with the top of our heads pressed against the slope, staring down past our crampons. An odd procession of disconnected thoughts filtered through my numbed senses. Conversations I'd held with people I had almost forgotten came back to me word for word; clips from old films I had seen years ago, ran over and over in my mind; curious incidents, dredged from my subconscious, replayed in vivid detail.
We again refused an opportunity to gain the crest of the ridge in favour of a wide depression, twisting its way through ice-cliffs and rocky bluffs to a forked gully about a thousand feet above. It snowed intermittently for most of the day and towards evening the avalanches grew big enough to become frightening, not just uncomfortable.
'We'd better bivi up there where it won't be prone to avalanche.' I pointed to the rock buttress standing between the fork in the gullies, still some three hundred feet higher up. After a taxing day, already stretching into the gathering darkness, it looked a despairingly long way. Nearby, in a small hollow in the snow, we would have been drinking tea, wrapped in duvets, in less than half the time.
'I haven't actually seen anything come over it,' said Paul optimistically. A snake of powder hissed by on our right, sometimes the entire surface of the broad couloir became a moving blanket of white, and bigger falls landed with a 'whoomf' at regular intervals.
'We could dig into it a bit,' he added. Another 'whoomf' cascaded past, a little trickly one spilled over our heads and the clouds darkened a shade further.
'What do you think then?' An urgent crescendo, like that of a train negotiating a station at high speed, hurried down the couloir and burst across the hollow in an angry maelstrom of spinning snow and jagged bits of ice.
'Silly idea of yours to kip in that hollow, Kingy. Told you we'd 'af to go on a bit, didn't I.'
We climbed together up horribly unstable snow, which steepened alarmingly, to a tiny bergschrund below a buttress. X sat in it, with my legs hanging over the edge, my chin resting on my chest, and hauled in the rope for Paul, who arrived and settled next to me, with his legs dangling and his chin supported too.
'Where do you fancy next year?' he mumbled.
We tried, and failed, to dig a snow-cave into a solid boss of water-ice, and finally cut a narrow platform out of the bergschrund, where we passed the night in fitful dozes, bouts of shivering and banal conversation.
'We've got to take a malaria pill tomorrow.'
'Yea.' A short pause of say twenty minutes might follow, and then;
'Seems silly taking a malaria pill up here.'
'Yea!' Another pause, perhaps whilst one of us slept.
'Not many mosquitoes up here I shouldn't think.' It was -30°C.
'No. Wonder why Bali came back?'
'Dunno, something funny going on there.'
Dawn lingered on the horizon. We waited. The stark silhouettes of the mountains appeared, breathlessly silent. Tinges of blue crept into the sky, dissolving the stars. Little eddies of wind gusted up from the valley, still black in shadow. Our sleeping- bags were rimed in hoarfrost, our raw faces and cracked lips roughened by it, our bones ached for the sun. We waited. Pencil beams of light radiated from behind a long serrated ridge. My eyes became fixed on it, my camera too. Daybreak, like an atomic explosion, happened, and the world was alive again.
A huge serac-collapse reverberated around the mountains. On the other side of the valley great icebergs tumbled down, jostling each other for space, white leviathans, bumping and breaking and splintering into a million sparkling fragments.
Matey led off to another day of labour. Another day of going up, of stopping, resting and starting again, of fighting to gain height, of frightening moments on loose slabs of snow, heaving lungs and bewildering thoughts. We sustained the upward drive with crude, mindless determination, void of finer feelings or sensitive aesthetic notions, and sparse in physical comfort. Stretching around the horizon, for as far as the eye could follow, silvery peaks, some above us and some below, rose out of a sea of cloud. A secret world that only we inhabited.
Later, the clouds enveloped us once more, it began to snow again, more avalanches followed and yet again we searched in fading light for a safe bivouac. The day's progress ended in a warren of little gullies, thin, unsubstantial snow aretes and rocky steps deeply powdered. About twenty feet up an almost vertical pillar of soft snow there was a cave.
I tried to get to it. I tried very hard, but daren't make the final moves supported only by terrors of being buried in loose snow. I tried to continue up the gully I had used to gain access to the pillar, to what looked like a ledge above a mixed section ahead of me. Despite a good peg runner, I backed down from it.
T shouldn't go up there,' confirmed Matey, as I teetered back to the peg out of balance. 'It doesn't lead anywhere anyway.'
'There might be a ledge up there though.'
'There might not be too. Doesn't look like it from down here.' I looked unwillingly towards the pillar again.
'We couldn't bivi where you're belayed, I suppose?'
'What, here?' He cast his eyes sadly around him and returned to me with a wistful little frown. 'It wouldn't be much cop.'
With renewed intent I set out for the pillar once more, and despite several testing movements, I arrived in what was not so much a cave as an eyrie, a jaw in the ice.
We made an earlier start in the morning, consuming several brews before leaving at first light. It was snowing, and continued to do so for most of the day. Paul led the first pitch again, descending from our perch to traverse across delicate slabs, in places glazed with ice, in others overlain with new snow, to a couloir leading up to another maze of steep runnels, snow mushrooms, and rotten ice-towers, on the ridge itself.
This trying ground made the going very slow. Often we had to climb without sacks, doing ridiculously short pitches, sometimes only ten feet, because they wouldn't haul around the corners, and over the cornices, which proliferated at every step. I think it was here that I had my first doubts, where I first seriously considered that we might be pushing ourselves beyond the limit of what we could control. Had Duplat and Vignes, the two Frenchmen who in 1951 set out to traverse alpine-style between Nanda Devi's twin summits, had such doubts, I wondered; and had they ignored and suppressed them, as I was trying to do? Their frozen corpses remain somewhere on the connecting ridge.
At the top of a long steep groove of sugary ice, I dithered with a fifteen-foot capping wall of soft snow. I dared to go on, then frightened myself back; determined myself to do it, but weakened half-way up. Something inside bullied me on, and above the little wall there was a thin ridge which I straddled, sinking two or three feet down before it supported my weight. On the right, a loose bank of snow gave access to another steep runnel, leading to a notch where I thought we could bivi.
It was a dreadful site, cramped in amongst columns of water- ice, with no flat surfaces and during the night it slowly collapsed around us. Paul, well established as morning tea-maker and leader of the first pitches, climbed an impressive icefall to belay in a tiny niche. The ceiling of it formed a small overhang which constituted the first few moves of the next pitch. Dangling from my etriers, with my feet scrabbling in mid-air, I pulled over, then I pulled my sack up to join me. A little higher I pulled Lloydy up to join me, who climbed with his sack on and led through. We began to exchange expectant glances, but neither of us wanted to say aloud what we both knew we were both thinking. We continued by a vote of silence.
At about twenty-three thousand feet, after six and a half days' climbing, a huge ice crustation, shaped like an inverted fir-tree, but with a very wide base, stood on the ridge. I tried it direct, traversed it both ways, and came back.
I think we should go down, Matey.' I hacked impotently at the ice, and shrugged. I just think we should go down.'
'Yea,' he said quietly. I agree.'
It all happened so quickly. After a year when almost everything I had done had related in some way to Nanda Devi, it was suddenly over. My horizons had hardly extended beyond it, it had practically become an obsession to which everything was sublimated and then suddenly it was gone.
The descent was not difficult, except that we didn't have enough gear to abseil all the way, so we had to climb down a lot of it. The problems of another world, the real world, began to come into focus. What did Bali and Bangue want? What would I do for money when I got home? Would the van get us there? And did we have enough money left to get there at all?
We had another bivouac on the face, our last, and I left a rope in situ on the first wall, but we knew that we wouldn't be coming back. The conditions had slowed us beyond the means of our slim resources and they weren't going to change significantly before winter. The rats too, and the lost porter load, ensured that we could only try once, and Bali and Bangue, unbeknown to us, had yet another reason. In glorious sunshine we gazed back at our high point. It was really over.
We were not alone on the glacier. Three black dots bobbed and weaved their way through the crevasses and seracs. One of them disappeared at regular intervals, and the other two could be seen to haul it back into view. It was Bali, being rescued by Bangue and the sergeant.
'Ah! Hallo!' he said, as effusively as ever, and began slapping our backs. 'So! You didn't make it. But! The adventure was there. That was there. Oh yes.'
'But Paul,' Bangue continued in a lower, more serious tone, 'and Terry,' he stuck out his chin, as he always did when discussing important issues, and narrowed his eyes, 'What is your programme now?' We were back.
Later we discovered that as well as bringing a sergeant with them, they had five other soldiers, a wireless station complete with operators and a Colonel in overall command. We were in custody, we learnt, being escorted out of the area. Nobody would tell us why, only that we would have ample opportunity to explain everything to the Magistrate in Joshimath, the road-head. He, however, did not ask us to explain anything, or even tell us what it was that we might have been asked to explain. We were merely offered tea and cakes and told that his instructions were to search our vehicle and confiscate all our films. Which he did, promising that we could collect them in Delhi after they had been developed and examined. On route to Delhi we had to see the District Magistrate, who likewise shed no light on the strange events that had overtaken us, countering our persistent questions by saying that we were only there to drink tea, which took an hour to arrive, and in the meanwhile we talked about cricket and the weather and the crumbling British Empire.
The Indian Mountaineering Foundation in Delhi, apart from asking for a contribution towards the cost of retrieving us, but neglecting to explain why it had been necessary, said that it was up to us to make our own approach to the Government if we wished to find any answers, or our films. But nobody there would see us, we never found out what we were actually suspected of and could not even locate our films, let alone collect them. On the advice of some well-informed people we quietly left the country before our continued presence prompted someone to lock us up.
It seems almost certain that these bizarre events arose out of the withdrawal of our Liaison Officers and the realization that two Englishmen were roaming at will in a very sensitive area. India, however, is a country where surprise ceases to exist. Slipping across the border in the later afternoon, we headed home, towards the sumptuous comforts of the Western world.
The sum demanded by the Government was considerably reduced and after payment our photographs also were returned.
I like to think that any acrimony that we caused or felt, was due to the backlash from recent publicity surrounding Nanda
Devi and that climbers will beautiful mountain, free from soon be able to enjoy again that any political restrictions.