Into a Snow Storm!

Abhishek Kaushal got first hand experience of the unpredictability of the weather in high mountains on the fourth day of the expedition to Mount Thelu in Uttarakhand.

Load Ferry to Advanced Base Camp – Expedition Day 4 – 24/May/2016

It was back-to-business day, and I woke up at 4:30 am and went for my morning routines. The fresh snowfall from the day before was shining on the peaks nearby and this view instantly made me active. After finishing the first cup of tea, I started packing all my technical equipment and took special care of the crampons as they can damage the rucksack. The rest of the team members were also getting ready for the tough three-to-four hour climb that lay ahead of us.

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Snowfall from yesterday completely covers the “unnamed” peak behind Raktvan Glacier; Photo: Abhishek Kaushal

The agenda for the day was Load Ferry – to go to Advanced Base Camp, leave our technical equipment there, and come back to the Base Camp. This exercise was important for acclimatisation and was also configured in such a way that all of us would be able to conserve our energies to an extent – we would be carrying only half the load today. After the walk through the moraines on the second day and the rest-day in between, I was well prepared for the day’s steep climb. But at the same time, I was also conscious about the amount of effort and energy that would be required for the moraine section of the route. Further, since we would be climbing through a gully between two steep mountains, even the views wouldn’t change much to keep the morale high. This is perhaps the time when more than the physical strength, one requires mental strength for the expedition. The thought of reaching the summit and the adventure of the journey are the only motivating factors during such sections.

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Abhishek and Swarjit getting ready for the day’s climb; Photo: Guneet Puri

The team members started leaving one by one after finishing their breakfast. The two senior members who did the Load Ferry to Advanced Base Camp yesterday would be staying back at the base camp to cook lunch as our cook was going down to the Raktvan Nala to help one new climber come to the Base Camp. The weather was clear and sunny when we started from the base camp, but at this height the weather can change in a matter of seconds (similar to what had happened yesterday). We were strictly instructed to move from cairn to cairn, and in case of a white-out, stay put at the nearest cairn till either the weather cleared up or somebody came for a rescue.

The initial climb to the Thelu stream was steep but since it was mud and dry grass, it was not that difficult. The battle with the moraines started after crossing the stream. The initial moraines were not that steep and there were patches of soil, so climbing through them was pretty fine. By this time I was walking with our guide in the lead. He told me that the camp was just above the last ridge that was visible to us from that point. He also pointed out the route and some of the cairns on our way and asked me to continue while he waited for some other members to catch up. The ridge was still a little distance away but I knew it would take at least an half an hour through the moraines to reach there.

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View of the top ridge while climbing up the moraines; Photo: Abhishek Kaushal

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Looking back down towards Base Camp from the half way point; Photo: Abhishek Kaushal

I was now climbing alone in the front and I could see the clouds coming up through the valley, just behind the tiny figures of my team members below. This was not a good sign. But it was not alarming either as one expects such things to happen; it’s just that it’s tough to judge the severity and result of bad weather. I stopped to look back and seeing the entire team continue climbing, I kept moving ahead. The visibility around me was reducing pretty fast and I just wanted to dump my stuff at the Advanced Base Camp and get back to my cosy tent at the base camp as soon as possible.

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Cloud cover growing over the top ridge near Advanced Base Camp; Photo: Abhishek Kaushal

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Team members climbing up the moraines with bad weather crawling up the valley; Photo: Abhishek Kaushal

The top of the ridge was barely visible now and below me I could just see my guide amidst the cloud cover that was becoming denser by the moment. The remaining team members were not visible at all, so I was not sure whether they were still walking or had gone back. I was a bit scared but was pretty confident at the same time with the thought that in case the weather deteriorates, my goal was to reach the Advanced Base Camp and wait there till the weather cleared up or somebody came to Advanced Base Camp for a rescue.

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In deteriorating weather conditions, only the guide can be seen; Photo: Abhishek Kaushal

Finally I made it to the top of the ridge. It was a bit flatter up here with a slight gradient at some parts. A small stream was flowing nearby and I knew from this sight that the camp was very close by. Since the weather now was really bad, I could not see the camp or the dumping site where we were supposed to stack our loads. I waited near the cairn on the top of ridge for my guide to come up. It had started snowing by now and the winds were very strong. The sight of the guide approaching (apparent by his growing size as he climbed up towards where I was ) relaxed me a lot and soon he was standing right next to me. He told me that some members of the team had gone back along with our leader.

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Waiting for the guide on top of the ridge with very poor visibility; Photo: Abhishek Kaushal

We both started walking to the Advanced Base Camp to dump our stuff. We were not sure how many of the team were coming behind us to the Advanced Base Camp, but we were confident that the lead guide would come up and then we could all head back down. We dumped our load under a tarpaulin sheet. Meanwhile two other members and our lead guide emerged from the thick cloud cover. The lead guide told us that he was the last one to come to Advanced Base Camp. The rest of the team had gone back to Base Camp and the lead guide had dumped their load at two places in the moraines which they would bring to the Advanced Base Camp tomorrow. It was snowing heavily now and the wind had also picked up. After dumping all our stuff we started our journey back to the Base Camp.

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As the weather further worsens, team members hurriedly stacking and covering the stuff using tarpaulin sheets at Advanced Base Camp; Photo: Abhishek Kaushal

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Time to head back away from the snow storm and white-out at Advanced Base Camp; Photo: Abhishek Kaushal

The lead guide and I were the last ones in line on our way back to the Base Camp. The wind was very strong now and the visibility was poor. We were slowly making our way through the moraines as now the boulders had also become slippery. The snowflakes were hitting my face like needles, which I tried protecting myself from by covering my face with the scarf I was wearing. This resulted in another problem – my sunglasses became foggy, which further affected my visibility. Finally I stopped to properly arrange my scarf and sunglasses. We were now walking as fast as possible through the moraines; I just wanted to reach the Base Camp as early as possible. The only positive thing about the weather was that I had forgotten about the tiring journey to the Advanced Base Camp. The whole excitement of going to the Advanced Base Camp was overshadowed by the scary weather. By the time we had reached the bottom of the moraines near the stream, the wind and the snow had almost stopped. We could also see the Base Camp site below us and also the sight of the clouds in the valley looked promising. On reaching the Base Camp we were served with warm lemon water which was very refreshing.

Back in the comfort of the Base Camp, all other thoughts and senses started coming back slowly. I felt good about the entire journey. Now I was not feeling scared but there was a feeling of relaxation that I had made it back and unlike some of our other team members, I would not be required to carry loads to the Advanced Base Camp tomorrow. These experiences make one realise the real dangers of mountaineering and the risk involved with the sport. They also increase one’s mental and physical endurance. By this time the weather had cleared up, the sun was shining bright, and I had lunch in the open, enjoying the much needed warmth.

After lunch we all played a game of dumb charades out in the open area under the sun. It was fun, entertaining and a good team building exercise for all of us. Later, as the sun disappeared behind the mountains, the weather became cold. But after the walk in the snow earlier in the day, I was not feeling too cold and hence was able to sit outside and enjoy the nice clear night views. Soon dinner was served and instructions for tomorrow were given to all the team members. The plan was that the entire team would be moving to the Advanced Base Camp with the remaining stuff. The load for tomorrow would be lighter for the three of us who were able to reach the Advanced Base Camp today. After dinner, everybody headed off to their tents to sleep.

While lying in my tent I was feeling satisfied with my experience today. It was scary when the weather had gone bad, but now I was feeling more confident that if a situation similar to today arose later on (although I was hoping it wouldn’t happen), I would be able to deal with it. Perhaps the prayer ceremony that we had done yesterday had helped all of us to return safely. I realised that the more one respects nature, the more one can enjoy it and it will protect you in return. Situations like today were a part of the overall experience and good for developing skill and confidence. With these positive thoughts in mind, I called it a day and slept off.

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