Finally walking on snow! (And loving it)

Day 6 of Abhishek Kaushal’s expedition to Mount Thelu takes him on a Load Ferry to Summit Camp through snow, but he also has to deal with a sad episode by the end of the day.

Load Ferry to Summit Camp – Expedition Day 6 – 26/May/2016

Last night, I had the worst sleep during this expedition so far. And I think my other three tent mates must have also felt the same. Since we had closed the tent at night due to the cold winds, it was very suffocating. After the initial two to three hours of a good night’s sleep, I slept only in patches as I’m used to turning a lot when I sleep, and the lack of space in the tent did not allow much movement. I was desperately waiting for morning so that I could get out of the tent and as soon as daylight hit the gully at around 4:30 am, I was finally able to leave the cramped tent. Outside the weather was very cold – icicles had formed on the small stream and the water was very cold to carry out morning routines. It was only after the first hot cup of tea that I felt rejuvenated. Now I was getting excited for today’s climb, especially the part when we would leave the moraines behind and finally start walking on the snow.

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Enjoying the early morning up above the clouds at Advanced Base Camp; Photo: Guneet Puri

I could see the sunlight coming down on one of the mountain tops nearby and was eagerly waiting for the warmth to reach out camp site. Everybody in the camp site was also waiting for the comforting sunlight, and I compared this situation to a week ago when in Dehradun, all of us were running away from the harshness of the sun. As soon as sunlight hit the camp site, the activity level of all the team members went high. Everybody started getting ready for the Load Ferry climb to Summit Camp; the plan was to leave the technical equipment at the Summit Camp (except the ice shoes, which we would be using during our climb today) and return back to the Advanced Base Camp by lunch. Our cook would bring lunch for us from the Base Camp, which meant we would be eating something else other than the standard khichdi. We had khichdi for breakfast, and slowly one by one everybody started moving towards the Summit Camp.

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Last of the moraines above the Advanced Base Camp; Photo: Guneet Puri

Today I was one of the last of the lot to leave the camp site. I could see the team members walk on the moraines above the Advanced Base Camp and some of them had even reached the top ridge. I also started ambling through the moraines as I wanted to save my energy for the snow part of today’s climb. By the time I reached the top of the ridge, I had passed more than half of the group. The terrain was flat at this point, the stream had spread out, and Mount Thelu was fully visible. After walking a bit, we hit ice on a slight gradient. I could hear water flowing under the ice so one had to be careful while walking on it. The stream that was flowing near the Advanced Base Camp was originating from this melting snow and ice.

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Transition from moraine to ice and snow above Advanced Base Camp; Photo: Guneet Puri

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The climber and his destination finally caught in a single frame; Photo: Guneet Puri

After crossing the frozen stream, we reached the final section of the climb to Summit Camp. The initial part of this climb was a small steep section of slates, and thereon it was all snow above. The snow climb started with a gradual gradient and near the next top ridge, it was much steeper. We would be following a wide slalom from the base of the snow section to the ridge in order to avoid the two ice and rock cliffs on either side of our route. The sun was very bright by now and the importance of good sunglasses to avoid snow blindness is justified at such times, when one feels the effect of the reflection from the snow. After climbing over the slates, there was a small crevasse. As we had started at a good time, early in the morning, the snow was still hard and it was easy walking on it – in fact it was much easier after walking over the moraines. The only factor that was effecting our fast movement was the altitude and we had to stop after every 15-20 steps to catch our breath.

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Expedition team members walk across the snow before the steep climb towards the dumping site near Summit Camp; Photo: Guneet Puri

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Our field of play for the day – moraines, slates, ice and snow; Photo: Guneet Puri

The views from over the snow section were absolutely astonishing, and they kept getting better with every step taken towards higher grounds. As I reached almost the top of the steep snow climb, I stopped to catch my breath and I could see our guide standing on top of the ridge and waiting for us. This was the final push needed for the ascent to Summit Camp so I started moving again.

There was a big flat ground at the top of the ridge and the guide told me that the dumping point was a little distance ahead. I could see the dumping sacks from this point but the final steps were taking a long time. Although I just wanted to run these final steps, dump my load and enjoy the beautiful views, the reality was that I had to stop after every 10 steps to catch my breath. Before starting for the expedition from Pune, I was confident of making it to the Summit Camp, and had thought that every step after this towards the summit would be a bonus. Feeling ecstatic on reaching the sacks, I got rid of my load and started looking around to enjoy the sceneries. Slowly the other members of the team also arrived at the site.

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Mount Thelu – Our destination; Photo: Abhishek Kaushal

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Bhagirathi Peaks, Mount Vasuki Parbat and some other peaks of the Garhwal Himalayas look even more majestic from Summit Camp; Photo: Abhishek Kaushal

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Team members (on the right of the frame) dropping their equipment at the dumping site near Summit Camp; Photo: Guneet Puri

By the time everybody dumped their stuff, winds had picked up and it was time to head back to the Advanced Base Camp. We all started walking back one by one. Due to the heat of the late morning, the bottom half of the climb just before the small crevasse had now become slushed. This made walking difficult and we were slipping on it. As I started the jump across the crevasse, the ice on which I was resting my back leg gave away; but due to the momentum of the jump my upper body was already on the other side of the crevasse and I was easily able to pull myself out. I was scared when I had slipped, but after crossing to the other side I started laughing at myself that there was only one small crevasse in the entire journey and I had managed to fall into that very one. This proved that one can never be complacent while walking over snow. I brushed the snow off my clothes and then crossed over the ice field to the top of the ridge over the moraines.

The sight of Advanced Base Camp made me feel very hungry as the thought that our cook had brought lunch from Base Camp helped in this matter. As soon as I reached the Advanced Base Camp, the first thing I did was to start eating. By the time I finished enjoying the meal, other members of the team had also returned back. Some of them had fallen sick, had headache, were feeling nauseous and even vomited, while one had incurred a back injury on the way down. The whole mood in the camp was a bit gloomy. Now the question was that who all would continue ahead on the expedition and who would have to return back to the Base Camp.

The even sadder part for me was that Swarjit, my climbing buddy, was also feeling sick. He had a little headache and was nauseated. Since this was the highest he had ever climbed, I was not sure of how he would react when we went higher up. After discussing with the senior members of the team, we gave our feedback to Swarjit. More than us telling him the next steps, it was important for him to understand the situation, analyse his condition and then take a call. It is tough to make such decisions when one is so close to the goal but a logical, practical and selfless decision is needed in such a situation. What he had achieved so far during this expedition was very commendable. Finally he decided to return back to the Base Camp. I really admire the courage he showed by taking such a decision.

After all the discussions, four members of the team along with the cook left for the Base Camp. As I saw them disappearing behind the ridge, I was feeling sad for all of them. I retreated to my tent and chatted with other senior members of the team. There was enough space for us to sleep in the tents as four of the team members had gone back. During dinner the plan for tomorrow was discussed. We would be carrying only the essential stuff from here onward to the Summit Camp. Senior members of the team and the guides told me that the I should walk slowly as they felt I was walking very fast – this was due to the fact that I was one of the last ones to leave the Advanced Base Camp today and the first one to reach the Summit Camp. This was not a good technique on my part as it could have resulted in me also falling sick. For better acclimatisation, I was advised to walk slowly at a constant pace.

 After dinner, I crept into my sleeping bag and was thinking about the ups and downs of the day. The feeling of joy that I had on reaching the Summit Camp was subdued by the fact that four members of the team had gone back. I was thinking what Swarjit might have been feeling lying alone in his tent at Base Camp. When one is on an expedition, the bond with fellow climbers is like a family, and when as a group you are not able to achieve what you had set out for, it is disappointing. But this is the harsh reality of expeditions. I was feeling lucky that health wise I had not faced any issues so far. I decided to follow the advise given to me earlier and walk slowly with the team from here on. With a mixed feeling of joy and sadness, and the excitement of moving to Summit Camp tomorrow, I finally slept off.

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