Atop Mount Thelu

Abhishek Kaushal has a long day climbing up to the summit of Mount Thelu and back all the way down to Base Camp.

Summit Day – Expedition Day 8 – 28/May/2016

Amidst summit fever, I finally did manage to get two to three hours of sleep and woke up at midnight. Everybody was sleeping, so I tried to go back to sleep again. After some time, our guide woke up and started to make tea for all of us. This activity made me also sit up and I started talking to him. He told me that there was no need to leave the tent right then and I should just have tea and slowly start preparing, so that by the time we all left the tent, everyone would be fully active and aware of what’s happening. At exactly 1:00 am, he woke up everyone in our tent and asked the other guide to take the tea to the other tent and wake up everyone there. Slowly, everybody started getting up and carrying out their morning routines. Due to the excitement of what lay ahead, I was hardly feeling any of the cold that was in the air.

While the lead guide started preparing breakfast for everyone, there was a spike in the activity level in both the tents as everybody started preparing for the summit climb. As most of us were wearing most of the required clothing since the time we had left the Advanced Base Camp, we only needed to wear the technical equipment. Soon, everybody gathered in the kitchen tent to have breakfast and take the final instructions from the lead guide. I was not hungry at all so I decided to skip breakfast and had another 2 cups of tea instead. After filling water in my Hydra Pack, I took my back pack and went outside to wear the crampons. It was a clear night, with no wind at all. This was perfect weather for summit attempt and the views of the stars in the night sky were absolutely stunning.

Everybody finally got ready and were waiting to start the summit climb. The walking order was finalized –  one guide would lead the way and everybody else would follow him. Two senior climbers and I would walk behind the rest of the group and the lead guide would be the last one to leave the Summit Camp. I could see the team members start the climb up a steep slope near to the Summit Camp. As soon as I started walking, my crampons became loose. I tried fixing it but was unsuccessful, and then the lead guide tried fixing it and told me that it was broken. Finally, I had to replace my crampons with the spare crampons that were available. He told me that this should have been checked and fixed earlier and I felt sorry for my carelessness and laziness. By the time I, along with the other two senior members, started from the Summit Camp, the rest of the group had already disappeared above the ridge – only the light from their headlamps were visible.

The lead guide overtook us at the steep slope and pointed out the direction where the fixed rope was set up. Since my body was cold, it was tough to walk fast so early in the morning. The weight of the crampons and the ice shoes, plus the equipment, further slowed down my progress. Soon after the steep slope, there was a slight trough and then another slope before the start of the steep climb to the summit ridge. We kept on following the foot-marks in the snow towards the fixed rope section. By the time we reached the fixed rope, my body had become warm and I got used to walking with the entire gear. At this point, I realised that the water in the pipe coming from the Hydra Pack had frozen. Now I was out of water and I knew that it would stay this way till the sun came out. I also figured out that I should have covered the pipe with a warm piece of cloth or should have brought a thermos flask with me for such a situation. Well, I had learnt my lesson the hard way.

I reached the start point of the fixed rope, where our guide was waiting. He instructed me to fix the carabiner and then start climbing up. The other team members had already reached almost the half way point of this steep climb. Our lead guide was at the front of the group and he was constantly instructing and encouraging all the team members. The climb was quite steep and after every ten odd steps, I was stopping to catch my breath. A little later, I saw the lead guide standing on top of the ridge, instructing and guiding others over the rocks on top of the climb where there was no fixed rope.

After climbing over the snow, I reached the rocks on top of the slope. This was perhaps the trickiest part of the climb so far. There were loose slate pieces which were sliding under the feet as one walked on them. The thought of slipping on these and then falling straight down to the bottom of the slope was very scary. By this time, I could see bright sun light on the top of the summit. Every time I stopped, my body would start getting cold and the thought of reaching the higher reaches to catch the warmth of the sun made me want to reach the summit at the earliest. The lead guide instructed all of us to get roped-in as the final walk on the ridge to the summit would be done in this way. The entire path to the summit was along the bottom end of a cornice that rose up on the right side of the ridge.

The lead guide communicated to our expedition leader at the Base Camp that we should be at the Summit in another 45 minutes. We all stopped in between to rest and enjoy the beautiful views. At this point our lead guide gave us the details of the peaks that were visible from here. Then we started walking again with a sheer drop on our left hand side. At some points, we were very close to the cliff and the view down the side was pretty scary. Since we were all roped-in, our progress was as fast as the slowest member of the team. This was irritating me a lot as the frequent stops were making me cold. I just wanted to reach the top, accomplish the goal and sit in the sunlight to enjoy the views. Slowly, sunlight spread all over the ridge and a little later, the frozen water in my pipe finally melted. I had my first sip of water after almost four hours. This could have been dangerous for me as drinking water regularly is very important at high altitudes.

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The expedition team on its final steps to the summit of Mount Thelu; Photo: Suresh

Finally at around 7:15 am, we turned to our right and climbed towards the summit of Mount Thelu. I had started preparing for this expedition almost 2 months ago and I felt truly rewarded after reaching the top. I sat down at the top to let this happy feeling settle down. I looked around and towards the back of the summit, I could see the start point of our expedition – Kankhu Barrier near Gangotri town. The memories of the past seven days of walking rushed through my mind. We all congratulated each other and then clicked some photographs. I also knew that the expedition was only half over and the important thing now was to get down safely; but at first it was time to enjoy the moment. We stayed at the summit for around 30 mins. Then the guide instructed us to rope-in again and then we started walking back from the summit.

The tricky bit started now as most of the accidents in mountaineering occur while climbing back down. The lead guide instructed all of us to be extra cautious while going down. The joy and excitement of climbing the summit had slowly settled in now. So controlling the emotions inside me, I changed my focus to getting down safely. We followed the route down to the loose slate section in the same order as we had climbed up to the summit. I was taking in the last sights of the view and the summit of Mount Thelu. In the bright sunlight and clear blue skies, the views were amazing, but I still had to keep my focus on the job at hand and not get carried away with the beauty of the mountains.

On reaching the loose slate section, we all rested for a while and we were taken off the rope. Next, we had to climb down the slates, connect ourselves to the fixed rope and then climb down the steep slope. I didn’t want to get stuck behind the slower members of the team so I started climbing down at the head of the group. On reaching the fixed rope, I connected my carabiner to the rope and then facing towards the top of the ridge, I started going down backwards. This was to ensure that if slate pieces fell from the top, I could avoid them and also in case some other team member slipped, I could see them at the earliest and take necessary steps to avoid them crashing into me. In the daylight, the slope looked very steep and at one point, it was almost vertical. While climbing up this slope in the dark earlier in the day, it had not appeared this steep. Slowly and cautiously, I climbed all the way down to the bottom of the rope and then started walking to the Summit Camp.

Gradually, the rest of the team also arrived at the Summit Camp. The two guides were the last ones to reach, carrying down the ropes and the technical equipment. We once again congratulated each other for the successful climb. The guides prepared some tea for all of us and we had some biscuits to replenish our energies. The next plan was to pack the Summit Camp and then move down to the Advanced Base Camp, where our cook would be waiting for us with lunch. Some of us rested while others started packing their stuff. From here on, we all would be carrying back everything we had brought up with us.

One senior member and I were the first ones to leave the Summit Camp. We crossed over the snow and ice field and reached the slope. The snow from here on was slushy because of the heat and our footsteps from our earlier trips. After taking a few steps down the slope, we realised that this was going to be a tiring descent as we started slipping on the snow. I started regretting my decision to remove the crampons at the Summit Camp and pack them inside my rucksack – due to my sheer laziness, I had decided to walk only in my snow shoes. We walked on the untouched snow near the path to get better grip and continued downwards. Our speed was slow as we were careful and wanted to avoid slipping, but even then I slipped three times before finally reaching the crevasse. The crevasse had now grown bigger so I took a careful and bigger leap to cross it.

On reaching the slate section below the crevasse, we saw that the ice field below had melted and water was flowing. So we decided not to take the same route as we had taken on the way up, and to walk on the right of the stream and then cross it further down the mountain, near the moraine ridge. This route was longer and walking on the slates and rocks in our snow shoes was pretty difficult, but this route was less riskier than walking over the melting ice stream. I was surprised to see the change in the flow and volume of the stream in just a single day. Yesterday, at almost the same time, we had been able to easily walk over the ice stream but today, we were trying to find the best route to cross over it. After walking over the slates and moraines for a little bit we managed to find a spot where the width of the stream was less and there were some boulders which we could use to cross over the stream. We crossed over and then reached the ridge on top of the moraines and the Advanced Base Camp was finally visible.

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Bidding adieu to Mount Thelu; Photo: Abhishek Kaushal

I was feeling very hungry now, and the thought that our cook had brought lunch (and I would be eating something else other than khichdi, upma and Maggi) made me even hungrier. The Advanced Base Camp was not far away, but walking over the moraines in the snow shoes would take a lot of time. I could feel some blisters in my feet due to the snow shoes and the shoes were also feeling heavier to walk in because of the tiredness. I tried hurrying on over the moraines. At one point, my left foot got stuck between two rocks and on planting my right foot ahead, I lost my balance and fell over. I somersaulted twice and then came to a stop on a big boulder. The senior member behind me let out a small scream on seeing this and even I got scared that I might have hurt myself. She helped me get up and on checking all my body parts, I was relieved to find that everything was working fine. I knew all along that most accidents happen while climbing down and still, I lost my focus and had this small accident. I sat down for a while, gathered concentration, decided that I had to be very careful and focussed from here on, and started walking even slower. I really wanted to get rid of the snow shoes by this time and change into my trekking shoes, especially after the fall. Finally we reached the Advanced Base Camp and the first thing I did was to change my shoes.

Our cook had gone up to the ridge above the Advanced Base Camp to help others bring down the extra stuff from the Summit Camp. He came back after a while with the rest of the members and served lunch to all of us. After lunch everybody rested for a while and some team members even slept. I was eager to get down early and sleep at the Base Camp. As per the weather prediction, winds started to blow up from the valley in the afternoon. Now we had to start moving towards the Base Camp before it could get worse. We all packed up the remaining stuff and the entire camp site. As some of our team members had gone back down from here, almost all of us had to carry some extra luggage. The wind had picked up and clouds had formed over the valley so we hurried on with our packing and left the Advanced Base Camp.

I followed the senior members and walked pretty slowly after my earlier fall. The winds further picked up and it started to snow a little. The weather was not as bad as it had been on the day when I was walking down after the Load Ferry to the Advanced Base Camp, but the tiredness and the fact that we were awake for more than 12 hours by this time was starting to take its effect. The extra load was adding to the effort and whenever it would get stuck in some boulders, it would further irritate me a lot. I carefully walked all the way down on the moraines and reached the ridge just above the Base Camp. The snow had stopped and the winds had decreased. A few of the team members had already reached the Base Camp and I could see our team members standing there and waiting for us to arrive. The sight of the Base Camp provided the last burst of energy that I needed for the final part. Finally on reaching the Base Camp, I was greeted with chocolates and congratulations. We chatted over a cup of hot tea and waited for all the other members to arrive.

Soon, everybody had reached the Base Camp and we were all happy after a safe expedition. I was very tired now and went into my tent while waiting for dinner to be served. I was so tired that even the thought of going to the dining tent for food was looking like a huge task to me, but to my luck the cook brought the dinner to the tent itself. I really enjoyed the meal and then crept into the sleeping bag. I was very happy and satisfied with the whole expedition. The weather had been good throughout the expedition which meant that everything went ahead as per plan. Further, the conditions on summit day were near perfect which made the final climb to the summit even better. While starting from Pune, I had thought that I would be happy and more than satisfied once I reached Summit Camp and anything above it would just be a bonus. But now, after actually going to the summit, I was not feeling as excited as I thought I should have been. There was a sense of accomplishment and joy, but that was it. Maybe I was too tired to think of anything else so I just slept off.

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