Of all the days that I could have picked to sleep-in, I picked Day 8 – the day we were scheduled to shift to Summit Camp and making our Summit Attempt!
It wasn’t too much of a sleep-in though – sunrise was early in Camp-1, but I was running a bit late – I woke up at 5:30 a.m. and immediately started preparing my belongings. Our guides were supposed to leave ahead of us to fix ropes on the steep incline ahead of Camp-1, so they got ready, packed their belongings and after having chapatti and jam, they left ahead.
Once they left, we started preparing our loads. As the load from here onwards was to be equally divided between everyone, therefore everyone had already been instructed at Base Camp to carry their big rucksacks (>60 litre) only. Little did we know that we had people in our group with better plans – one of the climbers had brought his 20 litres day pack for the summit attempt! This meant everyone else had to carry extra load.
I was upset on this selfish behaviour of the climber over the entire expedition. In my opinion people who don’t believe in teamwork, and who cannot care for their own friends endeavouring on an expedition together, should either not participate in the sport or should go “alpine”, where they will be responsible for their own actions; Shashi told the climber to add a tent and ice stake on his day pack. Food, butane cylinders, ice stakes, tents, were distributed among the rest of us, in addition to our technical equipment and other belongings. Since we were already late, everybody had their Salted Vermicelli breakfast in haste and off we went.
The climb was over two more ridges above Camp-1 and it was on a steep snow slope at 60 degree incline. The last 100 metres of this climb was even steeper with a gradient of around 75 degrees. The Summit Camp was located above this steep slope at an altitude of 5900 m on a small relatively flat surface, just below the first crevasse prominently visible on the face of Gangotri-III peak.
Halfway towards the first ridge, we noticed our guides moving towards the second ridge, above which they would start fixing ropes. Weather this morning was bright and sunny and as per the weather forecast, the next three days were of clear weather. This window provided us an opening for the summit attempt. But nothing can be predicted on the mountains. I could see clouds building up from the valley below and by the time I reached the first ridge, the cloud cover had started coming down from Gangotri-III peak too. We were in for a white-out.
We walked closely in a group, continuing on towards the second ridge. The snow conditions were unfavourable as a result of daily snowfall, and we were now encountering the soft snow on our way up. Walking on soft snow is a difficult task and one of the climbers with less experience carrying the heavy load started to sink knee deep in the snow at every step. This slowed our progress and after 15 minutes of trying hard, he decided to return back to the ABC, which was a wise decision. Shashi updated the ABC of this development over the radio, so that they could get him down safely. We watched him descend and finally reach Camp-1 safely.
One climber down, the rest of us continued on our way up. The weather got worse and now we were walking through a complete white-out. I followed every one closely, taking frequent breaks and replenishing myself with the ration provided. The weather towards the valley cleared for a while and I noticed another expedition team doing their Camp-1 Load Ferry. We were relaxed that now our climber would have company while going down to ABC.
Engulfed by the white-out, we reached the bottom of the fixed rope. This was the start of the steep climb. The steps cut by our guides to make the climb easier were now covered in snow. This meant we had to cut fresh steps throughout the climb till Summit Camp. The time now was 1:00pm and we started cutting steps up the steep incline. Shashi took the lead and after some time she got tired and Guneet took over. The conditions here were worse and we were climbing through knee deep snow, cutting one step at a time. After sometime rest, two other climbers took turn to lead and open the route. Manisha asked me if I wanted to lead. I was zoned out at this point, so I asked her what I needed to do? (This would become the butt of all jokes in the coming days).
We learnt over the radio that the rest of the team members at ABC were relieved that our returning climber had made it back safely. Everybody was worried about the weather conditions higher up the mountain as the peak was engulfed in complete white-out. Our cook was offering his prayers to the Mountain Gods every hour for the safety of climbing team.
Back on the slope, the route opening had started taking heavy toll on everyone. Everybody knew if we turn back now, no one was in a condition to return for another attempt tomorrow. The weather was also not in our favour, but we were hopeful that it would clear up. Finally after two and half hours of climbing we could see the final stretch of climb, which was steeper than our current gradient. Shashi had a discussion with our guides over the radio. As per our guides, at this pace, we required another 4 hours to reach Summit Camp. It was white-out at Summit Camp as well and our guides were unable to find a suitable place to pitch the tent. The time now was 3:20 p.m. and the climbing effort in today’s adverse weather conditions so far was equivalent to the Summit Day Attempt. With all the odds against us, Shashi took the final decision to call off the expedition.
In mountaineering, there exists a thin line in between making the right decision and being a fool for pushing against the weather envelope. We were at 5800 m, just 100 m below Summit Camp, but we needed another 6 hours to reach the camp site and pitch the tents. It was clear that after such gruelling physical exertion, nobody would be in proper shape for a midnight Summit Attempt. Taking everything into consideration, Shashi had taken the right call.
We turned back and climbed down the fixed rope section of the slope to reach the ridge. It was still white-out, and now the snow conditions were worse than the morning. The snow slopes were so soft that we were in knee deep snow, walking towards the Camp-1. While walking back, my foot got stuck in the thigh high snow, and only after several attempts was I able to free myself out of the deep snow. After sometime, Manisha went through the same ordeal and I had to dig her out of the snow. Similar incidents happened with Shashi and Guneet. We figured that the heavy loads on our back were making our life difficult, so we had to take off our rucksacks and drag them down to Camp-1.
Finally at around 5:30 p.m. we arrived at Camp-1. Being exhausted, we decided to spend the night at Camp-1, and continue our descent to ABC the next day. We sat down in a tent and prepared our dinner of Maggi and Packaged Veg Biryani. Everybody was sad that the expedition was unsuccessful, but we were glad that everyone had put in their complete effort.
After dinner I retired to my tent, but I could not sleep. I was disappointed that the expedition was unsuccessful but I also knew that our leader took the right decision. I thought about the complete experience and was glad to be a part of a difficult climb. This was my toughest mountaineering experience so far and I had walked through steep slopes on difficult snow conditions in a complete white-out. I was satisfied that my dedication and perseverance had paid off.
My biggest realisation on this expedition was the true spirit of mountaineering, to be helpful, humble and to respect the nature, like Sir Edmond Hillary said, “It is not the mountain we conquer but ourselves”.