This year, right from the beginning, Ladakh was a pot pouri of uncertainties. I should not have even gone to Ladakh in the first place.
I had planned a climb in Kyrgyztan (Lenin or Khan Tengri) and I had to call that off because a friend invited me to climb MK4 and the peaks in its vicinity with him in HP. While we were planning on that, IMF detailed me for an expedition in Bataal (CB9, 10 etc). There is a certain Wg Cdr Chaudhury with the IMF who was supposed to lead the climb. He came across as an eccentric and “Do I care?” kind of a person to me. IMF called off the climb on two occasions; and on both occasaions causing immense monetary loss and logistical inconvenience to the participants. I spoke to the Wg Cdr and he sounded unapologetic and carefree. I had resolved in my mind that this was the last time I would let IMF ruin my plans, even if it meant spending out of my own pocket. Because IMF ruined my climbing calender (well almost), I decided to go to Jaipur and work some more on my riding. My last trip to Jaipur was smashing and I was hoping Vishal and Ajay will make this one worthwhile too. This would keep me fit and give me some time to sort out a new plan.
So I decided to climb peaks higher than those planned by my friend and IMF. And to soup things up, I decided to climb two such peaks for good measure. The icing on the cake was to do all this in a two week window (including acclimatisation). The two peaks that came to my mind were Chumser and Lungser in Ladakh. Chumser is 6625m tall while Lungser is 6666m tall. Climbing even one of these bulbous objectives can be a handful, not to mention two. Doing that in 10 climbing days is another matter altogether. I have heard of so many people gloating over the fact that Chumser is a “trekking” peak and come back empty handed and a truck load of cold injuries and high alt illnesses to add insult to injury. True – sections of Chumser can be classified as “trekking” peak. But there are some sections that we did which were quite steep especially just short of “our” summit which @ 6635m was 10m higher than the main summit.
A few reasons why I feel expeditions to Chumser fail are (Not even talking about Lungser now)
1. The mountain is humongous. People underestimate the magnitude of the climb. The base camp is at an altitude of 5688m which is higher than the everest base camp
2. The tree line in Ladakh is low (very low) sometimes even non existent. Oxygen levels are lower than in other parts of the Himalayas. Climbing 22000 ft in Ladakh is not the same as climbing 22000 ft say in Himachal, Uttaranchal or even Sikkim.
3. For anyone serious about summiting Chumser, one must consider a high camp at 6100m. The downside is that the weather is very fickle at this point and it is perpetually cold. We experienced this bitter coldness (we climbed in september) but the reward was sweet – “summit”.
So much for planning. But I was a lone climber. Not that that was going to deter me. But that just meant more funds and better logistical support. I had made an enquiry with a couple of logistics agencies in Leh. One of these agencies, put me in touch with Nabarun Ghosh, an aspiring climber from Kolkata. He too had aimed to climb chumser and lungser in a very small window (timeframe); what are the odds? Without wasting much time, We got down to the finances and logistics. Nabarun was more than willing to let me manage the climb and I obliged. We planned the climb between the 8th and 20th of Sep with a days rest between the two summits and a reserve day which turned out as good as non existent.
Mistake – 12 days is just about enough for ONE peak measuring well over 6500m, let alone two, to be summited in a period of 72 hours. We realised the magnitude of the task only one day before attempting Chumser. That is when Nabarun my new friend suggested that we concentrate on one objective as opposed to two. I said that we should believe in our plan. We were the ones who made the plan, and of all the people we should show faith in it. More on this episode later.
I reached Delhi on the 7th of Sep. I had a flight for Leh the following day. I picked up a pair of CAMP G-Shell lite+ from Munesh, my acquaintance in Delhi. I didnt use the gloves though. My Millet Ice Fall did stellar duty on the arduous ridges of Chumser and Lungser.
September 8th – Day 1 Leh
48 hours in Leh was what I had planned for acclimatisation. Sam, who helped organise KY1 for me in 2010, picked me up from the airport around 10. Rudra the Manager of Hotel Mansarovar on Fort Road was delighted to have me as his guest. I quickly settled into a sedentary mode for the next few hours. On my back, on the bed was the preferred course of action, apparently. The sudden difference in altitude from around zero in Delhi to 3500m in Leh is bound to affect the most hardcore outdoor junkie and I wasnt willing to take my chances.
I had to meet Sam sometime in the evening. So after a nice heavy lunch and a nap, I walked up Fort Road towards Raku Complex to visit Sams new office. I spent some time at his desk discussing the trip and also met with Deepak, my mountain guide, a native of Manali. He appeared to be a very “crisp” fellow and has somekind of a reputation among his clientele. A reputation for being forthright, which I thought was good. We didnt need someone who would beat around the bush either. After meeting with Sam and Deepak, I spent sometime lazing around the main bazaar in Leh, especially near the Masjid, where native Kashmiris sell delightful meaty delicacies on skews called sheekh. There was also Rista, a spicy meatball cooked in soupy stew; a mouthwatering affair. After hanging around the town, I headed towards Mansarovar. Rudra told me that someone had been meaning to meet me while I was gone. I assumed it was Nabarun. We had agreed to meet the following day, but 8th was not totally ruled out. Nabarun had made it to Leh a week earlier, since he intended to climb Stok Kangri before attempting Chumser and Lungser with me. I was keen to find out if the gentleman was Nabarun. I had to wait a few more hours until the next morning to learn about the mysterious visitor.
September 9th – Day 2 Leh
The next morning after breakfast, I was hanging around the lawn, testing the GPS and altimeter on my N8. The altimeter was about 40m off. The positioning was pretty accurate though. While I was busy testing my device, Nabarun walked into the entrance towards the hotel lobby. We shook hands and it turned out that the mysterious visitor from last evening was him indeed.
Nabarun told me about his stok expedition; how he just about managed to scrape through a summit at the last moment due to bad weather. They stayed put at the base camp for 5 days due to incessant weather. The weather only just about cleared up late on the 7th. So the leader suggested that they venture into the mountain as far as possible. By the time they left the base camp, it was 10. They somehow made it to the summit by 1730. The string of events on stok sounded like a satirical imitation of a laurel and hardy episode. Well! to me. 🙂
After a brief chat, Nabarun and I walked to his guest house, to pick his pack. By proportion, his daypack was comparatively heavier than his rucksack. His guest house was somewhere on the upper tukcha road. What better way to home in to Mansarovar, than to backtrack on my N8 GPS. The positioning worked like a charm. Nabarun was carrying his own Garmin eTrek Vista. With two GPS sets, we felt secure like a swiss locker on our forthcoming adventure.
After dumping Nabaruns luggage in our room we went to have lunch. Cant quite remember what was for lunch. Sometime in the evening, we walked to Sams office to check the paperwork and equipment. We also met with Thundup, the cook and Tenzin, Deepaks assistant. We agreed to depart from Mansarovar the following day at 0800 and went out to my favourite place in Leh, the courtyard of the Masjid, to try the sheekh kabab of course. Well I “tried” the meats, Nabarun actually “feasted” on it. It was good nonetheless.
We went back to the hotel and began packing our stuff for the expedition.
September 10th – Day 3 Drive to Tso Moriri/Churchu
We were both up by 0600. Sam caught us in the Hotel Restaurant @ 0800 and was quick to point out that he was not late. I requested for 15 minutes. After a heavy breakfast, we stuffed our packs in the vehicle and headed out towards Tsomoriri. Deepak had about only 3 million anecdotes to tell us, and at times we would wonder if he was ever gonna cease talking.
We made it to Churchu by about 4 in the evening, dumped our luggage and drove to the other side of Tsomoriri, towards Korzok. I showed Nabarun around the village (I climbed the Mentok range from here last year) while Deepak went to arrange for the ponies. We made it back to Churchuk by about 6 in the evening, just in time for supper. The guys seemed to be having a good time; I on the other hand had to retire into my tent to deal with an embarassing bowel condition.
September 11th – Day 4 Hike to Base Camp
This was the most crucial day of all as far as the expedition was concerned. Churchu was at 4700m, 300m higher than Tsomoriri in the backdrop. The base camp was at 5650m (thereabouts). Thats a humongous 1000m height gain right in the beginning. We hiked the distance in about 7 hours, good timing, considering Nabarun and I were carrying really heavy packs.
We stopped at a couple of places to try out the packed lunch that Thundup had prepared for us. While Deepak and Nabarun seemed to relish the offering, I couldnt even manage a bite. I never seemed to like the concept of a packed lunch. cheesy sandwich, boiled potato and hardboiled egg; always gave me a feeling that I was being punished for something. I somehow managed to stay on my feet, sipping my carefully concocted Tang; thats 5 parts water, 2 parts tang, 1 part love — I am kidding. I like Tang though; no two ways about that.
I requested Thundup to make some Khichdi for supper. His Khichdi seemed more like Pulao, but it was definitely more palatable than his sandwich. I felt a slight headache and thought it wise to keep Nabarun informed. He suggested that we stay at the base the following day rather than setting up a higher camp.
September 12th – Day 5 Base Camp
Tenzin was not very well (so was I). The altitude had got the best of him. Deepak suggested that he descend immediately, while he can do it on his own. If he delayed then the whole team might have had to accompany him, till he was at a safe altitude. Tenzin agreed. Sometimes valor is in saying “I cant”.
After lunch we hiked to the high camp for acclimatisation. Since my pack was over 20 kilos, I felt a little load ferry would do no harm. I carried some of my heavy stuff, crampons, harness, gauntlets etc to be left at the ABC. Because Tenzin didnt acclimatise well, we thought We should take Thundup along so that he was reasonably well acclimatised by the time we establish the high camp the following day. There were two possible locations for a high camp. One at 5950 and another at 6100. The one at 5950 was a proper camp site while the one at 6100 was a little difficult for the ponies to reach. Since this bunch had more insane people than sane, we agreed to camp at 6100m. Too bad for the ponies was the general concensus. Sorry Menaka Gandhi! Thundup had to return to the BC from 5950m because he showed symptoms of AMS, plus we thought by the time we got back we would be hungry, so we might as well let the cook do his job.
We returned to base with a spring in our strides and sleet in our faces. Spring in our strides because setting up a high camp at 6100m increased our chances of summit manifold, sleet in our faces, because there was severe precipitation. LOL
September 13th – Day 6 High Camp
Sometimes I wonder, if I could eat like Nabarun (in the mountains of course; I eat well in the plains) or sleep like Deepak, I would be the perfect mountaineer. It turns out I cant eat or sleep well, and most of the climbing is done out of sheer will, or whatever is left of it.
After a very slight breakfast (Nabarun ate well, thank God), Nabarun and I started off to the ABC. Deepak, Thundup and the Pony guy took their sweet time loading up the ponies (and a couple of donkeys too). By now I have been in a state of heavy headedness for about 48 hours. The only good thing about the whole thing was that the pain was at least shifting from behind my skull to forward and back. Everytime Nabarun would enquire about my condition, I would say “I would like to think I am fine”. I have felt better during climbs though. So this was not very encouraging, with the summit attempt just about 36 hours away. Nabarun and I maintained a leisurely pace. We made it to the high camp in well under three hours. We laid out our tent while Deepak got busy with the Dining tent. By 1400 or so we had established base at the high camp.
I was glad at least Deepak and Nabarun were enjoying their meals. I on the other hand had to do with black tea and more black tea. I am not even a tea drinker and was craving for food, but for the loss of appetite. At 6100m, Thundup was beginning to feel the effects of altitude. Deepak helped him with the cooking. Nabarun, Deepak and I agreed that if Thundup was still not acclimatised by morning, we would send him back, albeit there was another person who for some strange reason was not acclimatising well in this expedition and was still hanging around. For dinner we had Khichdi, and tonight was probably the only night during the expedition when I actually ate well.
September 14th – Day 7 High Camp
Our worst fears had come true. Thundup was not doing too well. He had thrown up more than once last night and felt a severe pounding in his head. Deepak and Nabarun insisted that he climb down to a safe altitude. Although I agreed with them in words, I was really hoping that Thundup stayed; may be he would acclimatise eventually. Who was I kidding. We all knew that his situation was only going one way- from bad to worse. He hung around till about 1100. Deepak suggested that he would accompany Thundup till halfway between the BC and Churchu. Although that was the right thing to do, we had planned to leave for the summit attempt on Chumser by 0100 the following morning. If Deepak went with Thundup, he will be spent by the time he got back. We sent Thundup and Deepak on their way with some juice and chocolates. We had some stale Khichdi and soupy noodles for lunch. I suggested to Nabarun that we go for the summit without Deepak. He just wouldnt have the strength to climb after today, besides I thought he would slow us down. Boy was I wrong?
Deepak was back by 1600, and seemed in high spirits. I suggested that he take some rest and forget about Chumser. Perhaps he could guide us to the top of Lungser. “No way” was his response. He said he was being paid to guide us, and he was not gonna sit back. It was hard to reason with him, so Nabarun suggested that he at least take some rest. I told him I will gear up and wake him at quarter to 1 in the morning. By the time we went to our tent, it was 2000. Nabarun slept and I played owl.
September 15 – Day 8 Summit Chumser
The day began early. I stayed awake all night and developed a slight headache. Woke Nabarun at midnight. We took our time gearing up. I woke up Deepak by 0045. He was fast. We had some black tea and left by 0130. The initial ascent to the snowline was slow. It took us about 100 minutes to hit 6300m. This is where Nabarun put on his plastic boots. I was trying out my Forclaz 900 boots. My feet were freezing in them. The boots are good for hiking till about 5500m. They are definitely not suited to climbing/hiking in snow. (My feet are still numb from the cold injury, and its been about 10 days since I came back from Leh). Anyways, after wearing our crampons, the gradient increased and so did the volume of snow and ice. Deepak could barely stand on his feet, but he somehow managed.
In another hour we reached fork from where one could go to the false summits. From here there was a straight forward 40 deg climb for about 40 odd minutes leading to a sharp ridge which was quite steep. It was this steep ridge measuring only little less than a 100m, which would lead us to the summit. After this ridge, climbers are exposed and it begins to get extremely windy and cold. By 0540 we were at the summit. Nabaruns Garmin Vista was reading 6635 while my N8 was reading 6595m. I would say the Garmin reading was correct, since my N8 was off by about 40m since Leh.
We snapped the surrounding peaks (mainly Lungser – our next objective) and Tsomoriri beneath us. Also the Mentok range on the other side of Tsomoriri and the peaks either side of the Mentok range. Since Nabarun was busy with his GPS receiver and Deepaks digicam had conked, photoevidence was now my department, but only just. In about 90 seconds my fingers were frozen and I had to pass on my phone to Deepak to be turned off. Since we were beginning to feel the chill, we decided to headback. The jubiliation was short and would only be complete once we made it back safe. On our way back, Deepak found a strange place to check his boots and feet for comfort; the point where we began climbing the steep ridge towards the summit. We waited for him on that exposed part of the mountain for about 15 minutes. Although he seemed to be enjoying the brief halt, I was feeling like throwing him down the slope. Of course I managed to keep a smile on my face, afterall this was the guy who was going to guide us to the top of Lungser in a couple of days.
We made it back to the camp in a couple of hours but not without any misadventures. While Deepak decided to take a different route to the camp, Nabarun and I backtracked the same route we took to the summit. Nabarun almost got into a crevasse. I used my Ice Axe (and his) to anchor and and he somehow managed to push himself to the surface. We just thanked heavens, and continued towards the camp, wishing this was the last of our woes. It was – at least for the day. Since the cook was gone, there was no hot cup of tea or breakfast or snack. Deepak went to the dining tent. Nabarun and I went to our tent. I had some cold water, dispirin and went to sleep, hoping that the headache would be gone when I woke up. It had only aggravated by the time I woke up. I had very little lunch and dinner. I was in so much discomfort that I hardly remember anything from the rest of that day.