Ladakh 2014 – Phase 1
I have a tendency to stick around familiar things; familiar places, familiar people, familiar everything (well, mostly). Sameness is a good thing I suppose; ask any married couple. Whoever said, ”familiarity breeds contempt” is technically an idiot in my book. So having climbed in Ladakh quite often, makes no difference to my mind. I have been going there for years, and would keep going for years to come.
I was supposed to climb Leo in Himachal or Kun in Kargil with Kevin this year. Somehow, we stopped corresponding and even worse, assumed weird stuff about each other. To make matters worse, both Kevin and I injured ourselves in the interim period. I tore a muscle during training while Kevin hurt his rib and lung after a nasty fall. Of course I learnt about his accident only recently. But amid all this confusion, I was sure of one thing; that I was going to climb no matter what. Furthermore, Kun (or even Leo) was too big a project to venture into on my own. So I had decided that if I didn’t hear from Kevin soon enough (this was about April/May), I would go back to Ladakh in July-Aug and climb ….. alone. I would just change my objectives; instead of Kun, I would climb a number of peaks in excess of 6000 meters over a period of three plus weeks. Since I would in all probability do it alone, I would require to be pretty quick and self sufficient. To make this happen I would need a lot of lightweight gear, especially an ultralight tent, an alpine sack and light weight alpine apparel. I bought a Trimm one man tent, a Boll Pack and some light weight clothing. I spent so much on these that I couldn’t afford to pick a lightweight sleeping bag; so I decided to carry my heavy CAMP Arctic Plus. That was probably the only heavy article in my sack, but by the end of the trip, it proved to be a boon rather than a liability.
Over the last couple of years I have been prone to all sorts of injuries; cold injuries, fatigue, tears, sprains etc. A few months before the trip actually materialised, I even had a mild muscle tear for which the doc prescribed some muscle suppressants and a lot of rest. So, post recovery, I was extremely careful preparing for the trip. Training still involved a lot of running, but I was mixing it up with swimming and doing lots of cross training. I absolutely removed really long distances from the schedule. Previously I used to run a marathon or two a month as part of training, but I replaced those days with a 15k run after an hour of swimming. A couple of weeks before departing, I was feeling ok about the trip; generally fit enough, and only a couple of minor niggles, which I presumed would be ironed out during a weeklong tapering period just before departing Chennai. It took me close to a couple of months to get in any sort of shape post recovery and prior to the trip. I had carefully chosen a couple of objectives; Kang Yatse and Lungser; the former for its difficulty and the latter for its altitude. Since my endeavour was going to be self supported, which meant no guides, no ponies or porters etc, I opted to go to areas where I had been before and Kang Yatse and Lungser fit the bill. Both were familiar areas and not terribly technical. That was another concern; the level of technicality of the mountain. Lungser was no problem because it had very few mildly steep sections. For most parts it’s a hiking peak. Kang Yatse, even though technical in many sections, could be negotiated (I presumed) without ropes/anchors. Of course, I was basing this on the fact that in 2010 my partner Jitendra and I climbed simultaneously till 5900m and from there till within 200m short of the summit, I went with Kamal, the guide, before the ice conditions got extremely messy and hard to tackle. We were pretty quick to reach where we reached; BUT doing it alone in the current situation was a different matter altogether, and, what I was forgetting is that Jitu and I were belaying each other; Kamal and I were carefully picking routes that were not so steep; BUT alone I would have no belay and consequently less safety. To counter any doubts I may have had at the moment, I said to myself that I will only pick “relatively” easy routes and I WONT climb a route unless I am sure I can descend. I considered taking a couple of lengths of ropes but my pack was already bursting with a total weight of 18 kilos, plus I estimated that for every week I would need about 4 kilos of food and fuel. At 22 kilos I couldn’t afford to add too much weight to my already injury prone frame and that at high altitudes. Of course ponies were an option, but then I “WANTED” to do this ON MY OWN this time. So I went with the “relatively” easy route mindset. Only problem with that theory was that Kang Yatse has only a few easy sections. I did however bring a 25m Nylon rope (only for very difficult steep descent in case of emergency) which I could leave behind on the mountain, especially on Kang Yatse. But it still weighed 2 kilos, bringing my pack weight to 24 kilos (including food and fuel). These were my two objectives for the time being and nobody could have ever imagined how different the trip would turn out, as it did. But that is a story for later.
In the weeks leading to the trip, I was in touch with a few of my kitters to procure some apparel. One of them, Avinash, actually was sweet enough to offer to bring an ultralight tent for me from an outdoor fair in Germany. It is by far the most expensive tent I have ever used but worth the investment. A few minor flaws in the design, but there is no such thing as “perfect” gear I suppose. Other kitters did contribute immensely too in having me sorted out for the adventure. I picked a Millet Alpine Xcelerator shell, A Neutrino Endurance Down piece and a Rab silk liner to replace the polartec fleece liner I have to bring down the weight of the sleep system (somewhat). Of all these, my favourite acquisition was the Trimm Himlite Tent that Avinash got me. It weighs only 1.65 Kilos and packs down smaller than my inflatable mattress. Pretty impressive huh?
By the third week of July I was pretty much sorted out gear wise and fitness wise for the trip. I only needed to pick a good burner, some alpine fuel and a mess tin/cook set. Since I was going alone, I didn’t wanna risk the trip with the cheap Chinese burner we used on Nun last year (even though the burner didn’t threaten us in any way). A kitter (and friend) of mine had a Primus Express stove. A very light stove, weiging just 84 gms and perfect for alpine ventures. I decided to pick it from Delhi on my way to Leh. I was going to spend a night in Delhi, so I had sufficient time to pick the stuff. Mess tins were available at Gopinath Bazaar and my friend promised to keep the Primus Express reserved for me. I opted to pick the fuel canisters from Leh, to avoid a tiff with airport security at Delhi. Flights were expensive, so I opted for travel by train to Delhi and flew the Delhi-Leh leg.
02 Aug 14 – 04 Aug 2014
I was travelling by the GT Express, which departs from Chennai at 1900 or so and for a change I had some good company in my compartment; a young lady and her mom on their way to Faridabad and a couple of Jawans from the army who joined us at Balharshah. I reached Delhi on the morning of 4th August and took the Metro to Mahipalpur where I had booked a hotel. In a couple of hours I was on my way to Gopinath Bazaar to buy a mess tin. Unfortunately, the market opens only around 11 AM and I was there by 10. Since the shop selling mess tins (with whom I had spoken while in Chennai) was closed, I lazed around the market and even stopped at a kiosk run by a guy selling Sambhar-Vada. This, I had to try, a South Indian delicacy on a street in Delhi. To be honest, it was pretty good; I actually had two crunchy Vadas soaked in piping hot Sambhar. After breakfast, I got sort of restless and decided to check other shops where I could find a mess tin; I did find a shop. It was still just 20 minutes past 10 and so I decided to pick the mess tin from the shop I had just found instead of waiting till 11 for the guy with whom I spoke. With the mess tin (the cheapest, but arguably one of the most important items I purchased for this trip) taken care of, I rode a bus to the nearest Metro Station in order to travel to Mayur Vihar (or was it Anand Vihar – well! It was some Vihar) in order to meet my friend, Munesh, from whom I was buying the Primus Express Stove. He was glad to meet me and invited me over for lunch. Since I was short on time, I had to politely refuse and requested for a soft drink instead. After an hour chatting with Munesh, I took his leave and headed towards the IMF. I discussed my tentative plan with an acquaintance there and was a little dejected when I was made aware that Lungser was made out of bounds lately because of some army activity in the area. This was especially upsetting because somebody I know had climbed in the area a couple of months back. I was even told that Kang Yatse had a similar thing going on until recently but all climbing had since resumed in the Merkha Valley. With a heavy heart I left IMF and went to a nice restaurant opposite Venkateshwara College. The specialty of the restaurant was a variety of Kebabs on offer. During lunch I was able to conjure an alternate plan in my head. Since Lungser was “legally” out of bounds, I decided to go to the west of Tsomoriri and climb the Mentok Range, which I did in 2011 or go to the North West of Tso Moriri on an exploratory climb, since I had never been there. Since I didn’t have the maps for the area west of Tso Moriri, I decided not to think too much about the climb in the Tso Moriri area, as that would ruin the lunch. Besides, I would be climbing Kang Yatse first in any case and I could think about the second climb once I had the map for the area in Leh. With a sketchy backup plan in place, I was able to enjoy the meat feast much better. After lunch I took a rickshaw to my hotel and got some rest. My flight to Leh was at 0515 the next morning, but I had dinner at 9 and slept quite late, after packing my sack. Following morning, I was up by three and ready to go in a jiffy after a shower. I was at the airport by 4 and checked in by quarter past 4. The flight was on schedule. I made it to Leh by half past six and was at my friend Johns guest house by quarter past 7.
05 Aug 2014
It was not long before we started talking about mountains and expeditions and gear and apparel. John is one of the most helpful people one is likely come across. He is also street smart and resourceful. After showing me to my room, him and I went out for breakfast at a restaurant called Ooh La La. Funny name? But their food is good. I had a combo called Spanish breakfast, which comprised of an Omelette garnished with basil, mashed potatoes, bread, butter and tea. John had Muesli; lots of Muesli; so much Muesli, that he had to leave half of it. Poor chap. After breakfast, we went back to the guest house. John had some business to take care of while I had to go to the market and buy fuel canisters and also sort out my rations. As a rule, I usually spend 48 hours acclimatising in Leh, on arrival, before travelling out to the road head. This practice has usually worked well for me. I even befriended the guy whose cab I took from the airport to Johns guest house. He was available to drop me off at Shang Sumdo a couple of days later. For the moment I was occupied shopping for rations and fuel. Rations mostly comprised of instant noodles, instant soup, canned chicken, canned tuna so on and so forth. I also picked chocolates, glucose (Tang) and roasted almonds. My calculations were correct. All the food and fuel did add up to just under 4 kilos. That afternoon, I had something Israeli for lunch at a restaurant quite close to Ooh La La. I think the dish was called Falafel. I didn’t like it very much. The guy who served me the dish was a dope. He told me he used to work at a restaurant in Goa and his reason for liking his old workplace more than his current? Apparently, he was allowed to work topless in his earlier workplace. Well! I pretended like I cared about him missing being able to work topless; I pretended like I liked the lunch, paid the bill and went to the guest house. I couldn’t spend more than a couple of hours in the room, so I just went out for a stroll. Since lunch was not so special, I was hoping that dinner would be good. My best option was something familiar; sheekh kebab and chicken tikka sold somewhere in the market place. This year the marketplace was a mess. Lot of public works were in progress; some sort of beautification work was going on in Leh. I lazed around the town, passing time strolling through the narrow streets and alleys of Leh. One of my favourite drinks in Leh is the Juice sold at a place called Dzomsa. They sell Apricot juice and Sea Buckberry juice. If the lady running the shop is in a good mood, she’ll even entertain your request for a mix of the two juices in equal proportions. Everytime I am in Leh, I make it a point to visit Dzomsa one or two times for a drink; every day. After the drink, I continued sauntering in the market and picked some ripe Apricots on my way to the kebab shop. The shop has a variety of meats on offer; Chicken and Mutton Sheekh, Chicken and Mutton Tikka, Rista, Tabak Maaz etc. I cant quite remember what I had, but I had lots. After dinner, I made another stop at Dzomsa before going back to my room. John was busy with guests, but was kind enough to discuss my trip when he was done with the guests. He also told me that he was in fact headed to Kang Yatse with a couple of clients the next day. So I was excited since that meant that we would meet at Nimaling or the base camp. After the chat with John, I quickly looked over my stuff to check if I was missing something and then decided to sleep. Since I don’t fall asleep easily, I came prepared this time. I brought a few movies along. That night I watched the first half of Primal Fear; one of my favourite Ed Norton movies.
06 Aug 2014 – 07 Aug 2014
I woke up quite early the next morning. John was to leave by 7 or 8, so I looked outside my window to check for signs of activity. When I saw him, I came down to say bye. We agreed to meet in the base camp (or Nimaling) in a day or two. After he left, I went back to Ooh La La for breakfast and the rest of the day was pretty much the same as the previous day; a while in the room, a while on the streets, a meal, a drink and so on. Sometime during the day I called Gyatso, my driver friend and advised him to pick me up from the guest house at 10 or 11 the following day. He was to drop me at the road head called Shan Sumdo and He agreed to pick me up at the said time. Throughout the day I had a weird feeling. I think I was feeling nervous about a solo venture. Then I would calm the nerves by telling myself that I wasn’t gonna do anything too difficult, so there was nothing to worry about. Yes! easier said, since I tend to push things a bit when I am alone. Its not like I was afraid. I am seldom afraid. I was probably just anxious about the lack of support. Anyways, I went to bed with that feeling and when I woke up the next morning, it was still there. So I said to myself, may be its not such a bad thing feeling a bit nervous. That way, I would be cautious. I had breakfast at Ooh La La and then waited for Gyatso. I was packed and ready before breakfast, so it was just a matter of time before I was on my way. I called Gyatso for the pickup at 10-11 even though Shan Sumdo is not too far from Leh because I was not going to camp at Shan Sumdo. I had decided to hike from Shan Sumdo for 3 hours to a camp site called Chuskarmo. The place has a restaurant and a nice camping spot. By 1030, we were on our way to the road head. The drive was short and the roads were good for most parts. We were there by noon. I paid Gyatso, shook his hand and straightaway began my hike. The pack felt like Queen Latifah. I have never hiked with such a heavy pack. But the Boll Pack I had was fantastic. It doesn’t have a lot of padding, but is still comfortable. The rations and fuel were on my front. The initial part of the trail was through a valley with beautiful hills on either side. There are a couple of small villages on the trail between Shan Sumdo and Chuskarmo. These villages also offer tourists with the option of homestays. I think one such village is called Chokdho which is just half an hour short of Chuskarmo. However, I was going to camp at Chuskarmo, so I was pretty brisk. I am not much into sightseeing or photography, so that helped the pace too. I was able to make it to Chuskarmo in under 3 hours. That was about the same time Jeetu, Arpit and I took to reach Chuskarmo in 2010. With a much heavier pack this time, I would say it was a good effort. The restaurant at Shan Sumdo was pretty occupied. There were two groups going down to Shan Sumdo the following day, while a German group was headed up towards Kongmaru la. Since I am not very good at starting a conversation, I picked a Mountain Dew and found a corner in the restaurant where I could be invisible. After the refreshing drink, I went out to pitch my new tent. Most of the spots near the restaurant were occupied by the other groups. I found a small spot in between the other spots right along the trail and not too far from the stream nearby.
I was able to pitch the tent quickly. It looked beautiful. Trimm markets the Himlite DSL as a 2 person tent. I would further qualify that by saying that it’s a 2 person tent if the occupants have small packs. Otherwise the Himlite is ideal for one person who has a big pack. Since I had a restaurant in the vicinity of my temporary residence, I opted to have dinner there. For dinner, I had some aweful Khichdi, prepared by Jigmet, the guy running the restaurant. After the terrible meal, I lazed around the campsite campsite and spoke with a couple of the locals. One a guide on his way down from Nimaling (via Kongmaru la) and the other, a pony man called Tsering Namgyal. They both had funny incidents and anecdotes to share. I went to bed quite early that night, hoping to be on my way to Nimaling by 0730-0800 the following morning. A pretty good day over all I said to myself. I didn’t sleep very well, because the sleeping bag was too warm for Chuskarmo, even though I was only using it like a sheet over me.
08 Aug 2014
The following day I woke up to the pleasant smiles of the German team. I think they were making some porridge for breakfast, at least that’s what it looked like from some distance. I quickly made some noodles and packed up my tent while the German team slowly started to break camp. Their team comprised of 5 men and a lady and they were slowly moving out of camp while I was still packing away my tent. Jigmet, the restaurant guy, arrived at about 0730. I paid him the camping fees and about half an hour after the Germans left I was out on the trail too. The initial 45 minutes were a mild gradient passing through valley bound by mountains on either side. The gradient began to increase slowly and half an hour into the trek I was able to see the last of the Germans. I was able to catch up with them in 5 minutes at a blind curve. Apparently I had caught up with all of them since the others were resting in a spot that was not visible to me when I spotted the last of them. There was a boy in the group, who was not with the rest of the bunch. I assumed He was swift and a few minutes in front of the rest of the group. The resting spot on the trail was the first time that the group actually spoke with me. The lady was especially inquisitive about my little adventure. By now they knew that I was hiking alone but they were further surprised to find out that I would go on to climb alone. They had a few queries about the route and their probable camping site for the day. I advised them that I was going to go over the Kongmaru La pass and camp at Nimaling. I advised them to do the same. They didn’t seem too confident to be able to go over the pass that day. I advised them to take it easy and consider going over the pass to Nimaling if they make it to the base of Kongmaru La by 1 or 2 in the afternoon. The lady shook her head as if to say, that that was hardly possible. I reasoned that going over the pass was good for acclimatising since they would have to descend 600m from the pass to reach Nimaling. Work High Sleep Low is a good rule to follow in the mountains, I told them. They seemed convinced and suggested that they would try to go over the pass. But just in case they decided against going over Kongmaru La, I advised them about a couple of camping spots just before the pass. I was pretty sure I would not be running into them for the rest of the day, unless they decided to camp at Nimaling; so we said our good byes and I was on my way to Kongmaru La. About 10 minutes after leaving the bunch I passed the boy who was in their group. I took a 5 minute rest, had a brief chat with the youngster and then was on my way.
Along the way I met with a number of groups, mostly trekkers, coming down from Kongmaru La. They were in all probability camped at Nimaling the night before. The gradient was gradually getting steeper and my heavy pack was beginning to wear me out. Chuskarmo was roughly 4000m and the pass topped at 5200m. A height gain of 1200m was going to demanding on its own. A 24 kilo pack was only going to make it difficult. I kept telling myself that I should go easy and should be deliberate. I almost ran out of water/juice in about 3 hours since I left Chuskarmo and 2 hours since I passed those Germans enroute. As a rule I don’t carry more than a litre to keep the weight down. The reason for not making an exception on that day was that I was aware of the stream running alongside my trail since I had been on this route 4 years back. I was able to refill my bottle at a nice resting spot just short where the final ascent to the pass began. Since I find water to be hardly palatable, I prefer Tang or Gatorade or something sweet to make it palatable. It was about 11 when I refilled my water bottle and the scenic views would be behind me now since in front me was a really steep ascent to the top of the pass. The route was hardly inspiring. The beautiful colourful landscape rich with mountains and canyons and streams was now replaced by scree and gravel and dark rocks. I looked back and for as far as I could see, I was the only one on the way up, crossing and giving way to enthused trekkers coming downhill. I was actually envying those chaps, since the next day they would be in Leh in a comfortable hotel whereas my misery was just beginning. A few of the trekkers would stop and inquire about me being the only one on the way up. One lady from Bangalore was actually thrilled that I was alone; I wondered why I was not thrilled about it at that moment. She wished me luck for the climb and the rest of the trip. I was able to cover ground quickly till the final ascent to the top of the pass, where I slightly slowed down, to allow for increased breathing, heartrate, steep terrain and oncoming traffic. I was most irritated when on the steep terrain I would go off the trail to make way for a pony just as I would for a trekker or guide, but the pony would stop moving and stare at me. This happened more than once and was especially disconcerting and irritating since it would ruin my rhythm. I often felt like kicking the stupid animal, but would manufacture a smile instead since the pony guy would be right behind. Anyways, after over 90 minutes of hard climb, I was able to make it to the top of Kongmaru La where I was greeted by the smiles of two pretty European girls. It seemed to me that they were seated there for a very long time and didn’t seem to be in a hurry to reach Chuskarmo. One a personal note I think that is the best attitude in the mountains. I didn’t intend to spend too much time on top, so I put on my softshell, grabbed a drink and a chocolate and got on with business, snapping Kang Yatse so I could chalk out a plan later in the evening. This was the first glimpse of the objective on this trip, and to be honest, the first thing I felt was awe; the second thing I felt was fear and uncertainty about going through with the plan. While I was busy taking pictures, one of the girls asked me to take pictures of her and her friend. After I took a few pictures for those girls, I began the descent to Nimaling. It was about close to 1300 when I reached Kongmaru La, so my estimate was that I would be at Nimaling by 3 or thereabouts. Not bad for a days work with a heavy pack, 1200m height gain, steep terrain and a 500 – 600 m descent. After a long descent I was able to reach Nimaling by 3. 7 hours and a quarter was a very good effort in my opinion, considering I had a very heavy pack.
I looked for the restaurant and headed straight for it. The caretaker offered me some tea. I am not a tea drinker, but I make an exception at high altitudes. I had some noodle soup for lunch (noodles is the only thing they served. No eggs no nothing) and rushed to pitch my tent since the wind was picking up; there was also a slight drizzle which called for swift action. I was pitched in 10 minutes next to a European couple; I was also feeling extremely drowsy, so I laid down a little. I hardly realised when I fell asleep, but I probably didn’t sleep for too long since I was woken up suddenly by a stupid donkey who was braying constantly. Although pissed initially, I felt it was a good thing, since if I slept in the afternoon, I wouldn’t be able to sleep in the night. Unfortunately, I had woken up with a slight headache, so I popped a couple of pills, one for headache and a diclofenac for body ache. I kept sipping my tang and stayed in the tent because of the drizzle. After a couple of hours in the tent, I thought it best to get dinner out of the way. Since the restaurant only served noodles, it made sense to make my own. I had a lot of food and had to ensure not to waste it by eating at the restaurant. The water from the Merkha River was heavily silted and I was not carrying any sort of filter. So I just collected some water and waited for a few minutes for the silt to settle down. I just used the top half for cooking and disposed off the rest. Since the day had been very taxing and I hadn’t had anything meaningful since the breakfast at Ooh La La the previous day, I opened a Tuna can for variety to go with the instant noodles I was making. Well! They both tasted terrible. It was 6 by the time I got done with dinner. There was still some day light, so I decided to stroll around. I had some water and went out to meet with the shepherds living in Nimaling. While I was chatting with the locals, I caught a glimpse of the Germans in the background climbing down a hill to reach Nimaling. I was able to recognise them because of the lady in their group who wore a peculiar Bohemian style skirt. Not the perfect attire for hiking in the Himalayas but probably worked for her. The group left at 0730 in the morning and it was half past six when I saw them. I knew that if they decided to camp at Nimaling, they would reach later than me, but I didn’t expect them to be so late. I was a little concerned and greeted them and received them one by one because they were spaced out a few minutes apart. The boy who was in the front in the beginning, was the last to arrive, while the lady who was the second last when I passed the group, was the first to arrive at Nimaling. I had a chat with her for a few minutes and asked her if the group needed anything, medicines, refreshments etc and she politely refused. She said the group sat down for a while at the bottom of the pass and carefully considered what I advised them earlier in the day, and decided to camp at Nimaling instead of under the pass. I told her it was a brilliant decision and that even though they are exhausted, they are better acclimatised. I showed them to my tent in the distance across the river so they could camp near my tent. I also showed them to the restaurant because dinner was supposed to be served by 7. After the group was past me towards the campsite, I met with a couple of guides based out of Leh who were on the last leg of their Merkha Valley trek and on their way to Leh the next morning. They had come from the campsite to the shepherds place to buy some meat. We started talking about stuff, about me, about them, the mountains etc. We carried on the conversation to the restaurant since it was dark and cold. The German group was a bit late for lunch, but the restaurant guy was kind enough to serve them dinner. Since my new guide friends were beginning to get drunk, I moved from the kitchen to the dining area where the Germans were seated and we began talking about their day. It was quite an adventure for them by the sound of things, and I was glad they were at Nimaling at the end of it instead of under the pass. I spoke with the group, especially the boy and the lady till about half past nine and then they went to their respective tents, while my new friends invited me over to taste the meat they bought earlier in the evening. I could not say no. It was meat. I love meat and they were good cooks. It was fantastic. We spoke till about half past 10 when I decided to sleep too. I requested them to meet me in the morning before they began their hike to Shan Sumdo the next morning, since in all probability, they would leave the site before I did. On that note, we shook hands and I went to my tent. Interestingly, the headache was gone by now and I was feeling good; its amazing what good food can do in the mountains. An ugly tiring day; but a brilliant end to it – I am referring to the mutton curry of course.
09 Aug 2014
I may not have slept well at Chuskarmo, but sure slept well at Nimaling. Must have been the exhaustion from the trail, or was it the pain killers. No matter what the reason, I was not complaining. I was up before 7 and just as I was about to make breakfast, which is to say I was about to make noodles, I saw a familiar figure passing my tent and headed for the restaurant. It was John. He had departed early from the Base Camp and was on his way to Shan Sumdo. The previous day, he had guided his clients to the top of Kang Yatse 2. He seemed concerned about me and told me his friend Mingma was guiding an American team to Kang Yatse 1. They were at the base camp and so he advised me to meet with him. He said it is possible to do it alone, but asked me to be careful. At this point I felt a uncertain for the second time in two days. I didn’t say anything to John, but the uncertainty was there none the less. Obviously, John was only concerned in a good way, but him asking me to be careful and advising me to meet with Mingma sowed a seed of doubt in my mind. During our chat he mentioned that three Spanish climbers were in the restaurant who had attempted a crazy route the night before. It was a 70 degree slope on the north side of the mountain. We spoke with those guys and apparently they did it in 14 pitches and all in quick time; pretty impressive effort. I often feel if you have the right company, most seemingly difficult things are quite possible; of course those guys were skilled as well, but none of those could have done that route on their own, it was because they were together that they were able to pull it off. They climbed the wall to the top of the knife edge ridge connecting Kang Yatse 1 and 2. They then traversed to the summit of Kang Yatse 2 and climbed down to its base camp; and as if that wasn’t enough, they decided to hike to Chuskarmo from the base camp. It was good talking to them.
In a few minutes, it was time for John to leave and for me to head to the base camp. While I was packing my tent, my friends from the previous night met with me to say bye. Once I was done packing, I was on my way to the base camp. The base camp of Kang Yatse 1 is not too far from Nimaling; one just needs to climb a high feature between Nimaling and Kang Yatse and then descend to the base camp. I was hoping for good views of Kang Yatse from the top of the feature but was also hoping to see a few tents in the valley between the feature and Kang Yatse where the base camp is usually set. I was able to reach the top of the feature in about 75 minutes, but didn’t see any tents. I was sure that John told me that the team was at the base camp. Any tents at the base camp should be clearly visible from the top of the feature. Then it occurred to me that a few people attempt the summit from the base camp of Kang Yatse 2 too; but those are people who are not serious about the summit because I have never heard of such attempts being successful. Besides, the way John described the infrastructure of the American team, it seemed like a big budget expedition, so I didn’t think they would attempt the summit from the lower Kang Yatse 2 base camp. At this point, on top of the feature, I began doubting myself. It was something that started with a little anxiety the previous day on top of Kongmaru La and was slowly building up since; especially after the chat I had with John and now with the base camp unoccupied, I was very anxious and apprehensive about attempting Kang Yatse on my own. Its not like I was afraid, it was more a fear of coming back empty handed for the second time since 2010. Of course I had thought out the route, discussed it at length with John and so on, but since noon the previous day, something was messing with my mind. On my way down to the base camp, I was thinking of all sorts of permutations but nothing seemed to convince me to go ahead with the original plan. I even thought of different routes, such as a very long ridge (quite an easy route) from the south east side of the mountain and the knife edge ridge leading to the main summit from Kang Yatse 2 (which Jitu and I decided not to do in 2010). I was still not convinced. Suddenly it appeared to me, I could change the objective and save the main summit for another trip. If I was still anxious on the next trip, I could climb with a partner or with John, who has been to the summit from the same route that Jitu and I attempted in 2010. Yes I chickened out, which I rarely do; and only as a last resort; but the reasons for backing off were quite sensible to me. I didn’t want to return short of the summit for the second time, especially if the chances of summit are higher with a partner. A lot of the sections on Kang Yatse needed extreme caution (not to say one must not be cautious on any mountain, but Kang Yatse is not Stok Kangri or Chumser; it is quite challenging.) and since I was to do most parts of the ascent without ropes, those sections were risky to descend without ropes. Of course I had thought out the route even before arriving at Leh, but attempting something when anxious is not exactly safe. I even tried to convince myself, saying, since when did you start caring about safe? But that only works so many times, and it didn’t on this occasion. I don’t mind taking risks, but I was gonna pass on this one. I felt a lot of things such as embarrassment, embarrassment and more embarrassment, but all I could tell myself was that I would come back again. Soon. Besides, this was just the first phase of the trip and in order to stay in high spirits for the rest of the trip, squirming around avoidable risks seemed logical. While All these thoughts were playing in my mind, I reached the base camp, and decided to wait and patiently look far and wide if I missed something or someone. Nothing. Not a soul for as far as I could see. So I said to myself, that it was ok; no shame on backing off. I convinced myself about attempting an alternative objective. The alternative was a no brainer. It had to be Kang Yatse 2. With my fitness and fairly good weather, I assessed that I had a very high success rate. Of course I had checked out both the eastern and western sides of the mountains from Konmaru La, so the route to Kang Yatse was pretty straight forward; steep in very few sections and not many objective dangers except the crevasses. The steep sections would need climbers to rope up or fix the small sections that are steep, but I was confident that I could do it alone (which meant no rope up) if I was extremely cautious.
So with the alternative changed and the anxiety replaced with some confidence and a lot of guilt, I headed down to the Kang Yatse 2 base camp which is 3 quarters of an hour away from the base camp of the main summit. I kept telling myself that I better get to the top of this one and that I should be ashamed that I backed out of the original plan. In a little while I was crossing the stream flowing through the valley from the base camp of Kang Yatse 1 to the base camp of Kang Yatse 2 and into the Merkha river. Since the base camp was visible to me in a little while and since the water levels start rising after noon, I had to keep looking for places where the water levels were relatively low or where the gap was not very wide so I could either jump comfortably (I had a very heavy pack) or cross the stream with ease without getting wet. While I was looking for spots where I could cross, I ran into a scrawny chap in hiking gear headed in the same direction that I was headed to. His name was Arun and he had a bunch of hikers behind him, all trying to cross the stream. On finding out that I had gone from Nimaling to Kang Yatse base to look for a team from the US, Arun told me that he belonged to that team and that they were camped at KY2 base. Evidently it was a classic case of Chinese whisper between John and I. Arun told me that they had only dropped some load at the base camp of KY1 and were not scheduled to move for another day. John must have misinterpreted what Mingma might have told him and then advised me to meet Mingma at KY1 base for inputs. Anyways, things were making sense now. Arun and I hit it off right away. We spoke for a long time, sharing anecdotes and ideas, discussing routes etc. He has climbed in China, the Himalayas of coursem, South America and since he is based out of US, he has climbed there too. Arun seemed to agree with me about my change of plans. We both agreed that even though Kang Yatse could be done alone, a few sections were quite dicey and the best way to negotiate them would be either secured with a rope or with a partner to belay. I told Arun that I intended to move to a high camp the following day and then attempt the summit from the high camp at midnight. Of course this was just a thought; the idea behind it being that I would be less fatigued at the end of it as opposed to if I had to attempt the summit from base camp. He approved of the plan. I also met with his team and had a brief chat with John, the team leader. After a while lunch was served for Arun and his team, while I had to go pitch my tent; and make some lunch too. After pitching my tent and having some noodles for lunch, I lazed around the camp, often checking out the route to my new summit. While I was gazing at the mountain, Arun, who by now had finished his lunch, advised me about the route he had taken the previous night. Incidentally, he and his team had attempted KY2 and Arun was among 4 who had made it to the summit. His route seemed the obvious choice and for the most part safe too. After a while talking to me, Arun had to to go rest while I had to discuss a few future climbs with Mingma. We spoke for an hour, Mingma and I, and agreed on an arrangement so we could work together in the future. After he left, I strolled around the camp for a bit and then decided to get some rest. Even though it was not a tough day, I felt fatigued, probably from the previous day crossing the pass. It was half past six and I thought I’d get some rest and have dinner a little later, at about 8. I usually don’t sleep at sleep or rest at odd times; not even in the mountains. No matter how tired I am, I prefer sleeping at night, but that day I felt like I should rest, and before I knew it, I was asleep. I woke up a couple of times in between but the sleep felt good. So I kept sleeping. The third time I woke up, the time was half past eleven and I couldn’t sleep after that. I just lay there for a while thinking. To me it didn’t seem like I was gonna fall asleep again that night and the thought of laying there idle staring into the dark tent for hours and hours (and this has happened a number of times) scared me. So a crazy thought crossed my mind. Why not attempt KY2 that night? Of course I had planned to move to a high camp the following day, but with no sleep, the move to the high camp would be painful too. Besides, after moving to the high camp, I would have to attempt the summit that night too. So my calculation was that if I lay there till the morning, it would add up to about 36 hours of torture and by the time I got back from the summit I would have transformed into a mad man. But instead, if I attempted the summit immediately, instead of laying there like a hippo, there was a good chance I would sleep well the following night. True, that would mean I would have to attempt summit from the base and I had only been on the trail for 3 days but a little fatigue seemed better than over 6 hours of sleeplessness. With the sudden change of plans I woke up with some enthusiasm (no point in doing anything drably) had some dinner in a jiffy – some dehydrated stuff called Kathmandu Curry from a brand called Backpackers Pantry. It was absolutely terrible. Good thing I only used half the pack.
10 Aug 14
By the time I got done with dinner it was mid night. It took me half an hour to get ready. I was going with three layers, base, softshell and a hardshell since there was a slight drizzle. I chose to keep the down layer in my day pack along with the crampons and a litre of tang. That was all I was taking (some chocolates too). I wasn’t taking a lot by way of technical equipment or not even a rope. Just the Ice Axe, Crampons and one ice screw for any steep section to anchor myself where I might need to rest. There was not a lot on the harness too, just a couple of carabiners to attach the sling to the axe or ice screw. I was ready to go by half past mid night and by then the drizzle had stopped too. I looked at the sky to confirm if it was ok to move and it seemed ok to me. In the distance just above the base camp I could see a couple of headlamps headed up the scree/moraine/rocks towards Kang Yatse 2. It was probably the swiss couple that Arun mentioned the previous day. They seemed to be headed in a direction where they would reach the ice route slightly higher than where I intended to. I think I was 10 minutes behind them and in a matter of 15 minutes or so, I couldn’t see the light from their headlamps since we were tracing different routes. The couple took a south easterly route to their left, while I took a more direct route. In about an hour and 10 minutes I was able to reach the Ice section. I had to traverse a steep scree section to reach the Ice from the feature that I had just ascended and I slipped a couple of times, but was cautious enough to be able to arrest the slide.
I took a 10 minute break once I reached the ice, but I did not sit to avoid getting cold. I grabbed a chocolate and had some tang; and used the break time to wear my crampons and secure the axe to my harness. I briefly thought of wearing the down jacket because of the chill, but I reasoned that I would be warmed up in a matter of minutes and then I’d have to stop on a steep slope to get rid of the jacket. So I decided to stick to the three layers that I was already wearing. After about 10 minutes, I was on my way ascending the ice slope. Evidently the weather was quite sunny the last few days, since the ice was very crusty and uneven. A lot of rocks and stones were either on the surface of the slope or slightly visible through the ice; but the crampons were sticking well enough. The ice axe was an idle accessory, since the initial slope wasn’t steep enough for me to use it, neither was my axe long enough to be used as a stick or a probe. After about 15 minutes of ascending up a mildly steep slope, I was able to spot those two headlamps again. It seemed like they were about 10 minutes or so above me on the ice. I was pretty certain they had climbed/crossed the moraine to reach the ice section on Kang Yatse 2 at a much higher point than me. They were probably resting but by the time I reached the spot where I spotted the lamps, they were gone. I felt like taking a break there but kept moving since it was cold. Until then, I had an option to stay on ice or climb the steep moraine just 50 ft to my left. Above that point there were no rock sections on my route. In the next hour of heading south and climbing a constant 40 – 50 degree gradient, I reached a shoulder where I decided to rest. I checked the altimeter and it was reading 5750m. Alright I said, it was just 4 AM and I had covered well over half the vertical distance. I figured at that rate I would make it to the summit by 0630, with just 450 or so meters to go. The flipside was that beyond that point, the gradient got slightly steeper. After sipping some tang and grabbing a chocolate I set off to what I consider the penultimate section. In about 30 minutes of climbing, I was able to see the other couple on the mountain in the distance trying to negotiate a section which seemed tricky. They would climb a meter and then skid back half a meter or their boots/legs would sink knee deep in the snow. It bothered me a little. So instead of tracing their track I tried to explore the route either side of their boot track and noticed that the ice was crustier to the left. So I climbed 15 meters to the left and continued on a track parallel to theirs. In about an hour, I was able to make it to a shoulder from where one would have to turn east for the final section leading to the summit. This section is not visible from the base camp but was pretty straight forward to negotiate.
One would still need to be careful since a fall or a slip would lead to a very steep fall toward the south. The route from that shoulder wrapped the mountain right upto the summit. At about 0610, I was able to see the couple on the summit. They were coiling their rope for the descent and I thought it best to slow down to allow them their moment on the summit and also I am lousy at small talk. In a few moments they started their descent and we congratulated each other. The lady asked me if I was wearing an Oxygen mask, and I just removed my Wind-X to show her that it was just a face mask. The couple suggested that we meet at the base. I advised them to be careful on the descent because the route would be steep, the snow would begin to get slushy and there were a number of crevasses en route. After greeting each other again they were gone on their way. I made it to the summit by 0625. In the distance, I could see the summit of Kang Yatse 1. I felt a little sad on seeing it, but then reminded myself that I would come back. I clicked some snaps and after 10 minutes on the summit, I was on my way.
The descent was ok initially. I was able to climb down reasonably swiftly initially, but once past the shoulder, sun got intense, and the snow began to get slushy and the terrain was beginning to irritate me. My boots would sink in to the snow every second step. I would often try to slide down trying to use the ice axe to arrest, but the conditions didn’t allow me, too much friction. So I had to climb down with my boots constantly sinking in the snow, sometimes 2 to 3 feet deep. About 90 minutes into the descent, I got trapped in a crevasse. My left leg was in the crevasse right upto my hip, but I was able to arrest the fall with the ice axe and my other leg. It took my about 10 minutes to get out of the crevasse and compose myself before I could move on. Instead of climbing down to the spot where I wore my crampons, I opted to head to the spot where the other couple had changed over from rocks to ice. I just wanted to get out of the crampons as soon as possible and then descend the remaining part on the moraine. Around 10 I made it to the top of the moraine, which is actually a very well marked spot with cairns and prayer flags. Apparently this is where most climbers wear their crampons before crossing over from rock to ice on Kang Yatse 2. From the top of the moraine it was a straightforward descent. I could only sip Tang since my appetite had died. I didn’t feel like eating anything, so the chocolates I brought along were no good at that time. After this I didn’t take any breaks, but I would often stop to catch a breath and compose myself since I was really exhausted. Remember, I was climbing this since I was not able to sleep at midnight. By 1030 I was able to see the campsite in the distance and I was able to make it to the base camp by 1140.
As I was approaching my tent, I could hear Arun in the distance waving at me. I wanted to go meet him, but I felt too exhausted, so I just waved back and kept walking to my tent hoping to meet Arun in a little while, perhaps after some rest. Then it struck me that he should have been on his way to the advanced camp of Kang Yatse 1 a little earlier. I was curious why he was still there. While I was getting out of my harness, Arun and one of his team mates, Alison, came to meet me. I got a hug from Alison and a handshake along with a very sincere “congratulations” from Arun. Before I could ask him about the move to the ABC of Kang Yatse 1, Arun told me that they were to leave a little earlier but stayed back to meet me. I was pleased to hear that. I mean this is a man I only met a day ago. Initially, He didn’t even know if I was gone for the summit, since it was a last minute decision for me. He said he didn’t see me in the morning, and as the day progressed, he figured I must have gone for the summit and hence decided to stay. I just thanked him for staying back and for wishing me well. I thanked Alison too. Their camp manager was there too to greet me. It was great to have some company after that terribly long effort. Since it was past time for Arun and Alison to leave for the KY1 ABC, I quickly shared whatever little I knew about KY1 from 2010, and wished them well. I sincerely hoped that they would be able to make it to the top the next day. Before leaving, Arun invited me to have lunch in his camp. I politely refused, citing the excess of food (well! instant noodles) as a reason, but then Alison insisted that I have lunch in their camp. I couldn’t say no the second time. So I thanked them for the invite, and after seeing them off on their way to ABC, I had my lunch in Aruns camp. It was good. I went to my tent to get some sleep, but it was too hot and bright. SO I got out of my tent and strolled around. Since there was nothing to do, I thought it best to use the time to fill my water bottle at a spot that Arun showed me the previous day, since the water from the stream was quite silty. The spot was about 10 minutes away from my tent on the way to KY1 base. It was close to 3 by then. While I was searching the water spot, a group of hikers were trying to cross the stream to reach the base camp, much like Arun and I were trying to the previous day; only these guys were a little late, since the water levels had risen and the stream also seemed much swifter by 3. The guys waved at me as if to ask if I knew the way. Of course there was no ONE way to cross over from the Nimaling side to the base camp side. One can literally cross the stream at hundreds of places if the timing is right. I presumed the group had assessed the route near the base camp, and because they couldn’t cross, they hiked to a point opposite the water spot. So I assumed they couldn’t cross the stream near the base and led them further upstream in the direction of KY1 base. The rest of the group sat down while just one hiker, who seemed to be the eldest in the group, followed me upstream. I jumped over rocks to cross the stream and get closer to the guy and asked him if he could backtrack those rocks to cross over; but he declined. I did this a few times before finally we both agreed that the best way to cross over was to find a spot where the waters were shallow and then walk through instead of jumping rocks. The man seemed to be prepared to remove his boots and walk barefoot. So we searched for a few minutes and found a spot. He crossed over; we shook hands and I asked him if he was ok. From his response, it didn’t seem like he spoke English. He spoke some European language. Since I only speak English and Hindi, I gesticulated with my hands suggesting that he wait right there, while I go downstream and send the rest of the group upstream. He