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Nun – The Roof of Kargil

It’s one of the highest peaks in kashmir and a fascinating objective for someone wanting to delve in to Himalayan Big Mountain climbing. I’ve been obsessing with Nun for a few years now; especially after having heard of horror stories on the mountain; stories about the near and dear ones of my climbing partners; incidents and anecdotes that they would share with me in the tent after a hard days work, about how one’s friend lost his life on Nun, or how one’s father or brother lost a limb or was almost washed away in an avalanche. True! These occurrences are a feature on any Himalayan peak, but I just happen to have heard more about Nun, than other peaks. Nun is not a K2 or a Nanga Parbat by any stretch of imagination. Even in the Indian Himalayas there are peaks which are a lot tougher than Nun. May be, my obsession for Nun, cannot be explained. May be its not supposed to be explained. Regardless of the fascination, those stories seldom managed to steer me away from wanting to climb Nun. The desire to attempt Nun was constant and I trained really hard and with single minded dedication to prepare for it.

I have been in touch with Kevin for over a year and quite often Nun would be the subject of our discussion. Kevin is a seasoned climber, with good experience in South America, Alaska, Kazakhstan, Nepal and India of course. I love climbing in Ladakh (Nun is in Kargil) and prefer climbing in July, but we agreed on a September ascent because Kevin had a big project to finish by August. Nabarun, with whom I climbed Chumser and Lungser last year, also signed up. He was bringing a friend of his, Abhijit, who he assured me is an excellent climber.

The task of managing permits and logistics was more arduous than the climb itself; and since this was my project, I opted to liaise with IMF and Sam (my Logistics guy) to have things in order. Barring some minor hiccups, the permits and logistics were eventually pretty much sorted out just in time.

02 Sep 13 – I met with Kevin in Delhi near Venkateshwara College, quite close to IMF. The first thing he told me was, “you are a f***ing young guy; my kids look older than you”; and I was on cloud nine. We had a drink and spoke at length about Nun, the logistics, gear and especially my boots (Nepal Extreme), which I requested Kevin to bring from London. In an hour or so, we met with Nabarun and Abhijit and we sorted out the paperwork at IMF by 1700. I picked some apparel after the briefing at IMF. Kevin had to sort some stuff at the Hotel and I was getting restless; because I have a tendency to obsess with any new purchase. Rushing back to my room and staring at the boots for a few hours was what I had in mind. One of the channels in the Hotel was playing The Practice (my favourite show while I was younger, a lot younger). So, The Practice and time alone with my new boots; my idea of a perfect evening. Kevin sent me a text requesting me to wake him up at 5; and I was like; tell the Hotel guys man. Just kidding.

03 Sep 13 – I was up by 4. I think I only slept around 1. I called Kevin around 5 to check if he was up. He was. We had a flight for Leh at half past 8. Kevin and I met at the airport. He had upgraded to business class because that would allow him extra baggage allowance. He has a tendency to carry all the stuff in his bedroom and garage and if you carefully look in his kit, you might even find a queen size cot and mattress with cushions and matching sheets. He just doesn’t leave anything behind. And the stupid airline even gave him a little cushion; over the course of the next fortnight, Kevin showed me that cushion a 150 times. Yes! He actually brought that cushion to the base camp. Apparently he was pulling my leg. No offence, he is a witty guy with a sense of humor; and it didn’t take me long to get used to it.

Anyways, we were at Leh by 10. Sam was there to receive us. We were put up at a nice Hotel on Fort Rd.

Sam stayed with us for a while; we had some tea, had a little chat and then Sam had to leave to meet some of his clients. We agreed to meet post lunch to discuss the itinerary. Sam was to bring the Sherpas with him. The rest of us retired to our rooms. Kevin and I were together while the boys from Bengal made themselves comfortable in the adjacent room. We spoke at length about our gear and the drive to Tongol. We also compared our respective gear and apparel; it was interesting stuff. Of course, most of Kevins gear was heavy duty. Mine was more lightweight alpine stuff. We had lunch and met with Sam and the sherpas, Nima and Pemba. We spoke at length about the itinerary and the equipment that we would require. We allotted the least number of days for transportation to the roadhead and hike to the base camp and back. This would allow us maximum climbing days and sufficient contingency days in case of inclement weather. The team seemed to be on board with the idea. After the meeting, Sam and the boys were off to pick the rations where as the team and I decided to rest a while before meeting with Sam at his office to take a look at the central equipment. We were at his office by 4 pm, and the tents, ropes, pitons, screws etc looked in order. We lazed around the town till late in the evening. Nabarun, Abhijit and I feasted on the sheekh kebabs while Kevin was watching us treat ourselves. He hates mutton. I felt sorry for him. I had resolved that the following day I wouldn’t bring him to the joint. We returned to the hotel by 8. Kevin went to the room after dinner, while the boys from Kolkata walked with me to the taxi stand. It was terribly cold and Leh is just at 11000’. I was anxious about how cold it would be at the base camp and beyond. We walked for half an hour perhaps and then returned to our rooms; Kevin was already asleep by then. I struggled till about 3 am before falling asleep, but only just.

04 Sep 13 – As is usual for me at altitude, I had not had much sleep. Kevin and I woke up to a nice and sunny morning. We had to pick up the LO after breakfast; Wg Cdr Sridharan, a gentleman ex-officer from the IAF. I had met with him in Chennai a couple of months earlier and was glad he was our LO. I also had to accompany Kevin to the Hospital sometime after picking the LO, since he had a condition to be taken care of. Something known as Haemochromotosis. Sam and I picked Sridharan from the airport, dropped him at the hotel and then took Kevin to the hospital. Kevins condition required him to donate some blood which worked out pretty well since one of the BRO (Border Road Organisation) labourers was involved in a mishap and was in need of blood. The doc advised me that Kevin would be alright for the duration of the expedition and also advised me to bring him some juice. I obliged. The rest of the day was pretty uneventful except that it was Wg Co Sridharans birthday and he had invited the team over for a drink that evening. He had also invited Sonam Wangyal, a renowned climber that evening. I had a few things to take care of that afternoon; especially had to do a final check on the logistics, equipments and rations. Sam had even managed to arrange for radios, but was not sure about how powerful they were. I advised him to load it up just in case. I was at the hotel by 6 in the evening, just in time for the get together. It was beer for the boys and Coke for me. Mr. Wangyal was there too. He has a tendency to be loud and bombastic and has an opinion on most matters. He did have a few words of wisdom for us and especially warned us about how cold it was going to be upwards of Tongol. Of course his remark about the temperatures was pertinent to me because I was testing out a crazy layering system which had no down insulation in the list, for reasons best known to me. I decided to continue with my test though.

05 Sep 13 – I woke up quite early. I checked with Sam if the transportation was in order. He assured me that we would be on our way as soon as possible. We were all set in a jiffy; ready by 0630. Sam and his boys were there by then. It took us just about 10 minutes to load our stuff on to the bus. Just when we were about to leave, Sam whispered something into my ears. Something he tells me before every trip; Jerry, Listen to the guide. I smiled at him, we hugged and then we were off. Apart from Nima and Pemba, our team also comprised of the cook Sidar and his helper, Sumpa. There was also a scrawny guy called Navoy who was sent by Sam to learn the ropes of mountaineering. Kevin made himself comfortable right next to the driver in the front. It was a pretty comfortable ride till Kargil and even upto an hour past Kargil, after which the roads were non-existent and the ride was pretty nasty. We halted at Kargil for about an hour in order to pick some vegetables. On our way out of Kargil, we also picked some beef. We made it to Tongol by 6 in the evening; Impressive, considering we left Leh only by about 7. Sridharan was pretty impressed too. He was confident we wouldn’t make it in one day. I was glad we did.

After setting up camp, I visited the leader of the porters with Nima and Pemba. The porters are a very hospitable bunch, especially their leader. Since we had no movement planned the following day, we asked the porters to visit us on the morrow post lunch. Back at the campsite, I was with Kevin while Nabarun was with Abhijit and the LO was in a separate tent. After dinner I took a stroll around the village. It was pretty nippy and the thoughts of the temperatures at BC and beyond did cross my mind more than once.

06 Sep 13 – Not much was planned for today since we had to sort out the weights. Apparently the porters wouldn’t carry over 20 kilos per person and they were pretty stiff about it. After breakfast we decided to acclimatise on a nearby feature. The idea was to gain as much altitude as possible at a leisurely pace. Tongol was at an altitude of 3400m while the feature we climbed was at 4200m. Kevin and I were there in just about an hour and a half, along with Nima and Pemba,. Nabarun and Abhijit were there not too far behind us. We decided to stay on top for some time. Nima and Pemba had to go in order to sort out the stuff. We stayed for about an hour after they left. Kevin spotted a thistle and told me that it was the national flower of Scotland. So I had to snap it up. Who knows when I’ll see my next thistle? Abhijit had his iPod on; which seemed pretty much glued to his ears all the time. They were virtually inseparable, but it didn’t seem to affect his performance. He is a pretty fit guy. Nabarun was acclimatising well too, although he seemed to be a bit slower than last year; but with still over two weeks to go for the expedition, I didn’t concern myself too much with it; the team looked just fine for now.

It took us about an hour to climb down to the village. Sidar and the boys were waiting for us with some hot lunch. During lunch a couple of gentlemen paid us a visit. They were handling the logistics for a team from Bombay, who were also attempting Nun. They said that the team were at least two days away yet. I was a little concerned with this piece of information. There were two teams at the base camp already; an Indo Polish Army Team and a Belgian team. The team from Bombay would make it 4 camps at the base including ours; and my concern – I was just hoping we didn’t get in each others way. Sridharan assured me that it was too soon to worry about that. Besides, I figured that the Belgians would be on their way down when we’d be at Camp2 and the team from Bombay would in all likelihood be behind us throughout the expedition, cause theirs was a big team and it would take them longer than us to establish high camps. After meals the boys took a nap, while I was busy snapping a sad looking yak; also took a short hike away from the village. The boys were up by the time I was back. It was windy and a lot of sand had managed to find way into our tent, sleeping bags and sacks. Sridharan, Nabarun and Abhijit had kept their tents zipped, so they were OK. While we were getting rid of the dust, Kevin and I spoke at length about the agenda during the expedition and the following day in particular. Post supper, Kevin and I walked a bit into the village.

07 Sep 13 – It was an early day for Pemba. He had to lead the porters to the BC before the team reached there. He was up by 1 in the morning I presume, ‘cause the porters were gone by half past one. The rest of the team were all set to leave by eight. Kevin and I were right in front with a second set of porters who were helping us transport the kitchen tent and rations. Abhijit, Nabarun and Sridharan had formed a team and were together behind the porters. It took us well under a couple of hours to make it to an Intermediate camp. This is where most teams establish a camp for at least one night before moving on to the base camp. I would have considered it too but we were acclimatising pretty well. It took us another hour to get to the glacier. We lost way for about 40 minutes and so had to return to the glacier, where we met with Nima and Sidar. We just followed them to the BC. Tongol to BC in well under 5 hours (could have been done in under 4 had we not lost those 40 minutes); was a good effort. Sridharan and the boys were there by 2. Our spot in the BC was nicely perched between the Army and Belgian camps with a good view of the climb to the Advanced camp. Both Kevin and I were a little dazed and rightly chose to sit down and relax. I offered him some Almond candy which he seemed to like.

Sidar had the lunch served in a little while. Nice and hot. Sridharan and boys had lunch at the army camp. The Belgians had established camps 1 and 2 and were at the base camp to recuperate before going for the summit. They advised us that bad weather was forecast for the following day. After lunch, I visited the army camp. A few friends of one of my acquaintance were climbing and I met with them. I also met with the doctor of the Polish contingent and the leader of the Indo Polish joint expedition. They looked like a happy bunch. After the brief visit I returned to our camp. Sidar had prepared some delicious food; what stood out was some spicy hot soup and chilly beef. After that tasty meal we went to our tents and Kevin pretended to read for 5 minutes and then gave up. I think he must have read something like 5 pages from that book during the 3 week expedition; it was a book that had something to do with Everest. I would just laugh everytime he picked that book.

08 Sep 13 – We woke up to clear skies; no sign of any rain for miles. Guess the Belgians were wrong. They were on their way up to Camp1 for their summit attempt. After breakfast Nima and Pemba were off to Camp1 to drop some equipment. The rest of the team and I were off to ABC to drop off our boots and apparel. Of course the aim was to just acclimatise, but dropping off some load slightly higher made sense. The route to the ABC is a rocky moraine which is an extension of the sentik glacier. Just like the intermediate camp between Tongol and Base, we decided to miss the ABC too. So the next camp after BC for us was Camp1 since we were all acclimatising pretty well, yet. Kevin and I were at the ABC in about 70 minutes while Sridharan, Nabarun and Abhijit were there soon. We hung around for a while, stowed our stuff under a rock and took some pictures. Sridharan, who has been to Nun before, described the route we should take to Camp1 the following day. Obviously he made it sound like it was the easiest thing in the world; of course it wasn’t. ABC had a pretty good campsite, but we just decided to give it a miss. After about an hour at ABC, we decided to head back to base for some nice hot lunch. Nima and Pemba were back by tea time and we rehashed the itinerary. We had planned for 4 more load ferries over the next 5 days. Of course, if we shared the ropes that the Army were to fix, that would bring down the number of ferries to 1. For now we were prepared to fix our own ropes for the ascent. The rest of the day was pretty uneventful. In the evenings we would exchange banter over tea and carry it on till dinner. Sridharan would tell us of anecdotes from his youth in the British Raj; Bad humor; actually Sridharan has a lot of insight and since he has been doing LO duties for a while, he had a lot of interesting experiences to share. Kevin would never miss a chance to pull his leg though. We were in our tents by 8. Kevin tried to play the intellectual climber by pretending to read while I tried my best not to giggle. Him reading a book is a joke. On a serious note, in my opinion, Kevin was doing exceptionally well. He was right up there with me as far as gaining altitude was concerned (sometimes even better) and he did it with ease. He never showed signs of fatigue, he was sleeping well and was pretty composed mostly, except the times when he would have to pick on Sridharan; at those times he would not hold back. It was hilarious watching Sridharan and Kevin take a jab at each other. Of course all this augured well for the team ‘cause it meant that we were in high spirits.

09 Sep 13 – Sunny day. Kevin seemed pumped about the climb to camp 1. The idea was to drop some load and be back by evening, but a trip to Camp1, with load, was crucial in helping us acclimatise. Sridharan was going to escort us till the Ice Wall, across the glacier, just above ABC. He was in two minds about moving with us to Camp1. Nima had implied subtly the previous night that it would be better if Sridharan stayed at base to liaise for help or logistics in case we ran against a wall. We had about 8 to 10 Kilos in our packs, mostly fuel, food and personal equipment which we wouldn’t need between BC and Camp1. We were off right after breakfast. Kevin and I were right behind Nima and Pemba. Abhijit, Nabarun and Sridharan were not far behind. We quickly changed into our climbing boots and wore the harness. Sridharan had brought his kit too but changed his mind at the last moment. So it was Nima and Pemba in front followed by Kevin and I. Nabarun and Abhijit also were not far behind on the line. The initial part of the fixed line was a low angle ascent of between 40 and 50 degrees. About 15 minutes into the ice fall, there was a bulge about 20m high where the route was steepest at 80degrees. But beyond the bulge it was a pretty straightforward ascent for the next 20 or so minutes. I was using CAMP C12’s while Kevin was using his Cyborgs. Even though the C12’s are meant for general mountaineering and can handle Ice Falls to an extent, according to the CAMP catalog, I had a couple of skids. Of course I was secure and nothing untoward happened, I was more wary for rest of the day, and very deliberate. Once at the top of the ice fall, we had to hike up a very low gradient terrain full of crevasses. Fortunately most of them were very visible and we were able to squirm past them. After a hike of about 10 or so minutes, we had to traverse left and then continue a low angle ascent for about 15 minutes to reach a glacial plateau. This plateau is about 4 km long and gives the first view of Nun. Nima and Pemba, who were here the day before, had set up our tents in the middle of this plateau, right next to the army camp. We hung around for about half an hour at Camp1 before commencing our climb down to base. Nabarun and Abhijit had not made it to the campsite until then. They had followed the wrong trail perhaps. We were hoping to meet with them somewhere near the beginning of the plateau, but they were not there. So I sent Nima and Pemba to look for Nabarun and Abhijit while Kevin and I stayed at the top of the descent. They were not too far from where we were apparently. Nima had the wise head to advise them to drop the stuff where he met them. He was obviously of the opinion that the stuff could be transported on our next visit to Camp1. Navoy was with us too; he had not climbed or descended an ice fall before and had no issues ascending with a Jumar, but he had troubles descending. I gave him a quick lesson on figure of 8 descent and he took to it like a charm. It took us well under an hour to descend the Ice fall and we quickly changed our boots. We dumped the climbing boots and harness at a safe spot under some rocks and began our climb down to the base via ABC. Sidar and Sumpa were waiting for us with some hot tea and biscuits. Quite refreshing to be honest, considering I am not a tea drinker. In the evening I met with the leader of the Army Expedition to check for the possibilities of helping each other out. The idea was to share their equipment and in return we would help them fix the route. He seemed ok with the idea, but needed to check with the Polish contingent, which he did and affirmed that we could help each other out for the duration of the expedition. Of course, this meant that we didn’t have to ferry the fixed ropes (about 1.4 Km of it) to the higher camps; a savings of tons of effort and at least a hundred man hours. I think that very thought gave me a good sleep that night. Since the number of ferries were now reduced from 4 to the 1 that we already performed earlier in the day, Nima and I agreed that the team could rest the following day and establish Camp1 the day after, while Pemba and Him would accompany the army team to Camp1 the following day. Overall, it was a very fruitful day for us.

10 Sep 13. I could hear a commotion early in the morning. I guessed it was the army guys on their way to Camp1. We woke up around 0800. The army guys were gone by then. Nima and Pemba were still around. I had advised them to leave around noon time. After breakfast Kevin and Sridhar spent some time with army team, the folks who were not planned to reach camp1 until the next few days. I hung around with Nabarun and Abhijit discussing our apparel. They both had picked a lot of new stuff and most of it was interesting. Especially, Abhijits Fischer skiing jacket and Nabaruns OR gauntlets. Good stuff. My Simond sleeping bag was not so great though. The down was clumping in the baffles and I was a bit concerned about how it would perform in the higher camps. Still a day to go though.

Just before lunch, Nima and Pemba decided to leave for Camp1. We did a check on the stuff that they were gonna carry and the stuff that we were to carry the following day. After some time they set out and were out of sight in about an hour. We had lunch and a chat in the dining tent where Sridhar shared some anecdotes from his Air Force days. Once in a while we would discuss Nun too. Soon it was time for the boys to take a nap and for me to laze around for a while, lie down and perhaps gaze at the tent fabric while Kevin had a symphonic nap. The rest of the day was pretty uneventful; Tea in the evening followed by soup and supper. Sridhar and Kevin had invited a gentleman from the Belgian camp. He had decided to stay back because he realised Nun was not his cup. The rest of the Belgian team were due to attempt summit in a few hours. The Belgians did send a word over the wireless that the temperatures at Camp2 were -22 (-8 in the tent). We were a little perturbed, especially me since I was giving the down layer a miss, and suddenly it didn’t seem like such a great idea. But it was too late now. Besides I could try this now when I am conditioned. Moreover, If I could pull it off, it would be a terrific achievement. These are things I told myself to get in the right frame of mind. Kevin was not too sure if mine was a great idea. I agreed with him that of course it was not a great idea; It was a test and I would try my hardest to pass. He on the other hand had a fantastic piece of Rab Expedition Down Jacket, and he was going to bring it with him to the higher camps.

11 Sep 13. Big day. We were moving to camp1. Sridhar was going to keep us company till Camp1. Everyone was in high spirits. We were on our way after breakfast. Nawoy was with us too, till the ABC of course. Kevin and I made it to the ABC in under an hour. Nabarun and Abhijit were not far behind. Kevin was off in a flash since his crampons were quiet near the fixed rope. Nabarun, Abhijit and I had to fetch our crampons which we had deposited under a rock quite some distance from the fixed rope. I shook hands with Sridhar before setting off. I was about 10 minutes behind Kevin and Nabarun and Abhijit were 10 minutes behind me. I was on top of the ice fall in about 30 minutes. Sridharan was still hanging around with Nawoy. I didn’t think waving at them was any use since they appeared no more than a speck and I was sure I seemed the same to them. Nabarun and Abhijit were not far behind. En route I met with a few Poles. They were on their way down from Camp1 and I could make out from their faces that they were not too thrilled about the whole affair. I was told by the Indian contingent of the Army expedition that the Poles were actually part of a joint exercise at HAWS and the expedition was a culmination of the joint exercise, but they were not prepared for the rigours of a Himalayan expedition.

After saying bye to the Polish soldiers, I was on my way to Camp1. I met with Kevin in about an hour. Nabarun and Abhijit made it in an hour later. Nima and Pemba were out to fix the route to Camp2 with the Army guys. We were also expecting the Belgians to go past us on their way down from the summit. Just after lunch our worst fears came true. It started to come down heavily and this was the trend for the next 5 days. Nima and the rest of the boys made it back sometime in the afternoon, closely followed by the Belgians. Apparently 5 of them had made it to the summit and one had suffered serious cold injuries. Kevin met with them and they were off as soon as they arrived. The precipitation was not helping either and they had a good couple of hours, may be more, in order to climb down to the Base camp. We had an early dinner, which Kevin hated, and we went to bed hoping the blizzard and snow fall would stop and we could get on with the climb. Boy! Were we wrong?

12 Sep 13. It was still pouring down. To make matters worse the wind was gusty, it was overcast and Nun was totally hidden in the whiteout. Kevin seemed to have slept well. I was on and off. But we were all feeling ok. Our rations were clearly marked out. We were hoping to summit in 3 days and had rations for 4 or 5 days. We decided to hang around, and if the weather didn’t clear up, Nima and Pemba would head to the base till the weather cleared up. That way we would save on rations and even get a better, more recent forecast. The weather didn’t clear up in deed and around supper time Nima and Pemba suggested that they would climb down to base around noon the following day. All of us spent the day on our backs, in our tents. The snow did stop for a few minutes in the afternoon, but it was more of the same in the evening. The winds were always persistent and at times even threatened to blow the tents away. I did spend some time with Nabarun and Abhijit during lunch, but that was all. The order of the day was pretty much “each in his own tent”.

13 Sep 13. Nothing had changed. By now, the precipitation was beginning to demoralise us. We were really hopeful when we had saved a couple of days getting to the base camp. We drove to Tongol in a day as opposed to two and then hiked to the base camp in one day, now all of a sudden, we lost two days and were not sure when the weather pattern would change. After breakfast, Nima and Pemba were on their way down. Nima had left his crampons at the slope leading to camp 2 about an hours hike from where we were camping. So he took my crampons. Kevin moved into Nimas tent because he hated the smell in my breath. I am kidding. He is really tall and therefore felt cramped in a shared tent. He figured, since he would be alone in Nimas tent, he could sleep diagonally and therefore wouldn’t be as cramped. His supposed luxury was only meant to last a day though. In all probability Nima and Pemba would return the following day.

Of course Kevin played the good neighbour by visiting me during lunch and dinner. The burner, fuel and boil in bags were all in my tent. Nabarun and Abhijit were relatively lethargic during the day, but apart from the general disgust at the weather staying bad, the spirits were alright otherwise.