Yeah, it was some feeling! I was on top of the Pangarchula peak! I was on a high.. And not just because I had reached a summit.
Towards Pangarchula – Day 1
The climb towards the Pangarchula peak started on the previous day. As usual I was up early. Usually, I was up even as the staff would be getting up. As I crawled out of my tent, I caught the sight of the gorgeous view of Hathi & Ghoda Parvat right in front of me. The morning was glorious. The sun was still behind the mountains, but had lit up the sky in the brilliant blue that you don’t get to see in the city. The morning in the mountains are hued in a different colour palette.
But I was nervous. I had seen the Pangarchulla peak from the Gorson Top (on Day 1) and was quite apprehensive of the climb to set up the advance camp and then the final summit attempt.
The Pangarchula Summit Team
The original plan was that the Pangarchula summit party – ie Nikhil, Durlov, Swami, Rawat – the guide, Dhoom Singh (the young and enthusiastic team member from Swamy’s team) and myself would climb up Camp 1 and set up camp with the help of porters. But last evening, the porters had to go back and it was decided the Summit Team would now carry the
camp and equipment to Camp1 on our own. Apart from the load of winter and protective clothing, we had to carry a tent, sleeping mats, sleeping bags, fleece covers, rations, stove, kerosene, water and the climbing equipment – gaiters, ropes, ice axes etc. This increased the load considerably.
So in the morning all of us just spent all our time packing our bag and trying to reduce everything that was non-critical.We dropped our toothbrushes – just carried one mouthwash. Durlov dropped his camera – he took his tele-photo lens, I carried my camera. Finally when we picked up our bags – this time our full back packs and not the day packs – I was shocked to know how heavy it was. This just added to the anxiety. I thought, I wouldn’t be able to make it to Camp1 with this load. And even if I did, would be in no shape to attempt the summit.
The Start of The Pangarchula Journey
So off we went. In every trek, the first and the last half an hour are the toughest. And as we got into a rhythm, my muscles started to follow the mind. The pain disappeared, the breath was back and we climbed on. After a couple of hours we reached the ridge at the top of the meadow (see photo above- red line turns left towards the snowy area) and took our first break to have some water and grab a bite. Feeling refreshed, we started off again. And climbed steep stretches along the ridge. The snow fields on both sides reminded us of what was awaiting us.
Usually, as I settle into a rhythm in the trek, I look around and take in the views and the fresh cool air and the physical effort is forgotten. In this trek towards the Pangarchula mountain, I could see Mt. Kamet (the 2nd highest peak fully in India), Hathi & Ghoda peaks, Mt. Neelkanth, Mt. Dronagiri flanked by Chang & Bang peaks. We were already way above most of the world. While we’d see vast expanse below us, it was amazing to know that we were being looked down upon by the massive peaks around us.
After climbing one of the steepest stretches till now, we all stopped and had lunch at a narrow ridge – with not enough place to put down the bag, and sit at the same place. A lunch pack of alu-poori was much appreciated. The other stuff in the lunch pack – chocolates, dry-fruits and fruit had been consumed on the way up. A full tummy also meant a weightless lunch pack – don’t remember what meant more at that time!
Climb Towards Camp 1 Site
From this point we could see the steep wall of snow that we had to climb to reach the proposed camp site (in the pic – the first time the red line climbs straight up snow). And as we reached the start of this stretch, I was leading the pack – just behind Rawat & Dhoom Singh. Both of them were half way in no time. I just had to follow their foot marks, but with every step, I realised it wasn’t easy at all. And then this stretch turned steeper – hadn’t realised it from the distance.
I looked straight up (the way you do to see the sun at noon) to find Rawat & Dhoom Singh disappear from the view. So here I was all alone – a slip here would mean a 50 ft fall straight down! I looked back to see Swami starting to enter the Snow stretch – and he looked so far behind that there was no way to wait for Swami to help me through. I was precariously perched, turning around was out of question, looking back meant looking down and I needed the stick to keep balance – three limbs are better than two at such a point.
So, while the thought that I should capture the moment crossed my mind, I desisted from taking the camera out. My sense of balance was worsened by the big load on the back – I was scared that it was shifting the natural centre of gravity and I was already falling! But climbed I did, and as I reached the top of that stretch, it flattened out (relatively) into a huge snow field. What a relief it was to see the end of it. But there was this stretch still to be covered. At the end of this stretch, Rawat & Dhoom Singh had put down their bags – this is where we were going to set up camp – a 10 ft x 20 ft stretch with less snow and weeds – looking relatively flat from here.
Camp 1 site
As I reached Camp1 site and turned back my mind went to Durlov & Nikhil and now was concerned how they’d handle that stretch – I asked Rawat to go back and help them. But they managed the stretch without any help, and shortly both of them came up in view.
By the time the entire team was into camp, we had put up both tents and Dhoom Singh had already put up the stove and started melting the snow (in a pressure cooker) to get drinking water. A quick tea in the tent was followed by an early dinner of khichdi at 5.30 pm in our tent. It is amazing how a tent which feels small for one can be a big dining hall for 6 in the freezing, hostile climes of the Himalayas!
The Night of The Storm
After dinner we stretched out our sleeping bags and got into it. At that altitude, in the cramped tent, getting into the sleeping bag is such an effort. The wind was now whistling, the sky covered with dark clouds and a bad storm was on its way. We debated whether we should go out now and relieve ourselves before the storm hit us. Nikhil & Durlov, after getting into the sleeping bag, resolved not to drink anymore water – lest they’d have to get up in the middle of the storm and go out! And exactly the thought I had running through my mind.
And then the storm came. It started with hail coming down – small round balls of ice & snow. We sealed the camp
from inside and it was already warm. But the wind was blowing hard against the tent. Slowly the wind picked up and as I lay on one side of the tent, the tent was pressed hard against me from the top. We could hear pelting snow and hail on the tent and the flapping sound meant that one side had come lose. After an hour or so, it slowed down. We heard somebody come outside. It was Swamy. He had come to check out the damage. The storm had pulled out two pegs of the tent. Another 4 pegs and we wouldn’t have had an anchor! Tired, apprehensive and anxious, I settled between sleep, thought and exertion.
Towards Pangarchula – Day 2
In the morning, I opened my eyes and saw the faint day light through the tent. And realised that both Nikhil & Durlov were also stirring and were almost awake. It was around 5 o’clock. Last night’s storm had started at around 6 o’clock and we’d dozed off around 8 o’clock or so. In the warmth of the tent (I checked my thermometer – it read 22deg inside my sleeping bag), we’d tossed and turned through the night. But we had rested well after the exerting climb of the previous day.
The Beauty That Awaited
I knocked off the snow on the tent from the inside by kicking the sides and braced myself to get out of the tent. The mountains appear the most beautiful in the first light of the day. Every morning, it appears, that nature – the sun, clouds, mountains, air- get together as if to perform an elaborate piece of art for those who are waiting for it. It is a quick, but conspicuously deliberate performance.
The mist rises over the peaks to form an umbrella before it disappears. The clouds start to scatter around to reveal the mountains, as if they were not available for viewing in the night. The sun lights up the sky but not the peaks first. Like the opening notes of a musical piece. Then, slowly, starts to light up the tallest peak first. And then the pace quickens and peak after peak lights up and takes on a golden hue. Till it comes up and the first rays of light start falling on you, and you know the day has started.
In the morning sun, it didn’t feel cold. I was wearing two layers of cotton t-shirts and a jacket. Durlov & Nikhil were wearing thermal inner under their winter clothing. We started walking towards the Moraine fields (of snow). The walking kept us warm. At this place, we were protected from the wind, so there was no wind-chill hitting us. It felt great! We reached the moraine fields and now readied for the climb along the steep ridge towards Pangarchula peak. A short break to regroup, was followed by the climb again.
Time For The Test
This time the slope was too steep to climb straight up. We were the first group of this season to attempt Pangarchula peak, so there was no marked route. So Rawat traversed up the slope. By the look of him, he could have climbed straight up, but we were the ones needing the traverse. I continued to stay behind Bhide. Increasingly I felt, he’d not be able to make it to the top. A few stretches above me made me doubt whether I could make it to the top or not. And then, more worryingly, we had to come down the same way! Was by now really apprehensive. Scared that the higher I climb, the more difficult it’ll be to climb down.
Then all of a sudden, I looked up to see Rawat unrolling the rope and climbing up. This stretch was quite steep. Steeper than the stretch on the previous day. I had not spotted this from the distance. I brought up the rear again and it was easier as all of them had already gone up. It was a short climb with the rope – about 20-30 ft. It turned out to be quite comfortable, once I started climbing up with the rope as support. As I reached the top and turned to look down to the spot I started climbing up from, I couldn’t see it. It was that steep. I looked at my watch, it was now almost 10.30 – 2 hours from our last stop!
The Darkness before Daylight
Now came the danger zone. We saw Swami & Rawat talking nervously. That made me nervous. I could hear them argue the route forward. Rawat thought it was better to cross the next section (a cornice – lip opening up towards the left) from the right – or rather over the lip. Swami thought otherwise. He suggested cross it from the left itself, through the lip. But both were quite sure that we’ll have to be roped up. All of us, including Swami.
The fall on the left was quite a big one and very steep. Swami anchored the rope at his end, digging the ice axe into the snow and his weight on top. Rawat carried the rope, crossing the lip, and slowly uncoiling it. The distance was less than 20 ft. He reached the other side and anchored the rope.Dhoom Singh was to go next. As he picked up the rope, we saw Rawat dropping his glove by mistake. That one glove rolled down the slope on the left and kept on rolling till we couldn’t see it. I’m sure everybody was having the same thought – what if it was I instead of the glove!
I went next, first taking the rope on my left side. Swami screamed at me, asking me to hold it on the right. I quickly switched hands and didn’t want to look down to my left. I was pulling myself with the rope. Again I heard Swami screaming from behind, asking me not to pull the rope. “Just climb and use the rope as support, or you’ll drag me down with you” he said! I slipped once, had to use both my hands to stop myself from sliding. I picked myself up and crossed over to the other side. And I was through the lip! What a feeling it was to cross it. But there was no place to stand. One step on either side – left or right – meant falling atleast 100 ft!
We waited for everybody to cross. Bhide slipped once, but managed. Durlov managed without slipping. Swami brought up the rear.
The Pangarchula Summit Conquered
We were now very close to the Pangarchula peak. So close that we couldn’t see it. Another steep stretch followed, and with it the same fears – how do I come down. Now Rawat stopped again, we were very close to the peak. He pulled out the rope and had us all roped up. The last stretch, he thought, we would climb using ropes. Every step taken with all of us roped up was tough. No one could walk faster than the other. A little tug on the rope would have dis-balanced us. We made slow progress.
In a few minutes time, we reached a big rock on the left. Rawat stopped here. I was just behind him. Without much drama, he said, we’re now at the Pangarchula summit. In the Indian Himalayas, most peaks are considered Gods & Goddesses. So, the climbers don’t step on the top. 25 ft from the top is considered summiting. There was a small rock close to where he was. I went onto the rock and helped Nikhil there. Dhoom Singh followed.
A Moment of Weakness
It was then, that Rawat announced that he wanted to go atop the peak. Since Pangarchula is not a god/goddess, it was okay. He had climbed this 8 times, and being so close would not miss recording his 9th. I was tempted, but scared that time. Somebody’s advice to me – don’t try and be heroic and take unnecessary risk – was ringing in my ears! I was anyways a bit scared – the slope on both sides of the ridge was quite steep and there were no rocks on either side to break the fall.
Swami suggested that we should go on the top. Dhoom Singh backed off. Nikhil didn’t even offer an opinion. Durlov suggested that we should go. At this I snapped at Durlov, thinking that he was not considering the risk. But at that moment Swami said he was going on to the top of the Pangarchula peak – another 25 ft of steep climb, but do-able. Durlov said he wanted to come. I felt that I was backing off because I was scared, so in an impulse I stood up and went after Rawat. The decision was made.
A Decision Well Made
A short climb up and I followed Rawat onto the Pangarchula peak. Durlov and Swami followed immediately. The view from the Pangarchula peak was nothing short of brilliant. I had a 360 deg view from the top – a view that stretched miles. Every single peak, not covered by the clouds was visible from here. On both sides of the ridge on the top was a sheer drop. A pile of stones marked the original top.
I, however, was standing at a spot where the snow was higher. So technically, had climbed higher than the peak! On the top, the last climbers had left their flag. Rawat took off his Jersey to make a flag off it – a flag to pose with! I felt happy that I had made it to the top. Happy that I had overcome that moment of weakness and climbed the extra 25 ft. While my earlier treks had been tougher physically, this one stretched my mental abilities.
I had but one thought. I was on top of the world!!
The climb down from Pangarchula peak was not an easy one. But that story is for another day!