On June 15, I sat in our final staff meetings of the year, trying to pay attention through waves of intense nausea. Nothing materialized during repeated trips to the toilet, and 30 minutes after our last meeting ended, I gathered with the others at the main gate to depart for Uttarkashi. Piling into a bus, two cars and two motorcycles, we reached NIM after about 6 hours of driving. Along the way, I threw up twice, each episode providing only temporary relief. By evening I was still too sick to eat dinner. For someone who had spent the previous six months wondering aloud and to myself what the odds were of summitting (I need statistics, people!), this was not a promising start.
The next morning I was relieved to be feeling much better. Over the next two days, we picked out ill-fitting mountaineering gear and practiced tying knots. On the third day, we loaded up an incredibly uncomfortable NIM bus and drove up the Bhagirathi valley toward the trailhead. The road was cut out of impossibly steep canyon walls high above a raging river and was in terrible shape, eroded by the monsoon. Sitting by the window on the river side, I held my breath every time the edge of the road disappeared from view below me.
By afternoon we arrived at Sukhi (8,629’), a minimalist army outpost further up the Bhagirathi valley. Inside the main building were two large desks where low-ranking soldiers did paperwork. We explored the hillside a bit (which was covered with wild cannabis) and when we returned some of the soldiers were playing volleyball on a makeshift court. As uber-competitive Americans, we had no choice but challenge them to a match. After three spirited matches, the Indian team emerged victorious while the height-advantaged Americans settled for silver medals (though it should be noted that it took us a while to get the ever-evolving “Indian rules”). After dinner we settled in to bed early, eager to get an early start the next morning.
Our trek began in earnest the next morning with a 3000’ climb up the hill behind the base. At the top, a very narrow ridge and rewarded us with vertigo-inducing 360-degree views of the surrounding ranges. Three hours in and Bethany and I were already higher than we had ever been: 11,121’
After short but scenic break we began our descent down the other side, down “butt-slide hill” to forest camp (9683’) on the banks of the river. This was a bad camp. There was apparently a nicer spot just a bit further upriver, but the porters, unhappy about the conditions and the lack of hands to carry the load, simply dropped the supplies and disappeared (which turned out to be the first of many porter problems that would plague our expedition), so we spent an uncomfortable night sleeping on the rocky, uneven riverbed.
In the morning as we were packing, I saw Stephen Alter’s head bowed while others laid hands on and prayed for him. When he looked up, he had tears in his eyes. Word had come that morning from NIM that his father’s health was declining rapidly, so a porter escorted him back up over the ridge to get a cell phone signal. Just like that, his trek was over, and it’s a shame. In his memoir All the Way to Heaven he writes about growing up with Bandarpunch on the horizon and how he dreamt from childhood about climbing it one day.
There are times I still dream of…climbing, the leather straps digging into my shoulders…As I reach crest of the ridge, Bandarpunch is there above me, larger than I have ever seen it before, like a giant iceberg, sloping down from the sky, and suddenly I realize that I have already crossed that line, and there is no one here to stop me as I continue upward, above the tree line now, the last of the silver birches behind me…a glacial scree of rocks over which I scramble, leaving the path completely, climbing now without restrictions, free of borders, free of maps and diagrams, free of ghosts and gods, throwing off my rucksack so that I can leap from one boulder to the next until I finally reach the snow line and plunge my face and hands into the cold, moist whiteness that melts against my skin.
The leg from Forest Camp to Base Camp turned into a lot of uphill scrambling and bushwhacking. We followed the river toward its source, and about seven hours further on the valley terminated in a massive rock face crisscrossed with waterfalls. We crossed a snow bridge at the foot of the cliff and scrambled up an adjacent wall to reach a grassy clearing, just above the tree line: Base Camp (12,400), where we’d stay for the next four days.