At Base Camp (BC) we were just above the tree line and just below the snow line (12,400′). We were surrounded by majestic peaks, but the views were transitory, coming and going in minutes as the weather changed. We kept our eyes trained on the ridge above us, hoping to catch a glimpse of Bandarpunch, as if seeing her would help us gauge our chances of summitting. But she never revealed herself, and the instructors grew tired of our questions about how far, which direction, how high, how steep she was.
Staying at BC for four days served several purposes: it allowed our bodies time to acclimate, gave us time to train with snow gear, and it gave the porters time to stock the next camp. On the whole, it was comfortably spacious and uneventful to the point of boredom. On the second day we trekked a couple thousand feet up the hill toward the snow line, where Advanced Base Camp (ABC) would be. That evening around dinner Kutty spooked us all with a story about a girl on his expedition who suddenly came down with a severe case of HACE at 16,000’, went into a coma and had to be airlifted out. She miraculously survived, but the story gave me a headache.
That wasn’t the only memorable story we heard. The next morning Kutty got on the satellite phone to talk to his wife. She informed him that the local paper had published a story that said Krishnan Kutty was leading an illegal trip up Bandarpunch and law enforcement officials had been dispatched to arrest him. He seemed alarmed but somewhat amused at this development. According to the article, we hadn’t paid the government the required peak fees or filled out “form C”. The irony was that NIM, who led the trip, is a government agency.
On day 2 at BC we donned our harnesses, snow boots and ice axes and practiced walking, self-arresting, and ascending with a jumar on a nearby snowfield. Realizing that there was time-tested systems and gear in place to help us shaky-footed-novices navigate dangerous passes gave us some confidence.
On day 3 we did a load ferry up to ABC to lighten our trekking loads, but also to give us the chance to begin acclimating to 14,600’. The last bit of the climb before ABC was a steep snow patch on which the lead climbers had fixed a rope. We didn’t tie in; we merely held on, and it appeared that if you were to slip and lose your grip that you would slide right over the cliff below and stop 1000’ down the mountain. We all made it safely to the top without incident but as I sat on top looking over the edge, I couldn’t bring myself to watch Bethany’s climb.
At the top of the snow patch was a little plateau with just enough bare ground for our eight tents. There was a clear-running stream and stunning panoramic views of the surrounding peaks. We were resting when the fog lifted and there on the west horizon was what looked like a little snow drift. That was the top of Bandarpunch, they told us. It looked so close, so soft and pillowy, that it was hard to imagine us needing anything other than snowshoes to get to the top. Of course, we couldn’t see the base or the approach (only the peak) and we were useless to judge such distances accurately.
After lunch at ABC, we returned to BC for the night. That night, gathered in the cook tent, Sujay warned us that the difficulty would increase dramatically above BC, as would the logistical complications of quitting higher up on the mountain. We were being given an opportunity to give up, to turn back and go home early. All of us were a bit spooked. Was he implying that some of us weren’t fit enough to make it, so better to get out now? If so, was it me? Only Tamara (and supportive husband Stephen) opted to go back, a decision supported by the instructors due to the physical difficulties she was having. They would leave base camp in two days, and the rest of us would move on to ABC, sobered but determined.
The next morning we packed up the rest of our stuff and moved it back up to ABC. On the way I developed a pretty nasty headache, which was worrisome and incurable until I went to sleep. In the morning we put on our harnesses and crampons and hiked up across a snowy traverse to the glacier at the bottom of Bandarpunch. From here we could see that getting onto her face would not be as simple as it had seemed. The glacier spread out at the bottom of a massive stratified ice fall. Higher up on the ice fall we could make out three tiny insect-like figures: Gyalbo, Sujay and our very own Titu, setting ropes that would enable us to climb through it safely two days later.
We were feeling strong heading back to ABC, elated that summit camp—at the base of Bandarpunch—seemed so attainable. In the evening we celebrated our youngest team member’s (Devan) 25th birthday with a pan cake from the cook tent. Our plan was set: rest tomorrow, move the day after, and then try for the summit that night. We went to bed in good spirits. The goal was in reach!
That night I woke up twice with a burnin’, churnin’ mess in my gut. The menfolk had earlier dug two cliff-hanging commodes at the edge of camp named Risky Business and Loo with a View, and the latter was situated such that losing your balance while pulling up your pants could make this your last poop ever. In my urgency and in the darkness, I opted for the ladies’ toilet, which was closer and at least 6’ from the edge (sorry, ladies). The next day, Sujay gave me his secret digestive cure-all: a whole clove of garlic, which didn’t seem to work, but did make me pine for The Stinking Rose. Oh the days when we ate at restaurants!