After our day of rest we left ABC and made good time getting to place at the bottom of the glacier where we had turned back two days earlier. Then we roped up for the first time to climb the ice fall. It was mostly slow but feasible climbing for us novices. However, the sun and rain had opened up some of the anchors. More worrisome, new crevasses had opened since the route was set two days ago. One of the anchors came out when Robert lost his footing, but fortunately no one was hurt.
By the time I reached the top of the ice fall in a white out, and there was nothing to do but follow the footsteps in front of me. Eventually I could make out the shape of tents floating in the void. When the fog cleared, we saw that these tents were on a frozen plain surrounded by a ridge of rock and ice formations which resembled an alien planet. And then there was “the poonch” as we had begun to affectionately call her, now in full glory. This was summit camp: 17,100’.
The plan was to sleep as early as possible then leave for the summit at 2am. I had a massive headache and sleeping on snow was difficult. But who was I to complain? Apparently the porters miscalculated our numbers and packed the wrong (smaller) tents, so Steve slept in the vestibule with his lower half exposed to the elements all night. He didn’t complain and claimed he didn’t get cold. Crazy Minnesotans.
Summit attempt #1:
At 12:30am, Sujay made the wake-up rounds. We slowly rolled out of our tents and finished packing our bags. Breakfast was nothing more than warm porridge and chai, and we were given nuts and candy for lunch. As we ate, it began to drizzle steadily and by 2:02am we were walking. After about 10 minutes, Robert (who had thrown up earlier that night) decided that he couldn’t go on for 15 more hours and turned back. Minutes later, as the rain grew stronger, Kutty stopped us all saying only, “Gyalbo says it’s not good to go in the rain.”
10 minutes later we were back in our tents to wait it out. Some of us (Steve) left on boots, harnesses and snow clothes, ready to move when (if) the rain abated. Others, like myself, took a more pessimistic approach and got fully undressed and fell fast asleep. Around 7am I awoke to hear Kutty outside the tent explaining to someone that if we left now we wouldn’t reach the summit until 3 or 4pm in the afternoon, way too late to make it back down safely. The attempt had failed after only 10 minutes. We would only have one more attempt before heading back down, and the weather gave no indication of clearing.
The rest of the day was a monumental exercise in boredom. We couldn’t leave the safety of the immediate camp area for fear of falling into a crevasse. We didn’t bring the extra weight of books, iPods, etc…to this camp and the weather was alternately too hot/cold/bright/rainy. So to pass the time we made an elaborate snowman (45 minutes), checked the time (20 seconds), ate Maggi (20 minutes), and sat in tents quoting movies (3 hours). I wanted to nap, but it was not recommended since we needed to be asleep by 7pm.
That evening, Priya’s lips were unnaturally purple. She had struggled with acclimatization for days now so the medical assistant checked her resting pulse and blood oxygen level. We were alarmed to find that they were 120bpm and 30%, respectively. To put that in perspective, we later learned that anything below 80% is considered life threatening. Bethany and I tested in the 70s and 80s for both, which were among the stronger readings in the group. Why all the readings were so low, and yet were of no concern to the medic remains a mystery, but suffice to say, Priya was far worse off than the rest of us. Nevertheless, she went to bed planning to move with us in the morning.
Summit Attempt #2:
It became a cold night, which was a good sign, meaning clear weather was more likely. At 12:30am we were again roused, and I heard Steve tromping around complaining about a thunderstorm he had watched for the last 45 minutes, and how it would be raining on us within half an hour and we’d be in our tents again. Jugmohan was unfazed and predicted it would blow over. By 2am, it was a crystalline sky full of stars, so we set off hopeful in spite of intermittent flurries. Five minutes in, Priya’s heart rate was above 130, and she turned back. By 5am dawn was breaking in a clear sky as we left the ice fall and reached the ropes at the bottom of the cone.
Gyalbo and Titu were up ahead of us setting the ropes, which we made our way up, one at a time, at a glacial pace (pun intended). The first stretch was fairly mild, but after rounding the top of a shoulder, the route steepened to about 60 degrees on ice for about 1800 vertical feet. Crampons are amazing instruments and make an impossible climb relatively accessible, but to keep footing on a slope this steep required bending our legs in awkward directions. By the time the slope softened near the summit, we had been on the ropes for nearly six hours, and my ankles were ruined.
I don’t remember much about the summit except that the first thing we did was relieve ourselves. (We later learned that this was sacrilegious and our Hindu guides, who consider the mountain to be holy, would attribute the coming rain as judgement for our disrespect. But we didn’t know better at the time and besides, we had been harnessed and clinging to a rope on a dangerous slope for the last six hours. When exactly were we supposed to go?) I just remember sitting and watching the others come over the ridge in slow motion. At some point I became very emotional about nothing in particular. Perhaps it was the joy of seeing others finish, or perhaps it was sheer relief.
After resting for 45 minutes, we began to prepare our descent. Going down a mountain is always significantly more dangerous than coming up and as we roped back up I noticed some team members shedding tears at the prospect. Bethany and I went down first, and our descent style was more of a controlled fall. We reached the bottom of the col where the ropes ended in about 40 minutes, when it had taken us nearly 6 hours to ascend the same section. Then we waited in the cold for 3 hours while the others inched their way down the ropes. It is difficult to express how hard it was to wait for them to come down. All I could think about was getting back to camp and going to bed, but we had decided in advance to gather at the bottom of the ropes and walk back as a group.
When we rolled into camp, it was 6pm. We had climbed 3600’ and come back in 16 hours. These are our tired but satisfied faces: