The next morning we awoke with a new spring in our step, skipped breakfast and headed back down the glacier. After lunch at ABC we moved on to BC for the night, excited about the prospect of being out of the woods in two days. But that evening after dinner, Kutty dropped a bombshell by informing us that we would have a forced rest day at BC so that the porters could catch up. I saw jaws drop around the tent. Bethany looked as if she might cry. Appeals were made, alternative plans were suggested but in the end there was nothing to do but swallow our disappointment and wait it out. So we spent the next day taking shelter from the rain, playing games and eating the rest of our snack reserves. Despite the delay, the team was mostly in good spirits. The plan was to combine the last two legs into one, even if it amounted to a 15-hour day so we could get home on schedule. In the meantime reports had come in from NIM that several of the mountain roads had washed out in the monsoon rains and we weren’t even sure if our return bus would be able to reach us.
We left at 6am the next morning to get an early start on our long day. We had good weather for most of the day and reached the ridge above Sukhi at approximately 3pm. From there it was then another three hours down the hill, and by this time, our knees were in shambles after 3 days of intense descent with a heavy load. Just before reaching the road, a quartet of men in official uniforms stood by the trail and took our photos as we passed. It’s not uncommon for locals to photograph foreigners without asking permission so I didn’t think much of it, but as it turns out, these men were sent from the forestry department to investigate our ‘illegal’ ascent of Bandarpunch. They spoke with the leaders for a bit and then let them go.
We hoped a bus would be waiting at the road to take us out of the valley back to Uttarkashi where clean clothes and toilets awaited. Indeed a bus was waiting, but it only took us about 1km to the army base for the night, where we ate and slept soundly. The next morning we loaded the bus and returned to Uttarkashi without incident and enjoyed the greatest drink in the world at the NIM café.
In the weeks since returning, I’ve struggled to process what we did and what it all means. The team has been treated a bit like heroes back at Woodstock. A wealthy benefactor hosted a luxurious party in our honor. People tell us that nothing like this has been accomplished in the school’s recent history, and our trip is frequently cited as an example of what you can accomplish if you have courage/work hard/trust your teammates/use teamwork, etc… But in so many ways, our lives are no different than before (though walking up the hillside somehow seems easier now) and it seems to have taken place in an alternate universe. The trip was a mostly unpleasant experience for me due to fatigue, fear, pain, and uncertainty, and I joked when it was over that I was retiring from mountaineering. But I do feel a deep sense of accomplishment to have conquered something so far-fetched and difficult, and I’m thankful to have been able to do it. And this week, when I started reading Eiger Dreams, I could have sworn I felt a little itch to climb again.