When you are out climbing and have this massive prominence of a wall, really steep and high staring down at you, your body sends signs.If you’re like me the you-are-an-idiot-don’t-even-think-about-it sensors would go off. You’d look to the top end of what lies in front of you — your jaws naturally drop, your shoulders droop and you feel like you haven’t taken a dump since the beginning of time.
Had this been 9 degrees steeper and you might as well have placed a call to your mother asking her to take you home — and she would come, had you not been a top draw dreamer, landed yourself here a week from civilization and a year since you started thinking about how this day would look like and spending hours in the gym, on the roads and in your mind’s void bracing for a day like this.
The Flight to Leh
Getting used to these 4 AM airport coffees takes some beating out of you. Your body is aching for some sleep, boarding opens at 5:20 AM, nerves are jittery — not sure if it’s the coffee, the days that lie ahead or maybe I just need to take a dump. Either way — I pump in enough coffee in my system to make me feel it’s either of the three just so I don’t miss the morning sunrise peeping into the valleys of Ladakh and Kashmir.
The last time I was here, I stayed awake till we took off and I woke up just when the flight was about to land and while everyone around went “Whoa! That was such a view!” — I simply nodded my way past that wondering why I was dreaming of my mothers pancakes and french toast. So this time I dozed off before take-off … then I woke up to this very familiar massif on my left. I planted my face to window panes — I know this fucking mountain! It cannot be!
My self projection stepped out on the fuselage, megaphone in hand — “Ladies and Gentlemen, thank you for choosing Indigo Airlines, this is your bad-ass co-passenger speaking. To your left you will see the gorgeous pyramid of the Kang Yatse massif — and I, amigos, have climbed that shit.”
We made one loop around Leh, the wings tilted in and for about a minute I had the whole of Leh, Indus, Stok Village, Stok Kangri and the blue skies all in one frame. Its had to believe some of these places exist in the first place.
Touchdown at 7 AM. 10C outside with a truckload of windchill and I am in my shorts, a tee and my beautiful new Salomon hiking boots. Ever seen that video of the fish that sprung out of the arctic lake and froze instantly in mid air? Yeah, my extremities froze just like that giving me just enough time to place to call to the man you want by your side in the mountains — Boro.
Me: “Borooo! Where’s my red carpet welcome?”
Boro: “Put on a fucking jacket before you fall sick will you ?”
I’m not sure why that thought didn’t come to me, maybe because my down jacket was right at the bottom of my 70L backpack.
It is always such great joy meeting Boro and ET — They’ve made Ladakh their second home and my crash pad by virtue and boy is it a wondrous place. I was putting up with Ramzaan and his family at their home. A little garden on the outside, Ramzaan’s handcrafted furniture and his family’s warmth is something I still feel around me. The room I was shacked up in looked right to Stok Kangri the glam queen of Ladakh — we exchanged some smiles Stok and I.
Sid was napping away in his room having arrived a day earlier gearing up for his first expedition in almost 5 years the right way. Resting yourself is underrated — Sid knows. We’d spoken a lot about his return to the mountains and while he needed no convincing, he had his own demons to fight and battles to win. A little after some chai and biscuits, I met two of the most understated lads — Vasan and TR — fresh from a Kilimanjaro expedition and zero fucks to give in any life scenario also twinning with their gear all through!
I drank some ladakhi chai — which is a curious blend of butter, salt, milk and tea — to acclimatize since I was too lazy to go to the Palace and the Monastery or the Shanti Stupa which is the usual drill for most people and rightly so. But for the cocky lazy ones — the chai helps too.
Mentok Kangri had a bit of technicality to it and while we weren’t very sure what that was — it was best to prepare yourself so we spent the second day getting acquainted with the equipment :
1. Good ol’ jumar/ascender
and the favorite
5. The figure 8 descender.
At a certain point I nearly soiled my pants trying to trust the descender to do the job while “standing” on a 45 degree wall.
ET Screamed — “ Push your butt inside! You wont fall!!!” . “Can you give it to me on a legal document that I wont fucking die?”, I said.
My watch recorded 2 hours of deep sleep that night, next day we set out for a 4 hour ride through Tanglang La to Tso Kar via NH1.
“In the early 19th century a monk had a prophesy that a legend would be born in 1988 and set foot upon this lake in the spring of 2018 — touché. They named this lake after my family name apparently.”
NH1 is swarmed by bikers from Manali — This would be their last pit stop before they head to Leh — all downhill and you could smell the beer from The Biker Café in the city from up here. Something to do with the wind direction and the pressure drop I think. It is worth mentioning that I passed out somewhere in between “Whoa look at that!” and “Dude we are here already!” on our way to Tanglang La as the altitude put me nicely to bed on the way to the top.
We stopped for lunch in the gypsy huts on the highway before turning left off the smooth asphalt of NH1 towards Tso Kar over the dry basin of the yesteryear’s Tso Kar, marking the start of adventure.
Once we set up camp we head out for a stroll, all four in our own directions, to let the acclimatization process kick in for the days that would follow — the 5 hours in the jeep didn’t help our legs much anyway and my back and legs were screaming for some movement.
I found a little hillock to myself — probably about 50m higher where we were camped — I decided to make a go for it, figured the view from the top would be worth it — which it was but I had to pay the cost of it with a splitting headache essentially for doing nothing more than walking 5km. At 4700m it doesn’t matter if you are a marathoner, brevet rider, Triathlete or an all round badass — I have news for you — mountains give two shits about you. You’re just a speck here — “Just another spot, like little polka dot” like good friend Anindya “Void” Roy puts it.
The headache was gone by 2 AM with a dose of paracetamol and I could get some sleep after — for those who are reading this for some serious information(and let me warn you, that might be a bit of struggle) — my oxygen saturation and my HR was pretty good which is why there was no need to do anything more about it.
The one thing that I did not anticipate was the length of each days hike. On our way to Nuruchan, the scenery barely changed. The contrast of light golden haze that Ladakh is with the clean blue skies peppered with blinding white snow peaks might seem dramatic and oh-so-beautiful the first few hours but it will haunt you when the spirits are down. Luckily, we were chaperoned by wild asses as we made our way over one high pass at 4900m and then down, roughly to the same altitude that we started the day at. Work done in the mountains is often counted by the meters climbed. In this case — zilch. The mules/horses that carried our ration had a ball though, they rolled over the grassy patches, shook the day off as they easily finished loading themselves with 20 ton of pasture in the belly and a gallon of glacial water while I was still untying my shoelace.
I fucked off to the kitchen tent for some warmth, chai and the happy faces while I tried to tell myself that this is okay even if its not — What choice do I have after all? I am far far away from home.
“Aaj do chota chota pass chadna hai” — which emotively translates to “ we’re gonna go over a couple of tiny passes”
Tiny in my mind is climbing 3 floors at sea level.
Tiny for our sherpas apparently is climbing two 500m passes at 4900m.
Here’s how it went:
Step 1: Walk four kilometers with a fifteen kilo backpack to reach the base of the climb at 4800m
Step 2: Climb 400m through winding trails to 5200m.
Step 2a: Fuck yeah because you were fast.
Step 2b: Stop rejoicing. Our delightful cook is lying belly up on the top already — catching a nap.
Step 3: Climbing down to 4800m like you’re a panda on a snowy slope.
Step 4: Climbing another 300m to 5100m and then climb down to 4800m because fuck you that’s why.
I did grab a grand alfresco lunch at the base of the second climb with the crew while fending my boiled potatoes from some very nosy mules as I waited for the 3 musketeers — Sid, TR and Harsha to march in. I could hear some rants and temper tantrums in the distance.
“Fuck this shit. What the fuck” dropping f-bombs like a goat drops poop pellets. Sid was the last one to walk in, I think he had a fall on the way here and was hilariously frustrated at that point. The cowboy that he is, he would have definitely half-assed a rebellion and tried to run off with the horses and mules in his pair of jocks — a lasso whipping in the air above his head. He is also a man of arrogant passion, so he went through with the climb huffing and puffing along the way while continuing the rant.
We pitched next to the stream, the sunlight cut through the ridge to the west and shone right through to the glacial stream. This was also a little after Ramadan, so the moon painted the valley dreamy white. When we hit the sack that night, there was nothing that broke the sound of water rolling over rocks and the distant cowbells but the mellow valley winds.
I don’t remember when I slipped away into REM but when my senses somewhat started getting to work, the stream no longer sounded like it was rolling over the stones, it was a lot louder and closer. I didn’t pay much heed at that point and caught an additional 27 minutes after which I unzipped the tent — it was all blinding white. I couldn’t even tell which way the sun was, a thick cloud had moved in and spilled over all the way to the horizon cut by the mule’s lonesome silhouette. It was incredible in retrospect, but at that time we were just hoping for it to stop. Bad weather can cause a ruthless riot, one that you don’t want to be in the middle of and one that you’ll always be on the losing side of.
We left at about 0900 Hrs towards the 5400m pass we had been told about as the snowing stopped. The pass would be our first look at Tso Moriri and the first view of the Mentok Range.
This was just a hard day and I was beat mentally for the most part. The approach to the pass was through inhospitable glacial beds of loose unstable flat rocks of varying sizes and also endless through a winding gorge so you could never really see the end of the proverbial tunnel. The climb to the pass was long and steep. The sub zero windchill made my fingers scream. A carcass of a mountain goat greeted us at the top along with a big cat footprint. Our climbing guide Lepu who had been fairly quiet till today was in his zone at 5400m and loving it while we were far far away from it. Truth be told, I wanted to get to the other side of the pass as soon as possible.
From the top, more than Tso Moriri, I was glad to see a green patch of land that would be our campsite at Korzok Phu barely 30 minutes from Korzok which was accessible through road and 7 hours from Leh. There’s comfort in being far from civilization and yet distant enough. Between the bars, almost there, but nowhere close.
The inner consultant in me ball parked the climb down to 45 minutes from the top to the camp site severely and underestimated the flattish walk from the base of the pass. It took me an hour and a half of walking steady, head tucked in, sun burning through to get there. The view around never changed throughout those 90 minutes that easily felt like twice of that. The grass patch looked far away every minute, the pass that I had climbed far away too. It just seemed that I was barely moving. I would be lying if I told you that I did not scream once or twice at that point — not a soul around, not a thing that moved with the wind. Just my boots treading through loose rocks.
Left Right Left.
And so it goes.
It was only after I saw a cribbing Sid again that I felt better frankly — atleast someone hates it more that I do because the Bangalore boys were vibing like it was a walk in the park for them. Their climb to Kilimanjiro had them well acclimatized. Sid was in the mountains after gap of 5 years and a hatred for mountains in general from the last time he was here. While I was here 2 years since Kang Yatse and Stok Kangri — we were feeling it.
We were a bit early in the season to climb Mentok Kangri. The fixed ropes to the top from the glacier had not been set up yet and we had over 1400m to climb in two days now — there was only one way forward. Up.
So we did our morning drills and started climbing one of the ridges that led towards the Base Camp. This would be at 5200m about 1 hour from the nearest approach point for the glacier. My body was responding very well at this point and I could push through the top of the climb at a steady effort. But once we got to the top, we realized we were on the wrong ridge altogether.
To get to the base camp we needed to laterally traverse a steep slope built up of large loose rocks the size of giant melons. The slope in itself was at about 40 degrees, maybe steeper. Ever piece of earth moved and everything looked like it was all a pack of cards that could give way into a rockfall any moment.
Arms are heavy,
There’s vomit on his sweater already.”
Adrenaline rushing through your veins is mostly a sign that you are not doing it right and you aren’t really up for it. Things can swing any way with adrenaline in your blood when oxygen is low. You’re essentially climbing high while you’re high. We knew we were in a bad spot with the lateral traverse. Every sideway step could go wrong and every minute tired your legs out. The balance was so tricky that looking up or down could throw you off.
You trust in the process in these moments. Accept fate as it comes — you try to keep your mind clear, do things technically right and are hyper aware. You try to eliminate the unknowns and reduce the variables. Your heart’s pumping it through, your legs shake every time it balances your entire weight on the ball of your foot, then transfer it to the toes. Every step is a measured gamble, every breath is drama unfolding in the cold crisp windy plateau of Tibet — Changthang. Took us over an hour of that to get to the other side, as we lined up one after the other and did it together — we had our moments of weakness and while I would have loved to tell myself that the worst is behind us but It lay ahead — in the form of a 600m vertical ice wall. MK looks deceivingly tame in the pictures — at this point I’m just wondering if I bit off more than I could chew?
The hours before the wake
“Hasn’t become shorter? Moved closer? Vanished?”
We’d run through variations of this conversation every 30 minutes. When Gyaltsen Ji pointed the peak out to us, We did not really understand if at all this could be done because the prominence was of over a kilometer in front of us and it was staring right at us, blunt unperturbed, and oblivious to our presence like it aptly should be. There was nothing inviting about the peak once you saw it up close from the base camp.
Wind speed at the base camp easily hit 70kmph, anything left on the ground including lightweight people like me and Sid could be swept by the wind unless tethered to the ground.
The dinner was served at 7 PM and we hit the sack soon after, except we couldn’t get any sleep. The wind battered our tent down to a sandwich and still for some odd reason — the Bangalore boys were watching a Charlie Sheen sitcom on Netflix. Sid and I wished we were that chill. We talked about life and its nuances and tried to get some shut eye.
My watch beeped at 2:30 AM. The wind had stopped and it was eerily quiet. That was our cue — the gates had been opened for the day, the drums were beating, the chest was thumping. It was show time and frankly — just like that my mind had moved into the gears. I live for days like these.
You take whatever you get from this day.
I was packing a bunch of energy gels. The plan was for a 9 hour summit climb — we were planning to go slow and easy and get it done with the entire team and not having to drop people because someone was too fast or too slow. Took us a couple of hours to get to the glacier after meandering through the run offs and the omnipresent loose flat rocks. We had all kinds of problems getting the equipment right — mostly down to inexperience with the tools. I had a bit of an easier time because my fancy new Salomons fit very well on top of the Austrian crampons; that and I had suffered enough with tools the last time I was this high in the mountains.
Once we roped and started treading forward on the glacier the wind hit me. This is wind off the glacier and is extremely cold — so much so it froze the snot, my pansy sinuses inflated and blocked my nose almost instantly. I was breathing with half a nostril and some with my mouth. The throat got scratchy soon after and I was just hanging in there, right at the back hoping for things to get better. Had we been at a faster pace, I wouldn’t have been able to make to the beginning of the wall — summit day would have been over in 4 hours.
You try not to think of turning around. Adrenaline rushes don’t help tide you over here either and you’d ask why? It’s simple — adrenaline doesn’t rush for 9 hours. It is your last resort — the last push and I was just beginning here and had barely lay my first few steps.
The sun was coming up by now, we’d made it to the base of the ice wall and I’ve never seen anything like this up close. The sun shone through the blue ice at the top of the climb, the snow on the wall was mostly fresh to about 10 inches. Lepu had fixed the ropes through the 400 meters. Sid was the first to clip on his jumar to the rope, Vasan was feeling the altitude at this point and had fallen back by a little but he was still moving.
I was waiting on the rope to be freed which would happen midway through the climb, after Sid goes 200m, he would switch ropes and free up a line for the next guy to climb — moi. The wait was on the lower half of the wall — it was no wall but we were just anchored to the steep slope on a three point contact. I’m not sure what got to me but I saw Lepu climb the wall without the rope and it seemed to me like something I could do, if I get the technique right. So I asked him if I should solo it? The crazy genius he is — he said yes as long as my quickdraw is attached to the draw — this would catch my fall if I lost grip.
The next 10 minutes were the greatest in my climbing journey.
My inner Kilian Jornet woke up and next thing I knew — I was smashing the crampon through the ice, swinging the ice axes in the snow. I could feel the slightest change in gradient as I hit the actual vertical limit. With every swing of the axe, every punch into the wall, it got steeper and then before I knew it I actually made it to the top of the wall. I couldn’t help but get absolutely overwhelmed by the climb. I never looked back down from the minute I started. With no one around at the top — cried like a baby thinking this is it. Little did I know we were far- far away from the summit. Another near vertical 200 meters up.
We didn’t know much about what lay next, Gyaltsen Ji with his monk-like calm had told us that once we climb the wall, it’s all over and that it’s a walk from there. With that idea in mine we had sort of slowed down a little taken our own time to get up to the roof of the ice wall. If only we had known about what lay ahead of us. We were nowhere close to a ridge and we were 8 hours into our day already. While this was no wall of any kind it was still 60 degrees at the least. Vasan’s pace was down to a drag but surprisingly he was still moving, short roped to Gyaltsen Ji at this point. Lepu was leading the way up to the summit, we could see the flags flutter right above us, but the way there was over combination of climbing over rocks and ice — always a tricky affair for inexperienced climbers with crampons on.
The wind picked up, the sun was under the clouds and the mountains were moody. It seemed like I was meandering endlessly through and over massive boulders when all of a sudden, we were there. The summit of Mentok III is almost a flat plateau — you can say that it is unceremonious compared to Kang Yatse and Stok Kangri. Mentok II is in about an hour away walk of a flat walk, to the right, while the seldom attempted Mentok I was a nasty sharp ridge walk on the left. My idea was to do either of them but going solo would’ve been too much of a risk. So I waited for the rest of the crew to join us at the summit of MK- III. By the time we were all there we made a call — I put my foot down to climb MK I or MK II. We were 10 hours into the day and fatigue had kicked in every where with everyone — add to that the gloomy clouds and the approaching storm. It was just me and the ever enthusiastic Sid at the end — we marched on towards MKII but the walk was taking more out of us than anticipated, and the clouds were getting close — dangerously close. About 30 minutes in — Lepu called it. When your mountain guide says risky, it usually means dangerous. It was time to bite the ego and turn around mid way. It was a hard pill to swallow. There was nothing to gain out of MK II, having already climbed the wall and made it to MK III. It was merely ceremonial for me but then again you don’t fight the weather in the mountain and you don’t want to get stranded in a snow storm at over 6000m.
On the way back — I remember getting dizzy and a bit disoriented and tried to get down as fast as I could. Things got easy just few meters down from the summit as I tried hard to not let the emotional and mental fatigue break me down physically.
Back at the wall that gave me such joy, it was now time to go down and there was nothing I loved more than using the descender down the dreaded ice wall. Push off the wall, do a vertical jump down along the rope 20 meters at a time. I bet it looked cool, but frankly, we were all flustered with the 14 hours, our fingers were frozen as we were blasted by the snow winds on the way down. I just wanted it to be over. In the last stretch of our summit day, our darling cook climbed up a little up from base camp to meet us, hot tea and biscuits in tow. It was the most relieved I had been in the last 15 hours.
The Next Day
I was aching to go back to Leh, to a comfortable bed and to a cold pint of beer and back to Varsha who’d made her first trip to Ladakh a couple of days back. Every summit expedition has it’s delirious effect on me that hits real hard — and it was getting to me like water in a submerged cabin with a sailor in it. It’s a familiar one but also something I still struggle with. People help at this point and the people I had around were the best I could ask for. After our delicious spread next morning, we set up the rock stupa — flat rocks stacked on top of each other. I parted with the rusty horse shoe that I found a couple of years on my way back from Stok Kangri, hoping that it would carry on the luck and all the good vibes with the icy winds.
The way down seemed never ending as is the case in these parts of the world, no matter when I looked at it — the turquoise lake would seem although impressive yet very fucking far. Earphones blasting upbeat music and musing over how much longer I had to go — I heard a faint bark and scramble . The next thing I know — the beastliest dog I’ve known was charging at me with its teeth ready to bite into my skinny ass. And this was happening all in slow motion of course — just like the movies. My instinct kicked in as I jumped what I thought was 6 ft. into the sky and dog missed the bite. In truth, I had wandered too close to a gypsy shepherd’s hut and the doggo was the shepherd dog. I was just an odd dude with a backpack larger than most people in the dog’s territory.
I came to my senses and walked through right towards the lake — didn’t bother having much of a moment there. I was done with that shit. I wanted to see people, places and faces, drink some cola and munch on some junk food. That’s exactly what I did — walked on till I found the first shop at the periphery of Korzok.
This quaint little village at the foothills of the mountains. Home to shepherds, farmers, carpet weavers and a lot of sheep. We found a little place to stay with walls white as day made of hay shoots and bamboos — a room with the view of the lake and some beds and a little punk who promised us warm water — Goose Homestay 🙂
A half broken ladder led you through to the roof of this place through a square shaped hole in the ceiling and the roof was where the magic was. You could see the whole village from here, the narrow alleys that crisscrossed through, the old man — smash drunk — taking a nap under the scorching sun through the thin air, the old ladies weaving carpet out of sheep wool and that usual one odd group of hooligans that these places somehow attract at the back of snow capped mountains and deep blue lakes.
I had everything I wished for at that moment except the company of Boro, Et and Varsha. Yet I was hurting. Hurting for the void that this creates every time. Hurting for I didn’t think of what I would do next. Hurting because all that had happened in the last few days is nothing but a memory now, a story to tell, a story that will always be as good as I remember it when I do.
“There may be questions in your head,
as a new day is dawning.
Like what things for us lie ahead
but woman I will see you in the morning”
I don’t know when I would meet all these people again, the bonds that were created strong but they will gather dust like teak in the attic. The faces that you’ve seen would perpetuate but be a blur in the mirror. When do we wipe the blur, when do we dust off the teak? A year from now? Five years from now? You don’t know and you never will. You just keep walking the walk, hoping that this puzzle would fit in someday, the picture would be painted right and then you’d realize, this was never about climbing mountains in the first place.
To Varsha for always being the one to go back to, believing and sticking through the hours of training.
To main man Sid — I would do this with you all over again.
To TR and Vasan for showing me how to take it easy and still ace things. You guys are champions.
To Boro and ET — You are home to me in mountains and in cities, as individuals and as RockyFeet!
To the best crew with Gyaltsen Ji and Lepu — we’re just city boys with mountain dreams after all.
To Ramzaan and his family.