We started crossing the glacier in a single file, maintaining steady progress. I knew there would be two crevasses we had to navigate. Small ones both were, so they really weren’t a concern. The mountain looked gigantic now and yet seemed halved. We had pretty soon reached the base of the south face we were to ascend. Up and up the trail went and we just kept following it, taking breaks in between whenever we had to. On most of the ascent, the inclines ranged between 40 to 50 degrees. It would have been around 2.15 or 2.30am when Ketan started feeling drowsy and couldn’t keep up with the pace set. He wanted to sit back and sleep, a most dangerous thing to do on a steep face. The immediate risks would be the body cooling down and the cold settling in besides the dangers of loose rocks which could roll off the face. It was dark and if this were to happen, we would have no prior warning. Rocks tumbling down can be a nightmare during an ascent and can knock climbers down a face. Eventually we did halt and Ketan did exactly what we had feared he would. For a handful of seconds which seemed rather long to the rest of us, he sat down, closed his eyes and rocked his head back. He hadn’t slept well for two nights and the exhaustion had finally overtaken him. Kalpak and I kept urging and encouraging him to wake up. The continuous chatter was important to keep the morale high and not let sagging spirits overcome the mind. Chain Singh, meantime offered him tea which he had carried. It made a difference and Ketan soon regained his composure. We were ready to climb again.
For the next 3 hours we ascended the south face. From a trail full of rocks, loose gravel and soft snow, we banked to our left to approach a hard rock patch. This continued almost all the way to the ridge. Most of the rock patch was covered with thin ice which we had to be very careful about. It was slippery and the trek boots kept loosing traction. It also meant our pace had significantly dropped. But nonetheless, another 30 minutes and we would top out on the jagged ridge. I wondered how broad or narrow it would be. From the point where we would eventually reach and rest, I could see the ridge rise handsomely towards the summit. I remembered Chain Singh’s briefing, that the last part of the ridge was exposed. When I had heard that, I was excited. But now, there were apprehensions too.
Behind us the sky had brightened up significantly and this had a magical effect, lifting our spirits and energy. It sure was a beautiful sight to see the morning sun trying to break free from behind layers of cloud; its rays splintered like an arc in multiple directions. I hadn’t seen such a formation before. We were now on the ridge at 5854 mtrs/ 19200 ft. This was the highest I had ever been. It seemed incredulous, for a passing moment. I sat down, exhausted after the lengthy ascent. Far below I saw Milind ascending, taking his time. What was his story? How was he feeling? Would he summit too? There were so many questions. There were other teams behind him as well. The relaxed moments spent on the ridge would soon get over before I knew it.
Sitting there, I casually glanced to the left and I could see what was possibly the summit. It was the highest point, beyond which there was nothing. The ridge we would soon start walking on, was narrow, full of snow with a clearly defined path running through it. It seemed quite straightforward and not particularly steep in any section. But, wait a minute! What were those jagged rock outcrops? Crikey! I exclaimed. It’s definitely not over. Not over by a long shot. We would have to hold the rock faces to climb. “Chain Singh, how much time before we summit?” Very nonchalantly he replied, another 2.5 hours at our pace. Damn. 2.5 hours?! But the summit seems close. It can’t take us so much of time. How will Ketan hold up? And Kalpak? He had started tiring too. Questions kept creeping in furiously in my mind on our physical state and our summit prospects.
If Ketan and Kalpak were tired, I was also going through my own problems. I had been coughing ever since we had left base camp and it had gotten more frequent now. This meant expending more energy. Further I had not managed to build a decent walking and breathing rhythm through the night. A partly blocked nose, courtesy a bug I had caught in Delhi, meant breathing cold air through the mouth resulting in rapid loss of stamina. For the first time, I hoped I could last the journey to the summit and then the descent down the ridge and the steep face. The coughing had cramped my style. And I was seething within, furious with my situation.
But what had started the night before had to have a conclusion. An end. We wanted it. Except, none of us knew what this would be. We stood up and looked at the task ahead. I closed my eyes that split second, took a deep breath, exhaled and gave Chain Singh the signal to resume our surge. We had to do it. We went past the first rock outcrop. Fingers grabbed the sharp rock edges to hoist the body up and forward, the walking sticks clanging clumsily against the rock faces. The short snowed path between outcrop 1 and 2 was navigated carefully. It made no sense to look down to the left or the right. The vertical empty space in the distance below was frighteningly stunning. The only thing that mattered was to keep going forward, relentlessly. Outcrop 2 wasn’t a problem either. I followed the same routine. Grab the rock edges with the left hand, get a grip and hoist. Grab, Grip. Hoist. And finally there was outcrop 3 which seemed even bigger than the other two. It was massively exposed as well, as I got nearer to it. It hadn’t seemed this big from the ridge below. The exposure was another element in the mix, which we had to tackle.
As I neared it, I suddenly felt I was running out of steps. What was happening to me?! I halted and that was a very long halt. I had started feeling empty inside and this was clearly something new. I had never experienced it before. The last ounce of energy had probably exited my body for I couldn’t move. Was it over? What was it that I was feeling? It was confusing. Perhaps it was over. I had hit a massive wall. Questions and more questions kept the mind in a tizzy. But hadn’t I dreamt my summit and that had felt so real. I looked up. The summit was close and yet far away. What a pity! Meantime, through my tired state, I could see further confusion stamped all over Chain Singh’s face, who by now was on top of outcrop 3 and looking down at me. The boys behind had also stopped and were wondering what the matter was. I instructed Ketan and Kalpak to proceed to the summit with Chain Singh. I would wait here till they returned. The descent had now also started clouding my mind. I needed even more stamina for that. What I was doing was right and I was willing to give up the summit. I was just 250 feet away.
When Ketan heard me, he simply couldn’t believe what I had just said. For him I was the last person in the team to quit. “What will you tell the world, Deb? That you summited or you didn’t?’’ yelled out Ketan, hoping to catch me off-guard with this question. It was a trick question all right. One that would create further confusion in my mind and perhaps propel me further. It was his way to motivate me and urge me not to give up and push through the wall. I could hear him cursing and muttering under his breath. “I’ll tell the world, I didn’t; I couldn’t”, I replied, without looking back and without even understanding the context of the question. Physically I felt depleted. The cold and the continuous coughing had played its part. Mentally I was holding on and saving the strength for the descent. Having said this, I continued standing there. I was mindful of the fact that we were on a narrow ridge and thankfully we weren’t creating a traffic jam at just under 20000 feet. There was no one above us and the next team below, was at a considerable distance away. Kalpak meantime wanted a decision and fast. He was ok either way, it seemed. Perhaps it was also him trying to keep me moving and so that I didn’t get embroiled in my own thoughts. Chain Singh, on top of the third outcrop continued waiting patiently for me as the drama unfolded. “Debolin Sir, try and summit and experience the renewed vigour and the energy which will sweep your insides. Trust me”. I looked at him and wondered how was I going to do that?
Even now, I do not know whether those words helped me push through or was it my good ego which miraculously kicked in, without me even knowing or trying hard to bring it to the fore. Whatever the reason, it made me take the next step, and the next and then many more over 35 minutes till that last step when I reached the top. The last part of the climb was a complete haze. One which even today, is shrouded with questions.
I was finally on top of Stok Kangri at 6153 mtrs/ 20187 feet at 8.05am. It had taken us 9.5 hours to ascend. I had breached the 6000 mtrs mark. The moment was magical. The fresh mound of virgin snow around me, the point where the sky and the earth met, the prayer flags fluttering away furiously, tall peaks rising in the panoramic distance, hugging my friends and our climbing lead that we’d done it and feeling close to my mother whom I had lost 2 years ago. I left the summit with mixed feelings. The jubilation and the sweet feeling of success were present, and yet in a sense they were also not there. I had a lot to reflect on when I had safely descended to base camp. But thankfully the affair had ended. I wouldn’t have wanted to return again for I had higher mountains to climb and dreams to fulfil.
Tintin: It’s over.
Captain Haddock: I thought you were an optimist.
Tintin: Well, you were wrong, weren’t you? I’m a realist.
Captain Haddock: That’s just another name for a quitter.
Tintin: You can call me what you like. Don’t you get it? We failed.
Captain Haddock: ‘Failed’? There are plenty of others willing to call you a failure. A fool. A loser. A hopeless souse! Don’t you ever say it of yourself. You send the wrong signal. That is what people pick up. Do you understand? You care about something, you fight for it. You hit a wall, you push through it. There’s something you need to know about failure, Tintin. You can never let it defeat you.
“As long as I am healthy and love playing the game, I’ll keep on putting in the hard work. I can’t guarantee the results. But if they are not up to expectations, it won’t be for lack of effort on my part”. Leander Paes. Indian Tennis Legend
Pictures courtesy: Chain Singh, Expedition and Climbing Lead