Contd. from The Two Peaks & the end of the fellowship
The fellowship ceased to exist as the evening and night meandered on amidst the continuing heavy snowfall around us. The helicopter would arrive on time next morning at 6.45 am. Ramnik, Sweta, Ketan and Kalpak had to be ready with their bags and wait at the helipad by 6.30 am. A 10 minute flight into ABC and another 15 minute journey to Pokhara would mean, they were 2-3 days ahead of the scheduled itinerary. This, if the weather improved and it became suitable for the chopper to fly in. This was the biggest variable involved. If it didn’t, the money would be considered sunk. There were no further discussions on the topic. For our four trip-mates the journey was as good as over. For Varun and I, the long walk into ABC was still a possibility and then the descent into Pokhara had to be seen through for us to officially complete the trek. Unless you walked back, it couldn’t be counted as a trek that had been successfully completed. So we waited. All of us. With a common ambition and goal but different ways to achieve and reach it.
We went through the motions that evening. Early dinner, banter, sitting out on the porch in the cold and then eventually retiring inside our designated rooms within the warmth of our sleeping bags. In between this, there was a request by Ramnik to commence walking at 3.30am and reach ABC by 5am to catch the sunrise on Annapurna. While the intention was justified, the context in which the request was made, wasn’t. Hence I found it a trifle strange. It was still snowing. And all of us at the lodge had no clue on the snow conditions once you started walking. 3.30am would also mean walking blind in unknown conditions. Mahesh, one of our lead guides refused to entertain the request due to the risk involved in the quest. Ramnik had walked into our room to share this with us, seemingly miffed at the refusal. He also shared his revised departure which would now be at 5am. He spoke to Varun and asked him if he was keen on joining him and that he should be ready if he was. That was as far as the conversation progressed.
The gods had heard my prayers. It had eventually stopped snowing sometime in the night. And when we woke up to the sound of furious knocking on the door, which had to be Ramnik, we knew the conditions outside were favourable to attempt the dash to ABC. By the time we were ready to depart, it was 5.30am. The horizon was surely and steadily clearing itself of the thick mass of clouds, the golden rays of the sun would eventually shine through. It was an absolute stunning white canvas outside. Cold to the bone however. We hoisted our day bags, stuffed our swollen feet into our shoes and were on our way. We would attempt the push till we felt comfortable with the trail. Any indications of things likely to go wrong and we would return. Ramnik had left sharp at 5am. Alone, with Mahesh. And hadn’t waited for Varun. He was definitely in a hurry to reach ABC first and fast. And in as short a time as possible. Timing it seemed was an important part of his objectives in the mountains. I hoped he would safely reach ABC.
The journey from MBC to ABC was a two hour trail. And both of us hoped to complete it within that. With the ever dependable KB in the lead, we bade farewell to the rest of the group and commenced our trudge through the snow. We crossed over an embankment towards the right of the lodge into a vast snowfield/ valley beyond. It took me time to warm up and build a rhythm. And to make it worse I was running on an empty tank, probably on body reserves. I had missed having breakfast. I can’t now remember whether Varun had, had his. With no energy being created to aid me to move faster, I struggled to keep pace. Luckily I had stuffed two energy bars in the side pockets of the bag. I stopped to gather my breath and hungrily devoured one of them, keeping the other incase of any emergency. As I polished off the last crumbs from the palm, I couldn’t help but smile to myself. I had repeated the situation once again. Enroute to EBC in 2008, I hadn’t carried water, feeling pompous I could safely wing the to and fro to BaseCamp and the lodge at Gorak Shep. I had stopped an hour away from EBC, thirsty and parched and had almost returned to the Gorak Shep lodge. I would possibly be in the same predicament now if the body didn’t hold up due to an empty stomach.
Anyhow the surge continued. I was enjoying the trail. The skies had once again turned fantastic. With that deep shade of azure and fantastic patterns of white puffs stretching all the way into the horizon, this was nature at its best. Annapurna South now stood gigantic to our left, catching the first rays of the sun it seemed. Very soon it was decked in warm golden sunlight. Annapurna I wasn’t yet visible and every time I asked KB about the mountain he vigorously waved both his hands and pointed towards the right. She would soon reveal herself. We kept walking the trail in the single file that we had been walking throughout. Not being adventurous to commit any steps outside the perimeter created by the multiple footprints in the snow. An hour later we saw a wooden speck on the horizon which had to be the Annapurna Base Camp lodge. We were close and getting closer. The time on the watch was 6.45am. We would take another 30mins to reach our final point of the ABC trek.
We were relaxed now. Varun stopped to write the names of his wife, son and daughter on the snow. I did the same. Etched Sumona’s and Shayon’s name. We were enjoying ourselves. This was another beautiful part of our journey. Excited like two small boys in the snowy surroundings. Our activity was cut short by the dull drone of a chopper headed in our direction. We couldn’t see it yet as we turned around and looked back at the trail we had trudged through. The sound grew louder and very soon we saw the helicopter emerge from under the valley with its blades chopping the air as it gained height. It was a scene straight out of a Hollywood action film. The chopper gained height, circled the two of us as we stopped and looked upwards. It was the rest of the group. We waved out to them. They did the same. And pretty soon they were on their way to the lodge landing at the helipad with a roar, spraying loose snow all around. The inhabitants of the ABC lodge gathered outside to see who had landed. Were they celebrities? Varun and I were still 20 mins away from the lodge.
The first steps up the lodge and we had done it. Two back to back journeys successfully traversed. The Annapurna Circuit + Annapurna Base Camp. In short, the Annapurna Double. Another first for me, as I am sure it was for Varun too. We quickly made our way to the back of the lodge, towards the helipad to assemble for a group photo. The sense of elation refused to subside. Annapurna I was a gleaming spectacle. Wow! The 10th highest mountain in the world was in front of me. The chapters of Herzog’s Annapurna whizzed past, as I recollected the story. And there was also Anatoli Boukreev’s 1997 winter ascent, when he succumbed in an avalanche on her high slopes on Christmas Day. That was another huge loss to the world of mountaineering in the aftermath of what transpired in the spring of 1996 on Mt. Everest with both Rob Hall and Scott Fischer not making it down Everest. All we had to remember Anatoli was his memorial at Base Camp.
The mandatories done with, the chopper and its passengers got ready to fly out of base camp. Their next stop was Nepal’s second largest city. Pokhara. This they would reach in 15 mins while we still had a three day descent to Pokhara which we would crunch to two by making haste down sections we could fly through. As a team we were fast. Faster than the support team as well. My thoughts were now centred around a hot shower in the Pokhara hotel. How welcome would that be! We hadn’t showered for almost 4 days. That coupled with a visit to the local bar to knock back a few Old Monk dark rums (how I had missed my rums) and sample sumptuous dishes, made my mind jump ahead from where I was at present. A huge distraction. I calmed myself and tried to focus on the pending task at hand. I still had to descend.
The engine came alive and made a deafening noise, with its blades chopping the air around, and the blast of the snow spray on my face! I was right behind it as it swung around, lifted off the ground and droned away with its nose down into the valley from whence it came. Soon we couldn’t see her or her cargo anymore. The white of the valley it seemed had swallowed them.
To be contd.