The Annapurna Diaries: Annapurna III Summit by Lt. Cdr. M.S Kohli & The Kristiansens

Contd. from Manang & The Best Day of the Trip

The cool insides of Hotel Thorung La played havoc with the body which was steaming hot courtesy the burning trail we had just walked on. The quadriceps froze instantly, felt extremely heavy and the knees creaked. Ouch, I cried out as I hadn’t anticipated this. Gingerly, I took the next few steps as we climbed up and down the hotel stairs ferrying our bags from the reception to our room. Both of us desperately needed a shower as well. We hadn’t had one since the night of April 2nd at Syange, which was Day 2 of the itinerary. We were on Day 6. And this day had been very sweaty and grimy. Varun volunteered to test the water first, and shrieked out loud from the washroom. “We need warm water”. And followed it by the choicest of expletives in Hindi. I laughed out loud. “Welcome to the mountains, my friend. If the heat doesn’t get you, the cold will. And if both do, then you’re history”. Yeah, yeah he replied. “I was climbing them when you didn’t even know what they were”. “That’s why they call you Sir Tiger Channa”, I replied. “After Sir Hillary, it’s you, mate. I am in hallowed company”!

Varun left, saying he was going to arrange the buckets of water. I looked around in the room. Our bags were stacked in one corner where Lakhpa had left them. A few essentials were strewn across both beds. The camera bag was tucked away near the pillow. My gaze exited the room’s only window. The outdoors were as bright as when we had left the trail. The peak in front reflected the sun’s rays with overwhelming intensity. Gangapurna was a sight to see even now. Glistening, melting, shimmering in front of me. She was a stone throw away and seemed so close. It was also difficult to fathom her gigantic glacial tongue which snaked out to the valley floor. That had caught my eye more than anything else. It was jagged and rocky. What looked like protrusions were likely to be 30 feet plus high ice walls. And these were everywhere. The glacier would also be ridden with multiple crevasses I imagined. The regular jet stream from the peak indicated high velocity winds full of ice crystals. Wow! I exclaimed. With my telephoto in hand, I felt much like Russell Brice of Himex or any such expedition leader who would continuously monitor the mountain face and trail to check the teams as they ascended.

Gangapurna. Glistening. Shimering. Melting. With the jet streams.

Gangapurna Peak. Beautiful.

Gangapurna. With her glacier.

A few hours later, after having washed and changed, we dug into lunch that we had ordered. Feeling hungry everyday was a super feeling and satiating the hunger was blissful. After the shower, the body felt fresh, the legs supple, although they still ached, but the overall feeling was one of complete and absolute relaxation. The balcony of the lodge served as an outdoor sun deck. Clothing items were strung out to dry after having been washed, fellow residents tanned themselves as they soaked in the sun, the sherpas played music on their portables, a glance into the valley in front and i saw school children aged 3-4 years skipping, running and climbing the adjoining steep slopes as they returned home after finishing school. They were a happy lot. Just like children everywhere. The world was their playground.

The children reminded me of my son, who was far away in India. Every evening when I spoke to him, he’d asked me where I was and when I’d return. I was out on office work I’d tell him and that I would return soon. That always seemed to satisfy him for the moment. “What are you doing now Shayon/ What did you do today?”. “I went swimming, with Navya”. “I played in the garden and I was also Spiderman”. “Sumehr says he is Iron Man, but there can’t be two superheroes. Only I am the superhero”. “Oh I see, I would reply”. “I am Superman, Spiderman, Iron Man, and Batman”. These were just some of the many delightful responses I would get from him. I missed him a lot. At times he would be too busy playing with his friends to even bother to speak to me. In his mind, his father was away in office and would return soon. Staying away from wife and son was always the toughest part when in the mountains. Part of the mind wanted to outrun the itinerary and reach the last day when I would take the flight back to Delhi and then to Bombay. When my wife would hug me tight and my son would jump into my arms.

Annapurna III was clearly visible now and with Gangapurna formed an impressive twosome. While the latter hadn’t been summitted since it was considered sacred and permits weren’t issued to climbing teams, Annapurna III had been. In 1961 an Indian/ Nepalese team led by Lieutenant Cdr. M.S Kohli of the Indian Navy had been successful. It was a tremendous achievement by his team and him.

The Grand Spectacle. Annapurna III and Gangapurna.

Annapurna III

Following are excerpts from his entry in the Himalayan Club Journal published in 1964: Of Annapurna III, hitherto unexplored, the well-known British mountaineer, H. W. Tilman, wrote in 1949: ‘Only from the broad back of the main ridge west of Annapurna II or of Annapurna IV could either of those peaks be reached, while Annapurna III bristling with gendarmes and cornices could not be reached at all.’

I busied myself with obtaining all possible information about Annapurna III. As no attempt to climb this peak had ever been made before, not much information was available. I turned to Tilman, who replied: ‘ I am inclined to think that the likeliest way up would be from the Manangbhot side but it did not look suffi­ciently inviting for us to have a go at it in 1949; or perhaps we were too keen on Annapurna II.’ Col. J. O. M. Roberts, who led the Annapurna II Expedition and had skirted the Annapurna range, was the only other person who could provide some useful information. I wrote to him and he replied: ‘We looked at Annapurna III in the spring of 1960; there were some nasty ice-falls low down and we saw no obvious route. You will have to look for it.’ We were in a blind alley. But what Roberts had said fired our imagination…

… Sonam, Jungalwala and Sharma had carried out a complete reconnaissance of the East Ice-fall and were quite optimistic about gaining the East Col. There were only two routes up Annapurna III, of which the one along the Great North Ice-fall appeared too hazardous and insurmountable. We therefore de­cided to plan our ascent through the East Ice-fall to the East Col, beyond which we had noticed a series of ice terraces that seemed negotiable and offered access to an upper shelf—the North Shelf—situated at a height of about 21,000 feet. The North Shelf is a very prominent feature of Annapurna III and provides the last point of take-off for the summit…

… In order to place our Advance Base Camp as high as possible we decided to move further up after a little rest. We negotiated a series of ice terraces by cutting steps and using fixed rope at places. It took another three hours to climb a further 500 feet; but it was worth the trouble, for we found an excellent site for our Advance Base Camp at 18,800 feet. The wind had by now increased. We hurriedly pitched a tent and returned to Camp II. We had climbed for nearly seven hours and were very tired. However, on getting back we were cheered to find the mail had arrived. This brought a message of good wishes from the Council of the Himalayan Mountaineering Institute which had met in Darjeeling under the chairmanship of Mr. Nehru…

… Accordingly, on April 22, Chaturvedi, two Sherpas and I left Camp III to advance further. There were still a few ice terraces to cross before getting on to the North Shelf. After gain­ing the first terrace, to which we had made a route the day before, we came across another which looked rather more formidable. There was an ice-wall, about 200 feet high, heading up to the second terrace. The ice was hard and necessitated cutting steps. While the Sherpas turned west in search of an easier route, Chatur­vedi and I decided to try and surmount the obstacle. I cut steps for nearly an hour but made very little progress. During our re­connaissance I had visualized this ice-wall as the only possible route and therefore decided to persist. Another hour, and we were on top. Another few minutes and we were on the North Shelf, an immense snow-field nearly three miles long and two miles wide…

… We were now ready for the final bid. It was decided to form the first summit party from out of the available climbers. Sharma, Shekhawat and Chaturvedi were asked to leave to attempt the summit the following day. They all reported fit and were keen to start…

… We spent a restless night, consulting our watches almost every hour and only dozing fitfully. At last the watch showed 3 o’clock. On unfastening the zip of the tent, however, we were disappointed to discover it snowing outside. We waited anxiously for a break in the weather. At 6 a.m. it stopped snowing and soon afterwards we set out for the summit.

We might have exhausted ourselves kicking steps in the soft snow and so sent two Sherpas ahead to make the route for some time. Ang Tshering and Kancha alternatively led the way. After about two hours, they were exhausted and we sent them back. Sonam Gyatso, Sonam Girmi and I continued and headed for the east saddle which connects with the summit ridge. We made very slow progress, reaching the saddle after nearly seven hours’ labour. We were still about 800 feet below the summit and the valleys all around us were obscured by low-lying clouds. We rested awhile and then resumed the final ascent.

The soft snow gave way to hard ice and the slope became steeper. Belaying each other firmly, we went on steadily at an inclination of nearly 70 degrees. The weather turned against us and to add to our difficulties it again started snowing. We looked at each other and read in each face the same determination to continue. It was now or never.

We moved up foot by foot, stopping repeatedly to suck air into our lungs. We skirted a gendarme and dragged ourselves up the last few feet to the 4 top’ only to discover to our bitter dis­appointment that this was a false summit. The actual summit was a small hump some 300 feet distant at the end of a mildly sloping ridge. We struggled on. Minutes later we topped the final rise and stood on the summit of Annapurna III. The time was 4.15 p.m.

The weather was fast deteriorating and it was still snowing. There was little view; we obtained a glimpse of Annapurna II and Annapurna IV and for a few seconds could see Macha- puchare whose summit was on the continuation of the ridge on which we stood. Pokhra was hidden by cloud. We were ex­hausted yet elated that the toil and labour of the expedition had been crowned with success. We hoisted the Indian and Nepalese flags, the Annapurna III pennant and the Indian Naval ensign which we had taken with us, Sonam Girmi strung up some Buddhist prayer flags. In spite of the bad weather we took a few pictures….

Lt. Cdr. M S Kohli, was the father of a gentleman I knew from Delhi, India, Maninder Kohli. Maninder and I had been fortunate to meet at a WWF event in New Delhi and over the last few years had struck a chord over our love for the mountains and the Himalayas. We had subsequently become good friends. I remembered him now as I saw the mountain his father had sumitted in 1961. It was special.

The legs ached as I got up and walked into the sun deck. The scenery outside was spectacular. It was stark and brown. The only green I saw was up above on the straight diagonal line of the Gangapurna glacier trail. Groups of teams were busy with their acclimatisation routine. Theirs was a slow and steady push. I calculated the time each team took to reach the viewing deck. 25 mins is what I estimated as beyond a certain point up the trail they disappeared from view. On my left was the continuing ridge of Annapurna III now covered with clouds. Straight in front were Annapurna III and Gangapurna. Towards the right were clear blue skies, mud houses and settlements and unnamed peaks on the horizon.

What I see on my right…

“Varun, I think I’ll go try the Ayurvedic Spa session they have. I read the poster on the way into the hotel. The massage should be rejuvenating. Want my legs in prime shape for our ascent to Thorung La”. Varun decided that in my absence he would walk down the path to explore the Gangapurna Glacier trail. That was on our agenda as a pre-build up to Thorung La. For the next 2 hours we would go our separate ways and exchange notes at the end of it. I planned on hiking up the glacier trail the next day. Manang was also our acclimatisation point before we went up further.

We met at the dining mess at 6 the same evening. Over a game of pocket scrabble and popcorn, we exchanged notes. The spa session had been deeply relaxing and I recommended Varun take one as well. Every family of muscle ached as I had realised during the session. I was in agony. Varun had his own to share. He had walked across the open valley and over the bridge wanting to keep climbing. But word got around that he was walking alone. And before he knew it, one of the guides from another team had asked him to turn back which Varun complied with. He had made it halfway up the ridge line. It was dark by now and getting colder by the minute. The stars twinkled in the cold moonless night as we looked ahead to the dawn of a new day.

Next morning after breakfast I went exploring the Gangapurna glacier trail with our man Friday, KB. It would be a good workout for the legs. Being non-active for long would make the body stiff. So it was important to keep walking. The first hour of the morning and immediately post lunch were the toughest times on the trail as the body had to warm up again. We crossed the bridge over the Marsyangdi and moved up the inclined trail. It was hot as the sun gained intensity with every passing minute. And the cold draft cut through the body making me shiver. The North Face wind stopper helped as I covered myself, hood included. We soon reached a fence barricade on the diagonal trail I had seen from the room.

Crossing over it, I stood precariously on a narrow ridge balancing myself. On my right was the Gangapurna Tal, the water collection of which, was surprisingly opaque and dull bluish grey in colour. I had hoped to see a Pangong Tso (a high altitude lake in Ladakh, India) equivalent. On my left was the large open valley, parts of which I had seen earlier from the dining hall. This was the extension of the Manang Valley we had trouped in through yesterday. In front was the glacier, now much bigger. I turned around and saw the spectacular settlement canvas of Manang. It was built on the wind chipped weathered hill side with fluted formations at its base which acted like a fortress of sorts. Our lodge was part of the series of mud baked houses on this hill and I could take a guess which one it was. I asked KB to take a low angled picture of me with Gangapurna as the backdrop. The perspective generated made me look taller and was akin to a summit photograph.

The spectacle of Manang

An even wider expanse of Manang. Surreal.

Against Annapurna III and Gangapurna.

The raging Marsyangdi on my right. Now seems like a stream.

I glanced up at the angled trail to the Gangapurna viewpoint. After a few moments of pondering, I decided against going up. I knew I would miss great photo opportunities of the terrain from different angles, but I wanted to conserve my energy and stamina for the next two days which would be arduous. And furthermore I was sufficiently acclimatised.

I had yet to commence popping Diamox which I had decided to schedule 2 nights from now, on the night prior to the ascent of Thorung La. I turned back and headed down. On the way I ran into the Kristiansens from Denmark. The same family who had reminded me of the Von Trapps from The Sound of Music on the way to Lower Pisang. The little one was also going up with her parents. I felt extremely proud of her. After exchanging a few words I wished them the best and headed on down.

The Kristiansens from Denmark

The rest of the afternoon was spent walking up and down Manang, window shopping for apple pies, chocolate croissants and enjoying cups of cappuccino at the local bakery. I picked up a woollen neck muffler/ a sort of a neck and mouth protector which would cover me from inhaling icy cold blasts as we gained altitude over the next two days. We walked past Manang’s mini theatres which were screening some well known Hollywood films. They were very amusing at first sight. Business opportunities existed even in the mountains and some smart brain had decided to make quick and regular money from transits.

Manang’s mini theatres

Lakhpa Sherpa

KB, our man friday

Varun “Tiger” Channa

Debolin Sen

Manang also had the district’s only Himalayan Rescue Association and Counselling Centre with free altitude talks and daily briefings at 3 in the afternoon. This was again a smart location to provide such professional counselling sessions for teams who walked in from both sides of the Thorung La. The unit had resident doctors for urgent treatments if needed and freelancers who worked for 3-6 months as interns who were mostly from Europe.

We retired early that night in anticipation of our ascent to Thorung Phedi (4420 mtrs/ 14498 ft) the next day. We were getting closer to the highest point of our journey. But not before I had seen a very golden sunset with the sun casting its rays over the peak of Gangapurna. It was some sight.

Gangapurna and her golden sunset

To be contd.

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