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Lofty

travel Updated: Dec 07, 2009 12:30 IST
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Suddenly, my stomach tautened with fear. I had been placing one foot in front of the other, leaning into the slope to balance, and was now frozen in that stance -- one knee bent and the rucksack seeming heavier than it had all morning. An hour into the three-hour walk from Base Camp (BC) to Advanced Base Camp (ABC) on Mt Nun (7135m-high peak in Zanskar, J&K), I had been lost in thought as I strode along the trail -- crossing patches of mossy grass and dirt terrain strewn with giant boulders scarred by the eczema-like marks of lichen. The orange-yellow lichen added colour to the grass-sky-mountains panorama, and the wind blew lightly, cooling my sweat. Soothed by solitude, my mind's eye had wandered to vistas of my city life where I faced indifference and derision from family and colleagues because of my passion for mountaineering. As pensiveness jabbed the calm inside me, I suddenly became aware that the trail was no longer easy going.

I looked around and realised I was on a 40-degree scree slope that was certainly not part of the trail to ABC. I knew the trail well as I'd done two ferries before, but at some point in my reverie, I'd deviated from it. I could now see the trail to my right, about 200 feet below the spur I'd unwittingly climbed.

Unexpected obstacle
It was the leftward glance up the slope that paralysed me. A huge, round boulder, weather-beaten to frightening smoothness over the years, sat poised on a bed of equally smooth pebbles. This was no place to walk. A step could trigger an avalanche of the stones and the boulder would come hurtling down.

As a reflex, I looked over my shoulder for help even though I was alone. Midway up the slope, there was no option but to go on. I unbuckled my rucksack belt so that I could slip it off and run if the stones shifted. Then I put one foot in front of the other, transferring weight gingerly. My eyes were fixed on the boulder. I was breathing shallowly and there was a cold weight in the pit of my stomach. In a few minutes, I reached safety. Looking back at the menacing boulder, I was suffused with relief. Then, buckling the rucksack belt, I searched for a route to take me back to the trail.

Two-and-a-half hours later, I reached ABC. Setting my rucksack down, I took out the packed jeera aloo and chapatis the cook had forced on me at BC and ate gratefully. At 5' 2" and 42 kg, I carried my 23-kg rucksack with effort bolstered by willpower, so I'd foolishly tried to refuse a food packet weighing a few ounces. Also, with misplaced concern over "timing", I never ate en route. On the first ferry to ABC with teammates, I had returned alone. Flying downhill on the trail, I had earned the expedition leader's approval for my "speed".

Ready for the next step
The leader's appreciation was the reason I had been allowed to move alone to ABC, where I would sleep that night and do a ferry -- crossing an icefall on fixed ropes -- to dump equipment up the mountain the next day. When the two teammates already occupying ABC returned from their ferry, we had tea, packed the next day's loads, and made dinner. As the sun dropped behind the peaks across the valley, my senior teammates received the leader's orders over walkie-talkie: ferry tomorrow, day after you two move up to Camp I and she returns to BC.

The leader would move to Camp II with Pemba Sherpa for the summit strike, keeping the deputy leader and my two friends as reserves in Camp I. We were all fit and acclimatised, but not everyone could go to the summit.

One week later, as I awaited dinner at BC, the tent flap opened and a sunburnt face with a blood-encrusted gash poked in. "Pemba!" the cook and I exclaimed. Mountains sunder our best-laid plans. The leader had slipped on an ice face just 50 m below the summit, said Pemba. His crampons had injured the Sherpa. The pair had turned back.

Two days later, we boarded the bus at dawn. As it turned a bend, the leader took one last look at the cone of Nun, its whiteness daubed with gold by the rising sun. The wistfulness in his eyes has stayed with me, as have the lessons in danger and fortitude of that expedition. The writer has learnt over the years that an annoying attention to detail is crucial to being a good mountaineer.

To become a mountaineer,
do Basic and Advance Mountaineering Courses at any of the following institutes:
Atal Bihari Vajpayee Institute of Mountaineering and Allied Sports, Manali - 175131.
Tel: (01902) 253841. Website: www.adventurehimalaya.org
Nehru Institute of Mountaineering, Uttar Kashi - 249193. Tel: (01374) 222123, 223580. Website: www.nimindia.org
Himalayan Mountaineering Institute, Jawahar Parbat, Darjeeling - 734101. Tel: (0354) 2254087/3. Website: www.himalayanmountaineeringinstitute.com
Himalayan Mountaineering Institute, Jawahar Parbat, Darjeeling - 734101. Tel: (0354) 2254087/3. Website: www.himalayanmountaineeringinstitute.com