India – Adschalaga! 2015 10/01/2015

Caro North – Nerve-racking adventures in India

The slogan for this year’s Indian expedition was “Adschalaga!” – a Hindi word meaning something that is really good. However, it didn’t quite describe the reality of our expedition.

But let’s start from the beginning. In early September, I found myself at Frankfurt airport with a load of excess baggage and a big grin on my face. A whole two months to the day in India stretched out ahead of me.

I arrived in Delhi pretty quickly, it felt almost too quick to be landing in such a completely different culture. But I very soon started to feel comfortable in all the chaos that is so typical of this country. I had a week to get to know India a bit better before my climbing partners arrived.

Unfortunately there had been little time for this on my last trip, but this aspect is very important to me. As well as scaling mountains, on my expeditions to distant lands, I want to come into contact with the people, to learn about their culture and see something of the country. It also feels like a form of respect toward the inhabitants and turns an expedition into a complete experience. Moreover, I enjoy the challenge of learning new languages, finding my way around an unfamiliar country and making new acquaintances. And this is precisely what I was now experiencing on my solo trip through Rajasthan.

I traveled on Indian trains, visited lots of Hindu temples, the Taj Mahal and old fortresses, strolled through bazaars, tried different foods, practiced yoga and immersed myself in the eclectic atmosphere of this subcontinent. I was impressed. But as well as all this colorful beauty, you are also continuously confronted with a great deal of poverty and hardship.

On my return to Delhi, I met up with Anne Gilbert Chase and Jason Thompson, my climbing partners for the next five weeks. Our team was completed by the liaison officer and our Nepalese cook, Depender, and his assistant Goga.

We then set off in the direction of the Himalayas. After a two-day journey by bus, we finally reached Joshimath. We hadn’t actually covered any major distance, but the Indian roads were packed and their condition made them quite an adventure at times.

Somewhere between Joshimath and Badrinath, accompanied by 30 porters, we then started our hike to base camp. It took us three days to reach the moraine at the foot of Nilkantha (6,596m), where we set up our base camp at 4,000 meters. I began to feel really ill. I had a pounding headache due to the altitude and felt nauseous, so I went to lie down in the tent. I asked myself why I had chosen to come here and not simply gone climbing in the sunshine in Yosemite. In this low state, doubts filled my mind. Luckily it passed relatively quickly and by the evening I was feeling a lot better.

Our goal was the previously unclimbed 7 km south-east ridge of Nilkantha. So we set off to find the approach. We made our way over steep grassy slopes, scree and boulders to the starting point at around 4,800m, where we intended to set up our ABC (Advanced Basecamp). This meant hauling equipment up and acclimatizing, making constant trips up and back down to base camp where our Nepalese cook was looking after us in great style. Time after time, he managed to conjure up fresh vegetables on the table and we had a chance to try all kinds of Indian dishes. It was also an opportunity to practice our favorite word every day: “Adschalaga”, what an awesome meal!

The effects of the altitude hit me again. This time, after carrying equipment up to the ABC but then climbing back down to the base camp. A little later, I felt sick and on the point of passing out. Depender looked after me in the warm cooking tent. That helped me enough to at least manage to get some sleep. I felt drained the next morning, as well as being afraid that I wouldn’t be able to cope with the altitude. This has been a recurring fear ever since a trip to Aconcagua eight years ago, when I showed the initial symptoms of a high-altitude cerebral edema. It had also led me to choose lower altitude goals for my expeditions in recent years.

After ten days of frequent rain, the weather became more stable and we climbed up to our ABC.

The next morning, we finally put on our climbing harnesses and crampons and began to climb. After so many days of hiking rather than climbing, this was a moment we had been longing for.

We climbed onto the ridge and took in the immense view over the other side and then carried on until we reached the first steep section. It looked nothing like the demanding mixed climbing we had read about in all the reports of previous expeditions here. There was no ice or snow, but a huge pile of rubble extending vertically upwards over several hundred meters. We were bitterly disappointed but agreed that it was simply too dangerous to carry on, as stones were already flying around us. So we climbed and rappelled back to the ABC. It wasn’t just the Alps that had been drier and warmer than usual this year, a similar effect in the Himalayas had created more difficult conditions.

So the big question was: “What now?”. That very same day, we carried equipment and food down to our intermediate camp. Our backpacks were so heavy that we could hardly walk. The route felt like torture and seemed to go on for ever. Luckily, I was able to plug my earphones in and listen to my music. Again and again, I lost my balance – being pulled back by my backpack and struggling to stand up again.

We then spent a few days working out new plans and refocusing. Our spirits were sinking and the only opportunity we had to actually use our “Adschalaga” was in praise of the excellent meals at the base camp.

We then decided to attempt the west ridge alpine style. It may have been climbed a few times already, but by this point we just needed a successful outcome.

The first crux: a couloir with lots of seracs, at times forming frighteningly large snow clouds and taking the shape of little avalanches. As we got closer, dust was blowing toward us and stones started to rain down beside us. I felt a deep and almost paralyzing fear. We decided to wait until the next day to tackle this danger area earlier in the morning. The next morning, I was still thinking about that intense feeling of fear. It was new for me. Of course, summoning up my courage is something I have to do time after time, but yesterday’s sensation of deep-rooted fear was something I had almost never experienced before! When the time came to set off, we made rapid progress. We passed this dangerous section without any problems in the gray morning light and I felt better again. We were finally on our way and pursuing our goal of climbing.

We set up our camp at the start of the west ridge (4,900m) before embarking on our ascent of the west ridge in icy cold conditions the following morning. The route was demanding from the very first pitch on the rock, I even pulled my glove off several times to grip the small holds. The brittle rock also meant that I needed to climb very carefully. It felt a bit like trying to dance on raw eggs while wearing my crampons. After a few pitches, we had a pleasant surprise: the rock was really good and, what’s more, I was now climbing in sunshine. We continued on this section of golden-yellow granite, a sheer pleasure to climb despite the heavy backpack.

A little later, we came to a steep wall criss-crossed with perfect hand cracks. In normal circumstances, I wouldn’t have hesitated for even a second. However, with my heavy backpack and at this altitude, it looked quite daunting. Without the backpack, I managed to climb it straight away. The hardest part was having to pull the backpack back on again and belay my two fellow climbers.

We continued over a steep snowy slope. It was pretty exhausting! As time went on, we began to look out for a bivouac site. Pitch after pitch, our hopes of finding a flat section were dashed and it was getting later and later. We finally found an uneven little platform covered with stones and spent the next hour trying to clear the space. There was only just enough room for our tent in this exposed location. Despite our painstaking efforts, the surface was still uneven and we had to arrange our bodies around the protruding stones to get some sleep.

After a short night, we set off again in darkness over steep snowy and icy slopes followed by mixed terrain. Finally, after a long and strenuous climb, all the difficulties were behind us and we stood on the summit ridge. We were almost there, but sheer ice meant that we needed to belay and progress was slow. The effects of the altitude were also preventing us from proceeding at our usual pace.

The sky over to our left was starting to look menacingly dark, but it seemed quite a way away so we didn’t let it deter us. However, this dark wall then suddenly closed in and we found ourselves caught up in a blizzard. To make matters worse, the air was filled with electric charges which we could all feel in our bodies. It was a pretty unpleasant and frightening experience. We needed to climb down from the exposed ridge as quickly as possible. 200 meters below the summit, we started to rappel. It was 5 pm and we rappelled in the darkness over the next 12 hours. Around 5 am, after 24 hours, we arrived back at our tent on the ridge. We allowed ourselves two hours of sleep before packing everything up and continuing to rappel.

By this time, I was feeling the effects of the exertions and the lack of hydration the previous day. A few Oskri energy bars topped up my strength again, ready for a few more hundred meters of rappelling. Flying stones were another problem and in the end Jason’s helmet was unusable. In the gathering dusk, we reached a safe location on the glacier where we would spend the last night.

I realized that I had pushed my body to its limits: I shivered all night long but at the same time felt so hot that I even pulled off all my gear and went out into the snow a couple of times. I was happy when the alarm finally went off. We packed everything up one last time, traversed under the seracs again and arrived back at base camp at breakfast time, feeling completely exhausted after a demanding, strength-sapping climb. But it had been a lot of fun too. I enjoy the challenge of these long tours that call for total commitment.

It was hard for us to think about how close we had come to the summit, being forced to turn around after overcoming all the difficulties. Nevertheless, we had discovered a new line and were eager to attempt a first ascent. But first we needed a few days of rest to gather our strength and wait for the next good weather window. And then came the big disappointment: it started to snow! The entire mountain suddenly turned white and the high avalanche risk ruled out any climbing.

It was difficult for us to accept that this meant the end of our expedition without any successes. After coming so close to the summit. Considering all the organization and money we had put into this adventure, it was tough to climb back down from base camp without having summited. Although it was frustrating at the time, we all understood that this is simply part of any climbing expedition and the most important thing is coming back safe and sound. In this respect, the expedition was a success, as three and a half weeks later we all arrived back at the start of the road. It had been an extremely good experience. I had learned a lot, we had seen some really good climbing action and been a great team.

Despite the lack of climbing days, I was more exhausted than I had thought and at that point all I wanted to do was go back home and not have to worry about anything for a while. However, we then spent a few more days in Delhi. The Indian chaos became a little too much for me for this time. Feeling very tired, I then set out on the long journey to Hampi, a little temple town in the middle of India, famous for its good bouldering.

I found a little paradise: between palm trees and monkeys, there were boulders as far as the eye could see. To my amazement, after all these weeks, I was able to tackle some really tough bouldering. Maybe because I had so many red blood cells coursing through my veins?!

A week later, my strength had returned and I left India on a positive note, with the knowledge that I would definitely be back. Adschalaga!

Without Mammut, the Mugs Stump Award and Lyman Spitzer Grant from the American Alpine Club, this expedition would not have been possible. Thank you very much as well to Oskri, Petzl, Julbo and Katadyn for the support.

Pictures taken by Jason Thompson


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