Chiring We, 21,520ft
Base camp is a fairly barren spot situated close to the terminal snout of the local glacier. Mountains surround us on all sides but these are so big you can't really see them properly without climbing up to higher ground. Naturally we are some fifty odd kilometers away from the nearest road head at Munsiari and all the comforts of our civilised western world have now been reduced to an upright rectangular green tent. This canvas tardis conceals a make shift stone platform precariously perched over a trench of turd and tissue. I helped Chris move our Throne with a view the other day, not a particularly pleasant chore but one that has to be done. The waste disposal area tends to fill up after a few days of regular dumping from our happy campers and then you have to move the whole caboodle to a fresh bit of trench to restore normal service. The final task is to backfill your old waste area and then depending on numbers in camp and their biological regularity you have to do it all again in a weeks time. Well at least it won't be my turn then.
Most of our team is now established at our Advanced Base Camp on the lower reaches of the Kalabaland glacier. Word has it that Martin Moran and Jonathan Preston are already trying to push a route through the icefall, this is probably the crux of the route and their efforts here will determine our success or failure. The glacier has receded in recent years and consequently conditions are a tad more difficult than expected, so currently everything hangs in the balance. If our expedition leaders find a viable way through the icefall and the weather plays its part then the fittest and most determined amongst our guided team will get their chance to summit Chiring We and make the first British ascent of the mountain. An Indian expedition led by Harish Kapinda made the prized first ascent back in 1979 and two subsequent attempts since then have failed.
Chiring We, means ‘ mountain of long life' and at 21,520 feet it is one of the highest peaks in the region. I'll do well to get close enough to see our objective let alone stand on its remote summit. To be honest I have few regrets about this after having briefly occupied one of the tents two people and their gear are expected to share at the higher camps on the mountain. By comparison these tents make the hideously cramped confines of my Eureka Hobbit look like commodious five star luxury and what it would be like to spend a long cold dark night stacked up in one of them like sardines is not something I care to experience first hand.
The rain has continued to fall from leaden skies throughout another long day and now it's snowing. I am alerted to this by a gradual sagging of the blue nylon above me. Just when you think things can't get any worse they invariably do. Now I really can't be bothered going outside to deal with this situation but I need to clear that snow from the flysheet or I will be inundated with leaks in here. There is no choice I have to go outside. When I eventually emerge from my squalid kingdom of smelly clothes and chocolate treats the snow is turning to watery sleet but a good few inches have already fallen and the Hobbit now resembles a rather odd looking igloo. I hastily clear the snow from the roof and it piles up around the tent swamping my drainage channels and no doubt storing up future trouble for old mountain boy. Alarmed cries divert my attention towards the mess tent and I run over to investigate. Our Himalayan bistro has collapsed around the redoubtable Rowat he was inside trying to clear snow from the roof when the central pole buckled under the weight. The rest of us try to support the heavy damp canvas while Rowat struggles away manfully inside trying to straighten the pole and relocate it. He almost makes it but the weakened pole snaps at the crucial moment and the battle to save the mess tent is over.
Darkness is approaching and now the sleet turns into cold wet driving rain, bringing utter misery to the aftermath of our vain struggle. The accumulated snow melts in an instant and suddenly water is running here there and everywhere and mostly in the direction of the Hobbit. Until now my little mountain home has survived everything the weather has thrown at it but this early evening deluge looks like being a bridge to far. I watch with complete impotence as my inadequate flood defences are breached and quickly overwhelmed by the maelstrom. Water flows freely beneath the little tent temporarily lifting it from the ground and forcing me to abandon ship for the night. Rowat helps me move my gear over to the Alex's unoccupied Vango dome and then when a degree of order has been restored to camp the weary combatants retire to their separate sanctuaries to lick their wounds and mull over this sudden reversal in fortune. With the mess tent out of action at least temporarily Prabat provides a home delivery service, I barely touch the food he brings and I feel ashamed when he returns for my plates in the driving rain of a dark Himalayan night.
Last night was horrendous, torrential rain, gothic thunder and strange noises in the dark. Alex's Vango leaked like the proverbial sieve and I had cups and bowls placed all around me in strategic locations to catch the incessant drips. A few accidents with these containers led to a damp sleeping bag, little sleep and a flagging morale by morning. Beam me up Scottie! I've come on holiday to the Himalaya by mistake.
The situation is much better now, after a team effort led by Andy we managed to affect improvised repairs to the mess tent and our convenience with a view. Both facilities have been restored to full if albeit squalid working order. I am also happy to report the much-maligned Hobbit survived the night intact and I moved back in after breakfast. The Vango may be a more commodious model and no doubt superior in its basic construction but young Moran's inadequate gaffa tape repairs to the flysheet render it uninhabitable in anything but fair conditions. I make a mental note to mention this to his father obviously the boy is in need of some technical advice and if it distracts the elder Moran from his resolve to have the lads locks shorn Alex will thank me for it in the end. Our meticulous leader has been doggedly determined to introduce young Alex to the delights of an Indian Barbershop since our arrival in Delhi and the rest of us have been enjoying the humour of the chase and the artful evasion of the quarry.
Throughout the morning a dry wind has been blowing from the North off the great plateau of Tibet bringing fair weather with it. The skies are deepest blue and the sun is shining again. Everyone is enjoying the warmth and taking full advantage of the opportunity to dry clothes and sort out damp gear. Hopefully we're in for a spell of settled weather and we certainly deserve it.
After lunch I climb up to the summit of the scraggy little outcrop that guards the entrance to base camp. The view from here is beautiful now as all the mountains surrounding Ralam are plastered with fresh snow. I spend the afternoon chanting mantra and just as I finish my dedication prayer a flock of small sparrows fly past and one of the timid Redstarts lands only a few feet away. Previously these birds have been very shy, unlike the little Wagtails which have even ventured into the mess tent in search of tasty treat. On my way back to camp I pick some wild flowers and press them in my book of prayers. A solitary Ibex stands for a moment against a background of sky and mountain and bounds off with a gust of wind. I find the Buddha in everything and another day slips by with Thogal visions and strange portents from the other side of the hill.
" Tea - Mr. David please!" Prabat has arrived with bed tea and another day begins in the Kumaon-Garhwal.
Vic, Ian and Andy are making their escape and set off for Munsiari after breakfast. On the spur of the moment I decide to head up to ABC alone. At the snout of the glacier huge boulders of ice are being washed down the Ralam Gad and I spend some time photographing these against a magnificent background of azure blue skies and snow-clad mountains. Then finally I start off on the arduous ascent up the Shunkalpa. This is a dry glacier, which I think basically means the ancient ice is now covered by assorted glacial rubble and moraines that has been deposited as the glacier receded to its current proportions. It's all very uneven and more than anything else it looks like massive earthworks. Martin described the passage up the Shunkalpa as bloody hellish, which at very best equates to double worst nightmare in my book. Luckily the lads have built little cairns to mark the best route through the chaos of shifting screes and this avoids the worst of it. In places you can hear melt water running beneath you and every now and then you hear a clattering of stones as something shifts and moves.
Rowat and Ganga catch up with me after about 45 minutes, the later is on his way up to ABC with another load while our amiable Liaison officer is obviously along to keep and eye on me and make sure I don't get myself into any trouble. As we gain height the summits of the mountains that surround us at base camp are revealed like a revelation and suddenly the topography makes sense to me. The small hills I imagined climbing are merely insignificant features of much grander designs; the snow mountains of the Kumaon Himalaya now set against a cloudless deep blue sky. Most prominent of these is the perfect white pyramid of Suitilla at 6373 metres and further off Chaudhara 6510 metres, Shivu 5255 metres and a host of others nobody has even bothered to name.
Informed speculation has Martin and the team going for the summit either today or tomorrow so its pretty unlikely we'll find anyone in residence at ABC and as I haven't brought my tent along this is only a rehearsal so I needn't go all the way. I do want to see Chiring We though and that means making it to the point where the Shunkalpa does a big dogleg to the left and becomes the Kalabaland glacier. This is the target I set for myself but moving forwards is really hard work now, if you go too fast you stumble to a halt and find yourself bent over your pole gasping for air and then it takes all your willpower just to start moving again. Slowly, slowly Mr. David. The last two expeditions failed to climb Chiring We, will our team make it? I hope so and more importantly that they all come back safely.
Ganga really begins to motor now and do remember he is carrying a load of around 25 Kilos and this giant of a man is probably not much more than 5ft 5 inches tall. He is all sinew and muscle and how he can still smoke at this altitude is beyond me. I am full of admiration for these mountain people, they are always smiling and display a genuine affection towards each other. Men holding hands and embracing are entirely natural behaviours and not an indication of sexual preference. The people here appear much happier and more at peace with their world despite the appalling poverty they live in. By comparison we westerners live like princes and can always find something trivial to grumble about with our lives. Mind you it doesn't do to be too romantic about it though these guys work terribly hard for their 350 rupees a day, it can be dangerous work and many of them don't enjoy longevity.
As the head of the glacier comes closer Ganga moves up yet another gear and immediately starts to draw away. He surges up a mound of scree pauses briefly at the top of it and waves back to us before moving out of sight. We've been on the move for about two hours now and I am really beginning to feel the altitude. I am now over 1000 metres above my previous altitude PB. My nose is congested and I have stomach cramps, which bring on waves of mild nausea. Sweat is dripping from my forehead running down my face and stinging my eyes, my heart rate touches 144 beats a minute. Now I'm no expert but that doesn't seem too good to me, how fast can a heart go before it packs in? My current resting rate here is about 94 and at sea level it would be in the low seventies. 144 beats a minute is definitely way too fast. God this is great fun-come to the Himalayas and experience breathtaking vistas and heart stopping delights as you dice with cardiac failure on the roof of the world!
"Slowly, slowly, Mr. David." Hey tell that to Rowat will you? Old mountain boy has been reduced to a geriatric crawl and any thoughts of making it to ABC are starting to be dismissed. What's the point you don't have a tent dude? They'll all be at the higher camps now anyway. Come on don't be a wimp, things aren't that bad if you would just keep moving slowly. And just how do I do that dude? Old Rowat is dictating the pace here, he's an army officer and way too fit. My mind is coming up with an unremitting babble of sound reasons to throw in the towel and I can find little to support further effort on my part, but how do I break the news to Rowat? When we reach the head of the Shunkalpa glacier at 4301 metres I sit down on a large boulder to take in the view. Rowat is still going well and reckons we are only about another hour from ABC. He definitely wants to continue but I really don't have the mental resolve to go any further. I have bettered my altitude record, the view is absolutely awesome and old mountain boy is now contemplating a lunch at base camp and a leisurely afternoon chasing sunbeams. I pick up two Malachites, one for myself and the other for Anna, then we head down with Rowat leading the way at brisk pace and probably none to pleased with the sudden turn of events.
" Hey Rowat do they teach you resuscitation techniques in the Indian army?"
Dinner is taken in the kitchen tent, as it's just Rowat, Naveen, Prabat and myself in camp tonight. Naveen's café turns out to be a real glory hole with kerosene Primus stoves and a variety of food, spices and assorted pots and pans scattered all over the place and in no particular order by the look of it. A battered old radio is playing out the usual selection of Bollywood hits and Naveen is still managing to find a hundred and one things for the ever-bewildered Prabat to do. The ground is carpeted with hemp cloth and sleeping mats and it's much warmer in here than in the mess tent. These guys are doing all right in here. A strict hierarchy is still observed and Rowat and myself are served first with poor Prabat having to wait for us to finish before being served almost grudgingly by Naveen. I am tired from the day's gentle exercise on the glacier and already anticipating a comfortable night of luxury in the Hobbit. Before leaving, Ian gave me his foam mattress to give away at the end of the expedition, so tonight my bed should be very comfy with a double layer beneath me. I was not disappointed.
After breakfast the following morning I set off on an exploratory sojourn to locate the spot where I spotted three shepherds crossing the Ralam Gad. At first I try to make progress on level ground by following the river downstream but the way is soon barred when rock walls close in on either side and funnel the river into a raging torrent making it impassable. This forces me to climb over the mounds of rock and scree guarding the entrance to base camp. At sea level these would hardly even warrant a mention but at this altitude they are not so easy to dismiss. When I arrive at my destination I find that a makeshift bridge has been fashioned using tree trunks, turf, earth and stone. It has been built in two sections one of which leads on to a huge boulder mid stream and the other leading precariously off it to the bank at the other side a fair height above the roaring river. Now this bridge doesn't exactly engender confidence and the consequences of a careless slip here would be extremely unpleasant and most probably fatal. After a suitable delay to contemplate the finer details of my potential untimely demise, I cross with extreme care.
Safely ensconced on the other side I wander aimlessly until I find a nice spot to do my mantra next to a little stream tumbling down from the mountains. The air is filled with fluttering butterflies, yellows, purples and iridescent blues and the warm afternoon sun induces a trance like quality to my practice and soon I find myself drifting off into a world of strawberry fields and daydreams. A sudden scurrying at my feet breaks my reverie and I notice a small flash of grey fur moving amongst some nearby piles of stones. A plump little mouse with large black eyes, no tail and big ears emerges from the rubble. The two of us proceed to regard each other with curiosity for a good minute before it scampers off quickly weaving in and out of the stones and disappearing from sight.
The weather has been glorious again today but clouds are beginning to form around the peaks in the lower valley so we might catch a shower later on. Martin Moran and the team should have attempted the summit today but we have no way of knowing for sure until someone comes down with some news.
I head back to camp and run into Phil and Jane, they'd arrived from ABC during the afternoon and according to them the Haps have been instructed to start clearing the mountain. Ajay and Ganga arrive at around six with enormous loads, they'd spotted people descending from Camp One and decided to descend to leave room for them at ABC.
Over dinner there is only one question on the agenda, have they climbed Chiring We? The weather has been set fine for days now so surely they must have. We are just finishing desert when Rowat spots a light bobbing in the distance and weaving its way towards us, it turns out to be Chris Harle. All nine of the team summited Chiring We at around midday and most are now on their way down to base camp. Rowat, Phil and myself wander out to meet them, leaving Jane to enjoy a quiet moment of reunion with her mountain man. Stew and Alex are the next to arrive and as usual the dynamic duo are thinking about food. We congratulate them and Alex gushes on to me, about the great views of Nanda Devi and how they could see for miles into Tibet. He is high on his first Himalayan summit and it certainly won't be his last. Over the next hour we greet all of our returning heroes with one exception, Geoff ever his own man has decided to remain at ABC for a last night of solitude. I tell someone that Geoff was right about our camping spot being a potential flood plain and briefly describe my battle to save the Hobbit and the fall of the Mess tent.
" For God's sake don't tell him" somebody mutters.
"It will only make him unbearable," another adds.
Martin is one of the last members of the summit party to arrive, he is carrying a huge sack and looks utterly spent. I shake his hand and pat him on the shoulder feeling like I am in one of those high-octane expedition thrillers I am always reading.
" Hey Dave good to see you." Years ago when I first met Martin he was really just a fictional character to me and I was always a little star struck in his company. I know him a little better now and seeing him like this makes him almost seem human. Days latter back in Munsiari, Martin's exuberantly joyous rendition of Jerusalem would leave a lasting impression on all of us. Alex's long flowing locks would finally meet with their fate in a back street barbershop and I would never again be star struck in Martin's company.
I would have liked to have stood on the summit of Chiring We, with Martin and the rest of the team but getting there required supreme fitness, endurance, unyielding determination and maybe even a bit of luck too. I was found lacking in almost every department but there is no regret about the way things have turned out here. Right now I am happy just to be a part of the team that made the first British ascent of the mountain and put nine people on its lonely summit on a bright September day in 2004.
As we walk back towards base camp across the moraines I touch the prayer flags in my jacket pocket. They may not dance in the wind on a high Himalayan peak as my ego would have had it but I know a scraggy mound with a little cairn that will serve me just as well and in this moment that seems entirely appropriate.
Back in the mess tent with most of the team reunited the air is charged with the electric high of their success. They are all exhausted and wide-eyed with bivouac stares. Stew and Alex have managed to get sunburn on their tongues and blistered lips but it doesn't seem to diminish their now legendary appetites and Naveen is kept busy in the kitchen tent well into the night. He even manages to produce a celebratory cake replete with candles and depiction of Chiring We and after a dram or two to toast the mountain of long life we are all tucked up in our beds by the witching hour, a late night at base camp.
A full moon hangs over a nameless peak; Jupiter rises in the northern sky and tendrils of wispy cloud creep up gothic spires of rock rising from the glacier. I take a last look at my prayer flags fluttering in the gentle breeze and imagine them sending my prayers into that fabled heavenly realm of Tibet. A land on the roof of the world, surrounded by a chain of great snow mountains and the exiled home of the source of happiness and help for all sentient beings. Tenzin Gyatso-Chenzerig- in person- May his life be secure for hundreds of Kalpas!
I walk back towards the Hobbit thinking of my beautiful mountain girl and visions of nirvana.
Contributed by: David Meldrum< Back to India page for links to other stories