Run, run, run. Suddenly, Kim and Zeen took to their heels. They jumped over the rocks, dodged the trees-synergizing the hooting sound they expelled from their lungs while they climbed up and whooshed down the uneven trail.
Run, run, run. Suddenly, Kim and Zeen took to their heels. They jumped over the rocks, dodged the trees - synergizing the hooting sound they expelled from their lungs while they climbed up and whooshed down the uneven trail. We laughed heartily as a village boy looked at the running duo with gaping mouth and purest form of surprise written all over his face. We had settled at the outskirt of a village called Swata having decided to have our lunch in picnic style. All of us were busy peeling potatoes as it was only mashed potato in the menu and Kim and Zeen were running and chasing each other perhaps to increase their appetite.
Frankly speaking, I was enjoying this five day tension free, hassle free trek to Tatopani. Our path meandered through the dense forest of Pine and Christmas trees bordered by rhododendron and magnolia which bloomed in full thrust at this time of the year. Last year, during the Kanchenjunga expedition I had met this Korean pair Kim and Yum. Since then we had developed strong bond of likings towards each other. This year, we decided to embark on a joint expedition.
After Everest, Lhotse, Makalu and Kanchenjunga, this time I went to Nepal eyeing the World’s 10th highest peak, Mount Annapurna – I (8,091m). Ours was an Indo-Korean team that comprised of four climbers from Korea. I was the only one representing India. On 19th of March, 2015 the members of the two countries gathered at Thamel. Here we did our shopping and completed our packing. We hired a small car and travelled across Pokhra to reach Nayapull.
From Nayapull we boarded another car which dropped us at the border of Ghandruk from where an hour’s uphill march took us to Ghandruk. Mountain lovers adore this village. From here the base camp of Annapurna south could be reached along a trail. However, our destination was Tatopani. Annapurna south stood majestically before us.
The path from Lete that would take us to the base camp was laden with snow and the local people were reluctant to wet their feet. I couldn’t blame them. Anyway, our agency failed to arrange for low altitude porters and decided to shift our luggage by helicopter - the only alternative left.
However, reaching Annapurna north base camp from Tatopani meant an ascent of 4200m at one go and we were apprehensive that it might cause high altitude sickness. Therefore, we decided to trek to Tatopani. As we slowly marched uphill crunching snow under our feet nobody regretted the five day long journey. When we reached Bailley we had a magnificent view of peak Dhaulagiri. On 26th we reached Tatopani beside Kaligondoki River. Sanu our Sherpa Sardar and his team also arrived with a truck load of stores. Excluding our personal rucksacks the load weighed 1980 kg. The chopper had to make five trips to shift the entire load.
On 28th, at the foot of Mt. Annapurna-I and on a huge ground our base camp was established. We had a hard time sifting the huge volume of load. The base camp was located at the north side of Mt. Annapurna-I and we had a splendid view of the peak from here.
Almost one month prior to us three teams were labouring on the peak. During summit approach of one of these teams - three days back - Samuli of Finland and a Sherpa had lost their lives. During Makalu and Kanchenjunga expedition I had spent some good time with Samuli. He was a good climber. Thrice a helicopter was sent to recover their bodies. At 7200m their bodies could be traced but due to difficult terrain their bodies could not be recovered. I was really sad.
On the 31st amidst bad weather the base camp puja was performed. Later, we had snowfall. One day’s snowfall changed the entire feature of the base camp. The cold was bitter. To beat the cold Kim had had an ingenious idea. They had brought huge tents from their homeland. We put our dome tents inside one such big tent. Amazingly, it gave us all the warmth of a luxurious hotel suite.
On 1st of April, we set out for camp-I to ferry load. After a march half an hour we reached a place where the climbers used to establish their base camp in the past. But, few years back a devastating avalanche caused few deaths and since then the place had been declared unsuitable as a campsite. We noticed a cenotaph built in the memory of those unfortunate climbers. We prayed for their souls to the Almighty and moved on.
To reach camp-I one had to descend on the Annapurna north glacier. Then one had to cross the ice field and ascend along a rock buttress. Here and there, avalanches are frequent. We climbed few steep gradients. We were lucky to discover old ropes which certainly added to our advantage. On reaching the top of the rock buttress we further climbed an ice slope to a height of 5060m. We had to scoop up and clear snow to pitch our tents. That day we descended to base camp.
While descending, we thought that we were doomed. There were avalanches on both sides of our path and we had to move very watchfully. In the evening, we had strong winds at the base camp. It was very bad weather, indeed.
I was getting used to eating all types of food in the company of the Koreans. Larva of Butterfly, Kimchi made up our daily menu. Even dried octopus found place in our snacks! After resting one day at the base camp, on 3rd we went up to Camp-I. From Camp-I we had a magnificent view of Mt. Annapurna-I. Though the weather was bad after the noon - it improved in the evening. However, we had strong wind velocity that untiringly swept the camp, moaning and wailing and making our life miserable.
On 4th of May, 2015, at the break of the dawn we set off for Camp-II. The climb was interesting. We had to cross a ice field. We climbed few steep gradients. The distance between Camp-I and Camp-II was comparatively small. We dumped our load on a forty degree slope at an altitude of 5600 meter and amidst bad weather returned to the base camp.
Very next day, a dreadful avalanche washed away our tents from camp-I which were packed with climbing boots, crampons, sleeping bags, down jackets and many more essential equipment. Sanu and his team returned. They had traced few equipment but could not recover any. Next day we carried on with the search operation. From faraway places and risky zones we could recover many equipment but still many could not be found. However, the members of other teams extended helping hand and the loss of our equipments could be complemented for. We were really grateful to them.
Sometimes, we played golf. I don’t know whether we set new records of playing golf at high altitudes but we enjoyed the sport niftily tailored to suit our needs. The weather was not conducive–either snow fell or wind blew strongly. This year the weather was not favoring us.
On 10th we went up to Camp-II. At 5600m, we pitched our tents on an ice slope where we dumped our loads.
Generally for better acclimatization, the climbers spend one night at Camp-II and return. A stretch between Camp-II and Camp-III was avalanche prone and generally every climber wanted to cross it only once. However, this was Lee and Zeen’s first expedition. That is why Kim thought it was necessary for them to do some initial altitude gain.
Consequently, on the following day they accompanied Sanu while ferrying load to Camp-III. It was a windy day. The route to Camp-III was quite long. At 6500m height Sanu (our Sherpa sardar) and other sherpas had dumped our load. On the same day we returned to base camp. The process of acclimatization ended.
Now, we rested, feed ourselves and waited for favourable weather window to open. After eleven days, on 22nd, our sherpas went up to Camp-III to ferry loads for one more time. On reaching Camp-II they found that our tents had crushed under the snow. Enroute they fell in front of an avalanche. They escaped with minor injuries.
On 23rd, weather was not so good; few climbers of another team and their Sherpas launched a summit attempt. We spent anxious moments at the base Camp for them. On 24th, one Spanish member of that team fell seriously ill. A helicopter was sent for his rescue. After two unsuccessful attempts, the pilot could rescue him.
On 25th, a violent tremor shook the mountains. We were inside our tents when the earthquake began. It was avalanches everywhere. We dashed out of our tents and ran straight across the field on the opposite end. There, we perched ourselves on a mound and waited for the quake to subside. There was a steep slope overlooking our tents and we feared avalanches would roll down from there any moment and crush our tents. It was our good fortune that nothing of the sort happened.
Next day, we again felt a jolt. Whether it was an aftershock or not, it was quite strong. Later we learned that the quake on the second day measured 6.6 in the Richter scale whereas the first one had been recorded at 7.9.
Reports of huge damage and deaths in Nepal began to flood in. I was thinking if we could stand beside the people of Nepal in these bad hours. Our training and our gears may come handy in the relief work. I had been trained for search and rescue course from NIM(India) and I thought it was one chance where my training could be of some use. Above all, mountaineer or no mountaineer it is one’s duty to rush to the help of poor suffering people. Kim too was thinking on the same lines. We deliberated and decided in the team meeting that we would go down as fast as possible–and try to be of some help to the quake affected people of Nepal. It was more important to hold their hands than touching the summit of Mt. Annapurna. We learned that American team leaded by Don too had decided to descend.
We started descending. We descended four days route in one day and rushed to the nearest village. It was a horrific picture of destructions everywhere. Buildings collapsed, people houseless –the merciless paws of nature had spread mayhem. We tried our best to help the villagers. They were in miserable state – their belongings trapped under the debris. We tried to make them temporary shelters and recover few of their properties that were trapped under the wreckage.
It was an altogether different experience for all of us. We were not sorry that we had allowed the peak to go from our hand. We had opened the route to camp-III. Rather, it gave us more joy to think that we could stand beside the people of Nepal when they required it most. We were happy to touch their hearts and earn their blessings. With a belief that I would certainly get a chance to get back to the peak if the Providence has it in store for me.
I returned to my homeland on 12th May.