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Lights, camera, mountain
A mountaineering expedition to Uttarakhand leaves five friends stuck in tiny tents for 72 hours, with a video camera for company. They recount their adventure to TOI-Crest.
We will probably need to be rescued by the Army. It is now 5 pm and it is Hour No 54 of rain. We are driving ourselves nuts here, " says Aftab Kaushik on a blurry video recorded with light from a hand-held torch. Kaushik, 35, is visibly swaddled in multiple layers of woollens and is sitting hunched over in a tent. The rain keeps falling outside.
It fell, non-stop, for 72 hours. For the group of five friends, the expedition to climb Trisul I (7, 120m) turned out to be the stuff of nightmares. While the rivers belched and unleashed their swollen fury on the valleys below, this isolated group (with a crew of five), unaware of the devastation, sat perched high up in the Himalayan ranges in their two-man tents fantasising about an army chopper rescue.
Though it didn't quite come to that, the 72 hours spent stuck in tiny tents, the frustration of an aborted expedition and the dread of bad weather turning worse in high-risk climes made for one great adventure for these school friends. According to Jagabanta Ningthoujam, 25 and the youngest of the lot, it was the best quarter-life crisis he could have asked for.
When they started out, Trisul I was supposed to be another notch on their mountaineering pillar - the four of them had been climbing together since 2005 (Lamkhaga Pass trek, Rudragaira and the ascent of Kalanag (6, 387m)). But Trisul I would be their toughest. "It is an ambitious mountain;several teams have failed. Weather is always nasty there and the route is really quite hard. Climbing Trisul was easy back in the day, when the sanctuary (Nanda Devi) side was open. Now, the 7, 000m peak is a different story, " says Akshay Singh, 34, a Mumbai-based cinematographer.
The route that the team was attempting was the West face, which is tougher than the usual route via Homkund and Sutol. The West face route was chosen by Anindya Mukherjee, the expedition leader from Darjeeling, who thought it would be much quicker from the Joshimath side. "This route is pretty tough. We were really excited about this because we would be the first Indian civilian team to climb it;the Army had climbed it this season, " says Kaushik.
The weather started going downhill when they hit base camp (3, 700m) on June 8, the day of the first bad bout of rain. "Every afternoon was overcast. So we thought that it would be one of those treks when the mornings are clear but the afternoons are cloudy. Anindya at that time thought that this might be lower altitude weather and we might break through the clouds eventually for clearer weather. We kept hoping for it, " says Kaushik. When the team reached camp 1 from base camp though, the clouds did lift, and so did spirits. That night, however, was all sound and fury. "It was one of the worst thunder storms any of us has ever seen. I consoled myself by thinking that this might be the worst of it, " says Akshay.
But that was just a teaser. The rain really came down when the team load ferried (moving heavy gear/rations from one camp to another before moving) from camp 2 to 3. "We were about a hundred metres short of camp 3 when we had to dump all our stuff on a rock - harnesses, ropes, crampons - on a rock. On way back to camp 2, it started to rain and snow. We couldn't even spot our camp, we got lost, couldn't see anything. We had to follow voices, " says Akshay.
The rain fell on mercilessly.
COUNTING THE HOURS
The next entry in Akshay's diary is, "It has been 48 hours and it hasn't stopped raining. "
The five members (the sixth one had to return earlier because of altitude sickness) were divided into three tents that were to be their plastic-lined prisons for three days. "I remember counting 72-73 hours. We had left our mess tent (kitchen/dining) at base camp. So, basically two people were stuck with each other in a tent for three days. Total movement in a day was probably 10 metres. We stopped drinking water to avoid going out in the rain to pee, " says Kaushik, whose mood oscillated between fury and dark humour.
And that is when, to while away time, they made video monologues of each other, poked fun at John Abraham (no particular reason) and made mock advertisements. In one particularly frustrated hour, Kaushik says, in a very Blair Witch Project video in a flashlight and grainy video, "Moutaineering is masochistic. What the eff am I doing with these people? Why are you glorifying these maniacs (mountaineers) from European countries? Oye dekh, isney 7, 000 metres kiya hai! Abey, potty kahaan kee usney? Your fingers are falling off in the cold, your ass is burning with fatigue, you can't breathe, there is water in your undies, it is one degree C. There is no respite. Why are we doing this? Why are we here? Really? Actually? I am taking a macro view on this. This is whole new breed of pain. You guys are nuts. I have to sleep with my wet jacket between my legs. My body heat has become a clothes dryer. "
The hours of frustration though are healthily punctuated with banter, jokes at each other's expense and card games. In one of the monologues, Karan Singh, 35, a financial analyst turned mountaineer, pokes fun at an ad for men's fairness creams, "In this world there are 14 peaks above 8, 000 metres and I have done all of them (he jokes). But skin darkening? No way. "
The rest of the time was spent napping, thinking about dinner, rotating the one pack of cards they had, and sharing the two books the team had. Says Akshay, who was flummoxed by card games, "I only knew Rummy so I couldn't go on for very long. Bluff was a problem because two people can't play it. It was hard coming up with new two-player games. " The single pack of cards was, unfortunately, a casualty of the expedition. The pack was Karan's favourite though. "It had pictures of all 8, 000 metre peaks on it, " rues Karan. He, unfortunately, had also carried the wrong book for the trip. "It was Adventures on the Edge, a book on the biggest mountaineering tragedies. But somehow reading that book there in that weather was exciting because you had the background score of real time avalanches, snow, and rockfall, " says Karan. Ningthoujam had left his book at base camp. "I was basically in Vipassana for three days. I was praying and meditating by the third day, " he says.
Food-wise though they were good. They had taken lots of imported pasta, tomato concentrates, pad thai and other Thai curries. But they also lost a lot of rations under snow. Kaushik says, "Six years later, someone will find packets of Fabindia dehydrated mangoes under all that snow. "
When it finally cleared and the team managed to troop down to lower altitudes and eventually to the nearest town, it was like that scene from a zombie/post-apocalypse movie when an isolated group eventually makes it to ground zero and finds it crawling with the armed forces under a sky abuzz with circling helicopters.
Says Kaushik, "We were first informed of the disaster when a sherpa ran down for cell reception. Of course, our families had been going nuts. We had no idea about the extent of damage. When we got to town, we saw the army all over the place and a chopper landing and taking off every two minutes. "
Even the landscape had completely altered. Depressions had become hillocks. Gradual climbs had become steep. Avalanche snow had transformed everything.
Ningthoujam says it was a great learning experience for him. "I came as an adventurer in search of adrenaline but I am leaving as a pilgrim humbled by the high mountains, " says the 25-year-old. And all of them agree that this pace and nature of development cannot continue or we will be looking at many more tragedies. "The biggest lesson is how not to urbanise in the mountains. You cannot hurry development and hope that nature will play along. Everything in the mountains is slow, takes time and patience and that is how development should be as well," says Kaushik.
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