For Akhilesh and me, Kanamo (19,563 feet) would be our third climb together as a team. We had earlier climbed Stok Kangri, Ladakh (20,182 feet) and Pangarchulla, Uttarakhand (15,010 feet) together and this time round, we were looking forward to taking on another challenge.
Kibber was the starting point
We reached Manali in the morning and booked a Tata Sumo. It would take us to Kibber in Spiti Valley, where we were to spend our first night. The 12-hour journey from Manali to Kibber was an adventure in itself! We found ourselves driving up to Rohtang Pass situated at 13,000 feet and crossing over onto the Spiti Valley. This was followed by the Kunzum Pass crossing at 14,900 feet.
We’d planned to reach Kibber before sundown but the poor road conditions meant spending the night at a place called Losar, which was two hours shy of Kibber. We reached Kibber the next morning, found a homestay, rested and met our 58-year-old guide, Lama.
We set off for Camp 1 the next day. The bright blue sky with only a few clouds appeared to signal that we would have a clear shot at the summit. Lama started us off on a rather easy trail and some three and a half hours later, we found ourselves at Camp 1.
A change in plans
Most ascents start between midnight and 4:00 am. This allows one to reach the summit well before the sun is too strong. During the wee hours of the morning, the ice is hard and easier to cross. Walking through soft snow is cumbersome since you are pushed a little deeper into the snow — sometimes even knee deep or more.
Our plan was to climb up to the Advanced Base Camp the following day and attempt the summit early next morning. But Lama suggested that since we had made it to Camp 1 in good time, we could cover more ground instead of halting at the Advanced Base Camp. This way, we’d be able to attempt the summit the same day itself.
Lama reckoned we were fit and had acclimatised well too. Akhilesh and I discussed this, and not too ling after, we decided to make a go for it. Prior to retiring for the night, we saw a rather ominous build-up of clouds, which left us feeling a bit uneasy.
I woke up at 3:00 am with a splitting headache, having managed barely four to five hours of disturbed sleep. I popped a dispirin and decided to go ahead; I reckoned the headache would subside as my body warmed up. Following a thorough scrutiny of the pre-summit ascent checklist, I was ready to set out.
It was drizzling lightly when we set off but with an almost full moon overhead, visibility was good, even at 4:00 am. The soft moonlight was enough for Lama, but Akhilesh and I relied on our flash lights. We made decent progress, crossing a couple of spurs and getting to a key ridge that connected the south-west ridge of Kanamo. We circumvented the main ridge while gaining altitude, till we hit the Advanced Base Camp at around 5.15 am. I had, by this time, begun to lose feeling in the toes of my right foot.
The air is cold and rarefied at 17,000 feet
The Advanced Base Camp was a small flat plateau, no more than 200 feet long and about 80 feet across. It does not have any freshwater source which meant that if we had camped here as planned earlier, we would have had to source water from Camp I. This explained why Lama did not want us to set up camp at this particular site.
From the Advanced Base Camp, we caught our first glance of the south-western ridge that would be our gateway to the top. The summit towered nearly 2500 feet vertically over us, but at that pre-dawn time and with the clouds embracing it, we could barely see 100 feet ahead of us, let alone the summit.
A mountain is unwavering, unbending and unforgiving
The fallacy of the human mind is the misguided belief that the mountain will bend as per your will. What one must realise is that it has stood there since time immemorial and will remain so, long after we’re gone.
Mountain climbing, in my opinion, is 90 percent despair, dejection and demoralisation. Only 10 percent accounts for outright ecstasy. At the Advanced Base Camp, the drizzle had turned into light snow. Recalling those moments now, I speak for both Lama and Akhilesh the fact that at that exact moment, we were in that 90 percent despair territory. Any further deterioration in the weather would have caused us to abandon the ascent attempt and that was one facet we did not have room to contemplate.
Given the cloud cover, it was difficult to discern whether the ambient glow was from the sun or the moon. By 5:30 am, we knew for sure the sun had risen, but couldn’t tell because of the dense cloud cover. To make things more difficult, the gradient had gone from a gradual 30 odd degrees to a harsher 60 degrees plus. About 20 minutes in, the toes in my left foot started to go numb.
A moment of spellbinding beauty
All of a sudden, the clouds parted for a brief moment and I could just about see the contours of the rising sun, sheltered behind the clouds. It highlighted a peak directly to our east. For those few minutes, it felt as though God had parted the misty clouds to provide us a glimpse into His abode. No creation of man could ever rival what I witnessed then. One of my favourite quotes on climbing had come to mind.
Greg Child, an Australian mountaineer put it succinctly when he said, “Somewhere between the bottom of the climb and the summit is the answer to the mystery why we climb.”
With the wind blowing against us, I could feel big chunks of snow hit my eyes. Soon, I began to lose sensation in my fingertips. The terrain on the icy wind-swept south-western ridge changed for the worse with the gradient becoming steeper, and the soil changing from gravel to slippery flint like rocks. With every step we took, these would slide over each other, making the ascent a tad more treacherous.
Visibility in the falling snow remained poor at below 100 feet. By 7.30 am, our pace had reduced to a shuffle. The mind seemed to will the right foot to drag itself just a few inches ahead of the left foot while the body seemed to follow the command belatedly.
The prayers flags marked the summit
I felt as though I was in a trancelike state; both mind and body conditioned as if on auto-pilot, in some sort of mystical communion with the sole purpose of making it to the summit. And then, without any warning, I could see prayer flags in the distance! They looked almost close enough to touch. But it took another sweet, yet agonising, 40 minutes of climbing before we were firmly at the summit.
I’d imagined and anticipated this moment over the weeks preceding the trek. And then to actually experience it in person was overwhelming. I could almost feel the heart of the mountain call out to me as if to say “welcome brother.” We spent some time at the summit clicking photographs and reveling in our achievements before beginning our descent at 9.40 am.
Climbing up is half the job done, getting down is the harder part
For several weeks prior to the climb, my thoughts had been solely focused on getting to the top. The descent had been relegated to a footnote in my mental preparation. The route going down somehow seemed more treacherous and when we crossed the Advanced Base Camp at 11.15 am, it felt as though we’d been there ages ago.
My head felt like it was going to explode and the headache had given way to nausea. I kept sipping water but it offered no respite. Lama suggested I eat some chocolate for an instant boost of energy, but it tasted so weird that I spat it out. I wanted to find a rock, curl up on the leeward side and get some shut-eye for a couple of hours. But of course, Akhilesh and Lama would have none of it and I eventually stumbled into Camp I an hour later.
The raw appeal of the icy heights always beckons
I find it impossible to resist the allure of the mountains. Even today, when I close my eyes, I can see the Kanamo massif rising to the heavens, with a pristine blue sky as the backdrop. A mountain is the closest to immortality that one can experience, without meeting God. But the greatest gift for a climber is that the mountain moulds you in its stead.