Saturday, 27 April 2013

Brahmmah - Man Proposes, God Disposes.

Pulse Rate : 80
Blood Pressure : 84/120

Doc Krishna Mohan sighed. I knew it was not a good sign, but I was used to it. He would take our readings every day that we were at Base Camp, but I noted it down in my diary just the one time: he was only confirming what I had known all my life - that I was no athlete. In school, I would trail behind all the other boys in the simplest of races, and therefore I never took any interest in competitive sports. Hiking and climbing mountains (or at least trying to!) appealed to me as a form of Do It At Your Own Pace activity which would not embarrass me in public. I know that climbers can be extremely competitive in their own way, but I certainly did not belong in that category. At the same time, was I being presumptuous to tackle mountains perhaps I should not even be near to? The motivation to climb is very hard to pin down: it is based on personal feelings and perceptions and fuelled by individual desire. For me, personally, the location of a peak played perhaps a greater role than its difficulty in being chosen for a visit. A little off the popular list, a little less attempted, not too remote (if I had all the time and resources in the world, this would not be an issue!) - these were attributes I looked for when planning a mountain holiday. I may not have been very successful as far as climbing to the summits was concerned, but I always came away with a sense of having spent a few weeks in stunning landscapes with close friends and having experienced that high that only big mountain elevations seem to dispense to their devotees.

Over the next couple of days we had managed to establish a camp at the foot of the Brahmmah ice fall. The route crossed the interminable moraine of the Brahmmah glacier diagonally from Base Camp and then ascended the last stream flowing into the glacier from the other side. This gave us access to a beautiful ablation valley where we could rest from our labours briefly amongst the wildflowers and the tarns that adorned its hollows.

Looking up the ablation valley as it turns into the southern cwm of the Brahmmah Glacier

From here we turned into the southern cwm of the glacier and were instantly confronted by the sight of the towering wall of the ice fall which cascaded from the peak. The summit soared up for about 7000 feet above the Advance Base Camp as we chose to call our small cluster of three tents. Initially the south east ridge plummeted sharply  from the summit for about a thousand feet before being brought to a halt by the three prominent rock pinnacles. From here, the ridge descended rather more gently to the col between Flat Top and Brahmmah. Our goal was to place a camp on the col, just as all our predecessors had done. To gain the col, we planned to more or less follow the route pioneered by the first exploratory Cambridge-Indian Kishtwar Expedition in 1965.

Route from Advance Base to the col

The South East Ridge of Brahmmah  on the left

However, the best laid plans of mice and men and mountaineers do go awry : we had to contend with my sudden bout of fever, Kamlesh's painfully blistered feet, and Faruk's leg injury which sent him scurrying to Base Camp for a rest. Fortunately, bad weather also moved in, justifying the hiatus in our activities. In the meantime, two Australian brothers (Tim and James Strohfeldt) had arrived at Base Camp; they were hoping to ascend Brahmmah via its North East ridge route where a couple of years earlier some Japanese climbers had perished. They also wished to climb the Eiger and would spend days gazing at its steep granite walls with their binoculars while listening endlessly to their Walkmans : they had no power problems as they had come equipped with portable solar chargers for their Handycams and other gadgets. We, on the other hand, had to coax life out of our batteries by regularly inserting them into our armpits!

Advance Base Camp

Looking down at the moraine of the main Brahmmah glacier from Advance Base.
Shashi spotted a bear one day on the green slopes at the left hand side of photo.

There were other differences between them and us. While they apparently had quite substantial experience in lightweight alpine style and big wall climbing, our motley crew were all amateurs united only by a common love of the mountains. Our climbing style was cumbersome and burdened with too much weight. And our relatively lower levels of fitness and climbing skills put the "Fast and Light" style probably out of our reach. However, adequately nourished by Shashi's great cooking, we soldiered on and after a series of hiccups, Faruk and Harsha occupied the col camp on 5 Sept. They had taken 9 long hours from our Advance Base: we had watched them all day ploughing up the interminable slope, Faruk finally breaking through the cornice on the top and disappearing from our sight.

Faruk and Harsha en route to the col camp

Two days later Ravi and I took an hour longer to do the same stretch! We were caught halfway in a snowstorm. Ravi wanted to stop and camp but the prospect did not appeal to me as we had no stove! I reasoned with him that all we had to do was follow our friends' footsteps. Even so, it was a memorable day. Here is an extract from my journal: "...we started off at 1430 (we had left Advance Base at 0900) up the ever steepening slopes in the ever increasing whiteout....It was 1900 hrs by the time we dragged ourselves to col camp, tired, exhausted, stunned into utter silence by the cold. Faruk made some drinking chocolate which brought back life to us."

The col camp was fabulously situated: to the south we could look down into the Kibber Nullah. To our left the ridge went snaking up towards Flat Top whilst to our right the south east ridge of Brahmmah could be viewed almost head on.

The col camp location  as seen from the south east ridge

Looking south over the Kibber Nullah

Flat Top (6100m)  from the col.

Three and a half thousand feet separated us from the summit. In August 1973, Chris Bonnington and Nick Estcourt had reached the summit in nine hours of climbing, bivouacking on the way down at approximately 20,000 ft. Not considering ourselves in the same league, we decided to establish another camp a little higher on the ridge from where we hoped we would stand a better chance of reaching the top. We found traces of old fixed ropes in many places, evidence of the passage of past climbers.

It was already three weeks since we had arrived at Base Camp; and only two weeks for Ravi who had joined us later due to his business commitments. We had had our fair share of setbacks and rain and snow and illness and injury. But as 13 Sept dawned, we felt that all that was behind us and that the gods would finally relent. We prepared to push for the summit and were set to bivouac either on the way up or down. The dawn sky emerged clear, but this was deceptive. As we reached the first of the rock towers on the ridge the western horizon changed rapidly, massing dark cumulus clouds. Snow pellets began to rain down on us and soon flakes began to fall all around us as we groped our way on the rock. Visibility began to fade and with it our hopes as well. We were cold and tired and exhausted after weeks of effort. As the snow accumulated on the ledges and spindrift blew into our nostrils we deemed that retreat was the logical decision. Self preservation is a great instinct and perhaps this prevented us from being out on a limb on very steep terrain where misfortune could so easily have befallen us.

Harsha, Faruk and Ravi climbing up the southeast ridge.

Faruk belays Ravi near the pinnacles.
We scurried back to our tents in driving snow.

Over the next couple of days we came down off the mountain, chastised. At the Advance Base, a German climber Ewald Ruff had arrived. He was accompanied by Tariq Ali. They had trekked in from Srinagar over the Margan Pass and were planning to cross over the col into the Kibber Nullah and into Kishtwar. Ruff seemed to lead a charmed life : he had climbed Ama Dablam solo in Nepal. The 53 year old had been coming to the Himalaya every year for the last 29 years, making a living by guiding treks and making telefilms. We watched them climb to the col in six hours on a perfect sunny day and disappear over the top.

The Australian duo were also in residence at Advance Base, having failed to climb the north east ridge. Now they had settled for the south east ridge and there was no more talk of climbing the Eiger! They too were to fail on the south east ridge after we left.

Kamlesh bids farewell to the Aussies' Liaison Officer

Shashi shamed us all into humility as he raced back to Base Camp over the moraines, shod in his favourite leather boots more appropriate to city pavements than to the unstable boulders of the Brahmmah Glacier. We could not keep up with him and were happy to fall back and look over our shoulders to our home of snow and rock for three weeks. The colours of the grass and flowers and leaves was like a tonic to the eyes,  fed on a limited colour spectrum for too long.

The pack ponies ford a stream as we head down the valley

The walk back down the Nanth Nullah was as intoxicating and heady as it had been on the way up: in fact Doc Mohan and I meandered off the track, lost in conversation and soaking in the visual delights. It was getting dark when we groped our way to a gaddi encampment. One of the shepherds offered to escort us to where the rest of the team was spending the night.

The night was cool and starry and I found a great spot under a boulder to snuggle into my sleeping bag. That night was one of the best sleeps I had had on the whole expedition and for this small pleasure I was grateful. A mountain trip is always replete with moments of simple abundance, and I guess this is what drew me back time after time to the hills.

Kamlesh (right) and I seriously consider a shower!

"16 Sept. We trekked down to Haunzar and bathed in the sulphur springs," my journal reads. "...had tea at Sueda, chicken curry rice at the Fauji's stall in Sonder and hobbled into Ekhala in the evening, dog tired after a very long 11 hour day.." A bottle of rum passed hands and spirited debate was initiated on abortion and revolution in India. I refrained from contributing to the first topic for personal reasons: Margaret my wife was already four months pregnant and it had been a tough decision to come away climbing. After the alcohol had subsided, Doc and I slept on the wooden veranda of the Rest House, beautifully located overlooking the Maran gorge.

More feasting was to follow at the Patimahal Rest House where the caretaker happened to be Ghani (our muleteer) Chacha's brother: Chicken Curry, rice, chapattis, brinjal curry - all washed down by lots of beer. We almost forgot that just a couple of days earlier our world was above these sensual delights. And we certainly did not give much importance to a curious incident on the last day's walk through fragrant forests of pine. Rounding a bend in the track, we came across two heavily armed policemen who asked us if we had seen any suspicious persons on our marches. We replied in the negative and nothing more was said. The policemen continued up the valley.

A week after we arrived in Mumbai, there was a small news item in the newspapers : "Bomb blasts rock the town of Doda in Kashmir". Terrorism had raised its ugly head in paradise. Brahma the Creator would need the help of Vishnu to sustain the ethereal and magical world of the Kishtwar Himalaya and I was glad that I had paid my personal homage to Brahmmah when I did.

Further Reading :

1. The First Ascent of Brammah, 1973. Chris Bonnington. Himalayan Journal 33

2. Cambridge-Indian Kishtwar Expedition. Mount Everest Foundation Archives (Royal Geographical Society or Alpine Club, London)

3. The First Decade. Climbing, rambling and exploring in the Kishtwar Himalaya, 1965-74. Charles Clarke. Himalayan Journal 61.

4. Homage to Brammah (Expeditions and Notes). Aloke Surin. Himalayan Journal Vol 46. Pg.188

5. A Peak Bagger's Guide to the Eastern Kishtwar. Simon Richardson. Himalayan Journal Vol 45.

Faruk (left) and Harsha

Flat Top from Advance Base Camp

Looking down the south side from the col

Faruk  on the moraine of the Brahmmah Glacier

Me sporting trendy colours!

Friday, 5 April 2013

Brahmmah - Return to Kishtwar

Nineteen thousand feet on the south east ridge of Brahmmah I is a pretty cool place to be. The view downwards is stupendous: the ridge plunges down in an elegant sweep of snow and ice to the col with Flat Top and when you raise your eyes upwards it is met by the impressive bulk of Brahmmah II flying a plume like a pennant from its summit pyramid. Clouds swirl amidst the crenellated ridges, lurking in the hollows between giant rock buttresses, the sun shines from an achingly blue sky and heaven seems to lie just beyond the next rise.

Brahmmah II ( 6485m ) as seen from the South East ridge of Brahmmah I ( 6416 m )

The problem was that I might reach the other world sooner than I had reckoned if I did not prise my right foot out of the hole in the rocks where it was jammed. Try as I might, my plastic climbing boots seemed to settle in further and deeper the harder I pulled. I was exhausted from the effort and appealed to Harsha who had by now come up to assist with the task. He grabbed one of the big rocks under which my boot disappeared and hauled with all his might, hoping to dislodge it just a wee bit, just enough to wiggle my foot out. The rock did not budge. We attempted it a few more times, without making any difference. Fifteen minutes had passed by. As we rested between heaves, we could see the silhouettes of Ravi and Faruk recede further upwards into the distance as they approached the first of the three rock pinnacles which guarded the upper mountain. It occurred to me that if I did not get my foot out of that hole pronto I might, like the pinnacles, become a permanent fixture on this twenty one thousand foot mountain.

Brahmmah I (6416m) from our Base Camp at the head of the Nanth Nullah

But Brahma, the God of Creation, could not conceivably be the cause of my destruction, so I was granted a divine reprieve: the next combined heave of the boulder managed to rock it slightly, giving me that window of opportunity which I grabbed as I pulled my foot free and lay panting on the snow, beads of sweat on my brow cooling rapidly in the mountain chill.

Close shaves and brushes with death had been a constant feature on this attempt to climb Brahmmah I in Sept 1989:

1. We had watched in shocked disbelief as Faruk had skittered on the ice and then shot off like an arrow down the slope towards the Kibar Nullah thousands of feet below. He had been scouting around for level ground to pitch our camp on when he suddenly encountered hard ice and his foot slipped from under him. As I watched his attempt at self arrest with his ice axe fail, an unpleasant thought raced through my mind - "What do I tell his family?" Before the answer could occur to me he was brought up short by a pile of old snow lying at the very edge of the cliff : he would live to tell the tale!

2. While descending from our col camp to Advance Base I had also taken a potentially fatal tumble. Again, I was spared.

3. On a routine ferry up the mountain I had almost collapsed with a flu like fever and had visions of dying on the slope of talus that I was resting on. While Kamlesh and Harsha had continued up I had lain supine, contemplating the scudding white clouds as my body continued to weaken. After laying there for about three hours, I decided to haul my feeble body back to our Advance Base Camp at the head of the Brahmmah glacier at the foot of the mountain.

The expedition had turned into a series of misadventures since that hot day in August when we drove out of Jammu in a Mahindra jeep on our way to Kishtwar. Harsha, who loves to drive, took the wheels from the driver of the vehicle and we roared off towards Batote on the Jammu - Srinagar highway. As always, leaving the plains behind and ascending into the cool of the hills was a welcome relief. Leaving the crowded streets of Jammu and motoring through the neat and tidy cantonment of Udhampur up towards Patnitop pointed us firmly in the direction of the peak of Brahmmah in the Kishtwar Himalaya.

Kishtwar was a name which evoked fond memories : in May 1976, the Youth Hostels Association of India (YHAI) had introduced me to the delights of Himalayan trekking as the route wound over the Margan and Synthen passes. It was the very first time in my life that I had seen and walked on snow and like all First Times, that trip remains very special. On the rapid return to Delhi that year I had succumbed to heat stroke in the capital city and had to be hospitalised for a couple of days!

Kishtwar kids in May 1976

Now, thirteen years later (there was a sign, right there!), I was heading for Kishtwar again.....this time in the company of Faruk, Harsha and Ravi - climbing friends from Mumbai. I had met Ravi and Harsha for the first time during my near-death disaster on the cliffs of Mumbra ( ). Faruk was a good friend with whom I had spent many happy hours rock climbing and we had attempted Menthosa three years earlier ( );  Ravi had been my partner on my very first Himalayan climb ( , , ).

The peaks of the Kishtwar Himalaya are stunningly beautiful, steep, and technically challenging. Though of modest height by Himalayan standards (mostly in the 6000 m - 6500 m range), they offer excellent objectives for the ambitious climber on a low budget. Brahmmah I at 6416 metres may not have been a test piece for the expert alpinist, but it was hard enough for us! It had been first ascended by the legendary Chris Bonnington and Nick Estcourt in an alpine style push in August 1973. They had come up to the south east ridge from the Kibar Nullah whilst we were planning to approach the route from the Nanth Nullah and the Brahmmah glacier.

Sketch map of area. Heights in metres

At Batote, we left the main highway to Srinagar and took the fork going to Kishtwar. The road soon deteriorated to a gravel surface and shortly thereafter we had a flat tire! At Doda, Harsha used his contacts and commandeered a Gypsy to carry us the rest of the distance to Kishtwar where we arrived late in the evening. During my previous visit more than a decade earlier, a hailstorm had greeted me as I alighted from the bus and made my way to the YHAI  campsite. Sometime in the night it had stopped and the skies cleared and the moon rose above the field where the tents had been pitched. When I emerged from the tent the hailstones had completely covered the field and now shone like a million diamonds scattered nonchalantly by some divine whim.

This time we spent the night at the Tourist Rest House where we met up with the lads from Bangalore : Kamlesh, Chiddy, Niranjan and "Doc" Krishna Mohan. Kamlesh was responsible for having put the trip together and the Mumbai quartet were happy to leave all the organisational details in his able hands.

We drove the next day the short distance to Patimahal from where our walk to Base Camp would begin. Ponies were hired from Ghani Chacha ("Uncle") and our little expedition was soon on its way. Our permanent members had been boosted by the addition of Shashi, a young Nepali lad of seventeen or eighteen. I am still not clear as to how we ended up employing him as our camp cook, but he was to prove an asset to the team. If ever I had had delusions about myself being a sort of casual adventurer, Shashi's story soon put things in the correct perspective: he had run away from his home in Siliguri (at the eastern end of the Himalayan foothills) at the age of ten and had led a peripatetic life, working odd jobs like being the tea boy in roadside dhabas, finally ending up working in circuses! He had worked as a trapeze artist in the Raymond and Gemini circuses, two marquees I was familiar with when growing up. His wanderings led him to Kishtwar and when I asked him why he wanted to come along with us, he answered - "I've never been in the high Himalaya, I would just look at them from a distance all my life. This gives me an opportunity to see the snows up close!" End of interview, he was hired! To me, people like Shashi are the true adventurers in our midst, people whose life is lived like a throw of dice, who do not let mundane worries like Where is My Next Meal Coming From, or How Am I Going To Pay My Rent, bother them. They bash on regardless!

The four day approach walk to our Base Camp at the head of the Nanth Nullah was idyllic. We were briefly spared from the monsoon rains so we could appreciate the beauty of this valley. I tried to recall memories of my passage thirteen years earlier but failed. Perhaps it was all for the good: I could appreciate my stunning surroundings with fresh eyes and loved every vista that a turn in the trail presented.

The Nanth Nullah opens up to gorgeous scenery
The Mughal emperor Jahangir is said to have quoted an old Persian couplet when he saw Kashmir : "If there be a Paradise here below, this is it, this is it, this is it!"

Wading our way through meadows sprinkled with wildflowers, waterfalls cascading hundreds of feet and creating ever changing rainbow displays as the sun caught them in its rays, breathtaking glimpses of glittering snowfields perched at impossible angles high on a towering peak, breathing in the heady mountain air with each upward step, we had to admit that the emperor had a case.

The names of the settlements we passed through had poetry resonating in their names : names like Ghunghat and Sattarchin, Hawal and Haunzar, Sueda and Sonder. Kamlesh even found the time to flirt with a pretty shepherdess who was herding her flock of sheep with the help of her little sister. The girl was stunningly beautiful and totally guileless, a true child of nature. She fitted in perfectly with her fairy tale surroundings. She thought we were a pair of crazy idiots carrying our heavy rucksacks and going up to spend a couple of weeks among rocks and snow and ice. We apologised for our misguided outlook on life and  reluctantly took her leave. As she passed us by I noticed that her feet were filthy with mud.....ah well, no one is perfect! We could hear the girls' shrill voices calling out to their charges for a long time.

Village of Sonder

The tinkling of bells announced that our pack animals were catching up with us. We quickened our pace and had to stop again to admire the view ahead : the monolith of the Eiger (6000 m) dominated the skyline as we approached Mirchin, where our Base Camp was to be. On 24 August 1989 we camped on a sandy flat with a miniature lake at one end and the moraine ridge of the Brahmmah glacier on our right. The kitchen was set up under a huge boulder and Shashi got to work, passing out steaming mugs of welcome hot chai. Ghani Chacha collected his fee, rounded up his mules and ponies, and headed back down the valley. We were now alone, at the mercy of Brahma, the God of Creation.

The last lap to Base Camp

Kishtwar Eiger, 6000 m