Tuesday, 28 January 2014

The Chango Chronicles - 1995 : A Grip on Granite Peak






"To travel hopefully is a better thing than to arrive," wrote Robert Louis Stevenson. The Scottish writer had obviously not sampled the delights of road travel in the Himalaya. Stuck in a traffic jam on National Highway 22 below Rekong Peo, I could only hope that we would arrive at Chango the same day. A collision between a lorry loaded with rocks and a bus operated by the Himachal Roadways Transport Corporation had effectively sealed off the narrow road. The respective drivers had gone to Peo to summon the police while all manner of wayfarers emerged from jeeps, buses, lorries, cars and vans to inspect the damage and use the opportunity to urinate into the gorge of the Sutlej, flowing in a sparkling, flat, muddy ribbon far below to our right. Rajesh Thakur, whom we were paying Rs.3800/- to transport Franklyn and me from Shimla to Chango in his blue Maruti van, chattered inconsequentially with his buddy Om Prakash.



Three days earlier our flight from Mumbai had landed into the 41 deg C oven known as Delhi. We transferred to the Old Delhi railway station, baking for a couple of hours before diving into the air- conditioned bliss of the Howrah-Kalka Mail. The narrow gauge train from Kalka to Shimla was a sheer delight, its 103 tunnels spanning 95.5 km providing us with five and a half hours of travel bliss. At Rs.143 per head for First Class seats and no extra charge for our considerable luggage, it was a steal. (Railway addicts will love this BBC documentary http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZFHw3L1FXvw on the Kalka - Shimla Hill Railway)

Kalka - Shimla train at Barog station
An hour later, the police turned up, with an official photographer in tow who began to take pictures with his vintage Rolleiflex Twin Lens Reflex camera. The formalities over, the two vehicles involved reversed and went on their individual journeys. We followed in the wake of the lorry, stopped at Yangthang for a late lunch, and reached the haven of the Rest House at Chango at 5 pm to find it locked. Franklyn went into the village to look for Gimmet, the caretaker, and returned instead with Gimmet's wife who opened the doors for us. We moved the seven kit bags, two totes and two rucksacks indoors.

My journal from 7 July 1995 reads - "It feels good to be back in this wonderful village. The air is balmy, the roar of the Spiti river is in the background....the temperature is a pleasant 23 deg C.....a half moon in the sky and the orange glow on the rocky peaks....exquisite." The locals, as always, welcomed us with a smile.



A generous lunch was in store for us at Chokdup Negi's house the next day, comprised of peas, onions, radishes, rice, dal and potatoes supplemented by meat brought all the way from Kaza in Spiti and accompanied by a chutney made from fresh green chillies and mint. Luckily, we had completed all the expedition shopping and the arrangements for the mules before this rich repast, because we could barely stagger back to the Rest House where we collapsed for a refreshing siesta. Chokdup, who was Our Man In Chango was already up in the glacier with the advance team but had instructed his brother to organise our move up into the mountains.

Moonrise from Base Camp
We were a full eight weeks earlier in the season than in 1993 ( for that story see http://taccidental.blogspot.ca/2014/01/the-chango-chronicles-1993-first.html  ) and hoped that this would give us the right weather window to make an attempt on Granite Peak. Jishnu Das and Pyar Singh had arrived more than two weeks earlier with a group of students from St.Stephen's College in Delhi whom they were ostensibly introducing to the joys of Himalayan climbing up in the glacier. This would give the pair a head start as far as acclimatization was concerned and they could therefore, by default, spearhead the first moves on Granite Peak. Harsha (who was trailing a couple of days behind) and I would form the support team. It was a complicated arrangement, and was to affect how the game played out in the end.

I had met Jishnu for the first time a couple of months earlier through a common friend, Mohit Oberoi, at the sandstone climbing pit in the front lawn of the building housing the Indian Mountaineering Foundation in Delhi. A keen rock climber, he was looking for an opportunity to tackle steep rock at altitude. His climbing acquaintance, Pyar Singh, who lived in a village near Uttarkashi in the mountains of Uttarakhand, would also come along. Jishnu was almost two decades younger than me and Pyar Singh could not have been more than thirty, just like Harsha. At almost forty, I was decidedly the old fart of the team! Franklyn was the same age as me but fortunately he harboured no silly ambitions like trying to climb Granite Peak.

Lake Camp had considerably more water than in 1993
Our arrival at Lake Camp coincided with the departure of Neha and Girish, the last of the students, going down to Chango. With the help of Chokdup, who would remain with us for the remainder of the trip, we quickly established an Advance Base at around 18,200 ft. below the towering ramparts of Granite Peak. It was an impressive location. Situated at the centre of what could be termed the Chango Ice Cap, it commanded gorgeous views of Leo Pargial, Ninjeri, the two rocky summits of Pt.6180m (between which hung a steep ice field like a bed sheet hung out to dry), Corner Peak (6370m), and away to the west the sweeping curve of the glacier receded into the horizon. Marco Pallis, who had made the first ascent of Leo Pargial in 1933, had come up from the village of Nako to the west col of the mountain and was so impressed with what he saw that he wrote - "I can imagine nothing better than a season's climbing with a base camp well up on the Chango glacier.There is an abundance of suitable sites and every variety of climb within easy reach." (Himalayan Journal Vol VI page 124). Looking around me, I agreed wholeheartedly.
To the north east, the east face of Ninjeri plunged in an impressive sweep down to the glacier

Advance Base at the foot of Granite Peak (6585 m)
To the south towered Leo Pargial, 6791 metres - the highest in Chango Glacier


Further east, the attractive rocky summits of Pt.6180 metres pierced the sky

Sketch map of area

In just twelve days, I had moved from the enervating heat and humidity of Mumbai at sea level to the crisp cold air (on the first night at Advance Base the temperature plunged to minus 17 deg C) beneath Granite Peak. Up here, it was not the heat, but the altitude which made me move slower. Things improved as the days went by and I hoped I would be able to keep pace with the young lads. None of us had ever done any serious rock climbing above 18,000 feet before, so this was going to be an interesting experiment. As for me, I was considered an average climber even at sea level!

The cliffs rearing up to the peak were steep and raked constantly by rockfall; one day I saw a block the size of a grand piano detach itself from the south face and come hurtling down. Our only hope was to access the south west buttress (which formed one corner) from the right, negotiate a hanging ice field on its flanks, and try to ascend what we instinctively called The Tower, a vertical pillar which appeared to relent in angle after it merged with the upper sections of the cliff. We thought that it might be possible to ascend these sections and gain the crenellated ridge that swept up to the summit. The summit block was separated from the ridge by a significant notch. Almost 3,500 vertical feet of rock armed with hidden surprises and always protected by the unpredictable weather lay between us and the top. Nowhere was there any level ground to pitch tents. The plan was to progressively fix rope as much as we could, then move quickly up these and bivouac at some suitable point, try and reach the top from there and then descend as rapidly as we could. Even in theory, this seemed like a crazy idea; buoyed by the optimism that always accompanies the start of any venture, we sorted out the gear and prepared for our first step on the granite.



Jishnu and Pyar Singh (foreground) reach the base of the climb
Pyar Singh, Jishnu and I hiked up in 20 minutes to the start of the climb. Shod in rock climbing shoes, Jishnu set off on the first pitch with aplomb while Pyar Singh belayed him. I was content to watch the proceedings, take photos and enjoy the sunshine. After a while I dumped my load of extra ropes and equipment and went down the glacier to where we had cached some spare ropes and food two years earlier, near our 1993 Advance Base. I also managed to dig out 3 tins of milk powder and a couple of noodle packets buried for two years in the moraine. The sky had darkened by the time I returned to our present camp at 5 pm. and soft snowflakes began to fall. It snowed for four hours before letting up.

Jishnu leads up the first pitch, trailing a rope to fix. This was a rock climber's dream - perfect rock, blue skies, sunshine.
The next day, 18 July, was my turn at the sharp end of the rope. While Jishnu relaxed at Advance Base, Pyar and I jumared up to the top of the ropes and took it in turn to lead the next couple of pitches. I wrote in my diary that night - "The climbing was ...... delightful, up easy angled rock, the sun came out and it was warm. Except for gasping at altitude, everything seemed under control".

Pyar Singh (left) and Jishnu enjoy the view and the sunshine on a ledge. The tents of Advance Base can be seen inside the circle.

The snowy whiteness of Leo Pargial was in stark contrast to our mountain 
On the third day of climbing, we arrived finally at the base of the Tower. Chokdup now augmented our team and his tremendous strength helped us carry all the gear up the fairly steep ice field to the band of very broken ledges from which soared the Tower. While Chokdup and I lolled in the sun soaking in the gorgeous views, Pyar and Jishnu went to work and by the end of the day they had climbed and fixed rope to within 10 metres of the top of the Tower. The climbing was quite exposed and there were a couple of really tricky sections : I could tell by the way Jishnu remained stationary for a long time, contemplating his next move. Finally, it took Pyar's greater strength, agility and boldness to complete the section. By late afternoon the clouds had moved in and a cold wind was stirring.

Climbing on The Tower : Pyar Singh leads
Glowing with satisfaction, we came down to the tents at 6:30 pm to find that Harsha and Franklyn had arrived from Base and pitched another tent. The next day was declared a rest day by common consensus, the rationale being that now since we had a safety line all the way to the Tower, our next move would involve packing a couple of days' supplies, make the broken ledges our base and then try and move further up the mountain without having to descend to Advance Base. Chokdup took the opportunity to go down to Base to pick up more food and goodies while Jishnu, Harsha and I took a stroll towards Pt.6180 m and the north west face of Granite Peak.

Pt. 6180 m
The upper portion of the north west face of Granite Peak as seen en route to the col that separates it from Pt.6180m.
The actual summit cannot be seen from here. The high point in this photo is the northwest shoulder of the peak
The next day we stood at the bottom of the fixed rope. Chokdup (who had descended to his village to attend to an eye infection) had been replaced by Harsha who would be stepping on to Granite Peak for the first time. Electing to go first, I jumared up the initial section just when snowflakes began to fall. By the time I was halfway up the next pitch, the weather had deteriorated even further, the snow falling thick and fast, soon maturing into a full blown storm. We retreated back into the tents.

Two days later as we moved up again, while I was climbing up what I called The Grey Slabs, the expedition fell apart. Pyar Singh's reluctance to continue with the climb had become increasingly apparent. He voiced his fears about the weather and about our rather less than ideal speed. He said that we did not have much of a chance of reaching the top under the circumstances and suggested we call off the climb. His concerns were of course justified. We were heavily laden and were forced to move slowly, we were no match for his level of fitness and skill, we were a long way from the summit and there could be any number of serious obstacles further up our route. Jishnu opined that if Pyar was pulling out, then he would do the same. With Harsha still trying to acclimatize to the altitude, I was left with no choice. The dull grey weather matched my mood.



Over the next couple of days we helped Jishnu and Pyar move all their stuff down to the Lake Camp, lured by the prospect of eating the eggs that were still available there. Franklyn stayed back at Base, nursing a deep gash below his right thumb, sustained when he fell on the moraine. The 26th of July was the clearest day since we had fixed rope on The Tower and the sense of regret was partly alleviated by the smell of frying eggs and tea, wafting on the decidedly more oxygenated air as we sat on the turf next to the water. I wrote a letter to my wife and handed it over to Jishnu to post when he got to Delhi. To complete our diet, Chokdup suddenly appeared from below, bearing  a gift of fresh apricots from the village. His eyes were much better and he accompanied Harsha and me back to the Base Camp late in the evening. Even though reduced in numbers, we were not yet ready to throw in the towel. We moved back up the glacier once again.

A howling wind greeted us at the base of Granite Peak and we crawled into the shelter of the big North Face VE25 tent that we had left standing. An hour later it had subsided enough for us to venture out and pitch Jishnu's little Tadpole tent which he had been kind enough to leave behind for our use. For the next 5 days Granite Peak remained shrouded in mist and cloud, appearing totally hostile. To make matters worse, I caught a bad cold and nursed an irritating sore throat. Snow fell intermittently. To kill time, we walked around on the glacier all the way to the Kuru Tokpo Gap below the west col of Leo Pargial and climbed a steep snow gully on Pt. 6180 m to see if it could reasonably lead to the big hanging ice field that separated its two prominent summits. The gully branched to the right and led to a rather enjoyable traverse to the right, all the way to the top of a waterfall which drained the ice field. We filed this away in our memory as we had a backup plan to attempt to climb this attractive mountain if we didn't go back to Granite Peak.

The Ninjeri Gap and the gully on Pt. 6180m
Discovering that Jishnu had somehow mistakenly taken all our ice screws and some of the rock hardware down to Chango, we dispatched Chokdup in the hope of intercepting him before he left the village for Delhi. Ever obliging, Chokdup disappeared into the cauldron of cloud that constantly swept up the valley. Harsha and I went up the first two sections of fixed rope on Granite Peak, straightening it out and reinforcing the anchors on which our lives would depend. After an absorbing day on the rocks we returned to enjoy the tea that Franklyn had waiting for us.

Two days later, Chokdup returned, completing the over eight thousand feet ascent from Chango to Advance Base in one single push! He was absolutely exhausted by the time he staggered into camp. If it had been any of us, we would probably have died from such a superhuman effort. He had the ice screws with him. We had no time to lose, with only 5 days left before we had to start withdrawing from the glacier. Our vacation was coming to an end, we had families and jobs to go back to.




On the first day of August, Chokdup, Harsha and I set off for a last ditch attempt to climb Granite Peak. We were barely ten minutes from the tents when Chokdup began to vomit violently. His retching spewed out the dinner of the night before and he reeled with nausea. Perhaps he had come back up too quickly and needed to rest a day. We quickly redistributed our loads, told him to stay back and continued. A thundercloud, accompanied by flashes of lightning, added drama to our efforts as we hauled ourselves up the ropes. At a little after 5 pm we decided to bivouac, just below the ice field. The MSR stove behaved impeccably even as it began to snow, purring away steadily and kept us supplied with soup and noodles. The snow continued steadily halfway into the night. Tucked away in our bivouac sacks and clipped into an anchor, we spent a fairly comfortable night.

I woke up to an indifferent dawn.



The view from our first bivouac
In the morning we could look down at Advance Base. We saw two tiny figures moving around the tents. We hollered and waved our hands and made signs that we were going to move upwards. One of the figures seemed to have seen us and waved his hands in return. I rappelled down two rope lengths to retrieve some gear that we had left on one of the ledges and was back at our bivouac spot to relish a breakfast of Tarla Dalal's moong dal halwa which Harsha had been preparing. Thus fortified, we packed up and were preparing to get on with the business of moving on when the ropes below us tightened and a grinning Chokdup appeared over the lip of the cliff! We let out whoops of joy, thinking that reinforcements had arrived. Our cheer turned to despair when we saw that he was carrying an empty sack.

Franklyn, seeing me going down the ropes earlier, had interpreted it as a sign that we were coming down and had asked Chokdup to go up and help us down with our loads. The black humour of the situation was further exacerbated when it began to snow in earnest. Chokdup helped us move up the ice slope to another spot to spend the night while he quickly descended into the clouds. We spent a fairly miserable day at this spot, in and out of the mist. The night was no better, the ledge on which I was perched was curved like a boat and too small for me.

Our second bivouac 
A piton proved useful as a spout
When the morning came and the weather continued in the same vein, we knew we were beaten. But being the cussed souls that we are, we were not going to give up without a token fight.

"How about trying to push Pyar Singh's high point just another rope length?" I proposed to Harsha. He looked at me dubiously. Even though he knew it was going to be futile, he was sporting enough to say,"Okay, you give it a shot, I shall belay you".

Leaving everything except a rope and some basic climbing gear, we hauled ourselves up the Broken Ledges and proceeded to the base of The Tower. As we turned the corner, a wicked wind swept across the mountain and whipped the snow around our faces. With gloved hands that were numb with the cold, I climbed the Tower awkwardly in my double plastic boots. The rock was wet and slippery. Visibility kept changing, flurries of snow would blind me temporarily as I scrabbled for a toehold. I thanked God that I was clipped into the fixed rope, and I wondered how hard it would have been for us to use our ascending devices with our loaded rucksacks on our backs. I was panting with the effort as I hauled myself up another few feet to the top of the first fixed rope on the Tower.

My futile attempt to go beyond Pyar Singh's high point.
I certainly felt out of my comfort zone. In fact, if I somehow managed to progress beyond Pyar Singh's high point - which was highly unlikely - I would be putting us firmly in the disaster zone. Being married with a five year old son positively helps when taking critical decisions in the mountains. Adopting as my guiding principle the sound motto - "He who fights and runs away lives to fight another day!" - I decided to call it a day and rappelled off the Tower even as the storm increased in intensity. By the time we descended to our last bivouac spot our hands were numb.

Packing everything up and shoving the excess gear into the empty rucksack that Chokdup had brought up, we retreated down the ice to the ledge where we had spent the first night. We left the extra sack clipped into one of the piton anchors and began the harrowing abseils down to the glacier. It was dark by the time my feet touched down on reasonably level ground and we staggered the short distance back to the tents. I slipped a couple of times in the fresh snow with the fatigue. "I was tired, thirsty, frozen cold and damp", I was to write later in my diary. Granite Peak had shrugged us off as if we were some pesky little insects.

Our attempt on Granite Peak. This photo, taken 3 years later from the summit of Corner Peak, gave us an idea of  how far we were from the top!
In the next couple of days we stripped the mountain of all the fixed rope except the ones on the Tower. We left only a few pitons and some slings which might bear mute witness to our passage many years hence. Chokdup's brother Gimtey and his friend brought the mules up to Base Camp and helped us move down to Chango.

Gimtey (left) and his friend don all the hardware as we prepare to leave Base Camp
At Lake Camp we revelled in the smell of grass and the colour of the myriad wildflowers that were sprouting from unexpected crevices and cracks around the boulders that dotted the landscape. A cold rain squall did not dampen our spirits as we raced down to Chokdup's house for a hot and welcome meal.

Two days later we boarded the Shelkar - Chango - Rampur bus, to once more travel hopefully! However, our travails were not yet over. The bus went on a diversion to the village of Leo down a frightening stretch of dirt road,  packed passengers in like sardines into and out of Peo, and a stout Kinnauri lady with her little baby gleefully sat down on my lap. I would have gladly offered her my seat and stood up but she would have none of it. She insisted that we could both complete the journey sitting down - by which she meant that she would be sitting on me! Franklyn and Harsha, seated on the bench seat behind me, guffawed with laughter. Fortunately, a month of going up and down on the glacier had strengthened my thighs and I survived.




All afternoon the rain had been pelting down and it was announced at Jeori that the road ahead was closed due to a landslide. We were stuck.

However, there is always a silver lining to any situation. We hired two Maruti vans for Rs. 200 each and zipped up the 17 km to Sarahan, home to the famous Bhimakali temple, and checked into the Hotel Shrikhand to spend the night. Here we proceeded to drown our sorrows in a case of beer which gave us a good night's sleep, leaving us fresh the next day to admire the flamboyant plumage of the world's first captive bred Western Horned Tragopan in the pheasantry above the village.

Illustration by Allan Sutherland
With never a dull moment during the entire trip, I had no doubt that I would return to travel up National Highway 22 to Chango again!

View from the Broken Ledges







Traverse at Lake Camp : the challenge was not to fall into the water!

Franklyn (left), Jishnu and Harsha en route to Advance Base






Sunday, 19 January 2014

The Chango Chronicles - 1993 : First Encounter

A handshake is a wonderful thing: you can use it to say hello or to bid goodbye. I was about to say farewell to Raghu who was leaving Base Camp. As I leveraged my buttocks off the rock an excruciating pain shot up my spine from the lower back and I froze in a semi upright position. I lowered myself gingerly back onto the ground and remained there for the next couple of hours. Ajay propped me up with a sleeping bag and some clothes and I simmered in the sun at 16,500 feet on the moraine of the Chango Glacier in the north east corner of Kinnaur in Himachal Pradesh.

If I moved as much as a muscle, the pain would return. Later in the afternoon when the chill wind began to blow, Ajay and Harsha succeeded in moving me back inside the tent where I remained for the next 24 hours. This was not a propitious beginning for our little expedition to this little visited glacier.

An article by Romesh Bhattacharya in the Indian Mountaineer had first piqued my interest in the Chango Glacier. The attractions were obvious: the village of Chango nestled at 10,000 feet on the banks of the Spiti river and was accessible by public transport! Rising steeply above the green oasis of the village, the Chango torrent provided access to a glacier ringed by a host of attractive summits, none below 20,000 feet. Dominating the head of the glacier was a monolithic bastion of steep rock, unclimbed and unnamed. It had the silhouette of Batman, the caped crusader of comic book fame; we referred to it as such, though Bhattacharya preferred the term Granite Peak. The exact height of the peak was a mystery to us since the Survey of India topographical sheets of the area belonged in the "restricted" category and not available to ordinary mortals. It was surely way above 21,000 feet, second only in height to its more famous neighbour to the right, Leo Pargial.

Leo Pargial ( 6791m) from the Chango Glacier
Granite Peak (6685 m)  (Telephoto from Base Camp)
Convincing Ajay Tambe and Harsha ( who had shared the Brahmma - http://taccidental.blogspot.ca/2013/04/brahmmah-man-proposes-god-disposes.html and Dibibokri - http://taccidental.blogspot.ca/2013/10/dibibokri-dreaming-part-2-icing-on.html adventures with me ) was a cinch. Franklyn Silveira as usual opted to take care of things at Base Camp, and Raghu Iyer planned to spend a couple of days in the initial stages before heading back home.

A brief correspondence with Yousuf Zaheer who had climbed in the Chango glacier provided us with useful information on the approach walk. Harsha's friend Chetan Shah generously provided us with free truck transport up to the PWD (Irrigation) Rest House at Chango. We arrived here late in the afternoon at the end of the second week of  August, fresh from a brief trek to the meadows of Lalanti near Kalpa -  http://accidentaltrekker.blogspot.ca/2014/01/tiny-tots-in-tirung.html. It was quiet and peaceful as the dying sun played its luminous brush strokes on a canvas of soaring scree slopes that cradled Chango. The muted roar of the Spiti river filtered through the stand of willow trees that lined the road, now totally bereft of any traffic.

Chango
At 10,000 ft. the village of Chango is bordered on its sides by the Chango and Kuru Tokpo streams, both of which drop down almost 8000 feet from their glacier origins. They provide this oasis of green with a rich harvest of peas (the sweetest I have ever tasted in my life!), apples and apricots. Wholesale fruit and vegetable traders come from as far away as Chandigarh to buy the produce.

We picked up a modest supply of vegetables for our Base Camp and with the help of mules our little party of would be adventurers toiled their way four and a half thousand feet to camp among tussocks of grass which had a little seasonal stream running through.

...and the mule said, "Why can't you guys carry your own junk?". Approach Camp I
Day two found us ascending a little higher to what Yousuf had referred to as Lake Camp. The lake in question was really a little pond formed by snow melt at the base of a cliff and would dry up a month later. This would be home for the next couple of days while we shifted loads to a rather cheerless Base Camp site at approximately 16,500 ft on the true left lateral moraine of the glacier. On the plus side, we had access to a tarn for our water supply and relentlessly gorgeous sunsets when the chill of the afternoon winds died down.

Lake Camp
In a couple of days of near perfect weather we had scouted up the glacier, decided on a site to pitch an Advance Base Camp, transferred some loads and were optimistic that our new camp would put us in a position to explore the climbing possibilities on Granite Peak and the west face of Ninjeri. Our resident cook Raj Kumar kept us well nourished from his kitchen tent and the days went by in a happy kaleidoscope of physical effort, savage and stunning mountain vistas, the camaraderie in the big Wild Country Super Nova tent where the five of us would squeeze in for long sessions of card games and Scrabble fuelled by an endless supply of chai. And then the Curious Case of Aloke's Ailment took place, throwing a small spanner in the works.

Group picture with our muleteers at Base Camp
Ajay Tambe , Franklyn Silveira (second and third from left) Raghu Iyer ( standing fifth from left )
Aloke Surin (third from right, dark glasses). Raj Kumar and Harshavardhan Subbarao sitting (left and right)


The tarn near Base Camp


While I recuperated and prayed that I would be able to walk again, Ajay and Harsha made a brief foray to climb the peak right in front of us, christened Ningmari / Flat Top (6393m) by Yousuf Zaheer who had made the first ascent. With a little help from Franklyn, they made the tedious and tiring traverse across the interminable boulder strewn moraine and camped below the peak.

Ningmari / Flat Top (6393 m)
For ten days we had enjoyed an uninterrupted spell of great weather. That was about to change now. As I watched Ajay and Harsha through my binoculars the next day, they were making good progress up the slope leading to the base of the right hand skyline ridge (which in turn would lead them to the summit) when thick, menacing, black and moisture laden clouds gathered below us and rapidly advanced into the valley leading to Ningmari. In a few short hours our two friends were swallowed up in the storm that began to rage around them and they disappeared from sight.

Their first thought was to wait out the storm. When it didn't clear for a day and loosened rocks began to scream down the icy slopes, they decided to retreat to Base Camp.

In the next spell of clear weather, Ajay, Harsha and I moved our residence up to the Advance Base Camp site while Raj Kumar was told to head back down to Chango and catch a bus to Rekong Peo to see a dentist. The poor chap had been suffering from an abscess in his teeth and our stock of painkillers had failed to give him lasting relief. This left Franklyn once again the sole occupant at Base Camp - we did not worry, as he seemed to be a past master at fending for himself - on the Dibibokri trip we had left him alone at our Advance Base Camp for ten days and he hadn't gone berserk! The grazing ibex on the steep and crumbly scree slopes on the opposite bank of the glacier would keep him company.

Ajay's leap of faith across an icy runnel en route to Advance Base
The window of fair weather proved to be temporary. A bigger storm moved in and kept us incarcerated in our tents for a week. We spent the time shovelling snow off the tent, brewing endless cups of tea, playing cards, reading and jostling for the best sleeping positions. Spurred on more by boredom and ennui than any rational thought, Ajay and I made a futile attempt at trying to establish a camp at the base of Granite Peak.

Ajay (left) and I set off in the storm
Carrying heavy loads, we set off with a small measure of optimism, relieved to be vertical bipeds rather than the supine nawabs we had morphed into. Harsha preferred the horizontal mode of existence and elected to stay back. A couple of hours of battling fierce and cold winds, almost zero visibility and spindrift forcing its way into every crevice in our clothing convinced us that we were merely being idiots. We returned to the tent, thoroughly chastised and frozen to the core. It took us a couple of hours to thaw into a semblance of normality, Harsha very kindly keeping us supplied with hot soup and chai.

Advance Base after the storm
When the storm finally cleared, the granite on Granite Peak wore a liberal coating of fresh snow. We instinctively realised that we were not going to make any impression on the peak. Turning our gaze into the small subsidiary valley in front us, we agreed that an attempt to climb Ninjeri via its west face might give us something to do. Climbing into the vale, we pitched a two person tent for the three of us and dried our sleeping bags in the brief afternoon sun that found its way into this charming cul de sac. While the fabric dried, we made our way towards a small ice fall which separated the attractive rocky peak on our left from the sweeping slopes of Ninjeri's west face. We would have to either climb into the ice fall or find a way to circumvent it to gain access to our proposed route.

Ninjeri ( 6646 m) is the peak on the right
A sudden crackling sound followed by a whoosh made us glance up. Instinctively we ducked as a barrage of bricks of ice shot through the air. Ajay was hit on the hand, a piece of ice glanced off his helmet while I took three smaller hits: on my right shin, left elbow and the right side of my chest. We scampered out of harm's way, realising we were fortunate to sustain only minor injuries from the collapsing serac. Humiliated and a little shaken, we went back to the tent to pack for an early start the next day.

Ajay at Ninjeri camp
Planning to spend a night on the saddle between Ninjeri and its rocky neighbour, we packed camping supplies and climbing gear and headed for a narrow gap between the ice fall and the cliff on the left. It was dramatic squeezing through between the rock and the ice. It became even more dramatic when it began to snow and the weather seemed to be closing in again. Undaunted, we climbed a few pitches in fading visibility. The saddle appeared close but we knew that it would require three or four hours of frustrating effort to ascend the steepening ice with our loads. We had to take a decision: climbing up into another storm might not be in our best interests, as we had food and fuel to last us only for a day. We held a shouted debate on the pros and cons of proceeding upwards, the words snatched from our mouths by the freezing wind which was now howling across the ice and snow and crevasses. By a vote of two to one we decided to go down.



Heading towards the saddle
The storm increased in intensity as we descended and it was late in the evening when we collapsed exhausted into the tent. Soup and mashed potato put some life and warmth back into our tired bodies. We went off to sleep as the storm raged outside.

A few more days of snowfall finally convinced us that we were not going to climb anything. We retrieved some loads from below Granite Peak, packed up Advance Base and felt our way in almost whiteout conditions across the glacier. The crevasses were completely hidden and the diffused light under an overcast sky played tricks with my eyes as I led the way back. It was a nerve wracking traverse, knowing that if any of us fell into a crevasse with the massive loads on our backs, it would be a herculean task for the other two to retrieve the unfortunate victim. We found a huge flat boulder and cached our stuff. Now it would be a simple task to continue on down the moraine ridge to the safety of Base Camp. But our twisted minds had conjured up a last ditch attempt to justify the time and effort we had expended to come to the Chango Glacier.

Corner Peak ( 6370 m)
Across from the boulder, a small glacier led up to an attractive little summit we called Corner Peak. It was about 20,900 feet and was still virgin, though one attempt had been made in the past. We repacked our rucksacks and set off to pitch a camp late in the evening in extremely cold conditions. The initial approach was quite gentle, but it steepened quickly and the snow was deep and soft. A cold wind sprang up and frustrated our attempts to pitch the tent. One of the poles slipped from my hand and shot out of sight down a darkening slope. By the time we had settled in and nourished our bodies it was almost midnight.

Camp on Corner Peak
We spent the next day drying out our gear and hoping that our luck would change.

It didn't. Waking up at 03:45, we could only move at seven o'clock. It was brutally cold, my watch thermometer registered minus 20 deg C and the sun reached us at 06:30. Incredibly, the snow was soft and deep where we had expected it to freeze to a crunchy hardness and we were soon wading up to our knees in the stuff. We reached a bergschrund that split the face. Icicles radiated a cold, indifferent beauty. Above, the slope was composed of hard ice, which came as a surprise. Believing that we were not likely to encounter any ice after the huge snow dumps of the last couple of days, Ajay and I had blithely left our crampons behind. To compound matters, both Harsha and I had elected to leave our short axes out of our gear. So now we had one pair of crampons and one short axe between the three of us. We felt like the Three Stooges, a couple of dilettantes who had seriously underestimated the mountain.

Deep snow on Corner Peak
The yawning chasm loomed above us and beyond that the cold sun glinted off the blue ice. Ajay's feet were beginning to feel numb inside his double leather boots - his socks had not dried adequately the day before. Toiling up the soft and deep snow we were not feeling our best. It was not difficult to accept the fact that we should graciously accept the drubbing that the Chango glacier had meted out to us in the more than four weeks that we had spent in its folds. It was time to go home.



When we arrived at Base Camp late that day, Franklyn and Raj Kumar greeted us. Raj Kumar's teeth had been successfully attended to and Franklyn's solo sojourn had ended. It took us a few days more to evacuate Base Camp, waiting for the mules to show up. It was nearly the end of September and the nights were chilly. The blue HDPE plastic sheet that we had spread below the groundsheet of our big tent as added protection from the stones was frozen into the ground and it took a great deal of effort to wrench it out. I knew it would require an even greater force to stop me from coming back to the Chango. My heart was stuck as firmly as the blue plastic to this inhospitable waste of rock and ice and I knew would return.



The West Col of Leo Pargial as seen from the Ninjeri  valley

Children of Chango