Thursday, 13 September 2018

The mountains are calling and I must go- Mt Nun Expedition-Aug18

"The mountains are calling and I must go"

It was never about Mt Nun to begin with.

It mattered less that towering at 7135 m(or 23408 ft) it was the highest peak of the Himalayan range on the Indian side of the Line of Control in Jammu & Kashmir. Nor the fact that it overshadowed the highest peaks in all the 6 continents outside Asia. Being a technical(read difficult) peak requiring mastery over high altitude mountaineering equipment was also gleaned over.
It's attraction lay in it being the stepping stone for me to summit Everest in 2019-providing me adequate elevation gain ( I had 'hiked' upto Everest Base Camp at 5380m (17600 ft) a couple of years back) and the 'window' for me to step away from work at the right time of the (financial) year.
Though it came with a catch.....actually a BIG one...

"If everything's under control, you're going too slow"

Being a difficult technical (and fatal) climb the slots were reserved for qualified mountaineers only. Which meant me being forced to sign up for a 3 week basic mountaineering course to get certified. It was easier said than done as the courses offered by the 4 different mountaineering institutes(affiliated with India Mountaineering Federation-the governing body) were all filled up for the next 2-3 yrs. With the participant age capped at 40 yrs(I had welcomed the glorious 40s nine months back) the clock was literally ticking on my dreams imploding. Plenty of deep breadths marshalling all my senses and creativity and a few days later I had somehow managed to pull the bunny out of the hat and got myself a seat for Basic Mountaineering Course at Jawahar Institute of Mountaineering(JIM), Sonamarg in July.

With a couple of months to go I turned my attention to dropping the extra flab off my body(ideal weight for someone to summit Everest is around 60 kgs) to make up for the 15 kgs of backpack I would need to carry up the slopes. The Keto (low carb diet) I was prescribed by a colleague worked like magic(single malt and sugar were orphaned as dear friends overnight) and I dropped 10 kgs in 2 months. With the help of a high-altitude Training Mask(very similar to the contraption worn by 'Bane' in 'Dark Knight Rises') my lungs felt challenged. And going to work took a whole new dimension with me climbing up the 16 storey tower twice while lugging a heavy laptop bag.

Before I realize I am at an army camp in Sonamarg rubbing shoulders with those in early 20s in learning mastery of ice-craft and rock-craft while getting my endurance tested. The nights when not on security duty(to ward off bears & terrorists) were used up to order my equipment and apparels in from the US. With me finishing a very respectable # 14 in the final endurance test(beating serious young blood within the batch of 70 odd) I was feeling relatively good when I returned back to Delhi. The next 2 weeks were dedicated to getting work stabilized before I headed out again. And the last of my equipment was brought in from Mumbai the day before I was to fly out to Leh.......everything was coming together just in clockwork.

"Good judgment comes from experience. Experience comes from bad judgment"

Packing all the gear(meds, energy food, warm clothing, climbing equipment, electronics etc) within one rucksack took the whole night and I was in airport for the early morning flight in time to meet my fellow team members(24 yr old army captain and a 18 yr old police sponsored participant). Pleasantries exchanged and the rucksacks were loaded without issues(ice axes and other sharp mountaineering gear did not raise any security alarms)...After the last 2 months of constant rush the flight offered a much needed breather. 

At a altitude of 3500m Leh offered us a chance to acclimatize ourselves over the next 2 days.
Over the last few years I had experienced varying degrees of Acute Mountain Sickness (AMS)- from thumping headaches and nausea to being served oxygen. Having gained the respect to 'work high
& sleep low and 'pace the climb up' I was laser sharp focused to not let acclimatization challenges come in the way on this expedition. Day 1 was used to just rest while Day 2 was used up to climb up a few local sights while knocking off the last of the pending things at work.
Leh Palace
The bags were finally loaded for our final car journey which took us on a picturesque drive via Kargill to the Suru Valley. The tea stop provided the perfect spot to catch the 1st glimpse of Mt Nun in the distant - it was majestic and scary in equal measure.

Mt Nun-1st sighting(right)

Mt Nun(south face)

Past of the security checkpost where we declare our ambitions to summit Mt Nun we head to the quaint picturesque village of Tongol which would serve as our final resting place. A small hike up let's us soak in the beautiful views before we return to the rest house to get the rucksacks ready for the porters to take to the Base Camp 1st early next morning.

Tongol Village

"The violets in the mountains have broken the rocks"

We are off to an early start next morning though not as early to catch the porters heading up.

The climb is relatively easy and takes us up the scenic colorful slopes littered with marmots(large mountain squirrels) and their nests(some of them clearly dug up by hungry bears)
Very soon the varying strength in the team in on clear display with us spread all over the slope....with me playing the role of the trail sweeper.
I am committed to gain 1200m altitude during the day at a measured pace so amble along soaking in the sights and the sounds and keeping my body adequately hydrated.

Past the mountain we descend into the moraine(rocky debris) and then eventually have the 1st contact with the glacier before we climb up the rocky slope to get to Base Camp.
1st contact with glacier

It takes me around 5.5 hrs to get there and when I get there I notice we have our 1st casualty. The 18 yr old participant who climbed up the fastest was experiencing headaches and vomiting and gets sent down to Tongol. Day 3 and we are already down to the 2 of us:(

"It's always further than it looks. It's always taller than it looks. And it's always harder than it looks - The 3 rules of mountaineering"

Base Camp at a height of 4600m had all the luxuries we could have dreamed off. A fully functioning kitchen(the porters had also brought a few living chicken up), a dining tent and an individual sleeping tent. 

Base Camp (4600m)
The views up the mountain towards Camp 1 were spectacular and provide the 1st glimpse of the challenge in front of us. A 200m climb upto (an abandoned) Advanced Base Camp(ABC) followed by a 300 climb up a crevasse ridden 70 degree ice wall.

The next day a warm-up climb takes us upto ABC in 2 hrs and we get down to the glacier to try out our ice shoes and crampons. The side mirrors in the car are not the only places where objects appear a bit closer than they truly are:( The climb up to Camp 1 suddenly looks a bit demanding)

Just ahead of Advance Base Camp (4750m)

We head back to Base Camp and get into a team huddle(my team member & I, the 2 sherpas and the expedition guide) to get the climb schedule agreed and aligned. The sherpas' remuneration is linked to team 'attempt' so they are geared up to get the team back quickly(irrespective of summit success) so there were intense negotiations. In the end we walk away with a good plan with 3 day contingency baked in for inclement weather and my Sherpa being promised an incentive of a successful summit by me. Next day is all about rest and carb loading.

"The best view comes after the hardest climb"- Camp 1 (5200 m)

The warm-up climb the day before was with an empty rucksack. Fully loaded on our backs the climb took on a whole different meaning. The crampons weighing down on the snow shoes were pinning the legs down  making them hard to lift.
The ice wall slope which appeared to be just in front was as eluding as a mirage.
Once at the ice wall I get a refresher crash course in the technique to climb up (the only other time I had practiced the climb was during my mountaineering course where I had climbed up a mere 2 metres that too in a 'controlled' environment)
And of course there was the matter of the rucksack which I had to lug up....and we were of course at an altitude close to 5000m which made the simple act of breathing a struggle in itself.

After what appeared liked eternity I made it up the ice wall and slumped to the ground to get some much needed rest. Alas being on crevasse-ridden territory with melting and crumbling ice and snow, pleasures like resting are fleeting. 
Being nimble is a life rewarding trait and I tried to hurry up the slopes as fast I physically could. Ropes dangling across the crevasse were a tell tale sign of where other climbers would have crossed a few days earlier only for that part of ice to have moved on.
Never did the thought of pausing to take a picture of the crevasses every cross my mind.....I wonder why;)

Once past crevasse territory I let my team loose and offered to meet them at the camp.
From what I had researched Camp 1 was the most scenic of all the camps and I was keen to soak in the sights without a rush.
Camp 1 (5200m)- Mt Nun(right), Mt Kun(left)

Dawa (my Sherpa) & I
The views far exceed the expectations. It's a clear sky and in addition to Nun we get beautiful views of Mt Kun(7077m)

"Every mountain top is within reach if you keep climbing"- Camp 2(6060m)

In my mental cockpit while all parts of my body were functioning fine there was one area I was struggling with .....the night sleep. It was really a challenge to get my mind stationary and still....after the physical challenge the whole day in sleep my mind was continuing to climb. Over the next couple of days as we climbed higher I really had to fix this.

The next day we headed for a leisurely walk on the snow field. I rationalized in favor of a reasonably flat walk preferring to avoid pushing myself up a slope to conserve strength.
Before we started off for Camp 2 the next day I removed a few other non-essentials from the rucksack. The rucksack felt a wee bit lighter though still weighed over 12 kgs. The climb which started off on the plain snow field soon morphed into the steep slopes we were anticipating. By my calculations the slope upto Camp 2 was roughly 4 times encountered on the way to Camp 1.
I put my head down focusing on the next 15 steps only, got into a steady rhythm and started chipping at it. The snowy climb soon was peppered with rocks which with the crampons on introduced an additional dimension of challenge to the climb.....and I continued to work the climb.
6 long hours later I finally made it to Camp 2- a ridge with space barely for 2 tents and with a 2000 ft drop on one side.  Camp 2 was never the place where one spends more time than required though given the difficult climb during the day we decide to recharge ourselves by resting the next day.
Camp 2(6060m)
Most of the time was spent inside the tent with us sleeping 4 inside a compact tent. The formation was chosen partly to stay sunggled and warm together and partly to pin the tent down and prevent it from being blown off from the ridge.
The most difficult part however was when one had to take nature's call. There was a rope dangling down the edge of the cliff one had to hold onto while exposing oneself to the chilly winds blowing off the ridge..I reckon 500 calories being lost just going about the morning motions.

"It’s not the mountain we conquer, but ourselves"- Camp 3/Summit Camp (6400m)
The climb to Camp 3 or the Summit Camp was relatively simple(~400m of height gain only) though being peppered with crevasses was dangerous.

After the initial 20 m climb up the rocky slope one drops 70 m down a steep snowy slope with crevasses waiting to gorge you at the bottom.
The trick in navigating crevasses is to cross them quickly. The 15-20 steps I was able to pump at a time were not helping and were slowing us down.
Once past crevasse country it was back to the steady rhythm to get me to the summit camp. 

Camp 3/ Summit Camp (6400m)

"You will climb only as high as your mind lets you"

We reached Summit Camp around 2 pm and we quickly get into a huddle to plan the summit attempt.

With the summit being ~800m higher the summit attempt is the longest and hardest of the days typically starting off at 1am. Though having just climbed up there is a worry that the bodies may not be well rested. Having said that the forecast for tomorrow looks perfect and as a mountaineer one needs to pounce on such opportunities. One thing is for certain that my slow pace threatens the 1 pm turnaround time which the Sherpas have highlighted to return from the summit.

In the end I decide to start my summit attempt at 11 pm the same day with my expedition partner starting off his at 1am. With only 7 hrs to go I dive into the sleeping bag to sleep for a few hours.
Before I know I am up at 10:30pm finishing off my porridge (breakfast) and getting my gear on for the most important hours of the expedition.

"Climbing at altitude is like hitting your head against a brick wall — it's great when you stop"

Night climbing comes with it's own set of pros and cons. With only the headlight guiding you the vision, focus and steps are limited to what you can see immediately in front of you and hence you are not daunted by the steep and long climb ahead. That was working wonders for the 15-20 steps rhythm I was in steadily chipping at the elevation gain.
It was all going fine till I came cross an ice wall to climb. After the initial few steps when I punched my right foot in, it went straight through the ice into the crevasse. I somehow summon the energy to pull my leg out and try connecting it on another part of the ice though I meet the same result....and then again and again. Like a boxer whose punch fails to land on target yet it drains him of his energy, before I know it I have rapidly depleted my energy reserves and I am literally hanging by a thread. The situation was such that Dawa my sherpa could only look down and was unable to offer a helping hand......I was now dangling for what felt like eternity and I could smell the summit slipping out of my grasp.

" You will not make it to the summit this way" barked Dawa.

That was the spark my body needed .........I took a deep breadth, marshalled all the strength my body could muster, swung myself on the rope a bit more, spread my legs a bit wider and higher, managed to make contact with solid ice and somehow managed to get myself to the top......and on we continued.

A while later the other Sherpa catches up and informs that the other team member is feeling a bit unwell so would be heading back down from Summit Camp to end his expedition.
As the last of the 2 mountaineers(my Sherpa and I) I felt the added weight of expectations weighing me down.

An hour later as we continue to trudge along Dawa discovers that the ropes have got buried under deep snow. While he goes about trying to figure out where the ropes are buried in the dark I get the much needed rest. A few minutes later he is still searching and growing restless and impatient. Standing still on a chilly mountain slope in the night is making the body cold and not helping me either. Seeing Dawa getting increasingly worked up I start debating in my head the benefits of heading back to Summit Camp and starting afresh the next day. Wisdom and courage dawns and I let Dawa know that he needs to dig out the ropes and we need to climb up. As if waiting for my prod, he somehow digs out the buried rope and begins working the ice axe to dig it out as we continue the climb up the slope in the dark.

"Only when you drink from the river of silence shall you indeed sing. And when you have reached the mountain top, then you shall begin to climb. And when the earth shall claim your limbs, then shall you truly dance"

After what felt like eternity the sun comes out.
It's a perfect day for a climb and with my focus being on the next step I need to take I am unable to soak in the scenic views around.

The climb is steep and painfully slow....
 ...the steady icy slope soon gets peppered with rocks which makes the climb even more difficult.
Dawa shouts out that the day is perfect and offering great views all around and encourages me to pick up pace. I dig into the last of my reserves and finally reach where Dawa had parked himself expecting that to be the summit. Dawa politely mentions that the summit 'top' is further up. With another rocky climb looming ahead I am forced to dig further deeper to make it to the top.

And then....there it is....The summit which you have always seen in the pictures and romanticized about is a few steps away.....Momentarily all the pain your body is enduring and the slips I have had felt all worth it.

Views of Mt Kun

Views of Nanga Parbat in the distance

"It's a round trip. Getting to the summit is optional, getting down is mandatory"

It is extremely windy at the top and having heard of climbers being blown off the mountain when Dawa gave the marching orders I was quick to follow.
Climb down the summit
The views are beautiful all around though with descents being more dangerous(than the climb up) and resulting in majority of the fatalities, I was now even more focussed on (just) the next step I had to take.

A rare sighting of K2 in the distance

I get back to Camp 3 by 4 pm rounding off an 18 hr day on a bowl of porridge....tired and exhausted sleep comes easy.

The next day we pack up the tent, load our bags and start early for our climb down. 

And soon I am back to my crevasse-country-gingerly-steps rhythm.....
We get to Camp2 in 3 hrs and I get a 5 min rest before starting down towards Camp 1.

Camp 1 appears painfully far and while on the way there I am busy negotiating a 15 min cat-nap break with Dawa. When we get to Camp 1 I get my quick nap and munch in an apple to get some energy going into my body.

The sun beating down on the crevasses seems to have softened and opened them up a bit.
The fixed rope we had used for the climb up shows the narrow shave we had on the way up.
With very few options on a clear path to take down we are forced to venture into unfamiliar dangerous country .....each step is softly placed on the ice and body weight transferred even more slowly to confirm that the ice below would hold.....
Once past the crevasses I get some life back in me though the sight of the climb down the ice wall knocks it back off me ever so quickly.

My feet are now beginning to's like having 'balloon' feet and walking on sharp rocks so every step is taken cautiously to avoid the 'burst' and lessen the pain shooting up my body.

I make it down to Advanced Base Camp where I get the crampons off my feet.
Progress is painfully slow....a 45 min normal climb down takes me 3 hrs and I finally make it past the glacial river to the Base Camp....and I head straight to the kitchen.

"A man does not climb a mountain without bringing some of it away with him and leaving something of himself upon it. "

The welcome I received back at Base Camps for the 1st time sinks in me the feat what I have achieved.
Not just being the only member from my team to summit and get back. But also the fact that a novice climber like me (the only notable mountain thing I had done earlier was to 'trek' up to  Everest Base Camp at a height of 5380 m) was able to climb up a technical high mountain like Mt Nun in the 1st attempt.

My fingers & toes are numb, blue and without any sensation as I seem to have picked up Chilblains- painful inflammation of small blood vessels in the skin due to prolonged exposure to cold.
(3 weeks later as I pen this blog I am yet to get the sensation back in my fingers and toes)

I did however leave a big part of me on the mountain when I dropped my phone on the summit!

" It is not about the peak by far
But the hills you climb everyday
In action and in your mind"


  1. What a wonderful account... Kudos for the feat and all the best for the future ones

  2. To strive, to seek, to find, and not to have embodied that spirit's to many more that are coming.

  3. Well done Amit. This is not an easy one

  4. You have totally inspired me. I wish I can do it sometime in my life. It’s amazing and the details are well captured and narrated.