The man on the climbing wall outside moved confidently, gracefully.
He initially traversed the lower routes; then climbed up, alone.
All of us, members of Girivihar, a Mumbai based-mountaineering club, returning from a climbing expedition in the Zanskar Himalaya, watched him from the dormitory of the Indian Mountaineering Foundation (IMF). It was 2004, Delhi. Abhijit Burman, who left the room to investigate, returned excited, “ that is Thomas Huber, they have come to attempt Arwa Spire.’’ Arwa Spire, Arwa Tower and Arwa Crest are snow capped peaks in the Himalaya characterised by huge vertical rock faces. Thomas was one half of Germany’s Huber brothers, famous for their ascent of such big walls. We learnt later that they successfully climbed the west peak (6088m) of Arwa Spire.
Coincidentally, four years or so after that chance encounter with Thomas Huber in Delhi, the club decided to attempt the East Face of Kedar Dome (6830m) in Garhwal. To the best of Girivihar’s knowledge, there had been no officially approved Indian civilian expedition to attempt big walls in the Himalaya. When I spoke to him for writing this article, Burman attributed the move to an attempted convergence of the club’s experience in the Himalaya and the ascent of a new generation of rock climbers in Mumbai.
More than climbing, the project would prove an expedition in learning.
Girivihar’s challenges were basic.
Kedar Dome’s East Face involves mixed climbing. To begin with, there were few people in Mumbai who combined good skills on rock and ice. The mountaineering lot were given to the Indian tradition of large expeditions with hired helps. Alpine style ascents featuring lean teams were a rarity. Many of these mountaineers were average climbers on rock. They weren’t fiercely the Himalayan type either, for mountaineering is resource-heavy; in the typical Indian environment, spending a month every year in the Himalaya is a costly luxury. And if you don’t frequent the Himalaya, you won’t be at home there. On the other hand, the best rock climbers had become Sahyadri (the hills of the Indian peninsula, called in total as the Western Ghats) crag rats never venturing into unfamiliar terrain. They had become specialized for their warm weather, climbing-ecosystem. They had no appetite for the punishment that high altitude and big, cold mountains posed. The club assembled a team largely composed of young rock climbers with a few mountaineers thrown in. At practice sessions in Pune and at Ramnagaram near Bangalore they understood how far off the mark they were in terms of teamwork and a work ethic suited to high altitude. Within months, the more experienced climbers agreed to call off the expedition. “ That first attempt was poorly imagined and planned. We had neither done proper homework nor understood what a big wall at altitude entailed,’’ Vaibhav Mehta, among the best rock climbers from Mumbai (now settled in France) and who was to lead the climbers on the wall, said. Burman and Franco Linhares, who was the club president then, travelled north to check out the targeted rock face so far studied only from Internet photos and expedition reports by foreign teams who had climbed it. In Garhwal, looking at Kedar Dome’s giant East Face, Franco was convinced of the enormity of the challenge. “ It was serious stuff,’’ he said.
As a club member, I was disappointed when the expedition was called off. Not so much for big wall lost as for an opportunity to attempt Kedar Dome in the regular mountaineering fashion. The way this trip was originally conceived, there would have been two teams on the mountain. I was to be in the much smaller team attempting a conventional ascent. Now that wasn’t to be. There is a slight vagueness surrounding the choice of Kedar Dome East Face as initial objective in big wall-climbing. Foreign reports still available on the Internet, clearly mention the nature of climbing involved. You could ask – why did the club target something as formidable as the East Face straight away? Girivihar also didn’t attempt big walls in the Sahyadri like Harishchandragad’s Konkan Kada (a huge amphitheatre of rock not far from Mumbai), which was a prized local achievement, before looking toward the Himalaya. Maybe the quality of rock didn’t appeal. Rock in the local hills, which were volcanic in origin, tended to break and fragment. Maybe the climbs were distinctly different with little learning transferable to the Himalaya. Referring to the aborted expedition, Vaibhav said, “ we had not properly thought through how to stay on the wall and were assuming that we could transfer the same Sahyadri style of climbing to the Himalaya; basically climb and set up fixed ropes, return at day’s end to base camp and then go back up the fixed ropes to start climbing from where we left off earlier. That works for the rock faces of the Sahyadri and the long warm days here. But when it comes to climbing a big wall in the Himalaya, the scale of mountain face and the variables affecting the climbing environment question such approach.’’
Notwithstanding cancelled expedition, the big wall project didn’t die.
That is Girivihar’s strength.
In 2004 when we climbed that peak in Zanskar, it was after three expeditions to the region ranging from exploratory to path finding to actual summit attempt.
Two years after calling off the Kedar Dome trip, Girivihar organized a big wall expedition in the Miyar Nala area of Himachal Pradesh. This too was based on foreign reports but the approach to the project was more realistic. Vaibhav was by then working and living at Leh in Ladakh, where he ran a climbing gym. With him moving that side, a couple of close friends, also climbers from Mumbai, had shifted there. One of them was Shyam Sanap, a strong moody climber, particularly good at bouldering. They consistently climbed in and around Leh. This – climbing at altitude (Ladakh is above 10,000ft) – fitted in with the required approach to attempting any big project – like a big wall climb – at altitude. But problems continued. Typically big wall expeditions in the Himalaya – indeed any expedition – by foreign teams are lengthy affairs because acclimatization is a must to perform well. In the case of Indian expeditions, most people are on leave from city based-jobs they can’t afford to lose. So the duration of an expedition is normally just a month. It meant that those coming from the plains were not going to be climbing at maximum strength in Miyar Nala even if they had left Mumbai’s sea level-altitude in peak form. Second, the shortage of climbing equipment lingered. The group had no multiple sets of protection devices yet. The club’s cachet of equipment, collected and preserved over the years was there. But it seemed insufficient.
On arrival at location, the team shifted the target from an earlier planned vertical big wall to a more inclined, long stretch of slab. Rock in slab form with gentler incline is a better, more forgiving medium to get used to challenges. It was blunt experiential education happening. In the Himalaya and seeing that vertical face alongside available climbing calibre and gear, the team realized they were unprepared for a combination of long climb and absolute verticality. The shift to the slab made sense.
While the slab project was on, it rained.
Enter the third problem – bad weather. People from warm peninsular India are no strangers to rain. Among Indian metros, Mumbai has one of the heaviest monsoon seasons. But how the rains feel, the way it changes the overall ambience – this takes a toll depending on where you are. Up in the Himalaya, rain meant wetness and cold. Clouds descended, visibility would turn poor. What was joyous mood of expansive mountains till some minutes ago became world shrunk to a few square metres of relevance to human being feeling cold. Very often in such situations, teams have to wind up work and wait out the bad weather. The Himalaya is an epic you tackle patiently.
I asked Mangesh Takarkhede, a seasoned sport climber and part of the second expedition what the toughest difference was between the Sahyadri and the Himalaya that he endured at Miyar Nala. “ Sitting in a tent doing nothing while the weather ran amok outside,’’ he said. Mountaineers and high altitude trekkers learn this from years of being out. Nature is not in your hands and you have to learn to be patient, last things out, sometimes work despite it. But urban climbing, even sport climbing (which is climbing on pre-designed, pre-set routes and is the style that hosts climbing competitions), is a different animal. It is young, impatient and increasingly in a self endorsing cocoon narrowly focused on climbing to the expense of all else. Bad weather and the unpredictability of mountain terrain aren’t a problem in the controlled conditions of a climbing gym – are they? Vaibhav himself admitted that he would rather climb than hike although hiking is the only way man properly understands any terrestrial environment. In the limited window of opportunity available, the team nevertheless ascended several pitches (rope-lengths) up the chosen rock slab, some getting their first taste of Himalayan rock and rock climbing at altitude. According to the club’s in-house report, “ In this first exploratory trip, The team succeeded in climbing a 1100m long virgin rock face, with climbing grade of about 5A and total of 23 pitches. The two team members who summitted were Vaibhav Mehta and Shyam Sanap, while others climbed a 600m route on the same face.’’
In 2012, a third big wall expedition was mounted. This time the objective was Miyar Nala’s Toro Peak, already climbed by a foreign climber who had left behind route details. Weather was good. The team climbed Toro Peak two times that month. It showed their growing comfort with the environment. The club’s report said, “ we succeeded in a pure rock climbing ascent of Toro Peak (4860mts)’’ They opened two new routes, one being a central route of 550m; the other, a South Eastern ridge of 400m. Two separate climbing teams, one of three climbers and the other, of two climbers, topped. The climbing grades appeared easy overall save for the final portions. The report indicated a long day (over 12 hours) from base camp to summit and back. To be factored in additionally would be the effect of altitude on human effort. All in all, it was a more encouraging outcome than happened on the previous trip.
But problems persisted. Given ancient volcanic rock that breaks off periodically, many routes in the Sahyadri have shifted to being bolted, diluting to that extent the climber’s ownership of protection placed. It frees him to climb but removes a critical component of true climbing from the frame, which is – you are responsible for your safety and should therefore know how to place protection. Further, for the few still doing traditional climbing (trad) this way in the Sahyadri, Himalayan rock (nature of rock influences equipment placement style) was new. Result – the required trad climbing competence wasn’t second nature yet for the team. In contrast, years ago, Girivihar had pioneered civilian mountaineering from Mumbai, including the first civilian expedition to the Himalaya from Maharashtra and the first Indian civilian attempt to scale an 8000m peak, Mt Kanchenjunga. In the Sahyadri, it had trekked hard and climbed pinnacles. It had a past that was rich in Himalayan experience and trad climbing in the Sahyadri. Now it celebrated sport climbing and was identified best with an annual sport climbing competition on artificial climbing walls. Perhaps the unnoticed drift here had been acclimatizing to staged-events? Psychologically, this was a shift from the typical Himalayan environment and the whole deal of being outdoors. What Mangesh said had more to it than met the eye. An observation by Vaibhav also struck similar note. According to him, unlike in the Sahyadri, where rain is seasonal and spring and winter have nice dry days, a variety of factors affect the climber’s window in the Himalaya. When the weather is apt, you have to use it well. The climber has to be efficient; something particularly important on big walls where rope and gear can be many. Vaibhav felt that climbers from the smaller, sunny Sahyadri hills, while certainly good on rock, had slipped into a comfort zone (he didn’t spare himself). It was a bit like Sahyadri all the time, everywhere, when all the time and everywhere wasn’t Sahyadri. The biggest handicap born from comfort zone is ego. It blocks change. Arguments erupted at altitude among the participants during the second Miyar Nala trip causing fissures in the team. That’s how much a change to familiar context can mean. Equally, that’s how much an attempt to do something new can teach.
After three expeditions (including the one that was cancelled) and Toro Peak done, Vaibhav believed there was a lot to learn before the team could be on a genuine big wall. He was yet to trad-climb in the Himalaya with the same top notch calibre that he was capable of at lower altitudes in peninsular India. He wanted that flow to happen. “ I wish to climb hard on rock, at altitude,’’ he said in the Navi Mumbai suburb of Belapur, where preparations were on early January 2013 for the 10th edition of Girivihar’s annual climbing competition featuring sport climbers from home and overseas. That was the story till then of the first Indian civilian attempt to climb a big wall in the Himalaya. What they did does not match the visual impact of typical big wall-imagery from overseas or even such imagery from the rock faces of peninsular India, an environment they were used to. But they looked in the big wall mirror of the Himalaya and saw themselves. They knew where they stood. Knowing them, the team should be back for more. Vaibhav felt that a big wall expedition in the Himalaya could be candidate to collaborate with foreigners who had done it before. “ You learn a lot,’’ he said.
Perhaps that gentleman, from a morning long ago at the IMF climbing wall, should hear this.
Girivihar, on gauging the competence of its original big wall team, did the right thing by calling off the Kedar Dome East Face expedition and choosing instead to start from basics in Miyar Nalla. It may have been humbling but in climbing, such decisions in the interest of safety are as highly respected as a climb well done.
Among information studied by the club for the proposed Kedar Dome East Face expedition was material on the ascent of the peak’s South East pillar by Englishmen Tim Emmett and Ian Parnell. It showed the nature of difficulty in big wall climbs at altitude, the equation between chance and luck and the climbing styles unique to each team.
The crux of their climb was high up at around 6000m. The degree of difficulty of this portion was estimated as 6c in accordance with the French system of grading. To put it in perspective, while there are climbers in Mumbai who have climbed at grades beyond this level, the said portion is at 6000m altitude where oxygen is less and exertion would be tiring, not to mention, the risks associated with a 2000m rock face. You are also carrying stuff you need on the wall. In an interview to planetfear.com Parnell said, “ As usual we carried no bolts and had a pretty light rack, only six pitons, which we placed about once each. We were very lucky to find good tent sites except for one day where we had to bivi* on some poor sloping ledges halfway up the final rock headwall, shivering the night away racked by continuous stone fall. The main difficulty on top of the crux pitches was following with a big rucksack, which was very tiring.’’ According to him there were times when they cried; sometimes, threw up from the strain. Plus, “ add to this the first 600m section we climbed in the night, which included some terrible rock with no protection and no belay.’’
The crux was on-sighted (that is, climbed without any prior information about the specifics of the route; discovering it as you climb) by Emmett, who was described as among Britain’s strongest all-round climbers. He called it the most demanding piece of climbing he had done without falls. Interestingly, while Parnell was well experienced in the world’s big mountains, this was apparently Emmett’s first trip to the Himalaya and only his second alpine climb.
*Bivi is colloquial for bivouac, which is to camp while still on a climbing route. This spans being in a portaledge (a small, hanging tent) on a rock face to using any other type of shelter to having no formal shelter, spending the night on some ledge, sometimes with sleeping bag, sometimes, without.
(PLEASE SEE PART TWO OF STORY FOR EXPLANATORY NOTES)
(The author, Shyam G Menon, is a freelance journalist based in Mumbai. He would like to thank Sharad Chandra and Franco Linhares for permitting the use of photographs from their collection. An abridged version of this article was published in Man’s World magazine.)