ALASKA

Wrangell Mountains; bush plane re-ration (Photo: Ted O’Callahan)

This is an article by invitation. The author, Ted O’Callahan, is an editor for the Yale School of Management, a freelance travel writer and an instructor with the National Outdoor Leadership School (NOLS). Here, he writes on one of his favorite places – Alaska.

All tallied, I’ve spent about 15 months on expeditions in Alaska. Most of that was working as an instructor for the National Outdoor Leadership School (NOLS). That’s a substantial investment in getting to know a place. But Alaska is too big for any person to know fully. My perspective is necessarily limited, peculiar and particular.

For starters, I didn’t know winters when if the sun is above the horizon at all, it’s only for a few hours. I’m told as long as there’s snow on the ground, doubling what light there is, the dark isn’t too bad. I’m told winters are when community really matters—human connection as a source of warmth and companionship for hunkering indoors or backcountry adventures under the aurora borealis.

Another peculiarity to my Alaska experience is that almost all of it has been in the wilderness. I’ve done little more than pass through a few of the towns. That’s in part because there aren’t that many towns. Alaska is 660,000 mi² with a total population under 750,000 (more than half of them are in and around the city of Anchorage) versus India’s 1.3 million mi² and 1.3 billion people. It’s also because I see my time in the wilderness as precious and do my best to maximize it.

In writing this piece, I want to describe four ecosystems that have meant a great deal to me. These descriptions are each postcards from places that deserve full natural histories and epic stories. While incomplete, perhaps they will encourage a few people to go explore Alaska for themselves.

Prince William Sound; paddling to a tidewater glacier (Photo: Ted O’Callahan)

Soundings

Prince William Sound, on the south-central coast of Alaska, is ringed on three sides by glaciated peaks. It’s protected from the open Pacific by barrier islands that enclose intricate waterways, fingering fjords, bays, and coves along with reciprocal peninsulas and scattered islands. The land is steep temperate rainforest—massive conifers and blanketing moss. The water is filled with a remarkable fecundity of marine life. Whales, orcas, seals, and sea lions are regular sightings, especially for sea kayakers who accept some wetness for the extraordinary intimacy that mode of travel allows.

All four of my paddling trips in the Sound have passed through the town of Whittier which is accessed by a single-lane tunnel under the mountains. About 200 people live there, almost all in one or the other of Whittier’s two apartment buildings. It’s a micro-city squeezed onto a crescent of flat land between the peaks and the water.

There are few camping options near town, so hiring a water taxi for a lift out of the fjord is a welcome option. Unlike many other wilderness areas in Alaska, Prince William Sound is an inhabited wilderness, a working seascape. There are massive ferries, cruise liners, and cargo ships. Part of Prince William Sound’s fame is the unfortunate result of the horrendous oil spill of the Exxon Valdez tanker in 1989. On a more human scale, there are the fishing boats chasing salmon.

Fishermen aren’t allowed to sell salmon directly from their boats, but even traveling in a group of 10 or 15 people, I’ve always been given more fish than we can eat. It’s possible after so much time in the backcountry we look rough enough that they’re taking pity on the dirty beasts in tiny boats with no motors. I prefer to think the fishermen see the Sound as their home, so paddlers are treated as guests.

While those salmon feasts are extraordinary, and there’s nothing like a whale breaching just a few feet away, the tidewater glaciers that run all the way out of the mountains into the sea are sublime.

Camping nearby one, you can listen to icebergs calve off, watch the waves formed when building size blocks of ice crash into the water, and in a poorly-chosen camp be swamped by the resulting wave even miles away.

Prince William Sound; temperate rain forest (Photo: Ted O’Callahan)

Gargantuan Titanic-sinking icebergs are more typical at the poles. Alaskan glaciers throw off bergy bits, chunks anywhere from the size of a melon to the size of a truck. Once in the water the ice fizzes as it melts. The bergy bits continually change color, glowing blue, milky green, white, or clear depending on the light, water color, and proximity. The large ones are sea dragons, still until they suddenly spin with perfect exuberance.

Icy Bay has a large, active tidewater glacier. When the tide goes out, its dark sand beaches become a sculpture garden of biomorphic, intermittently-kinetic ice art. Because the mouth of the bay is narrow, it can become clogged after significant calving. This will typically clear with a change of tide or shift of the winds, but on one visit we woke to find the entire bay filled in. It was like a gigantic slushy. We couldn’t see whether our ultimate egress was also blocked, but we decided to find out. We managed to make progress by paddling single file. A double kayak took the lead with the bow paddler dedicated to pushing larger blocks of ice out of the way.

Moving through the chilly fog, with no sounds but for the fizz of melting and ice chunks thunking kayak hulls, was a pleasingly eerie adventure. The ice loosened even before we left the bay, setting us free to explore the other wonders of the Sound.

Wrangell Mountains; camped on the mesa (Photo: Ted O’Callahan)

The Alaska Factor

Most of my time in Alaska has been spent backpacking. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been eating breakfast looking down a valley, up at a pass, or along a ridge, and realized I could see the spot I wanted to camp that night. No matter what the map told me, being able to see it meant I’d get there in no time. That may be true in some landscapes. In Alaska, it’s not. It’s an optical illusion, a psychological trick that’s all but impossible to recalibrate. That’s the Alaska factor. It lulls you with a compelling view of your route then turns seemingly manageable travel days into epics. No matter what you see, in Alaska, it’s bigger, harder, and farther than you think.

I’ve planned month-long routes in five different mountain ranges. Each range had a slightly different character, but they have a few things in common: there are no trails, the only person you are likely to see is the bush pilot flying in a re-ration, and that spot you’re so sure will just take a couple hours to reach will take all day, and that’s saying something in a place where the sun doesn’t set.

Of all the ranges I’ve visited, the Wrangells are the rawest and roughest. They will push, pull, jostle, and exhaust you. Simply walking across the tundra will be a workout because the tussocks are knee high. Outsized Alaska at it outsized best. In all areas, it’s wise to follow strict bear protocols because there are plenty of grizzly bear as well as herds of caribou, moose, wolves, eagles, and extra-large mosquitoes which are often described as the state bird.

Where many of the rivers I’ve encountered in the Himalaya are impassable without a bridge, Alaskan rivers frequently braid out across wide valley bottoms with gravel bars separating flows. It’s possible to cross massive rivers, if they are divided into many separate streams. Scouting a safe spot may take an entire day, and many experienced mountaineers view river crossings as the most dangerous part of their time in the wilderness.

Rivers are wildly variable. One year in the Wrangell’s I crossed Jacksina Creek far down valley where it had received the flow of many feeder streams. Another year I had to hike all the way to the source and even then we crossed on the glacier not in the fully-formed river that shot out of the ice.

Wrangell Mountains; Jaeger Mesa and Jackson Creek (Photo: Ted O’Callahan)

Key to route planning in Alaska is a strong sense of elevation. You always need to figure out where the willow and alder end and – where the mosquitoes become tolerable? The elevations vary range to range and year to year, but it’s often enough to stay above 4000 feet.

There’s a puzzle-solver’s appeal to finding a route through a range that doesn’t dip into the lower valley floors. Staying above the willow and alder bushes minimizes the bushwacking. Down low, the brush can grow so tightly it becomes impossible to get your feet all the way to the ground. You end up sort of swim-walking on a thicket of bending trunks. Except as a pass-through to higher country, I see no reason for enduring that odd, frustrating form of travel.

So why do it at all? Immersion in wilderness so vast feels like a release into possibility, tempered or clarified by knowing that humans play a small role in that place. Plus, there are thousands of staggeringly beautiful views. From one of the plateaus in the Wrangell’s you traverse an unnamed cinder cone slope until reaching a view on a world of white. Snow-covered ridges and peaks seem like waves rising above the sea of glaciers. The ice field of mountains and interlocking glaciers spreads for hundreds of miles into Canada. It’s a view few humans have ever seen.

Inuvik to Tuk; looking north at 3 AM (Photo: Ted O’Callahan)

North to the sea

Let me start by acknowledging this trip isn’t in Alaska. It’s just east into Canada’s Northwest Territories. To my credit, I was aware of that even when I did the trip in 2005. I include it because there are north-flowing rivers feeding into the Arctic Ocean on both side of the border, and when possible, I’m inclined to focus on ecological not geopolitical boundaries.

If you’re considering doing this trip yourself, pay attention now or you will miss the directions. From the town of Inuvik, put your kayak in the Mackenzie River. Paddle downstream until you reach the ocean. Turn right. Continue paddling until you see a village. That’s Tuktoyaktuk. You can’t miss it; it’s next to three pingoes.

The navigation challenge isn’t the draw; the unique landscape is. Pingos are an Arctic oddity. Ultimately, they are nothing more than hills and rarely taller than 150 feet. Quirks of the freeze-thaw cycle occurring on top of permafrost can create these eruptions of ice covered by a thin skin of soil and vegetation. But the tundra is so flat these bumps are the highest points and serve as navigational aids from the land, water, or air.

Seen from above, the ragged northern edge of the continent is lacy terrain, thousands of square miles of boggy water-pocked tundra. It’s impossible to know if there’s more land or more water. In a kayak on the river, the flat of the land turns the attention to the sky which seems bigger than it ought to be, as if someone has pulled the horizon down several degrees, as if you are viewing it through a fish-eye lens. You feel like a drop of water about to fall off the top of the world.

There’s a hypnogogic quality to travel in the far north, a dizzying dreaminess that perhaps comes from the summer sun spinning round and round in the sky. It never gets far above the horizon but neither does it set. It just scribes a low circle. The day seems to move slower. I loved the astronomical oddity of seeing the sun due north. It had been above the horizon for weeks before I arrived and would stay there for weeks after I left; a celestial marathon. The inverse—ceaseless night—occurs in winter when the sun gives the sky to the moon and the silent fireworks of the northern lights.

Inuvik to Tuk; view of pingos (Photo: Ted O’Callahan)

But, however compelling the heavens, it’s wise to pay attention to the land too because, it’s possible to encounter either grizzly or polar bears. Humans are definitely not the top of the food chain. A friend had paddled a similar route in mid-summer and was hit with a snowstorm. Yet, I paddled in shirt-sleeves, as long as there was a breeze, otherwise even some distance from shore the mosquitoes were unbearable—orders of magnitude worse than other parts of Alaska.

I’ve been told the Arctic’s flies and mosquitoes can drive caribou mad; it seems entirely plausible to me. I tried to be either on the water paddling or in the tent. Cooking was a frantic affair done in the windiest spot available and with multiple mosquito coils burning.

When I arrived in Tuktoyaktuk, the First Nation residents were finishing up a traditional hunt for beluga whales. The inhabitants of the first house I came to invited me in. The kids were eating breakfast—boiled whale with ketchup followed by a bowl of cereal.

When I asked how often they saw polar bear, the mom said one had come into town the previous winter. She said the bear knew a woman in the village who had died. It walked through town to the dead woman’s house, paused to pay its respects and then quietly left. I think my host was entirely serious, simply describing the world as she knew it. It’s possible she was checking to see if I was gullible. I’m still not sure which because it’s a place where anything seems possible.

Denali; view of Muldrow Glacier (Photo: Ted O’Callahan)

Denali

As should be familiar by now, first the caveats. I didn’t summit Denali, but in my view, I did climb it. To explain the distinction, my goal is to spend time in beautiful places. That makes me a mediocre mountaineer. This shows up in my low percentage of peaks reached versus peaks attempted. It also shows up in my tendency to select climbs with long approaches, significant time on the mountain, and limited technical demands.

In 1997, with a group of friends, I spent a month climbing Denali. At 20,320 feet, Denali wouldn’t be noteworthy in the Himalayas. But it’s the highest mountain in North America and because it climbs out of a plain, it’s also arguably, the tallest mountain in the world. Wonder Lake, where we started, is at an elevation of 1985 feet, meaning the ascent from base to summit is over 18,000 feet which is a larger vertical than much larger peaks.

From Wonder Lake, climbers typically take the Muldrow Route which was established by the first successful summiting of the mountain in 1913. It’s the least technical and slowest option for climbing the mountain. These days most people prefer to use the other side of Denali which lets them fly to a base camp at 7200 feet for faster climbs along the West Buttress.

Unquestionably, I’m impressed by the skills and drive of those who manage focused three- or four-day scramble to the top of Denali, let alone the 12-hour record for a speed ascent. It’s astounding. It’s also another species of activity from what I do. I gladly acknowledge I’ve fallen out the bottom of the mountaineering hierarchy, but I do spend time in the mountains in a way that matches my preferences and abilities.

The approach to the Muldrow involved a 20-mile hike over tundra and a crossing of the icy and massively-braided McKinley River. After crossing through McGonagall Pass, we were in a world of snow, rock, and ice. We’d sent our rations ahead months earlier to be cached by a dog-sledder. That’s the only way we could spend so much time on the mountain. Even so, much of our time was spent shuttling loads of food.

Early on, one member of the team got sick and eventually needed to be evacuated. While four of the original six-member team continued on, the days we’d expected to use to acclimatize to the altitude were used up before we got high.

It’s hard to understand the impact of altitude even on those who aren’t experiencing acute symptoms. I remember taking 15 minutes to put on my plastic boots. I hadn’t noticed the slowness except for the fact of my watch speeding ahead.

From the head of the Muldrow Glacier where there’s a gorgeous knife-edge ridge that offers access to the high country of the Harper Glacier. The upper section is harsh and austere. We moved without acclimatizing rest days to a high camp around 17,000 feet. That left us a single day to try for the summit. The day was clear if brutally cold. Three of us trudged up and off the Harper to the ridge that splits for the north and south summits.

I was so oxygen-deprived that when I had on my fleece face mask, I panicked because it seemed to hinder my breathing. I’d rip it off then my face would get scarily cold and I’d put it back on. This cycle repeated for hours.

When we reached the Football Field, a flat section leading to the summit ridge, two of us stopped knowing we were moving so slowly it would take us many, many hours to ascend the final 600 feet of elevation to the summit. We gave our third an hour to go on.

It was remarkable to look down at the peaks of the Alaska Range poking out of a cotton blanket of clouds more than a mile below us. Standing still, I could wear my face mask, and I felt strong. Each time I tried to walk all the effects of altitude return within a few steps. While our third was dealing with the altitude much better than we were, he realized even for him it would be a slow climb and we’d judiciously decided to descend together.

I wish we’d had the simplicity of completion. And that view from the tippity-top, is always what I miss when I don’t reach a peak. But I love the shaggy, gorgeous splendor of the expedition that actually happened.

Our descent to the Muldrow was a four-day gorging on gravity and the last of our rations. My hips were rubbed raw from wearing a backpack for so many hours of tromping every day. We had left a cache of extra rations on the lower glacier for our hike out. We were out of food when, within ¼ mile of the bamboo wands marking our buried plastic buckets of food, the sun turned the snow into a slush bog.

Under the snow was crevasse-wracked glacier, so we had to be roped up, but being tied together meant that with each step there was four-times the likelihood that someone would sink to the ankle, knee, or hip. When that happened, we all stopped.

Denali; view of summit from Wonder Lake (Photo: Ted O’Callahan)

We’d spent a month on the mountain hauling huge packs in freezing conditions. We’d spent a week at altitude high enough that we had no appetite. Now that we were down low again, our bodies were screaming for the debt of deferred calories to be paid. And it was implausibly hot for a glacier, for Alaska. The sun got a little hotter, the snow got a little mushier and our food got a little further away, at least in time if not distance.

It should have taken us three minutes. Instead for the next three hours someone was constantly post-holing, wiggling out of the backpack in order to be light enough to stand, hauling the pack on and in so doing sinking again. Sometimes all four of us were simultaneously struggling to stand. It would have made for a hilariously pathetic film. Eventually our absurdist ordeal ended. We reached the food, then gorged and gorged and gorged.

A few hours later we stepped off the Muldrow Glacier onto the moraine. Typically, such a landscape reminds me of a mining operation—grinding rock at a scale beyond what humans can manage. But after weeks on the ice, like sailors returning to land, in soil that was little more than powdered stone, there were a few stunted flowers. Their stems were covered by hairs, an adaptation to the hostile environment. They were unlovely, by normal flower standards, but they are still among the most delicate and sweet-smelling things I’ve ever encountered.

Final Words

Whether hiking, mountaineering or paddling, whether above the Arctic Circle or in the comparative tropics of Prince William Sound, Alaska is a marvel that rewards efforts to get to know it. In reviewing my time in Alaska to write this, I was struck with gratitude for all that I’ve had the opportunity to see and hunger to see still more of Alaska.

(The author, Ted O’Callahan, lives outside of Washington, DC. He is an editor for the Yale School of Management, a freelance travel writer, and an instructor for the National Outdoors Leadership School [NOLS]. He has led hiking, mountaineering, and sea kayaking expeditions for NOLS since 1997. Between work and personal trips, he has explored Alaska, Patagonia, British Columbia, Mexico, Ecuador, Spain, India, Nepal, and Scandinavia. He is forever seeking to balance the draws of home, new places, and old favorites. For additional information and other writing, see www.tedocallahan.com.)

AFTER THE RACE, THE JOURNEY

Meenal Kotak (Photo: Shyam G Menon)

Meenal Kotak ran her first half marathon in 2013. Since then she has been running much longer distances and, running a lot. This is her story – the mistakes she made, the projects she got into, the milestones she logged.

Early November 2017. The smoky haziness of Delhi’s smog was there even in the walkways of Connaught Place. It was a relief to step in from smog into the controlled atmosphere of the café Meenal Kotak had called from. She was on home turf; apparently a familiar customer at this café and others in the vicinity.

“ I come from a family of chartered accountants,’’ she said. Her father is a CA, who subsequently became partner in a firm of chartered accountants. His four sisters are also chartered accountants. Born 1980, Meenal grew up in an ambiance in which studies were clear priority. There was no sport. She was on the heavier side and by class twelve, weighed 70-75 kilos. Upon completing her graduate studies in Commerce (Hon) from Delhi’s Jesus and Mary College, she wanted to join the Indian Administrative Service (IAS). But when she got down to preparing for it, she found the syllabus incompatible with her nature. “ I am a very structured person. I need a plan. The syllabus for IAS was too vast,’’ she said.  On the other hand, the road to being CA seemed just her style. “ I am more of a hard worker than a smart worker,’’ she said. The effort and hard work required to clear her CA exams also resulted in a collateral gain – she lost weight, dipping to around 50 kilos. She used to study standing up. If she sat, sleep set in.

By 2004, Meenal finished her CA studies. She joined Citibank, working in corporate banking from 2004 to 2007. Alongside the inevitable tendencies of India spread its tentacles. Well-educated, well-placed young woman must marry. In family of CAs priority was CA for husband. The approach was arranged marriage. So, matrimonial columns in the media were diligently perused and every Saturday was set aside for meeting prospective candidates over a cup of coffee. Sometimes, there would be two dates. The location for many of these dates was the cafes of Connaught Place, Meenal said laughing. Eventually she met Sachin Kotak from Mumbai; a product of the Indian Institute of Management (IIM) Ahmedabad and working with Boston Consulting Group (BCG). They got married in 2007.

Meenal at her first 24 hour-run, on trail in Bengaluru’s Hennur forests (Photo: courtesy Meenal)

Post-marriage, Sachin had to shift to Germany on a training program. Meenal resigned her job and went along to Berlin. Sachin’s weekdays were spent in Oslo. To keep herself occupied, Meenal commenced learning German, biking and salsa. Then at Sachin’s suggestion, she decided to do a MBA. She cleared the required exams and joined Mannheim Business School, which had an exchange program with IIM Bengaluru. In a reversal of sorts, Sachin moved back to India after a year. Meenal, now a MBA student, stuck on in Germany. By 2009 end, her course completed, Meenal joined Sachin in Mumbai. The shift cost her any opportunity she may have enjoyed in campus placement. A few other parameters had changed – she weighed 85 kilos, had hyperthyroidism and allergic asthma. In 2010, the couple moved back to Delhi, where Meenal went to work at her father’s firm – Dhamija Sukhija & Co; it was into audit and taxation. It was also the start of another trial. The Delhi she was returning to didn’t feel like the Delhi she had left. Air pollution levels had picked up and Meenal was asthmatic.

Meenal’s brother – according to her, he was always sure he wanted to join his father’s work – had become CA and joined Dhamija Sukhija & Co. For Meenal, the firm was a tough environment initially. “ Small companies are always on cost saving mode. My work experience started at Citibank. I got even more used to corporate attitudes after marriage, not to mention, life in Germany. At my father’s firm, even interactions had to be face-to-face, not email. The initial phase was therefore testing,’’ Meenal said. After two years, she started to enjoy her work. By 2012-2013, she had also joined a gym to shed weight. As her weight slowly dropped and her back problems too reduced, Meenal became a regular 10 km-runner on the gym’s treadmill. “ I was very comfortable in that sweaty environment,’’ she said. Then a friend registered her for one of the editions of the Airtel Delhi Half Marathon (ADHM). The year was 2013, month – December. She secured a sub-two hour finish in her very first half marathon, her first outing as `runner.’ ADHM was a turning point. “I was never an outdoors person but that half marathon was a liberating experience. It was both stress buster and challenge. When it ended, a race ended for me and a journey began. There has been no looking back since,’’ Meenal said. The discovery of a running ecosystem also helped. According to Meenal, when she ran her first ADHM, the first shock she had was – Delhi has so many runners! That was potential support group for the journey ahead.

Meenal at her first 12 hour-stadium run in Bengaluru (Photo: courtesy Meenal)

Not long after ADHM, she got a timing of 1 hour 49 minutes at a half marathon in Jaipur. She was a podium finisher. Then she learned an important lesson. In April 2014 she suffered a patella injury, a consequence of doing too much too soon. Further, lost to the joy of running, she had overlooked other ingredients that mattered – stretching, strengthening and yoga. Her doctor, Dr Rajat Chauhan, advised her to reduce her pace. Meanwhile, Meenal had registered for the upcoming full marathon in Hyderabad. In 2014 she joined Delhi Runners’ Group (DRG), where one of those she met was Spanish runner, Alfredo Miranda, known to assist fellow runners improve their running. “ He is my mentor,’’ Meenal said. Given full marathon signed up for, Meenal tagged along with Alfredo for long runs. Eventually she completed the Hyderabad marathon in 4 hours 46 minutes. Just before the Hyderabad event, she chanced to read Amit Seth’s book on running Comrades in South Africa. The idea of ultramarathon, appealed. Comrades in mind, she signed up for the Bangalore Trail Ultra scheduled for November 2014. She enrolled for the 75 km-category, which entailed running three loops of 25 km each. Completing the distance in 10 hours13 minutes, Meenal had a podium finish at the event (according to her that was a course record). She was amazed by the progress in her running but not everyone was happy. Alfredo had drawn up a running plan for her; she hadn’t followed it. Dr Chauhan, who she had consulted following patella injury wasn’t amused one bit. He pointed out that Meenal was breaking rules on two fronts – she was ramping up distance too fast and her pace wasn’t slow yet.

On its website, Mayo Clinic describes bursitis as a painful condition that affects small, fluid-filled sacs called bursae that cushion the bones, tendons and muscles near joints. Bursitis occurs when bursae become inflamed. The most common locations for bursitis are in the shoulder, elbow and hip. Three to four days after the Bangalore Trail Ultra, Meenal developed bursitis in the hip. Comrades was off. Even ADHM seemed a question mark. Despite painful hip, Meenal ran the 2014 ADHM, completing it in 2 hours 05 minutes. But she suffered an asthma attack en route. “ I didn’t know what was happening,’’ she said of that phase with multiple problems piling up. Amid this she realized that the hip genuinely needed recovery. “ Alfredo hit the nail on the head when he pointed out that many of those who ran the Bangalore Trail Ultra and still did ADHM comfortably had been running for long. Their recovery system was in place,’’ she said. Meenal accepted the need for course correction. She rested for over two months. She didn’t even run on treadmill. Instead, she did strengthening exercises. In May 2015, she went for the 12 hour-stadium run in Bengaluru. In the run up to the event, she read the book by Anand Anantharaman who ran a half marathon on every continent. She asked herself: why not an ultra on every continent? At the May 2015 stadium run, she emerged a podium finisher. Since then, Meenal has been running only ultramarathons. Although anything exceeding marathon distance qualifies to be ultramarathon, in practice they come in varied formats. Some are supported long distance runs starting at point A and finishing at point B; some are on road, some are off road (trail running), some are self-supported and some – like stadium runs – are run as multiple repeats of a loop. There are runs measured by distance, where time is more a byproduct and runs measured by time where distance is byproduct. Each type of run brings its own challenge. Outdoors can be challenging because it is raw nature. But experiencing difficult terrain and weather is what motivates some runners. Loops at stadiums are in comparison more contained environment, but they can be trying for the monotony they inflict on runner unprepared for it. How do you sustain the same route for hours on end? Meenal said she likes enduring loops like those found in stadiums and specially assigned circuits. In November 2015, she completed the 24 hour-run as part of Bangalore Trail Ultra, upping the challenge from running for 12 hours, to 24 hours.

Meenal and Commodore Joginder Chandna, during a 36 hour-stadium run in Bengaluru (Photo: courtesy Meenal)

The ultramarathon is unique in that it often features dedicated support crew. Staged events typically come with their own support crew but the nature of ultramarathon is such that sometimes runners have people close to them, at hand for any required assistance. Those knowing runner well are also best placed to anticipate his / her needs or point out when things are going wrong. Sachin – at the time of writing he was a partner and managing director at BCG – became Meenal’s support crew. “ He is always there for my major ultramarathons,’’ she said. According to Sachin, he has no background in sports. The drift to being support crew was natural; it’s what good friends do for each other. Notwithstanding his considerable experience as Meenal’s support crew, Sachin still doesn’t run. “ I am a consultant. That’s what I do for a living,’’ he said in jest, explaining his link to running. Meenal is also among those who enjoy running with others. “ I can’t run alone, I need company,’’ she said. One of her regular friends in running has been Commodore Joginder Chandna. “ He is always calm and composed yet has the hunger for miles,’’ she said.

According to Commodore Chandna, he must have begun running seriously around the same time Meenal did. His first official half marathon was at the 2013 Standard Chartered Mumbai Marathon (SCMM – now called Tata Mumbai Marathon / TMM). At a DRG run in Delhi, around 2014, he met Meenal. “ She sets these huge targets and personal goals,’’ Commodore Chandna said. The second time they met, Meenal introduced him to the Sandakphu 70 Mile Himalayan Race, she was planning to go for. Such distances were new for Commodore Chandna but Meenal convinced him to attempt it. The two trained together for it although eventually that race didn’t happen due to the Nepal earthquake. That was the beginning of a partnership in running. From then till the time the naval officer left Delhi, the duo ran several ultramarathons on the domestic circuit together. Commodore Chandna said that Meenal’s propensity for big targets had an impact on his running too. “ I would have otherwise remained a runner of half marathons,’’ he said. Commodore Chandna’s first full marathon was at the 2015 SCMM (now TMM); in Meenal’s company, he has run several ultramarathons. According to him, Meenal typically ended a race already planning the next one. He felt that tendency to plan and set goals, was a product of the combined natures of Meenal and Sachin.

Sachin and Meenal on the ship to Antarctica (Photo: courtesy Meenal)

In 2016, Meenal decided to do a full marathon in Antarctica; that being logistically the most difficult in her plan to do an ultra in all the continents. She practised for it at her local park in Delhi; she wore layers of clothing during her practice runs to mimic how she would be running in Antarctica.  For the event, Sachin and Meenal travelled to Buenos Aires in Argentina and from there to Ushuaia, Tierra del Fuego. At Ushuaia, commonly regarded as the southern most city in the world, they boarded a ship to Antarctica. The event she had signed up for on the frozen continent featured a 7.5 km-loop. The course began and ended at the Russian base but passed close to the Uruguayan, Chilean and Chinese bases. “ The course was windy; slippery ice trail and the temperature ranged from minus 30 to minus 40 degrees centigrade,’’ Meenal said. She had on five upper body layers and four lower body layers plus balaclava, three caps, four socks, mittens, gloves, hand-warmers, toe-warmers – the works. The plan was to finish running at the event (it was a marathon) and then put in an additional eight kilometers to make it an ultramarathon. However as soon as the event finished and she paused to have water and take a few photographs, her body slipped into hypothermia. She started shivering. She was moved to the ship followed by a change of attire from sweaty layers to fresh ones. Meenal completed those critical eight kilometers in the ship’s gym.

Meenal and Commodore Chandna with the three service chiefs – Air Chief Marshal Birender Singh Dhanoa, Admiral Sunil Lanba and General Bipin Rawat – on Army Day, at Amar Jawan Jyoti, India Gate, New Delhi. The duo ran 21 half marathons in the days between Navy Day and Army Day (Photo: courtesy Meenal)

The next event she registered for was a 24 hour-run organized by Sri Chinmoy Marathon Team in Basel, Switzerland. With the run scheduled for May 2017 and Meenal’s regular running partner Commodore Chandna shifted to Kochi, she began looking for anyone equally committed to running, to train with. The person she turned to was Mamta Jaiswal. She had first met the software engineer, younger to her by a decade, during a project to run 42 km for ten days. On one of those days, the club Mamta was member of – Sunday Run Club – offered support. At that time, Mamta was a casual runner, doing distances of five and ten kilometers. She didn’t know anything about the ultramarathon. Impressed by Meenal, she asked if she could run with her. “ Meenal has a very positive attitude. She said – why not?’’ Mamta recalled. That was the beginning of her journey in distance running. Mamta’s first ultra was the Shimla Ultra; the list has been steadily growing. Asked if she saw herself as an ultrarunner now, she said, “ if you ask me whether that is how I see myself, I would say: I have a lot of hard work to do before I can call myself so.’’ When Basel loomed, Meenal asked Mamta if she would be interested in running at Basel. The two began training together in Delhi. “ This was my toughest training period. I wished to ramp up mileage, I also wanted to do a 100 miler in Europe,’’ Meenal said. Mamta traveled with her to Basel. It was the first time Indian women were coming all the way from India to participate in the event. “ Everything went alright for the first four hours. Then I started to cramp,’’ Meenal said. Sachin was not around as support crew. The event’s physio advised that she pack up. Meenal nevertheless managed to cover 153 km in 24 hours. She and Mamta placed third; this was despite the duo slipping to sixth position in between. However one goal stayed beyond reach on that trip – Meenal couldn’t secure her first 100 miler. In May 2017, she also participated in the 24 hour-stadium run in Mumbai, logging 137.6 km.

(From left) Aparna Chowdhury, Meenal, Ullas and Kieren D’Souza at Belfast (Photo: courtesy Meenal)

In June 2017, Meenal got the opportunity to participate at the 24 Hour World Championship held in Belfast. It is an event organized by the International Association of Ultrarunners (IAU) and held every two years. It is the only IAU event with a limited time format as opposed to being distance-based. In India, the ultramarathon had for long not been recognized formally under the many disciplines of running. According to Meenal, that situation changed mainly due to the efforts put in by Peter D’Souza, whose son Kieren is among India’s most promising young ultrarunners. The Athletics Federation of India (AFI) came around to recognizing the sport. This recognition was critical for Indian athletes participating in the event at Belfast. The course at Belfast was a 1.1 km loop; it was almost flat. As of 2017, the course record for women was 252.205 km set in 2013 by Mami Kudo of Japan (she was IAU’s athlete of the year for 2012 and 2013) at Steenbergen in Netherlands. At the event in Belfast, two women participated from India – Meenal and Aparna Chowdhury. They represented a country still new to ultrarunning and within that, having a small pool of woman ultrarunners. “ We knew we were nowhere globally but at the same time, not so very nowhere,’’ Meenal, who hadn’t run her first 100 miler till the Belfast event, said. All teams came with their own support crew, some comprehensive and drilled to perfection. For the four runners from India – besides Meenal and Aparna there were two male runners, one of who was Kieren D’Souza – Sachin was crew.

He recalled the disparity between the Indians and the others. Some of the support crew had their own physiotherapist, doctor, even dietician. Their runners had perfected their diet for such races; they also knew how to eat and drink on the go. Excuses like I don’t want to drink now or eat now – they don’t feature. What to eat and when to eat have been worked out and the support crew makes sure it happens. It enhances the number of good hours a runner enjoys. “ They have a plan,’’ Sachin said of those teams. The difference lay in the style of approach for the domestic ultrarunning circuit in India has similar 12 hour and 24 hour-runs to serve as launch pad. Traveling with Meenal, Sachin has been to several of these events. Unfortunately in India, he believes, runners don’t attach adequate priority to perfecting their on-course food intake and hydration while the presence of aid stations and the way they are managed, are taken lightly. Runners overlook timely replenishment of calories burnt and aid stations don’t proactively engage. Result – when it’s time for cutting edge competition like a world championship, there’s no plan anyone is used to, leave alone got perfected. At Belfast, Meenal completed the event with 160.4 km logged; Aparna logged 169.

Meenal with Mamta Jaiswal at the 48 hour-stadium run in Bengaluru (Photo: courtesy Meenal)

In August 2017, Bengaluru was host to a 48 hour-run. Meenal and Mamta decided to attempt it; their plan was to run together and set a new record, potentially admissible in the Limca Book of Records. By the end of 48 hours at the event, they had logged 251.6 km. Meenal plans to apply for the record under the partnership category. Running together with someone and crucially, coordinating it such that milestones reached are officially recognized as shared is not easy. It requires synchronization. This is possible when you are running loops but sustained synchronization amid runner progressively exhausted by each loop run, is challenging. “ More than commitment I would say it is the need of the hour,’’ she said placing her partnership with Mamta in the context of problems women –runners included – face in India. “ Meenal gives me energy. It is always pleasant to run with her,’’ Mamta said. At the time of writing, the next major event Meenal had in mind as part of her plan to run an ultra on every continent was a 24 hour-stadium run in Australia, due March 17-18, 2018.

On the average, Meenal ran a hundred kilometers in Delhi every week. Every two weeks the mileage built up, peaked, plateaued and then lowered. She ran five to six days per week. One day was reserved for strength training, another, for rest. What hung like a Damocles Sword was that winter smog. Meenal keeps inhaler at hand but combating environment worsening through human activity, is hardly the focus any runner seeks. It’s one of the great paradoxes of life – the refined ethic endurance sport gifts the individual and the toxicity of our collective existence we seem to have no solution for.

(The author, Shyam G Menon, is a freelance journalist based in Mumbai. This article is based mostly on a conversation with Meenal Kotak. Details of events and timings at races are as provided by interviewee.) 

A MOUNTAINEER AND HIS PLAYGROUND

Dhruv Joshi (Photo: Shyam G Menon)

Dhruv Joshi didn’t run after big, costly peaks and foreign landscapes. Instead, he favored peaks that interested him. Two other angles engage in Dhruv’s journey. The expeditions he has been responsible for, are mostly alpine style or using small teams. As yet, these trips have frequented the area around Nanda Devi in Uttarakhand, the state he hails from.

In India, the C certificate is a document coveted by members of the National Cadet Corps (NCC).

When it comes to recruitment in the armed forces, C-certificate holders have an edge over other candidates.

Dhruv Joshi wasn’t short of reason to attempt joining the forces. He hailed from Uttarakhand, a state were employment in the military and paramilitary is widespread. His father had retired as head constable in the Border Security Force (BSF) and the person he looked up to – his uncle, Colonel J. C Joshi – was an illustrious army officer, reputed in the country’s mountaineering establishment. Col Joshi had been part of many climbing expeditions in the Himalaya, served as commandant of the High Altitude Warfare School and been the second principal of the Nehru Institute of Mountaineering (NIM). Born November 1981 in Almora, Dhruv had grown up with some of the best views of the Himalaya for company. The peaks were visible in the distance from Dhruv’s house. His uncle told him the names of some of the mountains. Instances like an accident on Maiktoli in the early 1990s and a ringside view of his uncle coordinating rescue operations brought the specter of mountaineering home (at that time, Col Joshi was in Nainital and secretary of the Nainital Mountaineering Club).

Tackling the tricky ridge on Nanda Khat (Photo: courtesy Dhruv Joshi)

In 1996, at Col Joshi’s suggestion, Dhruv went on a trek to Pindari Glacier, organized by Altitudes High Adventure. The trek culminates in an arc of mountains, which as any mountain lover would tell you is impressive for the proximity to peaks it rewards the hiker. It is also noteworthy for another factor – the mountains here are linked to the architecture of peaks that shape the location of Nanda Devi, at 25,643 feet, the second highest peak in India and among the world’s most beautiful. A twin peaked-mountain, its western summit is the main one; the eastern summit – referred to as Nanda Devi East – is lower at 24,390 feet. In mountaineering Nanda Devi is revered for some interesting attributes. Access to the mountain is tough and took long to be figured out. Very few mountains have the magnificent setting it has, surrounded by high peaks providing a protective wall. Twelve of these peaks exceed 6400 meters (approximately 21,000 feet) in elevation. Further, Nanda Devi rises steep and high from the glacier at its immediate south western base. This rise measures about 10,800 feet and occurs over a span of 4.2 kilometers making the mountain pretty steep to climb. The Pindari Glacier hike ends just beyond the rim of the outer wall of peaks guarding Nanda Devi. The peaks at hand here include Baljuri, Panwali Dwar, Nanda Khat, Changuch and Nanda Kot of which Panwali Dwar and Nanda Khat are categorized as on the outer wall of the Nanda Devi sanctuary while Nanda Kot is just outside it. In between this arc of peaks lay Traill Pass; it links the Pindari Valley to Milam and Munsyari. Standing at Zero Point, where the hike to Pindari Glacier concludes, the most dominant peak would seem to be Changuch (20,741 feet). It showed up prominently in photos Dhruv took. When he shared the images with Col Joshi, the veteran mountaineer said that it hadn’t been successfully climbed yet. Dhruv remembers telling himself that he should take a shot at it some time. Right then however, he hadn’t done any mountaineering course and Col Joshi had been periodically reminding him of the need for it. The impetus manifested when despite C certificate, Dhruv’s attempts to join the army and be like his uncle, failed. In all he made seven attempts to enlist; all of them to the same disappointing result. It was time to look at life differently.

By 2004, having completed his BSc from Kumaon University and elected to do his MCA through correspondence course from the Indira Gandhi National Open University (IGNOU), Dhruv found himself in Delhi. In 2005, he eventually got around to doing his Basic Mountaineering Course from NIM. Same year, thanks to his uncle, he attended celebrations around the fortieth anniversary of the first Indian ascent of Everest (Col Joshi had been on that team). At that function in Delhi, he met Junko Tabei, the Japanese mountaineer who became first woman to ascend Everest and Maurice Herzog, the French mountaineer who in 1950 became the first person to climb an 8000 meter-peak when he and Louis Lachenal reached the summit of Annapurna in Nepal. For young man dreaming mountains and recently trained in the sport by mountaineering institute, this was interesting. Dhruv also met Col J.S. Dhillon, at that time principal of the Himalayan Mountaineering Institute (HMI) in Darjeeling. In March-April 2006, Dhruv did his Advanced Mountaineering Course from HMI. It was however a year of tragedy in the family. Col Joshi’s wife passed away, he was diagnosed with cancer and an aunt met with an accident (she too would pass away). On the way back from HMI, Dhruv spent time in Faridabad with his cousin, Vikram (Col Joshi’s son). Not long afterwards, in April itself, Col Joshi passed away in Almora. That was a trying period – three deaths in the family in a year. Dhruv shifted back to Almora. By then he was also through with those appearances before the Service Selection Board (SSB) for potential recruitment in the army. In May 2006, erstwhile army aspirant found himself working with a group of school children at an outdoor camp organized by Altitudes. Dhruv liked the experience.

On Changuch (Photo: courtesy Dhruv Joshi)

Around this time, he had begun checking out the expeditions being planned by Indian Mountaineering Foundation (IMF). IMF is the nodal organization in India for mountaineering in the Himalaya. Besides administering the sport, permitting expeditions and monitoring them, it also runs its own expeditions. Dhruv was sure that he wasn’t keen on sport climbing (which too the IMF administers); he wanted to be out on expeditions in the Himalaya. The call came a year or so later. Dhruv was working a program at a school in Coimbatore in South India, when the IMF informed him of his selection for an expedition to climb Panwali Dwar (21,860 feet), under the leadership of Col Vijay Singh Thakur. In May-June 2007, along with other team members, Dhruv was tasked with specific responsibilities; the preparatory phase at IMF lasted almost two weeks. Panwali Dwar is a lovely triangle of a peak with a prominent notch interrupting the straight upward sweep of one of its ridges. Out on the mountain, the team climbed up to the notch but had to turn back from there due to bad weather. Soon afterwards, Dhruv travelled to Ladakh. This time, in one of those moves people wishing to be at altitude do – they work any role they get just to be in the mountains – he had joined an expedition to Chamser Kangri (21,775 feet) as a High Altitude Porter (HAP). Work as HAP typically means you get a chance to climb the peak. Although he climbed Chamser Kangri, Dhruv didn’t find it challenging. It made him think of Panwali Dwar. The peak in Ladakh and the one in Kumaon were similar in height but Panwali Dwar was a challenging climb. Needless to say, thoughts of Changuch too returned. It was yet to receive a first Indian ascent. There had been a joint expedition to the peak by the IMF and Indian Navy; it resulted in two casualties.

Amid this, in 2008, Dhruv was assigned an IMF expedition to Maiktoli (22,320 feet), led by Col Vijay Singh Thakur. Maiktoli, which is on the outer wall of the Nanda Devi sanctuary, is approached through the Sundardunga Valley. Just as Changuch dominates Zero Point, Maiktoli dominates Sundardunga. Dhruv fell into the bergschrund of the mountain’s glacier when a snow bridge snapped under the combined weight of person and load. Stuck some seven feet below in the crevasse, he remembers sensing void below. Somehow he climbed back up. This was followed by bad weather and an avalanche. Eventually, having made it as high as 6200 meters (20,340 feet) or so on the peak and beset with corniced ridges ahead, the expedition turned back. It was yet again an unsuccessful trip but for a change, this one had yielded learning. In 2009, Dhruv applied afresh to the IMF for a seat on any of its expeditions. In the interim, he went on expeditions to Shitidhar (17,224 feet) and Ladakhi (17,536 feet) in Himachal Pradesh; in both cases his role ended with being at summit camp. When IMF finally called, it was to inform that he had been assigned to a joint BSF-IMF expedition to Plateau Peak (26,679 feet) in Ladakh. Among those on this trip was Loveraj Singh Dharmshaktu, a BSF officer who would go on to be the Indian climbing Everest the most number of times. It was a big team; Dhruv remembers knowing many of them from before – they were either from the hills (like him) or former course-mates from mountaineering institutes. Plateau Peak was an unclimbed peak then. In the month-long expedition, the team made it up to around 6800 meters (22,310 feet) before turning back.

View of Nanda Devi from the upper slopes of Changuch (Photo: courtesy Dhruv Joshi)

The name of British mountaineer, Martin Moran, is well known in Kumaon. In May-June 2009, Dhruv’s pet project, Changuch, received its first ascent from a team led by Martin. In August 2009, aware of Dhruv’s obsession with the peak, Altitudes – the company he worked for – launched an expedition to Changuch. The team made it up to Advanced Base Camp (ABC) at 14,670 feet. “ There is a rock wall here, which is tackled to make one’s way to Traill Pass. You climb this and then cross to the other side for the route to Changuch. We couldn’t find the proper route,’’ Dhruv said. The expedition turned back. In the heavy snowfall that followed, some of the porters ran away. Supplies were not consolidated. It was a tough situation. Somehow they wound up the trip and came down. Dhruv’s employer, the owner of Altitudes, assured him that they would return to attempt the peak again. All that Dhruv could think of was – so many expeditions done and still only one easy peak – Chamser Kangri – for summit. It hurt.

Dhruv wrote to Martin Moran explaining that he had been on expeditions including an aborted trip to Changuch. So, could he work for Martin? The reply he got suggested that he try and be liaison officer for Martin’s upcoming expedition to Satopanth (23,212 feet). In the meantime, in 2010, Dhruv noticed an option put up on the IMF website. The agency was asking visitors to suggest peaks to attempt. Dr Anil Gurtoo – whom Dhruv knew from before – had been tasked with leading an IMF expedition. Together, Dr Gurtoo and Dhruv selected Nanda Khat (21,690 feet), which stands between Panwali Dwar and Changuch on the arc of mountains at Zero Point near Pindari Glacier. Selection of peak done, Dhruv left for NIM to do his course in search and rescue. His mind was however on the proposed expedition. Almost every day, from the institute, he called up Dr Gurtoo to discuss the upcoming expedition which by now, had been approved by IMF. Conscious of his track record with only Chamser Kangri for successful ascent, Dhruv looked to Nanda Khat with hope. He knew that chances of successful summit were there. From previous trips to Pindari Glacier and higher up, he already knew the route to Camp 1. “ It seemed doable and I needed a successful summit badly,’’ Dhruv said. From his course-mates at NIM’s search and rescue course, he roped in Bharat Bhushan and Takpa Norbu (Takpa was also Dhruv’s batch-mate for basic mountaineering course). He also consulted the late C. Norbu, a senior instructor at NIM and among the best instructors the Indian mountaineering fraternity has known, for other potential candidates. The next addition was Chetan Pandey from Almora. New IMF rules required that woman mountaineers be mandatorily included. Three years earlier, in 2007, Dhruv had met Wallambok Lyngdoh at IMF. Now, given his need to know more about a woman climber from Meghalaya in India’s north-east, he called up Meghalaya Rock Climbing and Mountaineering Association and to his surprise, Wallambok answered the phone. The latter not only provided the needed details but also joined the team himself.

The snow stake which was left on the summit of Changuch. It has engraved on it, the names of senior mountaineers, to whom the expedition was dedicated (Photo: courtesy Dhruv Joshi)

The Indian style of climbing has traditionally featured large expeditions. Some military and paramilitary expeditions have even smacked of siege. Veteran mountaineer, Col. B.S. Sandhu, who was overseeing the Nanda Khat expedition, wanted the team to attempt the peak alpine style. This meant minimum support staff overall with climbers doing everything themselves on the mountain. As Dhruv had predicted, progress was smooth till ABC near the rock wall above Pindari Glacier. It took them three days to clear the wall. On top was a big glacial plateau. Weather was rough on June 22, 2010. Dhruv decided to make an all-out attempt for the summit. Nanda Khat has four summit humps of which, the third is the actual summit. Upon reaching the first of these summits they discovered that the approach to the second was along a knife edge-ridge. They sat astride it and traversed roughly half of the ridge on their butts; potential fall looming to either side. Around 4 PM they reached the actual summit. From that high point, Dhruv recalls, they looked towards Changuch and Nanda Kot, seeking climbing routes on their slopes. Then, the weather deteriorated. There was thunder and lightning and static electricity could be felt. About 8.30 PM they were able to get back on their return route; they were back in camp by midnight. Altogether, the summit bid took roughly 21 hours and thirty minutes. It was realized later that at least a part of the route taken by the team was new; no one had done that traverse earlier. It was now time for the Satopanth expedition with Martin Moran. “ Martin talks little. He is usually a serious person,’’ Dhruv said. He went with Martin and his team to Garhwal. As it turned out, bad weather ensured that Martin’s expedition to Satopanth in September 2010 was denied summit. But Dhruv considers the opportunity he got to see Martin’s management of the expedition, a chance to learn. Martin gifted him a small tent, ideal for bivouac. It was apt for mountaineer aspiring to repeat Martin’s ascent of Changuch.

In the light of the successful ascent of Nanda Khat, Dr Gurtoo recommended to IMF that Dhruv be made an expedition leader. In March 2011, Dhruv was in Faizabad when he got the call from IMF confirming his appointment. He was to lead an expedition to Changuch. “ The Pindari Valley has been kind to me. That’s where my first real summit happened and I also got opportunity to work for the first time as deputy leader and leader,’’ Dhruv said. For the Changuch expedition, Dhruv didn’t have to look far for team. He had a tried and tested team from the Nanda Khat ascent. Further, Dr Gurtoo was scheduled to lead a team to Nanda Bhanar (20,459 feet) nearby. That put old friends in the same neighborhood. Given Dhruv’s Changuch expedition was a case of attempting its first successful ascent by an Indian team and first successful attempt from the Pindari Glacier side, he got to pick his team members first. He retained Bharat, Takpa, Wallambok and Chetan. Dr Anand Vaidya from the old Maiktoli expedition came aboard as team doctor. Total team strength was eight. There were no HAPs. They hired one person for the kitchen and three helpers for the passage to Zero Point. Dr Vaidya, one team member and the lone person on kitchen duty stayed put at ABC. The rest moved up self-sustained. The route up to Camp 1 was the same as used for the Nanda Khat expedition. At summit camp, Dhruv’s walkie-talkie stopped working as did his watch and altimeter. They found there, a snow stake from Martin Moran’s expedition, which they retained as memento. The team pitched two tents – a three man-tent and the tent Martin had gifted. For summit attempt, they left the summit camp at 11.30 PM. One team member stayed back at summit camp to keep refreshments ready for the summit party when they return. The summit of Changuch was reached at 9.50 AM on June 17, 2011. For Dhruv, it was a longstanding dream coming true. “ There are two ramps before the summit. At the first ramp, Wallambok said that it was his father’s death anniversary. The rest of the team therefore asked him to go ahead. All four of us – Wallambok, Bharat, Chetan and I – reached the top. Everyone cried. Takpa was last person up. He was bewildered to find a party of grown-ups crying on the summit,’’ Dhruv said laughing. Given Nanda Kot was covered in clouds it was difficult to compose a photograph as proof of ascent. So they left behind Takpa’s prayer flag and a snow stake with the names of senior climbers they had dedicated the climb to, inscribed on it. By 11 AM they commenced return. Takpa’s prayer flag could be seen through a zoom lens from lower camp. Dhruv dedicated the climb to Col. Joshi, Col. B.S. Sandhu, Nawang Gombu and C. Norbu. Their names feature on the snow stake left on the summit of Changuch. Dhruv didn’t rest content with Changuch in the bag.

Kuchela Dhura (Photo: courtesy Dhruv Joshi)

One of the peaks visible from Changuch summit camp was Kuchela Dhura (20,650 feet). It extends at a tangent from the Nanda Kot massif, on the Munsyari side of the Pindari-Munsyari divide. It was unclimbed. Access would be through Lawan Glacier; the glacier is fed by the snows of Kuchela Dhura, Nanda Kot (22,510 feet), Changuch, Nanda Lapak (18,970 feet), Peak 6041 and Nanda Devi East.  Dhruv’s proposal for an expedition to attempt Kuchela Dhura in 2012 was approved by the IMF. An eight member team including Takpa, Chetan, Bharat, Wallambok and Dhruv was pieced together. At the same time, Dr Gurtoo took a four person team to Nanda Kot. Base Camp for Kuchela Dhura was established on flat ground near Naspanpatti on the way to Nanda Devi East Base Camp. Kuchela Dhura was totally new on climbing’s radar; no previous climbing data existed. The team decided to access the peak via its col with Nanda Kot, which had been the route of an old Japanese attempt on Nanda Kot. Summit camp was set up on the col at “ roughly 6200 meters,’’ ie around 20,300 feet. “ It was a very windy camp and most members were not feeling well,’’ Dhruv said. Two members descended to lower camp. Of the remaining, Bharat left after one night.

On summit day, Dhruv and Wallambok proceeded to the summit. “ It was a sharp ridge; quite unlike topographic maps would have you imagine. From the summit camp, summit should have been approximately four kilometers away horizontally. We covered roughly three kilometers. Then we found ourselves on the lip of a big V-shaped cleft. To get across that gap, you had to climb down and then climb back up. It was lose rock. We deemed it unsafe. So we returned to camp,’’ Dhuv said. On return, Dhruv and Wallambok were dispatched on an IMF expedition to climb Rimo I in Ladakh. The expedition had its highest camp at 7020 meters (23,031 feet), then, turned back owing to bad weather. Soon after the 2012 failed bid on Kuchela Dhura, Dhruv submitted fresh mountaineering proposals to IMF including another attempt on Kuchela Dhura. In 2012 December, Dhruv tried a winter ascent of Baljuri (roughly 19,500 feet). It is the smallest of the peaks in the arc at Zero Point in Pindari Valley. The attempt failed. He would try the peak unsuccessfully in September 2015 and April 2016. On all occasions bad weather forced him to give up. Small or big, a peak can be challenging when it wants to.

In Indian arranged marriages, once the parents have spoken to each other, the prospective bride and groom are set up for a face to face meeting in the presence of elders. On May 23, 2013, as part of a proposed arranged marriage, Dhruv went to see a girl. That ritual done he departed next day to take a client across Traill Pass, which lay between Nanda Devi and Changuch at a height of 17,428 feet. The team spent three days at Base Camp during which time the client retired from the attempt but urged that the rest of the team proceed up the pass. On the sixth day the team – now three people; Dhruv, Bharat and Vineet Kumar Saini – climbed the rock wall above Pindari Glacier. On the seventh they crossed Traill Pass. By the tenth day, they were in Munsyari. “ It was all alpine style,’’ Dhruv said. They got back to Delhi to news of the Kedarnath floods. In August 2013, the second attempt on Kuchela Dhura got underway. Dhruv was leader; Wallambok, deputy leader. Others in the team included Vijay Singh Rautela, Chitramohan, Vineet, Ram Singh Lodha, Karan Kumar and Dr Vaidya. They decided to attempt the peak via a different route. They decided to attempt it along a hanging glacier that dropped down from the summit. This way, the V-shaped cleft and its unstable rock, could be avoided. They successfully crossed the glacier and established summit camp on the col leading to the main summit. On September 6, 2013, past 8.20 AM, the team reached the summit in white out conditions. Two months later, in November 2013, Dhruv got married to Meenakshi, who he had met just before leaving for Traill Pass. He had told her in jest that he would marry her if he successfully crossed the pass.

Climbing Kuchela Dhura. The climbers are visible as specks in the top half of the picture; their rope is the faint red line down the middle of the snow clad face (Photo: courtesy Dhruv Joshi)

In May-June 2014, Dhruv was back, this time attempting Latu Dhura. Information on the Internet puts the height of this peak at 6392 meters (20,971 feet). Part of the idea behind this attempt was to recce potential routes on Nanda Devi East. Besides Dhruv, the team included Bharat, Vineet and Karn Kowshik. There were also members drawn from a recent outing with the IMF. The Latu Dhura expedition was unsuccessful courtesy unstable ice. According to Dhruv, Latu Dhura remains candidate for another attempt, another time. Also on the list of mountains to attempt are Nanda Devi East and several of the unclimbed spurs on the outer wall of the Nanda Devi sanctuary. Nanda Devi East rises on the eastern edge of the sanctuary wall and is open to climbing from the eastern side. “ My dream project – that would be traversing the ridge linking Nanda Devi main summit to its east summit,’’ Dhruv said. Nanda Devi sanctuary is a restricted area. At the time of writing this article, it was well over three decades since the mountain – religiously important locally and home to a fragile ecosystem – had been closed for climbing. For the present, Dhruv had a more realistic project to chew on – winter ascents. In 2016, he started an outdoor company, Himalpinist, along with Vijay Singh Rautela and Vineet Kumar Saini. Dhruv reasons that during the company’s many treks in the Johar Valley he should be able to position gear and what he needs for a winter climb of nearby peaks, aptly, in advance. Then during winter, he should be able to come in light and try ascending the peaks, alpine style.

(The author, Shyam G Menon, is a freelance journalist based in Mumbai. Height of peaks is as available on the Internet. This article is based mostly on a conversation with Dhruv Joshi.)          

NANDA DEVI / CLIMBERS’ PERSPECTIVE

Harish Kapadia (Photo: by arrangement)

Harish Kapadia is among India’s best known explorers of the Himalaya. Trekker, mountaineer and author of many books, he was awarded the Patron’s Medal of the Royal Geographic Society. More recently he was conferred the Piolet d’Or Asia Lifetime Achievement Award by the Union of Asian Alpine Associations. He was Honorary Editor of the Himalayan Club Journal for over three decades. He spared time to talk to this blog about Nanda Devi. The interview helps anchor other articles on climbs of Nanda Devi and peaks in the vicinity, hosted on this blog. Excerpts from a chat in December 2017:

What makes Nanda Devi unique among mountains?

Nanda Devi and the sanctuary the mountain is located in, is roughly speaking shaped like an `E,’ albeit a curved one, not angular. Nanda Devi main and east peaks form the middle slash. The mountain is surrounded by a wall of high peaks. If I remember right, on the average that wall is around 21,000 feet high and it has approximately 20 peaks above 20,000 feet in elevation. Within the walled area there are four major glaciers. Their meltwater comes out through the Rishi gorge. It is very deep and tough to navigate. It took a long time to find the way in; Bill Tilman and Eric Shipton eventually accomplished the task in 1934. All this makes the mountain special. Further, locally, the mountain is treated as a goddess. It is seen as a bliss giving goddess. The cold winds blowing in from the high plateau of Tibet are blocked by Nanda Devi and the wall of peaks surrounding the mountain. Some of it falls as precipitation and snow in the Nanda Devi sanctuary. As a result of this blocking of winds, Uttarakhand and the plains of Uttar Pradesh are shielded from cold conditions that could have affected the region’s agriculture. This role of Nanda Devi and the surrounding peaks can be understood better from Tibet, where they show up on the Indian side as a barrier. You can see this from the foot of Kailash.

Are there other peaks with a similar setting or is Nanda Devi unique in terms of the immediate surrounding geography?

I would say Nanda Devi is unique.  There are other mountains with adjacent peaks and the appearance of a group. But nowhere do you have a sanctuary like this. In fact, thanks to the peculiarity of its local geography and layout, the Nanda Devi sanctuary has its own weather system. Clouds from the outside traveling at a height of up to 17,000-18,000 feet cannot enter the sanctuary due to the surrounding mountain wall. However, by afternoon on most days, clouds funnel in from lower altitudes through the passages and saddles in this mountain architecture causing rain and snow in the sanctuary. By evening, things clear up.

You have been fortunate to spend time inside the sanctuary. Can you describe the experience?

The route is challenging but beautiful. From Malathuni Pass you descend 4000-5000 feet to Dibrugatta and then you go all along the Rishi Gorge. The path is steep. As you enter the Rishi Gorge, you have to climb a stiff rock wall posing nasty consequences should you fall. You enter the sanctuary from the west. From there you proceed inside. It is a very nice, beautiful area. Because of the clouds coming in, everyday afternoon it would rain and snow. By 3 or 4 PM, it would clear up. We used to call this the matinee show. On one occasion we were in the sanctuary to climb Devtoli peak, which stands on the southern sanctuary wall. Having climbed it from inside the sanctuary, we decided to delay our return to camp because we didn’t want to be caught in the matinee show. So we waited on the summit, till the weather cleared up below.

In mountaineering, how prized is it to climb Nanda Devi and do the traverse between the main peak and the east peak?

That traverse is an absolutely challenging experience. It has been done only once before by an Indo-Japanese team. Earlier, an Indo-French team had tried it but they did not succeed. The Japanese did it in a thorough fashion. The traverse is very unique. But otherwise, the east peak has been climbed several times now; the main peak has also been climbed four to five times. The sanctuary has been closed since 1983. Had it been open, more people would have attempted the summit. The reason given for closing the sanctuary was – environment. Successive expeditions had contributed to garbage accumulating in that pristine area. It cannot be denied. But a part of the reason for closing the sanctuary would have been the failed attempt to install a nuclear powered device on top of Nanda Devi by a joint Indo-American team in the 1960s. It was an enterprise undertaken by the intelligence agencies of both countries. China was conducting its nuclear tests in Tibet and the idea was this device on top of Nanda Devi would be able to detect any such test. If there is a nuclear explosion, then the isotope on Nanda Devi would react – that was the logic. While they were taking the device up, bad weather set in. Monsoon was approaching. So they cleared a platform on the mountain’s slopes and secured the device there, planning to return in autumn to recommence their efforts. When they returned in autumn, the device was missing. This was in 1965-66. For the next decade they kept on looking for it. I suspect this issue of the missing nuclear device may have played a role in the closure of the sanctuary. A similar nuclear powered device was eventually installed on top of Nanda Kot. It was removed after a few years, given new technologies for monitoring had developed by then.

After the Nanda Devi sanctuary staying closed for years, I was leader of a team from the Indian Mountaineering Foundation (IMF) that went in to take stock of the situation. We found few signs of the sanctuary having been actually closed to people from the outside, despite it being officially shut. The trails leading to Nanda Devi appeared regularly used and there were multiple trails even within the sanctuary. The sanctuary has four sections. Seeing how poorly the closure had worked, I asked subsequently that at least a limited number of mountaineering expeditions – say not more than two teams per section of sanctuary per year – be officially permitted with adequate regulations in place. A few officially permitted teams in the sanctuary from time to time would also serve to keep an eye on what was going on. But the suggestion was not approved by state authorities. Alongside there is also the prevailing decision by Parliament that the sanctuary be closed. A generation or two of Indian mountaineers have lost their chance to see the main peak up close.

Given its height from bottom to top and the gradient of climb, is Nanda Devi among the tougher mountains to climb?

One of the tougher mountains – yes it is. Is it the toughest? No. However one needs to draw a distinction between known routes on the mountain and unclimbed ones. One of the ultimate ascents in my opinion – waiting still to happen – is the climb of the west face of Nanda Devi. From bottom to top, this should be in excess of 10,000 feet. It is steep rock. The north face of the mountain is also difficult. But it was climbed by the Americans. The regular route on the main peak is tough but not impossible. And that traverse – that is yet to be repeated. The traverse linking the two summits is two kilometers long and at an average height of 22,000 feet. It is very challenging.

There are some other fantastic climbing challenges also remaining in the Indian Himalaya. In Ladakh you have one of the faces of Saltoro Kangri II. That peak is hard to access for climbing because it is right on the border. Then, there is a peak called Hawk on the Siachen Glacier.

(This interview is not wholly verbatim. The original text, which was conversational in nature, was edited for focus on Nanda Devi, particularly the mountain from a mountaineer’s perspective. The edited text was approved by Mr Kapadia before being published here. The author, Shyam G Menon, is a freelance journalist based in Mumbai.)

NANDA DEVI / ACCOUNT OF A 1981 EXPEDITION

Nanda Devi as seen from BrijGanj Dhura (15,308 feet), the pass between Ralam and Milam valleys. To the left is Nanda Devi East (24,390 feet) and to its immediate right is Nanda Devi Main / West (25,643 feet). This photo was taken in mid-October 2011 (Photo: Punit Mehta)

This article provides the account of a 1981 expedition to Nanda Devi undertaken by the Indian armed forces. The expedition by paratroopers was led by Major K. I. Kumar KC; Captain Lakha Singh was deputy leader. It featured two teams. Group Captain P. Venugopal SC (Retd), who served several years as Chief Instructor of the Paratroopers Training School, was leader of the team attempting the main summit (25,643 feet). Wing Commander Unni Krishnan Palat SC (Retd) was part of the team attempting Nanda Devi East (24,390 feet). In events that unfolded, he had to assume a leadership role on the east peak. Also on the expedition’s agenda was doing the traverse linking the two peaks, the first time an exclusively Indian expedition would be trying it. Across both peaks, the expedition suffered casualties; five climbers lost their lives. Nanda Devi is one of the tougher mountains to climb. The approach to the mountain is difficult; once accessed, the climb is steep and challenging

The 1981 expedition was among the last climbing the mountain from inside the sanctuary and among the last to attempt the mountain’s main summit in the era the main peak was open for mountaineering. In 1982, the Nanda Devi National Park was established. In 1983 the Nanda Devi Sanctuary was closed to mountaineering expeditions. With that, civilian access to the main summit ceased. In 1988, the Nanda Devi National Park was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Nanda Devi East remains open for climbing; its climbing route can be accessed from outside the sanctuary wall. In 1993, a 40 member-team of the army’s Corps of Engineers was given special permission to climb Nanda Devi. Group Captain Venugopal’s account of the 1981 expedition was published as part of an interview with him, in the annual magazine of Sri Shankara College, Kalady, where he had studied years ago. He provided me a copy of the magazine to flesh out a narrative besides noting down his observations and mailing them across. Wing Commander Palat wrote about his experience in one of the brochures brought out by his unit. He scanned and mailed that across to refer, edit and publish afresh. The following narrative is a mix of all three inputs. For ease of reading, after formal introduction stating rank, military personnel have been referred to by name. The reference by name is also in part to remain true to the tenor of Palat’s narrative, which was based on his expedition diary. – Shyam G Menon

In 1981, the Indian Army’s paratroopers launched an expedition to scale both Nanda Devi West and East and traverse the ridge linking the two summits. The traverse, at an altitude of over 22,000 feet, had been done only once before, by an Indo-Japanese team in 1976. According to Venugopal, an Indo-French team tried to climb the two peaks and do the traverse in May 1975. They climbed both the peaks but failed to execute the traverse. There were two attempts made on June 18 and 19; both had to be abandoned owing to bad weather.

At the time the 1981 project was announced, Unni Krishnan Palat was a Parachute Jump Instructor. He was selected as a climber along with his colleague Venugopal. Besides K.I. Kumar, Lakha Singh, Venugopal and Palat, other members of the team included Deputy Leader Namgyal, Phurba Dorji; Captain Srivastava, Captain Premjit Rokhpa, Captain Shekhawat, Captain P.D. Punekar (medical officer), Lieutenant Chib, Asst Political Leader Nima Tashi of the Special Frontier Force and a few more climbing members and members of support staff. In all, the party consisted of 20 climbing members plus support staff and high altitude porters, Venugopal said recalling the expedition.

Group Captain P. Venugopal SC (Retd) (Photo: Shyam G Menon)

The team left Agra – where the Paratroopers Training School is – by road on August 18 and reached the village of Lata near Joshimath, on August 22. On August 27, an advance party led by Lakha Singh and consisting of four climbers and 80 porters left Lata for Base Camp, a ten day-trek. The rest departed for Base Camp on September 1. Base Camp was established by September 12, on the glaciers of Nanda Devi South Basin at a height of 16,000 feet. The expedition was split into two teams; one to attempt the higher main summit and the other for the lower east summit.

The Indian Mountaineering Foundation (IMF) had a team of men and women in the sanctuary attempting the main peak. This was an important expedition. According to Venugopal, in 1949, after seeing Nanda Devi in the Indian Himalaya, American mountaineer Willie Unsoeld had decided to name his daughter after the mountain. Twenty seven years later, he came to Nanda Devi, co-leader of an expedition attempting the peak. His daughter Nanda Devi Unsoeld, who was part of the expedition, died on that trip.  Consequently it was popularly believed that the mountain will not receive woman climbers on its top. IMF’s mixed expedition of 1981, aspired to put the first set of Indian women on the summit of Nanda Devi; something it eventually did successfully. The presence of that team on the mountain meant shortage of space to pitch tents, from Camp 2 upward. The paratroopers’ expedition being military was told to delay its departure. “ We were asked not to proceed beyond Base Camp till September 25 or till the other expedition returned, whichever happened earlier,’’ Venugopal noted in the interview he gave his old college. The delayed departure meant they could end up climbing in harsh conditions.  In additional observations he mailed in, Venugopal noted that from mid-August onward, temperatures inside the Nanda Devi sanctuary drop drastically with winds at higher altitudes picking up speed, often creating jet streams. Beyond mid-September, it becomes very tough to stay inside the sanctuary due to sub-zero temperatures, high wind speed and white-out snow conditions.

Unlike on the west peak, there was no embargo on the army expedition attempting Nanda Devi East. The team therefore decided to focus first on Nanda Devi East, opening the route and sending up supplies and men. Palat was with the Nanda Devi East team.

By September 14, Prem’s party established Camp 1. Palat set off to Camp 1 from Base Camp with a load at 0600 hours. “ I appreciated the efforts of Prem and Dorji better when I carried a load myself on a route threatened by falling rocks with at its end, a steep climb of almost 800 feet up to Longstaff Col,’’ he noted. The next day, the complete Nanda Devi East party moved out of Base Camp to a Dumping Point below Longstaff Col. Dorji and Palat went up at 1630 hours. When they emerged from their tents at Base Camp, Palat recalled, Sherpas Pasang and Sonam coming to see them off; they had a flask of hot tea and insisted on carrying their backpacks. After accompanying the two climbers for half the distance, they gave them tea, embraced them and went back down wishing us luck. Longstaff Col (19,390 feet) is integral to climbing Nanda Devi East. It is a saddle on the ridge between Nanda Devi East and Nanda Khat and was first climbed by Dr T.G. Longstaff along with two Swiss guides in 1905. A rather poignant video on the garbage left behind by previous expeditions shot by Anindya Mukherjee during his 2014 expedition to Nanda Devi East (available on YouTube) provides a feel of Longstaff Col. The ridge is narrow here. Longstaff Col connects to the South Ridge climbing route on Nanda Devi East. The South Ridge route was pioneered by Polish climbers in 1939. Following the closure of the Nanda Devi sanctuary to mountaineering expeditions, Longstaff Col has been accessed from the Lawan glacier side, which falls outside the outer wall of the sanctuary. A doctor, explorer and mountaineer, Longstaff is also regarded as the first person to climb a peak of over 7000 meters, when in June 1907 he reached the summit of Trisul (23,360 feet). Trisul is part of the ring of peaks protecting the Nanda Devi sanctuary.

Wing Commander Unni Krishnan Palat SC (Retd) (Photo: by arrangement)

On September 16, while doing a load ferry to Camp 1, a falling stone hit Palat on the stomach. The team decided to stop all movement in the stone fall-area by 1000 hours as the place was dangerous once snow, which holds rocks in place, began melting in the day’s warmth. Palat shifted the temporary camp at Dumping Point, further away from the mountain slope. It was a sound decision. A few days later, an avalanche hit the old site. Then the challenge the mountain posed began to slowly reveal itself. Further climbing became extremely difficult as the fixed ropes got buried in snow. On September 17, it started snowing at 1000 hours. Progress of Sri’s party opening route to Camp 2 was also rendered slow, given bad weather. The next day, Palat went up with another load to Camp 1. Ferrying load on the tough route began taking a toll. Two climbers fell sick and returned to Base Camp.

Tashi and Palat were to lead two different parties. But both were left with only two climbers. So on September 18, Palat decided to go up to Camp 1 and replace a climber who was stuck there after losing his crampons. He decided to form a new party at Camp 1 with himself, Tashi and Sherpas, Tshering and Phurba. He set off alone from Dumping Point at 0800 hours and made it to Camp 1 in three hours. Two tents perched precariously on the narrow ridge. That was the camp site. On either side were sheer falls. On September 20, he moved up to Camp 2 at an altitude of 21,000 feet with his team under white-out conditions. “ We dug up the snow and cleared a small area to pitch our two 2-person tents to establish Camp 2. Cooking with a pump stove with no pin was tough. So we had Tibetan tea and biscuits and retired,’’ Palat wrote in his diary.

Over September 21 to 25, the team opened the route and fixed ropes between altitudes of 21,000-23,000 feet. It was not easy. “ Strong wind and continuous snowfall made things worse. Irritation came in the form of load and rations not coming up from lower camps. Plus, there was the loss of our only good ice hammer in a crevasse. We all looked forward to our 1800 hours radio contact with Base Camp and other camps perched on the main and east peaks. When that happened, there was exchange of notes and jokes and pep talk to boost morale. Sometimes Prem played tunes on his mouth organ,’’ Palat noted. On September 22, they stumbled upon an old Japanese camp buried in the snow. They kept working their way up the sharp ridge leading to the peak, establishing Camp 3 by September 25.

The next day, Prem’s party went up to occupy Camp 3 and open the route to Camp 4. Palat descended to Camp 2 to ferry load. By September 28, it was snowing heavily. It snowed so heavily through the night that Palat feared his tent may collapse under the weight of snow. Venugopal from the Nanda Devi main summit team and Prem from Camp 3 reported similar foul weather. To be watchful of when working in the mountains, especially amid snowfall and bad weather, is frostbite. It occurs when cold temperature causes skin and other tissue to freeze. Hands, feet and face are most commonly affected. Not to be confused with frostbite and according to Wikipedia, capable of affecting individuals with a predisposition for it, is chilblains. It is tissue damage caused by exposure to cold and humidity. To his horror Palat discovered that Camp 3 did not have a first aid kit. So he inquired from the doctor at Base Camp details to prevent frostbite. On September 29, Prem’s party moved up to occupy Camp 4. “ We did a ferry for them. I was getting worried that my team mates and I may not have enough strength left in us after such regular load-carrying above 22,000 feet,’’ Palat wrote. Next day, he went up to Camp 4 with load. By then two of Prem’s party had chilblains. They descended to Camp 3 with the others and then further down to Base Camp.

With Camp 4 in place, the summit was beginning to look realistic. On October 2, Prem and party came down to Camp 3 to rest, prior to their summit attempt. A day later, on October 3, Prem, Phu Dorji and a Sherpa went up to occupy Camp 4. But the third member returned soon complaining of chilblains. Prem’s party was reduced to two people.  On the morning of October 4, Palat dispatched a climber to join Prem before the summit attempt. “ But to our amazement, we discovered through our binoculars, early morning, two tiny specks moving towards the summit. They were Prem and Phu Dorji. Soon clouds enveloped the whole area. That was the last we saw of them,’’ he wrote in the article. That evening, there was no radio contact from the two climbers. Panic gripped the expedition, especially the Sherpas and porters, who considered it a bad omen and wanted to be off the mountain. A search and rescue mission was immediately planned.

Nanda Devi Main / West and Nanda Devi East (right). Purple dots below the east peak denote where the bodies of Captain Premjit Rokhpa and Phurba Dorji were spotted just above the mouth of a crevasse (Photo: courtesy Group Captain Venugopal [Retd])

Early morning, October 5, Palat moved up to Camp 4 with three members. The going was tough. The wind velocity had reached 100 kmph (jet stream effect) at that time. “ Very often we had to lie flat on the ice and anchor ourselves with our axes, to avoid being blown off the mountain. We staggered into Camp 4 at 1600 hours. Camp was just a two-person tent. We realized that Prem and Dorji had not gone prepared to endure the night. They hadn’t taken feather clothing for use in sub-zero temperature. I radioed the situation to Base Camp. I volunteered to conduct a search for the missing climbers. The leader cautioned us of the adverse weather and the danger to our own lives. Five of us spent a cold, sleepless night at 23,400 feet in the two-person tent,’’ he recalled.

On October 6, the team searched for the two missing climbers at an altitude of 23,800 feet. All that they found was Prem’s blood stained balaclava and Dorji’s ice axe (although their bodies were subsequently spotted using binoculars, they could not be retrieved as the climbers had fallen into an inaccessible area prone to frequent rock fall and avalanche). That evening Palat radioed his leader about his plans to attempt the summit the following day. “ He tried to dissuade me saying that the main concern was to retrieve all climbers to the safety of Base Camp. I realized that winter had approached the mountains and an attempt would have to be done immediately or we wouldn’t get another chance. Ultimately, I got my leader’s consent,’’ Palat said. Up at 4 AM the next day, Palat and his team had some Viva and pre-cooked chappathi, little realizing that would be their only meal for the next 30 hours. By the time the four of them put on crampons and roped up, it was 0700 hours. They made it to the slope above their camp in good time. There were two humps to negotiate on the ridge they were following. By 1130 hours they had only got past the first one. Our progress became slow. By 1300 hours they crossed the second hump and were on the snow field right below the summit. The summit ridge was steep. “ We dragged ourselves up and reached the top of Nanda Devi East at 1415 hours. The descent to Camp 4 was equally painful as we were thoroughly exhausted and it was getting quite cold. By 1900 hours we reached Camp 4. To our horror we found that Sri’s party of five was already there and squeezed into the two-person tent, the only shelter available. That night all of us piled on top of each other in a tent meant for just two. Melting snow was out of question. We went hungry and thirsty. In the bargain, I suffered frostbite,’’ Palat wrote.

The next day, Palat’s team descended to Camp 2 where to their relief they found food and a stove. Upon reaching Base Camp he was evacuated quickly to Bareilly Military Hospital and then to Army Hospital, Delhi. On October 9, Sri and his party of four climbers reached the summit of Nanda Devi East. It had its share of tragedy. Dayachand slipped out of his tent at Camp 4 and suffered a fatal fall.

Meanwhile on the main peak (west summit) of Nanda Devi, Venugopal’s team – as was expected of them – had stayed focused on route-opening and setting up Camp 1. By around the time the east summit bid was nearing the top, Venugopal had managed to lead his team of four to Camp 3 (23,000 feet) on the main peak. They got stuck there for four days due to white out conditions and raging wind. He got chilblains and returned to Base Camp for medical attention. Deputy Leader Lakha Singh and Havildar Kushal Singh climbed up to Camp 4 (24,100 feet). There, they got stuck for the next nine days. They had no food and water. Successive teams attempting to reach Camp 4 were beaten back by the weather. Many got injured. After recovering from chilblains, Venugopal led another team of four to Camp 4 on the ninth day in an attempt to rescue those at Camp 4. “ That night a badly dehydrated, blistered and frostbitten Kushal Singh arrived outside my tent and collapsed. I nursed him through the night. He informed us about the demise of Captain Lakha Singh at Camp 4 due to exhaustion and dehydration. Meanwhile another of my team members developed frostbite while yet another person vomited blood. At daybreak I instructed the sick team members to descend to the safety of lower camp. Then I singlehandedly evacuated Kushal Singh and reached him to the lower camp. He survived,’’ Venugopal said in the interview he gave the college magazine.

Nanda Devi Main / West as seen from the slopes leading to Ghia Vinayak (15,551 feet) in Central Garhwal, connecting the Alaknanda and Mandakini valleys. This photo was taken in end-October 2012 (Photo: Punit Mehta)

The following day, they formed a team of four with Venugopal as leader and climbed back up to Camp 3. The other members were Ki Kami, Sepoy Wangdu and Naik Gyarsi Ram, who was Venugopal’s trainee. The weather cleared up. They moved up to Camp 4. On October 16, while engaged in the summit bid and a mere 400 feet short of the main summit, Venugopal who had been experiencing blurred vision, became totally snow-blind. According to Wikipedia, snow blindness or photokeratitis is a painful eye condition caused by exposure of insufficiently protected eyes to ultraviolet (UV) rays. The website of World Health Organization (WHO) links the level of exposure, to the sun’s height (UV levels are most during mid-day and in summer), latitude, cloud cover, altitude (thinner atmosphere means less filtration of UV rays), the level of ozone and ground reflection. High in the mountains, the two factors catalyzing photokeratitis are altitude and ground reflection. While with every 1000 meters of altitude gained, the UV level rises 10-12 per cent due to thinner atmosphere, snow reflects as much as 80 per cent of UV rays.  Snow blindness is similar to a sunburn of the cornea and conjunctiva and is not usually noticed until several hours after exposure. Speaking to this blog, during the interactive composition of this article, Venugopal said that he had mistaken his progressively depleting vision to be a case of deteriorating weather. Eventually, he could see nothing. “ About 400 steps short of the summit,’’ while attempting to clip in and climb up, the anchor of the fixed rope came lose and he rolled down about 100 feet. He survived. His teammates offered to come down and take him up to the summit but he declined their offer. “ It was one of the most difficult decisions I have made. We had been climbing for nine hours and were exhausted. If the rest took me up, they would put their lives too in risk. I did not call off the climb because I knew it would be unfair on the others. The wind was blowing at 80-90 kmph. I told them to tie me to a rock and encouraged them to proceed,’’ he said. He told those proceeding ahead to keep photos as proof of summit for skepticism was bound to be high of summit reached in such conditions, so late in the season. One of the members came down and tied him to a rock. Then, those three proceeded to the summit. They returned to where the leader was, “ in about half an hour to 45 minutes,’’ Venugopal wrote in.

Their problems didn’t end there. Venugopal was blind and frostbitten on toes, fingers, nose and ears. While bringing him down tied to a rope, Naik Gyarsi Ram unclipped himself at one point, slipped and fell to his death. Venugopal survived two more falls but broke a rib. He decided to call off the descent. They spent the night in the open, exposed to minus 35 degrees ambient temperature and wind speed much in excess of 100 kmph. Factoring in wind chill, the actual cold felt by the body would have been significantly more. Thanks to their layered high altitude clothing and feathered jacket and trousers, they survived. “ It took another six days to crawl down the mountain and be evacuated by helicopter to the safety of the plains. Fifteen to twenty days after the accident, I regained my vision fully. After five months of hospitalization, three surgeries and partial loss of eight fingers and toes, I was back on my feet again. Six months later, I successfully argued my case with the medical board to upgrade me to a fit para jump medical category,’’ Venugopal said.

(Group Captain P. Venugopal (Retd) now lives in Bengaluru; Wing Commander Unni Krishnan Palat [Retd] lives in Kochi. The original articles they provided access to were edited into one composite text. Where required, portions were tweaked to keep the narrative focused on mountaineering and sense of context and individual. The priority has been to feel the mountain and what altitude entails; not obsess with summit. The resultant text – essentially the portions based on their earlier writings – was played back to both former air force officers before being published on this blog. The author, Shyam G Menon, is a freelance journalist based in Mumbai.)

CLIMBING BALJURI

On the way from Base Camp to Camp 1. The area around Zero Point can be seen to the center and right of center of the picture (Photo: courtesy Araib Hasan)

Some of Baljuri’s taller neighbors are counted among the peaks protecting the Nanda Devi sanctuary. Baljuri is a shade short of 6000 meters in elevation. That doesn’t make every attempt on it a guaranteed success. Mountains have their ways. In September 2017, a group of friends set out to climb the peak. They made it to the top.   

It was October 2017; festive season.

The shops in the mall were on overdrive to sell and a compere in the adjacent lobby was going ballistic about some contest underway. You shouted to be heard over the din but the din had a habit of suddenly ending when the compere zipped her mouth. That left you temporarily stuck in high decibel. You correct volume to suit revised ambiance and the compere would launch afresh shattering the equilibrium. How quiet it must have been on Baljuri – I thought. That’s the thing about a trip to the mountains. Crowds thin out. Araib Hasan, who worked at a bank in Mumbai, was just back from Baljuri.

Four friends; two had done their mountaineering course, an expedition to climb their first peak. They picked Baljuri. At roughly 19,500 feet, it is the smallest of the major peaks arrayed at Zero Point near Pindari Glacier. Small needn’t mean easy. In the mountains, a successful ascent is a case of many attributes working in your favor. Among them – you should feel good, the weather and conditions on the mountain must be supportive and costly mistakes shouldn’t be committed.

Just above Camp 1, on the way to Camp 2. The peaks in the backdrop are Changuch and Nanda Kot (Photo: courtesy Araib Hasan)

Araib hails from Bageshwar. It is the big town closest to Pindari Valley. Growing up in Kumaon, home to some of the best mountain views in India, Araib wished to climb at least some of the peaks around. In 2016, he came to know of Baljuri; a less highlighted peak from the region but one that is suitable for those making their initial forays into mountaineering. The team included his friends Adil, Nitin and Girish. They started out from Bageshwar on September 25, 2017 hoping to complete the expedition in 8-9 days. For guide, they had Lakshman Singh from the village of Wacham in Pindari Valley. The climbing boots, crampons and gaiters they needed for the expedition – they rented it from Uttarkashi’s Nehru Institute of Mountaineering (NIM). As a precautionary measure and to help acclimatize, Araib said, the team members took Diamox, the medication meant for altitude sickness. Typically, expeditions avoid use of such medicines on the approach and instead rely on adequate days on the trail and slow gain of altitude to acclimatize.

Camp 2; person in the picture is Nitin. Baljuri Col is to the right of the snow covered hump in the background (Photo: courtesy Araib Hasan)

By September 28, the team was at Base Camp, just across the river from Zero Point. Here, they met Dhruv Joshi, mountaineer from Almora. He was leading a team to Traill Pass. For a visitor to Zero Point, Baljuri, Panwali Dwar (21,860 feet) and Nanda Khat (21,690 feet) would seem as though they are rising from the same mountain massif – they are set almost in a line. The peaks are located high above and recessed, from Base Camp. The first stage of accessing the peaks is to get oneself to Camp 1, above the immediate mountain face providing backdrop for Base Camp. En route to Camp 1 the team met another group of climbers, originally headed for Traill Pass but after that attempt got aborted, settling for a shot at Baljuri Col instead. According to Dhruv, a little appreciated detail about Traill Pass is that while many people try crossing it, the success rate is not correspondingly high. On September 29, Araib’s team reached Camp 1. Here, the peaks appear more fleshed out; they seem distinct. While in the past, this area is known to have feature snow, this time around there was no snow. Next day, the team moved to Camp 2 just below the col linking Baljuri and Panwali Dwar. The route to Baljuri’s summit lay along this col.

View from just below the summit of Baljuri. The lovely triangular peak is Panwali Dwar; behind it can be seen the twin summits of Nanda Devi (Photo: courtesy Araib Hasan)

October 1 was to be summit day. Araib’s group set out from Camp 2 at 5.30 AM. There was deep snow for a while but overall they took less than an hour to reach the col. According to Araib, the route they took commenced a bit toward the side of Panwali Dwar and ran diagonally up to the col, avoiding the glacier’s bergschrund below. On the col, they paused to rest, melt water and have some hot drinks. From the col to Baljuri’s summit, it was a gentle slope albeit clad in deep snow and in portions, crevassed. The summit ridge, Araib said, was not very wide at start but quite broad leading on. Given Baljuri stands on the divide between Pindari and Sundardunga, the team could see Maiktoli (22,320 feet), the peak which dominates Sundardunga. They couldn’t see Nanda Devi from the col, Araib said. For that, another 300 meters or so of elevation gain was needed. Three team members – Araib, Adil and Nitin reached the summit at around 12.55 PM. From the summit, Nanda Devi was visible. They could also see towards Changuch and Nanda Kot. The team stayed for about 20 minutes on the summit; then turned back. On the return leg, Araib said, they had to be very careful while descending from the col to Camp 2, as the line of fall here leads to the bergschrund.

Baljuri was Araib’s first peak. Before this trip he had hiked a lot, having done treks like Roopkund, Pin Parvati, Mayali Pass and Auden’s Col. Dhruv led his team across Traill Pass successfully. An experienced climber, he has a unique link with Baljuri. He attempted Baljuri in December for a taste of climbing in winter. A further two attempts in April and September were also made. On all occasions, he was beaten back by bad weather. At the time of writing this article, a successful summit for him on Baljuri, was still awaited. Small or big, prevailing conditions can make a peak challenging.

(The author, Shyam G Menon, is a freelance journalist based in Mumbai.)