2018 HIMALAYAN CLUB SEMINAR / MICK FOWLER MADE HONORARY MEMBER

Veteran mountaineer Harish Kapadia provides the audience an overview of the Himalayan Club’s history. As of 2018, the club was 90 years old. (Photo: Shyam G Menon)

The 2018 annual seminar of the Himalayan Club stayed true to how the world of hiking and climbing has always been in Mumbai – it is a small, tightly knit world of those appreciative of these pursuits. Talks by two riveting climbers – Mick Fowler and Catherine Destivelle – anchored this year’s proceedings. Strung between these two presentations, were talks by Mark Liechty, David Breashears, Maya Sherpa and Vineeta Muni.

The two day seminar held over February 17-18, was inaugurated by industrialist Adi Godrej; the Godrej family has been longstanding benefactors of the club. Also present was Nadir Godrej. It was announced on the second day of proceedings that British mountaineer, Mick Fowler, known for his alpine style expeditions to attempt tough, unclimbed routes at altitude, had been made an honorary member of the Himalayan Club. As of 2018, the club was 90 years old. In all that time, only 28 people were selected for honorary membership.

Mick Fowler (Photo: Shyam G Menon)

Both in his presentation and a brief chat he had later with this blog, Mick mentioned that he didn’t belong to that school which tries to secure success at any cost on an expedition. Failure is part of the game and it must be accepted. On more than one occasion Mick voiced his disapproval for drilling rock and installing expansion bolts (for placement of gear), something climbers are prone to do when a route is sketchy. It is bizarre to conclude that just because you couldn’t climb a route – using available holds – it can’t be done; particularly when younger generations are out-performing older ones. What should matter is – how you climbed an objective, he said. Mick’s choice of routes stands out for their high degree of technical difficulty and challenge. Asked how easy providing for potential failure is, given modern expeditions have several constituents including sponsors who invest for promised result, he admitted that it isn’t always an easy task. However, there are foundations and people providing grants, who look at mountaineering differently, valuing the challenge tackled more than the success guaranteed. This year’s Kaivan Mistry Memorial Lecture was delivered by Mick.

Far Out – the book by Mark Liechty. This image has been downloaded from the University of Chicago Press website and is being used here for representational purpose only.

Mark Liechty’s book, ` Far Out,’ won the club’s Kekoo Naoroji Book Award. Mark – through his acceptance speech following the prize ceremony – illustrated the context of the book and what it dealt with. As a quest to understand why and how the Himalaya came to mean what it did for the counter-culture movement, it is among few books out there to have tackled the subject and perhaps the only one enmeshing the quest with research. Shortly into his speech, Mark explained the book’s premise clearly, referring to an interview given by the actor and director of a recent Hollywood movie which alludes to the Himalaya in the mystical fashion the West is prone to. “ My guess is that many of you here have visited Kathmandu and I wonder how many of you found it to be “incredibly spiritual and marvelous,” – a place with “almost no Western influence,” a “deeply mystical and religious” place, a “most peaceful” city. How anyone could go to Kathmandu and not find a chaotic, noisy, polluted, crowded, underdeveloped city, I don’t know,’’ Mark said. Of course Kathmandu has its charms and the Nepalis are wonderful, gracious people. But the question that bothered Mark was – how is it that presumably reasonable people like that film crew could go to Nepal and find a place that arguably does not exist outside of their own imagination?

“ In a nutshell, that is the question I’m trying to answer in this book. After a lifetime of hearing comments like these, I wanted to know how and why Westerners have constructed not just an imagined Kathmandu, but an imagined Himalayan region marked by mystical alterity,’’ he said. As Mark dug deeper into these questions, he soon found that the kind of things the film crew was saying were anything but new. Rather, for most of the last 200 years Europeans and Americans had been imagining the Himalaya in similar, and sometimes almost identical, terms. “ Especially for counter-cultural figures—people unhappy with the secular, rational, capitalist West—the Himalaya was the last unknown place, and therefore the last place on which they could project their hopes, dreams, and fantasies for some other, uncontaminated, place,’’ he said. Mark, is currently Associate Professor of Anthropology and History and Coeditor, Studies on Nepal History and Society, University of Illinois, Chicago.

Maya Sherpa (Photo: Shyam G Menon)

You can’t think of American mountaineer David Breashears without Everest in the frame. He was the first American to summit the peak more than once. Among the world’s best known high altitude film makers, he was responsible for the IMAX movie on the mountain made several years ago, the shooting of which in 1996, happened the same season one of the biggest tragedies on the mountain (since famous as material for Jon Krakauer’s book: Into Thin Air) unfolded. At the seminar, his presentation dealt with the work around climate change that he is doing at Glacier Works, a non-profit organization he founded in 2007. While the organization’s work revolves around showing how climate change has impacted the glaciers of the Himalaya, David brought the issue closer home pointing out that as the world’s major ice caps melt leading to increase in sea level, Mumbai would be among cities potentially affected by it. He also shared his views on how commercial mountaineering has impacted the Everest environment, especially the location of camps along the main climbing route. A lot of cleaning up has been done but the scale of human presence on the mountain is not without accompanying impact.

Catherine Destivelle (Photo: Shyam G Menon)

Catherine Destivelle’s presence at the seminar signified her first visit to India. She is one of the most iconic climbers in the history of the sport with a career that spans competition climbing to rock climbing and solo ascents to climbing on snow and ice in the big mountains. She opted for a combination of screening a film on three climbs in the European Alps that provided a window to her life and nature and replying to questions thereafter. Nepal’s Maya Sherpa came up the hard way. Having done her training, she was working in the country’s trekking industry when opportunities to climb manifested. With a handful of elite mountains – including K2 and Everest – already bagged, she confirmed that she is on a quest to climb all the fourteen 8000m peaks. Vineeta Muni’s presentation provided an overview of her long tenure in Indian mountaineering, including a trans-Himalayan hike done years ago in the company of others. A resident of Mumbai, Vineeta said that she owes much of what she came to know in life to her affection for the mountains.

The speakers answering questions from the audience. From left: Catherine Destivelle, Maya Sherpa, David Breashears, Vineeta Muni and Mick Fowler (Photo: Shyam G Menon)

Later while answering questions from the audience, all the panelists agreed that anyone newly getting into climbing should train for the sport and not rush into it. They should allow things to evolve slowly, taking time for it. Knowing how to take care of oneself is important at altitude as failing to do so, potentially puts others too in danger. Both Catherine and Mick mentioned that they picked their friends in climbing, carefully.

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

2018 HIMALAYAN CLUB SEMINAR / BRIEF CHAT WITH DAVID BREASHEARS

David Breashears (Photo: Shyam G Menon)

David Breashears is among America’s best known mountaineers. He was the first American to climb Everest more than once. He is also a reputed film maker; he was the man behind the IMAX movie on Everest, which provided viewers a ringside experience of being on the peak. Several years before that, he had done the first live broadcast from Everest. Currently, David’s work largely revolves around Glacier Works, a non-profit organization he founded to spread awareness on the impact of climate change on Himalayan glaciers. His talk at the 2018 annual seminar of the Himalayan Club provided a snapshot of the work he was doing at Glacier Works. Among the visuals he showed were instances of old photographs shot by visitors to the Himalaya, replicated to the T after painfully locating the exact spot from where the original photograph was taken. Juxtapose new photograph on old; the story of glaciers melting and receding becomes clear. The same mountains, the same glaciers, the same valleys – then and now – the changes are striking. The newly shot images are technology-rich – they are panoramic and composed of multiple high resolution photographs. From the earlier generation of photographers – many of their works serve as archival material to compare contemporary images of glaciers with –  David was particularly appreciative of the contribution of Italian photographer, Vittorio Sella, whose stunning pictures of the Himalaya are held in high esteem. In the age of 24×7 media and mountaineering under its glare, few can surpass David’s knowledge of media in adventure and the outdoors. Outrigger caught up with him for a brief chat on the sidelines of the 2018 Himalayan Club annual seminar. Excerpts:

Years ago you had pioneered live broadcast from the top of Everest. Now you are using rich digital imagery at Glacier Works to drive home the impact of climate change at altitude. Can you tell us whether your relation with media and technology has transformed over the years or does it continue unchanged?

First it was a physical and tangible relation to media through film. You loaded your camera; we had the IMAX camera, 65mm film on the top of Everest. You were in contact with the media. I embraced the digital world very, very quickly for a couple of reasons. First of all, I could get much more information, more data, many more images, less expensively. I don’t have to buy film, process it and have prints made. I also became more mobile because I didn’t have all this film and film is heavy. It is also very useful to be able to review your work when you work the way I do. I happen to be away for lengthy periods of time and you can’t come back and find that the camera was scratching all the film. These are the practical things. The digital world has also given me so much more potential for the story telling I want to do. For example with that big 3.8 billion pixel-image (reference here is to a panoramic image of the Everest region he showed at the seminar), people have found it a fascinating way to explore Everest. I still love film for some purposes. But I can’t imagine now going back into the field with 50 rolls of film. It was transformative.

How about the contrast between your earlier work and what you are doing now? Previously your films brought the experience of Everest into theatres and the homes of people. Now you are using your abilities to spread awareness about the impact of climate change on glaciers, which is conservation oriented. Is there something of your own experience transforming you that is visible in this altered relation with the media?

The film experience is very special whether you are sitting in front of your TV, computer or you are at a theatre – because you have not only imagery, you have sound, dialogue, music and effects. And these things are very powerful in creating an emotion. However, when it comes to climate change, we are acting like journalists. We don’t want to play music and such. The information has to present itself and stand on its own. The other thing is, I have become very fond of our exhibits. We have had exhibits going around the world. I myself like going to exhibits; I like the experience of being at exhibits and finding out what someone else finds curious. When you are seeing in a theatre, you don’t experience something with someone else. You are looking at a screen; you may laugh at a joke with a friend or a whole theatre may laugh together. But in an exhibit space, people can turn to each other and say: what do you think of that? Or you overhear conversations or sometimes, say I am at an art exhibition, if someone is standing for a long time in front of a photographic print or a painting, then I go and I want to look over their shoulder and find what they find interesting. So although I have moved away from conveying information through film, I am most satisfied with using this current all-digital imagery of Glacier Works in print form in an exhibit. I don’t want someone sitting at home staring at it on a computer. Of course, that is where it gets its biggest audience. But I am an exhibit guy now. Live broadcast from Everest, I am ex-film, I went into exhibits and I will go back to films. But what we are doing now is hard and takes a tremendous amount of discipline. I didn’t want to mix up the discipline of that still photography and a high level of execution and compromise it by saying, let’s do a lot of video. We are small teams and we are focused on what we are there to do – the photography. I still miss film making.

You have spent many years in mountaineering; you also spent many years in the media. Of late, there has been a lot of media in mountaineering. The late Tomas Humar’s climbs for instance, were sometimes occasion for live reportage on social media. Are you happy with how the media has contributed to mountaineering or would you prefer to have seen it contribute differently?

I think there is great danger in having access to information that hasn’t been properly curated; instant access to information and the competition out there – whether it is Twitter, Instagram or Facebook or any form of social media. And the fact that things come out so quickly on traditional news. This is a very slippery slope. You create this audience that is always hungry for information in almost real time. But I do think there is no going back. It is very addictive, this need for information instantly. However I would still sit down and read long form articles about something. I know that several months from now after Elisabeth Revol and others have told their stories (David is referring here to the January 2018 rescue on Nanga Parbat in which French climber Elisabeth Revol was brought to safety but Polish climber Tomasz Mackiewicz couldn’t be reached), I want to read this in a good piece of reporting because I don’t think I got the best information yet. Sometimes you got to really get in there and get a lot of information from people.

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

2018 HIMALAYAN CLUB BOOK AWARD / BRIEF CHAT WITH MARK LIECHTY

Mark Liechty (Photo: Shyam G Menon)

Mark Liechty is Associate Professor of Anthropology and History and Coeditor, Studies in Nepal History and Society, at the University of Illinois, Chicago. What stayed in mind strongest after his talk at the Himalayan Club’s 2018 annual seminar was the intriguing theme of investigation in his book about the counter-culture movement’s fascination for the Himalaya. Mark wondered whether we tend to overlook places as they are and see instead what we came looking for. Outrigger presents the transcript of a brief chat with Mark, author of Far Out, which won the Himalayan Club’s Kekoo Naoroji Book Award. This conversation should ideally be read in conjunction with the report on the Himalayan Club’s 2018 annual seminar, available on this blog:

Can you explain the circumstances and curiosity that led you to write this book?

On my first visit to South Asia when I was nine years old, I went with my parents to Kathmandu. Even then I was struck by a variety of things including things I saw that I didn’t understand. Later out of my own curiosity, I wanted to learn about the hippie era in Nepal and I started looking for books on the topic. I discovered that there were no good books that tried to explain what was going on at that time. Eventually I realized that if I wanted to read this book I was going to have to write it myself. For thirty years I have been collecting information on the topic. In the meantime I have written other books. But this is kind of a labor of love. I have written it more for a general audience and not an academic audience as I normally do. It is really an effort to answer questions that I had myself, which I couldn’t find answers to.

You mentioned in your talk after the book award that people tend to project on to the Himalaya what they came seeking; that they end up seeing what they came looking for. Can you explain that?

It is not people in general but people in the West who have a kind of exotic image of this place, which over the centuries they have been socialized into. Also, people – what I try to argue in the book is that the kind of westerners who come to India or Nepal are not the typical tourist. They tend to be counter-cultural in one way or another; they are looking for something that they don’t find at home. Again for complicated reasons, the Himalaya has emerged as this last unknown place, this last forbidden landscape and it becomes a convenient place to imagine where things might still be that are thought to have been lost at home. What I am trying to suggest is that people come looking for things that they imagine they have lost and they think might still be there in this remote place. To a certain extent, they find them.

In your talk, you also mentioned of the divide that the Himalaya represents between the cultures of India and China and how that adds to the western imagination of what it is….

In there I am just making a basic semiotic point that how – because of the way we construct our mental and geographic maps, inevitably we construct in-between places and those in-between places, between civilizations are thought to be uncivilized. Often they are also thought to be unpopulated even though there are people living in those places. The Himalaya has emerged as one of those in-between places. But I also attempt to argue that some people assume that mountains themselves are inherently marginal. I don’t think that is the case because if you look at the world’s second largest mountain chain in South America, it is the opposite – it is the mountains themselves that are the civilizational core and the lowlands are the mystical borders. So the way in which we imagine peripheries has at least as much to do with our own mental construct as anything inherent in the landscape.

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

COMING UP: HIMALAYAN CLUB ANNUAL SEMINAR / FEB 17-18, MUMBAI

This image was downloaded from the Himalayan Club website; it is being used here for representational purpose only.

The Himalayan Club will hold its annual seminar and presentation of the Kekoo Naoroji Book Award and Jagdish Nanavati Award over February 17-18, 2018, in Mumbai.

The club which is celebrating 90 years of its existence was originally founded on February 17, 1928. The 2018 edition of the annual seminar will be inaugurated by General Bipin Rawat, Chief of Army Staff of the Indian Army.

A clutch of distinguished mountaineers from overseas are scheduled to speak at the seminar. They include British mountaineer Mick Fowler who will deliver the annual Kaivan Mistry Memorial Lecture, American mountaineer and high altitude filmmaker, David Breashears (he is also founder and Executive Director of Glacier Works, a non-profit organization that uses art, science and adventure to raise awareness about the impact of climate change in the Greater Himalaya) and renowned French climber Catherine Destivelle, who is held in high regard for her solo ascents. This time, the winner of the Kekoo Naoroji Book Award is Mark Leichty. Also scheduled to speak are mountaineers Maya Sherpa from Nepal, Vineeta Muni from Mumbai and senior club member and winner of the Asian Piolet D’Or, Harish Kapadia.

At the seminar, General Rawat will unveil the book Legendary Maps of the Himalayan Club. Harish Kapadia will introduce the book.

The venue for the meeting is Swatantryaveer Savarkar Auditorium, Veer Savarkar Marg, Shivaji Park, Dadar West. There is a registration fee of Rs 300 per person. Registration will begin by 3.30 PM on the first day; proceedings of the second day will commence by 10.15 AM.

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

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.)

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.)