It is amazing how a picture or an incident could trigger open a floodgate of memories stored deep in the recesses of the human mind, allowing us to relive those moments like it had happened only yesterday. A picture of Mt. Trisuli in Uttarakhand shared by a friend recently did just that for me, taking me back in time to the Spring of 2001, exactly a decade and a half ago, to the wonderful memories of losing and finding myself in grandiose mountains of the majestic Garhwal Himalayas.
I recall quite vividly one warm summer morn in April 2001, walking in to the Indian Mountaineering Foundation in Benito Juarez Marg in New Delhi, to meet the seven member British team consisting of Colin Knowles, Chris Drinkwater, Chris Smart, Angela Benham, Titch Kavanagh, Andrew Phillips and Roly Arnison. The team was proceeding for an expedition to Mt. Trisuli West (7035 m) in Chamoli District of Uttaranchal (now Uttarakhand) and I was associated with the expedition as the Indian Liaison Officer. That was the first day of our association that was to continue for a period of about one and half months of wandering in the treacherously beautiful wilderness of the majestic Garhwal Himalayas.
The trip to Joshimath (Chamoli District) on a hired bus, the stay at Joshimath and the much running around to and from the District headquarters at Chamoli trying to get clearance, hiring porters, finalising the nitty-gritty of the expedition, the haggling and flaring tempers were all quite eventful. But the best part of the trip began from Malari, the last road-head and the last human settlement in the northern reaches of the state of Uttarakhand, very close to the Indo-Tibetian border. It was from Malari that we launched our seemingly unending trek to Siraunch Glacier where we had planned to set up Base camp for an attempt climb of the virgin peak of Mt. Trisuli West. Thanks to a no good guide who turned to be quite a drunkard, we spent many a days trying out in vain multiple routes to cross over the Surans Ka Dhura pass into the glacier. We were limited by the fact that very few attempts had been made to approach the North wall of Trisuli West from this side and the unavailability of correct information with regard to the present conditions of the traditional routes to the glacier really handicapped us. We were to soon find out that the Siraunch Glacier was practically unapproachable.
The only available information of the most viable route via Surans Ka Dhura (pass), above the grazing meadow of Chopping, was also rendered unassailable on account of dangerously overhanging cornices that would have been dangerous for the porters with their massive loads. The other approaches, as we were to discover, have been abandoned for more than a decade owing to dangerous rock falls. A few of the traditional goat trails that we tried just vanished in thin air, wiped out by the crumbling mountain face. Some were just plain non-negotiable. What really struck me as different from my earlier experiences of the mountains of Sikkim that I was familiar with was that the mountains in this part of the Himalayas appeared very broken with the steep slopes at the base of the mountains practically made up of scree and loose rocks. In some of the rocky mountain faces we had to negotiate on the way to the Glacier, it appeared like stone slabs were piled up to make up the mountain and some of the rocks you cling to would come lose if you pull on it a little harder. After almost a week of scampering up and down the mountain trying out multiple of approaches, we finally were able to find access from the 8th Mile point from Malari via a gully that was a long gradual icy slope of about six-seven hundred metres with a 35 degrees incline. The slope was made up frozen snow and scree which had come off the faces of the two facing very broken mountain cliffs which nestled the corridor. The melting snow due to the morning sun made it a very slippery and daunting climb. Looking at the long line of porters slowly inching forward on the slope with their loads, a little shudder ran through my spine at the thought of anyone of us slipping on the snow which was sure to take the whole lot down in one big pile. After labouring up about 500 metres on the treacherous slope, we veered sharply left off the snow gully onto an equally treacherous steep rocky slope rising sharply to the brow of the mountain.
Once we turned over the brow, we were rewarded with the most overwhelming view of the snow-clad mountains, the smugly sitting Uja Tirche (6202 metres) on the eastern flank of the Siraunch Glacier and to its right, the three peaks of Trisuli, so named as it is shaped liked the trident of Shiva. Down below north of the Trisuli was the snowy white Siraunch Glacier where we had intended to set up Base Camp. We however had to put up camp at two places before we even hit the glacier. The first was a pretty unnerving camp that we nick-named ‘Camp Precarious’ because of the 45 degree slope it was stationed on. The second was an open terrace just above the snout of the Glacier. Although still a long way off from the intended spot for base camp, it proved to be an idyllic spot and we decided to set up first base there. The Advance base camp was to be set up on the glacier much further ahead.
The trek proved to be the most trying of all I had undertaken and by its virtue the most enjoyable in hindsight. It was on my second trip to the ABC with just the cook ‘Kallu’ accompanying me that we found ourselves looking at the glacier completely different from what we had seen the previous day. The snow had melted and the glacier was now full of hummocks. The team, before moving on to Camp 1, had shifted the tents at the base of a hummock which shielded it from view as a result of which Kallu and myself well-nigh spent the whole day trying to locate it in vain until it was too late for us to return. As we were preparing to bivouac on a rock shelter, I stood atop a hummock watching the majestic Trisuli awash in the last golden rays of the sun. It was then the thought suddenly struck me… we all have to be bloody out of our minds wanting to climb that! The wall was completely covered with snow with tiers of hanging glaciers packed over one another waiting to come down anytime. Eventually good sense prevailed over kindred spirits and the team decided to climb a nearby peak instead. And thanks to providence we also found the tents before dark. With two tents left to just the two of us, Kallu and myself decided to occupy a separate tent each, the provocation being the overwhelming stench of Kallu’s socks and his ‘chain-saw-snore’. As I also had to offer my down-jacket to Kallu on account of his sleeping bag not in a very good a condition, the chilling cold and the scare from the sound of rocks falling from the cliffs throughout the night kept me up. Shivering through the night we finally made it to the trickle of early morning light. Stepping out of the tent I thanked the lord for a wonderful morning, something I do not normally do 🙂
I remember soaking in the calm and beautiful dawn, unsettled only by the raucous snoring of Kallu which was not quite in accord with the serenity and equanimity of the view. Not quite light yet but luminous enough to see, the silhouettes of the mountains against the backdrop of the slowly brightening sky created a mesmerizing picture. I let Kallu sleep while I decided to explore a little further towards the base of the Trisuli to see maybe if I can locate Camp 1 which the team had gone ahead to establish. As I plodded forward securing one step after another on the slippery snow, it started to light up bringing to life the beauty of the snow-clad mountains in its full glory. I wished I could have stayed longer but I reminded myself that we would have to make an early start for BC. So hesitantly I turned round and momentarily stood to soak in the sense of gratification one last time. The realisation that you are standing at a place which have rarely been set foot upon gave one an indescribable feeling, a powerful sense of elation. I was bathing in that sense of elation when I heard something crack. As I intuitively spun round, a chill shot through my spine as the scene before me unfolded in a slow motion like for a few seconds. One of the hanging glaciers on the Trisuli wall slowly came lose and slid down in a slow motion like effect gathering mass as it went down the face of the mountain and finally hit the bottom with a loud thud. In seconds the whole glacier was enveloped in a thick cloud of snow. Flakes of snow came down and momentarily blocked out the beautiful bright morning, blacking out the entire glacier like it was already dusk. I stood frozen for what almost seemed like a lifetime until my wits slowly returned. I realised that I was still a long way off the base and quite safe. Nonetheless, seeing a live avalanche does rattles your nerves quite badly, especially when you are standing in what seemed like a huge cauldron flanked by imposing mountains. Quickly I gathered what was left of my wits and hurried back to the tents where I found a worried Kallu up and ready to go. We soothed each others nerves and decided to whip up a quick breakfast before we made our way back to the safety of Base camp. Hurriedly but quite systematically we went about preparing some noodle soup, gulped it down as fast as we could and quickly made our exit from the tents and the glacier. It was only after we were half-way through to BC that Kallu broke the silence, swearing and muttering to himself that he is never ever going to come back to that place again come what may. I burst out in uncontrollable laughter that shook my whole body and brought me down to my knees literally. I laughed and laughed uncontrollably, but it wasn’t humour that was tickling me, it was my sense of relief bursting out of me in uncontrollable laughter.
Although the preposterous idea of scaling the unconquered North Wall of Trisuli West was abandoned after sensible reasoning by sensible men, the expedition team still went on to scale a nearby peak standing 6160 metres tall (as tall as the Chalab nearby). One of the members, Angela Benham, unfortunately suffered a fall from heights of the mountain and escaped a near death experience. She lived to tell the tale in her novel titled “Lucky to be Alive”.
Initially thought to be the Chalab, Colin after a careful scrutiny came to conclusion that the peak was unnamed and unclimbed before. A brainstorming session quickly gathered momentum to name the newly conquered peak. On my suggestion, it was given the name “Shambhu Ka Kila” – the Citadel of Shiva as it looked like a fortress. So stands a mountain with a name I have christened. That is one experience that will be hard to forget.