Tuesday, June 5, 2012

Our Tryst with the Snows: Expedition to Rudragaira Peak, June 2010

Rudragaira: OUR mountain!!

It was probably 20 more vertical feet to the top, I guessed. At the most twenty steps more, but my body was refusing to move. I tugged on the rope that bound me to Shivraj. He turned back, his face a question mark. I signalled with my hand that I needed to rest. I breathed deeply, trying to gulp down a few lungfuls of the thin air before kicking into the powdery snow slope again. Step after tired step, now onto broken, sliding rocks bare of snow. Suddenly there was no more climbing left and I saw Shivraj before me, smiling broadly. “Aapka pehla summit!” he declared. I paused, knelt down and touched my forehead to the flat, snow-covered platform of the summit and as I stepped on to the destination that I had toiled so hard for, my eyes were swimming with tears. Embarrassed, I was thankful for the dark goggles that I wore to protect my eyes from the fierce reflection from the snow. At least my two companions would not be witness to this sudden surge of emotions I felt atop the summit of Rudragaira Peak, 5820m above mean sea level.

Me and Dinesh - nearing the top

The summit was a longish platform of snow, maybe ten feet wide and 40 or 45 feet long. The view to the north and north-west was obscured by dense clouds that were fast approaching us. To the south were the magnificent Gangotri peaks – all over 6000m high. To the west was a fearsome drop. All the fatigue I felt dropped away as I took in the fantastic mountain scenery that surrounded me. Yes, I had made it! My first ever really high summit… Shivraj and Dinesh, my companions, took turns to hug me and thump me on my back. We then set to the task of taking pictures – of ourselves and of the view towards all directions. It was 1pm when we had reached the summit – 2 hours behind schedule. We had to leave soon; the thick white cloud that was bearing down onto the summit heralded the bad weather that would overtake us in minutes. At 1:15pm, we began the descent, after Dinesh did a small puja at the makeshift temple of a few stones that earlier summiteers had erected at the summit.

Me and Shivraj at the summit of Rudragaira

The summit of our dreams!!
We were still roped up – Shivraj in the lead, me in the middle and Dinesh bringing up the rear. While descending on snow slopes, one has to use heel kicking – walking on one’s heels and leaning backwards. I must have got it wrong, for suddenly I was falling, scrabbling desperately at snow that came away beneath my clawing fingers. Dinesh was caught by surprise and he too was dragged down and in a matter of moments we were both sliding out of control on the snow. Thankfully, Shivraj – the most experienced climber among us, calmly drove in the shaft of his ice axe into the slope and arrested the fall. Shakily, we got up and edged our way across to firmer snow, and then on to rock.

My first Himalayan summit!!
We had to follow the ridge of the mountain, which led in four stretches to below the snow-line, and then climb down a steep, rocky face to reach the safety of our camp at 4748m. It was now snowing fairly heavily, a south-easterly wind blowing the flakes into our faces. It was a whiteout, with visibility down to a few feet. Thankfully, the mountain had only one long ridge on the route we were following, so there was no fear of losing our way… About midway down to camp, we were suddenly aware of a crackling noise in the air. “It’s lightning; about to strike.” yelled Shivraj, “Let’s get down fast.” We were now getting shocks from our ice axes, and even the rope, from the static electricity due to the storm! Shivraj decided that it was best to abandon equipment and flee and we did so. Inexperienced on snow, I fell no less than thirty times on the way back to camp and finally, when we reached camp at 4pm – 11 hours after we had set out early that morning for the summit, I was too exhausted to eat. My friends Kailash and Sudhakar – who had turned back at 5200m, helped me into my sleeping bag inside the tent, where I lay racked by waves of nausea and headache.

By next morning, I was fine. It was 23 June, 12 days after we had started out on our journey from Manipal – near Udupi in Karnataka, where Sudhakar Adiga, Kailash Rao and I work as teachers. It was our 3rd summer in the Garhwal Himalaya in 3 years – earlier we had been to Darwa Top (4140m) and Gaumukh-Tapovan (where we attained a height of 4600m on the lower slopes of Mount Shivling). This year, we wanted to do something more ambitious and had chosen Rudragaira Peak on the advice of our mountaineer friend Shivraj Singh Panwar. Shivraj is a young climber from a village called Dharali near Gangotri and he had been our instructor on our trek to Darwa which was organised by the Tata Steel Adventure Foundation. We had become good friends and now do climbs together in the Himalaya.

This year, we had started out from Udupi for Delhi and reached Uttarkashi via Haridwar. We met up with Shivraj there and hired a cook – Dinesh Kumar, who was also a climber. Dinesh organized the supplies and we moved to Gangotri, where we hired 3 porters – Bhagat, Suresh Bahadur and Khadak Bahadur. We started our trek from Gangotri to Rudragaira, which is situated south-west of Gangotri, on 18 June. We moved in through the forest-clad slopes of the Rudragaira Gad, establishing 4 camps at successively higher altitudes. Forests of deodar, oak, maple, rhododendron and chir pine gave way to mostly birch near the tree-line beyond which only bushes of rhododendron and juniper flourished on grassy meadows sprinkled with mountain flowers. Though many climbers attempt Rudragaira with only 2 camps along the way, we decided to let our bodies get more acclimatized to the high altitude. Acclimatization is very important since the body needs time to get used to the thin air of the high Himalaya. In fact, we took short acclimatization treks at even Uttarkashi and near Gangotri before our actual trek to the base of the mountain.

Before we started on our way back to Gangotri, we felt we had to do our bit to honour the mountain that had given us the experience of a lifetime. We built a small shrine facing the peak and made offerings. Maybe later travellers to this majestic mountain will pause to offer prayers at our shrine for a successful summit! As I shouldered my backpack and stepped on to the mountain trail that would lead me away, I turned and feasted my eyes on the rounded contours of Rudragaira. The summit was playing hide-and-seek among the mists. Our tracks of the day before were faintly visible on the snow. I recalled those brief magical moments on the summit and a swarm of emotions overwhelmed me – the glow of satisfaction that I had successfully summitted was shadowed by the relief of the safe return through the frightening storm.

The view from the summit

I muttered a prayer of thanks to Rudragaira and started down the trail that led through lovely alpine meadows to the forests and then to Gangotri, where a cosy room, hot baths and plenty of hot tea awaited me!

Our Shrine to Rudragaira


Saheb said...

Hey, please provide a detailed itinerary of your expedition to Rudragaira? I loved reading your blog. Looking forward to trying it in the summer of 2017.

Rajiv Menon said...

Why are you not writing blogs now.

The Ancient Sun said...

Wow, amazing. I have never done mountaineering, though.