Monday, October 27, 2014

Pangarchula: Appearances can be deceptive

Some mountains, like Pangarchula, just beckon me: "Here I am. Just come on over," they seem to say. But what was surprising to me about Pangarchula was that it isn't a very tall mountain and looked mostly docile and non-threatening. It isn't a high mountain like Nanda Devi or Trishul or Donagiri that leave me with a mixture of awe and trepidation. It isn't like Changabang, a threatening mountain which, with its sharp and cold ridges, instilled a sense of fear in me. In that sense, Pangarchula did not issue a challenge. It just tempted me in an alluring and enticing manner.

The first time I saw Pangarchula was when I went on the Kuari Pass trek. We walked on a path that ran no more than 500 metres from the base of the mountain. And as our guide pointed out the peak to us, I wished we had included a Pangarchula peak climb as part of our trek itinerary. I was drawn then.

In October 2013, I saw Pangarchula again, this time from the top of Kala Khal. This viewing was from a fair distance away, and again, Pangarchula looked totally non-threatening and sedate. Once again, I had a yearning in me to climb the peak. I could not quite understand this.

It isn't even a tall peak. There are mixed reports on how tall Pangarchula actually is. Some record it at 4575m and some, like this one here, record it at 4900m. For the record, when we climbed Pangarchula peak, we recorded it at 4800m. Even then, 4800 metres is not much. On previous treks and expeditions, I have slept at heights greater than that for heaven's sake! So, I wasn't sure what Pangarchula's lure was.

But it certainly was there...


When my friend Ajit Bhaskar wrote to me earlier this year and asked if I would put together an itinerary and go on a Himalaya trek with him, Pangarchula was on my mind immediately even though I had already planned an expedition to the rather tough Kalindi Pass in June with another group. So I was initially a bit reluctant to go on another Himalayan pilgrimage this year. Nevertheless, the pull of Pangarchula meant that I rang Raju Martolia, the guide I normally go with on my Himalaya treks. I told him that I'd like to put together a group of mostly first-time trekkers for a 'simple trek' and asked if we could go to Pangarchula in October 2014. He answered, "Sir Pangarchula is not a trek, but an expedition. It might look easy, but it is actually quite tough especially if you want to do it in October when there isn't any snow. But since it is October, there is enough time to prepare. We can do it." He then advised me to include another trek prior to Pangarchula as a means of acclimatizing and preparing for the Pangarchula climb. After some research, I rang him back and asked if Roopkund-Pangarchula would go well together. He immediately agreed and said that it would work just fine. The Roopkund trek would take 6-7 days and would be perfect preparation (after a day's break in Joshimath) for the 3-4 day Pangarchula expedition. So the plan was set. As the itinerary and the dates were being finalized, I started pulling a group together.

By the end of February, we had a group. Ajit Bhaskar and I were soon joined by Chuck, Pun, Grond and Divya (nicknamed SoBoD on the trek) from Mumbai and Paddy, Arundati (referred to as Lam Lam -- long story), Sriram and Mahesh Krishnan from Melbourne.

We had seven months of lead-time for what was ahead and we needed to start preparing for the trek. We had enough time, although it seemed as though we spent much of that time chatting on the Whatsapp group we created for the trek. And as the departure date drew closer, it seemed as though we had spent much of the interim duration in toughening ourselves not against the rigours of the trek but against the unending onslaught of terrible jokes that would be cracked on the trek. But, looking on the bright side, I guess none of us gagged on the jokes we inflicted on each other on the trek. So perhaps the Whatsapp preparation was spot on!

Preparations commenced with a packing list, a requirements list, a shopping list, and a rigorous exercise routine. Our Whatsapp group was constantly abuzz with updates and questions but I was still quite worried. Most of the questions and discussions focussed on toilet arrangements, shower provisions and food menus than on aerobic conditioning, core strengthening and stretch routines!

My nervousness drove me to write a 12-page pre-trip document in which I tried to list down all the things we would need to know while on the trek. In it, I wrote about acute mountain sickness (AMS); how to recognize it, how to prevent it, how to deal with it. I wrote about sleep deprivation. I wrote about what we could look forward to on each day. I wrote about how people should take turns in moving to the front and the back of the group; the same set of people in the front and back can lead to a somewhat demotivated group. I guess I was a bit nervous about the trek and the group.

You see, I had put the group together. Everyone on this trek was known to me but several people on this didn't know each other at all. I was hopeful that the group would get together, build camaraderie quickly and even support each other on some of the tougher segments of the trek. The last thing we wanted on an already tricky trek-expedition was a fractured and non-functioning group.

The group had a nice age-distribution. We had one person in the mid-20s, four folk in the 30s, one in the 40s and three people in the 50s. The jury is still out on the exact age of Paddy, the tenth person in the group. While he maintained right through that he was no more than 48, conservative estimates and subsequent carbon dating experiments confirmed him at at least 65, if not more!

The group had a good fitness spread to it too. We had two people who were super-fit; they wre the enthu-cutlets of the group. Seven of us were constantly either drained by (or tired of or in awe of) the two enthu-cutlets. And then we had Paddy, who defied his age to demonstrate levels of fitness the rest of us could only dream of.

But the one facet in which we were all harmoniously together on was our ability to crack poor jokes. That was the binding force, Really. Well, that, and the mystery surrounding Paddy's age.

The group came together perfectly. It helped that Chuck ran a wonderful ice-breaking session the day we got together; the day we all met in Rishikesh. He set everyone what seemed like an extraordinarily difficult task: "Say a few words about yourself and a few sentences about what you dislike most about Mohan." However, some 10 hours later, we had to be dragged out of our chairs lest we missed the morning bus to Lohajang, from where our Roopkund trek would commence. If you feel a wave of sympathy coming my way, now is the time to say "awww". The following morning, when I texted my wife and said "The common factor in this group is me and they are all ganging up on me," she replied immediately, "I wish I was there too. I'd have joined in." Yes, you may say "awww" now at least.

By the end of the first day, there was much laughter, much mirth and much banter. I was feeling less nervous about the group dynamics and focussed my nervousness, instead, on the trek itself. 

Despite a few irritations, mainly to the eye of Chuck, Pun and Mahesh, we completed the Roopkund leg of the trek reasonably successfully. I am not going to write much about that leg, because I am sure some of the others will do so. Ajit Bhaskar has already started a serialization of what looks like an epic novel on the trek; here are part-1 and part-2

I will, instead, focus my attention on the Pangarchula expedition.


We had had a day's rest in Joshimath after the first leg of our trek, So we tended to our minor wounds and felt quite rested when we set off for Pangarchula. 

The name Pangarchula itself spells danger. Panga means a "a bladed African tool like a machete" in Kiswahili. These days, in Hindi, the word 'panga' means to "get actively stuck into a messy issue when it could be avoided." And 'chula' is a hot earthen oven in which rotis are made. So essentially, we were "getting into a hot oven, which we could easily avoid"?

I certainly didn't want to avoid it though. After an unsuccessful attempt at Kalindi Pass earlier on in the year (expedition had to be abandoned due to bad weather), I was quite determined to complete a peak climb when I had the opportunity to do so.

We had already lost one member of our group. Grond decided to stay back at Joshimath, and wasn't interested in making it even to Pangarchula base camp. He had had enough and wanted to nurse his aching ankles and knees. I don't blame him at all. The Roopkund trek sucked out all his energies and he probably had nothing more to give.

Forest walk on the way to Pangarchula base camp
So the remaining nine of us trudged up to Pangarchula base camp on a really hot day. 

We drove an hour from Joshimath to a place called Dhak and started our climb to base camp from there. 

We started the climb at approx 1600m and walked constantly uphill all day. The first half of it was through exposed terrain. We had no shelter from the scorching sun that beat down on us mercilessly and almost the entire day was continually and steadily uphill. 

We crossed several streams and several pretty villages too before we reached a thick forest which provided relief from the blistering afternoon sun. The rest of the walk was a bit more bearable because of this forest walk.

When we reached base camp, we had gained nearly 1600m that day and all of us were thoroughly exhausted. 

View of Neelkant from Pangarchula Base Camp
The camp itself was quite pretty. We could see several beautiful mountains all around us (Hathi-Ghoda, Burmal, Neelkant, Donagiri, Changabang and Chaukhamba, to name a few). And the edge of the forest wasn't too far away from the camp. This was useful because we collected logs for a bonfire on both nights we spent at base camp. 

The views of these mountains reminded me of what the famous explorer Eric Shipton once said, “A vision of such beauty is worth a world of striving.” We had worked really hard to get to the base camp and the sights we saw made that effort worthwhile. As a corollary, if visions of such beauty were easily available and accessible, perhaps we would not appreciate it and treasure it as much. All around us, all we could see was layer upon mysterious layer of snow-capped majesty. That vision itself was enough to drive away the aches and pains. 

But all wasn't well with the group. While some of us walked around Pangarchula base camp, busily and chirpily preparing for our peak attempt the following morning, two members in our group were quiet, apprehensive and somewhat down in spirits. I wasn't sure what it was but did not have the energy to ask. I was perhaps too self-absorbed to immerse myself in it. I had my own set of problems to deal with. 

And my problem was that I was becoming obsessed with 'peak bagging' Pangarchula; a feeling I have never had in any of the treks/climbs I have been on. I have only worried about doing the basic things right and have never been concerned with the outcome (climbing to the top). My principle has always been that if I did the basics right, the outcomes take care of themselves. But here, I was obsessed with thought of being on the Pangarchula peak. I worked on limiting and then, erasing that obsession.

We started our Pangarchula peak attempt at 5am the following morning. We were woken up at 4am and after a light breakfast and tea, we were off even before day break.

Our guide, Raju, had informed us in our post-dinner briefing the previous night that the ascent would be tough but quite doable. It would be tough mostly because of the boulders we had to walk on for much of the climb. And unlike the Roopkund trek, the path to the top wouldn't be clearly marked out -- a key difference between a trek and an expedition. But he assured us that he would take us along the most accessible and sensible path. He also said that we would reach the peak by 10am, after a continuous 5-hour climb.

What he didn't tell us was that this was only the second time he had attempted the Pangarchula peak when it wasn't covered in snow! He had underestimated how long it would take us... Underestimated it quite severely! At 10am, the group still had a climb of nearly 700m to get to the peak.

The Pangarchula ascent is basically entirely on moraine, which is basically the debris that is created by glacial melt. The size of the debris varies from silt to large (either well rounded or craggy) boulders of varying sizes. As glaciers melt and advance they create debris, either carved off the valley floor as the melt descends or that which gets scooped off the valley's walls. The debris may either be alongside the glacier or on top of it. 

The Pangarchula debris was all on top of it and in the form of large, craggy, uneven boulders. Most of these boulders were steady, but some were loose and unstable. So leg strength and core stability become quite important as you trudge up.
The climb to Pangarchula peak

Ajit Bhaskar took a pic of the Pangarchula moraine up close as we commenced the second of four moraine segments. Now imagine this sort of a terrain (as seen in the pic) over an approx 800m gain; some of it covered in sleet or fresh snow. Then you get a sense of the difficulty. Oh! And we only had our trekking boots; no crampons and no ropes.

On my previous trek/expedition to Kalindi in June this year, we encountered moraine that was either silt or well-rounded loose boulders. In that expedition, we walked, climbed, slid, fell, crashed and stumbled across and on top of Gangotri, Chaturangi, Tapovan, Sweta glaciers. 

That was tough too. But despite that experience under my belt, I felt that the moraine I encountered on Pangarchula was quite hard.

The Pangarchula moraine climb is divided into four somewhat distinct sections. The first is mostly all rock and, although seemingly unending, is somewhat easy to climb. Two members of our group -- Lam Lam and Sriram -- decided they had had enough at the end of that segment. They just sat down at a point and said they had no desire or ability to go any further. Nine of us had set out from camp along with three guides. Now, seven of us kept climbing and had three guides to help and assist us. I did feel a tinge of sadness that Lam Lam and Sriram stayed back, but up in the mountains, everyone knows their own limits and fends for themselves. They knew what worked best for them and decided that they had had enough. The fact that Sriram and Lam Lam had made it as far as they had already made them heroes. They'd gone further than many others would have.

Sometimes, at altitudes greater than 4000m, every step you take can represent an internal struggle. Headaches, cramps, fatigue, nausea, breathing difficulties and oxygen scarcity have a way of limiting resolve. It is quite likely that each one of us contemplated the ‘Really! Why am I doing this?’ question that day. I know I did. Often, you have the answers and when you don't, you just want to give up and collapse. 

The second stretch of moraine on Pangarchula is an incredibly steep climb. You go up a steep face (without ropes) on mostly solid rocks and get to a reasonably flat stretch with clumps of grass cover. While the grass was better to walk on -- because it provided better foot holds -- it was also a bit slippery because of recent snow fall. Some of these rock surfaces were slippery too, because of sleet formation. So we had to be careful as we hauled ourselves up this slope. 

This is segment in which I was beginning to lose my cool a little bit. Perhaps anxious on account of the time we were consuming on the approach -- we still had some 700m of climbing to do and the time was already 10am -- Raju, our guide, was charging ahead at the rate of knots. The fact that the incredibly fit Ajit Bhaskar was keeping pace with him meant that Raju pressed on at an even faster pace. They were feeding each other in a self-fulfilling loop that seemed to destroy the rest of the group. By then, there was no clearly marked out path. We had to make our own way to the top and had to navigate slippery, ragged boulders along the way. The group was getting separated quite a bit and the growing distance between the lead group and the rest wasn't doing anyone's morale any good. So I requested Ajit to slow things down and not match Raju step for step. We needed as many of us to stick together as possible if we had any chance of making it to the top. This worked a bit. The pace reduced, and we were less separated as a group.  

Sadly, at the top of that second stretch, Chuck and Paddy decided that they had had enough and decided that they would stay back too. I looked back to see if I could encourage them to continue. I could be wrong and I don't remember clearly, but I believe I shouted a word or two of encouragement. But that didn't work. Firstly, we were too far ahead for any words to have had any meaningful impact. Second, I took one look at Paddy's sagging shoulders and I knew immediately that he was spent. One of our guides stayed back with them and took them back to where Lam Lam and Sriram were. 

Now, five of us (Ajit, Mahesh, SoBoD, Pun and I) remained and started what I thought was the third moraine segment. We pressed on with two guides. At this point, Raju, Ajit, Mahesh, SoBoD, and I had moved ahead a fair bit; Pun and Kalam, the other guide were a bit further behind. 

This was getting tougher by the minute. This segment was marked by thin ledges. The presence of recent snow and sleet on some of the rock ledges made it quite dangerous too. There was no relenting the climb though; the more we climbed, the more, it seemed, we had to climb. I kept looking back for Pun, but she seemed to have slipped further and further behind. After a while, we lost sight of her completely. But I was confident she would be ok because she was with Kalam, an excellent guide. It was only much later that I learned that she too had had enough and returned to join the others, along with Kalam. So essentially, it was down to the four of us and Raju. We had no choice. All of us now had to make it to the top.

I wish I'd walked with Pun. I may have dragged her along with me too. I can't say for sure but I just wish I'd stayed closer to her. Still, the fact that Pun and Chuck made it as far as they did made them champions in my eyes. They had to miss much of the Roopkund trek when Chuck contracted conjunctivitis. Pun caught the bug too. They hadn't still recovered from it. So the fact that they even attempted Pangarchula -- forget getting as far up as they did -- made them heroes already.

I was determined that I would not have a Stok Kangri redux happen to me. On that particular expedition, ten of us had set out with four guides. With 600m of climb to go to the peak, we were reduced to four climbers and Raju (the same situation I found myself in on this Pangarchula trek). With 250m to go to the Stok Kangri peak, two members from the group just collapsed with exhaustion. I immediately decided to abandon my own peak attempt and decided to head back with those two. 

I wasn't going to allow that to happen to any of us on this day. So when Mahesh said at one point that he was exhausted and did not have the energy to continue, I pulled out all my energy tablets and stopped short of stuffing it all into his mouth! I was determined to see all of the remaining four of us at the peak and -- although Ajit and SoBoD certainly didn't need any help from me -- would have been happy to drag people to the top if necessary. 

I was particularly keen to see Mahesh reach the top. He had conjunctivitis too... In both eyes! And instead of giving up, he braved the elements and tough terrain to attempt it. We had a true champion in our midst and if anyone had to reach the top, it was this guy!

The time was 12.15pm when we started the fourth moraine segment of the climb. This was incredibly steep and was filled with large boulders with a reasonable amount of snow cover. We were already behind by the best part of two hours and still had at least another hour to go to the peak. We also hadn't had anything to eat since breakfast. I had exhausted all my supplies of energy gels, almonds, figs and energy tablets. I was running purely on adrenaline and from their faces, SoBoD and Mahesh looked spent too. Ajit, meanwhile, looked set to run a marathon and Raju continued to radiate energy and fitness! We needed one last determined push to the top. Miraculously, as if on cue, we started egging each other on in that last hour. We had no energy to shout out encouragement to each other (well, apart from Ajit that is, who was now looking set for a Gobi desert crossing, if needed -- and, given his penchant for cooking, I am not talking aloo gobi here). So Mahesh, SoBoD and I whispered encouragement to each other, counted steps and won small victories. We took it in 40-step segments and didn't look too far ahead or up. Every 40 steps, we would stop, gather breath and make the next set of 40 steps. Bit by bit, inch-by-inch, we clawed our way to the top. I just refused to look up at the peak. I knew it was nearing but was only willing to focus on the next 40 steps. Visibility was very poor as clouds had descended on the peak; we could barely see 5m ahead of us.

Selfie at Pangarchula peak...
At 13:15, nearly 3 hours later than planned, Raju had reached the top. Of course, he'd have reached the top much earlier had he been on his own. Two minutes after that, at 13:17, Ajit our 'mountain goat' had also reached the top. He too had been slowed down by the rest of us. His screeches echoed around us as we made the last few metres up to the top. I knew that there wasn't far to go now and afforded a look up to the peak. Ajit kept shouting words of encouragement. And at 13:20, Mahesh, SoBoD and I walked up to the Pangarchula peak and celebrated it with hugs and high-fives. 

And as any self-respecting climber does, we also took a selfie or two (see above).

I stood a few metres short of the 'absolute' peak though. Many years ago, in response to a question I asked Raju about how many peaks he had conquered, he replied (in Hindi): "We garhwali folk never 'conquer' mountains. We just seek permission of the mountain Goddess to climb the mountain. If we allow ourselves to think we have conquered the mountain, our Goddess will knock you down to size on the way down. That's why we always place our feet and our banner/flag a few metres short of the absolute peak." I kept that in mind and stood a metre or two off the absolute peak -- an area that was roughly 2m wide and 5m in length.

After spending no more than 10 minutes at the peak, we commenced the rapid descent to base camp. We saw clouds gathering around us all the time and visibility was diminishing with every passing minute. We didn't want the climb down to be any more treacherous than it already was. While the climb had taken us nearly 8 hours, we were down in at base camp in less than half the time. The climb down was as dangerous as the climb up was difficult; we slipped many times on the ice and snow. Even the seemingly invincible Raju slipped a few times on the way down. But we didn't seem to mind the falls and scrapes too much since our return journey was fueled by a mixture of happiness, relief and a sense of achievement.

And on the way down, I quietly started making plans, as one does, for the next challenge...

-- Mohan (@mohank)