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“Now we have to climb without backpacks!” I said, looking up.
My feet were suspended by the tips of my crampons. The ice was bullet proof, alpinists normally call it “black ice”. The worst ice to climb! We’ve been climbing it since the beginning of the route. Before each swing with the ice tools we had to clean about 10 to 15cm of rotten snow that was covering the horrible ice. The whole process was excruciating, to the point that we felt it was no different to digging a vertical tunnel! Finally, we reached a point where to continue we needed to pull up the rucksacks.
Announced Daniela on the uncomfortable belay station, secured by two solid ice-screws. Directly below us, there was the void of the north face of the unclimbed, unnamed, 6000m mountain.
“Hmmm, it doesn’t look that easy!” A bit concerned, I committed to the pitch.
One day before, we left base camp at 4400m, placed very close to the dirt road, on the Suru Valley. We found a quite unexplored valley called “Pensilunga”, surrounded by promising mountains, some with summits over 6000m. We found no information about the place so… it was the perfect spot to go! At the very end of the valley, there it was, a beautiful aesthetic mountain. We immediately dreamed of climbing it!
Now doubts started to emerge in our brains, we had just finished one hard ice climbing pitch and we had to pull the two backpacks up. On a good platform we tested the terrain upwards. The ice was still… black! The snow cover was still… rotten! From that point we had to make a long traverse, meaning that if we would decide to turn back we could have an epic descent. Normally that fact shouldn’t be a decisive issue, but taking in account the conditions on the wall it could become too risky. “What to do?” Doubts were rising in our spirits and experience told us already that, in serious doubt, there should only be one way to go. This mountain was a no go!
Back down on the glacier, we were trying to find what to do with the remaining good weather days. Being honest, we were trying to regain our confidence and good spirits to try something as a consolation prize. The next day we moved the tent to the bottom of another mountain, an unclimbed 5900m.
After a short nights sleep and at dawn we were already fully equipped, gear hanging on the harness, ropes on, ready to climb, but contrary to the good weather prediction we had, it was snowing a bit. Anyway, we decided to move forward “Ok, here we go!” Just two steps after we suddenly heard a “bip”, it was a message from Vitor Baía. Our “weather-man”, far off in Portugal, was sending an alarming message: “Big storm coming in from central India heading your way! Forget the climb, go down fast and find a safe place! Yesterday the forecast predicted 10cm of snow for today, now the prediction is 1 to 1.5m accompanied by strong winds! Get away from the mountains!”
“Wow! It looks like we have to go down right now!” We didn´t remember receiving a message like that from Baía since our fist Himalayan expeditions. Fully trusting his knowledge, we didn’t take it lightly. We went down, packed the tent, all the gear and just ran down the glacier with backpacks heavy as hell to reach base camp by middle afternoon. By that time, it was snowing intensely. Since our camp was very close to the dirt road, we were lucky to find a last-minute jeep rescue, just before the road closed for good.
The storm raged for the next two days.
Some days after, while having coffee in Leh, we tried to rearrange our plans and thoughts turned to another mountain area. We just had some days left to try… something. With the mountains packed with fresh deep snow and the avalanche risk at its maximum, the choices were becoming difficult. Finally, we decided to try our luck on the Kang Yatse range, an area we knew very well already. Our plan was to pack for 11 days and simply wander around the area until finding a safe goal. It was not a sophisticated plan, but at least it was an idea, so we hired three porters to help us carry all the load. The mountain was in full winter mode, with snow at very low altitudes. Middle way on our approach trek, the porters refused to continue. “Too much snow sir! We can´t go!” For us it was a big setback, especially as at the very beginning of the walk, Daniela had asked the guys if they could manage with the snow: “Just let us know now! Are you strong enough to cross the pass or not? If you can´t, we are now in a better place to rearrange the backpacks and adapt our plans.” “Don’t underestimate us!” was the answer.
So in the middle of a remote valley, we had to adapt our former plans. “Ten days on the mountain? Not a chance!” After some arguments with the porters, we had to rearrange our cargo and then we split. Porters down, Daniela and I up, carrying more than 25kg each, uphill, with snow up to our knees. With the night already in we crossed the Konmaru pass at 5200m and close to midnight, we were finally inside our tiny bivy tent. Base camp installed!
After two days, we left base camp already breaking trail in powder snow, sometimes down to our knees, most of the time above them. We were frequently falling in hidden holes between blocks along the moraine. The risk of injuring or breaking a leg was very real. It took us about seven exhausting hours to place the first camp, in the middle of a glacier, almost at the base of our new goal: the unclimbed east ridge of Kang Yatse (6400m).
The next day we “attacked” again. “Attack” is the right word, since the snow conditions were continually terrible, forcing us to adopt our best “Ninja mind will!”… “Aggghhh! F*ng snow!”
Although we trusted (just a tiny bit!) that on the ridge and with the increasing altitude the snow could be better… we were wrong! In some sections of the climb we faced clear avalanche risk, especially while crossing long ramps between “lifesaving” rocky islands. There was not much technical difficulty and that too, became a problem. With no steep slopes to purge, the sugar snow kept its dreadful characteristics.
At 5750m, we found a sheltered tiny spot to place our bivouac, protected by a rock. After some digging, we manage to build a small platform large enough for two people to lay down. A couple of pegs secured the tent to the rock.
“Let´s see what happens tomorrow!” We prepared to rest for some hours, thinking about the day ahead. Our spirits were in turmoil. We knew the mountain was far from even medium conditions, but at the same time it was our last chance to pull something out of this expedition. Deep in our minds we knew the scenarios were not promising at all, yet we were committed to try until the last drop of hope.
The next day saw us climbing in deep snow… again! Approaching 6000m we naively imagined that, on the steepest last part of the climb, the snow must become better. Again, we were wrong! Buried in snow until our knees, we hopelessly looked up in the direction of the unattainable summit. To reach it we needed at least eight hours more of effort and with no good places to abseil, the prospect of a night descent in avalanche prone slopes was too risky to accept. “Maybe it is possible… for someone, but not for us!”
Once more, we bailed! Sad, mentally tired with somber spirits, not much words were changed in the slow descent.
One more hard slogging day was needed to reach base camp.
The next day we packed again, this time to get out of the mountains for good. This time our heavy loads were even harder to carry, as they took on the extra weight of disappointment.
These failures after so much investment in terms of training, risk, money and, more important, dreams, always bring the thought: “It is worth it?” It is the unspoken question, but it is there, in the back of our minds.
Time for introspection.
“Damn it! Next year we go to the Maldives!” Daniela’s shouting to the skies.
A few days later, sitting on the plane heading home, we looked at each other: “So, next year it could be cool to plan a 7000?”
I turned my head and looked outside. Approaching jet-plane altitude, the sky was dark-blue. If we weren’t on the wrong side of the seats we could see the Himalayas far to the north.
“Mmm… Remember the valley we’ve been in 2010? There is a huge mountain and I think its south face is still unclimbed. Let me see if I remember its name… ah! It is called…”
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In Daring Deeds
In Daring Deeds