That time of the year again (March – April 2017). The designated annual leave from work for my birthday comes along, and the mountains are calling.
I’ve been gunning for the northern peaks of Uttarakhand for long, so Satopanth, Kag Bhushandi, Tapovan are on top of my list.
However, permits are not being given for the northern peaks yet. So I look up other directions. The route to Kuari Pass is open, and Pangarchulla looms nearby. Some research and Pangarchulla emerges as a practical, doable, yet, the right kind of challenging climb. Clothes and shoes rolled up, gaiters and micro spikes hired, and I am good to go! I catch hold of a Joshimath local, Narendra, to be my guide.
The trek to Pangarchulla begins from Dhak village, which is a brief ride away from Joshimath. A dusty trail meanders up from the village, offering a serene peek at what we are about to attempt. We camp at Gulling on the first day, and decide on Tali as our base camp. The first two days are the perfect quiet before the storm that awaits us. I hit the sack early at base camp. The summit attempt will be an early start to a long day!
April 1st – Summit Day
6.20 am: The plan was to start by 5.30 am. It’s 6.15 by the time we leave. Narendra is not too concerned, since he has observed my general trekking pace over the past two days.
The weather is favourable so far. Largely pristine blue, other than the occasional patch of translucent white clouds. The peak emerges after an hour’s climb. It appears within touching distance – Mini Pangarchulla to the right, Pangarchulla to the left. They appear to be barely apart. Yet, Narendra assures me the two are hours apart. We continue climbing, looking for ridges without snow to traverse.
Pangarchulla to the left and mini Pangarchulla to the right. Picture by Manas Arora
We trace footsteps heading towards the right onwards to Kuari pass, but none towards Pangarchulla. Narendra informs me that to his knowledge, no one has summited so far in 2017. People have returned from various points along the climb.
11.00 am: Mini Pangarchulla. Brilliant views all around – the peculiar Haathi Parvat, the dominant Dronagiri, Kag Bhushandi, Barmal and the copy book Neelkanth peak. Pangarchulla is within touching distance now. All that separates us from the peak is a ridge – though long, rocky and challenging. We embark on the clear, yet treacherous path.
After negotiating some major boulders, a 30 feet sheer drop greets us on the ridge, along a rock smooth as soap! This would not be our path to the summit. We evaluate alternatives. The weather brews sinister intentions. Grey clouds rise from the northern peaks, threatening the pristine blue that has been meted out to us thus far. We decide to climb down from the ridge onto the snow fields to the back of the peak face. We spot some rock patches emerging from underneath the snow field. This, in all likelihood, is our way to the top.
Noon: Narendra assesses the situation, and concludes – “This is not worth the risk, sir. Let’s not continue”. The turn-around we had agreed upon was 2.00 pm. A couple of hours still remain. I plead with him for another hour. He agrees, and we continue. The threat of retreat gives me new-found energy. I gobble up the remaining distance at an impressive clip. The weather continues with its ominous ways. The clouds are now overhead, but somehow keeping away from the peak. Resounding thunder, though, clarifies the intent of the weather further.
1.00 pm: Time for reassessment. Our progress has reassured Narendra and we agree to continue. Snowy trail has turned into hard ice – crampons are now in order. They offer fantastic grip on snow, but anything rocky and I am a cat on a hot tin roof!
Snow on the trail to Pangarchulla
We prepare for the final push. The only obstacle now is a rock face standing a couple of hundred meters tall. Located with poetic accuracy at the end of the climb, it demands the very last ounce of courage, strength and skill I can muster. I have had some exposure to wall climbing (thank you IMF!!), so I do not flinch at the sight of this final challenger. Slowly, but with sure footing, I negotiate the rock face.
As if offended by our audacity to keep going, the clouds let loose. Snowfall. A whiteout also approaches from our left. Though worried, I am past the point of no return. Words of Ed Viesturs haunt me as I continue – “Getting to the top is optional. Getting down is mandatory.” Can I safely come down what I am climbing up?
2.00 pm: The peak is covered from all corners with thunderous clouds. The peak itself, though, is serene. It’s as if the whole range from the North onwards wants me to give up, and yet, Pangarchulla is fighting for this insignificance approaching it. The peak keeps all docks clear for the welcome. I now sense a responsibility to fulfil this expectation that Pangarchulla has laid out for me. Clarity in my thought ensues. Final push, and we are there.
2.15 pm: We meet – Pangarchulla and I. It’s brief, but we both know a lot has culminated for this to have happened. Though we have just met, the connection has existed for long. The experience is simple, quiet, and humbling. I bow to the Trishul perched at the top, and thank the peak for the honor.
The view isn’t exactly mesmerising because of all the grey, yet there is perverse pleasure in this defiance. The clouds, on the other hand, demand action against this deviant. Ah, the romance!
At the Pangarchulla summit PC: Manas Arora
2.20 pm: And just like that, the encounter is over – it’s time to clamour down, right into the cocktail of snowfall, thunder and the unending vastness of the snowfield. Snowfall has now mutated into a full blown snow storm. Someone bays for blood. Wind speeds are immense enough that precipitation is shooting parallel to the ground. The various ridges along the way allow a clear line of sight for the storm. It hits me smack from the right – cold and unrelenting. The right half of my black softshell is white with snow.
4.00 pm: The storm refuses to budge. Visibility is dipping as fast the temperature. Our path is now a minefield of softened snow, ready to capitulate under the slightest weight. When lucky, I find solid footing at knee depth. At other times, I am waist deep in snow, struggling to figure a way up and out. All we can think of is the safety of the jungles, with trees to protect us from the gusts.
Racing down in the stormy weather. Picture by Manas Arora
6.00 pm: The jungles at last. We reach camp in 20 minutes. I am shivering – less from the cold, more from the excitement of what I endured. The softshell has held well, and I am dry on the inside, though cold. I shrug the snow off it, and find something drier to cover up with. Dinner that night is particularly sumptuous. Small ways in which the mountains reward you.
This was unequivocally more than my usual risk threshold. So far, across all treks, adversity was self-created – cram a 4 day itinerary into 2, alpine without guides, trek during off season… This time, the mountain created the adversity. The hostility in the form of that snow storm was beyond humbling – it was a reality check.
Yet, in all that hostility, I experienced romance, exhilaration, and that tug from the peak drawing me towards it, which is counter intuitive, really. How is life allured towards something this hostile, this unconducive for it? A week after the trek, I found Maurice Herzog addressing a similar emotion in his book Annapurna:
“We were in a savage and desolate cirque of mountains never before seen by man. No animal or plant could exist here. In the pure morning light this absence of all life, this utter destitution of nature, seemed only to intensify our own strength. How could we expect anyone else to understand the peculiar exhilaration that we drew from this barrenness, when man’s natural tendency is to be attracted to everything in nature that is lush and fruitful?”
My takeaways are oft repeated in the mountaineering circles. To face them in person, though, has had a consolidating impact – do not challenge the mountain and always count on the next time.
What then, makes a mountaineer, I reminisce. More than the summits, it’s the supposedly failed attempts that teach the art. They make one aware of the limitations a mountaineer must work with, the risk thresholds that she shouldn’t breach. It’s never a duel, it’s a happy union. The failures… they keep it that way!
Manas Arora is an ardent solo trekker. Some of the other solo treks that he has undertaken include Bhrigu lake, Indrahar Pass, Minkiani Pass and a few trails in Spiti.