Beyond a frozen wall

July 25, 2021

Deciding to climb a mountain represents the simplest yet most consequential act, to go beyond our comfort zones and venture into the unknown

Kaghan Valley.
Kaghan Valley.

It was an alpine cul de sac, recognisable by the presence of a boulder up the glacier. We disembarked from the jeeps on a dusty trail. The porters unloaded our gear on a side of the trail. It was past midday. At this point, we could not really predict the weather; it could turn out to be a bright day or uninterrupted rain starting any moment. Frankly, we didn’t care. We wore our parka suits and enclosed our backpacks in colourful rain covers. We were a party of nine as diverse as city lads can be.

Mountaineering is considered an elitist sport and a vocation for very few. It is mostly inaccessible to the masses. A million things have to fall in place for an average Joe to climb a mountain from annual leaves to family obligations. A few days spent in the mountains are hard-earned and well planned. Mountaineering requires skills that are seldom taught at universities. A few years ago, a group of mountaineers came together to found a club: Greater Himalayan Pakistan, a non-profit organisation that not only trains amateur mountaineers but also aims to scale relatively obscure mountains in northern Pakistan. They were the first Pakistanis to climb Falak Sair, the highest peak in Swat. Afterwards they were honoured at the national level. I had joined them to climb Chambra peak (4,677m) in Kaghan valley.

Unexpectedly, the first to get on the moist trail was Dr Shehryar. He is 67, has a tousled moustache with white strands and is undeterred even by a heart condition. “Three thousand metres it is,” he announced. Only last night we were camped at the side of the motorway, just three hundred metres above sea level.

I followed Adnan, who was managing our expedition. He is a software engineer from Lahore, in his early thirties. Across a patch of snow, he shouted, “this way”. I stopped to establish a bearing but others were behind a bush. Without knowing any better, I turned slightly right and started following him. Adnan is quite fit for his age despite being a bit on the heavier side. He religiously wakes up early to go for a run in the famous Racecourse Park in Lahore and joins a group of amateur boxers, who practice shadow boxing on dewy grass. A few steps behind me was Ahmad, a thoracic surgeon, wearing a blue parka suit. We were headed towards a base camp situated on a higher elevation. It was out of sight. It is an uneasy feeling to move towards something one cannot see. With the change in our path, all three of us were now following a different trail, steeper and less-trampled. Frequently, there was room only for our toes; rarely did two feet get on the ground at the same time.

The bags on our backs weighed approximately 20kgs each. Every step we took was a carefully meditated task. Once my brother absentmindedly dropped a glove while drinking water from a spring in the Hindukush range. After walking another hundred metres on the trail he realised that the glove was missing. He turned around, contemplated the effort required, uttered under his breath “not a step back” and started walking forward.

After a couple of hours, we reached a demarcated vantage point. From here we could see all the way down to Kaghan valley. Uniform clouds of fog could now be seen below, sheltering and encompassing mountainous villages, creating an illusion of separation. The valleys have their own weather but high altitude mountains exert enough influence on meteorological events around them to bend them to their will.

Ahmad had packed more than he should have and now he had to carry it two thousand feet up. Working in an operating room, hunched over an operating table, and walking up a hill are very different. One does not train you for the other except in terms of making quick decisions. While resting on a hollow rock, I noticed that I had no snacks in my jacket and that my water bottle required me to unload the backpack to reach it. The thing seemed trivial at that point, but later I would find out that it was not.

Adnan had gone ahead while I stayed back to match my pace with Ahmad. We sat on that vantage point for a while sharing a handful of dried fruits. Suddenly, a misty pack of clouds rolled in from our left and surrounded us. While chewing on unsalted almonds, I counted: there were more than three dozen items in my backpack ranging from a sleeping bag to a head torch, all necessary to climb the Chambra peak. Some of these were simple to use but some required certain cognitive skills. In the humdrum of organising our gear, I had forgotten to take a moment to appreciate our surroundings.

We stumbled into the base camp after sunset. Winter snow was still there and at places, more than three feet deep. There was a microwave tower, which according to locals, operated in summer only. It relayed signals to Babusar pass. It was fenced on three sides with a raised concrete cabin in the middle to store batteries and generators. To the east lay the base camp after we descended approximately two hundred metres. The base camp was sheltered from winds on one side by snow and the other side by pillars supporting the cabin.

Can we put off making a home anywhere we stay? I don’t think so. After a while, we had set up our tents on flattened snow, designated a place to get clean snow to make drinking water, and an open-air store for our climbing equipment. I had not realised how quickly we reverted to taking care of our basic needs: safety, warmth, water and shelter in a wild habitat, although we were in the base camp for only a few hours. Foolishly, we had gained an elevation of more than three thousand metres in a day, which no sensible mountaineer would recommend. That left us resting on our backs and sipping on cardamom tea while our physiology adjusted to the conditions. Between us, we represented two generations and five professions, united only by our love for the mountains and pressure headaches.

The summit. (Members of Greater Himalayan society)
The summit. (Members of Greater Himalayan society)

I have reflected long about the allure of the mountains. In parts, they are just crumbling rocks that gather and shed snow in seasonal cycles, creating their own mercurial weather... In fateful circumstances, I have seen them favouring us instead of throwing us down into a void. In the last moment, a trailing foot finds a hold in a nook and we are save

Reckoning that it was going to be a fairly technical mountain, Ben decided to hold a training session and teach us how to use crampons and ice axe; put on a safety rope; and a mock crevice rescue. Not all of us needed the training but most of us benefitted from it. He encouraged waddling steps to avoid nicking our calves with sharp edges of crampons. However, we needed to be ready if one of us inauspiciously fell into a crevice. A blanket of fresh snow on a glacier is the most treacherous thing. It hides crevices, big and small, and invites missteps from climbers. It rarely gives one a second chance.

On the third day, we dug out our tents and moved to the advanced base camp. It was a perfect bowel in the shadow of a rocky ledge, seemingly disintegrating. To the east, the summit shone in the yellow tinge of drowning sun. We stood at the end of the bowel where the slope descended like a hanging carpet and the bottom was out of sight. Just before the sunset, there was a quiet and sacred moment that embodies the spirit of these voluntary expeditions. Only the summit was bright when everybody was asked to make their decision to set forth tomorrow before dawn. There were no instructions; not even persuading. Every man for himself in the hours of the night would make up his mind. Others would solemnly accept the individual decisions. There was no bet to be won and no trophy to take home. Some nodded and some shook their heads. That settled the summit party.

We woke up at around 4 am. Although we were sheltered from the winds, the fog still crept in and we could feel the cold in our bones. We decided to skip the warm drink that we were so used to by now and left for the summit. At the edge of advance base camp, we put on our crampons, double-checked one another’s equipment and lined up to descend. It was a 45-degree slope with crisp ice on a layer of compressed snow. It crackled under our spikes and provided us, anchor on the slippery slope. It could have been an icefall, from the way it lay between two rocky ledges. We got off the slope onto a ridge to the left and crossed off to soft snow. We kept at it, for many hours.

There is utility to early climbing hours. Not only do they provide the flexibility to set a turnaround time, one also gets more uniform snow conditions. Once the sun melts the top layer, soft squishy snow makes every step a bit more tiring. Snow conditions vary, depending on sun, wind speed, moisture in the air and season. On the first slope, I came across glassy crystal ice, gravel snow, and soft crumbling snow. The mix makes the climb all the more tricky. The crampons often anchor in the ice but sometimes they don’t and slip off.

As we went further, we came across a small valley that had a glacier, according to our topographical map. At a glance, it had a blanket of snow for over 500 metres and ended at a promontory. We assumed that it had deep crevices. Though the snow looked innocent and inviting, we decided to traverse the valley under an overhanging rock and snow wall. The glacier had started heating up as water dripped in a slow rhythm from conical rock formations. The sky was clear and the sun was blinding, but we moved on. Around midday, we reached a ledge that rose directly into the sky like a sinking ship.

I had struggled with my fitness since our descent from the base camp. For me, each step forward required a conscious effort and a permit from my lungs. Although I had learned a few basic mountaineering techniques quickly, my body was not ready for the gruelling day ahead. For each dozen steps, I took twenty breaths in. The air I was breathing in had only 65 percent of the oxygen compared to sea level. But my teammates were breathing the same air. Altitude, therefore, was not the problem. I was slow and had ample time to think over the mistakes I had made during this expedition.

Base camp.
Base camp.

For the last ridge, we had clipped on safety rope through our carabiners. The ridge fell a few thousand feet towards the north. Some of us suspected that it fell directly into Kaghan valley. Ben broke trail, trying his best not to set off any avalanches. I did my best to keep up with them but it was not enough. I heard an echo from above, Zahid who had been a considerable support since the traverse, shouted,” This is an unstable slope. We might lose our summit because of you”. I clipped off my rope and dropped it on the snow, signalling to him to go ahead. He shouted again,” What about you?” I did not know what to say, all I knew was that I could not give up the summit when I was only a hundred metres away. One by one, all five of them disappeared behind a sharp rock, encompassed by snow. They reached the summit at 12:43pm, one hour later than our turnaround time. I joined them unceremoniously at 12:54pm. They sighed in relief. The weather, which had been calm and clear so far had a mild foreboding as fog started to veil nearby mountains. I have not been to the summits of many mountains but the ones I have been to, have rarely given me a feeling of exhilaration. It is a strange thing though entirely real, a paradox of accomplishment.

We set off for the advanced base camp where Dr Shehryar and Dr Ahmad were waiting for us. Prof Dr Shehryar, an oncologist and with a special interest in high altitude physiology, is the patron of Greater Himalayan Pakistan. We arrived at ABC when the western sky was still flaming and packed our tents to move towards the basecamp. The summit was capturing the last rays and the night had fallen on the valley beyond. The landscape would turn into a grazing pasture in a few weeks and people would camp on velvety grass and drink from the natural ponds. But I had to heat up the snow without complaining to have some acrid drinking water. Others were calling back home to let them know we were back and fine.

I have reflected long about the allure of the mountains. In parts, they are just crumbling rocks that gather and shed snow in seasonal cycles, creating their own mercurial weather. They exaggerate the effect of gravity and make breathing an effortful endeavour. Occasionally they shoot down avalanches, irrespective of who and what is in their way. In fateful circumstances, I have seen them favouring us instead of throwing us down into a void. At the last moment, a trailing foot finds a hold in a nook and we are saved. Deciding to climb a mountain is an act of courage in itself. It represents the simplest yet most consequential act, to go beyond the comfort of our homes and venture into the unknown. From the moment we set eyes on the mountains to the summit and back personify the human desire to aspire to do something seemingly impossible. In spite of impending avalanches and hidden crevices, we put one foot in front of another and often come back triumphant.

The writer, a medical doctor by profession, is an occasional

mountaineer. He can be reached at     [email protected]

Beyond a frozen wall