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From the Jaws of Nanda Devi

From the Jaws of Nanda Devi

journal
Mark Thomas
October 2017 | Read
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As a child and young explorer, I would often find myself in a scary place having committed myself beyond the point of retreat, wishing I was anywhere but where I was, doing anything but what it was I was doing. Some would call it ‘misadventure’. That horrible realisation that I’d stepped over the mark, gone to the place of no return, wanting so much for a giant hand to pluck me from the situation and pop me safely back down on solid ground. Escaping from moments like these shaped my future, hardened the mind, fulfilled childhood dreams of excitement and adventure, but mostly left me crapping my pants and more often than not, in the local A&E being wrapped up in plaster of Paris!

Like a child, I was longing for adventure once again. Two days at Base Camp were taking their toll on my sanity. After 3 weeks of high adventure on the North West Face of Nanda Devi, BC was feeling like a prison. When Martin mentioned a rather cool looking route to get back to the road head at Munsiari, instead of the 60km valley trek, I was psyched! Next morning, Martin wandered off down the Lwan Valley in advance of myself. I had an appointment with the unclimbed West Ridge of Nanda Lapak (5786m) before I would rendezvous with him at the ‘scary bridge’, next to the little deserted village of Lwan the following day.

Nanda Lapak took more out of me than I had bargained for and after a gruelling 14 hours of climbing solo, including some mind blowing back roping high up on its North face, super airy, I crawled back into my pit at BC late that night, completely washed out.

Wednesday 8th October 2015 – waking up with what can only be described as the hangover from hell! Dehydration, empty stomach, lack of sleep, aching muscles – perfect conditions for the 6 day traverse to Munsiari, woop, woop! Fur Temba, our BC helper, greets me with the best tasting cup of tea ever! Soon I am whoofing down some breckie and packing my sack for an exploration and possibly, the 1st ascent of the Shalang and Poting Col Traverse, awesome.

Skipping my way down the Lwan Gorge, I turn to say my farewells to BC and the North West face of Nanda Devi East, ending another totally mega chapter in life, this place is really cool! 20 kilometres down the Lwan Valley, with rather weary legs, I arrive at the bridge I radio to Martin and find him perched above the Shalang gorge, soon we are sipping on a brew, bouncing with excitement of our imminent appointment with the Shalang Glacier. I instantly crash out as my head hits my makeshift pillow, a night of un– broken, deep sleep, with not a care in the world, the not knowing of our next 3 days, allowing my mind to be at peace. That night, under the safety of our little canvas shell, we lay, unaware of the adventure which would play out for us over the next few days, boy were we in for a journey!

At midnight we set off and marched our way up to the dry white ice tongue of the Shalang glacier. After a few kilometres, at around 4800m, a much steeper wall of ice appeared before us, with dawn approaching and a stiff breeze in my face, we popped on the crampons and marvelled as behind us, the South face of Nanda Kot 6861m, burned brightly in the morning sun. Ahead, we could see a rough route to the col.  We are definitely in ‘Big country!’ 

For the first time on the trip, my feet are super cold and I’m wearing every stitch of clothing, but still feeling the effects of what feels brutally cold this morning, definitely the coldest day of the trip. I skimped a little bit on clothes to keep my sack a little lighter and the cold head wind is biting through and chilling my core. We are on the North side of the mountain, so no bonus warmth from the morning sun either. I put my head down and skip over the crevasses until I reach the upper section of the glacier where the snow becomes more drifted. The slots are now slightly hidden under weak paper thin snow bridges. We tie into the rope and force a trail through the deep snow and freezing head wind. The going is slow, as I wriggle my toes at every opportunity between climbing in an effort to prevent them from becoming frost nipped. The final 300m to the summit is a maze of crevasses and seracs, I spread my weight over another jaw dropping chasm, the craziness of it all distracting my mind from numb fingers and toes. As we climb the steeper summit head wall, I hear a cry from Martin below and notice he has one crampon dangling from his ankle. Martin writes:

The snow became deep and drifted, and crevasse fields, unseen in the view from below, complicated onward progress. Soon we were traversing the edges of giant chasms and crawling over a series of tenuous snow bridges. In its pristine magnificence the scenery was reminiscent of the Grands Mulets route on Mont Blanc after a fresh fall of snow. The col lay up to our left and was guarded by steeper slopes of harder névé snow.

With Mark in the lead I kicked in my front-points and the crampon instantly fell off.
“One crampon off!” I shouted, and kicked in the other toe.
“Two crampons off!” I screamed and fell on to my axe pick while Mark took a belay.
My footwear improvisations had their limitations’.

At 10.30am we top out on a beautiful, sparkling snow crest, the sun instantly warming my soul, bringing warmth to my long lost toes. The view of Dangthal 6050m to the west, tantalisingly close and ahead, the un-climbed rock peak of Bankatia 5631m, both of which, with another 2 days of food and a larger rack of climbing hardware, would be feasible objectives. But we still had the small matter of descending the Poting Glacier to the valley over 2000m below us. The adventure continues!

A quick scoff of our depleted rations, before we head South East to what looks like a way through the initial upper section of the Glacier. We are suddenly overwhelmed with the complexity and seriousness of what lay ahead as we greet our first obstacle, a 300m ice fall. We set up the abseils with limited amounts of threading cord, eventually arriving on the next snowy plateau as the afternoon clouds roll in allowing us only glimpses of the way ahead. Making a traverse to the left and under the West Ridge of Bankatia, in the hope of finding a way down the next ice fall, our pace quickens in anticipation but also for fear of the imminent afternoon storm shutting us down in what now seems a pretty committing and unforgiving arena. We reach the brow of the plateau and peer suspiciously over the rim. Chaos!

My diary extract:

Martin throws in an ice screw and I get lowered down, into the jaws of this totally vertical monster! It’s impossible, vertical serac upon vertical serac with an overhanging section about 800m below. Rock is firing off from the shattered cliffs below Bankatia on the left and falling ice is sweeping the face from the seracs on the right. We have only a few metres of abseil cord left, this is utterly the most hostile place I’ve ever encountered. We have to find another way. I glance across to my right before the climb back up to Martin with the bad news, my vista is of vertical, dark, forbidding cliffs, over 800m in height. My heart sinks and in an instant, the view is gone, behind the afternoon storm clouds, as all around me, snowflakes begin to fall, I rest my helmet against the wall of ice, knowing we are in for the fight of our lives!’

Martin writes:

Down on the shelf we scanned our options through the midday haze. The glacier swung outwards to the left under Bankatia and we felt sure that the outer curve would offer some pickings for our onward descent. With purposeful stride we descended another 300 metres out to the leftmost extremity of the ice, multiplying our commitment to whatever lay below.

The brink of the next icefall arrived abruptly. This was no temporary hitch in progress but a gigantic plunge. The glacier simply collapsed from pleasant convexity into a savage melee of séracs. We could see about 400 metres down to a levelling whereupon the ice took off again on a second downward thrust into a bath of boiling cloud. I made an ice screw belay, and Mark lowered down to inspect the corridor on the left side which was our only hope of salvation.

“What’s it like?” I asked, hoping to hear his cheery cry of “Defo!” as usual; but I didn’t even get a “Defo-maybe”. This was a “Defo –not!”.  The afternoon cloud blotted any clear view of the terrain on the right side of the glacier. We could see some open screes and jagged grass-covered spurs. A large lake nestled in a hollow in between. If we could get over to that side we might have a chance. There is no worse trial than being forced to retrace downward steps, especially in sloppy snow with a heavy load’.

We slowly plod our way back up to 5200m, re- tracing our tracks with our heavy sacks in heavy snow to find a levelling on the ridge to put up the bivi tent for our third night out. There is no way we can continue today in zero visibility in such gnarly terrain, we slump into the tent at 5pm, totally spent. Our spirits not even lifted by our delicious single packet of Ainsley Harriott’s Moroccan Medley cous-cous, the last of the food, with what seems likely to be a long and tough descent out. The long cold night envelops us in wind and snow as we both lay in our pits, pondering on our situation. Above us, a 500m ascent back up to the Col on complex terrain, by which time, the Shalang Glacier, the other side, might be baked in sunshine, melting those wafer thin snow bridges over which we ascended in the freeze of the morning. We would then be sure to have to make another bivi on the descent to the gorge, by which time our porters would be a day or two ahead of us and all of this with no rations in a potential white out. Below, we could descend for miles and get shut down, then face the re- ascent, putting us in even more danger. Our porters are already below us on their descent via the sensible route! As I lay there staring at the flapping canvas of our little bivi tent in the ensuing storm, with an empty stomach, an overwhelming sensation of survival sweeps over me. In some way, my body is preparing for battle! A good friend of mine always said, ‘The best form of defence is attack!’

The night proved to be a restless one, by far the coldest of the trip so far, I shivered between gusts and anxious thoughts. We un- zip the tent door to unveil a starry, windswept sky, halleluiah! It’s still dark so we dive back into our doss bags and sip on hot tea and the last of the sugar, waiting for dawn to allow us the visibility to seek a way down. I’m suddenly filled with optimism and we rise to the challenge with renewed vigour and energy.

We pack up camp and head, this time, South East. Instantly we are faced with a steep ice cliff, leading down to a rocky spur. I lower Martin and down climb in pitches to save on our abseil cord. Soon we arrive at the top of the cliffs with a surge of optimism. I glimpse over the edge and scan left and right, steep, vertical walls for at least 400m, deep gullies scarred from constant rock fall and serac avalanches from the overhanging glacier above us. Abseiling is out of the question with only a handful of wires, two cams and a 60m rope, we’d be sure to run out of kit. We decide the only option is to down climb the face in pitches, placing runners to protect the second. A line evolved down steep buttresses split by diagonal rakes of frozen moss and gravel, a mixture of crimps and single axe hooks. In effect, this is our point of absolute no return. All our years of climbing and mountaineering, all that experience, has led us to this moment, this single decision would be the most difficult and most important one we would ever make.

Many hours pass as we slowly, methodically down climb, until we reach easier angled rock at the base of the cliff. We untie from the rope in preparation for the down climb sprint through the gully guarded by the overhanging serac. The moment Martin steps away from me, two large rocks fly past his helmet, at which point we both make a run for it, bounding down the gully, riding the shifting scree and bouncing off boulders to the haven of the lower rock shelf, where at last, there is a moment of calm. Time out!

Lateral moraines 1000m below us, signal our destination, we are at 4650m. We traverse right to reach a very tempting gully, something inside urges me to push on through a notch in the rocky ridge ahead, here, a secondary canyon full of boulder scree, flows down towards the snout of the Poting ice fall. We’re in! In an hour of free fall and knee wrenching, we arrive at the bottom. As we exit the gully the main Poting icefall comes into view and clearly visible is the level perch from which Martin had lowered me the previous afternoon. I can see the total brutality and sheer scale of what we could have let ourselves in for, 1000m of total chaos.

Martin writes:

The main icefall swung into view. High above we spotted the level perch from which I had lowered Mark the previous afternoon and gasped at the scale and brutality of the terrain beneath. The icefall was close on 1000 metres in total height, and completely inescapable. I’ve never seen a glacier quite so frightful anywhere in the world. To have embarked on that descent, with or without working crampons, would have been suicidal. So much for 1:150000 maps!’

Ploughing through the silt and smashed up boulders, we pull over the final lateral moraine, to be greeted by the most tranquil of little lakes amongst blades of grass and juniper, as if I’d been suddenly picked up and transported from the most desperate place on the planet to the most beautiful in a matter of seconds! We're home and dry! I kick off my boots, paddle my feet, lay in the grass and sip on a celebratory coffee. Life’s awesome!

The Poting valley descends for a further 1200m to Bugdiyar, which lies on the main trekking route to Munsiari. The evening is a haze of thrashing through bear infested forest, before at last, we arrive at a lovely little tea house, in the dark, on the banks of the main gorge, where we are greeted with plates of wonderful rice and dhal washed down with the best tasting hot tea one could wish for.

We suspect this may be the first-ever traverse, but would be pleased to hear from anyone who has ventured into these parts. For future reference the traverse should definitely be undertaken in the opposite direction from Poting to Shalang, allowing the route up the south side of the Poting Glacier to be scouted from below. Spring would be the best time when snow-cover will allow faster and safer progress. Full high-altitude mountain kit is recommended! The scenery is magnificent and the Poting Glacier icefall is a spectacle not to be missed before it is claimed by global warming.

Mark Thomas is a member of the Jöttnar Pro Team and is a founder of Elite Mountain Guides.  Martin Moran is the owner of guiding business, Moran Mountain. Thank you to both for the words and images.

Written By
Mark Thomas

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