8 p.m, Mount Kun (King) base camp, altitude 4500 meters, Ladakh, India .
“I am leaving for that peak tomorrow morning, 6 am sharp, have my packed lunch ready”.
I lifted my head and gazed at the sky; dark with millions of stars and bright cold crescent. The sky was clear at least for now, I hoped it remains the same tomorrow. The wind was swift as usual at Mount. Kun base camp, flattering the national flag.Violent sounds of the water downstream breaking the haunting silence of the valley, echoing back from the tall ice and snow-clad mountains in the surrounding region reflected back from widespread glaciers and snow, it looked brighter and much beautiful in the night. It’s frightening beauty always reminded of the might of nature, especially in the high mountains. As usual, I felt the strength of my soul, stretching my arms closing my eyes and taking a long chilled breath, was one thing needed before finally offering my gratitude to the God and going to my tent where I slid into my sleeping bag. Before finally falling asleep I recalled the faces of my loved ones, my parents, my inspiring rugged friends. Reaching the peak was a matter of uncompromising honor and returning back safe in one piece was of paramount importance. I often disliked the idea of taking too many precautions, it felt like lowering of moral and weakening of intentions to take the required risk to negotiate the same, so I avoided too many precautionary measures.I always preferred to negotiate such high-risk situations with boldness and planning instead. I analysed the possible hazards that might come across and made a mental preparation and plan to overcome them using the available resources and if required without them too. I paid one final attention to the details of the task ahead. It was not the greatest of all but most challenging of my life so far as i had already climbed peaks much more higher than this one before.The highest one being 7135 Mtrs (Mt.Nun) .The task was to climb a technical peak alone with a limited equipment in an alpine style for the first time.
Before 6 a.m. I woke up, freshened myself and had breakfast in the mess tent. I packed my rucksack that carried a pair of boreal climbing shoes, a water bottle containing tang mixed water, a chocolate, a packet of biscuit, and crampons. As per the plan the route was to be traveled with the high ankle trekking shoes as far as possible to keep light weight on my feet and maintain required speed and energy. The plan was to return by the noon time or possibly afternoon. The base camp crew was already lazy though it had been just a few days in the base camp and was well aware that for next 25 days no one is going to visit the base camp.They had already begun to feel lonely and had to be constantly pulled to keep them active. Frequent humour and talk about girls had made them adopt a bit casual approach at times towards the instructions given to them. I went to the kitchen tent and asked for my packed lunch, the crew was surprised to see me ready with my gear as I was about to leave. They had least expected me to go alone. “We haven’t prepared the packed lunch.” I was pissed off at their negligence.Now was not the time to react. To cover up they offered me an apple for the way, which I slid into the side pocket of my rucksack. Taking the grip of my ice axe and wrapping the tape sling of the ice axe across my wrist I covered my half face with a black mask before finally leaving for the climb. There were two reasons I always did that the first was to protect against the direct cold air, the second was to resemble the ancient and modern military special force warriors.
With this done I set off towards my destination carrying my ice axe in a self-arrest position. The route was divided into four sections. The first section was a moderate slope that was negotiated in 30 minutes the finish point had a flat portion, covered with streams of water occupying it. Having negotiated the first section with significant speed as per the plan I decided taking a break. The break was not due to physical exertion but there was some sense of disappointment. I was well aware that I was alone. I, also knew that my other two team mates from the USA were at the base camp. If my life was in danger I will not be able to send any signal to the base camp as there were no radios. Even if I had one, questions like why would anyone come? The cook and helper are not much physically tough, know nothing of rescue they somehow managed to reach base camp, they are useless in such demanding situation, even if they hiked a little up in order to find me they won’t go far, thoughts of their wife and kids will stop them.The cook being a Gurkha was daring but physically not strong enough to meet the need of such situations. Other two men from the USA being remarkable climbers, I still doubted that they would come for any rescue. I took a rest for 5 minutes to get rid of all such thoughts. If I was climbing with a team it would have been great as I would have had a chance to bring my leadership into action, just like I did in my previous mountaineering expeditions.Even as a newcomer in the world of mountaineering I had a natural tendency to take responsibility for everyone safety. This increased my efficiency because I well knew that to take responsibility for others I will have to double my moral, which I did well. Such has always been my proactive responsibility for others without exposing it to them that I prepared myself mentally to take everyone to the summit and bring everyone back to the base. My five minutes were over. The flat portion covered with water had some small boulders half-submerged in water, half exposed outside water. Hopping over these boulders I crossed this region.
Now was the turn off 2nd section. This section was a steeper slope of loosely locked big boulders with small patches of hard snow scattered in the way. This section was to be negotiated quickly and advantage of trekking shoes good sole grip to be exploited quickly.To make the travel quicker and save energy in pushing over to anther rocks I often walked over the snow patches that I came across .Side step technique worked well over these snow patches. After covering these loosely locked rocks the fern line began.A wall of cliffs inclined towards me made the beginning of this section more risky as on the top of these 200 meters tall cliffs were huge hanging boulders.I imagined what destruction they would cause if any one of them fell. If it happened the broken portion of the boulder could shoot towards me and shatter me apart or I could just get crushed beneath one of these. Analyzing the danger I increased my pace to get out of the range of the boulder. The adrenaline that often kicked off in dangerous situations is of great advantage. If one knows how to use it and control it, one can increase his/her efficiency spontaneously. As I kept moving head there were no more loose rocks it was the beginning of the glacier covered with a few inches of powder snow from previous day’s snowfall.This thin layer of powder snow provided good grip even with trekking shoes. As I was at a significant height I turned back to take a look at the world around and behind me from that height, the vastness of the white world with clouds, spine .valleys and glaciers sent a chill down my spine. Such effects were always a boost for me. Analyzing the condition of weather I continued further, there were few clouds approaching from the west.As the journey continued along with my isolation in this beautiful and challenging alien world I could recall glorious moments earned in the past.
It was in December 2012 I went on a short expedition with my experienced friends for the first time, some of them were already soldiers and one of them undergoing a final semester of his training in Indian military academy. Others were experienced in climbing and possessed army background, heart .Those who had no connection with the army were no less as they were already a soldiers at heart.I was just a josh guy with soldier’s heart, warrior soul and fighter mind.I came directly from a desk job that I was doing in Dell internationals in Mohali since the last couple of months.The display of mental and muscle strength both the way up and down without any complain earned me not only respect among my friends accompanying me in the expedition but also ever satisfying words from one of my friend Parmesh (already a soldier in Indian Army)- “khan I am proud of you. Well done! ”, with hand shaken firmly and a brotherly hug, those moments were saved forever in my mind.
It was the will power much in action. Some people live for these proud moments, sometimes one has to wait long for the opportunity to earn these moments again. When they get it, stakes are high.The remaining route was traversed with the zig-zag manner and side steps.Ice axe was the only lifesaving tool I had, apart from my crampons in a rucksack. All the way ice axe was held in self-arrest position tied to the wrist and in the hand towards the mountain side. Towards the end of this 2nd section, here was another danger lingering from the east, the same wall of cliffs with another boulder leaning towards me.This boulder posed much more danger than the previous one. The urge to pass ahead of its impact radius was the same as before but this time it was more time-consuming as the slope was steeper and the surface beneath my feet was not solid. It was a thin layer of snow and ice over a scree and rocks fallen from the cliff wall towards east. Water running below the layer of ice and snow was a problem as the layer was too thin to hold my weight.I had to make a rough analysis and identify the thicker portions of the surface. Anchoring the ice axe would have broken the thin layer, getting wet at this altitude could be disastrous.Maintaining my balance and placing my ice axe softly I managed to cover this section and reached the starting of 3rd section – a cornice
3rd section – a cornice, slope 70 degrees,, altitude 5100 meters.
It was high time for me to wear my boreal along with my crampons.The clouds were approaching and the weather could turn bad anytime I had less time before the weather turned bad and it would be a complete white out. My glory was 400 meters away from me.I wanted it. I wanted it bad and now I wanted it quick. I had to take a call and decided to travel over this cornice with my trekking shoes. The snow layer was knee-deep over a hard layer of snow. I knew I was over a cornice I had less time to finish this 200 meters climb.Wearing boreal would have not saved me from falling down towards north into unknown and lost forever .Traversing the cornice was towards west.it was still a bold and wise decision to carry on fast and light without climbing shoes and crampons .Blood pumping faster, my focus getting narrow, alert and agile I could rely only on myself and my ice axe that provided me needed anchoring. With calm mind and speed maintained I moved step by step anchoring myself with my ice axe. The only trouble was the snow slipping in my shoes through the gaps created by my trousers. I had to pull it out frequently when maintaining balance was already a daunting task on this section that was steep towards both sides of my body.30 minutes of these action moments made me reach at the end of this 3rd section.I was on a much less steep section just below the final section towards the summit.
Section 4 crevasses to the summit. Slope 80 degree.
Analyzing the situation the white out was approaching and I had less time.if I decided to move ahead towards the summit I will have to ascend and descend down quickly, much faster that the speed maintained so far. Descending a 70 -80-degree steep section without a rope and an anchor are far more dangerous and skill demanding than ascending such a section without a rope. Climbing section 4 and coming back all the way through section 4 and section 3 was much more challenging now. Taking a 5 min break was also important.I wanted to see and realize how far I had come. It was refreshing. As it was already a high time I removed my trekking shoes and wore my climbing shoes and attached crampons.Now it was not just final phase of ascending but a difficult descend waiting ahead.Having finished wearing and fixing crampons on my shoes I gave a satisfactory smile at this 5300 meters, realizing how bad ass I could be at times.I said to myself “I just negotiated a cornice that steeps for 30 minutes without a rope and crampons “ not bad! .Though thanks to the snow over hard snow that provided me natural anchor by enabling my feet to go knee-deep in the snow while ascending.Taking a look around I could see the valley from 5300 meters, the only road that leads towards Leh from safat Naala police check post.I could spot the base camp from this height and it was tempting to go back with a victory in hand, safe and sound. It was not an extraordinary moment but it was valid enough to remind myself that at least for these moments at this 5300 meters I was not ordinary and definitely not a part of the crowd.
With this satisfaction and thrill, physical and mental exhaustion could not be felt. But the task was not yet complete over. The final 200 meters were yet to be climbed.Making a rough calculation I analysed that I now had around 20 minutes roughly to reach the summit and come back to the same spot.Another frightening hurdle lay ahead of me at the foot of the summit slope was a widely opened crevasse.There was no way it could be jumped across.There was no ladder. Towards the south was a small bridge where the crevasse was not open.It was a dead end.But the only section that allowed one to move ahead.I had to jump, but jumping could imbalance me and throw me 1000 meters down into unknown and no one would know about it. I had to step across it.A wide step with a support of my ice axe got me through. There was no time to calculate.It was either forward or backwards. I choose forward gathering all my strength I stepped across it, keeping my crampons in position aided by ice axe for anchoring.The remaining 200 meters were climbed maintaining a rhythm of breathing and forward movement. Just reaching the summit it was beginning to get white out.Stopping there to take a selfie or a video was not important it could be done later. Using my heel I ascended down and jumped across the crevasse.Crampons provided me with a good grip to control the fall. I was back to the less steep and flatter section below the slope of the summit.
It was a good time to record this moment in camera. After capturing the images and video was done it was not the end of challenges that awaited. Descending after a summit could be fatal.Most climbers are overwhelmed with their summit and make major mistakes while descending.I had two options to descend the section 3 –the cornice. Either choose the same route over the cornice or choose another route not over the cornice but on the wall stretching towards the south adjoining the cornice. The cornice had high chances of breaking, and if I choose to move down using my heel I would exert too much pressure on the cornice making it more vulnerable to break.If I choose to move down using 4 point technique it would have consumed too much time. Staying on cornice for long was not a good idea, I had to choose another way. The route that was on the adjoining wall.It was solid surface but 80 degrees steep. There was only one way to negotiate this final challenge –to use 4 point technique to descend 200 meters down. It had to be done. I recalled my basic mountaineering training and began to descend.At times like these what counts the most is faith, calm and open mind.Pumping out the strength in me I dug my ice axe and crampons deep and trying to make no mistake kept descending down.There was no time to waste as resting could have consumed more energy.The only way was to descend quickly and safely.The layer of ice was too hard for crampons at some portions.I came across such portion where crampons could not dig in. What I feared was about to happen in a few seconds.I slide down as a part of fall unable to anchor myself till next 10 meters approximately.Crystals of snow scratching off ice axe’s peak began to enter through the gaps of my sunglasses, Obstructing my vision. Realizing that it might slip out of my hand I managed to shatter off the snow crystals in and around my sunglasses and anchored myself back with all the energy I had. Death was at close quarters. With my heart pumping faster I kept descending down. While on the way down I said to myself “you just saved your life”. It increased my josh.With focus intact, I covered this 80-degree slope and was finally at the steeper section.The section 3 was already left behind through this section.This route had brought me much below section 3. I was in section 2.I took a look back and gave a laugh. It was a fall which acted as a remedy to my adventurous soul. Gaining control was a skill assuring moment.I recalled the training days, especially the self-arrest training day that just came into action right now. The remaining route back towards the base camp was to be enjoyed sliding down all alone in the beautiful and dangerous terrain that I had already been through .Where ever the slope offered I did not miss the chance to slide as far as possible.My only remaining task was to reach the base camp in a couple of minutes.I wasn’t in hurry but I was hungry and I knew warm and delicious lunch would have already been cooked.Crossing the loose rocks section, the water streams I was finally on the slope towards base camp. While crossing this last slope I had a satisfaction of having proved something to myself. I was humble and full of self-confidence just the way I was when I decided to make this solo climb. I was proud that the task I took voluntarily was executed as per the plan and with courage.I knew very well that I was not the best climber so far, but I knew myself that if I stand up for something I will do it. Even in the failure, I will learn something major for the future task that I would have come across. A good mountaineer is the one who not only reaches the top but also the one who come back safe and unhurt. This solo climb prepared me more.I became much more than all those experienced climb’s those who never took such a task alone. The most difficult journey is the one that one could make alone.First a leader must prove his mettle alone,he must posses courage and capability to make his way through adversaries own his own .Only then he will be able to influence ,and lead his men. I reached back to base camp. I was welcomed by this small group of four men I had in this vast mountain region.” Glad to see you alive” we exchanged laughter for a while. Someone’s Act of courage could often bring the youth of a man back at a time at least for some time.I could see that on these men faces. I Went to my tent unloaded myself wore fresh new clothes, washed my feet with warm water that crew offered me from mess tent. I went to the mess tent and with all gratitude’s to the God, I took one of the most rewarding bits of “aloo poori”.
While eating food I had one more thing at the back of my mind and that was – the task is not over yet. We were in the base camp of Mount Kun(King) and the swift winds reminded me of the Kun that was yet to be scaled and we had 20 days more remaining. There was a strange silence in my soul, the winds kept flattering the tents and the national flag.