Thursday, 28 June 2012

Lion Peak : Lion Tamers or Tame Lion?

With help from Kaliram, one of the porters with the Bengal expedition we shifted camp to Hawa Mahal on 23 August. After a quick lunch of noodles and Ovaltine we went up the ice of the glacier for the first time to conduct a quick reconnaissance.



It was great to actually start using our ice axes and our Austrian Koflach plastic mountaineering boots...I had done my climbing course seven years ago in humble leather boots made by a Delhi company, so the switch to plastic was like going from the model T Ford to multi-point fuel injection! Even though our foray was brief, we now had an inkling as to how far we had to traverse over the Lion glacier to get to the foot of our little hill. We would have to skirt round the spur coming down from Central Peak and climb higher into the ice bowl to be within striking distance of our summit.


I slake my thirst while exploring the lower Lion Glacier.
Peaks on the southern rim of the Bara Shigri provide a dramatic backdrop.

An icy runnel on the glacier.

The next day we went up the Lion Glacier but failed to reach the site of our proposed higher camp for the simple reason that we were moving up the true right bank of the glacier instead of the left and very soon we were caught in a maze of crevasses which forced us to rope up, just in case either of us fell into one of the icy slots. By the time we had realized our mistake, it was too late to reach our goal so we dumped the light loads we were carrying about an hour short of our destination and hastened back to Hawa Mahal which we reached at 6 pm. The scenery had been magnificent and this was adequate compensation for our efforts. It was also a great help in acclimatising ourselves to the 16,000 ft altitude we were camped at.

Sunday 25 August saw us setting off with monster loads. We stopped enroute at our previous day's dump to add to our burden and staggered into our proposed campsite at four in the afternoon in driving snow. The altitude was 17,500 feet and it was cold and the wind blew snow into our faces as we struggled to pitch our tent. Once inside our little nylon shelter it was a luxury to start using our gas stove to cook dinner as all along we had been cooking on an old kerosene stove.   Back then it was difficult to obtain portable gas canisters and gas camping stoves in India. Ravi proceeded to light incense sticks and I was mystified by this ritual. Perhaps he was performing a form of worship to the elements, I thought. I later discovered that the fragrance from the incense sticks came in very handy to dispel all the bad odours one accumulates on an expedition and to mitigate to some extent the effects of flatulence on the enclosed air of a tent!


Central Peak - 6285 metres

Flatulence notwithstanding, we descended to the dump site in the morning, picked up everything that was lying there and brought it up to what we now rather grandly called our Camp 2. We rewarded ourselves with a lunch of dried fruits and onion soup before heading up the rocky slope to take a look at the upper basin of the Lion glacier, in the hopes of locating our final, summit camp. It was easier said than done. The upper glacier was riddled with crevasses and we poked around their edges rather gingerly before leaping across them. We travelled roped together, but in the event that one of us had fallen into one of the rifts, I doubt very much that the other person could have effected a rescue. But the brotherhood of the rope breeds confidence and we soldiered on : Ravi would sometimes stop and sniff the cold air as if there were answers in the ether, then he would move on. I let him lead as he was the more experienced of the two of us. As the afternoon wore on it became decidedly chilly and after a couple of hours we headed back to the tent.



Camp 2 below the ramparts of Central Peak

As we retreated into our warm sleeping bags I recalled that I had seen some dead dragonflies on the ice and had also come across the carcass of a rodent-like creature. A solitary raven had circled above us as we weaved our way between the crevasses. My idle mind would have loved to transform these unrelated and discrete elements into a gloomy omen, but I resisted the idea. These were the days when mountaineers had no access to Ipods / Ipads / the Internet to distract the soul. At the most one would carry a light paperback book to while away the hours when stormbound in a tent or to help pass the long hours of darkness. In many ways, the experience of being on a mountain with its own unique aura was pretty intense: for many this was one of the many reasons to yearn for the freedom of the hills.


Ravi among the crevasses

Finally we could see the cirque at the head of the Lion glacier


Our final camp below the summit of Lion

One more day of load carrying to the summit camp at 19,000 feet and we were to be free from humping loads for the next two days at least! Our second foray up the glacier led us to a nicely levelled stone platform which was obviously being used to pitch a tent for the summit attempts on both Lion and Central peaks. We heaved a sigh of relief when we first sighted it and then quickly dumped some supplies before retreating down to Camp 2.

Looking down at the broad sweep of the Lion glacier

On the afternoon of 28 August we were comfortably ensconced at the high camp, thrilled to be within striking distance of the summit. Sunset that evening painted the surrounding peaks in a warm glow and the moon rose in a clear blue sky to welcome us.






And the moon bathes the glacier in a kind and soft light ...

The next day we broke the golden rule of climbing - "The Alpine Start". What this means is that mountaineers typically set off for the summit at some ungodly hour of the morning (4 am or thereabouts, and in many cases even earlier) so that they have many many daylight hours to do their thing and return safely to camp. Perhaps we were tired or just plain lazy, by the time we were ready to set off for the summit it was around 9:40 am. The sun had peeped out briefly first thing in the morning, then quickly retreated behind a grey overcast sky. Our breakfast consisted of "upma" and tea. We packed some dried fruits, two bars of chocolate and a litre of water. I snipped off the excess length of my crampon straps and we were all set to go.



The distant peaks of Spiti hove into view as I followed Ravi







It was a long agonizing plod up the snow slopes towards the col between Lion peak's north ridge and Central peak's south ridge. Then we had to scramble up 3 pitches of rock with our crampons making grating sounds and finally the snow slopes leading to the summit. It had taken us almost five hours from our camp to the top. We were elated : this was my very first Himalayan summit! The views from the summit were awesome.


Avoiding the corniced ridge to his left, Ravi heads up to the summit.




It was exactly two weeks to the day since we had left Mumbai and now we were sitting at 20,100 feet with the peaks of the Bara Shigri glacier ringing us...I couldn't have asked for more. The cynical might argue that this was not a technically demanding peak, and that by Himalayan standards it was a baby peak. But to a person like me who had  seen snow for the first time when he was 21 years old on the Margan and Synthen passes in Kishtwar during a trek organized by the Youth Hostels Association of India, who had spent all his life in the hot humid plains of India, who had accidentally picked up Chris Bonnington's "Everest South West Face" (chronicling the first attempt in 1972 on this daunting slope) from the shelves at the British Council library in Kolkata (then Calcutta) and had to repeatedly refer to the glossary of climbing terms at the end of the book to make sense of the narrative, this was indeed a Very Big Deal! I had never been the athletic type
in school - the annual Sports Day was a day of mortification for me as I always happened to rank  last in any event! I had glimpsed the ethereal vision of the Kanchenjunga massif floating above the clouds as if in a dream : this was during a brief trip to Darjeeling in the early 1970s. Certainly that first heavenly glimpse of the Himalaya had kindled a spark in my soul. I went on to borrow Maurice Herzog's classic mountaineering tale : "Annapurna" from the Alliance Francaise. This epic tale of the ascent of the world's first 8000 metre peak fired my imagination. So what if I was born far from the mountains, amongst the rolling hills of the Chotanagpur plateau (now in Jharkhand), perhaps only a thousand feet above sea level; I had read somewhere that a sailor need not be born near the sea nor a mountain climber near the mountains. It is what drives us from within that takes us on our life's greatest journeys. For me personally, Lion peak was the start of that incredible journey that sustained my spirits for the next twenty years and still continues to bring me great joy in recollection...

On the summit





9 comments:

  1. Aloke..pls add 'documenting' and 'writing' to your long-list of skills..near the top, somewhere alongside 'brewing chai'..great reading, waiting for more..and kudos on the excellent photos. Love n best wishes. Shridhar + Shyama

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  2. Aloke that is truly sensational - it's funny how we saw you a lot during those years but just didn't give much thought (i didn't) to the amazing climbs you did. It is fantastic that you have catalogued everything - am loving your blog keep it up - Sue

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  3. Aloke Sir, this is brilliant stuff. Epic!

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    1. Thank you, Tarun! Yes, it was a truly wonderful adventure.

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  4. Thank you so much for the post Sir. Will be trying Lion Peak soon and this is very informative and inspirational. :)

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    1. You are most welcome, Isha. It is always a wonderful feeling when someone like you comes across my blog post randomly years after it has been posted and is inspired! Good luck with your trip to Lion peak - if it is not too much trouble I would love to hear from you after your climb. Do send me some pictures and update me re the Lion glacier and the peak itself. It would be fascinating to know what the conditions are now, after a gap of 31 years!! My email address is alokesurin@gmail.com

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  5. This made me feel afreash in a sleepy night. Turning the pages of your blog every single day. I can feel what awaits me in coming days.

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