Trisul’s West Ridge saves all its guns for the last thousand metres. A scenic and gentle stroll up the Ronti Glacier gains the 6000 metre contour at a shoulder. We had our third camp here. Above, lies an intimidating slope of 55 degrees angle, glistening with ice in places and exposed to the full plunge of the mountain’s west wall.
Mark, Chetan, Furtemba, Ian and Zach were already up there. We could see the dark specks of their figures on the shaded slopes at 6500 metres above Camp 4. This was their summit day. We had a forecast for increasing winds as a western disturbance brushed close to the Greater Himalaya. Today and tomorrow summit winds would be 40-45 km/hr. Come Saturday there would be a gale of 70km/hr blowing from the north-west at summit level. Time was of the essence.
We started as three, but Arun Mahajan was still fatigued from a chest infection and stopped at Camp 3. That left me with John, more properly addressed as McLaren of Cambuslang, summer Munro-bagger, winter ski-bum and one-time expert engineer. This cheery Glaswegian had discovered a penchant for altitude, and though he considered himself no more than an honest plodder, he had an unflappability and positivity that gave me every hope that he could go all the way. John slept well and ate well. He had bought a dozen U-shaped Spanish chorizo sausages out to India, and seemed to be munching through most of them by himself.
In addition to sausage we loaded a bivi tent and porch on to our sacks at Camp 3. I guessed that Mark’s team would be late back and that accommodation would be limited at Camp 4 that night. An Indian Air Force team was climbing alongside us, their lead climbers and Sherpas laying a continuous line of 7mm polypropylene rope to secure the slower and more senior members of their ranks who would follow a day or two later. Though friendly and enthusiastic the Wing Commanders and Flight Lieutenants were seriously deficient in mountain experience. “This is my first peak… ever”, said one.
Our fixed lines were rather more substantial 8 and 9mm static ropes, secured by Mark with regular anchors. They stretched skyward in a continuous thread of 300 metres. We clipped in our clamps – a jumar for John and a fiddly little Ropeman for me - and began our ascent. Our sensory worlds narrowed to burning calves, aching shoulders and snatching breath, complemented by slight giddiness at the exposure. Nowhere a ledge, rarely even a step to rest - the slope soared to a sun-fringed horizon at an inestimable distance above. This was north face terrain!
We kept our 20 metre line of rope between us as extra security. When moving the jumar past anchor points it is essential to clip an additional sling into the rope as temporary protection. John managed to get his jumar jammed against an anchor point on three occasions and twice I had to climb down to help him release the tension. As befits a gentleman, John was profusely apologetic.
“I’m not used to these things; you must be getting awfully fed up with me.”
At 3.30pm we pulled on to the platform of Camp 4 at 6360m altitude. The site was cosily squeezed into a gap behind an ice bulge. Mark had just arrived back.
“We didn’t make the top. We got to the summit ridge at 7000 but there’s a narrow final section, which looked mega. It will need ropes and hardware. We didn’t have time for it. The boys are happy with what they’ve done.”
They were all too tired to descend any further and slumped into their tents. There was no time for recovery and sunbathing. The wind was rising with menacing gusts.
We squeezed our single-skin bivi tent into the last level gap and used every axe and ski pole to hold the tent down then piled snow round the porch and scurried indoors. We had claimed the prime spaces. The Air Force team were left with sloping pitches. Their tents were much larger and they failed to batten the flysheets. The wind came in two minute bursts. Our porch bulged and whip-cracked in its fury while the setting sun cast a flaming golden rim above a sea of angry cloud.
In the lulls we made brief calls to the others. Ian, Zach and Furtemba were going down at first light. Mark and Chetan would try to go back up for a summit bid in the morning if the wind allowed. John and I gave vague intimation that we would follow. After forcing down a freeze-dried meal I fell to a blessed and dream-filled sleep, stirring only once to take a pee in the porch. Come 4am I woke properly. The wind was still funnelling through camp. The Indians were having a terrible night. Their flysheets were airborne, tethered to the inner tents only by the connecting tags.
John stirred. He had lain motionless at the bottom end of the tent, the Gore-tex skin of the tent whipped tight around his head, yet he wasn’t inclined to complain.
“Oh, I’ve had a grand sleep,” he said. “I just need to get up for a call.”
Half an hour later he returned, somewhat chastened.
“It’s a wee bit cold out there.”
I was forced to follow suit, squatting conspicuously behind the Indian tents. The blast of ice spiculae on one’s bum has an energising effect. I crawled back indoors in positive mind.
“Let’s get packed and give it a go.”
“Whatever you suggest.” replied John, not at all phased by the prospect.
Mark and Chetan were already afoot. They were taking our only full-length rope and snow stakes to try the final step on the ridge. They left soon after 6am. John took considerably longer to adjust his attire. He emerged half-an-hour later, snugly clad and mitted with the Mountain Equipment gauntlets that I had lent him for the climb. The mitts were of such volume that he was now unfit for any task other than shadow boxing.
Meanwhile, I had a desperate time trying to anchor and weight the tent, after removing our ice axes from the main guy-lines. With some relief we began the uphill grind, escaped the wind and could generate a modicum of warmth. The fixed ropes stretched upwards for several hundred metres. Mark had fixed all of these single-handed yesterday on the first foray to the summit, a phenomenal effort. The angle was barely reduced, never less than 50 degrees, and the ridge would be shaded until 10am. We stayed on our 20 metre line, looking no further than the next stanchion for our targets. As we reached a rock outcrop at 6600 metres John suddenly yelled in distress.
“Sorry, sorry, sorry,” he wailed. “I’ve dropped your mitt. Don’t worry, I’ll buy you a new pair.”
Imminent frostbite was more of a worry at that moment than sale prices in Cotswold Outdoor. I was carrying a pair of old wool mitts as spares and John added a wind-proof over-mitt to give replacement cover. The climb continued and the sunlight finally reached us. The angle eased to 45 and then 40 degrees. A last 60 metre rope stretch and a final snow stake anchor, and we were freed from the chain. Vast slopes swept above, covered in wind crust and sastrugi ridges. The wind was fresh but tolerable so long as we turned our faces to lee. In truth ground conditions were magnificent.
At midday the final turret of Trisul came into view. We spotted the figures of Mark and Chetan descending, and knew that they must have made the top. An hour later they reached us.
“The ridge was spicy; needed two axes and we abseiled back down off the stake. The 60 metre rope was just long enough.”
Hearing that report I knew that John and I would not make it much beyond yesterday’s high point. We hadn’t a stick of gear between us except an axe apiece and our 20 metres of rope, and in any event the day was racing past us. We were both just at that point of fatigue where lucidity fades and intent wavers. There were a few “what if’s”. Maybe if we’d set out two hours earlier or filched a rope off the fixed lines; and yet the feelings of Zach and Ian also mattered. If John and I successfully summitted we’d have piggy-backed the greater efforts of the others. Quite apart from the question of our survival, there was symmetry and fairness that the client members all reached the same point. We could celebrate both the team success and the extra joy of Mark and Chetan who had run the show and deserved the top. Or maybe I’m just getting weak and soft in old age!
Now alone we pushed on and after half-an-hour reached the corniced crest where much of the Nanda Devi Sanctuary and the twin-peaked Goddess herself came into view. That last ridge looked tempting. We went a few more metres towards the step then stopped with John’s altimeter reading 6975m and his watch 2pm. It was high time to get down before the winds strengthened.
Come nightfall we were still a hundred metres above Camp 4, and still high above Nanda Ghunti and the sea of clouds on the far side of the Nandakini valley. We struggled desperately to achieve any downward movement on the stiff and twisted polyprop ropes. I gave up trying to abseil and put a sliding prusik on the rope instead. I stayed close with John to supervise every change-over. At one anchor he slipped and grabbed my head in panic. I yelled some frothy abuse and he was racked by contrition.
“I’ve dropped your mitt, and now I’ve tried to rip your head off. I can’t seem to stop saying sorry.”
We reached camp in the last glow of twilight. The Indian team had long-since retreated to lower camps and Mark and Chetan were already in bed. Once again the wind hustled our preparations for the night, yet sleep came with ease. We’d had a great day out. Though we’d fallen short of the summit, we had at least seen the other side of the hill, and that, after all, is the point of the game.