“Dear Martin, I’d like your permission to marry Hazel. I’d be honoured to have your blessing…… Sam”
I sat on a pile of ropes on a ledge of ice and gravel and read the phone message as a damp night began. So, my daughter will be married to the man she loves – at last. My heart lurched with pride. Received at 4900m in Zanskar Himalaya the news was as surreal as it was momentous.
I clumsily typed my assent with gloved fingers and looked across the the shrouded forms of my companions – tall and eager Lawrence and dogged warhorse Bob. You couldn’t invent two characters more different in age, build and temperament, and yet this pair were the survivors of a notable failure to climb 6352m Chiling I at the head of the Rundum Glacier. A 54-hour snowstorm had trapped nine of us in summit camps. We’d got out courtesy only of GPS navigation, knee-deep trail-breaking and a supply of malto-dextrin gel packs. Since then the others had opted for a trekking route to finish the trip, and Lawrence and Bob were, with me, the only hangers-on determined to squeeze a summit success from the embers of our expedition.
They were already bedded in their bivouac sacks, doubtless wondering how they’d weather a six-hour night without sleeping bags. We were travelling light with the plan to make an alpine-style ascent of a snow peak directly above our base camp in the Rundum valley. The peak looked lovely and, for all we knew, it might be unclimbed! We’d scrambled 750 metres up from the valley bottom that afternoon. Our expectation was to reach the summit by midday and enjoy some base camp comforts by mid-evening. A steep rock step was the only visible impediment, the one imponderable in the plan. We’d brought an extra rope, pitons and ice hammers to deal with the technical difficulties.
At 00.57 hours Lawrence announced reveille, without waiting for his alarm to sound. After a brew of tea and a mug of muesli we packed, dressed, and stowed our bivouac kit in a large orange polythene bag for collection on our descent. The night sky was partially clear, and earlier snowfall had petered out. There was relief to get our chilled bodies into upward action. A field of huge boulders interlaced with runnels of snow climbed 100 metres above our camp. We got trapped in a cul-de-sac and needed the rope to surmount an awkward cleft. The terrain opened into broader snowfields and we reached the mountain’s south-west ridge at 5100m as twilight spread over the Zanskar ranges.
Through the golden hour of sunrise we plodded purposefully up the lower ridge, ticking off each hundred metres of height gain by our GPS devices. The jagged Nun-Kun range took the sun’s first flush, and the myriad spurs and ravines of the Rundum valley were soon etched in brilliant light. Two magnificent peaks, both likely to be virgin, were caught in full display immediately to our south. Even the reluctant Chiling summits emerged from misted slumber for a while.
We had conjectured on the height of our peak – Bob went for 5500m, I opted 5600m and Lawrence bet 5700m. By 08.00 we gained a little forepeak before the rock step at 5450m. Already it was clear Lawrence would be the winner. An abyss opened to our right and the north slopes dropped at 55 degrees to the glacier valley that we had ascended yesterday. High-altitude fell-walking became proper mountaineering and Lawrence was spooked.
“So will this be declared as our summit for the day?” he asked in hope.
“This, Lawrence, is alpine assez difficile ground,” I responded. “This is what we are here for…”
Bob said nothing. 36 years in the Army breeds an unflappable determination to withstand the imposition of suffering, whether mental or physical. I sent Lawrence down a narrow ramp under the forepeak. With some goading from above he recovered his wits and led us to a little col under the rock step. I led 65 metres up deep crusted snow at 55 degrees angle to gain the rocks, admitting surprise at the general seriousness of the terrain and fighting a rising tension.
The outcome of the endeavour now lay in a 10 metre prow at the top of the step. In the shade I couldn’t decipher any cracks. Even if the prow was climbable I feared a switch to unclimbable slabs once the prow was turned. The joys of pioneering are balanced by fears of the unknown. Though loose the ground was easy as far as the prow. Steeper moves of grade III brought me to the edge where the rock stratification switched from cracked and juggy to smooth and slabby. A six-inch covering of snow added to the problem. I shuffled up a slab on my knees, dug out a flake and placed one of the three cams I’d brought on the climb. With that surety I dared to stand up and layback the flake to reach a perfect crows-nest stance with a spike and peg-crack.
The job was done – or so we thought. Our midday radio call to Naveen at base camp gave the cheery report that he might expect us down for a late dinner.
“We are about an hour from the top.”
After a snaking ridge the slope stiffened into a face of 50 degrees. Two isolated boulders were the sole landmarks. Their scale was impossible to judge. Progress slowed to a dull trudge. Each step had to be stamped out two or three times. After half-an-hour we drew level with the first rock. The second outcrop succumbed after a further 20 minutes. A skyline ridge beckoned a few metres higher. The nearer we got to that crest the further away it seemed. In fact, the angle was bending back in a slight convexity.
My positive engagement and happy anticipation drained away and I became a detached automaton fuelled solely by a angry determination not to give in. Mists drew in and desultory snowfall commenced. At around 14.30 hours I ploughed up another steepening to gain a crest. With profound disappointment I saw a further rise ahead. Lawrence became trapped in knee-deep snow below the lip.
“I can’t do this,” he cried. For fifteen minutes Bob and I held the rope taut while he thrashed sideways then inched upwards, patting down the snow like the steps of a sandcastle. He arrived exhausted and demoralised.
“Take five,” I ordered, “I’ll run the rope out up this last bit. Leave your bags and follow when the rope comes tight.”
Oh; what relief I’d feel on topping that last rise! A decisive edge of snow appeared in the murk. Being wary of a cornice I stepped carefully on to the crest, and looked right only to see a narrow rock ridge running a further 80 metres out to a pinnacle that was unmistakably three or four metres higher. What will they think of this, I thought? Will they refuse to go on?
Though I knew that Himalayan descents can be achieved with remarkable speed, we were pushing into the danger zone, far from rescue with deteriorating weather. Furthermore, we’d left all the rock gear back at the step. When they arrived roles were reversed. Lawrence was now energised to reach the top point. Bob had clearly had enough, but followed my lead down to a notch, then over several rock steps to the final pinnacle. Throwing caution aside I clambered on to the arete, my only sling and karabiner in my teeth to lasso the top. Combining use of knees and an àcheval straddle I made irreversible moves to the top block, draped my sling and lowered off. The height was 5751m, the time 15.40 hours.
My only emotion was “Thank God for that!”
Lawrence followed with a top-rope but Bob demurred, being keener to get off down while we had the strength. Sure enough, the initial descent was swift. Facing in to the slope we daggered our axes and descended 200 metres in half-an-hour. At the top of the rock step a slight clearance brought some warmth to chilled fingers. Having been used for ground insulation the previous night, the ropes had become wet and were now stiff as hawsers with ice. The abseil of the step was additionally beset by loose blocks, snagging projections and a diagonal line. I took 40 minutes to untangle the ropes and get down to the next stance. To retrieve the ropes I climbed 20 metres out under the side of the step and pulled more in hope than expectation. Yet both lines came down without a snag.
The 19.00hr radio message to Naveen had none of the heady optimism expressed seven hours earlier.
“We may be down sometime after midnight….”
“If you come, please wake me and I will make tea and food.”
We were cheered but in our hearts we no longer expected to make any such rendezvous. A long night stretched ahead.
We clambered back over the forepeak and retraced our steps down the lower ridge. The tracks were interminable, weaving through little outcrops.
“How on earth did we climb so far this morning? How easy it all seemed.”
Come 21.00hr we found our trekking poles at the base of the ridge. Our night vision was complicated by a gentle snowfall. We could hope no further than to reach the bivi ledge, then sit it out till dawn, but that ledge was a pinprick in a wilderness of boulders. We had a stored waypoint for the ledge, but to my horror I got a ‘Battery Low’ reading when I switched on my GPS. The tracks were now crucial to finding the site.
We plunged down, falling through rotten snow-banks and skipping dangerously across wet rocks. A hundred metres down we lost the tracks, and continued by instinct, with Lawrence giving regular height reports from his altimeter-watch. Meanwhile, the GPS lay warming in my inner pocket. At 4950m I switched it on, and quickly went to ‘Go To’ mode.
“Bivi – 92 metres, 32 degrees.”
We got our fix before the battery died. Out came the compass and we blundered onwards until – at close to 23.00hr we picked up the morning’s tracks and saw the orange bag, sitting forlornly on our rock, half-covered in snow.
And so our second bivouac commenced. We peeled off wet clothing layers, shook out our saturated bivouac bags and made our beds of misery. Yet what relief there was just to stop after 20 hours of continuous effort, ease our aching backs and stretch out our legs. Spirits were further improved on discovery of two teabags and sufficient gas to make a hot brew. We had five hours to wait for daylight. At 02.30 I stood up and relieved my bladder into my drinking mug, then cast the contents down-slope. It’s funny how one can still need to pee after 24 hours on less than a litre of liquid. The gesture gave me new fortitude and I actually feel asleep for the last hour.
The snow stopped and a grey but dry morning dawned. We packed with relief and plunged downslope. By 9am we were sat down to omelettes at base camp, immeasurably tired but mightily relieved that we had indeed touched that highest point.
The mountain may well have been unclimbed before our scramblings. Certainly no-one had ever been up our route. Walking out to the Pensi La road next day we looked back to see our peak as a slender beauty buttressed by a series of snowy spurs. I thought of my daughter and soon to be son-in-law, and decided that, should it be a virgin summit, the mountain must be called the Marriage Peak. That’s Nama Chuchay Ri in Ladakhi.
In many ways the climb mirrored a successful marriage – enduring, strewn with rocky patches and sometimes a hard grind, yet, equally, a triumph of teamwork crowned with precious happiness. Good luck to Hazel and Sam in their future life together and thanks to my wonderful companions Lawrence and Bob whose commitment made our climb possible.