Ritesh! Wake up!”
I was shouting at the top of my lungs in the middle of the night while gasping for air, with just my nose pointing out of a small opening that I had left before almost fully zipping both my sleeping bag and its outer cover. As it turned out, the outer zipper got stuck and because the zipper handle is towards the outside of the bag, I couldn’t reach it with my hand. After 30 minutes of struggle, my body started to sweat and that is when I lost my cool and started yelling for help.
After constant yelling and baby kicking Ritesh (I couldn’t land proper punches while all zipped up in the sleeping bag), I finally managed to wake him from his deep sleep.
After I told him about the zipper, he tried his luck.
“I don’t think it will come off,” he said.With all the panic, two options were running through my head to set myself free. The first one was to hulk myself out by tearing the zipper apart from inside out, which would leave me with the broken sleeping bag at camp 1. I would still be left with two higher camps before the summit attempt - that would be the end of the expedition for me.
The second sensible option was to call out for Sanjeev Rai (lead) and hope he would figure out a solution. The latter option meant that our voices needed to go through howling winds while it was snowing outside and reach Sanjeev who was in another tent 50 feet away.
We took a deep breath and started yelling out two words continuously in a rhythm.
To my luck, he heard our faint screams and came running to us fearing the worst, but had a laugh seeing my nose sticking out of the sleeping bag. In a few minutes (which seemed like an hour to me) he got the zipper unstuck and set me free.
This panic in the middle of a night at first high camp is a part of the winter expedition of Kang Yatse II, a 6,250m peak at the end of Markha Valley and here is its story.
After BMC, I planned to summit at least two of each 6,000 meters and 7,000 meters peaks before even touching the higher Himalayas of Nepal. As of December 2019, after a few high passes and my first crack at Stock Kangri, a 6,000-meter peak (which I couldn’t summit due to bad weather), I was still looking for my first successful summit.
So, when Avilash from White Magic Adventure travels sent me a mail saying they were planning a winter expedition of Matho Kangri, I readily accepted. On the day of departure, while in Chennai airport, I received a call from Avilash saying that all the permits for Matho had been cancelled by local authorities. This eleventh-hour change made them look at an alternate peak in the adjacent Markha Valley which could be summited within the time span set for Matho Kangri. Among others, the Kang Yatse II seemed feasible.The next morning, I landed at Leh on a beautiful sunny day with the temperature of minus 5 deg C. I was greeted by a fine gentleman with a very calm aura. He introduced himself as Sanjeev Rai, the trek leader, along with Ritesh, the only other client in this expedition. We met with the remaining team Sunny, Nawang, and Anno (cook) and spent a few hours sorting out the gear. Later that afternoon, we went for a stroll and were surprised to see the dull Leh market, (winter slows down life in these parts). After some last-minute shopping, we returned for a delicious buffet and the comfort of thick blankets as we had to start early the next day.
The early morning drive from Leh to Skiu took us through the Indus-Zanskar confluence. It was quite a sight, seeing both the mighty rivers frozen. Driving past the confluence, we entered the adjacent valley along the frozen Zanskar river.
From Skiu we started the trek, Within half an hour, the trail took us onto the banks of the frozen Markha river. By evening, we had reached the biggest village in the valley, the Markha. A man in his late twenties, Jang Po, joined our team as support staff. The natives of the valley displayed amazing hospitality. That night we felt the raw cold seeping from the ground. The temperature dipped as low as minus 20.
Leaving behind Markha, we trekked towards the last village in the valley. The trail was almost flat and well-marked till the end. The sun high up in clear skies, the frozen river by our side, and the occasional wildlife sighting made this part of the trek quite joyful. At one of the corners along the trail, we got the first glimpse of Kang Yatse (in picture). The mountain was completely covered in snow. Sanjeev said that sighting the mountain from this far meant the weather was clear and good. By evening, the trail had stopped at a beautiful village, the Hankar, situated at the foothills of huge rock formations. The next morning, we started towards the basecamp. With an increase in altitude, the frozen river grew thicker. The support team had to start early to put some dirt on the frozen river, which melts the ice making a path for Taa’s (ponies) till the basecamp. In a couple of hours, we had reached the camp.
We quickly pitched the tents and waited for Anno to prepare some amazing lunch. The next day's plan was to set up three high camps above the basecamp. Without the luxury of Taa’s carrying our luggage above the basecamp due to winter conditions, it was easier said than done. The weather seemed perfect the next morning, so we set out for camp 1. Crossing the frozen river made it very difficult. After four hours of altitude gain, we sighted a deserted sheperd camp. We dumped our gear and set up camp 1 around it and returned to basecamp.
The steep climbs (altitude gains) and huge ice crossings with the heavy rucksacks made this little circuit between the base and high camp 1 really tiring. An early delicious dinner, early sleep, and late wake-up call after sunrise made sure that our bodies didn’t go numb. Even though the body goes through harsh conditions, these sleeping/resting hours make it easy on the body so that it recuperates faster.
The next day, we once again made the trip to camp 1. Here the team was split into two teams.
Team 1: Sunny and Jang Po (rope fixing team)
Team 2: Sanjeev, Nawang, Ritesh and I.
After a brief stop at camp 1, Team 1 went ahead to camp 2 while Team 2 stayed back at camp 1. The temperature dip was steeper as we went higher. After dinner, in the pursuit of that little extra warmth, I went into the sleeping bag, fully closing the zipper, just leaving a small gap for the nose. But little did I know this would lead me to my worst nightmare ever.
The route from camp 1 to 2 seemed doable in a couple of hours, but when we started in the morning with heavily loaded rucksacks it took us six hours to reach camp 2. The entire path was covered with knee depth snow, and in a few places, it sank till the waist. Navigating in deep snowfield consumed a lot of energy and time.
We reached Camp 2 in the evening. Tired from the journey, we quickly had the dinner and went into the sleeping bag, still having nightmares from the previous night. While we enquired about the weather ahead, Sunny warned us about the cold. (By this time, the team 1 was at camp 3).
The next morning, Ritesh couldn’t continue further, so, along with Nawang, returned back to basecamp while Sanjeev and I set ahead to the next camp. Camp 2 to Camp 3 was the hardest part. It took us through soft snow on the top of rocks, that meant a small misstep would lead to an ankle twist. It took me a staggering eight hours on a steep slope in heavy headwinds. I was dead tired when I reached the camp. I still vaguely remember that my saturation level hit 55 percent that night, but I was comfortable inside the tent with hot soup served by Sanjeev while tucked inside my sleeping bag. I was confident that I would recover from it.That night the mountain was grazed by light snow and winds. We woke up at around 4 am and started our day. I was pretty sure, any earlier than that, the cold would have frozen me to the bone. Waking up in the morning, I lacked excitement for the summit push. It came as a surprise to me as well because usually, the summit days excite me. The hidden danger, where one might have to use up all of their energy and push the bodies to the limit, gives me that adrenaline rush.
I took a look at Sunny in the adjacent tent, who was packing water and snacks for the three of us (Sanjeev, himself, and I). This man had already been on the mountain for rope-fixing the day before, and today he was ready again. A true powerhouse. Seeing him gave me enough motivation to come out of the bag and into my boots. By this time, the winds had grown much stronger, and spending time in the cold to put on the crampons drained even more energy. I couldn’t feel my fingers anymore, but I was still on for the summit, thinking I could slowly march ahead in auto mode.As the sunlight hit us, we reached the fixed rope section. After three more hours, stopping for every 3 to 4 steps to catch a breath, we finally reached the summit. All of a sudden, the excitement and the energy was back. We are not sure, but this could probably be the first winter ascent of Kang Yatse II. We congratulated each other for the achievement, clicked a few pictures, and made a phone call (there was a mobile network at the summit ). We stayed there for an hour and then slowly set back towards the basecamp whilst clearing all the three high camps that we set on the way up.
All in all, my first winter ascent had everything from the bone-chilling cold to frozen rivers to frozen faces on summit day. In those 15 days, I did not see the temperature go above 0 degrees. That was quite an experience. What made it so memorable was the amazing team. I believe there is something about the bonds that you forge in these kinds of expeditions, which will grow and be appreciated only over time. I hope to see this team on much bigger mountains.
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