American Alpine Jounrna and Accidents in North American Climbing

Amnesiac in the Himalaya, Thalay Sagar, Garhwal

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  • Publication Year: 1980

Amnesiac in the Himalaya

Thalay Sagar, Garhwal

John Thackray

THERE IS A MOMENT in most expeditions when the underlying illusions and fantasies fall away. The moment when that small grim voice within says, “Aahhh. Now, too late, I remember what an expedition is really like—that unmistakable Hell is here and now feeling.” I last heard that voice in the village of Gangotri, deep in the Garhwal Himalayas where the roaring river Ganga cavorts through deep granite gorges.

On the floor of the ashram where we are guests, Roy Kligfield is lying in a fetal position in his sleeping bag. His skin the color of old parchment, he’s terminally exhausted from days of blasting bile and wind and digestive sludge from every orifice. “I’m dying,” he moans. “I’m honestly going to die.” His three buddies, examine him dispassionately, glassy-eyed, thinking, well, maybe he will die, and then again, maybe he won’t.

Jon Waterman, our anchor man and Dr. Peter Thexton, our medic, are kind enough not to mention it, but at 45 I’m nearly twice their age. Theoretically, I’m well over the hill. At one point I jump into the air, grab a crossbeam in our ashram room, and start chinning. At the count of nine my face is red, my legs wriggling on the upthrust. “Watch you don’t get a heart attack,” warns Pete Thexton. Thanks, Peter.

The epicenter of my depression is climactic. It snows unremittingly. All the experts on the Garhwal Himalayas forecast terrific pre-monsoon weather in June. Down here at 10,000 feet cottony snow now lies about eight inches deep on the red-tiled roofs and cement courtyard of the ashram. Up at 15,000 feet, where we plan to set up Base Camp, there will surely be a couple of feet of it. Becalmed two days, paying our ten porters full day’s rates, it is easy to feel helpless rage. An expedition without forward motion is a sick, sick organism.

Two days later morbidity lifts when I hike south up the narrow gorge of the Kedar Ganga River. Late in the afternoon I scramble high up some snowy slabs and sight a shining vision against the blue sky, the logic of our journey—the huge rock fang of Thalay Sagar, a sharp and strident uprushing of granite. Just to see it—probably the first Westerner to gaze this way in thirty years—to confirm its existence, was a moment of pure joy.

For a year and a half we’d been blundering through bureaucratic and political and organizational obstacles with little more than a map reference at 30° 51' N. by 79° 01' E., on which the 22,700-foot mountain was labeled Phating Pithwara, its secondary name. That plus a distant photo of the peak’s backside was all we’d had to base our quest on. Now Thalay Sagar lives. It is no longer hypothesis, rumor, dream.

The next day the grey underbellies of clouds loosen snow flurries on our little column as it straggles up through birch forests and occasional stands of rhododendron. Spotting a running bear on the other side of the gorge, the porters whistle, catcall, and clap their hands in glee, “Bhalu, Bhalu, Bhalu!” I’m relieved to see the grim set of their pinched faces broken by smiles and laughter. Four hours out, they call a halt, disgust plain on their faces, complaining of cold and illness. We return to the ashram for the night. The next day we repeat the short ferry, then make camp. But the following morning all but two of the porters quit. In the Himalaya, fresh snow and willing porters rarely go together.

Our liaison officer, Jai Singh Kashyap, pleads and remonstrates, begs and cajoles them into action. But, alas, he’s never dealt with recalcitrant porters before. “I’m just like you,” he says after I yell at him for his hapless arbitrating style, and a row ensues between us. “I’m just like you,” he repeats. “I’m not like an Army officer.”

Just like us. Poor Jai Singh. Poor us. Stuck with a lily-livered civilian, not the overbearing officer of our dreams who’d terrify the porters into action. By profession the twenty-three-year-old Jai Singh is a ski bum, quite a rarity in India. He’s slender, doe-eyed, and graceful, his halting English mellifluous. Always immaculate as a dandy, his clothes remain pristine at all times. Any blemish of dust, or snow he compulsively flicks away.

We are left to ferry eighteen 50-pound loads to base about five kilometers away, and make an altitude gain of around 4000 feet. The thick coating of snow slows us down. Backward and forward, to and fro, up and down, we slowly build our carrying capacity to full porter loads. The brutal, mule-like tasks—the penance of acclimatization. Yet my body grows new reserves of strength. Sinew and fiber have never been so tough or fine-tuned. A week later, we’ve stocked Base Camp, our tents ringed around the kitchen, a roofless stone shepherd’s hovel, which we cover with black heavy-gauge polyethylene.

The next ordeal is to ferry up five kilometers across rising moraine, to begin Advanced Camp at 16,000 feet at the toe end of the mountain. The weather is still mostly bad, and our two remaining porters want out. Jai Singh calls them ingrates and threatens them with the full wrath of the law and the district magistrate. But his attempted Army officer act only buys one more day of their grudging services.

Despite the uninterrupted drudgery of load ferrying, there are always moments of wonder. The beauty and elegance of the soaring grey and orange faces of Thalay Sagar have an hypnotic effect on us—the way the mountain creates its own weather when all the other peaks are clear, the way spectral light glistens from blue ribs of ice, the vertical presence that coolly shrugs off all snow.

It is the privilege of a first ascent to take the easiest line up a mountain, and we begin by moving to the right, west of the dazzling north façade, behind a ridge dominated by a huge column of the sheerest, smoothest granite. The gully we find is a broad but steep mixture of snow and ice. Our first bivouac is hard fought, hacked out of the sloping ice. Three sleep in a two-man hoop tent, which is tied off. Jon Waterman, who is showing some strain from the altitude, crawls weakly onto a stamped-down platform barely as wide as his body. Through the night, spindrift and snow crystals hiss and shush over us, burying the tent.

The angle steepens. Our packs are so heavy with the ice and rock gear, extra ropes, ten days of food, and so on, that where there is only ice underfoot it seems equivalent to climbing vertical ice at sea level. We spend the following night’s bivouac supperless on rock ledges, sitting upright, legs dangling. Roy Kligfield joins Jon Waterman in the zombie brigade, trailing behind Pete Thexton and myself. Both of them are too worn out this day to reach with us the sumptuously broad stretch of snow we discover atop a large dome on the south face, probably at an altitude of 20,500 feet.

Pete Thexton and I drop back down the next morning to bring up the ropes we’d trailed behind and breakfast with the other pair. After our quartet settles in High Camp, Pete Thexton and I turn to the execrable- looking upper rock band. Gone is the firm granite of the lower north face; instead, there is black rock, laced with yellow and white streaky substance, crumbly and shale-like.

The first touch of the rock is electrifyingly cold on my bloodless fingers, and they burn and vibrate for an hour afterward. That afternoon and the next day Pete Thexton and I fix about 800 feet of this uncertain terrain, mostly in an iced-up gully that breaches the face. Our sights are set on the high west ridge of snow above us, buoyed by the hope that there we’ll find a ledge wide enough for a campsite. But it turns out to be a knife-edge of hard cake icing. Worse yet, the 1000 feet of rock above us, which caps the sheer north face, appear to be dauntingly steep, and still of the same treacherous substance we’ve learned to fear and loathe.

Once again I hear that small grim voice within, speaking to the fear- struck mountaineer within. “Aaahhh, you’re in the wrong place my friend. You forgot again: forgot how easy it is to overreach yourself.” Pete Thexton looks up at that vast pyramid of geomorphic junk and says, “It can’t be as bad as it looks. Let’s get on with it.”

That was Peter. Half a dozen times a day in that flat, bleak tone, with his dry South-of-England accent, he says, “Let’s get on with it.” And he did, and he would.

But Jon Waterman can’t. It is pitiable to see. Below, he’d seemed so much bigger and stronger and in better shape than the rest of us. Now he lies on his back in the tent like Gulliver, tied down by Lilliputians of high-altitude sickness.

Roy Kligfield, however, recovers by summit day, and despite unsettled weather, the three of us jümar up the fixed sections, gingerly free climb the ridge for a few hundred feet, then move across the center of the face, and ascend the steep vertical chimney. None of this last 1000 feet is technically difficult thanks to abundant hand and footholds, but the loosely compacted rock is ubiquitous and always nerve wracking. Although we move on tiptoe, we release occasional cascades of slab aggregates, and sometimes must pull on unstable handholds.

The summit snowcap is deliciously stable underfoot. At sunset of the eighth day we reach the top and stamp down platforms. The plumes of cloud around the upper mountain blanket us and growl a few throaty ions. Later on it clears nearby and in the dark I see, as I have most nights from High Camp, a spectacular light show of lightning bolts and arches, explosions and kaleidoscopes of fluorescence in the cloud banks five miles south —all without a sound. Below, the Kumaon foothills run down to the sleeping plains, which flow out to infinity.

We rappel back down to High Camp, embrace a hale and hearty Waterman, and the next day start down the long south-southwest arm toward the Jogin group—a mistake we discover, which leads to the scariest moment of the whole escapade. A 600-foot rappel on a single 7mm line, rockfall rumbling and whirling and spinning like Catherine wheels through the air. The sheer face is half mud, and its loosely imbedded boulders are easily tripped by the slightest brush of the rope. I take one sluggish football-sized rock on my shoulder. Only a gentle warning. The glacier below is peppered with fallen debris. After two shorter rappels we fly over the last schrund between mountain and glacier and scurry quickly out of missile range.

Following an R & R day at Advance Camp we return to Base after an eleven-day absence. We find the place impeccable—clean and shining, everything in its place.

Jai Singh’s mind is cracked from loneliness. He’s been hallucinating, and for two days lay in his tent terrified of every sound. Now he weeps at his deliverance.

“You are like a father to me. That is how I think of you, John,” he says, tears streaming down his face. “And look what you have done!”

“I will remember this moment,” the guilty expedition leader now swears to himself. “The net price of all our suffering has been too damned much.”

“But in the end you can't and won’t remember, you dumb mountaineer,” says the inner voice of experience. “Because without forgetfulness there’d be no expeditions at all—ever.”

Summary of Statistics:

Area: Western Garhwal Himalaya.

First Ascent: Thalay Sagar, 22,700 feet. Northwest couloir and ridge. Summit reached June 24, 1979 (Kligfield, Thackray, Thexton).

Personnel: Roy Kligfield, John Thackray, Peter Thexton, Jon Waterman.

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