Pilgrimage on Bhagirathi
At the mercy of the mountain gods
by Yuri Koshelenko, Russia
translated by Natasha Lagovskaya and Liana Darenskaya
On October 14, 1998, at high noon, just 20 steps away from the summit, Igor Potankin and I were peacefully enjoying the magic of our surroundings. Behind the ridge the wind was blowing hard, but here, on the gentle slopes, it was nice. Dark blue-black clouds peeked out from behind Kedarnath. Along the horizon, the wind was rolling in and out of the herds of clouds. In the background two people stood beneath the summit, thinking that the miracle they had dreamed about had happened. There had been times when they had not believed that it would ever come to pass.
After our comrades, Volodia Kachkov and Andrey Lukin, caught up with us, the four of us summited the snowy top of Bhagirathi III. The vista of the surrounding ridges and the rushing clouds brought a quiet joy, but the instinct of the mountaineer would not allow us to relax. There was a descent ahead of us, and our inner compass told us it would be a difficult and dangerous one.
The main idea of “The Russian Project: The Big Walls” was to ascend the greatest faces of the world via new routes—if possible, by very hard routes. Such ascents were to be performed by one team. In 1995, Alexander Odintsov and Igor Barihin established a route up the center of the east face of Peak 4810(m) in the Pamir-Alai. In 1996, on Ak-Su North in the Pamir-Alai, Alexander Ruchkin and Alexander Odintsov put up a new route in the center of the north face. In 1997 in Norway on the Troll Wall, the project successfully completed two ascents: on July 25, Alexander Ruchkin and I put up the Russian Route, while on August 8, Alexander Odintsov and Igor Potankin established the Baltika route.
Our Bhagirathi team had an addition: Andrei Lukin and Vladimir (“Volodia”) Kachkov from Saint Petersburg were with us. With this bigger team (which also included our high-altitude cameraman, Ivan Samoilenko), we had bigger plans for 1998. We aimed to perform three first ascents with three independent teams on the west face of Bhagirathi III.
But the original plans began to be revised from the very beginning. My partner on the ascent of the Troll Wall, Alexander Ruchkin from Omsk, had to back out of the project at the very last moment due to his financial situation. Fortunately, another pair, Alexander Odintsov and Igor Potankin, generously accepted me onto their team. So, upon our arrival in Delhi on August 17, our expedition was as follows: Alexander Odintsov was the leader of the project; Igor Potankin and I were in the first group; Andrei Lukin and Volodia Kachkov were in the second group, and Ivan Samoilenko was our cameraman. Based on these teams, we planned two ascents.
In addition to the climbing core of the expedition, there were seven more people, including a doctor, a second camera man and a few others. Some of them had climbing experience, but mostly they joined the team to travel and experience life in Base Camp. The liaison officer appointed by the IMF became the fourteenth member of the expedition. He had a portentous name: Monogar, which sounded like Monogarov, the name of a very famous mountaineer from the Ukraine in the times of the former Soviet Union. We took such a coincidence as a good sign.
After loading all of the expedition baggage, our big team headed out to central Uttar-Pradesh in the Garhwal Himalaya. From the holy town of Haridwar at the delta of the river Ganges, our journey followed the river. On August 23, after all the ordinary adventures, our expedition reached the small town of Uttarkashi in the very center of Garhwal. Here we met with the Sirdar, Mr. Bisht. From then on, all progress depended on his organizational skills and promptness.
It had been raining in the evenings and at night, which meant that the road to Gangotri was possibly blocked. On August 25, we bought some more food and our expedition was expanded by 50 porters, a kitchen-boy and a cook. Now we looked like a little army.
The day was wonderful in all respects. The road to Gangotri was in perfect shape. All of the obstructions had been cleared and leveled, and the higher the road went, the better it became. Little by little we started to notice the high altitude foliage, the first signs of which had already been apparent in Uttarkashi, and the Himalayan cedars, so slender and beautiful. Right in the middle of the journey there was a wonderful place with thermal hot springs called Gangnani. Finally, we were in Gangotri, a place for pilgrimages and mountaineering expeditions. There were groups of porters and swamis in their orange clothes. There were stones polished by water, the thunder of the waterfall, splashing holy water, yoga, and ashrams scattered all over the slopes.
On August 26, our expedition started out on the trail that leads to one of Hinduism’s most holy places: Gaumukh, where the Bhagirathi River comes out of the glacier. We followed the pilgrims’ road, touching stones that had pictures of Shiva’s trident and holy texts, inhaling the high-altitude prana, enjoying the serenity of this enchanting land and making quick stops at the local tea-houses for our physical thirst. After a night at the hotel Bhujbas, we continued, washed by the heavens. Soon, the rain grew tired, and we confronted the magnificent sight of the great river being born.
Though Gaumukh is the final destination for pilgrims, our way continued beyond, along a glacial moraine where there are no trails. Thanks to the modest, hard-working porters, whose strength, patience and humility one can endlessly admire, the foremost part of our expedition had already reached Base Camp in Nandanvan.
Between August 28 and September 2, we worked on establishing Base Camp. A reconnaissance was also made on the northern and eastern slopes of Bhagirathi III to find the safest route for descent. The weather stabilized, and during the next few days we carried loads to the wall and made a final decision on two routes on the west face.
Volodia and Andrei planned to climb the western ridge to the left of Impossible Star. Alexander, Igor, and I planned to concentrate our efforts on the center of the wall. Our line was to start at the bergschrund, then go straight to the huge protrusion in the lower half of the wall that we named “the Paunch.” From here the line was to go along its left edge via an overhanging inner comer. The next reference point was a roof in the shape of a “7” that we called “the Poker.” From here the line continued to the black schist criss-crossed by multi-colored bands that comprises the upper quarter of the wall, then up to an area of roofs and overhangs where two prominent features resemble eyes. These we called the “Left” and “Right Eyes;” we planned to climb through the “Left Eye,” then, in the upper part of the schist band, exit left onto the western ridge.
Igor and I fixed almost all of the icy approach slopes in six pitches on September 6. Technically it was not very difficult, but falling rocks from above, particularly after 3 p.m., made it dangerous. The weather deteriorated on September 7. On September 8, Igor, Alexander, and I managed to establish ourselves on the wall above the bergschrund before the avalanches came down. In two days the approach slopes were completely covered with snow. Volodia and Andrei, meanwhile, were preparing part of their route to the left of Impossible Star.
The following two and a half weeks changed our plans once again. Uncertainty, bitterness and disappointment were added to our existing problems. We were under the impression that, for some unknown reason, the mountain did not want to welcome us. The monsoon returned. It started to snow, and it began to look as if winter was arriving. We tried to use any sort of break in the weather to advance, but almost all of our attempts ended up with digging out our ropes and equipment from beneath the snow. It was a Sisyphean struggle. We dug trenches that were many meters long and of a man’s height. One avalanche swept all of the right side away, compressing the last 50 to 70 meters of the fixed ropes one-and-a-half to two meters beneath the snow. To compound matters, Alexander was experiencing persistent abdominal pains.
September 21. Igor and I finally managed to climb 90 meters of very dangerous ground. We had to crawl along an unstable ice pitch without any decent protection while pieces of ice fell from above. Avalanches threatened to pendulum us 25 to 30 meters. Meanwhile, Andrei and Volodia, who had fixed part of their route and brought their loads up, were ready to start out.
September 22. Lines from the diary: “It is snowing. Wet snow. It looks like it is not going to stop soon. Can it be true that Ivan was right when he said that the first week of good weather would be the only week granted us—that it was an abnormally rainy year, and very soon autumn would change to winter? Maybe we won’t reach the summit. There is not much time left.
“Alexander was diagnosed by the doctor with appendicitis.”
The permit gave us until September 30. Our chances to summit were melting much faster than the snow in Nandanvan. Facing such a critical situation, we made a decision to unite into one team and climb via one route in any kind of weather. We chose the central route because of the overhanging left ridge of the Paunch, which would cover us en route to the center of the wall. The most important problem here was to find a safe bivouac on the wall.
September 26. Igor and I dug trenches once again.
September 27. “Under fire,” we managed to make it to the beginning of the paunch. On the way we fixed four more ropes. Volodia and Andrei used those days to take all of the equipment from their route and move it to the base of the center of the wall.
September 29. Igor and I started out. Alexander climbed with us to cache equipment. He was planning to summit after the doctor performed an operation. If everything went right, the next day he and the cameraman, Ivan Samoilenko, would join us.
The next day, Volodia and Andrei managed to climb about 40 meters through a bunch of small icy overhangs that served as the entrance to the main inner comer at the left edge of the Paunch.
We had just started the climb and it was nearly time to finish. Almost all of the route still lay ahead, but it felt as if we had already ploughed through several mountains. We were burned out, both physically and psychologically. The frozen relief that awaited us looked insidious—but we were determined to climb. So we did.
September 30. Igor led. For the first time since we began on the wall, I found myself in the role of the frozen one, belaying. The night was nasty. In the morning it was 7°C in the tent. The features of the comer did not provoke any joy, either. Obviously, it was a fresh rock scar, and there were still a lot of “live” rocks and blocks. The decent segments for climbing were to the right on the severely overhanging wall of the Paunch. That day we managed 75 or 80 meters and descended to the bivouac in darkness, where we met Alexander and Ivan.
Volodia and Andrei took the lead the next day. They needed to climb a difficult section that led up to a roof, and, if they could, to start on the tiered roofs that were a prominent feature and one of the key parts of the route. It never stopped snowing. The only thing that made it possible to work in such conditions was the overhanging relief. The wall was in winter condition. We were moving up at a catastrophically slow speed. What was next? Would our provisions and fuel be enough for six people? Two things that kept us moving were our determination and our belief in miracles.
October 2. Alexander and I started out to prepare the route. The weather was the same. Working as a leader is the best cure for despondency. We had to make it through the multi-layered roofs, a key part of the route. It would be all shattered moving blocks. The climbing was very risky, and took a lot of courage. After we made it through the roofs, we arrived at a relatively flat section. As soon as we did, we were transformed into snowmen. In such conditions, we did not manage to finish fixing the second rope.
October 3. Igor and Andrei climbed out onto the shelf in the upper part of the Paunch and made it another 15 meters. The next day was the first clear day since the beginning of the climb. On this day I worked with Volodia. From Igor’s final skyhook I pendulumed to the right under an overhang. The rocks were covered by a lot of snow. Very often we had to use skyhooks. There were a lot of unstable points. In some places we had to climb on snow that had been blown onto the rough places of the wall. At one point I felt the snow sliding away beneath my feet. I was flying down. Ivan, who was shooting at that moment, was hit by a huge piece of névé.
The fixed ropes were taking too much time. It took us a whole hour just to jumar through the multi-layered roofs. We had already spent six days working, but we were still in the center of the wall—and it looked like the major difficulties were still ahead.
That day was a decisive one for Alexander. On October 5, he and Ivan went down so that the rest of us would be able to continue the climb. Igor and I began relocating the bivouac to the shelf on top of the paunch. Volodia and Andrei worked on up ahead. Everything fell into place. We were getting used to the thought that we would have to live on this mountain for another week or more. The psychological strain slowly disappeared into the vastness of the wall. We were getting a positive charge. We were ready to accept any experience, be it victory or loss.
October 6. We climbed with eight fixed and three dynamic ropes. Vladimir, after climbing some of the extreme parts free in his rock shoes, severely froze his toes. Because Igor and had not managed to move all our gear from the first bivouac, we did not take the lead. In the evening we learned that the others had lost the burner from their gas stove, which meant that now there was only one stove for two groups.
October 7. Andrei had begun a difficult and labor-consuming section the day before on which Igor now worked. The overhanging rock threw us off. Igor began bathooking, going from one plate to another via thin cracks and flakes. It was extreme aid in severe cold. The sun appeared only after 3 p.m.
October 8. I finished climbing the pitch that Igor had started. There were some loose pitons that pulled out easily before I moved into a good cam-sized crack. The wall was severely overhanging, and we came out a little more than a meter beyond the last point of aid. Because of our limited number of big cams, I had to leapfrog, which lessened the protection.
Above was the Poker roof. Approaching it was very dangerous. First we would have to climb a flake so loose we referred to it as a “swinging feather,” then along “live” blocks that had detached from the wall. Molecules of thin air were the only glue holding them on. We made the roof using a homemade pecker, and I placed two cams in the broken rock. Neither one could hold its own weight. But that was not all. In the comer some of the pitons hardly stayed in; the last one started to come out as I weighted it. I barely escaped a fall.
As for Andrei and Volodia, they were busy moving the bivouac.
October 9. Volodia and Andrei led, climbing a vertical section with some free climbing. Igor rested, while I cleaned the route. After I hit one of the pins under the roof with the hammer, a huge plate I had climbed the day before detached. My mind stopped, and I broke into a cold sweat. But in the evening we had good news: the others had made it to the schist bands.
October 10. Ivan told us via radio that Alexander had left for the historical motherland. It seemed that his disease had been so serious that, even though he was a fighter by nature (in 1994, while participating in the Russian Alpine Championships in the Karavshin region, he had climbed Peak Slesova with a broken leg sustained from a previous climb on peak Asan-Usen), he could no longer tolerate the pain.
Igor led while I belayed. He decided to climb to the right. The black schist looked very rapacious. Roofs looked like opened drawers from Salvador Dali paintings. I could see very well how easily the schist plates break. There was almost no protection except for bolts.
There Igor stopped, took off his climbing shoe and waved his bare foot in the air. It was a wonder that he did not get any ice on his foot. The cold was arctic. Everything was very serious. My hands tensed, awaiting a fall. The oppressive and gloomy atmosphere did not disappear even when the sun showed up. We managed 75-80 meters that day. The character of the movement was a long traverse to the right under huge schist plates.
October 11. It was my turn to play roulette with this terrain. I have never seen anything like it: a belt of damaged black schist with yellow dissemination. Roofs and overhangs looked like noses, eyebrows or bellies, as if all the formations were devouring one another. Everything around looked rotten and rusted as if it had been splashed by gastric acid. The term “rock” could hardly be used. In many places it was just frozen sand covered by some sort of oxides. The pins could not be hammered in; they had to be dug into the sand. The schist roofs stratified under the weight of our bodies. It was a motley, overhanging country. We climbed via aid, and only from the center of gravity. We managed to establish an anchor on the solid light rock using a 12-mm bolt as one of the pieces. The climbing robbed us to the last thread. All of my equipment was put to work, even extra carabiners. My eyes watered, burned by the salt. I managed to climb only 25 to 30 meters.
Andrei and Volodia prepared the fourth camp at the base of the band.
October 12. Volodia and Andrei were ahead while Igor and I cleaned the route. The entire time we had been aiming for the huge angled inner comer that cut through the right side of the black band. It looked like the only exit from the wall. From beneath, this comer is bordered by piles of black and light roofs; from above, it is capped by a heavily overhanging wall. The only features we could see were stratified “scales.”
October 13. At last, Volodia and Andrei reached the edge of the wall, while Igor and I moved camp. The terrain was all black schist covered with snow and decorated by icicles. We climbed almost all of it free. We had some problems with the protection. The leader climbed in crampons.
October 14. We started out at 8:30 a.m. from the fifth bivouac. We climbed the fixed ropes and icy slopes, and reached the most tempting place in the world at 12:30 p.m. We saw the summit right in front of us. At last, the mountain had made it possible.
In the morning, though, storm clouds reached the ridge and the walls of Bhagirathi, and now we were not just watching, but living through the battle. We started to descend with two portaledges and our haulbags. It was not possible to take all of our equipment; we had to leave some ropes on the most difficult parts of the route. In the second half of the day, it snowed very hard.
October 16. The weather did not change for the better. We spent the night full of apocalyptic feelings at Camp II on the shelf atop the Paunch. Toward morning a serious storm moved in. I was leading in our descent, preparing the route. I could feel the constant grip with which the mountain held us. There was no room for even a miniscule mistake. After we emerged from the shelter of the Paunch, we found ourselves open to the mountain’s threatening elements. The wind swung us as if we were flags. The portaledges floated above our heads, reminding us of a kite. But the biggest danger was still below on the lower part of the wall. While waiting for my friends at the anchors, I counted ten avalanches rushing through the station with a dry hiss. So far, we had been lucky. None of those white predators carried rocks or pieces of ice.
After we jumped off the wall, we found ourselves in the most vulnerable situation. The 400-meter slope was too steep for four exhausted climbers to walk down, especially with all those bags and portaledges. The other side of the slope was not steep enough to allow the equipment to slide down under its own weight. We had to fix the ropes and use them. So far, all the avalanches had fallen around us, but we could not hope for the same on the lower part of the slope. After we made it through more than half the slope, we tied the last three dynamic ropes together and fixed the upper part of it to an ice ax. Volodia and I rolled down, kicking the bags in front. Igor and Andrei were at the station when the One That We Had Been So Afraid Of finally got us. Under the mass of snow, the rope stretched out so hard it looked like a guitar string. Fortunately, it did not last a long time. When we dug ourselves out, we automatically dropped the bags; we realized that any delay might be fatal.
Our tiny yellow tent covered to its top with snow greeted us at ABC in solemn solitude. After plunging through the dry snow between the rocks of the moraine, and after we, finally, had reached safety, we hugged and congratulated each other on the successful completion of the climb.
We did not know that our joy was premature. We were dreaming about getting to Base Camp on time for breakfast. We got all of our things ready. After we ate what was left from the local fauna’s scavenging, we headed out toward Base Camp. Our group moved along a surface reminiscent of a marine archipelago. We had to swim through the drifts that separated morainal islands. The wind became stronger, and by the time we reached the lateral moraine, it turned into a hurricane. The wind was suffocating us, filling our lungs, making it impossible to exhale. It was on the watch for us at the most dangerous places of the moraine ridge. It played with us, trying to throw us off the slope, then at the last minute eased its grip. Feeling “aerated” to the point where we felt crystals of ice in our lungs, we finally reached a “green” slope. We had hoped that it would get easier from here, and indeed it was a little bit too tight for the wind, but the snow did not relent. Some of us were swimming on our backs, while others were rolling from one side to another. It seemed that the slope was endless. We stopped somersaulting where the slope became flatter.
From here we hoped to walk straight on the surfaces of the dried-out lakes. It has been a day of endless delusions. We made our way through snow that came up to our waists. Finally, somebody looked at his watch. It was already 2 p.m., and there was not too much light left. When Vladimir, freeing himself from one more snow trap, got on all fours and crawled, others followed his example. The holy mountain was testing us to the last. It wanted us to leave it as Tibetan pilgrims do, prostrating ourselves on the ground with each step. The purification with the fresh snow lasted until 10 p.m., when our weak light was seen by somebody at Base Camp. We took the light that had been lit in response as the highest reward, as joy and deliverance.
Summary of Statistics
Area: Garhwal Himalaya, India
New Route: The Russian Route (VI 5.11 A4, 1110m) on the west face of Bhagirathi III (6454m), September 6-October 17, 1998, Igor Potankin, Yuri Koshelenko, Andrei Lukin, Vladimir Kachkov
Personnel: Alexander Odintsov, leader, Igor Potankin, Yuri Koshelenko, Andrei Lukin, Vladimir Kachkov, Ivan Samoilenko, Ludmilla Krestina (expedition doctor), Alexander Kuznetsov (Base Camp manager)