Between the Light and the Shadow, Struggling with Wind and Cold while Putting Up the Bulgarian Route on the North Face of Thalay Sagar, Garhwal, Asia, India

Publication Year: 2004.

Between The Light and The Shadow

Struggling with wind and cold while putting up the Bulgarian route on the north face of Thalay Sagar, Garhwal, India.

Nikola Levakov

At our arrival at base camp I counted 25 tents. I hadn’t expected such attendance, as I had heard of no more than two expeditions per season to Thalay Sagar. Now there were Korean, Dutch, and French climbers, and us: the Bulgarians.

The Koreans stood out with their Mountain Hardwear tent that looked like a spaceship with round portholes. They were sponsored by seven big companies and attempted the Australian route (the icy gully in the middle of the wall). Their team had rich experience, with most of its members having climbed above 8,000m. For one person in the group this was his fourth time on Thalay Sagar. I found it really strange that only two climbers would be trying for the summit. They told me that the ice was thin, the anchors for the fixed ropes were bad, and that it was very dangerous. They came back from 6,400m because one of the two climbers became ill.

The three Dutch climbers attempted the east face via a new route. During their final attack the weather was bad and it was snowing, but they managed to reach the top. They were wonderful people. This wasn’t their first time in the region. One of them, Melvin, had climbed the neighboring peak, Bhrigupanth. The Dutch expedition chose a nice line: it was always sunny!

The French were a party of four. I think they were attempting to make a 400-meter variant of the normal route along the gully. Two of them made it, the other two didn’t. It was quite difficult to communicate with them.

We Bulgarians were a great team. We had everything we needed. Our cook, Jenak, was wonderful. It was a real pleasure to talk with him. He didn't know any European languages or European meals, but he was so charming that everything turned out okay. Our liaison officer, Bra, was really helpful. There was no need for me to act as “the leader.” We made our decisions together, as a group.

Everyone told us that our route was a beautiful project, but very dangerous and extremely difficult. We already knew that. The thing we didn’t know was the drastic change of temperatures after the end of September. Most of the days were sunny, the weather was stable, but the temperatures dropped dramatically. That made us speed up the whole process. We had planned to work on the route from the 2nd till the 15th. We hadn’t planned to sleep on the portaledge, which we had brought just for emergencies.

The moment we decided that we had had enough time for acclimatization we all moved up to the French advance base camp at about 5,400m. Together with Zheko and Hristo, we equipped with ropes the way from the normal route to the beginning of our rock-and-ice wall. We decided to fix about 550 meters of static rope on the wall and gradually move our portaledge upward, and afterward to go for the summit. With six nights spent on the portaledge we finally reached 6,400m. There were days in which we climbed only about 100 meters because of the great technical difficulties. On the sixth day, Zheko decided to climb down for a day or two of rest at “the green grass.” He wished us luck and descended. Hristo and I took a backpack with a gas stove, a small pot, and very few clothes. On the previous day we had fixed 200 meters of rope above the portaledge—our last rope. We had a 60m dynamic rope and 60m 6mm static rope.

On October 11 we started early and after the end of the fixed rope we climbed 60 meters of ice, 70 meters of mixed terrain, 35 meters of ice, 50 meters of slate (awful belay stations), another 50 meters of slate, and 80 meters of snow and ice until the shoulder below the summit at 6,700m. I had thought that when I reached the shoulder I would go to the southern side and that there would be no wind and that from there I would belay Hristo. But the wind there was as strong as on the northwest face. Hristo climbed up and we discussed the situation. The only possible solution was to dig a snow cave. I belayed Hristo as he started digging. I couldn't stand the cold, so I joined him to warm up. In about an hour we were ready to move into the cave. We had very little food and absolutely no bivouac equipment. We used everything we had to try to stay warm. We massaged each other’s feet, trying to keep them warm. At some point we even managed to get some sleep.

At 8 a.m. we told ABC that we were heading for the summit. We walked along a rocky edge where we saw remains of old fixed ropes, but they were of no use. Suddenly we came to a vertical chimney, IV+, where the rock was, to put it mildly, friable. While I was climbing it I was thinking that this peak had saved some surprises for us till the very end. Hristo came and offered me the lead to the summit. It was very kind of him, but I let him go first. When one is at 6,904 meters there is absolutely no difference in who is first and who is second. Throughout the whole journey I was filming with my video camera. Hristo is one of the toughest men I’ve seen. We reached the summit at 12:47 p.m.

We tied the Bulgarian flag at the only possible place. We took pictures, sang the Bulgarian hymn, and I interviewed Hristo. We stayed at the summit for about half an hour. On the way down the most difficult section turned out to be the snow and ice slope under 6,700m and the band of slate, where there wasn’t a single secure belay point. It took us many hours to reach the good anchors we had used on the way up. It was already dark and we had only one headlight at the abseils. The strong wind blew streams of snow powder over us. We reached the end of the fixed rope and sighed with relief. Hristo climbed one belay point ahead of me. I heard a cry. Hristo writhed with pain. He had fallen about 10 meters and had hurt his pelvis. Slowly and carefully we reached the portaledge.

Hristo said, “Everything is great!” But it wasn’t like that. I tried to take off my shoes, but I couldn’t. I cut the inner shoe and pulled out my feet, which no longer felt like mine. With Hristo’s help we started to “work on them.” After six nights on a portaledge and one night in a snow cave, the lack of sleep finally took its toll. In the morning we cut the sleeves off Hristo’s turtleneck and used them for my socks. I put on his three-layer shoes and headed for ABC with no luggage. I left everything with the hope that somebody would use it during the second attempt and would bring it down. After a couple of hours Valia met me at the end of the fixed ropes with hot tea. In a while Hristo also came down, carrying quite a lot of luggage. I told Valia, “Meet him as a king!”

Summary of Statistics

Area: India, Gahrwal Himalaya

Ascent: North face of Thalay Sagar, Between the Light and the Shadow (1,400m, VI 5.10 A2). Hristo Hristov and Nikola Levakov. October 7-12, 2003.

Hristo Hristov died on May 20, 2004 during the descent after climbing Mt. Everest by north side without oxygen. His body was found and identified some days later above the Second Step.

Translation by Tcveta Misheva