Nanda Kot, east ridge, attempt: Nanda Devi East, south ridge, attempt. Our approach to the Nanda Devi region began on August 30. After a three-day bus ride, six days walking up an ancient Indo-Tibetan trade route brought us to a base camp below Nanda Kot. Trails carved into the rocky gorge led from dense jungle, where we were sucked by leaches, up to high tundra. Sometimes they just ended in crumbling space, where landslides had laid waste. There were village names like Bogdwar and Lilam, and these, together with the local people, who ate dense bread while pulling on their water pipes, reminded us of Tolkien’s landscapes.
By the third week our Nepali cook, Depender, was saying that he had never, throughout his 15 years working in these mountains, witnessed a worse spell of bad weather. Nearly two meters of snow had fallen; many tent poles had broken; slopes were loaded; we were chowing through our precious supply of books and rum; and even bouldering was out of the question.
Finally we got a break in the weather, and Chuck Bird, Sarah Thompson, Pete Takeda, and I started up the east ridge of Nanda Kot (6,861m), retracing the steps of a 1966 CIA-sponsored expedition, which placed a nuclear-powered surveillance device at 6,700m to spy on the Chinese. Toward the end of day two we were hit by a big storm at around 6,000m and took shelter in a crevasse. Pete Takeda takes up the story:
“We had two tents and set them up on narrow snow ledges that we chopped into the bottom of the crevasse. We must have angered the Goddess, for at half-past midnight, an avalanche poured into our cavern. It was as if someone had backed a colossal cement mixer up to the mouth of the cave and dumped hundreds of tons of cement. The snow sealed the entire entrance, save for a hole 1½ meters square. I’d felt the roar of the avalanche and somehow pulled myself from the tent in an adrenalin-crazed frenzy of thrashing and swimming. I was the only one of us to escape burial and was able to pull out Chuck before the debris could solidify around his head. Dragged from what had almost been an icy grave, he coughed up a handful of snow that had been wedged within his trachea.
We stood in the pitch black wearing only our underwear, all our gear now buried under tons of snow. The other two, Jonny and Sarah, had been tumbled to the bottom of our cave by force of the avalanche. They came to a halt near the edge of the bottomless crevasse. A meter farther and they would have either died from a vast fall or been hopelessly wedged under tons of crushing snow. As it was, I wrote them off as either dead or dying, and Chuck and I desperately dug with our bare hands in the dark for headlamps, boots, and gloves. At one point Chuck said, “You saved my life.” Noting that we were nearly naked, in peril of losing fingers and toes, still facing more avalanches and the strong possibility that the cave might collapse, I responded, “No, I didn’t.”
Jonny and Sarah were buried but still alive. In a superhuman effort Jonny snapped a tempered aluminum tent pole, which had ended up near his face, to create an air pocket. With that primitive tool he ripped the snow-engulfed tent that was squeezing Sarah and him to death. Then, after extricating himself (naked except for a T-shirt), Jonny pulled Sarah from the remains of their tent.
After considerable effort the four of us located all our critical life-support gear. But the ordeal wasn’t over yet. Around 6:30 a.m. another avalanche roared in, sealing us in what was fast becoming a tomb. I dug a wormhole through the debris, while Jonny cleared the snow from behind, ready to grab my feet and pull me out, if and when the ceiling collapsed. The tunnel was nearly five meters long before I finally broke through to the surface. Topside was a maelstrom of wind-whipped snow and constant avalanche, but at least we now had an air hole. A few hours later yet another avalanche passed over this hard-won hole, momentarily turning day into night, before finally sliding clear.
We spent four days in the cave and, when the weather finally cleared, ran for our lives. We had little food, and our fuel supply was down to a half a gaz canister. During the harrowing descent, we were nearly wiped out by yet another avalanche as we crouched at the top of a 70m ice cliff. But we managed to pick our way down the treacherous slopes.”
Across the valley an 11-member Italian expedition was attempting a new route on the east face of Nanda Devi East (the line Pete and I had planned to attempt). On their approach to the mountain a Hindu Holy Man asked the climbers to stop and make a puja ceremony for the mountain. They didn’t stop. The Hindu said one of them would die on this trip. The day we were hit by the avalanche, the Italian team abandoned their route and 600m of fixed rope. Next day, just before leaving the valley, the 41-year-old leader, Marco Dalla Longa, an accomplished mountaineer, rose at sunrise to see Nanda Devi East in full glow. That morning, in full view of the mountain he’d grown to love, Dalla Longa fell unconscious and collapsed. During the subsequent night he died of what was afterwards diagnosed as a stroke.
A week later Pete and I were 200m below the summit of Nanda Devi East (7,434m), after having climbed for four days up the south ridge. I was at a hanging belay when the wind picked up, the snow started falling and the temperature quickly dropped. We had one 7mm rope, one cam, one picket, some stoppers and screws, and half a can of fuel. We had talked about “signs” the mountain might give us if she didn’t want us “standing on top of her head” (as the head priest at the Nanda Devi temple had said). This seemed to be it. When fully committed to the descent, it was a bummer to see the weather improve behind us. Dwindling food, fuel, and energy precluded making another summit attempt.
After a visit to the Rishi Ganga and the taking of some water samples, we made it back to Delhi in time for terrorists to detonate three bombs. Two of them were in street markets around which we had wandered the day before. We watched the chaos from TVs in the airport, waiting to fly home.