We make the call to switch valleys. Two weeks of mostly good weather and three and a half attempts on a handful of peaks has gained us a net total of only a few hundred meters of climbing. We learned a lot in this first valley – mostly that the clean, compact faces are too bold for us, and the horrendously loose ridges and gullies too dangerous. Now it is time for us to attempt our primary objective, what we really came here for: the east face of Starikatchan.
We spend a week (what feels like an excessively long time) trying to organize and facilitate a move to a new base camp in the nearby Shimling valley, home of the unclimbed Starikatchan. We decide to ditch the camp staff this time. To have them is convenient, and the cooks are oh-so-kind, but we still prefer the solitude of our own company. This time, instead of a group of nearly twenty, we move up valley as six; two climbers, and four porters. After half a day, we reach a flat, sandy area that will be our home for the next two weeks. Once the porters are paid and our goods deposited, the air takes on a lighter feel. We watch the porters make their way down valley, becoming smaller and smaller with each step before dropping down onto a steep slope and out of sight. We finally are doing what we came here to do.
I try my best to sneak the packaged loaf of chocolate cake in with the rest of the food, although it’s unlikely that this will go unnoticed. We have counted calories and discussed every bit of kit that will go into our packs. Tess’s calculated mind will no doubt question this last-minute addition of an undisclosed and undocumented 600 calories of sugar and flour. The four matches, also contraband, I am less concerned about. So small and packed in with the lighter, they will most likely go undetected. My only real hope for the cake is that it won’t be seen until we are already off the ground and climbing, at which time questioning its presence would be moot.
It isn’t until the evening, long past dark and after many, many rope lengths of mostly uninspiring climbing (along with a few gems), that the cake is ready to make its grand appearance. Sitting on our sloping, uneven, yet spacious bivy ledge, I ask Tess to close her eyes and turn around so I can light the “candles”. Not thinking, I light all the matches while they are sticking straight up, therefore unable to reach the fuel of the matchstick beneath them. All but one of the matches go out within seconds. Quickly, I tell Tess to turn around, sing a shoddy version of “Happy Birthday” through cracked lips, and celebrate my friend’s decision to spend her 25th birthday on the side of an unclimbed, 6000m Himalayan peak, oceans away from her loved ones, with only myself for company.
The night is warm and cloudy. Occasionally, I am woken by the tinny, metallic sound of snowflakes falling onto our single shared sleeping bag and bivy sack. Had we known how mild the temperatures were to be, a few degrees above freezing, no doubt we would have only taken one of the two. Together, they provide a more-than-necessary, luxurious coziness. Predawn, in the hazy blue light we begin to stir. We do everything we can from inside our nylon confines, trying our damnedest not to leave the shared warmth of the sleeping bag until it is an absolute necessity. Clear snot begins to trickle down from my nose as we sit, sipping warm drinks. I sniffle, and wipe at it with the back of a gloved hand. The weather is foreboding, yesterday’s sun replaced by steel grey clouds. We are both worried about our chances of getting to the top today, but say nothing, for what is there to be said? We both know the count.
Tess has often said that first ascents are simple: you climb until you can’t anymore, and then you go down. We are still roughly 400 vertical meters from the summit, having covered 500 vertical meters of new terrain the day before. Currently, there is nothing barring us from further upward progression, so I offer to take the first block of leads. The rock is worse then the previous day. It is equally loose and blocky, but steeper. A heavy, wet layer of late-spring snow still clings to the side of the peak in many spots at this altitude, limiting our options of ascent. We cut back left, then right, again and again over the runout terrain, in an effort to avoid the snow. Roughly 100 vertical meters of hard-fought ground above, we can no longer go up. The narrow peninsula of granite I followed terminates into a sea of avalanche-prone snow. It’s time to go down.
The sky explodes before my eyes. Even at the peak of my frustrations I cannot help but to acknowledge its beauty. A bright outline of yellow surrounds soft purple clouds, with a smattering of blue sky, sprinkled in here and there. It was a rather desperate plan, but one I longed to fulfill. With only two days left before we have to leave the mountains, it is our last stand. For this final effort, we have planned an ascent of the Southeast ridge of Starikatchan, the unclimbed peak that we were previously turned back on only four days prior.
Hope is fickle beast. Too much of it, and the fall from grace can break you. Too little, and you will never even bother to show up. I know I am going into this one with too much heat, but with already nearly four weeks of unsuccessful efforts behind me, I need something to lean on. As predicted, the fall is hard. We are moving too slow on the approach, and before we even reach the base I know it’s over. What took us one and half hours to hike four days ago, now takes us two and a half. After almost four hours walking across the glacier and already over an hour behind schedule, I call off the siege. Hours later, once again back at camp, I drop my trekking poles to the ground in frustration and yearn to already be back home.
The final days of the trip pass in a curious trepidation. The conflict between Jammu and Kashmir and the national government of India has begun to flair up again. All phone and internet communication in the region is cut to prevent anti-government protest from being organized. All upcoming climbing permits and trips to the region are canceled. Thousands of additional military troops have been organized and sent into the area. While things are safe and not noticeably different in the region we are traveling in, the need to stay vigilant and present overshadows the hard-felt feelings from the mountains.
Since my return home, the more fleeting feelings of frustration have passed. Instead, they have been replaced by a long-lasting gratitude, as warm and soft as the pashmina wool of the Jammu and Kashmir region. Two climbers embark on an expedition that pushes their personal boundaries. Firsts are achieved. Maybe not first ascents, but things more personal; first time climbing at altitude, first time visiting one of the world’s greater ranges. First time on a previously attempted, unclimbed peak. First time visiting India, first time experiencing the culture of the Zanskar. Already, we are planning our return to the area. There are, without doubt, many more personal firsts still patiently waiting for us there.
A big, fat thank you to the American Alpine Club’s Live Your Dream grant for the support and helping to make my journey to the Zanskar a reality.