Posted on behalf of Chris Figenshau, Tapovan Base Camp Manager
October 2nd, 2011. 3p.m.. (The climbers rest before their summit push.)
“You don’t need a weather man to know which way the wind blows.”
Bob Dylan said that. He must have been at sea level. In the Himalaya, it seems, only Shiva can say for sure.
Upon receiving the predictions of no precipitation for the next five days, I decided to pack up my most Spartan overnight kit, with camera gear, and head up to a vantage point near the base of Shivling’s West flank. From here one can see the NE Ridge of the Shark’s Fin from base to summit. After a three-hour hike through Teton like talus,( minus the trail part), I reached the advanced base camp of a group of British climbers led by Simon Yates. They are intent on climbing Shivling. Tea with the “Poms(sp?)” is a proper tea experience, and after being slightly ‘knackered’ from the hike, a very welcome one. (Thanks again Simon.)
As the sky grew dark I made my way to my bivy spot. Carrying two cameras, a beefy tripod and all the big glass we brought to India, I was set to crush, kill, and slay the coverage of a much anticipated summit day.
But wait. What is this white stuff? Falling light at first, then steady. SNOW.
I scavenged a ratty blue tarp from an abandoned camp/trash pile and dug in. Wrapped in a snow-covered burrito at 17,000 feet I radioed the team. It was snowing on them too.
“It’ll blow out of here,” I said, trying to impart confidence in the unknown.
“It just started snowing harder when you said that,” replied a dour Jimmy Chin. He was probably mired in an unpleasant flashback to the storm that thwarted their previous attempt.
“We’ll just wake up at midnight and see…” Jimmy said. “Wall Team clear."
The scratching of new snow against stiff, frozen plastic set the cadence for what was to be a comfortable, but sleepless night. An inch of snow on my blue burrito, ten feet of visibility, and the pitter patter of new snow getting louder.
OhmmmmmmmmmmmmmnamaaaaaaaaaaaaaShiva! Not now.
October 2, 2011. Midnight.
“The path to light often begins in darkness.”
-Unknown quote from The River Why.
One star, two stars, twenty stars, a million. The clouds part and settle low in the vast canyon between Shivling and Meru. The high beam of a lone headlamp tears through the night sky across from me. The team is awake and moving.
By 2 a.m. three lamps are spread evenly across the snow ramp leading up from Camp 3 heading towards the fixed line on the ‘Montana Ice Pitch’. It is clear, but cold. In the pre-dawn light I can see something I cannot feel. Wind from the Northwest is carrying snow off of the ridge.
The first radio transmission of the day is from Conrad who is now at the anchor above the ice pitch.
“This wind is eating me alive!”
His tone is startling.
“What do you want to do?” asks Jimmy.
Given their utterly exposed position, the possibility that wind chill could shut this climb down seems very real.
“Send up my down Jacket., says Conrad.
The team’s progress stops momentarily to weigh their circumstances. Then the sun hits.
A newly invigorated Conrad leads the first pitch of the day and ends it with a shovel in hand, trenching his way through the cornice that separates the team from the summit ridge. Blocks of snow whiz by Jimmy and Renan at the belay as Conrad burrows his way to ridge. Within an hour the team reaches the highpoint of their previous expedition. In the warmth of the sun they regroup and contemplate the overhanging knifeblade pitch above them. The Gargoyle. It would be up to Jimmy to unlock these final pitches to the summit at over 21,000 feet.
I couldn’t see the Gargoyle pitch from my vantage, but it didn’t take Jimmy long to lead it. When he reached the top Conrad let me know that:
“Jimmy left a big groove in it where he dragged his big steel balls.”
October 2, 2011. 1:40 p.m.
The team disappears from my view for several hours and I get a headache from squinting through the eyepiece of an underpowered lens in an effort to find them. While the team fights on, I take a nap in the now perfect temperature.
The radio ‘bleeps’ and wakes me. And then I hear something human from afar. A distant voice cuts across the calm air of the yawning canyon.
Then the radio cracks to life. It’s Conrad.
“Jimmy’s on the summit,” he says with a military like matter of fact. “Summit time: 1:40. October, 2nd, 2011.” There is confidence in his voice.
I look though the camera and I can see something on the summit now. It looks like a backlit hair follicle with arms. It’s Jimmy. The clouds swirl behind him, his arms raised before them. Twenty minutes later he is joined by Conrad and Renan. Now it’s official: The team has reached the summit!
A new route is now complete. Old business finished. Success, significance and a sigh of relief are all in this moment. Conrad makes coffee as the team rests for 2 hours at the apex of their journey.
Now all they have to do is get down……….
- Chris Figenshau. Psyched to have been there, Topovan Base Camp. Clear.