Drowning in Ice
MAY be I am dreaming; may be not. Everything is white around me. Surrounded by the peaceful world of boulders, and framed by the Himalayas, this is more than just a trek; it is for me a pilgrimage to one of the most remarkable adventures on earth. A large, slow-moving river of ice, right under my feet. After beating up compacted layers of snow with crampons for one full hour we have reached Rathong Glacier, situated in West Sikkim. The source of Rangeet and Tista River flows from Rathon Glacier.
Glaciers are moving mountains of ice and Glacier ice is the largest reservoir of fresh water on Earth, and second only to oceans as the largest reservoir of total water. Glaciers cover vast areas of Polar Regions but are restricted to the highest mountains in the tropics.
Reaching Rathong Glacier was not easy. We had to complete a long training period of rock climbing, mountain hazards and physical fitness at the Himalayan Mountaineering Institute. Then we started our trek from Yuksum the first capital of sikkim. Destination was to reach Bakhim which is located at 9000 feet above sea level and 13 km from Yuksum. We started our trek at 6am and after 6 hours of walking uphill with the clouds we finally reached Bakhim at about 12 o` clock. We stayed at Bakhim for one day for acclimatization and started moving again for DZONGRI. DZONGRI is the meeting place of man and mountain gods at an altitude of 13300 feet. After a gentle climb through rhododendron forests to a mountain ridge, we dropped down to the village of Tshokha and continue to Phedang. After crossing Phedang heavy rain started to fall and it became difficult to climb. The 16 kg rucksack on our shoulders started to absorb water and it became heavier. After reaching DZONGRI everyone was exhausted so we camped near a river bank.
Next day we continued through grassy fields with Mountain God in constant view. Soon the Kanchenjunga range appeared and we came to Bikbari, lined with many stones. We descended to a river bank for taking a short break. We followed a steep and narrow trail up river. From the high spots there were wonderful views of the Ghunsa Khola below. The path ascends steeply and after struggling hard with rocks and boulders we finally arrived at the Chaurithang Base Camp (14600 ft) an area used for summer pasture. The place offers enchanting views of Kotang, Rathong, Kabru, Fork, Chandra and Frey Peak.
We spent the next 7 days at Rathong Glacier practicing the snow crafts. There were several classes and tests on walking and climbing on steep ice wall. We learned to use the special equipment as well such as Koflach, Crampons and Ice Axe. We also practiced Crevasse rescue, self anchor and self arrest etc.
After finishing our main altitude adjustment period as well as completing most of our lectures and practice work on the Rathong glacier it was time for our final exercise: an altitude gain day with option of summating a peak, if weather permited. The goal was to reach 18,000 feet (previous high altitude was 15,500 feet on the glacier) -- and the summit of BC Roy Peak.
We set off at the not-so-alpine-start time of a late 6 am, and after crossing a river with tons of boulders and confusion and passing handful of sand to step on slippery rocks, started up the peaks north of camp. We hiked at a fast climb rate of 40 ft/minute and continued for about 2 hours. Resting every hour or so, we made it to the snow/ice and put on crampons and other cold weather gear. Ropes were fixed and we used our ascenders (Jumars) as safety as we climbed the final 2000 ft on snow, in mostly clear, sunny weather. As we reached the final resting spot (and a possible base camp for higher peaks) in a beautifully protected cirque, we organized into teams to try for the summit.
I gathered the members of our team Ankur Agarwal, Sunil Mishara, Sattyam, Babu and Gonesh, so 6 of us were roped up together. I led the final couple of hundred feet, kicking my own steps apart from other teams that were headed up the same peak. It was really cool to be given the responsibility to pick a safe route and be asked to do the work of kicking steps in the ice. But suddenly luck turned its back on us and a massive snow fall started. We had to move ignoring the freezing cold and after climbing about 30 minutes on steep and slippery rock wall we reached the summit.
It was like being on top of the world. Chaurithang Base Camp was looking like a tiny little dot to us. But very soon it vanished because of the snow and as the weather became more rough. Very soon the snow reached our knees and climbing down was too difficult in the snow. We took safety measures and used belay (support) at some places. And after one and a half hour we reached the base camp safely.