Shoshala, the cliff luring us to this side of the Himachal Pradesh, loomed straight over head. This was Option Number One.
It was first climbed by a Finnish team a few springs ago. Their climb, mixed with many bolts, opened a series of corners and small cracks on the south-center aspect of this spearheaded peak. Throughout our research it sounded like they did not tag the true summit. Doing so would have required more climbing via a jagged, undulating ridge.
Speaking to locals, we learned that our mid-October attempt would have one major limitation – no water. The steep grass tufted slopes and ramps provided no place for water to collect. The European team was able to collect spring snow from shaded areas but we would have no such luck. Water would have to be transported up.
Two nearby valleys also caught our eyes’ attention; the game show suspense began. I was keen to climb; push myself to higher elevations. This is the Himalayas after all. Team discussion thickened. Option Number Two, the Mystery Wall, enticed with its name alone! Sylvia Videl was the first person to climb the Mystery Wall’s giant granite face. We were eager to follow in the tracks of this inspirational woman!
The Mystery Wall was hugged by pinnacle gendarmes swooping over a vast expanse of landscape – all tucked under a massive hanging glacier and a 6000 meter summit.
Another slightly less impressive objective also stirred the conversation: Option Three. Much smaller, yet equally stunning, these peaks were alluring with the possibility of stellar camping, running water and undefined routes.
The choice was ours: door number one, two, or three? What would it be?
With three porters, some 60 hard boiled eggs, a head of cabbage, some stinky cheese, an arrangement of dehydrated oats and prepackaged meals, we opted for door number two, the alluring Mystery Wall. The approach involved a long slog straight up a slick grassy hillside.
Four hours in, we were forced to do a proper bouldering move to ascend any further. We dropped our heavy packs in a semi-flat nook about 20 feet up from the boulder problem. I scurried around, searching for a better bivy site while Whitney cleared a space big enough for our tent.
Angrily, the porters insisted on attempting the boulder problem and refused to give us our packs until they had “finished.” I finally snagged my pack off of the eldest of the three (who was completely exhausted, hungry and thirsty) and passed it up to Crystal. One of the porters mentioned they hadn’t eaten breakfast, and of course were not carrying any lunch. No wonder they were so grumpy! We all quickly rummaged through our packs, shoving food and water their direction.
The men ate and began their load-free descent. They would return in nine days to help carry out our kit. The ladies settled in, discussing our plan for the morning while the sun descended beneath the neighboring snow covered range.
During the rest of the approach, we achieved a few moderate solo climbs following steep water-carved slabs and deep, curvaceous waterholes. We encountered a singular bolt above a 100 foot steep pitch: a trace from Sylvia and her gaggle of porters. “Nice”, I thought. “at least we don’t have to down climb that section!”
As we approached, the light on the face altered the mountain’s features. Sylvia’s wall undressed to reveal a sheer, featureless granite sheet. Excitement heightened: our intentions were to climb new routes, and hopefully new summits, all alpine style. We would bivy on route if necessary. My eyes gazed left towards a pillar leading to the skyline ridge of the mountain. It appeared to be vertical climbing to a difficult ridge line sprinkled with snow and ice. A tough route, but the ladies weren’t going to back down from this challenge!
At 4000 meters, we carved a tiny bivy spot in scree. It was the only somewhat flat spot that was anywhere close to the start of our intended line. I led the first 70 meter pitch: a less than vertical, dirty, right facing dihedral with a wide crack. Crystal led the second 70 meter pitch: a really fun, knobby face to another right facing dihedral. We danced gracefully up the face.
Whitney led the third – a rope stretcher. She made a hard move off the belay, trending leftward to a giant scree covered ledge. Meanwhile, graupel began to fall from the sky, the small pieces of soft ice melted quickly on our steaming faces. Crystal and I followed the pitch, then scurried further up the ledge to check out the corner we had been eyeing.
Was it really a crack?
Heavy clouds teased us, swooping about, so we only caught the barest of views but what we saw screamed “Splitter,” much better than we were willing to hope for.
We retreated to Whitney, cautiously poking around for a proper rappel anchor. The ground was now white with tiny ball bearings of precipitation. Finally, a purple Camalot and #2 ball-nut found a home. While Crystal descended, her rope shifted, causing a basketball sized boulder to tumble down and smack her knee, instantly compromising her mobility.
“Ouch! That’s not good,” I thought. Crystal was out – her knee stiff and swollen.
We slept at the base of the route we started yesterday. Sunrise brought crisp mountain air, a thick blanket of dew, and a weather forecast of clear skies for one more day. The scale of the upper mountain was hard to gauge so we estimated at least five more new pitches to gain the ridge.
Descending was a difficult decision in blue skies, but staying together as a team was more important than any summit. Upon arrival to our tent in the valley below, we drank the last of our whiskey. The following morning, we opted to hike down with our gear days earlier than the scheduled departure with the porters. A snow storm swirled in the following day, easing our decision to bail.
Days passed. With new accumulation, we hoped snow would be available to melt, in addition to the 25 liters our porters would carry to our original destination, Shoshala. We estimated a 5-6 day mission.
Departing in good spirits, water slowly seeped from the porters backpacks. Thankful for the help and the hydration, we made our way to the base. As soon as we arrived in town, we ascended thick grassy slopes to find another tiny perch with outstanding views. We yearned for the spectacular feeling of standing atop the world.
The next day we rallied early, reinvigorated. Crystal climbed the breakfast pitch, her knee back to its normal size and shape. A beautiful and clean V- slot led her to a perfect hand-sized splitter on the left. This pitch finished with a 10 foot section of perfect number 5 Camelot to a bushy mantel, 5.10+. I headed up another perfect hand sized splitter to another smaller nest of grass, 5.9.
Our pace slowed on the third, as the now finger crack was brimming with bushes and tufts of grass. Whitney cleaned, tufts of dirt spewing over the three of us. She retreated, Crystal headed up and wrestled a giant bush mid-pitch.
We giggled, inappropriate jokes abound.
As the sun quickly arched over, descent back to camp was upon us.
The following day we jummared to the base of pitch three. I took over, cleaning only enough to aid my way up the crack. The crack began to taper but so did the angle. I free-climbed above tiny wires to another bushy stance. We needed to continue upward momentum. Crystal followed quickly; I belayed her as she blasted off on pitch four. Whitney mini-tractioned the third pitch and attempted to clean a bit more, a now climbable finger crack at 5.11.
We swapped leads, and 3-4 more pitches brought us the relief of clean cracks . The climbing was unique and varied, with bushy mantels, lay backs, underclings, fist cracks, and a dash of heady slab moves. The challenges never cease to help us grow and climb higher. We led one another – literally and figuratively helping each other reach that higher hold.
Day three: we had reached a steep mid-mountain grassy knoll. We glanced upward, a myriad of broken cracks and bushy dihedrals left us unsure of how to proceed. Daylight was again fading.
Day four: flurries kept us tent bound. Sipping tea, discussion hopped from our personal lives to our climbing options and everything in between. The day was a rewarding one full of rest and connection.
Day five: we rallied early but cold temperatures slowed our pace. The beautiful climb that day was short and sweet. Funky placements and a thick bushy ledge traverse led nowhere.
This was our last day of food. Eight excellent pitches with much more mountain to go.
I felt a bit defeated, but luckily these peaks weren’t going anywhere anytime soon. “I’ll be back” I told them.
Exhausted, and yet content, we descended the mountain.
Like most humans in stressful environments, we didn’t always agree, we weren’t on the same eating regimen or sleep schedule, we have different skill-sets and overall priorities. The dichotomy of external and internal challenges constantly edged us. Weather and water issues brought tension. Strong opinions and fluctuating stoke brought out our differences, our strengths and our weaknesses. As a group, though, we were able to confidently express our views, earnestly and deeply listen to one another, see one another’s perspectives and move on as a collective.
As climbers we constantly navigate and seek out difficult unknown terrain with a positive attitude and fervor. Maybe we are climbing to run from the scary, unknown terrain of life. Or maybe we are ascending to face our fears, to find ourselves and to experience life in the clouds.
Ah, how climbing continues to make me a better person.
And how it makes me thankful for the strong and supportive people around me.
I may not have conquered any summits in India but I also haven’t conquered myself.
Thank goodness, because I would hate to have already reached the pinnacle.
Many thank yous for supporting this expedition!
Red Fox Outdoor Equipment, GORE-TEX, Petzl, Skratch Labs, Omega Pacific, Mammut, La Sportiva.