The untamed mountain defeats man again
Reader Sanjay Khatau describes his fascinating experiences of trying to conquer the formidable Ranglana and Dhodu Peaks in Uttarakhand.
"This is the only peak we can climb here," Sherpa Narbu muttered. We had been walking for the past three hours through lush green meadows, steadily gaining altitude and coming closer to our base camp.
Narbu was referring to a small peak called Dhodu (5100 m) that I could see in the distance. Dhodu and its adjoining peaks are unclimbed. In fact, until recently this entire valley was relatively unexplored.
We were in Obra Gad, which is part of Gobind National Park in Uttarakhand. Obra Gad is parallel to Har Ki Dun that is one of the most popular trekking routes in the Indian Himalayas.
Image: Looking up from Obra Gad
Photographs: Sanjay Khatau
Not many would consider Obra Gad an easy walk
I can understand why Obra Gad is not visited very often. Our trek involved some steep ascents and descents. The trail was broken in many parts and occasionally we had to cross mudslides. Not many would consider Obra Gad an easy walk.
Narbu was deliberately walking slowly and telling me to walk slowly as well. His pace suited me just fine despite being quite slow. The other members of our group were walking ahead.
Cyrus Shroff, our leader was probably at base camp already. Following him was Prakash Samant, an experienced mountaineer with many major ascents under his belt. I was the baby of the group in every respect. Other members of our team included Lengdu Sherpa, our local guide Kamlesh Rawat and our cook Pappu. Vinay Hegde was to join us later.
Image: These small suspension bridges are a lifeline for villages beyond the reach of vehicles
Ranglana had to be climbed...
A few years ago during a visit to Obra Gad, Vinay Hegde along with Maninder Kohli spotted Ranglana and it immediately captured our imagination.
Since then the four of us along with Bhupesh Ashar had occasionally visited this area. Ranglana (5400 m) had to be climbed, but each time we failed. Either the weather was too cold, or the snow conditions were not right.
Like an unresolved love affair, Ranglana raised more questions than it gave answers. And we like love-struck teenagers believing that the answers were there for us to find, provided we persisted hard enough.
Narbu gave me a very sceptical look when I reminded him that our objective was Ranglana.
Its summit pyramid was steep and consisted of sheer granite. The face was pockmarked with hanging glaciers, avalanche prone gullies and crevasses. The only possible route was up on ridge towards the right side of the mountain.
Image: Our sherpas, Lengdu (in red) and Narbu. Narbu has summitted the Everest 5 times.
The ridge was possible, but...
We crossed a small stream and reached base camp. Cyrus was hell bent on finding the answer to Ranglana. So instead of resting, we set off at the crack of dawn the next day to visit the col and the ridge that we thought held the key to the summit.
The route up to the col was steep. Soon, we were walking on compact snow with our crampons. I could see Cyrus in the distance heading towards the col and then I suddenly saw Prakash turning back. He just mentioned the word crevasse and it was enough for me to turn back as well.
We met a very exhausted Cyrus at base camp after a few hours. Ranglana had given its answer. The ridge was possible, but we were not a match for it. The answer was anti-climax, but nonetheless it was an answer.
Even though the next day was a rest day, we still went for a reconnaissance on the left flank of Ranglana. There was no possibility via the left flank of the mountain either.
Image: When we reached base camp we had to cross this freezing and fast flowing stream. Its the first time I had to take off my shoes and walk barefoot like these porters across a stream.
Peak 5750 looked as difficult as Ranglana
When we reached base camp Vinay was waiting for us. We discussed the possibility of attempting peak 5750 m, a peak some distance away from our camp. Unfortunately, the next two days we were stuck inside our tent with continuous snow. During the night we had to wake up to shovel snow outside our tent, a most unpleasant task.
After the snowfall we decided to move camp to the base of peak 5750. On May 30 we walked up the medial moraine at the head of the valley towards Peak 5750.
A few hours later, we had to turn back disappointed. Peak 5750 looked as difficult as Ranglana and with the weather playing truant, it was a no go.
Image: Our first view of Ranglana when we reached Bheva thatch.
The route felt very steep and a slip could be fatal
The only choice we had left was Dhodu. On May 31, we started towards the summit camp of Dhodu. We set up camp around 4400 meters. We were up early the next day for the summit attempt and there wasn't a cloud to be seen for miles.
We left for the summit a little late, around 5 am. The early morning sun gave a magical hue to the snowy landscape in front of us. The snow was firm and I was walking with Lengdu. I was just reaching out to the fixed ropes when Vinay warned me of crevasses. The route felt very steep and a slip could be fatal.
I realised going further would mean I would have to depend on the others. It wasn't something I was comfortable with on a summit attempt. So I decided to turn back.
Image: Dhodu (in middle) and adjacent peak with Dhodu cha Guncha in the background (far right)
The storm came in fast
As I walking towards to the tent, I could see gathering clouds. I was walking alone and I had to be careful of hidden crevasses. I reached safely and had a small nap.
By noon it was snowing and getting worse. The others were out of sight, but I was sure they would have seen the gathering storm. The storm came in fast.
It began snowing heavily around 1 pm with thunder and lightning. Visibility was down as a cloud covered the peak. I saw a small avalanche nearby. I wasn't nervous yet, but I knew the margin for error did not exist anymore. The lightning was especially scary.
At 2 pm, I could see the group descending. I was relieved. Even though they reached camp exhausted, Cyrus felt it was prudent to move to base camp given the weather. They had missed the summit by just 40 meters, but the climb was a fantastic attempt in the circumstances.
Everyone was pleased including me.
Image: I was trailing and decided to turn back after a while. This is the rest of team attemting Dhodu.
We made it to base camp just before it got dark
The snowfall continued as we moved towards base camp. Kamlesh offered to take my sack. Once the weight was gone, I began moving very fast and confidently.
I paid a price for my over confidence. It was getting dark and I was on a grassy slope when I missed a rock. My vibram soles slipped on a wet rock, and I tried to balance my fall using my ice axe. Bad move. The ice axe slipped too and went straight into my ear.
For a minute I was very nervous. It was almost dark, and everyone was exhausted. I was hurt and bleeding. I gathered myself and the four of us -- Narbu, Lengdu, Prakash and I -- made it to base camp just before it got dark. We were cold, wet and tired, but very relieved to be at base camp.
Thankfully the injury turned out to be a minor one. We spent the next two days waiting for our porters to arrive from Sankri. The minute they showed up, we rushed down.
The descent was gruelling because each and every rock was wet and slippery. I was just glad to reach Sankri.
Ranglana will be climbed eventually. I assure you though when it does get climbed, major mountaineering journals will hail it as an achievement.
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Image: After the storm