Tuesday, September 18, 2012

The dog who climbed a mountain

Three years ago today I took this photograph of a dog on the summit of a Himalayan peak, nearly 6000 metres above sea level.

Dog on the summit of Hanuman Tibba (5932 m) in the Indian Himalayas. 

It wasn't the easiest peak in the world, he was just a pretty amazing dog. Below the fold you can read the story of how he made it there — and as you will see, there was another powerful reason, apart from the dog, that keeps the day quite fresh in my memory.

This piece was first written in 2009 as a report for trustees of the A.C. Irvine Travel Fund, who helped finance my trip, and was later published in the Oxford Mountaineering Journal. It does contain some strong language, for which I apologise.

--o--

It is 3 am and I can just hear the muffled sound of my alarm through the hood of my sleeping bag. It is time to go. We were in bed by 7 pm so it doesn’t feel too early to be awake, but getting out of the warmth of the sleeping bag is a different matter. The inner walls of the tent are covered with icy condensation; they have also sagged inwards during the night, so when Iza also emerges from her cocoon beside me everything is a bit cramped. We receive showers of ice particles in the face with every movement.

I tick off the things I need to do as methodically as possible: summit day is not a good day to forget anything. Pull on the windproof trousers. One pair of gloves on now, Dachstein mitts in the top of my pack. Three pairs of socks. Take the water bottles out of the sleeping bags — they’re not frozen, which is good. We only have a litre each today, but we haven’t any more bottles so that will have to do. I could do with a mug of tea really, but lighting the stove and melting some more snow is too much effort and will take too long.

Iza leaves the tent before me. I can hear the others too — it sounds like they are out of their tents and nearly ready to go. I still need to throw a few more things into the light pack I am carrying today: some cereal bars, our sunglasses, the first aid kit. I pull on my boots and I can feel my legs ache. They’re feeling the strain of our fast approach to this summit camp. 

We arrived at our base camp, situated at a height of 3500 m on a lovely meadow criss-crossed with streams, four days ago. A strong monsoon front had just receded and the weather had cleared up beautifully. We had planned to take our time getting fit, but after a short sharp acclimatization climb up to 4500 m the next day, we returned to camp marvelling at the crisp, sunny days and wondering how long this spell might last. In the end we had concluded that we should get our climb done as soon as possible. We had left camp at 4 am the very next morning, carrying heavy rucksacks filled with climbing gear and provisions for a five-day Alpine-style attempt on Hanuman Tibba, which glowered over us in the moonlight. 

At first it hadn’t seemed too hard, and we arrived at the bottom of the long, narrow gully leading up to the Tentu Pass and put on our crampons just as the sun began to come up. Within a matter of minutes though, the sun had become unbearably hot and the gully appeared to become ever longer and steeper. After a few hours we had exited the narrow gully to find a little flat area dug out of the mountainside with just enough space for two or three tents, but we had spurned this potential campsite and ploughed on upwards, through deeper and fresher snow, finally arriving at the crest of the pass — at 5000 m altitude — nearly 9 hours after leaving that morning.

I’m now out of the tent and struggling with my crampons. The straps are much more difficult to tighten with cold fingers. The others are stamping around in the snow near me, down jackets on, ready to leave. I’m taking too long for them so they set off without me. There are no difficulties in this first section and I’ll be able to follow their tracks even in the darkness.

Near me, a dog barks. The sound is incongruous in this vast snowy whiteness. “Shut up and stay where you are,” I tell him. I can see his head poking out of the porch of Klaus’s tent, his eyes eerily reflecting the light of my headtorch. He’s just an adolescent, not much older than a puppy really and about as foolish. Perhaps that’s why he has followed us all this way up the mountain, so far from his natural habitat scavenging around expedition tents at base camp. 

At first we had found it funny — and more than a little impressive — seeing this dog make his way up the snowy gully, his claws scrabbling for purchase on the hard-packed old avalanche snow, always ahead of us and seemingly never getting tired. Sven had joked about getting him to carry our packs. In fact we had liked him so much we had shared a bit of our lunch with him: probably our biggest mistake, for it meant he would not leave us again. 

Dog taking a nap at the top of the Tentu Pass (5000 m). Hanuman Tibba is behind him.

While the sun was out and scorching everything around us, Dog had seemed unnaturally at home in this mountain environment. But our first camp had been on a large snow field at the head of a glacier on the other side of the pass, and as soon as the sun disappeared behind the tall mountains around us, he presented a pitiful sight in the cold: head down, tail between his legs, lifting each leg in turn to try to get them away from the cold snow underfoot. Afraid that he would freeze to death that night, Sikandar had volunteered to play the ‘bad cop’ role, shouting and chasing after him with an ice axe to scare him away from our camp, in the hope that a self-preservation instinct would then make him retrace his steps down the gully to the warmth of base camp.

An hour after being chased away though, Dog was back with us, looking even more pitiful than before. We had had to accept the inevitable and give him a little soup. Klaus produced a spare half rollmat for him to lie on, and we made a little bed in the porch of out tent to try to keep him as warm as possible. We were still a little surprised the next morning to find he had survived the night.

“Stay here, you foolish dog,” I admonish those glittering eyes. “We’re only going to the summit, we’ll be back again in the afternoon. There’s no reason for you to come with us.” Somehow I’m not sure he understands, but I really need to get moving now. I can see the light from the torches of the others getting quite far away. I set off at as brisk a pace as I can manage at this altitude, concentrating on the rhythm of my movement: left foot, breathe in, right foot, breathe out.

As I walk, alone with my thoughts, I find myself asking whether we have made the right decisions on this climb. Was it right to leave from base camp in such a hurry, without getting fitter first? After that gruelling first day the second had not felt much easier, as we dropped 400 m down and then climbed 500 m up again while travelling almost the entire way around the mass of Hanuman Tibba, from the Tentu Pass on the North Ridge to our current camp under the South-East face. We had been so tired that we had dumped much of our food and unnecessary equipment in a big stash half way around, confident that we would not need it and utterly unwilling to carry it. But even with the lighter packs we still struggled. I felt as though I were melting in the sharp sun. Iza, on her first ever mountaineering trip,  was demoralized at not being able to keep up with the others at the front. Even Sven and Jude, experienced mountaineers both, had struggled with the altitude and dehydration. Only Klaus, fresh from two weeks of ‘training’ in the Alps, had no problems, constantly exhorting us to catch up or to go just a little bit further along before pitching camp.

We had had a discussion about our strategy that evening in summit camp. Sven and Jude wanted a bit of a rest before making a big summit push. But Klaus was champing at the bit, Sikandar was up for anything, and after a little reviving dinner, Iza and I had felt that, with the route to the summit now visible from our tent, we could not bear to sit around for a day trying to avoid the scorching sun, and would rather head upwards immediately. Sportingly, Sven and Jude had acquiesced and were now setting the pace at the front. Still, I felt a little guilty for forcing their hand, and wondered whether we had made the right decision.

I’m beginning to catch up with the others now, and suddenly I hear the patter of feet behind me. It is Dog, who evidently didn’t want to be left alone. I haven’t the energy to try to shoo him back, and I suspect it would be a futile effort anyway, so it looks as though he is coming with us. The two of us meet the rest of the group, and we stop for a short breather. Iza squats down and Dog gratefully crawls into her lap and out of contact with the snow. He really does look pathetic. I’m cold without my down jacket and need to keep moving; the others can catch me up for a change.

It is getting very faintly brighter and we can now see more of the mountains around us. It is a beautiful view. In front of me, the slope gets steeper and I need to adjust my rhythm. Left foot, breathe in, breathe out, right foot, breathe in, breathe out. Altitude is a bugger.

We reach an even steeper section, and now it is necessary to cut across the slope in large zig-zags. The sky is turning pink and orange in the east, and then the first rays of the sun reach us, turning the snow crystals into thousands of sparkling diamonds. The summit glints above us, and behind us several smaller peaks, still in the shade, acquire a most attractive hue. I stop and turn around to admire the view: this is why I go mountaineering! It is these moments that make all the privations of the past few days worthwhile.

Dawn.

In the daylight, Iza notices that I only have one water bottle still strapped to the outside of my rucksack. The other must have worked itself free and dropped off somewhere on the way. So now it is only one litre of water between the two of us. Ah well, can’t be helped. We have reached the East Ridge and it is time for a few cereal bars. On the other side of the ridge we can see, for the first time, the magnificent peaks Makarbeh and Shikarbeh. I also point out to Klaus the needle-like summit of Manali Peak, a lower and easier mountain that we might consider having a go at before we leave.

Looking north from the east ridge of Hanuman Tibba: Shikharbeh (6200 m), Makarbeh (6069 m), Manali Peak (5669 m), the Shithidhar ridge and the peaks of Lahul.

Klaus pushes on and the rest of us follow him slowly. There is a short exposed section along the crest of this ridge, with a bit of loose rock on one side and a cornice on the other. We have left our ropes behind to save weight, so there is no option but to proceed boldly. I am a little nervous about how Iza will find this section, but she manages admirably. Sikandar too is on his first proper climb. He doesn’t look too happy but is keen to climb this mountain in order to further his chances as a Liaison Officer with future expeditions. Dog leaves us all behind, trotting happily after Klaus, who is carrying some sausages. 

The exposed section over, we now have to contour round on the south side of the ridge, avoiding the large cornices on the other side. We are now at 5600 m, and as soon as we begin to ascend again the altitude hits us. Each step is agonising, and the sun beating down on us makes us too hot for the layers we are wearing and burns any exposed skin. Our group is now well spread out: Klaus, with Dog in tow, is far out in front of me, and the others are well behind. I’m not going to be able to catch Klaus, so I sit in the snow and wait for the others instead.

Twenty minutes go by. I can bear it no longer, I must keep moving. Slowly, slowly, I am making progress. I count the number of steps I take between each little rest. 50 ... 100 ... 150 ... that’s not bad ... 200 ... ok, I can stop for a minute now. I set off again, aiming for another 200 steps, but I grind to a halt after only 20. Right, sit down. Wait for Sven and Jude and Iza. Where are they? Ahead of me I can now see the final slope to the summit, maybe 150 metres above me. It looks very steep! There’s Klaus ... he looks like he’s moving very slowly ... I’ll probably move even slower then ... that bloody dog is still going though. If he can reach the summit I'm determined that nothing will stop me from getting there too.

The others still haven’t caught up. Maybe they’ve turned back. I need to go on, but I must leave the bottle of water here, in case Iza is still coming. She’ll definitely want a drink. I need to rest three times on the final slope, each time just placing my hands in Klaus’s footsteps in front of my nose and leaning on them.

Klaus and Dog about to reach the summit.

Eventually I am there. Five thousand nine hundred and thirty two metres, and my legs can feel every one of them. Klaus is cutting up some bread and sausage, Dog is taking a nap. We are overjoyed, and the view is fantastic. This is a great feeling. Down below we suddenly see Iza heading up towards us. She is moving very slowly, but she is nothing if not determined. Sven, Jude and Sikandar have apparently turned back — in fact we can now see them, far, far down below, already halfway back to the tents. Looking down the North-East face we can even see the colourful tents of our base camp, thousands of feet below us.

When Iza joins us we take a few quick photographs and get ready to hurry down. It is already 11 am and we should really get back. We are out of water, so I suck on a bit of snow instead. Halfway along the ridge we decide we’d rather avoid the slightly sketchy exposed section. On the way up we had seen some tracks leading up a steeper slope to our left which did exactly that. They had probably been made by the other team that had left base camp at the same time as us — those guys were a very tough two-man local team, travelling ultra-light and very, very fast. They had reached the summit the morning after they had left base camp, and had even got all the way back down to base camp the same evening. We had wanted to avoid getting too tired on the steeper slope on our way up, but it would be the preferable option on the descent.

Klaus leads the way down in their tracks, while Iza and I follow at a more sedate pace. After a hundred metres or so, we see him below us, casting around as though he has lost the trail. Eventually he seems to make up his mind, shouts up something we cannot hear, and then proceeds, with Dog at his heels as ever.

When we reach there we see the reason for Klaus’s hesitation. The ground suddenly falls away very steeply in all directions, and the only tracks we can see are his. Clearly we have made a mistake somewhere. But faced with the prospect of re-ascending all the way back up to the ridge, we choose to follow him instead. Eventually we enter a steep snow gully. Far down at the bottom it looks as though the ground levels out again and an easy ramp leads to the glacier below. Only the gully remains to be tackled.

We get off to an inauspicious start though: I slip at the top of the gully and need to employ a self arrest. Iza is more circumspect. Together we reach the bottom of the gully. Here we face an obstacle — our path is blocked by a sheer rocky drop. Klaus’s tracks lead off to the left. We follow, over and around several fairly loose rocks. There is the snow ledge below us and to our right — it doesn’t look as flat as it did before, and the lower edge drops off into a very big cliff, but if we can get onto it we should be able to walk along it without too much trouble and gain the easy ramp.

The final move leading to safety involves stepping around a large rock. It looks a little dicey, but this is clearly the way Klaus went, so it should be fine. I slip my arm into my ice axe leash and let it dangle from my elbow, then grab the rock with both hands and take a long step left.

The snow beneath my crampons is soft and offers no support. The slope suddenly feels very steep. This is not good. I am now nearly doing the splits while hugging the rock. Maybe I should go back? No, I’m not really holding anything, I can’t reverse this move. Shit. I try to stifle the panic. Help! Why did I choose to follow Klaus? Damn him. What a stupid route. Shit. It isn’t his fault, though. Focus on what you need to do! I transfer my weight to my left foot and slowly move my right, trying to ease myself onto the ledge.

And then suddenly I am falling.

A thousand thoughts rush through my mind. I try to grab hold of my dangling ice axe to arrest my fall. But it is bouncing uncontrollably and I can’t catch it. Shit. I try to flip onto my front and kick my toes in. Doesn’t work. Shit.

I’m going to die. Fuck.

And then, as suddenly as it started, it ends. I come to a jarring stop. Looking down I see I have one cramponned boot on the flat rock that has stopped my fall. Six inches beyond that is the edge of the cliff and a two-hundred-foot drop.

I feel sick. My legs are shaking. Above me, Iza is nearly in tears. I need several deep breaths before I trust myself to kick steps in the snow and move gingerly away from the edge.

“I’m ok,” I call up to Iza when I have control over my voice. “But that was bloody close.” She nods, wordless. We wait for several minutes, not doing anything. My crampons have neatly sliced through my gaiters and trousers, and my finger is bleeding. Eventually I get a grip of myself. We aren’t finished here yet. “Don’t try what I did,” I shout. “It was a big stretch for me, and I’m much taller than you.” “How else do I get there then?” she asks.

Above me I think I spy a line of weakness in the rocks bounding the bottom of the gully. I tell Iza to go back into the gully and down-climb that line. She goes back but doesn’t like the look of it much. I can’t say I disagree with her, but it is the best available option. She will need to take her crampons off to do it though. She still needs both hands. I have the pack. What are we going to do with the crampons? I carefully move to a position directly under her and brace myself. She removes her crampons and then, with great care, delicately lobs them towards me, one at a time. I catch them against the snow and secure them to the pack.

Now Iza begins to down-climb the rock. I kick both feet in very firmly, plant my ice axe and brace myself to try to catch her if she falls past me, though that would probably mean we both go over the cliff. “Please,” I call out, “please, please be careful.” I am still shaking. Luckily Iza is made of stern stuff. Slowly, deliberately, and with great calmness she makes the moves, ice axe dangling from her wrist. Soon she is standing next to me. We traverse along the sloping ledge very cautiously, Iza stepping in steps I cut until she can get her crampons on again.

At the top of the ramp we sit down and rest briefly, thinking our own thoughts. The difficulties are probably over, but they may not be. It is only when we get down to the glacier itself, and look up at the cliff towering above us, that we finally feel like talking. I give her a hug and then the conversation comes rushing out. If that was too much excitement for a first mountaineering trip, she doesn’t say so.

About 50 metres from the tents we find the water bottle I had dropped that morning. It is 2:30 pm and it feels good to drink something. Things are looking up. Sven and Jude come over to say hello — they were feeling very ill but are a bit better now. At camp someone has already made us two steaming mugs of soup. Dog comes to nuzzle up to us. Euphoric relief swamps out all other emotions. I’ve climbed my mountain and I’m still alive. The sun is warm. Life is good.

We should do this again sometime. 

--o--

Epilogue: I wish I could say I knew what happened to Dog after we left. Taking him on a flight back to the UK was clearly impossible, and we felt he'd be happier in the hills than following us to Delhi or even Manali. So we said our goodbyes, and then shamefully attempted to sneak away when he wasn't paying attention. Of course, having followed us so far he wasn't going to give up so easily. I was sitting in the open-topped back of our jeep as we slowly made our way down the hairpin bends in the narrow road, and I could see him running at full tilt, desperately chasing our vehicle for a full two miles, until he could run no more. The memory still breaks my heart today.


13 comments:

  1. I really like your mountain climbing related posts!

    I think the language was appropriate.

    I spent the first half of this post thinking mountain climbing sounds really fun (good exercise, great views, camaraderie, a sense of accomplishment, etc)... and the second half thinking that I will never go near a mountain again in my life.

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    1. Thanks, glad you like them. I found this one particularly easy to write: the whole thing was pretty much ready in my head before I even got back to a keyboard.

      Mountain climbing is often Type II fun. Maybe this was borderline Type III.

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    2. Brilliant: there's also Type IV fun, or postmodern fun:

      “If one examines the pretextual paradigm of fun, one is faced with a choice: either reject neocultural objectivism or conclude that fun is fundamentally meaningless. But subdialectic semioticist theory implies that fun, surprisingly, has objective value, but only if truth is interchangeable with language.”

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  2. Super read. Your near death experience was something else!

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  3. Riveting story, Sesh, and well written too.

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  4. I really enjoyed reading your account. There is a mention of a local dog called Wastl, which reached high on Siniolchu with a German expedition, in the article High and light in the Himalaya by Stephen Venables and Ken Wilson, published on the British Mountaineering Council Web site on 3 August, 2002.

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    1. Thanks for pointing that article out. Our dog employed a similar technique on the descent, and on occasion on the ascent too!

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    2. History also records (Walt Unsworth, Everest, Chapter 7, footnote 24) that a Tibetan mastiff called Policey reached a height of 22,000 feet on the way to the North Col of Everest with the 1933 expedition.
      (Tibetan mastiffs are very impressive dogs, and it is said that two of them, if wearing spiked collars, can fight off a leopard.) However, it seems she died on the way, probably by falling into a crevasse.

      According to Unsworth, several dogs have also reached the summit of Aconcagua, which is probably the absolute altitude record for dogs - but this is actually not a technically difficult climb at all (from the north side).

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  5. Can you share the photos of Tentu Pass from Beas Kund or from bottom of pass?

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    1. I'm afraid I don't have a very good photo showing the location of the pass, which I guess is what you want. This is probably the best - the Tentu pass is the small notch in the ridge on the extreme right.

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  6. It would be so nice of you if you share a link to other sources dedicated to this topic just in case you know any of them.

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  7. Hi, what month did you make your attempt?

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    1. It was mid-September, just after the monsoon had withdrawn (which is usually by about the 10th in Himachal). We summitted on the 18th. There's also a window in May/June, before the monsoon.

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