Har Har Mahadev
Text: Thomas Huber
It's 3am. Our cook Surij tears us from our dream in military style. It's cold and the sky is starlit. We begin our second attempt at climbing the north-west face of Cerro Kishtwar after a short breakfast. The team's spirit is restrained because we all know there is no turning back. It's now or never!
Each one of us has his own ritual before the impending challenge takes up all our attention and experience. Stephan searches the sky for falling stars for good tidings. Julian puts on his left mountain boot first. I place a red pebble on an oversized, heart-shaped rock, my threshold between base camp and the mountain world. I ask that we will be sheltered from all dangers. I leave everything behind. Only the "now" is important and "never" has no room anymore. In front of me lies adventure, the wall, icy cracks, the next meter, a shaky Cliffhanger or questionable Birdbeak. No matter what is to come, I will give my all to meet the challenge!
A year ago I received an e-mail from Swiss mountaineer Stephan Siegrist with a picture of an incredibly beautiful mountain in Kashmir. He had climbed it before but there was still a perfect line on a face that no one had climbed before! At the time my thoughts were still in Karakorum, on the 7000 meter Latok I. I have failed twice on that mountain, but I still believe that the north face is climbable. Going to Latok for a third year in a row and maybe even failing again would not be particularly uplifting for my self-confidence as a mountaineer.
This 6000 meter high wall of granite in the picture, glowing orange in the evening sun that looks almost like Cerro Torre, is named Cerro Kishtwar. It took me on a new path without, however, cancelling out Latok. I knew I needed a goal again to prepare for my heart-felt project. I needed to have the feeling again of standing on top, to know I could still do it. That I could still climb mountains and not just look at them from below and not just build castles in the air.
Kashmir is the northern most province in India. It's still untapped is terms of tourism and mountaineering compared to other regions. Notable English mountaineers like Steven Venables, Mick Fowler, and Andy Perkins discovered the mountain region in the early 90's and they made some spectacular first ascents. Cerro Kishtwar was in the focus of the mountaineers immediately. It just looks perfect and begs to be the ultimate challenge. It seems like there is nothing better. Simply a Cerro. Not Torre but Kishtwar. Cerro Kishtwar. in 1992 Andi Perkins and Brendan Murphy spent 17 days in the north-east face. They climbed iced up cracks and dihedrals. They fought with bad weather and spindrift. They failed just 100 meters shy of the peak. Their supplies were running low and they were literally at the end of their tether. The following year Mick Fowler and Steve Sustad were the first to make their way to the summit of this 6000 meter mountain. But Kashmir has more to offer that the Cerro. There are uncountable, bizarre rock towers and mountains in the region that are just waiting to be climbed.
The borders to Kashmir were closed in the mid-90's due to political and military reasons. Foreigners were not allowed to travel to the region. While mountaineering in the rest of the Himalayan and Karakorum experienced a boom during the time the mountains in Kashmir remained in a deep slumber. It took until 2010 for the regulations to loosen up a bit and in 2011 Stephan Siegrist, Denis Bordet, and David Lama kissed the mountains in Kashmir awake. Their goal was Cerro Kishtwar. They were able to climb to the summit via a daring ice line in the right part of the north-west face alpine style.
Stephan visited the Kashmiri mountains four times in the following years, scored seven first ascents and found a new, spectacular route to the summit of Kishtwar Shivling. The Cerro Kishtwar was also climbed one more time via its east face by Manu Pellisier, Marco Prezel, Urban Novak, and Hayden Kennedy. They were awarded the French mountaineering award Piolet d'Or for their endeavour. Even though there are many mountains in the region waiting for a first ascent Stephan just couldn't forget the Cerro. The beauty of the face, the granite! It's simply a wall that you seldomly find. Not just here but anywhere in the world!
I just couldn't decline such an invitation! I wrote an e-mail right back with the words: "I'm in! Who else is going? When do we leave?" I know Stephan well. We've been to Antarctica, the Cerro Torre, and the Eiger north face in winter together. I know that we always have fun in the mountains together. I firmly believe that humor isn't just a nice side-effect but a factor that promotes success while extreme climbing. Our third man was going to be a young Swiss climber, Julian Zanker. I had met him before briefly.
On September 7th Stephan and I landed in New Delhi. Julian, who was right in the middle of his mountain guide final assessment, joined us ten days later. All the bureaucratic hurdles were taken fast, we were appointed a Licence Officer with the name Happy. Two days later we hiked through the well populated valley towards Machall, a town that holds an important Hindu temple. Even though the pilgrimage path is marked by lots of trash the countryside is unique. The villages are primal and the people friendly.
We hear: "Namastè! Julè! Which country?“ from all sides. Tourists hardly come to this valley. We reached the temple of Machall after two days of hiking. It promises miracles and is dedicated to the Holy Family surrounding Lord Shiva. In August about 80.000 pilgrims visit the temple. Most hike to the village. Those that can afford it take a helicopter. But this day the place was empty. Colorful flags glittered in the wind, a statue of Lord Shiva looked peaceful as we continued our journey. The trash subsided after Machall, the landscape became pristine again. A Tibetian flag marked the boundary between Hinduism and Buddhism. We hiked up to Sumchan, the last village. Here we were able to experience the Buddhist hospitality. Then another cultural change followed. The sheep herders that cultivate the high valleys with hundreds of sheep are shaped by Islam. To me this valley is proof that you can live together with different confessions peaceful and well.
Our base camp was set at 4000 meters altitude in a boundary moraine. A beautiful pasture promised a relaxing and good time in our new, temporary home. I know Surij, our cook, from a previous expedition. The weather was good and we could see part of the peak of Cerro Kishtwar. It couldn't get better. We felt completely in the flow. The next day we descended the moraine towards the mountain. I kept stopping in my tracks to marvel at the wild landscape. An avalanche thundered towards the valley on the other side as I casually noticed that I was standing on a perfect, oversized heart-shaped rock. It's tip was pointing directly towards the peak of Cerro Kishtwar. I picked up a red, oval pebble that I randomly found next to it and placed it in the middle. This ritual became permanent and important in the next weeks. My heart stone with the symbol "OM" to the heart of the mountain. My portal into the wild.
We spent our acclimatization days carrying heavy backpacks to the ABC. We heaved 150 kilos of gear, ropes, food, gas, tents up to 5000 meters. When I stood in front of the wall for the first time I was completely overwhelmed. I would have wanted to start climbing immediately if I had had a harness with me. The first 400 meters were covered by a steep ice flank with some mixed parts. On top of that a seemingly overhanging granite face mounted up about six- or sevenhundred meters. Crazy! We spotted the iced up system of dihedrals the Englishmen ascended a little left of the line we imagined to climb. Farther to the left we could see the ice line Mike Fowler and Steve Sustad went up to score the first ascent of the granite tower. To the right we made out the bold ice line from Stephan's ascent into the Kashmiri sky. We planned to go right through the middle! No serac threatened our planned climb! It looked hard but the dangers could be calculated well. For us that meant: "It couldn't be more beautiful and better."
Finally Julian joined us in base camp together with Stefan, a photographer and camerman from Hamburg. We told our stories of what we were allowed to experience already and what we have accomplished so far. "Julian, you just need to roll out your sleeping bag and put on your harness. It's all ready and the weather has been good for days and it seems like it'll stay that way." He was immediately infected by our euphoria and we began our ascent right after a short phase of acclimatization. We partly used fixed ropes in the lower part of the wall as protection. Then we dragged our haulbags to be foot of the wall. The time we estimated for our climb was essential when we calculated our supplies. We also needed our portaledge, sleeping bags, insulated mats, cooker, and our entire climbing equipment. We planned to reach the summit after five days of climbing. If things go well we maybe even a day less. We packed six gas cartridges, one per day, just to be safe. Food and granola bars for five days, two cans of mineral drink, cereal, and ground coffee for making breakfast five times, two packs of gummi bears, and most importantly a nice piece of smoked bacon form my home butcher's in Berchtesgaden. We firmly secured the material bags and returned to base camp one more time. We each optimized our own personal equipment. We ate and slept much and we all prepared for the ascent in our own individual ways. I was confident that everything would be fine. The team worked together in harmony, we were all well prepared and in good shape as well as motivated. The crack systems in the wall were well visible and the challenge seemed manageable. In addition, I had already gained much experience in Yosemite. I was able to climb Zodiac in El Capitan in an hour and 52 minutes, a big wall with 600 meters just like Cerro Kishtwar. I climbed the Nose with 1000 vertical meters in two hours and 45 minutes. So this one should go down in five days for sure!
The last day of September. The wind turned up high to north and the remaining humidity that kept bringing a bit of rain in the afternoons disappeared completely. Clear blue skies, no clouds in sight, but it did get a bit colder!
October 1st: We said goodbye to Surij, his assistant cook Sachim, Happy, and our base camp. I placed the pebble in the middle of the rock. Now I was free and ready for adventure. Stefan, our cameraman, came with us to ABC. He wanted to try and capture some nice moments with a good telephoto lens in the sense of "little man, huge wall!"
October 2nd: We stood at the base of the wall. Now we were really ready to go. A hair-thin crack made it's way to a ledge at about 150 meters above us. That was our goal for the day. But who should begin? Julian, our youngest, Stephan who had the idea, or me, the oldest? Before I could pose the question Julian hangs the Cams, Stoppers, hooks, and Birdbeaks to his harness. The young wild one really wanted to test his limits! It was shady and cold, surely below -10°C. The sun wouldn't makes it's way around the corner until around 3pm to give us some warmth for about three hours. So our climbing shoes and chalk stayed in the haulbag. Julian got ready for the first techno-session. Stephan chipped a small band from the ice and built our camp. A portaledge for three people, pure luxury up here. I put the rope into the Grigri and Julian placed the first Birdbeak two meters above the belay. It wasn't going to be the last we should learn in the following days. This tiny miracle made of steel, a hybrid hook or, better yet, a mix between a Cliffhanger and a Knifeblade, makes it possible to technically climb almost compact parts without having to drill a hole in the wall. It almost replaces the Copperhead and is now the most essential tool of modern-day techno-climbing. Still, Julian needed his time and I belayed him patiently. After three hours I was able to say that the beginning was made. But it sure was cold! The sun would be out in two hours and I was hoping that things would move at a faster pace then. Julian drilled a belay and I was replaced by Stephan. He cleaned the pitch and the sun came around the corner just as he began climbing. I had no hopes anymore that we would reach our goal of getting to the snow ledge 150 above us. I made myself comfortable in the portaledge, melted some snow and enjoyed the evening sun. I continuously heard swearing coming from 30 meters above me in Swiss-German. Something about all cracks being frozen, about it being "a whole bunch of shit" and that nothing is moving forward. I laughed and drowned it out. I couldn't change anything anyway so I just enjoyed being there.
Stephan made it up 20 meters further by sun down. The daily lot was 50 meters of about 600. That was, realistically speaking, too little. If we continued at this pace we wouldn't be able to reach the summit in five days! Both of them returned to our camp at "Snowledge" a bit beaten. We ate, drank, and crawled into our portaledge. Julian and I shared the space on top, Stephan was below us in his hammock. It took a while for each of us to get into our sleeping bag. But once you're in it's perfect. Then I'm in the world of my cozy and warm sleeping bag. Nothing going on outside interests me anymore. It doesn't matter if the portaledge is in my backyard at home or up at 5400 meters in an icy north-west face. The only thing that counts is that it's cozy, warm, and nice.
October 3rd: Today is my day! I was fully motivated and things had to move forward! After a quick breakfast made up of a few spoonfuls of cereal and a cup of coffee that had the remains of yesterdays noodle soup inside Julian and I climbed the fixed rope to where we came yesterday with our Jumars. I was on Julian's belay and placed the first Birdbeak. A very fine crack made it's way into an endless wall. I didn't let myself get intimidated, I just kept thinking from one placement to the next. Some were good, some barely held my body's weight. Sometimes a Cam was stuck behind a hollow flake, making me hold my breath. Then at times a Birdbeak sank singing into the crack and calmed my nerves. I worked my way steadily to a rock ledge. I set up a belay, Julian cleaned the pitch and on we went in techno-land. „Get your hands out of your pocket!“ was my motto for the next pitch. The terrain was steep, not easy. Kind of like in the style of the mega classic route „The Shield“ on El Cap. And only climbable because of the Birdbeaks! Without them I would have just stood before a huge question mark. Shortly after noon I finally reached our ledge. We named it "Happyledge." Julian, who had me on belay for four hours in a sling, was frozen to the core and couldn't feel his toes. Stephan took over his part. I traversed the snowy ledge to the right where I finally found the long awaited, perfect cracks. A2 terrain, got my Cams in and went for it. Too bad the climbing shoes were in the haulbag, 150 meters below on Snowledge. So I only free climbed this perfect hand crack in my imagination. Wonderland!
I fixed everything for the next day and rappelled to our camp in the sunset. I was still euphoric from the day. The restrained start from the day before was forgotten, the weather seemed to stay perfect. We were confident.
October 4th: We moved our camp to Happyledge. I was responsible for taking down and setting up camp and hauling. Julian and Stephan wanted to climb to the next snow ledge if possible. The cold temperatures delayed Julian's start. His numb toes had not gotten any better. Stephan had to fight with a swollen hand, probably tenosynovitis. Not really the best conditions for our endeavour. But Stephan grit his teeth and Julian was highly motivated. Julian placed his first hook in the new pitch at 10am. I took a break on Happyledge after finishing my work. I enjoyed the sun again in the afternoon and just couldn't imagine anything better than being here. In my thoughts I shared the moment with my loved ones at home and really hoped we'd be able to pull this through in three days. Then I'd be with them again and I could share my adventures in person. The evening was so beautiful with its solitude, the isolation and being exposed. The setting sun dipping the surrounding mountains in a peaceful and warm light. It made the arrival of the two others even more disillusioning. Too many large flakes, extremely difficult. They only climbed 35 meters in six hours. There was nothing more they could do and the rest of the climb didn't look much better! A never ending, steep world of granite. Our plan wasn't going to happen like this. It was our third day, we wanted to summit in five. We hadn't even made it through a third of the wall. We would not be able to achieve our goal and make it to the peak in two days. We cut our food rations that night and went to our portaledge, not speaking. I think everybody was fighting their own problems. That made us sleep badly. Stephan had his injured hand that didn't seem like it would get any better soon. Julian had his numb toes, brought on by the extreme cold. I had my fear of failure. At the beginning the wall seemed friendly. Today it just seemed endless. Realistically speaking it would grow to become impossible under these circumstances. Even though the weather was cold but clear and perfect the past days I believed that we may have to give up after two to three days in the middle of the wall eventually. Our supplies would run out just like they did with the Englishmen. Julian would have considerable frostbite and Stephan's hand would be the cause of huge problems. We would all be the at the end of our strength. I went through all possible scenarios in my waking dreams. Turn back or climb on? Mobilize everything we had, reduce food rations to the minimum and give our all, maybe make it to the summit? Or better to turn around tomorrow, fix all ropes so we could just rush up to where we left off in a day from base camp? Julian could give his numb feet a rest, Stephan could mobilize his hand and we as a team could mentally prepare for the tough conditions. Which way should we chose? Something gave me the feeling that only one decision would lead us to success. Should I just finally buck up and risk going to my limit? The fear of not making it stood against that. I knew that if we had to give up somewhere up there, close to the summit, we wouldn't get a second chance. I'd have to go home again without bagging another peak. However, if we abort this attempt we could try a second time after some rest. Would the weather still be good?
A small stone in the pocket of my jacket jabbed at me. A pebble my daughter gave me before I left. "You need this. Take it to the peak with you and bring me back a stone from the peak." "Courage" was written on the stone my daughter had given me. I knew what to do next. Turning back now wouldn't mean running away, it would mean showing courage. Having trust in coming back a week later with newfound strength and starting anew.
October 5th: Julian and Stephan understood my concerns and thoughts. Even when it was really hard and almost incomprehensible to abort our attempt with these prime weather conditions. Everything went really fast that day. We fixed ropes in the hard parts and made it back to base camp by afternoon!
October 8th: We were back with new energy, well rested and mentally prepared for the wall. We were at the beginning of our adventure again with enough gas and supplies. The weather seemed to be perfect still. But now the wind turned from north back to south and brought humid air back to Kashmir. After a clear sky in the morning heap clouds came in in the afternoon and brought snowfall. We wouldn't see the sun for the next days but we sure saw lots of spindrift and iced up cracks. We were all aware that we wouldn't find optimal conditions but none of us thought about going back. It was now or never. The negative simply didn't exist in us anymore. We accepted everything the wall had in stock for us. We were ready to go to our limits. It didn't matter if we had cold feet, if we were covered in spindrift, or if everything in the portaledge was clammy, cold, and icy. For us it was just "now." We were on our way up!
We lived to survive. After five days of climbing under adverse conditions and going without any comfort at all we ate from the same spoon, use the coffee cup as soup bowl we didn't mind. We then got to a small ledge up at about 6100 vertical meters. The wall above us leaned back and we felt a perceptible end of our adventure.
October 14th: We made our ascent to our last highest point in the early morning on the fixed ropes we had installed. The morning sky was clear as always. The rising sun tickled the surrounding mountains with its first rays and again I was overwhelmed by the beauty and the wild of the Kamshmiri mountains. The last 100 meters towards the peak were a present. Easy, mixed climbing took us to a notch and from there we only had a few meters left to the peak. We almost felt like we were not alone and that we were being rewarded today for all we have been through with one unique moment. We took the remaining meters together and we could barely believe it. Cirrostratus clouds flew by in the jet stream 500 meters above us while we stood there in the sun, in the complete calm. We all knew that we were only able to make it because we felt like a courageous alliance together! Our route through the north-west wall of the Cerro Kishtwar will be named „Har-Har Mahadev.“ This saying is from Hindu mythology and dedicated to the god Lord Shiva: "Increase your moral values so you can overcome your fear to master dangerous situations!" Or as we would say in Bavaria: „Get a grip!“
October 15th: I took back the red pebble from the middle of the stone heart and looked back upon the mountain. I had to laugh because this Cerro grew in the past seven weeks. We were almost defeated because we underestimated it at first. Only when we began seeing the mountain in its true size were we allowed to climb it. It's another proof that the impossible only exists in your head. When you trust your experience, show courage, and let yourself be led by your intuition and your heart the impossible looses its meaning. I will spend my next few days returning back to civilization bit by bit, until I have reached the place where my travels began. I will then sit at our table, a cup of coffee and a fresh Bavarian Pretzel in front if me. My three kids and my wife will be there and I will tell them a wild tale from the mountains of Kashmir.