Published:  04:23 PM, 08 August 2017

The wind whistles: The summit of Little Tukuche

The wind whistles: The summit of Little Tukuche

On the evening of Jun 5, 2016 we arrived in Nepal's Dhambus Base Camp, a vast land of brown stone, dragging our feet and our loads. The scale is incomprehensible, even at ground level.

One must walk to take in the enormous expanse. Like ants we pitched our tents among the towering, mesmerising peaks.

We reached the base camp in something of a white-out and it wasn’t until dusk that our goal was apparent before us. The flat top of the peak beneath Tukuche mountain seemed less than climactic, simple and innocent standing on the southeast corner.

An easily managed target, or so we thought.

The evening was darker, and shrouded our view with white clouds. We closed the tent flaps, waiting for the onset of night. Two among us four, Arifur Rahman and I, would make the final ascent to the summit. We lay down to conserve energy as dinner was made, but sleep was elusive and I stretched out until the alarm rang from the next tent.

At 9pm, we dragged our feet 10 yards across the gravel to the other tent. We had pasta. It was the best we could carry in our bags. But I ate heartily - I had never seen such looming heights as Tukuche and there was no telling how much time and energy would be needed to top it. Even then I had little sense of what would lay ahead.
After dinner, we lay awake in the tent. Our bags were packed but our minds raced, making lists of all we could have forgotten. At 12:30am, we got up and started preparing ourselves for the long, cold night.
There are times when you have little choice but to proceed with the task in front of you. We changed our clothes in the freezing temperature, got on our heavy ice shoes and passed our bags out of the tent for a final inspection. Stepping out, we turned on our headlamps, lighting the campsite. The area was clouded and much wasn’t to be seen, yet we began to make our way to the top of ‘Thapa Pass’, a height of about 5,200 metres. Soon the clouds had encircled us, hiding the campsite and the peak, forcing us to stop and wait until the stars shone down again.

At the start, we rarely had to put our hands on top of our headlamps to cut out the light out and saw the direction of the ridge we were aiming for. Suddenly, a breeze started flowing from mustang valley, which lay to the southwest of the Dhaulagiri region. Soothing as it sounds, it poured a chill down our backs and straight into our bones. We had little choice but to seek shelter, pour cups of hot tea and wait it out. There was surprise at the first sip. The team has honoured us with sugar, a luxury we did not have for the rest of the trip.

Once the wind stopped we packed again and continued with short steps towards the ridge of ‘Little Tukuche’. We kept trying to locate the peak and move towards our objective. But less than a half-hour later the breeze returned as a howling cold wind. The exposed parts of our bodies began to ache, especially our cheeks. It was hard to breathe. Once more we crept beneath a rock and this time resolved to wait until first light. To keep busy we talked of the massive and varied piles of food we would devour once we got back to the city. We poured more tea and found it was growing cold. We sipped in silence and, for a moment, we could sense that we both missed home. Eventually Arifur broke the silence, putting down his tea and moving to take pictures. I lay there, shivering with cold.

When Arifur returned we agreed that it was getting too damn cold to lie still. We had to keep moving to prevent hypothermia. We set out once more, approaching the ridge of ‘Little Tukuche’. But what we came to find was beyond our comprehension: a wall that soared up about 100 feet, with loose rocks forming the start of the ridge line. But before I could think Arifur had began climbing. My mind was blank and all I could do was follow him. Each step seemed to drag me down twice as far because of the heavy d-boots were stuck to my feet. Slowly the ledges grew thinner, until I was hanging on with only the edges of my shoes. Then I did what all the movies tell you never to do: I looked down.

A free fall. One slip and I would crash about 30 feet. Nothing to ease or slow me. And, faced with that sheer drop I did something I hadn’t been trained for: I panicked. I screamed to Arifur, asking him to stop  and climb back down, but he paid me no mind. He just kept going, trying to find a route up the wall. But I couldn’t go on and wasted no further time crawling my way back down to the base. I could feel my breathing getting heavy as I landed at a safe zone. I closed my eyes.
I don’t remember how long I had kept my eyes shut, but when I opened them again I saw the only thing I was hoping for: light. The first light of the day made the whole Dhaulagiri Region visible. I slowly reached for my headlamp and turned it off. Every second it became brighter. I looked at the endless horizon of mountains and suddenly I felt hope and courage seeping back into me and soon I found the strength to turn back and face the climb again.

Carefully, I began walking around the wall, trying to find a possible way up. Arifur was nowhere to be seen. Perhaps he had continued, disappearing after 60 to 70 feet up. But on my way up I found the most bizarre relics. Arifur had dropped his ice axe and his gloves, which I figured were getting in his way. I carefully stepped on each pin-edged rock to ensure it could bear my weight. Finally I managed to reach the top and pulled myself into a comfortable position.

I looked up and saw Arifur much further ahead. He had already started up on another wall on the ridge. But he stopped and waited for me. I saluted his guts for the making the climb alone. Then the sunrise broke around us and we turned to see the skies of Mustang lit up fiery red, like a dragon breathing through the clouds. I stood awed and from above me I heard Arifur’s camera shutter clicking away.

The light entered slowly, until entire spherical world that surrounded us was clear and visible. But what we saw was not very welcoming. A consecutive series of walls were forming the ridge line of ‘Little Tukuche’, the passage line that created the ridge only grew shorter. The widest we could climb were steeper and the flatter ones had narrows 3 to 4 feet wide and consisted of slate stones covered with ice, making it impossible to keep one’s footing. Then there was the thrill of climbing the walls between 10 and 50 feet at times. We kept going. Repeatedly I called to Arifur and asking him if we should keep going. Every time he had the same reply: “We have come so far. We should keep pushing our limits.”

His words would rejuvenate me and soon I would start another climb up where a slight slip to the left or the right would carry my broken body a kilometre down to base camp.

I won’t lie and say I faced the obstacles stoic and unmoved. The fear was there. And it was there to be overcome. Even if it seemed the ridge line would not end and that every wall climbed seemed to put the peak even further away.

I remember one slope - 70 degrees and covered with soft ice. It was the only way up. Arifur and I spoke little. It had been over an hour of silence when Arifur asked where the replacement batteries for the GPS were. He was worried that, without it, we would not be able to get back with proper evidence we had crested the summit and completed the route.

There are times when you wonder why you would do something like this. Risk your life, put yourself in hazardous situations and be questioned, again and again, about them.

On the last wall I seemed to slip into a trance. I crested it and saw that and all that lay ahead between me and the peak was blue ice. We both geared up with our crampons and started for the final slope up to the peak of ‘Little Tukuche’. Arifur fell a bit back, slowly progressing to the peak. Our thoughts had disappeared but our bodies moved forward, each step weighed us down. The last 100 metres like an eternity. I had never imagined blue ice could be this hard. It took all the strength I had left to drive my axe into it.But, somewhere in there, was a sense of growing freedom as every step took me higher.

And then I was there. Breathless, gasping in awe at the view that dropped away on all sides.Arifur reached me. We smiled and shook hands. We did not need words to express our gratitude and our appreciation for each others’ strength. Arifur wasted no time in breaking out his camera and I took out the battery of the GPS and began vigorously rubbing it with my hands, hoping to spark the slightest charge to take a shot of the reading. It did. Arifur rushed to get a shot of the GPS and I lost myself to the magnificent view.

As I stood there, there came a moment when the wind was whistling gently past me that my understanding of myself came rushing back. I took off my balaclava and for a moment I could hear her mother’s voice. I knelt down and raised my hands to heavens above. Thanking her for this blessing from so far away. The fear was gone.

We started back down. The journey down was not as difficult as the way up, but it was wearying. Then again, for every peak you climb, you must always come back down. But the heights are worth it.

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