The air was humid and it was raining. Monsoon season continued later than usual. My Montana blood was not conditioned for this. If my phone didn’t say that it was 3:45 am - I would’ve believed it was 8:00 pm because of the amount of people going somewhere, doing something. New Delhi India is a city with over 25 Million people and growing. It’s busy. It is a melting pot of humanity, that lives with a certain rhythm that is beautiful to absorb.
To me, India is why I chose to become a photographer. India offers amazing mountain adventures but experiencing the culture is the perfect blend.
I wanted to create the opportunities to experience other cultures that I probably wouldn’t otherwise have had. I grew up in a small town in Western Washington. From a young age I remember the feeling that I just wanted to see things, see how others lived, hear what others believed. Cultivate unique experiences so that I could see a different view.
Nasseer rallied the mini bus on the wet roads in the middle of the 4am traffic, straddling the dotted white lines. I’m not sure why India even bothers to paint the road lanes. Driving in India is an art form, a movement that just all somehow flows.
A jet lagged two days in Delhi taking care of logistics ushered us into starting the two day drive to Joshimath in the Utterakhand state. Our route took us through Rishikish, known for yoga and sits on the Ganges river. Some locals thought that the river was getting a little cleaner overall. Trash can be an issue throughout India but its been cool to see the difference in awareness that has happened just between the two years of my trips. Visiting temples and touring around the city that night we woke early to start the days drive to Joshimath.
Joshimath is cool, a mountain town with mountain folks. The temperatures crisp. It felt good to be there, after 6 days of traveling from Bozeman. We were basically in the foothills of the Himalayas. Super steep river valleys. Locals have figured out how to make the area livable with the use step farming to help the hillsides with stability. That is not to say that land slides don’t happen because they do, they are very common. In fact, one monsoon a few years back took out a bus which was pushed down into the river bottom and many people died.
The people are incredibly friendly and genuinely interested to meet you. In 2015 when Anne Gilbert (double first name) Chase and I were there, we sat in a chai shop and discussed politics with three guys about our age. That year Gilbert and I climbed with our friend Caro North. Since Caro already had plans for this season our friend Chantel Astorga was psyched to climb with us and we were psyched to have a soul sister on board. AG and Chantel climbed together in Alaska this past spring. Working for the Idaho Road Department as a avalanche forecaster Chantel maintains a flexible schedule in the non-avalanche season.
In between, Joshimath and Badrinath there is a little pullout on the side of the road where the Khirao Ganga meets the Aleksandar river. From here the liaison officer assigned to us Prianca, our cook Yogi and Osuk our assistant cook, along with 22 porters to help carry supplies into our base camp began our 3 day walk. My first trip I felt that I didn’t get to hang with the porters enough. This time I made sure to spend more time. On day two of our walk in we came upon a shepherd. He sold us a 25kg male mountain goat for 65 rupees - the porters were psyched. We feasted that night and the next. Nearly every part of the goat was used at some point. Gilbert, the nurse, was quite intrigued with the anatomy games during the butchering process. Guess if your going to eat meat you should be comfortable with the reality.
Nilkantha (blue-throat) is a proud peak that dominants a skyline of beautiful Himalayan mountains. In September of 2015, Caro, Anne Gilbert and I walked up the Khirao Ganga valley in the Garhwal range in the Uttarakhand state and spent 4 weeks. Waiting out weather, acclimatizing, celebrating birthdays, bouldering, learning some Hindi, reading and loving life. Our objective was to climb a new line up Nilkantha, in alpine style. We realized very quickly that our intended objective, the SE ridge, was no longer an option. Decades had past since the last attempt of this ridge with which much of our information came from. What had once been snow and ice was now just loose rock. I mean really loose. It didn’t even look fun. We bailed back to base camp.
Transitioning to our back up plan of the SW face happened over several days. Needing still more time to acclimate and wanting to gain some knowledge of the descent we chose to climb the W ridge. First climbed by Martin Moran in 2001 it has seen two other ascents; One by an Indian Expedition from Calcutta and the other by Marko Prezeli in 2007. Marko had suggested that there were some good options on the SW face for new routes during our initial research.
Three days after leaving our basecamp at 13,300ft we found ourselves at 21,100ft - a wall of black clouds built to the NW - we decided the prudent thing to do was to bail. We did. Minutes later, at one point or another all three of us experienced one electrical shock. We found ourselves exposed and in an electrical storm. Nothing we could do. Scared shitless. We ran back to BC with our tails between our legs.
We sat in Base Camp, in bad weather waiting to go back up for an attempt on the SW face. While on the West Ridge, we did accomplish our two objectives, to get up high and figure out the down part. Good weather never came. We walked out of BC empty handed of a summit but having had an incredible experience. On our last day in BC Anne Gilbert and I did get engaged. Making it a pretty special place for the two of us.
Fast forward two years.
The desire to have another experience on Nilkantha and try to accomplish our goal of climbing a new route in alpine style returned. We applied and received a “Cutting Edge” grant from the American Alpine Club. The remaining budget we payed cash and used credit cards. In the 11th hour I was psyched to receive work assignments from both Patagonia and Petzl for visual content. My dreams as a little kid to see things in far off places around the world with my camera, climbing, skiing and experience cultures, has come true and I am forever grateful for that.
I didn’t think of our first attempt as a failure. I thought of it as gaining knowledge, learning pieces to the puzzle, understanding the big picture. The two years between trips gave me a chance to become a better climber, figure out the lightest camera systems, to become a better photographer. And most importantly for my appetite and hunger to grow to accomplish a goal.
Chantel, Anne Gilbert and I were psyched to be in the mountains. From our basecamp Nilkantha was kinda of hard to see. The alpha angle was such that you couldn’t ever really see the whole mountain, specifically the upper 1/3 of the face. Our friend Tad McCrae took a photo of the SW face while climbing nearby Chaukhamba and shared it with us that really gave us a fresh perspective to see the route and believing in the possibility of our objective.
Every afternoon clouds would build and Nilkantha’s beauty and magic would vanish. Cool evening air would help the clouds dissipate and the evening magic would return. Twenty-four days after leaving Bozeman, Chantel, Anne Gilbert and I launched from BC with 5 days of food and 6 days worth of fuel. Hoping to spend 3 days on route to the summit and 2 days to descend down to our highpoint along the West Ridge and onto our ABC, then BC.
I woke, after not being able to sleep much, to Gilbert wishing me a happy birthday. It was the 27th of September, my 37th run around the sun. A perfect crisp fall morning and no other place I’d rather be. Right there, content, enjoying the fact that time served no purpose. The sun hadn’t yet rose above Nanda Devi to the East. It was perfect out. The Nescafe served its purpose, I guess. We moved fluidly through the most heinous talus and loose rock approach any of us had done, up to the base of the route at 17,200ft. Chantel and Gilbert sang happy birthday every 30 minutes or so as we lay sprawled out on the glacier drying our socks out, watching the afternoon warmth send ice and rock cascading down the 4,500ft SW face above. A bar of Toblerone chocolate for my birthday sweets sent us to bed. We woke to clear skies. Again, I spent a majority of the night imagining what might happen in the days to follow. Chantel started us out across the glacier and up the apron, sinking to our knees in the punchy snow, to the first rock band. Two pitches of mostly rock on mixed terrain and a hundred meters of snow led us to the first of four radical 55m pitches of water ice. More snow, ice and mixed ground eventually brought us to what turned out to be our best bivy for the the next four nights on route. We gained around 1,200 ft of vertical ground that day. The idea that we were the first people to climb on this face was a bit exciting. Scary and intimidating also, for me, but mostly exciting. Not knowing what was above us and if the weather would hold I slept soundly for the first time in what had felt like many nights. Our little BD first light, wedged with three of us under some overhanging rock and steep slopes to the left of the tent exit provided recovery. The birthday singing, in between the “Would you Rather” game, continued that night because it was determined that it was still the 27th in the homeland.
For the next two days more snow, ice and rock led us to the top of a castle feature that had served as our True North star. We had hoped that a weakness would allow us to climb up this castle. In reality the terrain, once we got close, revealed that we search for another option. Eventually, around the corner, a runnel of ice led up to some mixed rock, where some light aid tactics were deployed by Chantel to gain more ice and the top of the castle. We were psyched to get there. Optimistically, we had hoped that once we reached this point the climbing would become straight forward moderate snow to the summit. We were wrong. More technical climbing awaited us the following day. We spent our third night on route perched on a 4x6 chopped platform along a spine of snow guarding the top of the castle. The most exposed bivy I’ve had above twenty thousand feet. I had trouble again sleeping that night not because of the altitude but because I started wondering about the “what if’s” I looked out the tent door during the darkest part of the night and watched as a lightning storm illuminated the clouds beneath us and to the east. It was magical. I layed watching, absorbing the beauty. Intentionally taking in where I was and who I was with.
This was, for me, the biggest climb of my life that I’ve done and biggest photo project I’ve attempted. My whole life had been crafted, by me, for this chance. Years of working jobs that I thought would provide some experience to be an asset as a photographer and climbing partner. Often I find my imagination unbridled, wildly creating scenarios in my head of negative events playing out. Perhaps because of past negative events, these unwanted and largely unfounded perceptions of fear clutter my mind. Its been a process of learning how to control and discipline my mind. A slow process. I am not sure I passed. But I know that I’ve improved since the two years previous. Progress.
I held the compressed fuel canisters against my stomach deep in my sleeping bag. Anne Gilbert, asleep, inside our double sleeping bag. It was cold that morning. It was the first morning we found ourselves in the suns warmth before 11am. Coffee was really tasty. Oatmeal was shitty. Spirits were high. The summit was in striking distance. Over two years of energy had been put into being in this position.
We simul climbed out of camp on moderate snow that led us to some blue collar climbing where more light aid tactics were deployed. I reached the belay first to see Chantel belaying, Anne Gilbert and I up on a number three and a red camelot placed under a massive sphere - oval like boulder. The other side of the ridge dropped off drastically, looking down the south face. Anne Gilbert grabbed the rack and traversed across the knife ridge efficiently. Searching for the weakness that would allow us to find our path to the summit. The following two pitches were loose rock, the most we encountered on the entire route. More blocky loose rock eventually gave way to the end of the technical climbing. At over 21,000 ft easy climbing felt hard. We were psyched. I left the belay while Anne Gilbert and Chantel ate and drank refueling from the hard work. We simul climbed up easy moderate neve, trail breaking in some places. Conditions were perfect. After 300m of this I came to a point where I could actually see the true summit. About a150m worth of knife ridge traversing and we would complete the up portion of our new route and be half way done with our objective.
I belayed the gals from a sitting belay, nothing but snow around me. The wind blowing snow crystals across my face, the sun beginning to set. The light was beautiful. 72% of the Himalayas lie within India, as far as I could see there were mountains. I am sure I was only seeing 10% or less of the range. Mind numbing really.
“Is this the Summit!” Anne Gilbert was the first to get up to me, I responded “No, still some messed up ridge traversing.” She began prepping to lead the final bit to the summit. Still belaying Chantel up, I asked if we should discuss our options. “It’s right there, we’re going” she said. I, the more conservative one, wondered what it was going to be like summiting in the dark and thinking about the “what if’s” We’d been on the go for 4 days now. 3 bivys above 19 thousand feet, and one open bivy. The thing about my wife is that she knows what she wants. I dig that. She wanted it. It was rad to be inspired by. Chantel joined us minutes later and dropped her Shaolin Wu-Tang wisdom and suggested we bivy on a giant flat area about a 100 ft beneath us. None of us had ever bivied at 21,480 ft but we were about to. For the most part, we had all felt ok being at altitude and so this logic and decision made sense. We had all worked for some amount of time guiding on Denali so we had spent time at this altitude and knew what it meant to listen our bodies. Anne Gilbert quickly agreed and led us down to our home for the night as the sun was setting and the wind increased.
We threw everything and ourselves into the tent. Finally out of the bone chilling cold wind and began hydrating and eating. We wondered how we would wake up feeling. The tent corner hammered by the wind against my head. Some amount of sleep was had by each of us that night. Waking up that morning, our 5th day on route, was cold. Over two hrs to make hot water using all methods to keep the fuel canister warm enough. Hrs after waking up we retraced our steps back up to the ridge. In reality, the ridge traverse was quite chill. Still the decision to wait till the morning was the right one. We snapped some photos and took in the view. No tears or anything super emotional. Just a nod of, yeah this is fucking cool to be here with each of you and having accomplished this. Then we set our course down the West Ridge.
Climbing and photography have taught me so many things about life, they have taught me to search. From how I view a certain composition. To how I process fear. Searching and investigating my perception of beliefs causes me to ask questions. Understanding that my engrained perception is often misaligned.
We grabbed our tent and remaining kit we left behind took some time to enjoy the warmth of the sun as we fueled up for the descent to ABC. I stood between weird crevasse or bergshrund like features in a cloud. Broad enough that you couldn’t really tell which way the west ridge went. I wanted to make sure I took us down the right way. The clouds lightened for a moment. We simul down-climbed quickly dropping altitude with ease. Conditions were more than ideal. Ten inches of neve snow and perfect bullet ice beneath, perfect for screws on the 60 degree terrain. I came to some green cordelette sticking out from the granite boulders, the anchor we had bailed from 2 years prior. We planned on two days to descend but we were in know terrain now. Maybe it’ll go quicker?
More simul down climbing on neve brought us to the top of the rappels which we had rigged previously. Eight rappels to more down climbing and then more rappelling.
Chantel and I stopped breathing. It was a scary tone to hear from anyone, much less your wife. That was real fear. We were two raps away from being done with all the rappels and a moderate 1,000ft snow couloir back down to the flat glacier. This was it. The “what if” moment I had played up in my mind. Why is she yelling? This was totally out of character of her.
We’d been descending for 15 hrs. It was midnight, no moon and it was really dark. How the angle of the slope beneath Anne Gilbert looked from her view with a headlamp, appeared that the ropes were long enough to reach the ground. Instead, once she committed to rappelling over the lip of the overhanging rock wall she realized the ropes didn’t touch. Not near the end of the ropes but dangling far enough away from the wall to be swinging freely. In the dark lonely night.
“Hall you up on purple?” I shouted back down to her. I think, rather, I know years of ski patrolling substantially diminished my hearing from the noise percussions of explosives. At least thats my excuse, when at home, Anne Gilbert asks if I heard her. Chantel also has bad hearing from ski patrolling. Combined though, we were able to hear and communicate Anne Gilbert.
The mechanical advantage system we set up was fruitless. The amount of friction created with the ropes twisted was limiting the haul. Anne Gilbert was simultaneously setting herself up to ascend back up the lines but was also having similar difficulties. Eventually she was able to ascend and make an anchor. Chantel and I relieved, rapped down. We hit the glacier with a sigh of relief. We slept hard at 17,200 ft back at our advance base camp. We woke the followin morning, worked and dehydrated but psyched with our accomplishment we walked back down to base camp and our friends.
In the end climbing doesn’t really matter. The perception that it is important isn’t entirely true. For the most part climbing is a pretty self absorbed activity. But I know that climbing does matter when my perception shifts. When I search for answers and reflect from past experiences the common thread is that I always learn something about myself. Usually showing a weakness of mine that I need to improve upon in order to become, not just a better climber, but a better person. I am also able to understand others in a way that challenges me to shift my perception from the people and culture I experience on these trip. And that gives me a chance to import a fresh view and a new angle back into my community, hopefully, making us all better people.