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Baby Steps

Updated: Feb 6, 2022

Ice climbing trip to Kaza 2017

With Karn Kowshik, Tsering Bodh and Nishit.

It was 6:20 am in the morning as I sat in the living room of Tsering bhai’s home. I was always up early in the morning in Kaza, Spiti. There were two chaktaps ( bukharis) in the room with a huge almira on one side. This almira had an old painting and inside it stored various old and new goods for the kitchen. By the time I had reached the room, one of the chaktaps had already been started by bhabi ji(brother’s wife), Tsering Bhai’s wife. I sat right next to it. I was sipping the hot milk tea, my steel glass was hot. I was still half asleep. It was a big day for me. Bhabhi Ji came in and took some red hot cow dung from the pit of the chaktap, added a fragrance to it and started taking it to every corner of the sitting room and kitchen and went outside. It was a really soothing fragrance. It woke me up entirely. I sipped on my remaining tea, finished it, and refilled my glass again, enjoying it’s heat and taste.

I had seen the frozen waterfall from a distance by the road many times while driving through the Rangrik village. I wanted to go closer and have a look every time but never could. I had seen the waterfall from a different angle while going towards the Key monastery during our 2016 ice climbing trip. I wanted to get a good look at it from right below but I was patient because I knew how long it takes to explore anything new in Spiti. It was rather far away from where I was staying too.

During the winter months in Spiti, there is no public transport and it’s hard to get anywhere if you don’t have your own vehicle. Even though the distance was under 10 kms, it felt far from Kaza. I was not on a big budget for new explorations and renting cars was really expensive with rates going up every year..

“They were really blurred and unclear because of the camera zoom but we got the idea. It seemed to be a great route for us to try out for the first time.”

Karn and Nishit joined me in the room and began making a climbing plan for the next day. We discussed many possible places to go for our first ascent and first ice lead in Spiti. It was a hard decision to make because we wanted to go and climb a nice route that was under our capability. At last I suggested this frozen waterfall to Nishit and Karn which I had seen many times previously. We looked at a few pictures of it on the computer. They were really blurred and unclear because of the camera zoom but we got the idea. It seemed to be a great route for us to try out for the first time.

It was the big morning. I finished my tea, and was joined by my comrades. We were a bit tensed, we didn’t know what would happen today. We had a typical aloo parantha kind of breakfast. We packed snacks for the day; sandwiches, and tea. We drove until the point from where we had to hike up and parked our car. This climb is situated 20 minutes from kaza towards Key monastery provided there is no snow on the roads.Everyone seemed excited for the new adventure as we started putting our shoes on and packing our backpacks. We were ready to hike up on loose rock all the way to the start of our frozen waterfall. I was hiking in the front, Karn and his dog Argos right behind followed by Nishit at the back. In my head, I was thinking about what will happen today but I didn’t want to express that to anyone, I just wanted to climb. Below the frozen waterfall was very loose rock.

We navigated third and fourth class terrain before reaching the base of the climb. We also encountered a small frozen waterfall on the same line before the actual climb, which we bypassed and kept moving upwards. It took me an hour and twenty minutes. Karn got there 20 mins after me with Argos tailing him. We both were looking for Nishit who had the camera and other equipment.I went on the right side of the ridge to get a better look, and saw him going down towards the road. I yelled his name three times, and he responded “It’s really hard for him to come up.” I told him to try the route that looked easier. He tried it and in thirty minutes he was right beside us. We were ready to lead our first ice climb.

We had all climbed ice before on top rope but no one had ever taken the sharp end yet. I took a deep breath and said with a heavy voice “I will try it out.” I geared up for the climb. So many thoughts ran through my head. What will happen and will it work out? Nishit and Karn encouraged me and I was ready. There was a thin layer of water moving on the surface of the ice. I swung my first ice axe and it went straight into the ice without hesitation with the sound ‘suuuop!’ I felt really happy inside, it was solid. I tried next ice axe as well and it felt the same as the previous one. I was now feeling really confident inside. I moved up and tried my crampon on the ice and they felt really secure. I was barely a foot above the ground at this point, but felt confident and like I was doing great. I climbed to the first ledge which was 5 feet from the ground and it was sloppy on top. From here on the whole climb was super vertical. Karn told me to go high up and place an ice screw, which I did and felt more secure knowing I would not hit the ground if I fell. I climbed more vertical ice and placed another screw 4 feet higher, the feeling of security getting stronger. Listening to the encouragement from my partners made me feel good with each step. I knew it was really happening and I was moving upwards. The adrenaline from ascending upwards was giving me a good rush. I placed 9 screws throughout the whole climb which took a long time. At this point I was getting tired, my hands were getting pumped, and I needed to take a rest. But I tried to shrug away the fatigue and told myself that I can do this. As I neared the top, I was struggling and it was really hard for me to top out. It was not only the fact that I was tired but also that when the ice is no longer vertical, it becomes difficult to place your ice axes firmly. Once you have achieved that, you can no longer see your feet and where to hit your crampons. It took me a long time to move up. Eventually I figured it out and took smaller steps up instead of trying to place my crampons high. This trick that I learned the hard way, I would remember for all my future climbs. I reached the top and made an anchor on rock and prepared to belay Karn. He climbed faster than me and cleaned the whole route as well. We looked up and there was another pitch of ice, which we both hiked under to scout.It was shorter then the first and karn said he would lead this pitch. I agreed happily.. Before he started climbing we had a sandwich and tea. We organised our rope and he started climbing. It was a tricky line. First you had to go up 7 feet and then traverse 5 feet under the actual climb. Karn did a brilliant to climb this line. Watching him gave me a lot of confidence which I felt evidently as I followed his line. It was an amazing feeling when to reach the top. We were both smiling ear to ear and gave each other high fives. We had done it. It was a bold feeling and one of true accomplishment, like I was standing on the top of the world. We clicked a picture and looked at the valley below us. It was an amazingly beautiful view as the Sun started to set on the ridge on the other side of the Spiti river. I was really grateful to witness nature in it’s raw form and watching the changing colours of the sky made me feel more alive. We kept our crampons on and started descending the steep slope, some dirt and small loose rocks all the way to the road which took us about twenty minutes. Argos was really happy to see Karn and we both thanked Nishit for being a part of the climb and sticking with us the whole time. He had been braving the cold alone for quite a long time while we did our first first ascent! We named this waterfall “Baby steps” due to the many ice bulges on the wall which gave it the appearance of a huge staircase, but more importantly for what it meant in my climbing life.

I did two more first ascents during our trip to Spiti in 2017. It was an amazing experience for me and for those who were with me as well. It had begun a new chapter in my climbing life. While leading my first pitch I put too many ice screws out of fear of falling. I was extra cautious because it was the first time I was leading. But that experience gave me the clarity that I can lead on ice. In my mind, leading water ice was well within my capabilities. I just had to train harder to be better prepared and boost my confidence even more. Words cannot express how much this day helped me later on in my ice climbing.

It was 5 in the evening. Karn started his car and we drove back to Kaza with a warm kind of excitement. We reached home at 5.30 pm and rejoiced as we told how things unfolded to our host and friend Tsering Bodh. He was equally ecstatic and happy for us. He congratulated us, saying “tonight we will celebrate your climb.” I sat next to the chaktap and started warming my hands and feet. I was soon handed the same steel glass of tea. I held it in my right hand and felt the warmth on the tips of my fingers, the heat from the glass radiating to my hands that had been cold and wet the entire day. I switched hands sharing the heat with my other hand and took a sip of the tea.

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