Friday, May 13, 2016

Satopanth - Expedition Report

First views of the Himalayas after the two day drive from the plains of India.

The Gangotri temple, where Hindus come for a blessing, and where a dunk in the river removes the sins of a lifetime. Notice the spectacular granite rock climbing above the village.

Since we were the first expedition this season, we were able to camp out right next to the temple. By now, the temple is busy with pilgrims and tourists. It was nice to enjoy the peace and take in the place all to ourselves.

There are a lot of walls and towers to climb in the Garhwal Himalaya. Most of them are likely unclimbed.

A bharal (blue sheep) checks us out along the trail into base camp.

The now famous Shark's Fin (Meru). Climbers in the past few years made a successful ascent of the central tower, and made a film that reached movie theaters in the United States.

Our functional dining tent. For climbs lower than 8000 meters, we use dining tents that fit the group size, and sit on rugs with Crazy Creek camp chairs. We've found that guests enjoy this more than the rigid plastic chairs of a typical expedition tent. Our dining tents reflect the group size, and objective. We do use tables and chairs for certain expeditions. It's best to clarify with us which you prefer.

Packing up camp beneath aesthetic Mount Shivling in the meadows of Nandanvan.  We use two person tents for each climber on our expeditions, and 3 person tents for each climber on our 8000 meter trips.

Lal Bahadur serving up omelettes and fresh bread for breakfast. On mornings while we are still on approach, we have breakfast outside on carpets to enjoy the views, notice the camp is being packed up and hence lots of equipment everywhere.

Looking up valley towards Tibet as we approach base camp.

In base camp, we quickly set to packaging food for the mountain, and doing final preparations. Here, Tsewang Namgyal and Gomba Sherpa.

Vasuki Parbat from base camp. One day.....

Advanced Base Camp on the Satopanth Glacier.

Mount Satopanth from Camp 1, Gomba Sherpa preparing for the day.

We had to walk across some crevasses, but in the Spring season most crevasses were well covered with snow.

Ted Hedberg and Chris Lane brewing up some hot drinks and food for lunch at Camp 1.

Agnieszka Pilarczyk and Chris Lane on the fixed lines between Camp 1 and Camp 2.

On the "knife ridge" between Camp 1 and Camp 2 on Satopanth.

On the "knife ridge" between Camp 1 and Camp 2 on Satopanth.

Working out tent spots in evening light at Camp 3.

At Camp 3.

Looking up at the summit of Satopanth from Camp 3. Ted Hedberg mentally preparing for the next day's climb.
Summit day dawn, Mount Kamet in the distance (back left).

On the summit, with Vasuki Parbat in the background.

Descending down to Gangotri after the climb, we had to reroute from leaving Vasuki Lake, as water ice had frozen in the rock route overnight.

Expedition Members
Ang Kami Sherpa

Dukpa Tsering Sherpa. Dukpa fixed the rope for the route from base camp to the summit.

Gomba Sherpa.

Kunsang Thakchod

Phuntsok Dorje

Lal Bahadur.

Chris Lane.

Luke Smithwick

Agnieszka Pilarczyk

We are safely back from a successful ascent of 7075 meter Satopanth.  We made a relatively quick climb of the peak, reaching base camp in four days from Gangotri (Gangotri>Chirbas>Bhojbasa>Nandanvan>Vasuki Tal (BC)).

After a day of acclimatizing in base camp (and letting the group members choose what food they wanted on the mountain), we set off for advanced base camp. Spending one night in ABC, we climbed to camp 1, spent two nights there, climbed to camp 2, spent two nights there, climbed to camp 3, and went for the summit, descending to camp 3 for one more night before descending all the way back to base camp in a single day.

Actual Itinerary
1- 20 April - drive Gangotri
2- 21 April - trek Chirbasa
3- 22 April - trek Bhojbasa
4- 23 April - trek Nandanvan
5- 24 April - trek Vasuki Tal - 4900m
6- 25 April - preparations at Vasuki Tal
7- 26 April - trek Advanced Base Camp - 4976m
8- 27 April - trek Camp 1 - 5150m
9- 28 April - acclimatize Camp 1 - 5150m
10- 29 April - climb Camp 2 - 6000m
11- 30 April - acclimatize Camp 2 - 6000m
12- 1 May - climb Camp 3 - 6400m
13- 2 May - climb summit, Descend Camp 3 - (7075m) 6400m
14- 3 May - descend Base camp
15- 4 May - rest base camp
16- 5 May - rest base camp
17- 6 May - trek Bhojbasa
18- 7 May - trek Gangotri, drive Uttarkashi
19- 8 May - drive Mussoorie
20- 9 May - drive Delhi
21- 10 May - trip debriefing, successful expedition complete

We were only able to complete this climb in an efficient style because of the small team size, prior altitude experience by all climbers, and remarkably excellent weather that we experienced for the duration of the expedition.  The climbing team was comprised of 8 climbers: Luke Smithwick (leader/guide), Ted Hedberg (client/climbing member), Chris Lane (client/climbing member), Agnieszka Pilarczyk (client/climbing member), Tsewang Namgyal (local guide), Dukpa Tsering (local guide), Ang Kami Sherpa (local guide), Gomba Sherpa (local guide).  While Luke climbed with the three climbing members, the other four local guides went ahead and fixed ropes in exposed sections of the climb, and also carried expeditions tents, food, and stoves to camps ahead so the members could climb fast.
     The team essentially moved as a unit this way, sometimes being just a few hours ahead and setting the route and camps, while at other times moving up the day before, and then coming down to rest before climbing up to stay the following day.  Dukpa Tsering (pictured), the elder climber and guide of the trip, was the climbing leader. Dukpa is the reason we were able to summit Mount Satopanth.  He led all of the rope fixing, and was on the lead end of the rope for the crux sections along with the plods in between.  Gomba Sherpa, Tsewang Namgyal, and Ang Kami Sherpa supported Dukpa by providing the static rope, snow pickets, rock pitons, and ice screws, along with a belay when he needed it.
     For summit day, we started the stoves at 1230 am, and left the tents at 330 am. It was a bit of a task to get the whole team moving as everyone had been climbing hard for 7 days at this point. We started on, and by 1230 pm had the whole team on the summit, Dukpa once again pushing ahead to get us over the summit cornice and on to the ramped summit.  What a view, smiles all around and quiet contentment. A few photos, some handshakes, the prayer flags put up, and we began descending to high camp. Congratulations to the team.
So how does it work? We certainly were not playing by the rules in one sense, while we were following the "climb high, sleep low" ethic in another. This trip was a unique case where we simply had 8 people that are able to acclimatize quickly, while also tolerating the lower regions of high altitude quite well.  No one experienced mild altitude symptoms until we reached 6000m, upon which two climbers (myself and one guest), had mild headaches that went away with rest.  Each member of the climb took 150 mgs of Acetazolamide starting three days prior to our ascent to altitude (starting the day before we arrived in Gangotri), and continued this dosage until we descended to base camp after the summit.  Of course, we had the Portable Altitude Chamber for emergencies along with us, and Dexamethasone and Nifedipine for severe altitude illness.
     While having a Portable Altitude Chamber is now industry standard, I honestly feel that they are not necessary if you have a professional guide that is fluent in the functional language of the clients (and who also takes the time and patience to talk and listen to each client). The only time I've seen a PAC bag utilized was when there was a communication barrier between the clients and the guide, and the clients continued ascending even with obvious signs of altitude illness. Communication, interaction, and discussion of each members current status is something we do through the day, and on into the evening. It's very clear when someone needs to rest at an altitude, and wait until their body improves at that altitude before ascending higher.  Perhaps what also comes into play here is group size. With a trekking or expedition group larger than 6 people, you are more likely to be overlooked and not attended to by your guide.