A personal recollection of 5 key events during the 2019 Mt Trishul expedition
We have been miserably wandering around for the last half hour on the West Face of Trishul in a snowstorm trying to find the fixed lines leading up to Camp 3. It is the proverbial needle in a haystack, only the haystack is the size of a football field. I am more than ready to give up, but Teshil is an optimist, “Let us try just this last patch”. He moves horizontally across the slope, plunges the blue snow shovel deep into the snow, and flings its contents downhill.
A cry of triumph. I look over to see a sliver of yellow stark against the whiteness. He has uncovered the the exact point where it is anchored into the ice below. It is literally the first centimeter out of more than 300m of line. What are the odds? We would have missed it completely if we had traversed even only slightly further downhill. Luck has rewarded our persistence to slog on through weeks of bad weather conditions. For the first time I feel the summit is within our grasp. We hurriedly cache our extra rations, snow stakes, ropes, and prepare to return to Camp 2. The blue snow shovel lies nearby and I prepare to lash it to my backpack to bring it down as well. Then I recall that Camp 2 already has a shovel, so I throw this extra blue shovel into the buried cache as well. No point bringing extra weight. Finding the fixed lines is the highest point of the climb so far. I can’t wait to tell Samie and Peter about the good news.
2 weeks before...
On the third day of the month-long expedition, the team's minibus rolled into Rudraprayag, one of many equally nondescript towns along the road to Uttarakhand's mountains. After lunch, the team gathered in Samie and Nick’s room. Curtains were drawn and A/C set to full blast to ward off the intense afternoon heat. Someone produced a pack of Monopoly Deal cards. This quickly became the subject of interest.
As the newest member of the team, Peter’s abilities were an unknown quantity. But the professor soon proved a quick study, able to whip out back-to-back pair of Deal Breakers, or time a game-changing Sly deal/Forced Deal to perfection. He was clearly enjoying himself. Playing cards games such Bridge/Hearts/Monopoly Deal was an essential source of entertainment, relaxation and group interaction throughout the trip.
3 days before...
It was a well acclimatized team of 6 that headed up to Camp 1 for the second cycle. The gully which had had previously taken 2 hours to climb was dispatched in half the time. The 3 tents were quickly setup on the rocky shelf of the Ronti Glacier and a water source was opened. Not long after, the usual afternoon rains began and everyone dove into the community Hilleberg tent for warmth.
The rain intensified as the 6 swapped random stories: training to be an army sniper… making the national Science Olympiad team… growing up in one of the toughest districts in Hungary… picking up running against the odds and being labelled as an obese kid… Events which had shaped their lives and in a way led them all to this very point. A thread of understanding between the team started to grow, as though the rope between them was now more than merely physical.
4 hrs before...
The way leading from Camp 2 towards the start of the fixed lines was difficult. Upfront, Osh and Nick took turns breaking trail. Every step sank in knee deep or even thigh deep. They had to reach the beginning of the old fixed ropes left by the previous Indian expedition, cache their gear, and descend to Camp 2 before dark. Failing to do so would have jeopardized the already tight trip schedule. Finally Osh crested the ridge onto the West face proper, and they now faced the full force of the wind rising from the Nandakini valley.
A quick break was in order to regain energy. Within the protection of the bothy bag, Nick switched on his walkie-talkie and reported their hourly status. Although there was no reply from Camp 2, they did not find it unusual at that point. There were many possible reasons: the signal might be weak, someone might have switched off the walkie-talkie to save battery, or maybe just fallen asleep. It was about 1pm. As agreed, they would radio in for a comms check again in another hour.
As the team neared Camp 2, they heard Samie shouting but could not make out her words. Nick shouted back a greeting and continued heading in the direction of her voice. He checked his GPS and announced that the campsite was very near. Yet there was not a sign of tents, marker wands, or people. Everyone was confused and had differing opinions about what to do. Some thought the GPS was inaccurate and campsite had been overshot. Others thought the view of the camp might just have been obscured by the terrain.
Then they heard Samie shout again from a distance. Her voice was coming from much lower downhill. As they proceeded towards the direction of her voice, the snow underfoot felt different: rough, dense, and all churned up into little balls. Slowly, a terrible sense of what might have happened began to dawn on them.
Nick, Osh, Teshil and I are preparing to set off for our load-ferrying trip. Our objective is to shift some equipment higher up today. We will also try to find the fixed lines left by the previous expedition. Peter and Samie are still tired from the previous day’s efforts, and decide to rest in camp. It is a good decision as it means they will be in good shape for our move to the higher campsite the next day. “Xieheng, do you need your GPS?”, Peter asks concernedly. I ask him to safe-keep it for me in the tent as Nick has brought his own device. It is just a few hours and the route is straightforward.
We do a comms check on the walkie talkie. The plan is to report in every hour to let Camp 2 know the state of our load-ferrying progress. It is 11am when we finally set off. I take one last glance back to see Peter bent down beside our tent. He is busy tightening the guy lines to keep us well anchored in case of any bad weather. Then the rope comes tight on me and as I move forward to keep up with my team we round a small snowy bump, and Camp 2 is hidden from my sight.
In remembrance of our friend and teammate Peter Wittek who disappeared in an avalanche high on Mt Trishul, 29 Sep 2019
If you would like to contribute to the search efforts for Peter, and to assist his family, please visit: https://www.gofundme.com/f/find-peter-wittek