Our objective: a new line on the north face of Thalay Sagar, a formidable Himalayan granite obelisk capped with an imposing wall of black shale.
Paul slipped out of the tent and into the storm clutching a small bundle of incense and food. He’d seen our cook and liaison officer make daily pledges to their gods. Now it was his turn to make a simple offering and a sincere request – may the gods have mercy on his two friends.
The original plan had been to climb in a single push as a team of three to keep loads light and create a reasonable margin of safety. But our first attempt was shut down by deep snow and a violent stomach bug that hammered Paul. Jason and I reconfigured our strategy and packs – often choosing between food or gear on the climbing rack – and decided to attempt a two-person alpine-style push while Paul recovered in camp.
It took us six exhausting hours to travel up the glacier to reach the lower face. The climbing on this snowy wall was secure but difficult to protect, so we ran out long sections and focused on getting good anchors. As the sun set, we found a perch and spent two hours chopping ice to build a platform that left the tent half on the mountain, half hanging over the expanse. At sunrise, we started up again, making slow but steady progress. Swirling clouds and light wind filled the atmosphere with an aura of expectancy.
When we finally touched granite, we changed our system so the second jugged and the leader climbed unencumbered. We made quick progress and had a possible bivy in sight when the clouds and wind started to twist and blow. Waves of spindrift intensified and soon we were unable even to look up. We began fixing lines and planned a retreat back to our snow ledge, but the situation rapidly turned grim. Snow pounded down the face, submerging us, obscuring our hands until we were placing ice screws blind. After struggling for hours to keep moving, we resigned ourselves to a night huddled under a tarp as the spindrift threatened to wash us off the mountain.
With a new day and a clear sky, our hope and confidence returned. Two rope lengths of jugging brought us to our high point, but then the winds and storm returned – this time with more force. A decision became clear: we would either purposefully descend the mountain or get washed down it by massive spindrift avalanches.
Jason and I managed to keep our senses about us and navigated the descent line in desperate conditions. After 60 hours on the move, we arrived back in base camp with bloodshot eyes, exhausted bodies, numb minds, and spirits that had been completely swept clean. During the storm, Paul was not the only one that found a place for the gods of the Himalayas. They had answered our prayers as well.