Que Le Vamos a Hacer (What to do?)
The wind rattled our small tent; three of us were crammed up in a space meant for two. Lack of space meant inhibited movements.
Strangely, on the morning of September 15, I could move my legs in all directions. After enjoying this new found freedom, I understood what was missing, our partner Jonathan Parker. I quickly zipped open our tent and scanned the entire base-camp for a sign of him with a barely conscious mind. People were moving around but he was nowhere to be seen. I pulled myself out, the sun was slowly rising. In front of me, I could see the Pyramid’s north–west face rising 800 meters off the ground. I recalled how half-jokingly Jonathan had said his good-byes to us and had explained the things we needed to do if he died unexpectedly!
Only later, I could have understood the gravity of the situation. One wrong step and a friend, mentor would never come back. As the hours passed, acquaintances from nearby camps asked us about his sudden departure. Our replies were short, mostly just a nod of our head sufficed.
We had run into Jonathan only a few days ago in Leh, his reputation preceded him. He is an alpine climber, who in recent years had climbed a lot around Ladakh mostly with Indian friends. He is slowly influencing them to a new style of climbing that is light and fast. The teachings were evident though Kumar Gaurav. I had been with him on an expedition before and all he seemed to be interested in was reaching the summit. After a climbing season with Jonathan, Kumar was asking me about the possibilities of new routes on peaks like Shivling and Thalay Sagar. In the year 2017, the duo established a new route on Stok Kangri. (This is one of India’s most popular peaks yet an unexplored). Soon after, they climbed Kang Yatse I and II without a rope.
Motivation is the key ingredient behind every action. Like many urban climbing myths, Jonathan’s Pyramid solo ascent was motivated by a broken heart. The word ‘broken’ can conjure up a number of pictures in one’s mind. The feeling is hard to describe but profound in the ways it can move one from the inside. After acclimatizing for their objective on the easy terrain of Stok and Golep Kangri, the duo was back in Leh. It was here that Jonathan met a girl. An otherwise recluse Jonathan felt a particular attraction for this girl and it proved to be fatal for him. One day when I was battling with my own relationship hurdles, I asked him for some advice. He simply replied by saying,
“If you can give up everything else for a particular person, then that’s the one for you”.
I guess something similar was happening with him but things didn’t turn out the way they should have and this left him with a gnawing emptiness inside, something he wanted to fill with a climbing adventure.
After a few days, Kumar climbed ‘Samsara is Nirvana’ and left for Delhi. Jonathan found our company at an assemblage for a cup of morning coffee. He told us about his plans and invited us to come along. He even agreed to guide us up on some peaks. In our heads his solo sounded legit and legendary, the stuff one reads only in books.
On the morning of September 12, we hired a taxi to Stok village. We were a team of 5 strangers who were connected by a common desire to experience the Himalayan environment. Days in base-camp were passed away in expectations and anxiety. Jonathan would smile at our jokes but most of the times he would confine himself to his blue diary. Then on the morning of September 15, he left for the Pyramid. Jonathan is quite punctual about his calculations and had given us the exact time he would require to ascend and descend the mountain.
I looked at my watch, it had 8:30. I thought he should have crossed the headwall by now and again gazed at the Pyramid. But this time the headwall was marked by a distinct patch. I called out to my friends from nearby camps for reaffirmation and the conclusion was, that it was either an avalanche track that must have been created by Jonathan’s footsteps.
It’s true that climbing doesn’t provide any material benefits but it does heal us. At times, before Jonathan left, I wasn’t sure if he was prepared for climbing Pyramid alone. But I also understood that climbing was something he loved and could fall back on when required. I encouraged him but was also aware that I might just be encouraging him towards something that could potentially kill him. The night before climbing Pyramid, he guided us up on Golep Kangri in a raging snow-storm. When other teams were going down we were heading up. Jonathan was his usual self, calm and composed even in a dangerous environment. Our plan was to try Stok Kangri next, but we decided to skip it due to few reasons, one of them was to allow him some rest before he tried the Pyramid.
Once we got down to base-camp we proposed our plan but ‘rest’ wasn’t something he had on his mind. To our surprise, he barely felt tired and wanted to try the Pyramid the following night. We had dinner together and slept in the confined space of our tent.
The next time I checked my watch it was already 11. “He should be near the summit by now”, I thought and resumed gazing at the pointy summit of Pyramid. The weather had been overtly turbulent the last two days. Incessant snowfall made the situation worse. Again and again my eyes wandered towards the avalanche trail on Pyramid and I was trying to tell myself that it was not an avalanche! An hour passed. We had plans of opening a can of Gulab Jamunon Jonathan’s return but we were getting uneasy by the minute. We decided to wait in the kitchen tent, new groups were trailing in the Base-Camp and few groups were leaving.
There was a mixed sentiment. New groups were enthusiastic about their climbs and swung their ice-axe as if it were a sword and tried walking with their crampons on the barren camp ground. Old groups were paying their bills and were leaving with a feeling of either success or failure. An old Korean climber sat near us with his head between his knees, he was grateful that his guide had saved his life and vowed that he would never set his foot on another mountain.
I thought of Jonathan repeatedly, what would he say when he was back? Would he translate his experience like the old Korean climber? Would we see each other again at all?
With these thoughts lingering in my mind, I stepped out into the afternoon sun and looked at the Pyramid again.
The volume of my questions slightly increased.
I looked again to scan the area near the base of Pyramid and saw him.
Jonathan was walking back to camp! He waved at us. A while later he admitted that he was caught in an avalanche near the top. He slid off the wall but managed to do a 360 degree turn and arrested himself. Being a believer, he was thankful to God.
When we watched the video that his camera had captured, we could only imagine what he must have been through, the whole experience in its entirety. He believed, that faith has numerous names but it was surely something greater than him that had protected him that day. After the avalanche happened, he traversed the ice-wall and ascended to the summit ridge by climbing a band of rocks. The rocks were loose and forced him to climb extremely cautiously.
In his own words it was not a climb he would like to repeat.
We had little time on us. We packed and left for Leh. The can of Gulab Jamun was left untouched.
As has been repeatedly said by many Alpinists of our generation, we don’t climb mountains for fame or fortune, there isn’t a pot of gold lying on the summit.We climb to transform ourselves,to look beyond our self-created versions of realty,to realize what we are capable of doing.Jonathan’s Pyramid solo wasa reassertion.
While we were walking together, I asked him if climbing eased the emotional pain.He replied that it didn’t do much but allowed him to see that he was capable of understanding his emotions and work through them.While he was climbing he must have had moments of doubt, moments of reflections but they reminded him of the phrase the lady he once loved had taught him,‘Que Le Vamos a Hacer’ -What to do? In the end we are all alone, we can just observe our emotions,climb and hope we get back home safely.
P.S-Jonathan named the route,‘Que Le Vamos A Hacer’.
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Author: Aditya Pande
A climber hailing from a quaint hill town of Kumaon, Uttaranchal. Focused towards staying healthy and efficient, in the mountains and in the cities.