Nirvana Mehra discovers mountaineering at Stok Kangri and Auden’s Col after giving up his cushy corporate job, and tells us what it takes.

The itch

Three years ago, I sat at my desk in a beautiful glass office and stared out into the dark, thundering, almost ominous sky that comes with the monsoon. As a consultant in a financial services firm, I had occasionally—when time permitted—stared out and asked myself, “Is this what I want?”

Like most young, career-oriented people, I had completed my Masters’ degree and secured a well-paying job. The foundation for a steady career had been laid—even if the mortar was questionable. I had been diving earlier in the year, and the fire of adventure had been rekindled: I had an almost insatiable urge to do something more challenging, something that made me feel alive, scared, and most importantly, content. As I stared, I thought about an opportunity that had presented itself a few weeks earlier—a chance to climb Stok Kangri, standing tall at 6,153 metres above sea level, in the remote region of Ladakh.

Love at first sight

Interestingly, my first glimpse of Stok Kangri had been many years ago, while on a social service mission from school. Now, my uncle had mailed me about climbing Stok {the vision of which was still clear in my head} that year with him. I had turned down the offer, because of work commitments. But it kept niggling at me; the thought of this mountain and the opportunity to test myself; to put myself at the mercy of the elements, battle the fatigue, beat the asthma {I had struggled with the ailment for most of my childhood}; and to reach that summit. I decided I had to do it. I roped in one of my closest friends and signed up for the expedition. He, like me, was also trying to test himself, both physically and mentally, and we had a common purpose, in that sense. We trained hard, readying ourselves {the best we could} for what lay ahead.

Journey to the top

At 7am on the 17th of August, after a cold, harsh night of climbing from base camp, we were finally standing at the summit of Stok Kangri. The reasoning behind enduring so much pain and hardship became clear; a sentiment that can only be understood by those who have had the privilege that was bestowed on us by the mountain that day. The power, the draw of the mountains, is like an addiction. When it’s over, it leaves this void that nothing else can quite fill.

1I came back to work feeling content with what had been achieved, but the feeling disappeared quickly and like every addict, I started craving that ‘high’—the all powerful, all consuming draw of the mountains. I had had to make significant sacrifices at work and in my relationships to prepare and go for that climb. But my choice became clear—I realised then that the mountains were going to be an integral part of my life, and anything that would hinder that purpose would have to be questioned. So, I put in my papers and started looking at entrepreneurial opportunities; something that gave me added flexibility. It helped, of course, that I had an immensely supportive network of family and friends, and a parent who decided to work on a new opportunity with me, so that I could follow my passion more freely.

Climb every mountain

Soon after, within a few months of my having quit my job and beginning to work with my father, my uncle {a 40-year-old adventurer and adrenalin junkie} and I decided to go on a climb to Auden’s Col. Since we hadn’t been able to climb Stok together, this was our window. We had a great team from Aquaterra Adventures organising and guiding the expedition. It was going to be more challenging than Stok; more technical and extremely remote. It was slated for September, but the massive tragedy that had struck Uttarakhand during the monsoons cast a huge shadow of doubt over our plans.

A week before we were scheduled to leave Delhi, we got the ‘all clear’ from the administration in Uttarakhand, since the roads had just been cleared up to the holy town of Gangotri {Our base of operations before the beginning of the long, arduous trek into the remotest parts of the Garhwal Himalayas}. We were going to be the first visitors in the devastated interiors of the Dev Bhumi. Our expedition gathered even more significance—it was not only about a personal pilgrimage to the mountains, but our group’s success would re-affirm trust in the mountains and bring people back to Uttarakhand for trekking, rafting and soul searching.

3Calling Auden’s Col

Heading to Gangotri via the temporary roads {it was 27th September 2013} that had been cut out of the mountains, we witnessed the complete and utter destruction. The rancid smell of dead bodies was omnipresent and the obliteration, complete. That encounter humbled all of us, and our respect for the power of the realm we were entering was at an all-time high.

We rested a day at Gangotri {which resembled a ghost town} and after a blessing from the temple priest, we began our ascent towards Auden’s Col. This expedition was going to be different. In addition to all the risks that come with climbing in remote areas at high altitudes, it included rappelling down from the summit of the Col at 5,400 metres, onto a glacier. Additionally, we had to camp and walk on the heavily crevassed Khatling Glacier to reach the settlements of Kharsoli and Gangi, from where we would finally be extracted, after two weeks of relentless battering.

Over the next week we steadily gained altitude, trekking through increasingly unpredictable and tough conditions. Every day, reaching the campsite was a minute victory, ones we came to value and cherish. Such small achievements, the beautiful vistas, crisp air, and healing warmth of the sun kept our spirits up. On the morning of 6th October, we began our ascent from Auden’s Col BC {4,800 m} towards the infamous Auden’s Col {5,400 m}. There is an eerie beauty when you climb at night; the moon’s rays give the snow-capped peaks a strange cobalt hue. After four hours of trudging and digging our heavy snow-boots in a rhythmic march to the top, we finally made it up there. What you see from each summit might differ, but what you experience is always constant. Over the subsequent days, we safely found our passage through the Khatling Glacier and reached the relative safety of Gangi.

4Nearing the end

In spite of countless landslides, freak snowstorms, bitter cold, health checks twice a day, being stranded between two camps in pitch darkness in a landslide, facing the real fear of falling into the innumerable deep and mystical crevasses of Garhwal’s most dangerous glacier—the mighty Khatling—the Himalayas finally embraced us and bestowed upon us the privilege of being the first expedition in over two years to successfully climb and cross the treacherous, yet enchanting, Auden’s Col.

5Mountains are full of contradictions—there is immense pain that makes you question your sanity, and then there is the unparalleled pleasure of the view of what lies beyond. They work you hard, test your mettle, your determination, your spirit, and your resolve, before they offer you this glimpse. I guess it is a love affair of sorts; a dangerous one. The only thing to remember is that in this affair, it’s the mountains that call the shots!

I still remember the day I sat staring out the window, and am sure that I will never regret taking my first steps towards what would eventually become an all encompassing passion, a divine connection with the mountains.