sábado, novembro 09, 2019



"Well I stepped into an avalanche,
it covered up my soul!"
Leonard Cohen


For the first time we had a view to the whole line, it was perfect. From the base to the summit, 1800m. Snow ramps, gullies, a crest leading to the summit, it all looked in perfect conditions.
As we walked the last hundreds of meters on the glacier, I took photographs of every little detail of the route, of that absolute beautiful and logical line that would take us to the highest little dot of Balakun (6471m).
The upper slopes could remind a white silk sheet, soft, pristine, untouched. The few seracs above looked calm and quite… asleep, almost unthreatening.
The mountain looked perfect, the line was just there, waiting for us, maybe for days, maybe for ages.
We were confident, calm, with that kind of feeling that one rarely has before climbing a mountain. No stress, no uncertainties, no doubts.
I was sure the universe was conspiring in our favor. I was sure that in 3 days we would be standing in the top of that stunning mountain.

Daniela at 5800m, during our acclimatization.

Reaching 5500m during acclimatization.


The familiar sound of the alarm clock took us out of our sleep at 00:30. As predicted by the weather reports we were getting from our friend Vitor Baía, we could hear the sound of light snow tapping in the single layer of our tiny bivy.
Since visibility was poor we decided to wait a couple of hours more. Deep and warm in our sleeping bags, we fell asleep again for a while longer.
Around 4:00 a.m. the silence announced the predicted weather change, the light snowfall had stopped, the sky was clear, visibility was perfect.
We crawled out of our sleeping bags, and with the water pan half prepared from the day before, we cooked our traditional Indian mountain breakfast: Maggy, a couple of chapattis with Portuguese cheese and salami, and a handful of dry fruits.
Around 6:30 we started our journey up the mountain, first crossing an easy snow ramp, followed by a loose scree slope that placed us on what we considered the real beginning of the route.
By that time, around 7:30, a continuous mantle of clouds traveled the sky, turning the morning deep blue into shadow grey.
There were voices in my head, they kept me climbing with a strange sense of calm.

Getting ready!

I was happy that the sun was not shining inclement on us. There was no wind, and the temperature was perfect.
I was strangely sure that we would have reasonable weather until 12:00 p.m., and by that time, we would find a place to set our bivy around the altitude we planned to reach that day.
As we crossed the first snow ramp, I recognized it was all perfect. Our crampons moved comfortably biting a layer of hard snow, sometimes gentle ice covered by only a few centimeters of fresh snow, just the right conditions to move fast.

We were fast. Little snow falling, but everything is good.

We crossed the large corridor that followed, staying close to the rock slopes on our right, and then the second snow ramp that lead to a narrow “bottleneck”. The “bottleneck” was the only access to an enormous circus. 700m separated us from that circus, covered by a gentle immaculate mantle of pure snow.

Crossing the "bottleneck".

On the right side, a rocky spur could be a place to bivy. Although about 300m above there were some seracs hanging, it still looked like a safe place to spend the night.
On the left side, some islands of rock, small spurs, were inviting us to set our bivy. Quite comfortable for that particular situation, although about 100 m below the altitude we estimated to climb that day.
Somehow as expected, at 12:00 p.m. it started to snow, lightly. The air was still, there was no wind.
Since at the left small spurs we found a quite acceptable place to pitch our bivy, we decided to call it a day, happy with our progress. We were at 5300m.
After 700m of climbing we would reach a col the next day, just in the right position to launch a summit attempt one day later.
Everything was going as planned.
Again, according to the weather report we had for that day, around 3 p.m. the light snowfall stopped.
We felt a cozy warm temperature rising inside the single layer tiny tent. It meant the sun was penetrating the layer of clouds. Slowly, the sky became blue again. We came out to take those perfect photos only these days allow. The mountain was quiet and inviting. I never felt so sure we would have a successful and peaceful climb.
It was time to take advantage of the warm tent and our sleeping bags, using the hours left to relax our muscles.

Cleaning the spot for the night. Weather was not perfect but still we were optimistic...

Suddenly a roar captured our attention. We unzipped the door of our “room for the night” and saw an avalanche coming down from the untouched slope under the seracs. It slide down close to the place where we intended to set our bivy some hours before and it converged with fury to the “bottleneck”.
“Ok, one avalanche!”
Just a minute after, the scenario repeated, this time more violently.
The perfect mountain, the quiet, calm climb, abruptly became an enormous mistake.
From three hanging valleys on the left side of the snow circus, more avalanches poured down, this time making us reflect if our bivy spot was really safe. Should we move it even more down on the rocky spur?
Balakun invitation was nothing but a sudden trap!
All our thoughts were stuck in the “bottleneck”. Not only our thoughts, but also an enormous volume of debris, huge blocks of ice and rock. It was unreal to be there, testifying that enormous power of nature. We lost count of how many avalanches came down from the upper slope. Those events took about one and a half hour, continuously. “Sometime it will have to stop!” I remember saying this on what it seamed to be a never-ending hour.
The priority then became getting down the mountain, although we knew we had to be patient and wait for the right time, the coldest hours of the day… meaning, deep night.
Finally, the moment came when it all became silent again, a threatening silence.
We cooked a meal and took shelter on our sleeping-bags. I could hear Paulo breathing anxiously, exactly the same as I was.
Time just stopped, the hours, minutes, seconds gained another dimension… eternity.
9 p.m., it was dark. The fake silence was shattered by another roaring sound, another avalanche.
The waiting game was not over, the mountain was still awake, and so were we.

Our intended route on Balakun (6471m). The red circle marks our bivouac site. The first arrow marks the bottleneck. The upper double red arrows marks the course of the avalanches. Not marked on the photo... our fear!


At around half past midnight we sat down, heated some water and prepared a well-planned energetic breakfast, but on that specific moment it was hard to swallow – a shake of protein, some chapatti with cheese and salami, and a handful of dry fruits.
We prepared our bodies to go down as fast as we could. Our hearts would never be prepared, we could only do our best to control our minds.
At 3 a.m., after 6 hours of a threatening silence, we roped and started our journey down, as fast as every muscle of our bodies would allow us, concentrating in every step, every movement of our crampons, of our ice-axes.
Soon, the light of our headtorches illuminated the huge fresh debris stuck in the “bottleneck”.
We downclimbed the “bottleneck”, not losing a second, crossing it as fast as we could, with our hearts in our throats. We moved to the left side until reach a safe spot under an overhanging wall. The mountain… the world, kept silent in those moments.
We stopped, relieved. The most dangerous part of the way down was now a part of our recent past. The relieve made us feel physically sick, with nausea, from anxiety!
We took some minutes to breath, drink some tea, eat some dry fruits, and kept descending, now not so nervous, but still with our concentration in the highest levels.
It took us only 3 hours to get to the base of the mountain and take off from our shoulders not only the weight of the backpack, but mostly the weight of the fear.

Base camp... paradise...


I now look at the photos we took after the avalanche, and understand the geology of what happened.
I also understand that, when we downclimbed, the slopes up there were still unstable. Only the cold of the deep night prevented the avalanches to continue for a couple of hours (or else, we were just lucky!). For sure the same scenario repeated the next day, as the sun warmed the mountain again.
Now, at base camp, I feel a strange mix of sadness and luck.
Sadness because, once more, I didn’t reach the summit. Sadness because this time I was feeling so sure, so confident, and could not even suspect of the threat waiting for us up there.
Lucky to be writing these words in this beautiful base camp.

My heart is now silent, but the avalanche… covered up my soul...

Daniela Teixeira
SuryaKund base camp

Footnote: This was our second expedition in Sathophant valley. The first, was in 2010, when we accomplished the second ascent of Ekdant (6100m) by a new route, and the first ascent of Kartik (5115m). This time, we found the mountains extremely dry and dangerous, with rocks falling everywhere. High temperatures also influenced the remaining snow, as on our attempt on Balakun, triggering the unsuspected snow avalanches we witnessed, ultimately causing our failure. 
Just by curiosity, here is two photos showing the contrast between 2010 and 2019.

Chaukamba on the left, Balakun on the right.

Chaukamba (7138m)