“Well I stepped into an avalanche,
It covered up my soul!”
Saturday 21st September 2019
For the first time we had a view of the whole line – it was perfect. From the base to the summit, 1800m of snow ramps, gullies, a crest leading to the summit and it all looked to be in perfect condition.
As we walked the last hundred of metres on the glacier, I took photographs of every little detail of the route, of the absolutely beautiful and most logical line that would take us to the highest little dot of Balakun (6471m).
The upper slopes were reminiscent of a white silk sheet: soft, pristine, untouched. The few peaks above looked calm and quiet… asleep, unthreatening.
The mountain looked perfect, the line was just there, waiting for us, maybe for days, maybe for years.
We were confident and calm, with the 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 favour. I was sure that in 3 days we would be standing in the top of that stunning mountain.
Sunday 22nd September 2019
The familiar sound of the alarm clock woke us from our slumber 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 bivvy.
Since visibility was poor we decided to wait a couple of hours longer. Deep and warm in our sleeping bags, we fell asleep again.
Around 4am, the silence announced the predicted weather change, the light snowfall had stopped, the sky was clear, and visibility was perfect.
We crawled out of our sleeping bag and cooked a traditional Indian mountain breakfast: maggy, a couple of chapattis with Portuguese cheese and salami, and a handful of dry fruit.
At 6:30am we started our journey up the mountain, first crossing an easy snow slope, followed by a loose scree slope that placed us on what we considered the real beginning of the route.
Just an hour later, the clouds began to come in turning the morning’s deep blue skies into a shadow grey.
There were voices in my head, they kept me climbing with a strange sense of calm.
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 noon and by that time, we would find a place to set our bivvy around the altitude we planned to reach that day.
As we crossed the first snow ramp, I noticed how perfect it was. Our crampons moved comfortably biting a layer of hard snow, occasionally gentle ice covered by only a few centimetres of fresh snow. It was just the right conditions to move fast.
We crossed the large corridor that followed staying close to the rock slopes on our right, then the second snow ramp that led to a narrow bottleneck: our only access to an enormous crevasse. Just 700m separated us from that crevasse, covered by a gentle immaculate mantle of pure snow.
On the right side, we saw an option to bivvy on a rocky ledge. Despite glacial ice (seracs) hanging about 300m above, it still looked like a safe place to spend the night. On the left side, small islands of rock invited us to setup our bivvy, though it was about 100m below our intended altitude for that day. Somehow as expected at midday it started to snow lightly. The air was still and there was no wind. We decided to call it a day, happy with our progress at 5300m of altitude.
The next day, we had 700m comfortable snow climbing that would place us in 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, the light snowfall was due to stop at around 3pm.
We felt a cozy warm temperature rising inside the single layer tiny tent. The sun was penetrating the thin layer of clouds. Slowly the sky became blue again, so 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. Suddenly a loud roar captured our attention. We unzipped the door and saw an avalanche coming down from the untouched slope under the seracs. It slid down close to the place where we intended to bivvy some hours before and it converged with fury into the bottleneck.
Ok, one avalanche! Just a minute after it happened again but 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 crevasse, more avalanches poured down, this time making us reflect if our bivvy spot really was safe. Should we move it lower down?
It was unreal to be there, testifying the 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 hours, continuously. “It has to stop soon!” I remember saying this during what seemed 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 and therefore the depths of the night.
Finally, it fell silent again, a threatening silence.
We cooked a meal and took shelter on our sleeping-bags. I could hear Paulo breathing anxiously, as was I. Time appeared to stop: the hours, minutes and seconds gained another dimension – eternity.
By 9pm, it was dark. The fake silence was shattered by the roaring sound of another avalanche. The waiting game was not over, the mountain was still awake, and so were we.
At around half past midnight we sat down, heated some water and prepared an energetic breakfast. 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 3am, 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 on every step and every movement of our crampons and ice-axes.
Soon, the light of our headtorches illuminated the huge amount of fresh debris stuck in the bottleneck.
We down-climbed the bottleneck as fast as our bodies allowed with our hearts in our throats. We moved to the left side until reaching a safe spot under an overhanging wall. The world fell silent in that moment.
The most dangerous part of the way down was now a part of our recent past. The relief made us feel physically sick with nausea from anxiety! We took a few minutes to breathe, drink some tea, eat some dry fruit and continued the descent. We weren’t so nervous, but our concentration levels were still high.
It only took us 3 hours to get to the base of the mountain and where we relieved our shoulders of the weight of our backpacks and the fear that the world around us was collapsing.
I now look at the photos we took after the avalanche and understand the geology of what happened. I also understand that when we down-climbed, the slopes up there were still unstable! Only the cold of the deep night prevented the avalanches from continuing for a couple of hours (or perhaps we were just lucky!). As the sun warmed the slope the next day, the mountain continued to tumble.
Now at base camp, I feel a strange mix of sadness and luck. Sadness because once again I didn’t reach the summit. Sadness because this time I felt so sure, so confident and did not even suspect the threat waiting for us up there.
But I’m lucky to be writing these words in this beautiful base camp. My heart is now silent, but the avalanche covered up my soul.