Updated: February 13, 2021 12:46:59 pm
The disappearance of three established international mountaineers while attempting to scale the world’s second highest peak, K2, in winter has spotlighted the extreme version of the sport – winter climbing.
The Indian Mountaineering Federation (IMF) has started to encourage Indian climbers to attempt this; it also had a dedicated course at the Nehru Institute of Mountaineering (NIM), Uttarkashi, Uttarakhand, last month.
But winter climbing is still far from popular. The dangers have been underlined by the unknown fate of the three mountaineers who have been missing since February 5 – Ali Sadpara of Pakistan, Jon Snorri of Iceland, and Juan Pablo Mohr of Chile.
What is winter alpine mountaineering about?
December, January, and February are considered the winter months in mountaineering. In India, summer, pre-monsoon, and post-monsoon expeditions are very common, but there are very few takers for winter mountaineering.
‘Alpine style’ mountaineering involves ascending with only the minimum number of breaks, and without the assistance of porters.
The mountaineer carries all of his/her load, including food, equipment, tents, etc. There is no scope for acclimatisation – which may take several days at high altitudes – as climbers make a dash for the summit.
The alpine style contrasts with the ‘expedition’ or ‘siege’ style of climbing, in which climbers go from one camp to another to acclimatise.
What makes winter climbing especially challenging?
Haryana Police DSP Mamta Sodha, who in 2010 became the first woman mountaineer from Haryana to scale Mt Everest, listed the challenges:
“Winter climbing is always tougher than pre-monsoon, post-monsoon and summer climbing.
“First, heavy snowfall and avalanches destroy the set routes established by previous mountaineers. Second, oxygen levels are especially low during winter at the heights. Chances of frostbite are always high. It requires strong stamina, tough preparations, and expertise.
“Third, unlike in summer climbing, a lot depends on the weather during winter. It is not easy to walk on powder snow (after fresh snowfall), which is frequent in winter in the mountains. Walking on powder snow is something like walking in sand in the desert.”
Sodha said that mountaineers who get hard ice are lucky, because it is easier to climb than fresh snow, which is loose. This is the reason mountaineers prefer to start ascending high mountains at night.
What are the challenges other than those presented by the terrain?
There are many – including costs, lack of exposure and experience, and the absence of private sponsors, without whom it is very difficult to meet the expenses of the expedition, Lt Col Yogesh Dhumal, Vice Principal of NIM, Uttarkashi, said.
However, while winter climbing may not be that popular among Indians, many foreigners do come to India to climb during this season, Dhumal said. “Indian sponsors often consider an unsuccessful attempt to be a failure on the part of the sponsored mountaineer, but most foreign companies do not,” he said.
Vishal Thakur, a mountaineer who graduated from NIM, said, “A small beginning has been made towards established Indian mountaineers getting sponsorships for winter climbing, but emerging mountaineers are yet to receive any response.”
What special equipment, preparations, and training does winter alpine climbing require?
The core mountaineering equipment required is the same for all seasons. However, winter climbing in the alpine style especially requires lightweight equipment and ropes of good quality, and light, thin, but warm clothes. The difference in cost between equipment of this quality and the normal mountaineering equipment is very large.
The expertise, experience, stamina, and will that is required of the climber too, is of a different order. Chandigarh Police Inspector Chiranji Lal Moudgal, who scaled Everest in 2011, said, “Winter climbing is popular among Europeans, many of whom come from countries where it is severely cold throughout the year. This is not true for climbers from South Asian countries including India, Pakistan, and Nepal, which host most of the highest mountains of the world.”
Also, rigorous training and vast experience of winter climbing is critical for an attempt, he said. “Even very experienced porters do not like to scale the mountains during winter.”
How are Indian mountaineering institutes promoting winter and alpine style climbing?
“We organised the first dedicated course on ‘Winter Alpine Skill Climbing (WASC)’ and trained 20 mountaineers at NIM in January 2021,” Dhumal said. The NIM and Indian Mountaineering Federation now plan to make WASC a regular course in the syllabus.
Two other prominent mountaineering institutes in the country are the National Institute of Mountaineering and Allied Sports (NIMAS) at Dirang village in the West Kameng district of Arunachal Pradesh, and the Atal Bihari Vajpayee Institute of Mountaineering and Allied Sports at Manali in Himachal Pradesh.
“We allowed three mountaineers to attempt to scale Mount Trishul (7,120 m) in Uttarakhand during winter in alpine style. But the expedition was not successful due to the severe weather. Another team was allowed on a winter expedition to Mount Deo Tibba (6,001 m) in Himachal Pradesh. Many foreign mountaineers earn fame from winter mountaineering on Indian mountains. Indians too have started showing interest in winter mountaineering,” a member of the Indian Mountaineering Federation said.
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