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Book of the month: Climbing Ramabang

Monday, 7 August 2017

The summer is the perfect time to travel to distant, exotic locations and Gerry Galligan’s Climbing Ramabang, August’s book of the month, allows you to do just that. Climbing Ramabang provides an insightful account of the trials and tribulations of Gerry and his team as they take on the Indian Himalaya, before following Gerry alone as he treks the scenic route back home to Ireland. 

This book offers you a whole new perspective of the world, quite literally! Thanks to Gerry you can venture off the beaten track and up unclimbed mountains, experiencing ‘myth and mayhem’ along the way, all without leaving your house.

Sunday 22 June, Camp 1. We awoke at 3 a.m., with the usual reluctance to stir out of warm sleeping bags and into the cold. The sky was clear and starry with a moon in the west. A good sign. Torchlights flashed. Outside, Paulie and Darach fumbled with pots and stoves to heat up porridge. Inside, Craig was not for stirring. He was too exhausted from the previous day and elected not to carry on. Three of us only would make a summit attempt. Decisions were quickly made. One rope and a light rack to be taken, as opposed to double that for four men.

Quietly in the cold, grey dawn we trudged up to the base of the tower. A layer of snow covered much of the scree. Trainloads of scree. We roped up and Paulie took the lead. Darach took coils at the back and I clipped into the middle, video camera in hand. Our packs, though lighter than yesterday, were still a burden, especially now that we were higher. Paulie chose an intricate line to the right of the tower. Up onto crumbling ledges and down snowy breaches. Slings were cast around  spikes and attached to the rope with cold, tinkling karabiners. We moved together. As he progressed placing each piece of gear, I unclipped when I reached his earlier pieces, only to clip on again beyond them, for Darach to follow and collect. We came to a chimney. Awkward moments were felt as each man ascended, boots slipping on either side, sending cascades of loose rock down on the next man. ‘Below’ became the refrain as helmets and shoulders were showered. Paulie, free of such hazard, looked on as Darach and I ducked for cover as best we could. Wires were slotted into cracks, hexes were placed and everything clipped to the rope by extenders. Gingerly we crept up over steps and awkward ledges to the back of the tower. 140 metres of this saw Paulie anchor onto a large flake and belay us. We had overcome the tower.
Stepping out of its shadow we could see the continuation of the ridge. It formed a gentle angle, curving left and then right for a distance of 450 metres, before fading out at the base of a summit ramp which was a wide snowfield. The door was unlocked. All that remained now was the energy and courage to open it and reach the top.

Slowly we pressed on. We clambered over more tors and sharp rock, stopping every so often for a brief rest, a sip of water and a nibble of chocolate and nuts. The mountain was demanding a price. So far Darach was holding up OK, though I noticed Paulie was weakening. His lead had not come cheaply and his pace now slowed. He wasn’t alone. If truth be told, I too felt I was running out of steam.

This thing is purgatory, I thought at one stage. The terrain, the thin air, the loads. What crime did we commit for all this? More importantly, what penance must we do to overcome it?

We made the end of the ridge and faced the snowfield. At an incline of 45 to 50 degrees, shovel-shaped, it appeared to have the height and width of a football field. Needless to say, none of us were champing at the bit to get at it. We  were dog-tired. I eyed up the slope. The time was 10.15 a.m. Earlier we had agreed a turnaround time of 1 p.m., latest. This last section I knew would be a psychological battle. To ascend it would demand mental strength and stamina. We donned crampons and I thought for a second. Here going lightweight was key. ‘Lads, I’m off-loading everything I don’t need here. I’ll take the rope, some water, the camera and that’s it. No spare clothes, food or anything else.’

It was a risk, but a small one as I saw it, given the good cloud and wind
conditions. But it was a necessary one if I had any chance of getting to the top. Paulie considered it, agreed and we both dumped our gear under rocks at the head of the ridge. Darach kept his. I also needed food, sustenance. Quickly I devoured a handful of nuts and a half bar of chocolate.

‘Right. Lets go.’

Slowly we began our duck-walk up the slope. Axe in one hand, pole in theother. Luckily the snow was relatively firm and we only sank a few inches. After a few minutes I could feel power returning to me. The food had kicked in. As with a lot of climbs, most people have their bouts of strength and weakness. They also have phases of leadership and periods in which they need to be led. I felt stronger now and considered it my time to lead. Up the slope I went, alternating style in accordance to the angle of snow: duck-walking, side-stepping, half and full front-pointing. A rhythm set in. Axe, pole, left foot, right foot … thirty steps and then stop. A couple of breaths then continue. One third of the way up I turned to look at the boys, who were thirty metres behind.

They stopped when I stopped.

‘Come on lads, we can nail this,’ I called, thinking this might encourage
them. I was certain if we persisted we would do it. However a niggling thought bothered me. What if we weren’t on the summit slope but a false one and we had more work cut out for us beyond it? A demoralising prospect.

Put that notion aside, I heard myself say. Just keep bashing on.

Halfway up, my step count reduced to twenty, followed by a rest and deep breaths. Shortly after, I was down to twelve. I could feel the sun’s reflection from the snow stinging my lips and the rims of my nostrils.

Don’t let this thing beat you, I commanded myself.

I looked back. The boys were gaining ground. I took a line rightwards, aiming
for a gap between rocks at the top. I was determined I wasn’t going to fail. Not now.

Finally I made it; stepping onto a knife-edge crest and looked over the side
to find a sweeping drop down the Northeast Face. We did it, we made the top.
There was no more mountain. Instant feelings of joy and relief coursed
through me. I called the boys up.

‘Look at this lads, we’ve made it.’

There was no doubt. A ridge line running northwest to southeast marked
the top and a rock pillar beside us, 7 metres high, was the mountain’s true summit. We were delighted. Eighteen months hard work researching, fundraising, planning and perseverance had paid off. It was time for cursory jubilation. What’s more, we did it in good time and in good style. It was 12.10 p.m. Moments later we climbed the pillar 
and placed our hands on its uppermost stone simultaneously. Whoops of joy cried out. Each of us kissed the uppermost stone to mark the achievement. Undeniably it was a special feeling knowing we were first to set foot on this mountain and reach its summit.

We lingered here for twenty minutes, taking photographs of everything. It was important to get evidence of having reached the top. I panned the video camera. Only the magnificent sight of the Himalayas surrounded us now. All kinds of peaks and formations abounded: snow domes, serpentine ridges, pyramids, jagged teeth and crumpled layers. Constructions of all shapes and sizes. I looked down at our massif and took in its subsidiary summits to the north and southeast, with ridges snaking off in the same directions for 5 kilometres. Further north in the distance stood the iced slopes of Paddy O’Leary’s Kangla Tarbo (6,315m). And beyond that, the burly form of Shigri Parbat (6,526m), first ascended by Joss Lynam in 1961. To the west and south were spectacular technical peaks, still awaiting a first ascent. All told it was a glorious sight, one I’ll never forget.

Celebrations over, we scrambled back onto the snow and started back down. Our happiness had instilled a renewed sense of energy as we made our way daggering down the slope. It had taken two hours to ascend it but less than thirty minutes to descend it. We retrieved our belongings on the ridge and tentatively scrambled back over the tors. Each man was conscious of not making a rash step or a mistake at this stage, the consequences of which would be serious. By 3 p.m. we made the tower. Oddly, since leaving the summit, I had a strange feeling of detachment. As if all my thoughts, words and actions were being conducted outside of my body by someone else — as if I was stoned. Later, Darach mentioned the same sensations were felt by him the first time he went to high altitude. I can only put it down to the lower level of oxygen reaching the brain. It forced me into a tunnel-like operational mode on the technical part of the tower. I couldn’t think to any depth as to what I was doing, just manage the gear and move as if I was a robot. Feed out, slack, unclip, remove gear, clip gear onto harness and downclimb. In that order. Don’t look around. Don’t question or improve anything, just wait for the next move and repeat.

It was a slow progression down the chimneys with a couple of errant rock-falls en route. Paulie took a hit on the helmet this time, but overall everything worked. We made Camp 1 by 5 p.m, stumbling the final few metres. Craig was waiting, fixing a brew. The three of us collapsed in heaps, like spent salmon, tired but exceptionally content.

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