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Victor Saunders at Camp 3 on Chombu during better weather. (Photo: Mick Fowler)
Victor Saunders at Camp 3 on Chombu during better weather. (Photo: Mick Fowler)

What mountaineers can teach us about isolation

Climbers know how it feels to be cut off from the world, trapped in cramped tents for days. Here’s what they can tell us about isolation and uncertainty

It felt like déjà vu. In October, Mick Fowler and Victor Saunders sat in a tent, awaiting a window of good weather to begin their climb up the Chombu in north Sikkim. Things had been no different in their first attempt before the monsoon. That time, bogged down by incessant rain for two weeks, they had returned home to England without even setting foot on the Chombu.

In October, they put into practice their decades of climbing experience: sitting tight in their shelter. After 20 restless days over the two trips in a tent, they got their first opportunity to climb the peak. And though they had to give up 250m shy of the summit after a bout of severe food poisoning, there were few complaints because they were pleased they had attempted it.

Mountaineers know a thing or two about being trapped in enclosed spaces for long periods of time before finally relishing the moment they can step outside and soak in the sunshine. So these virus-afflicted days are easier for them to handle. “Frankly, sitting in a tent with nothing to do but listen to bad weather is many times worse than being locked down at home," Fowler says.

On a guiding assignment on the Trisul in 2013, Anindya Mukherjee and nine others were holed up at Camp 2 for seven days straight. There was little to do but cook a few meals and step out once in a while to clear the falling snow that threatened to damage the tents. They were soon out of food, their plans of reaching the summit aborted, and most of the team retreated to the base camp. Not one to accept defeat, Mukherjee made a quick, two-day dash up the nearby peak, Ronti, with a teammate once the weather improved.

“My brain switched to survival mode. It taught me how to stay strong when you had failure staring in your face," he says.

It was no different for Stephen Venables on the Kungyang Kish in 1981. Alongside Dave Wilkinson and Phil Bartlett, he was forced to spend six days sitting in a snow hole at 7,000m while waiting out a storm. With supplies running low, food became an obsession as they looked forward to the 1pm meal of a scrumptious biscuit, spread thinly with Pakistani processed cheese. Once the weather improved, the deep snow forced them to abandon the climb and it was another 24 hours before they could finally descend to the more stable slopes below.

“It actually felt rather exhilarating in those pre-internet days to know that the three of us were completely alone and that no one in the world knew exactly where we were. I suppose the important thing in isolation is to cherish your companions, to try and enjoy the moment, and to keep active," Venables says.

After running out of every possible form of engagement on another expedition in 1984, Venables resorted to spending hours watching the “miraculous, unique, hexagonal details of each snowflake" that would eventually melt into a water droplet on his sleeping bag.

Climber Cory Richards too created his own little game, counting the number of squares on the nylon ceiling of his tent, before conceding defeat and accepting his fate and his situation.

“I am happy to binge watch, write or read most times but this was probably the most frustrating thing that I have done to kill time," Richards says.

The presence of a partner can be bittersweet. While mountaineer and writer Harish Kapadia was regaled by his tent mate, Vijay Kothari, at Camp 3 during a storm on the Kalaband glacier in 1979, he found Kothari’s habit of packing and repacking his rucksack annoying; the crackling sound of plastic bags got to him.

“The real test on any expedition is getting used to the other person’s idiosyncrasies. Habits become irritable but you need to build up an ability to tolerate somebody else in confined spaces," says Divyesh Muni, who made Camp 2 on the Kamet his home for two weeks in 1985 amid heavy snowfall.

For most, it was reading that came to the rescue during these seemingly endless moments. Fowler learnt it the hard way on the Spantik in 1987, without a book and in dismal conditions for five days. Most books are shared, like every other resource in the tent, ripped into multiple volumes that are carefully preserved in case the situation demands a reread.

With technology on offer, power banks that can charge anything from a phone to a Kindle often hold priority these days. During his solo ascent of the Everest last winter, Jost Kobusch spent time listening to podcasts, playing games or watching documentaries once through with the chores at camp. On one occasion, he spent eight days alone on the mountain before descending to the base camp.

“There was never a dull moment because I was busy surviving and there was no time for anything else. I would usually be more chatty during the first few conversations at base camp, but I would soon go back to standby mode and regain focus," Kobusch says.

In tough times, essentials like melting snow and fixing tents correctly can save the day. During the first winter ascent of Nanga Parbat in 2016, Alex Txikon, Simone Moro and Ali Sadpara faced heavy winds at Camp 2, where just tackling the basics often proved to be a task.

“If you need to survive these moments of uncertainty, you need to be in harmony with the team. And really patient with everything around you," he says.

During another time on the Everest, an emergency 12-hour bivouac in the open with partner Esteban Mena felt more like a week for Richards. His thoughts ran wild, conjuring up everything from celebrating the summit via a new route to freezing to death and getting hit by rockfall.

“You imagine the worst-case scenario, the best-case scenario, you land up daydreaming, look to the future and play over the past. That’s just the brain functioning the way it normally does. If it’s trying to find a way around the boredom, that’s healthy brain activity," he says.

In these days of lockdown, most of this tribe is training indoors, reading, writing or baking, making the most of the downtime in the material comforts of home.

“We all know that the lockdown will end and we will be allowed out in a few weeks. That’s so much better than a tent-bound situation in the mountains when you never know if there will be a successful outcome," Fowler says.

Shail Desai is a Mumbai-based writer.

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