Today is Day One. Today we left spring for winter. Today is the day we have taken ourselves, and all of our collective stomach butterflies, and dropped in at over 12,000 feet. There is a full moon and it is Holy, the biggest holiday of the year in India, when the whole valley celebrates in powdered sprays of bright color. We have been blessed by a crowd of women and children, throwing pink and yellow and orange and green and blue paint in our direction. And now, today, we are snuggled in our down, hopeful for good things, good weather, and good snow.
We have arrived. In addition to our hopes, we are armed with a plan, a counter-plan, and the requisite massive pile of gear. Nine days up, one day down. Simple. And it is, until the fourth day when we awake to a snowy whiteout. We wake after a night of drying out, dehydrated so much that sleep happens only in short sections. We wake up, shift from cramped positions into other cramped positions, curse the undulating surface of our tent platform, wait for the pounding in our head to subside, curl up more tightly against someone's boot liners, and drift into fuzz again.
But our Holy Day blessing stays with us. After two days of forced rest at 14,000 feet, the weather lifts. A long day is ahead: We're walking through a blinding oven, the sun buzzing in our ears. Slowly, slowly, up to the wide open of the high glacier, as the clouds build and grow closer behind us, threatening. It is as if the sharp peaks we have just passed through are sticking up into the clouds, holding them back for us.
Sleeping at 17,000 feet is something we work at for 12 hours, succeeding for about five. We decide that Summit Day is tomorrow, making sleep even more difficult.
Eyes open at four, and we start packing up, boiling water, getting ready. It is cold. Getting boots on is a challenge; everything is. We start skinning up after 5 a.m. I count to eight three times, wiggle my toes, breathe. Count again, wiggle, breathe. But to no avail -- my toes just get colder and colder. The light coming up on the mountains is gorgeous, and creates hope and worry, back-and-forth, two voices in our heads: "Thank god it's getting light. Soon, I can warm my feet." Then: "Shit. It's getting light already? We'll run out of time to get up there...."
We gain the summit ridge just high enough to glimpse a cornice perched suspiciously close to the entrance of our descent. It's the size of a small house. If we risk the exposed slopes above us and thrash through the sugar snow on the ridge, we will reach the couloir -- exhausted. And if the couloir isn't skiable, our descent back to high camp will be late in the day, in the full sun, across the same unstable, dangerous slopes. We decide on an alternate descent. Dusk finds us setting up our frozen tent back down at high camp, getting snowed on, and grim with the prospect of the incoming weather ruining our chance at a descent.
But the next morning's dawn is perfectly clear, and by the time the sun rises, we all begin to understand how much an Indian blessing can do. A steep, 50 degree exposed entrance, a ski in on a rope, and tricky route-finding through cliffs and ice. We're winding down into a place no human has ever been before, much less skied in. And for our suffering of the days past, we're rewarded with softness, depth, and ever-increasing oxygen. Turn after turn, all the way to the Moraine Valley, across the glacier, until our skis hit gravel, and we are in spring again.
Check out skiingmag.com for previous correspondences from India with Alison, Kasha, Hilaree, and Margaret and stay tuned for further coverage of Indian Wintercoming soon in SKIING Magazine.