The Torture Tent

The Torture Tent

Mike Pescod
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Imagine a place where everything you do has to be done carefully, correctly, consciously, with the alternative leading to catastrophe.

Thalay Sagar, 6,904 metres. One of the most beautiful mountains in the Indian Himalaya. Its north face has seen several visionary ascents. Its spectacular southeast ridge remains unclimbed. Mike Pescod of the Jöttnar Pro Team, attempted an ascent this summer.   

Life on an unclimbed narrow ridge at 6,000m in the Indian Himalaya is joy and terror. You can't do anything - anything - without thinking of the consequences if you do it wrong. It's minus 15°C and the snow is icy where you were sitting the night before. Getting out of the very small tent you put on your boots, liners first, then over-boots. It's awkward, it demands balance.  

You slip, you fall. Over 1,000m down the side of the ridge.  

At this altitude your body needs three litres of water daily or it will stop working. At this altitude every single item of kit and clothing is essential. Your temperamental stove has stopped working? Now you can't melt snow for water. No water, no food. It's too easy to not bother with all the little jobs because everything feels so hard. Sitting down resting feels like hard work. But those little jobs are essential. Carelessness and laziness compounds.

Toes need constant maintenance. Extremities freeze quickly and are hard to warm up again. It seems like such hard work to rub them, to check your socks are dry, especially when you can't sit up in this small tent to reach your toes and it's too cold and too snowy to do it outside.

But this is joy. This is a stunningly beautiful place. The scale is overwhelming. It's impossible not to be in awe of the forces that created such sculptures. If you visit St. Paul's Cathedral, the Taj Mahal, or any of our most wonderful architectural creations, you will wonder at their scale and beauty, at the skill and effort demanded by their creation. These mountains provoke similar wonder but on a supernatural scale. The architects were the forces of the universe. 

Our appreciation is magnified by the knowledge that we are the only people to have ever visited this exact place. We are the first to see this grand view from this position. The only people to know the details of this ridge. That privilege fills us with joy.

"We are the only people to have ever visited this exact place."

But there is an undercurrent of terror. This is not a fairground ride that will soon stop and allow you off to safe ground with a smile and an amused thrill of feeling fear, which you know is irrational anyway. This is not a virtual experience. If you make an error and die, there are no respawns, no lives left. There is no reset button. The only escape is to keep working away. Keep it together, keep concentrating and keep climbing.

I'm in the tent, the torture tent, with my heart banging in my chest and my head, my breathing hard even at rest. My nose is blocked and my mouth dry from dehydration and heavy breathing. The temperature ranges from burning hot in the sun to below freezing as a cloud passes by moments later. 

Breathing through my nose is too hard because it is blocked by the super dry air. Breathing through my mouth is dry and uncomfortable, so I alternate two breaths through my nose then two through my mouth. When I can sustain relaxed breathing my breathing rate slows to a stop. Cheyne Stokes respiration. A deep gasp remedies the situation but makes sleep hard, especially knowing that it will repeat a few minutes later. All I want to do is escape this torture tent, to get to fresh clean air and unrestricted breathing. But I can't. 

The three of us are sleeping head-to-toe for seven nights. Three people in a 120cm wide two-man tent. Ice frostings fall from the inside. Getting out is a full-on operation that requires choreography, delivers clumsy jabs in the ribs and needs ten minutes of recovery. 

There’s a rising sense of claustrophobia in here. When last out, you know that it will take a quarter of an hour for your buddies to process themselves into outdoor mode to cope with the sub-zero, snowy conditions outside. All you can do is lie there, trying to keep the rising sense of panic low enough.

We didn't climb our ridge. It took us a day to walk up the glacier then two days swimming against the tide climbing 1,000m up the side of the ridge. The east facing snow turns to mush at sunrise, every step a workout. Our schedule gave us two and a half days to climb our ridge. The first tower looked improbable, taking us half a day to climb just 50m, leaving us only two days to climb the remaining 1,500m. It was clear that we were not going to do it. Going further would commit us to a fate with very few escape options. It was a clear-cut decision. 

Our descent went smoothly, with a long slow plod down the glacier to base camp at 4,600m. Arriving here felt like arriving at a four-star luxury hotel. Tang and a three-course lunch. A two-person tent each and a toilet tent a short walk away, a walk on which if you fell over you were unlikely to die. Finally it was possible to stop concentrating and to relax.

It's a strange thing to choose to do on your time off. Most people, when planning their holiday, would look for somewhere comfortable with nice accommodation, spacious rooms where you can stretch out, relax, switch off and luxuriate. 

Julia Donaldson gives the moral in A Squash and a Squeeze:

'Wise old man, won’t you help me, please? 

My house is a squash and a squeeze.'

To help you realise how well-off we are, try taking away some of the freedoms we take for granted.

Mike Pescod is a member of the Jöttnar Pro Team and climbed with Guy Buckingham and Keith Ball. Read more about him here.

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