After a failed first attempt, three friends return to India’s Mount Nilkantha to confront—and embrace—the terrible, beautiful duality of a life in the mountains.
It was our third day on the southwest face of Mount Nilkantha, what we’d thought would be our summit day, and it was my lead block. I wove through steep rock and faceted snow, staring at the “Castle,” the 700-foot fortress towering above me. Four thousand feet fell away below to the braided rivers of the valley floor. Vertical, blank walls had blocked us farther left, and so I kept traversing right, another rope length, until I found a weakness: a long runnel of ice that disappeared from view before re-emerging beneath an overhanging ice dagger. I gasped the thin air and brought up my partners, Chantel Astorga and my husband, Jason Thompson. The afternoon sun beat down and my thoughts raced. What if it’s a dead end? Should I have searched longer on the other side? I handed Chantel the rack and left her with some cheesy words of encouragement. She began making her way up the tight runnel.
Every day for the past two years, I had thought about Nilkantha. In 2015 our friend Caro North, Jason and I first visited this isolated valley in India’s Garhwal Himalaya, just south of the holy city of Badrinath. We had aspirations for the beautiful and intimidating southwest face, an untouched 4,600-foot wall of granite, ice and snow. But while acclimating on the west ridge, the skies turned dark and an electrical storm engulfed us on an exposed section at 20,000 feet, jolting us with shocks and forcing a retreat. The weather shut down, and we never set foot on the face.
My life is driven by climbing. I love long days on a route, the fleeting moments on the summit and even the nights spent shivering in the open, waiting for the sun to rise. Climbing is a self-centered desire, but it’s also more than a physical act, more than a summit. It’s the art of embracing the unknown in challenging situations and spectacular places with the people we love and trust. We carry these experiences home with us—and wherever we end up next.
The ropes came tight, yanking me into the present. Chantel was out of sight above. As Jason and I climbed higher, we heard her yell, “It’ll go!” Her words echoed off the walls and evaporated. I let out a howl and climbed faster. Chantel continued, inching up steep granite, swinging into the hanging ice dagger and pulling through the last of the hard climbing; we knew, finally, that we would reach Mount Nilkantha’s summit. As the sun settled into darkness, together we stood in alpenglow atop the Castle, feeling a wave of contentment wash over us, if only for a minute.
Thirty-six hours later we summited, then descended to base camp and began the journey home, fatigued but with a deep sense of gratitude, eager to share the joy with our friends and loved ones. It’s strange—we spend our lives focusing on faraway adventures, chasing overtly pointless dreams, and then return more closely bonded to those we left behind. In Delhi, we celebrated into the night. But the following morning we awoke to personal messages pinging and beeping. As we read, an indescribable hollowness ran through us.
Back home in Montana the day before, our close friends Hayden Kennedy and Inge Perkins, a vibrant couple deeply in love, had headed out for a casual ski tour. Hayden, 27, and Inge, 23, were young, but old souls. They were the kind of friends who called just to say hello, wrote letters and gave handmade gifts. Before our trip, Hayden and Inge came by our house to wish us well, share food and hang out. Before they left that evening, Hayden gave Jason, Chantel and me each a piton that a friend in Slovenia had made for him. We took one on the route with us as a goodluck charm. They were kind like that, the type of people we all wish we were. They were also two of the best mountain athletes of their generation, but you would never know it from talking to them. They avoided attention and wanted instead to know how you were doing. They had both endured emotional hardship and loss, maybe too much for people their age, but they were building a life together. Inge was finishing her degree, and Hayden worked in a restaurant. After years of living in their vehicles, they had just signed a yearlong lease in Bozeman and dreamed of opening a bakery. On their ski tour, they were caught in an avalanche. By that night, both of them were dead.
We sobbed and wandered the foreign streets, empty and devastated, trying to comprehend how our friends could so suddenly be gone. How can we understand such loss when it is inseparable from the freedom the mountains give us? We tried to hold the light from our lost friends. The climbing we’d just experienced vanished into nothingness. All that mattered was all that was left: We were together, and we were coming home.
This story is featured in the November 2018 Patagonia Catalog.