AS AN ADVENTURE PHOTOGRAPHER, every time I take a trip, I'm thinking, This could be the one, the one that makes a million bucks, the one that brings fame, fortune, enlightenmentsomething. In April 1997, I was part of a group that got permission to traverse the Rishi Gorge, in the Indian Himalayas, and ski 23,360-foot Trisul, where no foreigner had been in at least 15 years. A dream trip.
The plan was to take the peak's mild north face, but when we got to Delhi a bureaucrat informed us, "You will climb from the other side." Instead of powdery slopes, we'd be attempting sheer icefalls on the weather-whipped southwest face. With skis. We decided to go for it, cramming seven of us, a cook, a helper, two drivers, a guide, and a month's supplies into a minibus.
Two days later, we were in Rishikesh, where the Beatles got enlightened. I was in my hotel room when a friend hit the floorface first. Seizure. Holy shit! Turned out he wasn't just your typical party animal/ski junkie; he was literally a heroin addict, and he'd quit cold before we left. Maybe he thought the trip would cure himI don't know. But as we'd been going up the mountains, he'd been going into withdrawal. We nursed him back to health and moved on. It'll get better in the mountains, I thought.
But this was just a taste. One day everything self-destructed. We'd made base camp early and sent the porters packingwith our gear. Supplies had disappeared. One group had stolen our kerosene; in the distance, we saw them furtively leaking it to lighten their loads. A while later, smoke wafted up from the valley below. They'd started a wildfire with our fuel! Whether it was the result of sabotagetwo of them had been savagely bickeringor a cigarette, we never found out. We watched in horror as acres burned. Once we're higher up, I thought, it'll get better.
At 20,000 feet, we saw snow leopard tracks, and for about a minute it seemed like things might turn out OK. But the route was dangerous, the climbing over our heads, and most of our food had been pinched. As we ate our soy nuggets, we pictured the cook's goat on a spit. Moving on, we soon saw that a huge slide had wiped out our route. Then monsoon clouds rushed in, as if on cue. That was it. Cursed! Our hearts just weren't in it anymore. We never even saw the summit.
Vanquished, we returned to camp, where the cook dispatched his goat. Within ten minutes we finally saw the sign that told us once and for all to get the hell out of there. It was a sign in the heavens: lammergeiers, vultures with ten-foot wingspans. They knew dead meat when they saw it.