Thursday 20 November 2008

Building a team - be ruthless

In the mid 90s I was a member of a five-person team on an expedition to a remote village in the Western Himalayas, Pakistan's Karakoram range, or "Black Wall".

We needed a woman and a man with local language skills, and so it was that we selected a guy who at first glance seemed perfect. Affable, intelligent, and the son of Pakistani parents.

However, something in me was unsure. He seemed ever so slightly arrogant and once or twice failed to deliver on agreed action points on the list of preparations. I was not leading the team, however, and it was not my call.

Fast fwd four months and we were in the village, situated at 6,500ft in the fertile floor of an enormous valley. Hundreds of miles long, the valley wound its way between 24,000ft peaks up to the Chinese boarder. The section where we were was forty miles end-to-end, four miles wide, with peaks down either side and at each end that towered three miles above us.

Three or four weeks into the expedition, we had a day's R&R. This guy in question and I both wanted to revisit a high goat pasture we had seen a week before. Hidden by a giant fold in the rocks and directly beneath an overhanging glacier, the goat herder's stone hut was one of the most serene places I had ever been to.

We set out early and made good progress in the lower part of the climb. Through apricot groves, past white mulberry trees surrounded by huddles of ancient buildings, and up to the mountain track flanked by fragrant wildflowers. The path wound its way between fields, following the lines of irrigation channels that fed the crops with silty water from the river. This river tumbled down from the glacier high above the village, into the mighty river thousands of feet below in the bed of the main valley.

The path led up into a narrow gorge, carved by centuries of glacial run-off, with near-vertical sides that were lined with boulder clay, towering hundreds of feet either side. Boulder clay is a mixture of sand, silt, gravel and boulders, which is created by the seasonal advance and retreat of the glacier, grinding over the rocks high above.

Although we had to rest frequently, as the air became thinner over 10,000ft, we reached the goat herder's hut by lunchtime and sat chatting with him, sharing our food in return for some lussee (cooled goats yoghurt). Lunch over, the two of us took time to wander the vast pasture separately, agreeing to leave in one hour.

Teetering at 13,000 feet at the lip of the gorge we had just climbed, and surrounded on three sides by 10,000ft walls of ice and rock, the scale is impossible to describe. Probably a mile and a half long by a mile wide, the pasture is nearly silent, except for the distant sound of the glacial run-off, some eagle cries and an occasional groan from the glacier, which would send an eerie echo into the cobalt blue sky above.

I got the photos I wanted and returned to the rocks that we had agreed to meet at. Just after 13:00 and plenty of time to descend before the late afternoon light would fade into the evening darkness.

One peculiar aspect of Himalayan valleys is that two or three hours after the sun passes its midday zenith, it sets very quickly, as the 24,000ft mountains on one side cast a shadow onto the slopes of the 24,000ft mountains on the other side. An hour later, you can see the movement of the shadow, as the sun paints the opposite side of the valley with gloom.

So it was that TWO HOURS later, my team mate arrived, and gave an inadequate apology and explanation. There was no time for argument. We decided to return to the village as we were not equipped to spend the night up there in sub-zero temperatures.

We made quick progress, descending a few thousand feet before the light began to fail. We were half way between the pasture and the village - and we realised our mistake. The light faded much quicker once we were down in the gorge and soon the sandy grey boulder clay faded into the gathering dusk.

It became impossible to follow what faint path existed and we soon found ourselves at a dead end. We were probably 300ft below the top of the gorge side and I guess we were 100ft lower than the path. Scrambling had given way to technical climbing without ropes, and our advance was halted by a 50ft lump sticking out from the side of the gorge.

I managed to climb around it and reached a much easier place, where a small stream had carved a natural path. I could see that this ran past the original path lower down, near the place where it began to open out and ease off.

I turned back to help the other guy and was reaching down, ready to help him up. He was just out of reach and was climbing up the side of a tiny channel carved by another stream.

I think we both realised what was happening in the same moment. The TV-sized boulder he was pulling himself up on began to move. Boulder clay is incredibly unstable, and as he froze he understood it was already too late. Sand, stones and boulders began to shift all around him.

He looked up into my face and said, "Matt, I'm not going to make..."

And the sound of the river in the gorge below was drowned by a crashing roar, as chunks of the boulder clay around me fell into the channel after him.

I saw how big the boulders were that tumbled down onto him but I had to retreat as the ground under my feet began to shift too.

I climbed down a little to see if I could see him but the channel was clear, but for the dust that hung in the air. The roaring of the rock avalanche subsided and the sound of the river far below filled the air.

I called his name but there was silence.

My heart pounded even harder as I realised that the whole area around me had been destabilised. I turned and climbed back up, as quickly as I could, even as boulders began to give way beneath my feet.

As my mind raced, thinking about returning next day to find his body, I began the easy descent in the stream bed I had seen earlier.

Then, to my complete amazement, I heard his voice.

He was at least a hundred feet further down the side of the gorge, but I found a vantage point and peered over to see his dusty and disheveled face looking up. I directed him over a ridge above him and up to the stream bed.

He had literally miraculously escaped serious injury and was just bruised and scraped.

We rested for a few minutes and then started the descent once more. We jogged where possible but mostly clambered down the rough slopes in the semi darkness.

It was pitch black by the time we reached the apricot groves, and finally, after several trips and falls, we reached base camp in the village, exhausted and conscious of how close we had come to not making it back at all.

The moral of this long tail?

Trust your instincts when building a team. And be ruthless if you have doubts about someone you interview.

Oh, and never climb to 13,000ft without overnight gear.

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