Kieren D’Souza’s lightening fast ascent of Friendship peak (5,290m) came in just under 12 hours
Under the eerie gloom of a streetlight, Kieren D’Souza bounced around at the start line, somewhere in between trying to contain his nerves and keep warm. An interested doggo lined up by his side to sate his curiosity; another lay a short hop ahead, oblivious to the activity that had shaken him from his slumber.
In the next few moments, D’Souza started his stopwatch and broke into a light jog, gradually picking up pace as he set out into the darkness under the sole beam of his headlamp. The time was 1.02am, the deadline overshot by a couple of minutes thanks to some straggling tipplers on Mall Road in Manali.
Since moving to the hill town in 2016, the scenic mountains had doubled up as D’Souza’s training ground. With most races cancelled due to the Covid-19 pandemic, the time was right to chase some personal targets, which until now had been tucked away in some remote corner of his heart.
He was now headed for the summit of Friendship peak (5,290m) near Solang Valley, a mountain that shows up on most sunny day and can be seen from over 15km away in Manali. Most climbers take an average of 3-4 days to climb to the top, while using siege tactics that involve setting up camps en route. D’Souza was to attempt a solo ascent in a single push that would need all his experience of running in mountains around the world. It was a formidable challenge and pulling it off would be nothing short of a watershed moment when it came to ultra running in the country.
It wasn’t all unfamiliar territory for D’Souza, who in the past has competed in renowned international ultra races such as the Ultra-Trail du Mont-Blanc and the La Ultra, which run over similar terrain. Only this time around, the altitude and the terrain posed a formidable challenge, needing him to make the most of his running and mountaineering skills.
“It’s more technical in terms of trail running, with certain sections needing basic mountaineering skills, so it’s going to test my body as well. The fact that I am switching from regular trail running to mountaineering, the snow and the altitude – all of it is going to add up to the challenges,” D’Souza had highlighted before the run.
D’Souza had first seen Friendship peak as a teenager while pursuing his Basic Mountaineering Course, though he never landed the chance to attempt the summit. When his running dreams took him to Manali around five years ago, the view of Friendship Peak teased him on a daily basis. Four years ago on his second attempt, this time in the winter, the bitter cold had forced the team of two to turn around at 4,000m.
Given that most summers were spent chasing new benchmarks at races in India and around the world, the pandemic and circumstances around it made it the right time to finally make an attempt on Friendship Peak.
The lockdown meant just a little over a month of training. Even once things got better, the local authorities only allowed activity in the outdoors between 5-7.30am. Most days, D’Souza had access to the slopes behind his home, where he focussed more on elevation gain, rather than mileage.
“The training has been good based on whatever time I had in May, though not the way I hoped it would have been at this time of the year,” D’Souza says.
A day before the run, he made a recce trip to the mountain with the team at 4Play – a media outlet specialising in adventure sports, who have helped D’Souza both financially and emotionally over the years. The snow was unusually abundant for this time of the year and as he stashed his boots, crampons and extra layers, it was evident that he would have to start out earlier than his scheduled time of 3.30am.
“That way I wouldn’t have to break trail to the summit. Besides, it would be a long sort of day after not doing anything like it for the last seven months,” D’Souza says.
Though navigating in the dark, the initial part of the route was something he was familiar with, having trained on it every other day since moving to Manali. For the first 12-odd km until Solang (2,560m), it was a mix of trail and road that ran through a few villages. The weather was nice and cool and D’Souza had little trouble, besides the fact that there were no landmarks or route markers to bank on in the dark.
He continued past Solang to Dhundi (2,750m), now on the regular trekking route to Beas Kund as well as the base camp of Friendship peak. By this time, he was well ahead of his estimated schedule. A river crossing left him with wet feet, but he had now settled into a comfortable pace, with few attempts to keep track of time, well aware of the challenges ahead once he hit altitude.
“From base camp the Lady Leg ridge (3,800m) is when things get really steep – vertical and really scary. I reached the ridge in a little less than four hours, put on my running spikes and picked up my bag that had the crampons, walking poles and boots,” he says.
Things got tricky here on, starting with a gross miscalculation. While he had carried gels and bars on him for the run, D’Souza had decided to rehydrate at the many natural spring water sources en route. But higher up amid the vast snowfields, all such channels were frozen at the early hour, leaving him with no alternate solution for water. He also realised that ditching thermals to go as lightweight as possible had been a bad idea, and when he met the team of filmmakers at the col (4,600m), he was in a miserable state, unable to even work the zips on his jacket.
“The guys helped me put on the gear and even loaned me a jacket and a head cap. That’s when I got kind of comfortable,” D’Souza recalls.
What worked in his favour though was the decision to start out early, the frozen snow crunching under his feet and helping him progress up the final steep slope to the top. Having Aditya Pande alongside, who has summited Friendship peak in the past, proved crucial when it came to route finding, especially while navigating multiple crevasses en route.
“It was a bit of a struggle since I hadn’t acclimatised to the extent where I could function smoothly. The fatigue was catching up and I needed breathers at regular intervals before climbing further,” he says.
After 7 hours 16 minutes, D’Souza made the top of Friendship peak under a warm sun. The climb had been taxing, but all that was forgotten as he took to celebrating with a live chat on social media. After spending 15 minutes admiring the stunning vista of the Pir Panjal range around him, he started his descent and retraced his route to the starting point.
It needed a focussed effort on the down climb, with no ice axe or rope at his disposal to arrest a fall. A slip meant sliding about a kilometre to the bottom of the face. On arrival at the col, D’Souza staggered like a drunkard, the exhaustion and altitude having got the better of him momentarily. It had been a few hours since he had any access to water and dehydration made matters worse. As he changed back into his running gear, he replenished his body and finally readied to get moving again. He was now looking to clock a sub-11 hour run.
“I started running fairly hard till Solang, but here on to Manali was gruelling since I was really exhausted. I jogged most of the way and realised that I wouldn’t make the time I had in mind,” D’Souza says.
By the time he got to the finish, the market at Mall Road had come to life. The lockdown meant that there were few people out even at that hour. But the word on his run up Friendship peak had done the rounds and besides friends, it was enough reason for a few strangers to step out to check on ‘the guy who just keeps on running all the time’.
As D’Souza crawled to a halt after 11 hours 45 minutes, having run a total distance of 53.38km over an elevation gain of 3,657 meters, there was more relief than jubilation on what he had accomplished.
“I had been thinking about the project for the last 3-4 years and I had played out the entire run in my head. So finishing the whole thing was like – OK, it’s done,” D’Souza says.