In September last year, trail runner and mountain athlete Kieren D’Souza climbed the Himalayan peak of Deo Tibba in Himachal Pradesh in 19 hours and 38 minutes. Most climbers take a week on average to climb the 6,001metre mountain in the Pir Panjal range. You’d be forgiven for thinking that D’Souza, 27, had earned some rest. But just two days after finishing the climb, his mind was working overtime, planning his next project. The plan he arrived at was a formidable challenge: summiting ten peaks of over 6,000m in 30 days.
D’Souza’s plan will click into gear on 25 June. The peaks that he’s identified are in the Changthang Plateau of southeast Ladakh, around Tso Moriri. “It’s still a concern, the fact that I’m going for ten summits in such a short time. This could all go very well, where I’m acclimatised to the altitude and climb with ease. Or it could just backfire as I spend more time at higher altitude where my body is degrading and depleting each day. That’s part of the gambit and part of the fun,” D’Souza says.
An experienced runner on the ultra and trail running circuit, D’Souza started chasing these projects after the covid-19 lockdown was lifted last year. His idea was to change the way Himalayan climbing was approached. What he envisioned was a lightweight, self-supported climb that involved minimal gear which would combine his running and mountaineering skills. “When it’s possible to run, I’m running up the mountain and when I need to climb, I’m climbing. It’s a mix of both and that’s the beauty of what I’m trying to do on these mountains,” he says.
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He first attempted this on Friendship Peak (5,290m) in June last year, followed by Deo Tibba a few months later. “But there will be a lot less running involved in this particular project, mainly because it’s over a month. This will be more about moving for long durations over many days. I’ll end up expending a lot of energy for a short duration if I focus on speed—it’s like sprinting during an ultra marathon, a complete waste. I don’t intend on setting a record on any of the climbs, though it may eventually be an outcome of my approach,” says D’Souza.
To get comfortable with negotiating vertical exposure and icy terrain, D’Souza made a trip to Lahaul in winter and spent a month ice climbing. Every few days, he would set off for a frozen waterfall around Keylong and test out his spikes and ice axes on the hard ice. “I knew I wouldn’t experience something as extreme and technical on the project. This was more about getting in the volume on that kind of terrain,” he says.
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D’Souza focuses on his endurance training in the mountains around his home in Nasogi near Manali, where he’s been based for the last five years. Every 3-4 days over the last few weeks, he did small runs with elevation gains of around 2,000 metres. It led up to a week of climbing 2,000 metres everyday on Khanpari Tibba, a mountain near his house. He would set out on the 18km roundtrip in the morning without any food or water. The idea was to replicate all the conditions that he was likely to experience in Ladakh and understand how his body would react to them. By the end of the week, he had clocked 119km in 33 hours with a total elevation gain of 14,000 metres. “The entire week was hectic—I was also in the middle of a shoot alongside the training and not getting enough rest or nutrition. That experiment helped me gain some confidence,” he says. “I’ve been training as a full-time athlete for many years now, so I have an idea of how I will function under the circumstances. But knowing is one thing and experiencing it is wholly different—like an educated guess that you’re backing up with experimental proof,” he adds.
A lot of the other work has been about training his mind for the attempt—imagining the climbs and readying for a variety of scenarios. He identified the mountains he will attempt and researched the possible routes up to their summits. When the research threw up conflicting information, he decided to seek help from Ladakhi mountain guides familiar with the terrain. The videography team from 4Play, who are partly funding the project, will double up as rescuers in case of an emergency.
D’Souza plans on consuming fresh meals while resting at the nearest village, Karzok, or at the base camp below each mountain. To fuel his climb, he’s banking on sattu or barley flour, dried sea buckthorn berries, hemp seeds, locally sourced cheese, homemade peanut butter, energy bars and protein powder, besides dehydrated meals when needed. He also plans on carrying a tent and sleeping bag on some of the mountains that may need a multiple-day attempt.
No climbing project of the sort has ever been attempted in India so far, though the concept isn’t new in other mountain ranges. In 2015, the late Swiss alpinist Ueli Steck had climbed 82 peaks of over 4,000 metres in the Alps in 62 days. In 2019, Nepalese mountaineer Nirmal Purja reached the summit of all fourteen 8,000 metre peaks in six months and six days. “I took up trail running because of my interest in mountaineering. There are a wide range of mountains in India from Ladakh to Arunachal Pradesh, so there’s a lot on offer in terms of adventure. One of my big goals is to do things in our mountains,” he says. His most ambitious attempt could just be the beginning.