It was just after 2am on a Friday morning, and I was cradling a thermos of hot tea as I shone my head-torch into the darkness. The temperature had fallen to somewhere around two degrees centigrade and a light dusting of snow had started to fall, white flakes flashing bright in the lamplight. I had been on bear watch for just over an hour, eyes straining and heart leaping whenever a marmot emerged from its hole, eyes flashing green as they turned to inspect the source of the light. These mini-heart attacks were frequent, as even though at four and a half thousand metres up in a remote Himalayan pass marmots are just about the only thing moving about after dark, there are hundreds of them.
The events that led me to be on watch at 2am had started a couple of days earlier. My team had come back to basecamp sometime around midday after an attempt on a local summit, and were greeted by the news that footprints had been sighted by the supply tents. This wasn’t uncommon, all kinds of animals wandered through camp on a daily basis: yaks, zumus, marmots, even the occasional horse. These footprints were different though, showing five small pads arranged around one large one, tipped with five pinpricks – a brown bear. A couple of slop pits containing food waste had been dug up too, so it was obviously hungry, but no damage had been done so most of us forgot all about it and got on with our day.
At about 10pm a few of us were stood around chatting after dinner when the expedition’s chief leader hurried into our team’s campsite. The bear had returned, he said. It was large at over three head to tail, and aggressive when confronted. We were told to get into our tents and await further advice. Cries could be heard from campsites on the other side of the hill which bisected our basecamp, and torch beams could be seen flashing up into the night sky. Suddenly, a shout;
“Out of the tents! Its close and moving in! You have 10 seconds to get moving!”
We grabbed some warm clothes and our sleeping bags and rushed over to the supply tents as the leaders created a perimeter, bravely shouting, shining torches and clanging mess tins in an attempt to drive the bear away. Disappearing glaciers mean that food and water are in short supply in many regions of the Himalayas, and the predators are starving and desperate. A desperate bear is a fearless bear, and from inside the tents we could hear shouts as it came closer and then disappeared into the darkness once more, its powerful strides taking it from one side of the camp to the other in seconds.
After a night of fitful sleep, it was decided that basecamp would have to be moved to a more defensible temporary position on some flat ground while the plan of action was established, and on an expedition of eighty people this was no mean feat. The altitude and steep ground made transporting barrels and chests full of food and equipment energy sapping to say the least, but a new temporary base camp was set up by mid-way through the afternoon. At dinner time a call was put round for volunteers to go on bear watch through the night, a team of two at each end of the camp observing the dead ground on either side. I drew the short straw – the graveyard shift of 1 to 3am. The night was cold, and full of a strange mix of excitement and fear at the prospect of seeing those distinctive green eyes in the torchlight, followed by claws and teeth and the musty smell of the mountains’ apex predator.
We were three weeks into a five week expedition when the bear incident happened, and at the time it seemed like a disaster. From an adventure point of view, we all had our eye on certain peaks to summit and certain glaciers to climb. Moving camp immediately nixed these plans. More critically, scientific projects spanning years relied totally on us being based in a specific area – moving camp made it impossible for the scientists to get a lot of the data they needed. What’s more, two popular members of the expedition party had been evacuated due to illness, meaning the mood was low even before our meeting with Yogi. Morale was at its lowest as we sat in temporary camp waiting for a decision, and it got lower when the decision was finally made to move thirty kilometres down the valley.
After another day of lugging gear up and down the mountain, getting the final bits up from the original basecamp to the temporary camp, we got moving again. Our new camp was located in the garden of a traditional Tibetan doctor, in a tiny village just south of Rangdum Monastery, on the banks of the Suru River. As we pulled in, prayer flags strung between the rooves fluttered in the wind, lazy yaks dozed in the bright sun, and some local children played cricket on a patch of grass at the centre of the village. Our tents were to be pitched on soft grass, instead of the hard, dusty ground of the original basecamp. It felt like leaving purgatory and entering paradise. There was an almost audible sigh of relief from some in the expedition party, myself included, sensing a fresh start after what felt like innumerable setbacks.
The final two weeks of the expedition defied expectations in many ways. It would have been easy to look at what happened as failure; after all, many of the original goals of the trip had not been achieved, and the itinerary had had to be adjusted enough to make it almost unrecognisable. Instead though, we had experiences we would never have had if it wasn’t for the bear. We lived for a week in a Himalayan village, drank butter tea and ate tsampa with village elders, were invited to a Ladakhi wedding, explored spectacular monasteries and even got to see the Dalai Lama speaking in person!
So what can be learned from an experience like this? I think it really comes down to three things:
1. Don't Panic
A bear is a dangerous animal, and eighty people running around trying to escape its paws would cause chaos that could very easily lead to somebody getting hurt. The reason this didn’t happen is because our expedition leaders had contingencies in place for what to do in the event of an animal incursion, and stuck to them. They calmly formed a perimeter beyond which the bear couldn’t penetrate, and calmly organised the move to a temporary base camp where they could think and decisions could be made. It’s not always possible to have a contingency plan, and sometimes things hit you unawares, but no matter what the situation kneejerk reactions rarely help.
2. Be Adaptable
The fundamental reason that the expedition was successful in the face of such major changes was that everyone banded together and did what needed to be done for success, whether that was lugging gear across the hillside when moving camp, or using their initiative to do small tasks around camp to take the stress off the leaders. Unexpected changes are uncomfortable, and it’s easy to resist them in an effort to preserve some normality, but ultimately there is little we can do to avoid change, so it’s best to do whatever you can to make it as smooth as possible.
3. Stop and Smell the Flowers
In life it’s very easy to become a slave to plans, when in actual fact it’s often difficult to predict exactly where you’ll be in a year or two years or five years. Things change and expectations must be altered, but this can often lead to new opportunities you wouldn’t otherwise have had. Instead of science, we found religion and culture. Instead of mountains we got people. Instead of a remote pass we got to experience a vibrant community. We even got to have a go at a 6000m peak in the end. Even if things aren’t going as initially planned, life is much more enjoyable when you look at the positives, and they are always there if you only look.
Published by Sam Nunn