And finally, the plan was fixed. The plan: the ascent of fort Lingana. The team: Vinod, me and Vikas Bhondve, lovingly called “Appa”, a highly experienced rock climber from the reputed mountaineering club “Giripremi”, in Pune, India, and Sushant, our base camp manager.
Amidst the dense sahyadris of the Raigad district, fort lingana stands erect towering for about 3000 feet from sea level, but we had to climb about 2500 feet. This, almost inaccessible fort, its topography was used strategically by Chattrapati Shivaji Maharaj as a prison, as it was impossible for the prisoners to climb it down to escape.
Our team of four left for our quest early on the 31st of December. Traveling through Bhor, and the dangerous “Varanda Ghat”, the S.T bus dropped us off at Mahad at around 11 am. A rough map of the area helped us trace the further path we had to trek. We reached the village of Dapoli, with craving stomachs. Filled out stomachs with packed lunch, re-filled our water bottles and set out for the hike towards “Lingana Machi”, the village at the base of fort Lingana. It was around 7 pm, when we reached the destination. The small hamlet of Lingana Machi comprising of 30 odd houses held a small school which was going to be our hoe for the next two days.
Our New Year celebrations had already started off by preparing tea and “Khichadi” for dinner. Sitting in the verandah, sipping hot tea, the cool breeze and sort moonlight helped us relax. But at the same time, the silhouetted pinnacle stood right above us, a pinnacle comprising of rock and scree (a mixture of loose rock and soil), a mountain imposing a challenge upon us, a pinnacle called Lingana – which we were determined to climb the next day.
The New Years celebrations on Raigad in front of us could be easily seen, as it was dark everywhere. The sky was brightly lit up with thousands of stars. It was a perfect new years eve. Our celebrations came to an end as we sorted out the equipment for our next days’ climb; we all retired at around 10 pm. We were up and ready at 6 o’clock on the first day of the year of 1999. We wished each other a happy new year while we prepared tea. Tea and biscuits session was followed by packing of rucksacks, and we started from the village at the first crack of dawn. A local from the village named Sharad Jadhav accompanied us to guide us through the dense jungle up to the base of Lingana. The route was very risky, as we hiked up a narrow gorge with loose boulders of rock waiting to roll down on us, and the high mountain slopes on both the sides.
On the way up, one of the water bottles cracked after suffering a small fall, making the three of us dependant on three bottles of water only, a rare and necessary commodity in the mountains, which we ad managed to overlook. We reached the base safely from where the actual climb started. We downloaded our gear and paid our respect to the mountain before climbing it, by performing a small pooja. The time to attempt the climb had finally come. The three of us, Appa, Vinod and me, wore our climbing harnesses, and clipped the necessary technical gear and karabiners into its loops. The necessary instructions were given to Sushant who would be the stand-by man at the base and to help, in case of any emergency. We built the tempo of the climb by doing a thorough warm-up.
The climb started at 9:45 in the morning. Vinod took the lead. I was the second, and Appa, was the end man. Vinod clipped I the “figure of eight” type knot of the belay rope into his harness, and clinged to the rock. The initial patches were easily negotiable, i.e. they were not so difficult and offered good hand and foot holds and cracks for driving in a piton as an artificial anchor. The lead climber secures himself by placing a runner which offers impact strength of about 3 tones. Vinod was fighting his way up inch by inch and had already climbed up about a hundred and fifty feet, when he suddenly realized that the pitch he was negotiating had no anchoring placement at all. So, the rope had to be anchored around a big rock projection.
Appa and I were alternatively providing belay to Vinod. The safety rope, or the climbers’ life line was safely anchored and Appa and me climbed up next to Vinod. After climbing another seventy five off feet, we came face to face with a cave, which was man-made. The cave easily occupied the three of us. We took some rest and had biscuits and water to rejuvenate ourselves. A call to Sushant confirmed his of our status as we proceeded with the climb. After the cave, we followed a ledge spirally towards the left, around the rock face. And then, in front of us, emerged the much talked about face of the climb, the “Mulicha Patch”. The is known to be one of the most treacherous pitches of the climb. A traversal patch of the rock on which, a muli (root of a small tree) protruded. On has to hang on this muli in an awkward position to place the required anchor. Even though the belay of the safety rope was being fed, while looking out for a foot hold, vision automatically nosedived two thousand feet down into the fathoms of the valley, giving us a bad twist in our stomachs. Negotiating and climbing this patch at such a high exposure was precisely what we wanted on this first high ascent of ours. The top of the “mulicha patch” offered very little space, barely for a person to get anchored and belay the next climber. Further up, we encountered a horse-back shaped ride on which we had to sit with both feet dangling in mid-air, desperately trying to get a grip on the rock face diving vertically deep into the valley. It was almost three and a half hours now, our throats dried up, and our energies slowly giving away. But, mere determination and keeping patience, we could make our way up through various pitches. Our curiosity reached its limit when we were confronted with a patch of about 50-60 feet high beyond which we could see the summit, the top of the pinnacle. The adrenalin shooting through our veins suddenly withdrew when we realized that this patch was more than what we cold define as “difficult”. It comprised of a mixture of scree and rock on which, we could not take a grip to climb, and hardly could locate any placements for an anchor. Here, on this last and final patch, it seemed as if Mount Lingana was smiling at us sarcastically, delivering a message – “guys, THIS is THE last and the most difficult obstacle laid in your path by mother nature. If you have the guts, climb up and experience the joy of success, or else, simply go back.” There was silence. We were puzzled. Just then Appa came up besides us. After all, his vast experience of climbing was an asset to our team. In a haze of three minds working out different “eye routes” through the scree to the top, Appa finalized a tricky spiral traverse through whatever rock that was available to us. The right side of this route was highly exposed, and we had no other option left but to climb it. It took us more than half an hour for all three of us to climb this patch and belay each other. And there we were, unknowingly standing on the summit. We were overwhelmed by a sense of extreme satisfaction. This actually made us speechless. For more than 5 minutes, we did nothing but stare at the endless panoramic view that the summit offered us as a bonus. The summit was an elevated platform of about ten feet by fifteen feet in length, characterized by dried grass up to our thigh level.
Whistle calls were given out by Vinod, indicating the news of the summit to Sushant at base. The calls echoed in the valleys deep below. It was 2:45 pm. The climb had taken us five hours to reach the summit.
It was getting late, and we realized that we had to descend to base and to the village before dark. We hastily took photographs, gulped down 2-3 sips of water, coiled up the rope, passed it through the piton and started the rappel one after the other. We realized that climbing up was much easier than rappelling down. It was less scary than continually looking down the two thousand feet of exposure while rappelling. The slightest feeling of getting a swing, or a small slip, and we would have gone on the rock face. This made us even more cautious, as we rappelled down. We reached the “Mulicha Patch” in no time. The “U method” of rappelling too us more time than we had anticipated. It was 5:15 pm, and we still had 200-250 feet of descent left. Ultimately, at 6:30 pm, we reached the base safely.
The sun had started to set. We al had forgotten to get torches along ad had to descend to Lingana machi via the treacherous boratyachi naal, a local name given to the narrow gorge. The gorge had some tricky bifurcations which had to be recollected otherwise we would have wondered off into the dense jungle. We were tensed about the n number of loose rocks and boulders while descending the steep gorge. Sir Reinhold Messner, a great personality in mountaineering had once quoted, “real success is in returning back in one piece, the top is a bonus.” Keeping a minimum distance of 15 feet between each one of us, and taking maximum care possible, we were descending the pitch dark path. Particular shaped boulders, completely dried up tree were some of the clues which guided us to Linganamachi. The moushi, Sharad Jadhav’s mother was already worried about us. She went into the room, and lit the stove for us. We congratulated each other for the success while drinking chicken soup and regaining our lost calories. Dinner was finished in no time, and we hit the bed. We were so tired that we slept like logs.
Next day, we were up at 8 am, sorted our gear, packed our rucksacks, gave the excess ration to the villagers and bid them goodbye. At 2 o’clock in the afternoon, Appa and Sushant boarded the bus to Pune. All of us were very happy for the success of our first expedition.
Our practice and determination, Appa’s experience, Sushant’s unlimited patience, the villager’s cooperation and on top of all, god’s wish, were the factors responsible for the ascent of Fort Lingana – this being the first ascent of the year of 1999.