I.T.B. Police Expeditionto Saser Kangri III (7495 m) and Rafting Dawn Shyok River
THE SASER KANGRI group of peaks are situated in the Eastern Karakoram, in the extreme northwest district of Ladakh, They are the highest group of peaks in that area which lies between the Shyok and the Nubra rivers.
The Saser group of peaks have as many as eight glaciers; the Sakang Lungpa, South and North Phukphcchhe, West and East Chamshen, South and North Phukphochhe, West and East Chamshen, West and East Tughmo Zarpo, South and North Shukpa Kunchang all draining in various directions and finally feeding the Shyok river in the north and Nubra in the south. There are five major peaks within a radius of 10 km: Saser Kangri I (7672 m), Saser Kangri II (7518 m), Saser Kangri III (7495 m) and Saser Kangri IV (Cloud Peak) (7415 m) and Plateau Peak (7310 m).
These peaks remained unclimbed as late as 1973 when ITBP for the first time climbed Saser Kangri I. Saser Kangri II (West) was climbed in 1985 by a joint ITBP-Japaxiese team. For 1986, the ITBP chose Saser Kangri III (the highest unclimbed peak in India) as its target and also to raft down the Shyok after the attempt.
It was planned to approach the mountain via the Shyok valley and the North Shupka Kunchang glacier. Pre-expedition training was carried out during February and March at the High Altitude Defence and Survival Academy at Mussoorie and a crash course in white water rafting was arranged between Rudraprayag and Rishikesh on the Ganges with assistance fromt the ‘River Runners Association of India’.
Most of the previous expeditions to the Saser groups had approached their objective from the south, the shortest route, but also very formidable. We chose the long route up the Shyok valley — 15 days to BC from the roadhead and another 35 km over the North Shukpa Kunchang glacier. The logistics therefore had to cater for the extended route and planning had to be meticulous to maintain the supply line operative throughout the expedition.
We left Mussoorie on 19 March 1986 for Delhi and flew to Leh on 6 April. After a few days of acclimatization which was also used to sort out our stores and equipment we left Leh on 16 April for the roadhead Darbuk which was reached over the Chang la (17,597 ft).
After a day’s preparation at Darbuk, we were ready on 18 April to move with 75 mules along with our support party members. It was a pleasant and gradual walk through the valley along the river bed. After 7 kms the trek continued along the rocky spur towards Shyok village. There was a steep climb over a precipitous rock face over which only a 2 ft wide mule track winds up. After walking a few kilometres more over the rocky ridge, we reached the last border village of Shyok.
Next day, we left Shyok early and descended about a kilometre to the river bed, where we had our first experience of crossing the bone chilling water of the river. The Shyok river bed is about 2 km wide with patches of sand and gravel. Our muleteers camped on the other side of the river after walking just 8 kms for the day. The main consideration of their camping along the route was dictated by the availability of grass for their horses and mules.
Tarsem Karmo, is supposed to be a religious place for the local Budhists who trek here to worship the lord Tarsem Karmo. We camped the next day on the bank opposite Tarsem Karmo.
Now our regular trekking routine was set; leaving the camp around 7 a.m. after breakfast and reaching our next staging camp by 2.00 to 2.30 p.m. We used to cover 20 to 25 kms a day, our caravan of mules and members stretching for miles, the stragglers reaching the camp as late as 6.30 p.m.
23rd morning, when I peeped out of my tent the sky was overcast. One of our horsemen was seriously ill during the night. One of the mules was also seriously ill, so we had a well deserved rest for the day. Again it was cloudy the next day; the mule and the muleteer had improved, so we got ready to move by 8.00 a.m. after breakfast.
We were happy as we approached the river junction between the Shyok and the North Shukpa Kunchang at Mandaltang, but it seemed an unending distance, that took us nearly 3 hours on the long sand and boulder-strewn river bed. We now turned towards the left, along the North Shukpa Kunchang river, and camped after walking nearly 18 kms on the bank of the North Shukpa Kunchang.
26 April was the last day of our approach march to the base camp. The sky was overcast and it had snowed 3-4 inches the previous night. We followed the Shukpa Kunchang nala and the climb then started becoming steeper. We reached our base camp at a height of 15,300 ft, after having walked 125 kms from Darbuk. in nine days.
I divided the climbing team in five ropes. The climbing and route opening schedule was discussed in detail with all the team members and explained to them.
28 April greeted us with exceptionally bright sunshine after a long spell of bad weather. I sent off the first climbing party early at 8 a.m.; they were also to shift the loads from the intermediary camp to Camp 1 location, forcing it a little higher, in the middle of the North Shukpa Kunchang glacier.
Next morning deputy leader R. S. Negi, Hav Bihari, Neema Dorji, Sher Singh, Dawa Rinzing, Phurba and Wangchuk left for occuping Camp 1 and this was the beginning of our climb.
On 30 April, the support party and myself left early morning in bright sunshine for Camp 1. The glacier had changed drastically in the last 13 years since our ITBP teams had successfully climbed Saser Kangri I in 1973. In the evening it snowed and continued into the night. Now with the help of 20 support party members, Camp 1 was established at the height of 18,300 ft. The weather was still bad and it had snowed in the evening. Our progress appeared to be slow.
On 3 May the weather had improved and it was sunny when we pushed all the loads from the intermediary camp to Camp 1. Rabgias, Neema Dorji, Dawa had gone to open to route to Camp 2. The depression had now passed and we were expecting a spell of good weather for the next few days. So I went to Camp 1 to supervise the opening of the route to higher camps. The camp was located at the junction of a glacier joining the Shukpa Kunchang from the left. On 5 May, Dawa Tsering, Rabias and Magan Singh moved to Camp 1 and Negi with his three other ropemates Bihari, Neema Dorji and Sher Singh occupied Camp 2. With the improved weather our progress was satisfactory and everyone was enthusiastic to push up the loads to higher camps. Camp 2 at the height of 17,000 ft was located in the centre of the North Shukpa Kunchang glacier. The glacier is almost level for 5 to 6 kms distance and at the end, abruptly rises into sharp rock and steep ice-faces. Camp 2 needed stocking of essential ration and equipments before establishing Camp 3. Strengthening it was therefore our immediate objective before we could go ahead.
1 May morning brought another good daj. Negi’s rope went to open the route from Camp 2. Our support party members ferried loads from base camp to Camp 1. Negi along with Bihari, Neema Dorji, Sher Singh spent considerable time or the heavily crevassed glacier and ultimately reached 2 kms short of the proposed Camp 3 location. They left a tent and equipment there and returned from that point to Camp 2 at 6 p.m., having worked continuously for 11 hrs. They deserved a rest next day.
7 May was shining bright though the temperature was very cold. The last rope of Subedar Tarial, finally moved to occupy Camp 1. The Camp 2 was also being pushed further up to be as close as possible to Camp 3. Due to the long glacier, each camp was being pitched at a distance of about 8 to 10 kms from the other.
On 8 May Camp 3 was established at 18,700 ft. 9 May, was partly cloudy. Dawa Tsering, Rabgias and Magan Singh went to open the route to Camp 4, Nearly 300 m of rope was fixed on the steep ice-faces towards Camp 4 that day.
On 11 May morning it started snowing heavily. I had a detailed discussion on our walkie-talkie with Negi and Tarial at Camp 3 and 4 respectively. We should be able to establish the last Camp 5 and then make the final attempt, from the northwest direction. There was a long ridge connecting Saser Kangri III, Plateau Peak and Saser Kangri I, having a saddle at the height of 22,000 ft. The approach from this western direction appeared to be feasible as there was a steep ice-face which could be negotiated with fixed ropes connecting this ridge.
12 May morning greeted us with bright sunshine. Photographer Bahadur Singh and I along with Kaushik and 8 support party members left Camp 1 at 6.30 a.m. We reached Camp 2 at 12.30 p.m. We had a well stocked Camp 3, and wanted to put our maximum efforts in Camp 4 and Camp 5 so that they would be well supported logistically at the time of the final summit attempt. The difficult patch between Camp 3 and 4 had been opened and secured with the fixed ropes.
Now our immediate objective was to open the route to Camp 5-Tarial, Budhiman, Sherpa $holdan and Tsering Sherpa left Camp 4 early in the morning and easily negotiated the slope upto the point which they had reached the previous day. By 2.30 p.m. the party reached the west ridge on a saddle between Saser Kangri III and Plateau Peak which was a suitable site for the final camp at a height of 21,700 ft. Our walkie-talkie sets were functioning well so far. But since Camp 5 was on the western side over the saddle and not in our line of sight we could not hear them directly. Messages were therefore relayed through Camp 4. I gave the final summit plans to Negi and to all the camps. We planned to make summit attempts on 15, 16 and 17 May. Negi also moved to Camp 4 to supervise the summit attempts, whereas I moved to Camp 3 to give proper logistic support and close supervision from this most vulnerable camp.
At Camp 5, Budhiman, Sherpa Choldan and Tsering Sherpa went to open the summit route from the west ridge side which had a steep gradient of about 70°. They secured the route half way up the summit. The report of the summit route was very encouraging and we decided to make the final summit attempt as planned on the 15th.
Another rope consisting of Dawa Tsering, Magan Singh and Rabgias also occupied Camp 5 and now there were 6 climbers to attempt the summit the next day. Negi, Man Singh, Magan Singh and Bahadur Singh were at Camp 4.
I had an uncomfortable night and could not sleep after 3 a.m. I came out of my tent and saw the twinkling bright stars in the crystal clear sky. I was happy that the weather god was definitely helping us. We started for Camp 3 at 6 a.m. The hard snow was crisp and movement over the glacier was fast and easy. We opened our walkie-talkie sets at 8 a.m., but were unable to contact the summit party at Camp 5. Negi conveyed that he was not feeling well and after climbing a few hundred feet above Camp 4 had came down with Bahadur Singh and Man Singh to stay at Camp 4. We reached Camp 3 at 9.30 a.m. We had an hourly schedule for communicating on our walkie-talkie. At noon when we opened our set, our climbing party was already trying to contact us from the summit. Amongst the excitement, they conveyed us the news of their reaching the summit, only 15 minutes before and they were still on it. The 6 members consisting of 2 ropes, Dawa Tsering, Budhiman, Magan Singh, Sherpa Chholden, Rabgias and Tsering Sherpa had reached the top.
There was no further communication from the summit party. In the late evening two summiters, Magan Singh and Rabgias, returned to Camp 3 and we heard their account of the summit. They had encountered very cold temperature and fierce winds while climbing from the west ridge which did not get the sun and was directly exposed to the cold gusts. In spite of all the precautions their extremities were affected and they came directly down to Camp 3. The other 4 members stayed at Camp 4.
16 May morning was again clear. We had already planned to send another summit party from Camp 5. Phurba, Bihari, Neema Dorjee, Taj war, Shomnala and Sher Singh left at 5 a.m. to the summit.
In the morning I inquired from the two summiters, Rabgias and Magan Singh, about their condition. Magan Singh had an uncomfortable night and experienced pain in his toes, his fingers were affected by first degree frostbite. I immediately asked both of them to get ready to be evacuated down to lower camps. Thondup of the support party with 4 members had reached Camp 3 at about 8.30 a.m. and both these summiters were sent with them to lower camps and then on to base.
From Camp 3 Dawa Rinzing, Neema Tenzing and Thondup had left early in the morning at 5 a.m. directly for Camp 5 and were supposed to make the 3rd summit attempt on the 17th if everything went well. They were the best climbers and we did not have any doubt of their success. In fact, they had opened the route of the most difficult section between Camp 3 and 4 and had given maximum support to the two other groups who had reached to the top. The contribution of these 3 climbers for the ultimate success was considerable.
At about 9.30 a.m., Wt saw some figures coming down from Camp 4. We thought that it might be Negi with some other climbers. But to our dismay they turned to be Budhiman and Sherpa Cholden. On arrival they informed us that Negi was in serious condition at Camp 4. His condition had deteriorated fast at night and now had breathing difficulty to such an extent that he was unable to come down. He needed immediate evacuation. We were only 3 persons including cook Shri Lai at Camp 3, and not sufficient to evacuate a casualty from Camp 4. I frantically tried to contact all other camps on the walkie-talkie and concentrate all our efforts to evacuate Negi. The support team members had also gone back to Camp 2 by that time to help Magan and Rabgias. The walkie-talkie set at Camp 4 was not responding and I did not have any means to know the exact condition of Negi. My only hope now lay with Dawa Binzing, Thondup and Neema Tenzing, who were on their way to Camp 5 for the next day’s summit attempt. Only they could take the initiative to evacuate Negi and sacrifice their chance of the summit. I asked Camp 1 to send the doctor with life saving drugs to Camp 3. Our walkie-talkie set was on and suddenly Thondup came on the air from Camp 4. In a broken messages he informed us that they were trying to evacuate Negi on their backs and abandoning their summit attempt. It gave me a great relief that now at least Negi would be saved and brought down to lower heights in the quickest possible time. Meanwhile, Tarial, Shri Lai and myself also rushed towards Camp 4 with some hot tea and water. After a 2 hours’ climb, we saw Negi being brought down. This evacuation party was also being joined, one by one, by the summiters who had climbed the peak the previous day. Dawa Rinzing, Neema Tenzing and Thondup had done a remarkable job by bringing down Negi on their backs from such a dangerous slope and in the true spirit of a mountaineer, having sacrificed their own summit chance. They had shown a great sense of comradeship and self-sacrifice to help a colleague in distress. When we saw Negi, he was in a very critical and helpless state. His throat was choking and froth was coming out of his mouth. He was in a semi-coma stage, and was unable even to stand on his own feet. We eventually brought Negi to Camp 3 by 5 p.m. where Dr Darwan Singh had also arrived from Camp 1 with drugs and oxygen, Thondup of the support party with 6 others members also reached half way to help us bring Negi to Camp 3. I had asked Camp 1 to flash a signal to Leh and request for a helicopter rescue the next day.
On 16th morning itself, the second summit party comprising Budhiman, Neema Dorjee, Sher Singh, Tajwer Singh, Phurba Sherpa and Chhewang Somanla had left Camp 5 at 0530 hrs. They reached the summit at 1130 hrs and found the previous day’s offerings there. A bundle of unused rope was also left on the summit. After taking photographs and making their own offerings, they returned to Camp 4. Their success was also intimated by walkie-talkie to base camp.
17 morning, was a clear day. Due to communication difficulties the message regarding the helicopter evacuation for Negi could be passed on to Leh only at 0800 hrs. The clouds had started filling the valley and we lost all hope of getting the helicopter to evacuate Negi from Camp 3.
As we left the camp, taking turns to carry Negi on our backs, we heard the helicopter. With the visibility at hardly 50 m, the helicopter landed in the middle of the glacier, and within minutes Negi was airborne, and within two hours, he was at Leh in a pressurised chamber. We finally wound up all the camps and made preparations for our return journey and the 2nd phase of our expedition; rafting down the Shyok river.
Rafting Down The Shyok River
On 28 May, we started from Mandaltang. Our two Avon rub-berissd inflatable rafts were flagged off down the Shyok. Due to the exceptional cold weather, there was no increase in the water level of the river. Moreover, Shyok has a much wider base here and the water is channelised into 2 or 3 streams. We put 2 rafts with 20 persons in them. In the first few 100 yards there was little water and the rafts were virtually being dragged. Shamshu, our ‘river guide’ from Leh had a few falls in the cold water. But after the confluence of. Shukpa Kunchang river with the Shyok, the water had increased and rafting became eas:er and enjoyable. Our support party of mules had already gone mead and established camp for the night halt. Due to the bad veather, we could not continue our rafting and we had to leave our two rafts 2 kms short of our camp. We walked up to our camp site in the dark. Shyok river has a comparatively level base with negotiable rapids. It gets flooded after May-June. Rubberised rafts are very useful for an expedition team in the Eastern Karaferam here this river poses a challenge with its floods and becorres a big obstacle.
Next morning again greeted us with bright sunshine after a night of storm. We got ready to move by 8 a.m. Now our routine was organised. All the members were eager to start early in the morning, so that we could do rafting in the forenoon in bright sunshine and also those who were walking on foot over the river bed, could avoid the heat of midday.
After rafting nearly 30 kms down from Mandaltang we entered a treacherous phase, where the Shyok spreads out wide and the water gets channelised into many streams. There were big sandy patches with boulders. Our rafts occasionally got stuck among the huge boulders and we had to get into the cold water to get them out. We camped after rafting nearly 30 kms that day.
Gradually the movement of the rafts became faster and easier. We were enjoying our rafting trip. On an average we were covering 35 to 40 km. We were fast approaching our destination. We camped at Tarsem Karmo and were only one day away from the Shyok village, the end of our rafting trip. There was increase in the volume of water of the river, and the rafting became more thrilling and exciting. On 1 June at 1 p.m. we reached a point just below Shyok village; we had completed the 105 kms of our rafting venture.
Finally the caravan of mules moved for our last journey on foot to the roadhead at Pacha in Darbuk valley. It was a fine day for our expedition. After trekking this short distance of 12 km we reached Pacha at 1 p.m. where familiar faces of children, men and women were there to welcome us.
On 3 June, we returned in 4 big trucks to Leh. Negi had improved and he was discharged from the army hospital. We were very happy to see him joining the team at Leh after recuperating his health. But Magan was further evacuated to the Command Hospital, Chandigarh where all his toes and the index fingers were amputed, leaving behind a painful memory. We will always remember his utmost dedication.