Himalayan Journal vol.14
The Himalayan Journal

Publication year:

H. W. Tobin
    (J. O. M. ROBERTS)
  4. NANDA GHUNTI, 1945
    (P. L. WOOD)
    (L. CHICKEN)
    (R. V. VERNEDE)
    (C.G. Wylie)
  10. NOTES



Peak Z.I (21,000 ft.) from Camp IIon Nun at 20,000 ft.

Peak Z.I (21,000 ft.) from Camp IIon Nun at 20,000 ft.

Showing: A. Summit of Nun, 23,400 ft. B. 'Difficult' bit of east ridge. C. Slopes of west side of White Needle Peak

Showing: A. Summit of Nun, 23,400 ft. B. 'Difficult' bit of east ridge. C. Slopes of west side of White Needle Peak

When Ludwig Krenek and I planned a Himalayan trip for 1946 we thought of the Padar region only as our third choice-if permits were not forthcoming for our more ambitious plans. They were not, and it so happened that we found ourselves one day in Machail, with Fabian Geduldig for a third man. Machail is the uppermost village in the densely populated Bhut valley, which branches off at Atholi from the Chenab valley. The surrounding country is known as Padar and forms part of Kishtwar.

With a youngish fellow, Gangaram, for a porter, we started off for a climb up the slopes of Agyasol, 20,141 feet (Raul on Sheet 52 c), within a few hours of our arrival. The purpose was to see our mountains and to make plans accordingly. We slept in a deserted shepherd's hut, amidst beautiful trees. There were two rooms. We took the better one and, as it was small, told Gangaram to sleep in the other. But he shook his head and established himself alongside ourselves. We were a bit puzzled but let him have his way. During the night, we all woke up with a jerk because of a terrific thud: the roof had collapsed in the other room!

The 30th May was a fine day. We climbed as high as the truly Himalayan defences of Agyasol on this side would permit. And we saw enough to feel well satisfied with our 'third choice'. In fact, such mountains as Brammah (21,275 feet), P. 20,440, Shivji ka Pahar, and several others, called for a much stronger team than ours was. Our main objective, P. 21,570, king between Nun Kun and the peaks of Spiti, turned out to be a magnificent twin peak, adorned by huge sickles of ice. It received the tentative name 'Mondsichelberg'.1 As expected, the Bhazun Nadi seemed the most natural approach to it, although we were unable to disentangle its upper reaches. (They were supposed to originate directly under the great peak.) A great fork in the valley suggested itself as the most suitable site for a base.

It was an ideal site for a base. A level meadow, covered with blue lilies; a clear spring; firewood not far below; overhanging rocks to provide quarters for Gangaram and Shivdyal, our two servants ; and Agyasol filling the valley. There was no end to the effects the light of sun and moon produced on the ridges and in the vales of that majestic mountain. Every week our meadow was covered with different flowers. The blue of the lilies gave way to pink, the pink to white, the white to a golden yellow.

1 The peak apparently has no native name as it is so remote from all villages. The names which we gave to some of the mountains in a casual way should not be mistaken for serious suggestions.

Sketch-map of the mountains NW. of Machail.

Sketch-map of the mountains NW. of Machail.

By splitting up into two parties we were able to gather a lot of information between the 4th June and the 10th June. But the more we knew, the more we were puzzled. Where was our great mountain? We simply could not find it any more, and it could not all be blamed on the clouds that occasionally obscured parts of a panorama. With such bearings as we had taken from various points we sat in the tent by candle-light and tried to piece a map together, but we found we had not enough material yet. Sheet 52 c really seemed to be mere guesswork. Where was our peak?

Geduldig's holiday drew to an end and we had not yet climbed a mountain to the top. And from a high mountain we should have been able to see the way to P. 21,570, which so far we had failed to find. Therefore we pitched a tent on the west Donali glacier (the gaddis call the Bhazun Nadi Donali). From there, in two days, we climbed what we called Dreikant, or Fabian's Peak (P. 19,200 on our map). It was a climb nobody need be ashamed of-very steep snow throughout, and near the summit truly dangerous because of colossal cornices.

Clouds were sailing slowly between the mighty pillars of the great Himalaya: their shadows wandered silently over vast stretches of greenish ice in the valleys deep below us. The horizon showed mountains, clouds, and mountains again.

It was past one o'clock, and with every minute the danger of avalanches became greater. We had to look round quickly. The Mondsichelberg had not disappeared in a crevasse since we had spotted it from the slopes of Agyasol. It was in the same ridge with our mountain, though separated from it by four mighty peaks. The clouds prevented us from seeing how we could reach its foot from the western valley, where we had our tent. On its eastern side we saw a very big glacier flowing north. Krenek held that this was the top part of the east Donali glacier. He had conceived this idea on a lone climb towards P. 18,700 of our map. Thus, by following the east Donali glacier along its huge semicircle around that mountain, we should be able to approach our objective. I had no confidence in his theory but was quite willing to give it a trial.

While Geduldig on his way home was crossing the Pir Panjal range from Atholi to Bhadarwar, we two were beating the snow from our tent on the west Donali glacier every half-hour, night and day. Luckily we were not carried away by one of the numerous avalanches. It was like mid-winter when the storm had gone on the 15th June, and the sun rose with a determination to bring back the spring into its own. Seldom had I felt so helpless in the mountains as on that day. Long before sunrise, without breakfast, we trailed up the valley,but were still miles from its end when the sun began to tell on the snow and made any further progress impossible. We sank in to our hips with every step. We sat down for breakfast, not knowing what to do. There, in front of us, emerging from behind a buttress on the left side, was visible the ice-cake of a steep tributary glacier which might lead us to our goal through a gorge or over a gap; or if it were a gap, it might be impassable. The bottomless snow prevented us from lifting the secret of that glacier. Without that knowledge, everything we could do was a gamble. If we waited till the snow had settled, and this proved an impassable gap, we lost our chance of an attack from the east Donali for lack of time; if we evacuated our camp here and had no success in the other valley, we would always think that we threw away our chances. In this predicament, the hard trail of a recent avalanche came to our assistance. With an effort worth extra rations we struggled to its lower end, leaving a veritable trench for a track; then we climbed up on the hardened surface in the hope that we would be able to see what was beyond the buttress which was much farther inside the valley, on the opposite side. We discovered what we wanted. We saw where the little glacier originated: in an unclimbable wall of granite rocks.

Sketch-map of the region between Umasi La and Darlang valleys.

Sketch-map of the region between Umasi La and Darlang valleys.

Mountains at the head of the East Donali glacier. Centre Peak 19,700 ft.

Mountains at the head of the East Donali glacier. Centre Peak 19,700 ft.

Agyasol (20,141 ft.)from Base Camp. (Telephoto.)

Agyasol (20,141 ft.)from Base Camp. (Telephoto.)

P.20,440 and Brammah (21,275 ft.) from saddle south-east of ‘Dreikant’

P.20,440 and Brammah (21,275 ft.) from saddle south-east of ‘Dreikant’

Mountains north of the Prul glacier. Photo taken from south ridge of Sonwendspitz’, approx. 18,300 ft.

Mountains north of the Prul glacier. Photo taken from south ridge of Sonwendspitz’, approx. 18,300 ft.

Donali west is Karakoram on a smaller scale; Donali east is more open. We had our tent not far from the big bend which, in Krenek's belief, should lead us to the big glacier at the foot of the elusive mountain. An hour's walk in the twilight of a dismal morning exploded that theory. The glacier ended abruptly, and in an uninviting rock wall at that. It was disheartening, but at last we began to understand that thrilling geographical discoveries in most cases exclude sustained attacks on certain high mountains. Those must be left to the next group which will be able to build on your experiences. It was sufficiently clear now that the map of the region must be completely redrawn, and we concentrated on that task during the next few days.

On the 19th June we discovered that there was an easy pass into the basin east of P. 21,570, just above our camp. Once more our hopes began to flicker. We tried to see more by traversing to another pass and climbing up the mountain next to it, but bad conditions and oncoming clouds put a premature end to that. After a day of rest, however, we climbed that mountain in the grand Swiss style: start at three in the morning, Fruhsuck high up on the mountain, rest on the top (19,000 feet) from 10.25 to 12.00. The relative height was 4,000 feet, and there was plenty of opportunity to employ almost every kind of technique of ice- and rock-climbing. The descent (four hours), rather dangerous because of avalanche snow, even contained an uninterrupted glissade of eight minutes, from the pass to the big glacier.

The panorama from the Sonnwendspitze (Midsummer Peak, after the date of ascent) is one of the finest imaginable. Nun and Kun in the distance-then an array of unexplored rugged mountains coming towards us; the overwhelming beauty of the Barnaj Peaks; and our magnificent peak of 12th June (P. 19,200) with its neighbours. But what of the Mondsichelberg? Well, we had studied that mighty castle already during the ascent. No one would try it from the east side as long as there was hope that any other side would be easier. To reach those other sides, however, one would have to move down the long glacier and up another of its branches-a thing for which we could never get porters here; and we had not time enough to relay the stuff ourselves.

A Himalayan trip with, and one without, Sherpa porters are two very different things. We did not have the money to employ some for our trip. Gangaram and Shivdyal could only with great difficulty be induced to go as far as one stage beyond the base; all further carrying we had to do ourselves.

The geographical position was now clear: the area drained by the Prul glacier is about 70 square miles larger than shown on Sheet 52 c. No direct connexion exists between the highest mountain of the group (P. 21,570) and the main divide in the north.

The council of war that evening had difficult decisions to make. The only high mountain which we could have tried from the present camp was P. 21,000, about 7 miles to the north-east. Krenek said he did not feel attracted by it. I had two alternatives to suggest. Try Agyasol, or explore the 'Old Deserted Road' to Zaskar, returning by the Hagshu La. It would not be possible, I said, to risk the delays involved in an attempt to recruit coolies for the latter enterprise. We would have to carry the loads ourselves. 'That is impossible', was my friend's comment, and we left it at that, pulling out of the Bhazun Nadi as fast as we could.

In the evening of 24th June, the two of us met in our fly-infested tent in Machail. Krenek had been 16,000 feet up on a ridge just above the village. He brought home valuable photographs for our future map, and a story of how he saw a bear chasing a sheep. I came home from a reconnaissance trip through the lovely lower reaches of the Darlang Nadi and up its northern slopes, to find a line of ascent on Agyasol. My report was that it was possible to attack the peak all over ice, a long, steep, and dangerous climb. Krenek answered that he had thought over my Zaskar suggestion and had changed his opinion. It might be possible without porters. We found ourselves willing to embark on either of the two adventures but agreed that an ice slope on Agyasol is not much different from an ice slope on Monch or Scerscen or Hochtenn or any other of dozens we had climbed before, while Zaskar would be an experience entirely new to us.

We spent half the next day in sorting out our things: food for a week, a Welzenbach tent but no mattresses, and the very minimum of clothing. We took with us only a thin emergency rope, no crampons, but two ice-axes. The primus stove was found too heavy and it was decided that an empty cheese tin together with one pound of solid spirit would do the trick if for any reason we should have to spend a night above the tree line-or scrub line, for that matter. When we started at noon, we had the help of our servants as far as Bujwas. From then onwards we were our own porters.

Our hopes were high when we were faced with a round of splendid mountains shining from the background of our valley. This was going to be a gorgeous gate to Central Asia.

That evening, while I shoved away some dirt to clear a spot for the tent, an ice-axe broke. Krenek was wise enough to take along the stick, while Gangaram, on our return to Machail, found it unpardonable that we had not carried its iron part over all the passes to give to him for a present.

More serious troubles began early next day when we did not know to which pass to turn. There were quite a number of them, as the glaciers fanned out in every direction. The map bore no resemblance to nature. What should we do?

Perhaps I should mention here that information gathered locally had proved unreliable all along, and that the one man who was reputed to know all the passes happened to be away from Bujwas when we passed through that place.

We spent much time and effort to find the true pass, but the main glacier, which ran in a promising direction, had an impassable ice-fall, while a valley to our left looked inviting but went too far north. There was nothing to do but try the latter and hope it would lead to the Muni La. In a sustained climb in which we took the lead alternately, we reached the last steep slope not much before sunset. Our hopes were low. Krenek prophesied that up there we would simply look down into the upper part of the valley we had left a few hours before. He was right. After a dangerous last climb we stood in a narrow, rocky gap looking into a wide snow basin-- just above the ice-fall of the valley 'leading in the right direction'. That would not have been so bad if only the pass at its end had inspired more confidence! But it was a flat snow saddle leading into .1 big north-south valley. The Seni Nadi was to lead east into Zaskar. Hut we were not going to give up so easily. We quickly decided how far we could still venture this day so as to have enough light when pitching the tent; and then we raced over the snow-fields as fast as our tired legs would permit.

We were lucky enough to find a rocky island in the snow with some frozen sand from which to build a platform. The cheese-tin cooking stove worked, and we spent a reasonably restful night.

With boots as hard as bone we hurried over the frozen snow just before sunrise next morning. Since the snow saddle brought us no light, we climbed a hill to the north of it. We had our second great surprise in the Padar region. The surveyor had mistaken a secondary ridge (from Muni La southward) for the main divide, and consequently assigned much too big an area to the Seni valley on the Zaskar side. We were in a huge glacier system, draining to the south-that is, to the Darlang Nadi. Towards the east there were numerous passes and mountains, probably never seen by human eye. Enticing as the new world was, we could not risk a trip through those spaces with our scanty reserves; we were only equipped for two high passes, not for half a dozen of them. We had hardly any food that could be eaten without cooking, and our fuel would not suffice for even a single rice dish. To follow up one of the snow basins to their northern ends was our only hope of getting to Zaskar. These northern passes most likely led into the Bardur system which contains the Umasi La route. It was with ar sigh that we decided on that course, for the well-known Umasi La held no attraction for us.

We slid down to the saddle over steep snow in but a few minutes. There I discovered that I had forgotten our camera on the top. I do not curse often but there I did. Krenek began trudging towards the northern pass while I made cthe second ascent'. It took more than an hour now that the snow was soft; and when-after a meal- I turned toward the pass, I broke in with every step in spite of the track made by my luckier companion. When I reached the pass, I was utterly exhausted. Krenek had done all that a good pal of many seasons would do for one in such a case: melt snow in the sun, prepare a dry and sheltered seat, have the food all ready, notably dried fruit and sugar. Only one thing he could not provide-a way down the other side. We were separated from the Bardur glacier by a steep ice wall several hundred feet high with some doubtful snow on it in the lower parts. I thought we could not risk descending here with no proper rope, no crampons, and only one ice-axe. There was nothing to do but descend to the Darlang Nadi and return to Machail. Zaskar faded from our vision.

A relentless descent filled the rest of the day. We hurried down a most picturesque, wild, and seemingly endless glacier, through deep soft snow, slush, hard ice, and boulders, in that order. The granite spires on both sides beat all imagination. We taxed our bodies to the limit in order to reach warmer altitudes before nightfall. When at last the ice became steeper, indicating the end of the glacier, we found ourselves engaged in a fierce struggle with the countless boulders of the right lateral moraine. Right under the nose of the glacier was a sandy plain, and there we pitched our tent. There was no firewood yet but the temperature was far more acceptable than the night before. We slept as only very tired men do.

One and a half hours' walk brought us next morning to the Dar- lang Nadi. The ground was covered with tracks of wild animals, notably bears, and a group of birch trees at the mouth of our valley seemed as lovely to us as an oasis must seem to the traveller in the desert.1 What with the prospect of a roaring fire and a pot of rice on it, of boots and socks drying in the sun, and a wash, we banned all thoughts of the future for the next two hours.

A gaddi with his dog kept us company during this rest. He confirmed that the big valley with its big river was the Darlang Nadi. He had no name for the valley through which we had come.

The time for decision came. One day's walking would have brought us back to Machail-there is a good path. Zaskar we could only reach over the Poat La, a route which we had thought too long ever since we had planned our visit to Zaskar. Gould we now undertake it ? We were already two days late and not a little battered. We thought we could if we went back by the Umasi La instead of by the Hagshu La, and if we extended our trip by one day.

We began pulling up the wide and bare valley, which held no more trees for our eyes to rest on. Soon we were stopped by a torrent coming down from the north, with the bridge gone. After a long search we found a place where we could ford it, but it was a narrow thing, and we both got wet to the skin. In the late afternoon we passed the last herds of sheep, and when the time came to look for a camping-place we had reached the great northward bend of the valley. Looking at the broken glaciers coming from where the map says Sersank pass, we doubted whether this route could be used at present. And as to Kangla Jot, Krenek's voice carried conviction when he said he would not like to search for it. What a wilderness of ice and stone in that corner! On our side of the valley, however, there was a good path with yaks' footprints on it, so that we could hope that the Poat La did exist.

The 29th June was a cloudy morning, and before the day was over we had seen plenty of rain and snow falling. Since the path was so good, we hoped to be on the dry Tibetan side pretty soon. But alas, the path led us to the banks of a river which we simply could not ford. The yaks had done it but we could not. With the loss of at least two hours we managed to negotiate the obstacle by way of a natural bridge far down the valley. From beyond the ford, the path still went on for a while but eventually led to the glacier. The weather became worse and worse. How should we find the pass with clouds all around us? We were both rather depressed when something quite unexpected happened. Out of the mist appeared a group of eight Zaskaris, moving down the glacier toward us. Two of these picturesque people knew Hindustani. From them we learned that the jot was not at the head of the valley but right here in its eastern side wall; and that there were, in fact, two jots close together, both of which we had to cross. They had crossed the pass to-day and were on their way to the gaddis of the Darlang Nadi, to get wool.

1 This spot would be a good base for further exploration of the northern side of the Darlang Nadi. See 'Notes'.

It was with a new determination that we climbed a steep slope of scree in order to reach a tributary glacier from which the pass was to be gained. And yet, we began to feel that we had not had a rest for nine days in succession. Every step called for much will-power. When we reached the glacier we could not find the track of the Zaskaris anywhere in the snow. The most trying search began. I climbed high up on the bank to an old moraine: no trace. Snow began to fall heavily. We waded up the glacier through deep snow, Krenek breaking the track. No trace. We split up, Krenek crossing the glacier to the left, I to the right. Nothing. Perhaps they had used the middle moraine? I looked for some snow patch which they would have to pass if they did use that moraine. I found such a patch, and there were no footprints on it. That seemed conclusive. We must have misunderstood them-we were in the wrong valley. I called Krenek, and we wearily decided to descend to the main glacier for the night. But then at last our luck changed for the better. We came to a sandy part of the moraine and, sure enough, there were the imprints of felt shoes. We decided to spend the night on the spot, no matter how uncomfortable it would be. We were veterans of many a cold night, so the sufferings we had to endure on that one did not impress us unduly. Its main feature was that one had to revolve all night long so that no one part of the body was exposed too long to the inexhaustible cold coming from the stones on which we lay.

The weather was bad in the morning, and we spent an anxious time till at last we discovered a dim line in the snow, the Zaskaris5 track of yesterday. The pass lay in the steep, rocky, side wall of the little glacier and was marked by well-built cairns. The map gives its height as 18,752 feet; Krenek doubts whether it is that high. I do not, considering how puffed I was when we arrived there. There was a last crescendo of uncertainty when we did not at first understand the purpose of following the ridge to the other saddle, also with cairns on it. Were we to descend to the left? There was wind and cold and mist and the compass would not work because of excessive moisture. But we made the right guess that the other saddle was merely an easier way of gaining the ridge from the Zaskar side, and after a few hours of struggle with soft snow we found remnants of straw sandals on the bare ice, which dispersed our last doubts as to whether we really were on our way to Zaskar. We made an all-out effort to reach the Tsarap valley before darkness, and succeeded. No effort was spared to have it soft and warm in our tent that night, to have a sustaining meal, and plenty of hot tea. You have to miss the ordinary comforts of life in order to appreciate them.

Although the trip through Zaskar is one of our most precious experiences, I am not going to describe it. The reader may turn to more competent writers on Tibet. For Zaskar was our Tibet- such Tibet as was attainable to us. It is a thousand pities we had so little time. We covered the distance from Ghemochekore to Sumchum Gompa-some 35 miles-in one day, and tackled the Umasi La to Suniasuru the next.


Best approach from Jammu. By bus to Batote or Bhadarwar. To Batote there are direct buses from Lahore. Bhadarwar has extensive Bazaars. Mule transport to Kishtwar in both places available (three to four stages). Kishtwar to Machail with horses or coolies (four to five stages).

Authorities: Wazir of Udampur, Teshildar, and Inspector of Police at Kishtwar, Zaildar at Atholi (Arthal on Sheet 52 c), Sub-inspector of Police at Machail. For tours around Machail, notably Hagshu La and Darlang Nadi, it might be better to secure prior permission from the Sapphire Mining Company, Srinagar. No such permit is needed for Umasi La.

The greatest enterprise would be to explore the enormous basin of the Prul glacier. Approach from Kishtwar directly. P. 21,570 may be attacked on such an occasion, and the Brammah glacier subjected to a first inspection. From Machail, the peaks of the Barnaj Nadi, a 2i,ooo-foot peak east of Hagshu La, Shivji ka Pahar, and Agyasol (20,141 feet), may be tried. They all look very difficult. From where we met the Darlang Nadi (about 16 miles from its mouth), the unknown basins of two big rivers joining the Darlang from the north could be explored. The main Himalayan ridge must lie much farther north than one would expect from looking at Sheet 52 c. The one valley which we saw already means a gain of 30 square miles for the Darlang at the expense of the Seni. Muni La, as a direct road to Zaskar, does not exist. It is, however, likely that the Umasi La-Huttra- Seni route, as given on Sheet 52 c, is practicable.