Time was when the Himalayan mountaineer could choose his mountain, pack his rucksack, and be off. Nowadays, to add to other vicissitudes, he must plan his campaign inside the narrowing limits of allowable areas. If he has a special affection for a particular area or peak, he will learn sooner or later that such things are of little importance to any besides himself and, doubtless, he will have to satisfy himself with a second choice.
When, in the autumn of 1952, it was possible for me to plan another journey into Sikkim, my thoughts turned naturally towards Kangchenjhau which it had been my good fortune to attempt three years earlier. On that occasion, in late November, following Dr. A. M. Kellas's route on the north side of the mountain we had found it impossible, despite the absence of technical difficulties, to continue the climb owing to the extreme cold. Opportunity seldom repeats itself; and permission to enter Sikkim on this occasion was granted on the condition that I agreed to confine my activities to the area south of the Thangu-Sebu La line. Cornered thus, Chombu seemed an obvious choice: an impressive mountain, despite its modest height of 20,872 feet, and exceedingly beautiful. I had admired it on many occasions from several angles, but had never been able to discover what appeared to be a feasible route; until in 1949, whilst reconnoitring Kangchenjhau, I had seen the north-east ridge in profile and had judged it, perhaps somewhat prematurely, to offer some chance of success.
Only one serious attempt appears to have been made on Chombu. In November 1944 C. R. Cooke and D. H. McPherson approached the north ridge via a couloir and snowfield near the base of the north-east face. Although bad weather prevented them from reaching the north ridge, they expressed the opinion that it was climb- able; and further, that once on the summit ridge the difficulties appeared to be at an end.1
I was very pleased that Angtharkay was able to accompany me again. He brought with him six Sherpas from Darjeeling; and I was thus fortunate to have a well-chosen team despite the heavy demand for Sherpa porters from larger and much more important expeditions. Gangtok was reached on 2nd October, a day behind schedule, owing to the bad condition of the motor road which necessitated a night's halt at Rangpo on the Sikkim frontier. The march up the Tista valley to Lachen and Thangu was accompanied by rain, which had washed away portions of the road at almost every stage along the route. Leeches were abundant in the steamy forests, and gym shoes offered little protection against their merciless attacks.
We reached Thangu on the 7th October. On the following day, a rest day, I climbed the hill, 16,241 feet, that rises north of the dak bungalow. Clouds obscured most of the peaks, but I was able to obtain a fairly good view of the upper part of Chombu evidently covered with a lot of new snow. With a view to examining better the approaches to Chombu, and the north-east ridge in particular, I had decided to cross the Sebu La from the Jha Chu valley and to establish a camp if possible on the other side, near the Sebo Cho. We reached the Himalayan Club hut at the head of the Jha Chu valley on the 9th October in misty weather. We were surprised to find that the hut was damaged; apparently by yakherds who drive their flocks up the valley for summer grazing. Snow began to fall early the next morning and continued throughout most of the day, so we decided to wait. The day was spent mostly inside the hut; either shivering in the loft, with a continuous dripping on the floorboards owing to a leaky roof, or in the kitchen, half-choked round a smoky fire owing to a damaged stove.
For the moment I had ruled out the possibility of trying Cooke's proposed route on the north ridge because of its apparent steepness, and also because I was rather anxious to view the north-east ridge from close quarters. We hurried away from the hut the next morning encouraged by an improvement in the weather. On the way to the pass we obtained good views of the north-east shoulder and summit ridge of Chombu, and Angtharkay and I discussed the chances of climbing the latter. Although, when seen from the Jha Chu valley this ridge appears to be fairly straightforward, because apparently horizontal, it is in fact rather broken up and evidently split into sections. We were both agreed that a camp would have to be placed somewhere near the shoulder at about 20,000 feet. But what startled us was the appearance of the uppermost part of the ridge where just below the summit pyramid a deep cleft of perhaps 2-300 feet showed up clearly. To climb its vertical sides which, at that altitude, might easily prove to be composed of ice, appeared to be a problem which we were hardly prepared to cope with. We reached the top of the Sebu La in about three hours and descended on the other side arriving at the Sebo Cho in the early afternoon.
The north-east ridge, or spur, which abuts against the precipitous east face of the mountain, could be judged more clearly now. As a route it is hopeless, presenting a series of sharp fluted crests and walls of ice set at a very steep angle throughout. The north ridge, by comparison, seemed far less formidable and, inspite one or two steep rock steps lower down which could probably be turned, appeared to be climbable. This ridge rises from a snowfield at about 17,500 feet. Cooke in 1944 had reached the snowfield via a couloir and snow col on the Jha Chu side. Access to the snowfield from this side is barred by a great ice-fall which is divided into two sections by a badly crevassed glacier. There seemed to be no way of turning the ice-fall, and siege tactics were obviously required. At the top of the north ridge, the route from the north-east shoulder along the summit ridge presents the same unhopeful appearance as it does from the other side, with the fault clearly visible below the summit. This, combined with the difficulty of the ice-fall, sealed our decision to abandon the attempt which, in point of fact, we had not really begun. The south ridge of Chombu has generally been ruled out on account of its excessive length. I believe that it deserves a closer examination, although it is likely to provide climbing of a high standard; its upper part possesses a narrow fluted crest perhaps half a mile in length. The approach certainly appears to be somewhat easier, along the Kalep Chu valley below Thangu.
The Sebo Cho which is fed by the ice-fall below Chombu, has undergone a considerable change. In September 1950 a large portion of the ice-fall is believed to have collapsed causing the bursting of the lake. The waters thus released swept everything before them and caused severe damage down the valley, destroying half of Lachung village and carrying away a suspension bridge 5 miles below Chungthang. The route to Mome Samdong, which is now over boulders and moraine debris, occupied a longer time than we had expected and we arrived just before dark. The Himalayan Club hut here was found in a badly damaged condition, and the Sherpas pitched my tent outside a quite respectable yakherd's hut where they themselves were billeted for the night.
With the object of seeing new country, I decided to visit the Khangpup1 valley and view the peaks at its head. Sending two men down to Yumthang with surplus loads, we left Mome Samdong the next morning lightly laden. We forded the main stream soon after, and proceeded to skirt the slopes of the spur rising on the opposite side. The going was very pleasant, and after a few hours we found ourselves approaching the Khangpup glacier. There was quite a lot of new snow about, but we were able to follow tracks which bore evidence of summer visits by herdsmen. We pitched camp at about 16,000 feet below the glacier snout in an ideal place with abundant scrub fuel and water at hand. Before us rose three attractive peaks, and also a possible pass leading into a valley towards the east. The peaks were 19,201 feet, 18,500 feet, and 18,310 feet. We decided to attempt the lowest on the following day, hoping that it might be possible thereafter to attempt the 19,000-foot one.
We awoke the next morning to find a light covering of snow around our camp and heavyish cloud about. Angtharkay, Ang Nima and I set out at 8.30 bemoaning the absence of sunshine. The glacier provided easy going; and higher up we skirted the rock edges to avoid some large crevasses. Thereafter, it was easy snow all the way, with a final rather exciting rock climb 200 feet from the top. This provided the main attraction as the rock was sound though steep and possessed perfect hand- and foot-holds from which a light covering of new snow had to be cleared. Unfortunately, we were in cloud most of the time and saw nothing except for a few glimpses to the north through scurrying clouds of the summit of Kangchenjhau standing out serenely in a blue sky. We were back in camp by about 2.30 p.m., and, shortly after, the usual snow-squall set in. It was rather disconcerting to find that this had increased during the night; and the following morning the outlook was very white and rather bleak.-Snow continued to fall as we packed; and we made our way down the snow-covered moraine in a heavy mist, feeling rather fed up. Descending to the main valley, we took the road to Yumthang. The old road was almost completely destroyed in 1950, and the route is now mostly along the former bed of the river over boulders and alluvium.
After a rest day at Yumthang, a day of perfect weather, which helped greatly to raise everyone's spirits, we set off on 16th October up the Lako Chu valley leading to the Burum glacier. Once again, the weather was good; and, feeling that conditions had settled at last, we began to look forward to a final week in what promised to be an interesting region. About 2 miles above Yumthang we branched left, and began to climb steeply through a dense forest of pines. After we had gained about 1,500 feet, the gradient eased a bit and we reached a small alp where some yakherds were encamped under a boulder. Branching right, we followed the main stream and began to ascend the valley in the direction of the Burum glacier. The going was rough, but we discovered a few cairns which suggested that yakherds had been there before us. We camped at about 15,000 feet, at the limit of the scrub-fuel line below an arena of wild rock peaks. Leaving camp in good weather the next morning, we reached the lake below the Burum La half an hour later. The La, 16,000 feet, rose about 750 feet above us to the left. Almost directly behind us to the east the Khangpup glacier was visible, with the 19,000-foot peak we had wanted to attempt a few days earlier. Nearer at hand to the north, we were just able to catch a glimpse of the summit of peaK 19,204 feet, lying at tne head of the Burum glacier. We decided at once to attempt this mountain. A vertical ice-fall, composed of tottering seracs, emptied into the lake on the opposite shore and barred access to the glacier from that direction. We skirted a rock ridge to the north-west over boulders and scree and reaching a rib of ice, set about tackling the lower defences in order to gain entry into the upper part of the glacier, which was not as yet visible. Angtharkay was in favour of skirting the crevassed section which now confronted us, and proceeded to reconnoitre some steep rocks to the left. I decided to deal with the ice direct and advanced some distance up it accompanied by Pemba Norbu. The gradient was steep, and the dangers of the route gradually increased with the presence of open and concealed crevasses. We paused for a breather, and wondered whether the passage of a laden party would be justifiable, especially as some of the porters would have to return alone along the route later in the day if we succeeded in establishing a camp on the upper glacier. The possibility of an avalanche occurring in this section could not be discounted. Angtharkay, meanwhile, had climbed out of sight on the left rock wall, and presently announced that he was in trouble and wanted a rope. Gyaljen and Ang Norbu went up to join him, and the three of them returned later to the foot of the ice. Defeat on this side had cost us nearly two hours. It was now 12.30 p.m., and clouds had begun to roll over. We had not yet shot our bolt. The last remaining alternative was an examination of the main Burum glacier, which flows south on the other side of the Burum La. There are, in fact, two Las; we crossed the northerly one which is shown on the map as slightly higher than its neighbour about half a mile to the south. A steep descent brought us to the Burum glacier which we crossed just above its snout. As we were now completely enveloped in cloud, we were ignorant as yet of our foredoomed failure. Climbing the moraine ridge on the right bank, we set up camp at about 16,000 feet below a steep rock ridge on the west side of the valley. We sent four porters back to the lower camp, and as they set off at 3.30 p.m. light snow began to fall. This continued throughout most of the night, and although it stopped before dawn, the sun failed to appear that morning. The main ice-fall of the Burum glacier was now in full view. One glance at it was sufficient to confirm our worst fears. An attempt on peak 19,284 feet, which had remained invisible except for yesterday's brief glimpse at its summit, was no longer within our scope.
We turned our thoughts to the adjacent valley to the west, where I knew the Chen to peaks must lie. I had first seen these peaks on the march between Lachen and Thangu, from where they appear as two pyramid-shaped summits of 19,075 feet and 18,595 feet. Despite unpropitious weather, Angtharkay, Ang Norbu and I left camp after breakfast and scaled the rocky slopes above. After a rather steep scramble, we reached the top of the dividing ridge in about an hour and were just in time to look down on to the small glacier flowing roughly south-east from the Ghento peaks; the latter, unfortunately, were obscured by heavy cloud and presently the glacier itself was hidden from our view. The two Sherpas carried on along the ridge and reached its highest point, about 17,000 feet, whilst I waited on the divide hoping for the clouds to lift. It seemed as though it might be possible to descend to this glacier and establish a camp somewhere near its head with a view to attempting one of the peaks. Whilst I was considering this scheme, snow began to fall and soon the Sherpas returned, but had, of course, seen nothing from their highest point. We were now getting rather despondent and returned to camp by 11.30. The snowfall increased. We had had quite enough by the early afternoon so, packing up, we made our way back to the lower camp over the Burum La, arriving at 4 p.m. after a tiresome march in continuous snow, sleet, and rain. It snowed heavily throughout the night and was still snowing on the morning of 19th October, when we decided to evacuate. A very tiring march down the valley, which was now covered with several inches of new snow, brought us to the alp where we found our old friends the yakherds, wet and cold, also preparing to descend to Yumthang. It was still raining when we reached the Yumthang bungalow in the afternoon, and rainfall continued ceaselessly throughout the evening and night.
Photo. By M. Hruska
Chombu from Sebu La.
Photo. By M. Hruska
Chombu from Sebu Chu.
With only a few days of my holiday left, it was impossible to wait for better weather and there was no alternative but to descend. It was heartbreaking, therefore, when we left Lachung on 21st October to find that the weather had changed and the purest sunshine filled a cloudless blue sky. The return march was uneventful and Gangtok was reached on 24th October.
It is always easier to write the story of a successful expedition; for then the weather and other vagaries may be glossed over or referred to quietly as a mere inconvenience. It is not always wise to blame one's own bungling to external factors, but in the present instance I think it is only fair to admit that defeat and despondency were partly, at least, the product of an unfavourable season. We had seen some new country; and the mountains had given us all that we had cared to take from them; that alone was enough.