JANNU RECONNAISSANCE, 1957
We acknowledge our thanks to the Editors of 'LA MONTAGNE ET ALPINISME' for allowing us to use this article.-Editor.
Jannu, 25,294 ft., is an impressive mountain massif lying about six miles to the west of Kangchenjunga. The Jannu glacier runs along the whole of the north side of the mountain. On the south and east sides, the massif is drained by the Yalung glacier, the main approach route to Kangchenjunga. On the western side, the Yamatari glacier penetrates deep into the heart of the mountain. Seen from the south, the summit of Jannu supported by its west and south-east ridges resembles the back of a huge throne.
A small French team comprising Jean Bouvier, Pierre Leroux and myself set out in the autumn of 1957 to reconnoitre its approaches. We were accompanied by five Sherpas led by our old friend Gyalzen, who had come with us to the summit of Makalu in 1955. Tulhander accompanied us as liaison officer. Our objectives were limited: to select the best approach to the foot of the mountain, to suggest a route to the summit, and to indicate the equipment required to render the route practicable.
On the morning of September 22, our long line of porters winds across the steep twisting path above Muni Bhanjang, our first camp. Having completed the last customs formalities and engaged the last coolie, we are ready at last to take the path ourselves. For three days our caravan, stretched out snake-like across the track, will follow the Singalila ridge through alpine pastures, forests of giant rhododendron, and hillsides covered with the charred remains of trees destroyed by lightning. To our left, we can see the terraced rice-fields of Nepal; to our right, the tea gardens of India and Sikkim.
In front of us, extends one of the most wonderful mountain panoramas, unfortunately for us obscured by this year's exceptionally late monsoon. Stretching across from Bhutan in the east to Central Nepal in the west, five summits of over 8,000 metres, including Everest, form an impressive barrier, with several dozen lesser mountains thrown in. Kangchenjunga is directly in front of us, and to its left, our objective Jannu.
Mist and rain accompany us for the first three days between Tonglu, Sandakphu and Phalut, and we get our first glimpse of Jannu on the day we leave Phalut, just as we begin the descent into Nepal. We now enter the familiar Arun valley which we follow for four days, first through paddy-fields and then along the foot of deep gorges clothed with dense undergrowth. Crossing a series of passes, we climb towards the north to reach Yenguthang the last village before the Yalung valley.
On September 29, in dense mist we begin the climb to the Setam pass. The ascent is steep and long; a rivulet flows down the crude track and we splash our way along the slippery path which abounds in leeches. In the green half-light the enormous boulders and trees seem to suggest the fantastic setting of the Niebelungen, and I almost expect to find myself face to face with Siegfried and the dragon. A tense agonizing silence is the most impressive feature of these high forests in Nepal; a silence made up of a thousand sounds of insect life that are hushed by our approach.
Sketch-map showing main approaches to Jannu.
On October 1, leaving the forests and the rain behind, we finally arrive at Tseram. On a meadow of soft grass, perched like a balcony above the Yalung torrent, we pitch our first Base Camp. At the top of the valley, above the bulk of the terminal moraine, a beautiful pyramid of snow glitters through a break in the racing clouds. The next day for the first time the weather is really fine and, enjoying to the full the beauty of autumn, we walk to the top of the moraine following the stream that runs from meadow to meadow through the ablation valley. On the left bank opposite, there is a magnificent sugarloaf peak: could it be Kabru, Rathong or Koktang? We postpone identification of these mountains until tomorrow, when we hope to be able to see the whole group that surrounds us.
We pitch our next camp near the highest stream, and find ourselves in the heart of the high mountains: the icy high-altitude world of solitude and physical discomfort. There is a heavy frost at night and a thick rime completely covers the interior of the tent. With daylight, the clouds gradually lift and the rising sun begins to pick out one by one the lofty summits that form our amphitheatre of mountains. Yesterday's unidentified peak is soon recognized as Rathong; the ridge running south from it falls to a col that separates it from Koktang. Higher up, the long snow ridge of Kabru gleams in the sun; I his ridge, which runs north to terminate in Talung peak, is over four miles long and never falls below 23,000 ft. Behind, rises the gigantic w;ill of Kangchenjunga. The moraine ridge, which we thought yesterday would provide an easy means of access up the glacier, terminates abruptly below the Tso glacier, and we arc forced to climb down to the Yalung glacier by means of steep and rotten slopes in which we are forced to cut steps. We head off directly across the glacier, impatient to set eyes upon Jannu which is still obscured by the spurs ahead of us. Striking- looking peaks, coming into view one after another on our left, keep us guessing, but when Jannu finally appears, we are dumbfounded by its astonishing aspect, and any hopes we might have entertained about the possibility of finding a route from this side are completely shattered.
The next day, whilst moving up towards the head of the Yalung glacier the entire face is gradually seen, revealing striking ridges heavily plastered with snow and ice. Our eyes, scanning the ice- festooned crests and hanging glaciers, search in vain for a possible route. We can picture, behind the ridge, the upper plateau situated on the east face; it is hemmed in by enormous overhanging cornices. Lower down, the seracs of the east glacier terminating in a 300-ft. vertical cliff discharge thousands of tons of ice on to the Yalung glacier at an alarming rate. Everything seems to confirm what we had suspected yesterday and it does not take us long to decide that there is no prospect of a route from here.
East face of Jannu, seen from the upper Yalung glacier.
South-West face of Jannu from the Yamatari glacier. Rock Spur left of icefall; Intermediate Plateau centre; summit in cloud on left skyline.
On October 7, we leave the Yalung valley; crossing the Mirgin La we make for the village of Khunza. On the afternoon of the second day, we emerge at the top of a ridge and find the Kangbachen valley and the Yamatari peaks spread out before us; Khunza lies at our feet. This valley, though situated in Nepal, is largely Tibetan in character; the inhabitants and their animals, their religion and customs. Several years ago an important monastery existed here, but it was almost completely destroyed by fire with its paintings and manuscripts, and the monks have emigrated. Only a small gompa remains, wherein lives the lama of the village who guards a few charred relics salvaged from the fire.
Whilst the porters return to Tseram to fetch the remaining loads, we move up the Yamatari valley accompanied by Gyalzen and the Sherpas. Following an old moraine ridge, we progress steadily upwards for about two hours alongside a magnificent forest rich with bright autumn colours. At the level of the highest summer pastures a small lake, its waters smooth and clear, nestles between the foot of the moraine and the mountain slopes. We find a convenient camp-site on some gentle slopes, with juniper trees at hand to ensure a plentiful supply of firewood. Beyond our camp, a sharp bend in the glacier hides Jannu from our view. This makes us rather impatient as we stumble across the rough terrain composed of loose rocks and unstable boulders. Finally we reach the bend of the glacier, only to be greeted by a heavy bank of cloud which obscures the face and limits our view to the lower slopes of our mountain. From time to time we hear the rumble of avalanches and we try to locate the direction from which they come. Heavy clouds which are advancing up the valley soon envelop us and we have just enough time to pitch our tents before snow begins to fall in earnest.
At first light we get the primus going. We want to make use of the two or three hours of fine weather we get each morning in order to find a site for Camp II. But one look, when we emerge from the tent, puts paid to our plans. The view is quite demoralizing. Contained between two near-vertical rock walls a terrifying icefall broken into two sections cascades down to the glacier from an uppei plateau over 4,000 ft. above. There is not a single place in tin, heavily-crevassed area which is not threatened by ice avalanches. It is obvious that further progress in this direction is not to be considered.
On the right bank of the glacier a small peak of about 18,300 ft. serves as a good viewpoint from which we can make a more detailed study. We look out on to a vast area of shattered ice and search in vain for a route that might be considered safe. It does not take us long to agree that the icefall itself is out of the question. The only approach that seems to be free from avalanche danger is the left- hand rock spur, but an attempt to climb this would present technical problems of a very high order. Above the spur, the appearance of the intermediate plateau and the seracs above it does not inspire much hope. In order to reach the main plateau higher up we must either follow the centre of the long slopes above the intermediate plateau or traverse diagonally across; and both alternatives are threatened by avalanches as the long furrows in the snow amply indicate. But the weather soon interrupts our observations, and we return to our tents just as snow begins to fall.
The next day, we set out from camp in crisp and cold weather under a clear sky; although some fresh snow covers the glacier we advance rapidly towards the foot of the s£racs. An hour later we are zigzagging between enormous crevasses trying as far as possible to keep clear of the well-marked avalanche shoots, It soon becomes clear that our route is avalanche-swept for several hundred feet and we are forced to stop, f rom our present position the spur is visible in profile. It certainly seems possible to trace a route up it; but the real problem lies higher up, in the area between the top of the rock spur and the main plateau above. And we are obviously not equipped to tackle this problem at present. In view of the various difficulties that face us here, it seems advisable to go round and have a look at the north side. Although the pictures we have seen of it do not suggest that there is much hope there, we have got to explore every possibility.
For four days we work our way round the range that lies between the Yamatari and Jannu glaciers. As soon as we reach the snout of the Jannu glacier and view the base of the mountain from this side, our last hopes are extinguished. We cannot find a single weak point in this mountain wall. For miles along its length, from Eagle peak to Kangbachen peak, there is a continuous succession of steep hanging glaciers and vertical walls overhung by snow cornices. In a single sweep from the summit of Jannu, the face drops vertically for over 8,000 ft. To the left, an ice pyramid seems to pierce the sky ; White Wave peak completes the cirque of this impregnable group.
North face of Jannu, seen from the right bank of the Jannu glacier.
We have now seen all the faces of Jannu, and have examined all its ridges and it is time to make up our minds about it. It is a mountain that seems to present a continuous series of difficulties IVom its base at 16,500 ft. to its summit at 25,294 ft. Without expressing any views about the final part of climb, we feel that it is the lower part with its steepness and objective dangers that constitutes the main problem. It seems clear that the Yamatari approach offers the sole possibility of ascent. The task that we have been allotted, that of exploring all the glaciers surrounding the mountain and of deciding on the best approach, has been completed and we can go home now.
Before leaving this area, we would have liked to attempt one or two small climbs on some of the lovely peaks rising from the Yalung, Yamatari and Jannu glaciers. They comprise one of the most beautiful mountain groups in the world, and none of them looks easy. However the weather, instead of improving as is usual at this time of year, continues to deteriorate steadily. One night there is a fall of snow down in Khunza, 10,800 ft.; this is the lowest altitude in the Himalayas at which we have experienced snow.
Lhakpa, our head coolie, returning from Tseram, informs us that the Mirgin La is already under snow. This news causes us some concern. A heavy fall of snow might force us to return by the Tamar valley, and I can foresee the horribly complicated administrative difficulties that are likely to arise by a change in our prescribed route! With some regret, we take the only course left open to us, and on October 17 we leave Khunza.