SIKKIM, 1960


The middle of September, 1960, found me marching up the Tista Valley in Sikkim, heading towards the Cho Lhamo plain accompanied by four Sherpas. I was extremely fortunate to have permission of the Sikkim Durbar to visit Kangchenjhau, 22,603 ft., whose north-eastern approaches I wished to examine.

The first time I ever began seriously to entertain the idea of having a look at Kangchenjhau was after a conversation in Calcutta with T. H. Braham who had made an unsuccessful attempt on the mountain in 1949. I soon found myself engrossed in Sikkim literature and happily found that Kangchenjhau offered a wonderful opportunity for a short mountaineering holiday. It had been climbed by Dr. Kellas in 1912 from the north at the very first attempt. However, he noticed from the east col that it appeared to be different from the col which is visible from the Sebu La and apparently lay to the north of it across a deep valley. He further observed that a better approach to the col would have beea from the south side which could be reached by following the NE. Kangchenjhau Glacier. In 1919, Mr. Tombazi approached the mountain from the north-east but bad weather forced him to give up at 20,000 ft. Unfortunately, no details are available of this effort. Later visitors stopping by at Gurudongmar Cho described the NE. Kangchenjhau Glacier as falling in fine formation into a small lake. With only one exception no serious effort appears to have been made to go beyond the moraine ridge separating Gurudongmar Cho from the glacier lake. In 1936, Shipton and three others visited Gurudongmar, 22,032 ft., on their way back from Everest. They traversed the NE. Kangchenjhau Glacier and discovered just one spot which gave them easy access to the col separating Kangchenjhau and Gurudongmar. From this col Shipton and Kempson reached the summit by climbing the west ridge of Gurudongmar. One other serious attempt was made on Kangchenjhau after 1919 by Braham in November, 1949. This proved to be unsuccessful because of excessive cold and Braham had to retreat without setting foot on Kellas' col. To attempt an ascent of the mountain it would have been simplest for me to approach Kangchenjhau from the north and try to follow the established route of Dr. Kellas, i.e. up to the east col, involving a short steep section, and then turn right and along the east ridge. This would undoubtedly have robbed the trip of some novelty, and I decided that it would be more interesting to examine afresh the north-eastern approaches to Kangchenjhau. The idea of climbing in Sikkim proved in the end to be irresistible because I discovered that if, for reasons beyond my control, I was unable to visit Kangchenjhau, the Khankhyong plateau, the Chento region and Chom- bu, 20,872 ft., have been generally neglected. The mountains between the Sebu La and the Burum La ranging between 18,000 ft. and 21,000 ft. offer some hope of success but, astonishingly, remain inviolate to this day.

Arriving in Darjeeling on September 10, 1960, I was able the next morning to meet the following Sherpas who came with me to Sikkim:—

  1. Gyaljen Mikchung or Gyaljen II. Sirdar. Aged 31. He came to me with first-class references and proved excellent. Among other things he had climbed on Trisul, Makalu and Ganesh Himal.
  2. Mingma II. Aged 26. He was exceedingly tough and had been on Brig. Gyan Singh's Everest Expedition and had carried to the South Col.
  3. Ang Nowang. Aged 22. He was a porter on the Himalayan Mountaineering Institute courses and had limited experience on the high mountains. But he stands out in my memory for his boundless energy and enthusiasm.
  4. Lewang Chittar. Aged 22. His qualifications were similar to those of Ang Nowang. He was my frequent companion on the trips between camps.

We left in a Land Rover on the 12th for Gangtok where I was most hospitably looked after by the Political Officer, Mr. A. Pant. I had planned to spend one day in Gangtok, buying rations and arranging for mules to carry food and equipment. But on the 13th no shopping was possible as it was a Tuesday. The mules delayed us a further day in Gangtok and we were unable to leave until the morning of the 16th. No amount of argument would persuade the muleteers to take us to Thangu in four days, and I had to content myself with following the normal dak-bungalow stages. This was perhaps just as well, since I was as yet out of condition. Although the first few miles were jeepable, I felt that we should cover the entire distance on foot and so at about 11.30 one morning we started walking down the Residency grounds, bound for the distant mountains.

When we had crossed the Penlong La and left the fluttering prayer flags behind us, we were well and truly on our way at last. I had decided to go up the Lachen valley because I was uncertain of the condition of the Dongkya La. J was relying on animal transport to take the heavy luggage and wanted to avoid any possibility of delay in the Lachung valley. Things turned out unexpectedly well, and I had a pleasant surprise in Lachen on the 19th. As I entered the dak-bungalow compound and made my way up the steps I noticed an odd-looking character in the vicinity whose face looked familiar. A few minutes later he walked into my room and was introduced by Gyaljen as Angtharkay. I was delighted to make the acquaintance of such a well-known figure, particularly under such startling circumstances. He had probably been having a talk with my Sherpas before I came in, so I think he was more than a little pleased to come and greet me. I was, of course, very glad to meet him because he had accompanied Braham on his trip to Kangchenjhau in 1949 and to the Chento region in 1952. Angtharkay has retired from climbing and works as a contractor, but he still takes a lot of interest in current mountaineering activities in the Himalayas. He was therefore very sympathetic and happy when I discussed my plans with him. He proved to be charming, courteous, and to my astonishment very correct and formal. When Gyaljen brought in my tea some time later, Angtharkay excused himself politely and quickly withdrew. He saw us off next morning on our way to Thangu and I can still remember his shy, smiling face at the gate.

After a rest-day at Thangu, we left for Donkung on the 22nd, having taken on yaks to carry the stores and equipment from now7 on. We had been lucky with the weather on the whole and had had no trouble with leeches. But as we passed the Giaogong gorge it began to get cold and blustery and we were a little wet when we arrived in camp. It snowed overnight and we were glad to get away from Donkung, which was very depressing at the time. Ahead of us the weather still seemed uncertain but we felt that things would improve. As we swung right the northern precipices of Kangchenjhau showed a lot of adhering cloud, making a wonderful, awe- inspiring sight. Behind us Chomiomo showed up clearly for the first time and increased our confidence in the weather. We were making directly east for Gurudongmar Cho and were thus traversing a little higher than the regular track. Unfortunately, it was not high enough for us to see the entire northern route and we had to be satisfied with a fleeting glimpse of Kellas' col and the east ridge. Since we did not proceed as far as Yumcho we were unable to see the north-eastern aspect of the massif as a whole, which as things turned out was really a pity. In the late afternoon we crossed a small ridge and were soon dropping down to the lake below. Five o'clock found us established at the base camp at around 17,000 ft. at the south-western corner of Gurudongmar Cho. It was an imposing if somewhat forbidding spot. There was an absence of the lush greenness to which we had been accustomed on the way up. I was disappointed at having seen so few flowers en route and here there was nothing at all, not even any scrub worth speaking of.

The 24th morning turned out to be beautiful, with the sun shining from a pure blue sky. Because of a slight headache, I had decided not to move up immediately and all kit and food were therefore turned out for inspection. At 11 o'clock Gyaljen and I went to have a look at what lay ahead of us, as up till now we had been unable to see the NE. Kangchenjhau Glacier. Arriving at the moraine ridge rising at the southern end of Gurudongmar Cho, we were able to examine the glacier we hoped to follow and the lake into which it fell. The glacier lake was not frozen at this time of the year although small blocks of ice floated in it. The moraine ridge was a wonderful viewpoint and in all directions we were able to feast our eyes on the mountain panorama. We could not, of course, see Kangchenjhau properly because we were too close to it. The NE. Kangchenjhau Glacier was clearly visible and we saw that we could get on to it without difficulty by skirting the lake on our right. The col lying between Gurudongmar and Kangchenjhau, which can in fact be seen from Yumcho, was prominent, but it was obviously not Kellas' col. The weather continued fine except for occasional clouding of the summits on the south. We decided to leave Base Camp the following morning.

On the 25th the weather seemed less promising. On our way to the moraine ridge a little after 10 o'clock the Sherpas became excited on spotting a Tibetan camp not far away. Security in any case demanded that one of them spend the night at the Base Camp. With Tibetans close by, Mingma decided to return immediately and passed on his entire load to Gyaljen. Camp I was established at 18,000 ft., not very far from the glacier lake. When Ang Nowang and I arrived there, Lewang was preparing to return to the Base Camp and appeared to be in a hurry as the weather was deteriorating. It soon became cold and rather windy and later in the afternoon it started to snow. The following day the bad weather continued and it was impossible to do anything till 10 o'clock. However, despite the spindrift and the blasts of wind which shook the camp, Gyaljen and I managed to move slowly up the glacier to see the prospects for Camp II, which would have had to be at about 20,000 ft. We made slow progress by keeping to the left bank of the glacier under the tall and steep rock bluffs of Point 20870 on our right. The centre of the glacier was very broken up and the right bank was susceptible to avalanches from Gurudongmar. I do not think that we were able to get very far under the prevailing conditions. Mist made it difficult to verify our highest position, but I doubt if it can have been more than 19,000 ft. All we could see ahead of us was a sort of minor icefall. A camp site was possible near this without danger of stone-falls from the rock face on our right. I regret to say that this was the highest point we reached on the glacier. We had to turn back without identifying Kellas' col and without seeing a way out of the amphitheatre which loomed in front out of the mist. This was a great disappointment as I had, perhaps rashly, expected to find a straightforward route from the glacier to the east col of Kangchenjhau. On the way back to Camp I the steep rock wall, now on our left, discharged a few missiles but it was possible to keep out of harm's way. The main NE. Kangchenjhau Glacier bearing obvious evidence of avalanches and rock-falls, I began to wonder if the north-eastern approach, or at any rate the path we were following, was going to lead to the summit. The weather looked unrelenting as we returned to Camp I, after having been away for approximately three hours. Having a few days' supply of food and a primus stove with us, we prepared to ride out the storm. Unfortunately, the weather had the final say in the matter and on the 28th we were obliged to retreat from Camp I. Our return to the Base Camp, unpleasant in the soft snow, was enlivened by the sight of avalanches coming off the north-western face of Gurudongmar. After a promising start on the 24th the weather had changed and defeated us at a time when I was not properly acclimatized. My memory of those four days in Camp I is of an inhospitable, arctic world and the only redeeming feature was that we had managed to go some distance beyond our camp on the second day.

When the 29th turned out to be cloudy and bright, I began to wonder if we had not committed a blunder in retreating from Camp I so soon. However, a slight cramp in the calf muscle provided some distraction on yet another day of inactivity. I made use of the occasion to send out Mingma and Lewang to scour the neighbourhood and find out if yaks were available for the return journey. They returned in a surprisingly short time with yak dung, mutton and a Tibetan who readily agreed to bring his yaks on the 9th October, after which I could not afford to remain at Gurudongmar Cho.

On the 30th, Base Camp bore an icy appearance and there was doubt as to whether the weather had settled. Gyaljen respectfully pointed out this fact, but I told him that I wished to leave for Camp I without further delay. On the glacier we had left behind inside a tent some food, most of my spare woollen clothing, and my crampons and rope. Moreover, my ice-axe lay buried in deep snow in Camp I near the tent entrance and I was anxious to retrieve it. On our way to the moraine ridge I was mentally re-establishing this chilly and bleak camp, but things took a startlingly different course before long. In an hour's time we were making our way along the top of the moraine ridge, when glancing at the NE. Kangchenjhau Glacier I noticed again a fact which had struck me previously. The glacier is set in one of those small valleys which do not catch the sun very easily, are usually cold and windy, and somehow depressing. The peaks and ridges above were shining in the morning sun, but the glacier itself had an unhealthy appearance. With memories of our recent defeat so fresh in my mind, I could not avoid a sense of foreboding of being caught out in a second blizzard on the glacier. With my slender resources this would have completely ruined my chances on the mountain. I therefore cried a halt and suggested to Gyaljen that instead of persisting on the glacier route we should turn off right on to Point 20870 which offered no difficulties, had better weather on the whole, and by overlooking the NE. Kangchenjhau Glacier might tell us more about the route I wished to follow. At the time I genuinely believed that this need be only a temporary arrangement, but as things turned out I never again set foot on the glacier. To this day I am not certain whether this decision of mine to leave the glacier was right.

Gyaljen readily fell in with my idea and we temporarily split forces, while Mingma and Lewang dropped their loads on the moraine ridge and proceeded to Camp I. They went to retrieve the tent which we had left behind and also to collect my spare photographic films and woollen clothing. They unearthed my ice-axe, brought my crampons and rope, and food. This was a splendid job done in very fast time. Returning to the moraine ridge they added on some of their original loads and followed the tracks of Gyaljen and myself who had gone ahead leisurely to establish Camp I A. An ice-axe was not essential at this stage and I was using a tent pole which, though useful, was clumsy. My boots were leaking badly and I was feeling the cold. Gyaljen therefore went ahead and started preparing a level site for our new camp while I waited for Mingma and Lewang who were coming up rapidly. We soon reached the crest of a ridge above us and saw the site which Gyaljen had selected. It was situated on a spur at about 19,000 ft. and one was able to get a fine view of Chomiomo and Point 20870 from there. I promised myself some photographs of the sunrise on the following day, but when I woke up there was a complete white-out. Once I emerged from the tent for a short while and looking down towards the Kangchenjhau Glacier lake found that things were possibly not so bad lower down. I was very discouraged with the weather by this time and decided to abandon the glacier route altogether. Lewang went down to Base Camp while Mingma returned to the old Camp I and brought all the things that had been left behind on the glacier. He left a few things on the moraine ridge to be brought by Lewang later, and quickly rejoined us in Camp IA from which Gyaljen and I had not stirred out. The morning of October 2 was again miserable. There was a lot of snow inside the tent. A high wind and poor visibility deprived us of the opportunity to establish Camp II that day. To overcome my restlessness I went for a short walk in the afternoon with Gyaljen, but this was in no way useful. The mist began to lift when we made our way back to camp where we found that Lewang had just come up from base. At about 2.30 in the afternoon there was a shout when Point 20870 reared its head above the clouds. Soon we were basking in the sunshine which showed us for the first time clearly what lay ahead of us. We saw a glittering snowfield rising to Point 20870 which was connected by a ridge with snowy peaks, one of which was probably Kangchenjhau but we could not say which. It was apparent now that we should skirt the snowfield and ascend a spur parallel to the one we were on. This would place Camp II a little below the skyline between Point 20870 and Kangchenjhau.

We had about fourteen degrees of frost that night but no wind. This proved to be a good omen since the 3rd turned out to be a fine day and Camp II was established at about 19,500 ft. at 2 o'clock. The passage was rendered unpleasant by soft snow but there was otherwise no difficulty. Lewang left for Camp I which he was going to dismantle and take down to base the same day. It was an exciting moment when he turned back and left Gyaljen, Mingma and myself in our tiny camp perched below Point 20870 on the edge of reality. It was impossible to recognize Kangchenjhau from here and certainly not Kellas' col. One more storm and our chances on the mountain were finished as we had stretched our meagre resources to the utmost. But there were other compensations that silent afternoon. Chomiomo was prominent on the west and Pauhunri for the first time could be clearly seen on the east. To the north we could see for miles into Tibet.

The 4th turned out to be a fine day and Gyaljen and I left camp at about 8.30 a.m. We were going to make for the skyline above and to the right of our camp. Thereafter it was impossible to tell. My mood of optimism quickly faded when I discovered the soft condition of the snow. Gyaljen led off but soon I took over the lead and went up in a shallow series of zigzags. I was leading for much of the time as I found it easier this way than when following in Gyal- jen's steps which kept breaking under me. The soft snow was overlying neve at an angle of 40° to 60°. There was no real danger of avalanche, but I found the going difficult and I think I realized that the summit was beyond me. It was now simply a matter of getting up to the skyline and seeing what lay beyond. We arrived in due course at a short steep traverse. About half-way across, the snow collapsed under me, but fortunately Gyaljen was very alert and we were on a short run-out. For some distance I had to cut steps in the hard underlayer and then Gyaljen took over, still maintaining a short run-out. Gradually the angle relented and step- cutting was no longer necessary, but we continued to use belays till we emerged at what I can only describe as a semi-cirque of peaks and cols. We were now at one of the depressions which was possibly at an altitude of 20,500 ft. To our left a little distance away was Point 20870. In front of and below us we could see a small stretch of the NE. Kangchenjhau Glacier one side of which abutted against the steep wall of Point 20870. Although the weather was perfect and we could see clearly for miles in all directions, it is not easy to describe the scene before us. The glacier route from our position did not really commend itself to us. We were unable to identify Kellas' col and could only guess that one of the peaks on our right was Kangchenjhau. I think we were not far from either of these and certainly we had time to explore a little further to our right. It was puzzling not to be able to identify either the east col or the east ridge of Kangchenjhau.

Unfortunately, I was very exhausted by this time and nowhere near was firm snow or ice visible. In the circumstances it was heartrending but nevertheless imperative that we stop at that point. And so we turned our backs upon that col. Chomiomo and Pauhunri were again clearly visible while far below between Chomiomo and us we could see a single lake of the brightest blue. In two hours I was imbibing tea which Mingma had prepared in Camp II and was pondering over lost chances. Although the weather had been perfect I had failed through a blunder somewhere to accompany Gyaljen to the summit of Kangchenjhau, which I am certain he could have done. A private regret, perhaps excusable here, quickly gave way to relief that all the uncertainties were behind us. I was profoundly thankful to have had the rare opportunity to explore the north-eastern approaches to Kangchenjhau. Our route up the mountain had had its interests here and there, but in the final analysis it must be counted a failure. If I were to try again, I am sure that I would follow Dr. Kellas' route from the north.

The story of our return is quickly told. The beautiful weather continued for at least a week after this, much to my disgust. I think we must have come to the mountain about ten days too early. We had some excitement when getting the yaks to cross the Dong- kya La because of the quantity of snow on it. We camped about a mile above Mome Samdong and on the 11th passed the tragic Himalayan Club hut. Shortage of paraffin and the return to civilization at Yumthang made me give up any thought of going up to the Burum La to have a look at the Chento region. Besides, the fine weather looked like breaking. We finally arrived in Gangtok on the 14th October, having been away exactly one month.

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