WE traversed a very unstable scree slope in the Phukpoche Lungpa glacier under the sweltering heat of the June sun. After a short climb up the debris of some recently fallen rocks we were on a hump and there before us stood Saser Kangri, the 'Yellow Mountaindisplaying a glistening icy cap which had so far defied several attempts.

The area had been visited five times before, the first m 1909 by Dr. Tom Longstaff who had commented on the difficulty of the mountain. The Vissors came in 1929 and J. O. M. Roberts in 1945. Roberts, of course, carried out a thorough reconnaissance and felt that a direct assault on the mountain from the west face was difficult and dangerous. The late Major Jayal brought a party in 1956 in an effort to climb the peak, but failed to go beyond 20,000 feet. Last September Major C. S. Nogyal carried out a reconnaissance of the mountain and gave a fair assessment of its approaches.

The great valley of Shyok separates the Zaskar from the Karakorams. We crossed the Shyok just east of its junction with I he Nubra, and were lucky to do so as the river was still fordable. Sonam Wangyal on the other side at Lughzhun had made all arrangements, and as such we left for Panamik the same day and reached there late in the evening. The day was 8 June.

The Nubra valley is one of the most fertile valleys of Ladakh. Its lovely verdant pastures lined with poplars and willow trees stood in marked contrast to the bare desolate mountain side with their icy steeples. A few hundred yards away from Panamik is a famous hot spring. There were rumours (fortunately both in favour and adverse) of the effect of the hot spring on fertility; nevertheless, no visitor to the hamlet ever misses a refreshing bath in it and we were no exceptions.

On 10 June Sonam and I went on a recce of the route to our Base Camp. The initial part of the route lay through the Phukpoche Lungpa gorge, but after a walk of about a kilometre the valley opened up and the going became easier. We reached a table-land beyond which the entire route to the junction of the south and the north Phukpoche glacier (Junction Camp) coul be seen. We stopped at a point from where we got our first view of Saser Kangri, but could only see the upper reaches of the mountain—they did appear difficult and quite what Longstaff had to say about them.

The Indian Saser Kangri Expedition, 1970

The Indian Saser Kangri Expedition, 1970

Our whole team left Panamik on 12 June and camped at a height of 13,500 feet on the banks of the Lungpa, and the following day reached the Junction Camp. This camp was at 15,500 feet and we decided to acclimatize here, for a few days. Our expedi¬tion comprised ten members, six Sherpas from Darjeeling and five high-altitude porters from the Nehru Institute of Mountain-eering at Uttarkashi. Dr. D. V. Telang was my deputy and the expedition doctor. Tashi, Lieutenant Kumar and Shamal Chakravarty were looking after the equipment while Sonam and Chandola were the ' transportwallasBhangu, V. P. Singh and Hemant Patel took care of the food and did an excellent job of it.

Having studied most of the accounts of those who had been to that area I was well aware of the problems of the mountain. I had managed to lay hands on some aerial photographs which showed vividly what I would have to face. I had made some study of a possible route from the north-east via the Shyok, but decided on the South Phukpoche and an approach from the west.

On 14 June some of us left Junction Camp with our Sherpas and our train of porters at 0600 hours to establish Base Camp. The climb over the initial part of the moraine was very trying and arduous. After an ascent of a thousand feet the gradient eased and the going became more simple on a well spread out moraine. It was a long day and it was not before 2 p.m. that the last porter reached the Base Camp. We established the Base Camp at a height of 18,000 feet on the South Phukpoche glacier under the very shadow of Saser Kangri.

Saser Kangri stood in front of us in all its formidable majesty and might. The sun was still behind Saser I and the whole face of the giant looked grey, green and hostile—a very different aspect to what I had visualized from the helicopter and through photo¬graphs. As the mountain became brighter we scanned it through our binoculars to look for some possible routes. The west face of the mountain stood 25,170 feet high, almost vertical, at the head of the South Phukpoche glacier. Talking of avalanches we were surprised to count not less than 20 hurtling giants in a space of just eight days! This was in spite of the fact that all available literature had emphasized that no avalanches were to be experi¬enced on this mountain. They came from all directions and at all hours of the day and night, thus exploding some of the pet theories about them and adding another dimension to our problems.

We decided to recce the mountain and test each route. The direct ascent of the summit was out of the question, as it involved thousands of feet of almost vertical climbing and negotiating two hanging glaciers which seemed ready to hurtle down at the drop of a hat. The summit was flanked on either side by a col, one at 24,000 feet and the other at 500 feet less to the south. The approach to the lower col though easy was continuously threatened by avalanches and as such was rated out. The direct approach starting at the base of the ' amphitheatre' was in the path of an avalanche chute, and it would have been disastrous had we made an effort on that. This really left us with the two probable routes, both from the left, converging on to the saddle between Saser I and IV.

From the Base Camp, Tashi and I set out with Sherpas Pemba Tharke and Nima Dorje to establish Camp I and conduct a further recce from there. This camp was at an altitude of 20,000 feet on a gradual gradient on an offshoot of the South Phukpoche glacier. Directly below Saser IV at the base of the mountain lay a triangular expanse of rock. From the apex of the triangle a rib, covered on one side with ice and on the other with rock, ran directly in the direction of Saser IV to an estimated height of 23,500 feet. Beyond that point it involved a traverse of over 500 feet to the col over stretches of broken ice—not a very comforting sight. On close examination of the rib, both from its east and west, it did not take us long to realize that it would definitely be wiser to look for an easier route, rather than commit ourselves on this slope of 45 to 50 degrees, which had certain sections of almost vertical rock. The ice conditions were such that every inch of the way would have to be fixed with rope. An effort was made by Chandola and a Sherpa to approach the rib from the west but to no avail. The following day Tashi and I went into the offshoot glacier but could not discover any route, while Kumar, Shamal and Bhangu carried out a reconnaissance of the amphitheatre area to find the feasibility of some route there.

Sonam Wangyal who was lower down arrived the next day and brought along with him a very tough boy called Mutup. They went for a recce and came back in the evening jubilant, as Sonam thought there was a possible route and wanted me to give it a try. The following day we set out and re-established Camp I at its original place. We set out from Camp I for this new route which lay slightly to the west of the rib, and ultimately converged on to the top of the rib itself. After negotiating a narrow rocky arete through patches of glazed ice we reached a height of 21,500 feet and established Camp II on a rocky ledge. Determined not to give up, we climbed another 300 feet, but were forced to come to the conclusion that the route was impracticable owing to its steep incline and exposure to hazards, and quite reluctantly both Sonam and myself retraced our steps.

A frustrating fortnight it was in searching for a route. We were not .quite going to give up the mountain this way, and diverted our attention to the North Phukpoche (NP) glacier, in the hope of finding an indirect route to Saser I via Saser II. I sent out Shamal and Kumar to recce the site of the new Base Camp (later came to be known as Base Camp NP) which was established at a height of 19,000 feet—perhaps one of the highest. The route from here was long and entailed climbing two summits around 21,500 feet and 22,500 feet and then skirting the summit of Saser IV to the col and finally along the ridge to the main peak.

Camp I was established by Kumar, Tashi and Shamal at a height of 21,000 feet, having fixed about 1,000 feet of rope over certain tricky sections of rock and ice. After a night's stay at Camp I, Tashi and I left to open the route to Camp II, and had to fix 500 feet of rope over a section of glazed ice, having climbed just a thousand feet. After moving up for another one hour we reached a rocky outcrop which was just below the summit of Peak 22,500 feet. We rested there for a while and gazed at the ridge leading to Saser IV. I could see the feeling of dismay on Tashi's face and frankly I myself was quite astonished to see the ridge. From a height of 22,500 feet to 24,000 feet it was dangerous¬ly corniced and fell sharply on both sides. Our efforts to proceed any further beyond this point were foiled owing to bad weather and we both returned to Camp I. Sonam, Bhangu and Chandola had been detailed by me to establish Camp II and, by the time Tashi and myself were back at Camp I, we found Sonam and Bhangu descending from Peak 21,500 feet, while Chandola was organizing the ferry up to Camp I. They left early next morning with two tents and stores to establish Camp II. They surmounted the summit of Peak 22,500 feet without much difficulty and it is then that their problems started. There before them lay a large snow-field with a huge crevasse cutting through the whole expanse. Prodding with their ice-axes, they inched their way forward till they were right before the ridge. Sonam was aghast when he saw the ridge and was not at all happy with its looks. Camp II was, however, established at 22,500 feet and the party returned to Camp I.

The weather had been fair all along and at the time we required it to continue so, it began to fail us and gave way to high winds and cumulo-nimbus clouds. I thought it was unusual for this area, but there it was, as if we had annoyed the Yellow Mountain. With the bad weather now showing no signs of abating we started running out of time and, with the thought of the ridge in the prevailing weather, we acknowledged defeat in a sporting manner. Both Camps I and II were evacuated, with most of the ferrying being organized by Lala, V.P., Chandola, Shamal and Kumar. Before finally leaving the mountain we climbed two other virgin summits of over 20,000 feet in the area of our Base Camp NP.

There are possibly two routes up Saser I. One from the NE. and the other from the south. The route from the NE. in the Shy ok is still unreconnoitred, but I am told that the Shy ok which is in spate from July to October would pose a problem to any large party travelling in that area. From the South Phukpoche I would recommend the route along the Rib. Though technically difficult, it is negotiable and comparatively safe. The route from NE. via the North Sukhpa Lungpa, as seen in an aerial photo¬graph, looked easier than that from the south along the Rib but then there is the problem of the turbulant Shyok.

There was some disappointment naturally, but then it was a fair fight. The mountain had turned us back like it had done others before, a$d perhaps the only consoling factor was that it had allowed us to go 2,500 feet higher than the others. Saser has cast a spell on us and we will surely come another day to climb it.

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