KINNAUR KAILAS is located in the Kinnaur district of Himachal Pradesh 150 miles from Simla on the Hindustan Tibet road. If you reach Kalpa (the District Headquarters), you get the complete view of Kailas range across the valley, the Sutlej flowing in between. The highest point in the range being the main peak called Jorkanden, what we and nearly all others always refer to as Kinnaur Kailas. There are lesser mountains in this range too, one amongst them being the religious Kailas, to where many a mountaineer and non-mountaineer alike have now and then ventured to plod on pilgrimage. This unfortunately tends to confuse the issue a little.
Our team of gunners comprised Maj. D. K. Khullar (leader), Capt. A. K. Joshi (Dep. Leader), Capt. M. L. Sharma-Vir Chakra, Capt. A. K. Chaudhry, Capt. G. S. Amrit, Lt. S. Gill, 2nd Lt. I. S. Sandhu, BHM Purshotam Singh, Hav. Darshan Singh, Nk. Subramaniam, Nursing Asst. Avtar Singh, Sherpa Instructor Ang Temba, Sherpas Chinze, Ningma and Thegpa.
We shall begin our expedition at Peo, Headquarters of one of the ITBP battalions, a place situated two thousand feet below Kalpa. This battalion had been extremely good in looking after us and that a team from this battalion had attempted this mountain during the proceeding autumn, came to us as an additional help.
Sitting on the verandah of the ITBP Mess, we had just to glance across the valley to have a look at our mountain; what a magnificent view it was. We could clearly see the valley that went upto our proposed Base Camp, the route thereon getting obscured by the intervening rock features, till we scanned the sky line and saw Kinnaur Kailas dome shaped of beautiful white ice and rock, dominating all other mountains around it. It was here that the leader of the expedition joined the team on 7 June after an unsuccessful attempt to reconnoitre the mountain from a helicopter.
We had to perforce stay with the ITBP at Peo till 10 June, for we required a minimum of four to five days for tying up our administration in terms of procuring rations, clothing, tentage ing an odd member to do the tedious work of administration, the remainder got busy climbing the adjoining heights, initially only as far as Kalpa and subsequently to the heights above it. On 8 June, Sharma, Gill, Chaudhry and Subramaniam went up to where the ITBP Base Camp had been, both with the aim of reconoitring the route as well as for acclimatization. From the description they gave, one gathered that the route though a little tricky and difficult, could however, be negotiated. This was then our routine for the four days we were at Peo.
Logistically, there is probably no mountain in the Indian Himalaya, as easy as Kinnaur Kailas. At one point, it is just six Kilometers from the road-head. Leave the road and it is one steep climb up a nala. From the Base Camp at 13,500 ft., one could run down to the road-head within a matter of three hours. This indeed is a great advantage when it comes to evacuating casualties and there are very few mountains that afford this facility.
There are four possible approaches to Kinnaur Kailas the North East approach through Rispa valley, the West approach up the Tangling nala and two others from East and South by getting into the Sangla valley. The last two of these, we rejected at the very outset as being too long and the mountain inaccessible from these directions. This therefore left us with two alternatives, either to go up the Rispa valley or follow the Tangling nala. The former had been suggested to me by Gur- dial Singh and the latter was the one followed by the ITBP expedition of 1972. It was difficult to decide between the two, since as already mentioned the helicopter recce not having materialized, it wasn't possible to know what the route was like on the other side. The map indicated that the last two to three thousand feet were rather precarious. It was finally decided to stick to the known evil (the ITBP route) in favour of a route that was definitely longer and probably with no better prospects of reaching the left ridge of the mountain, the key to the summit, at least so we felt.
10 June, with everything loaded in our transport we set off for the Shongtong bridge on the Sutlej, our road-head. It was a good clear day, infact so far on all days the weather had been generally good. All set we were to go up to the mid way camp at 10500 ft. as we thought it both a little difficult as well as inadvisable to climb to any higher too quickly. But there were no porters. The Nepalese labour, that the often finds working along the border roads had let us down at the last moment. The locals, the few that are left of them after recruitment into the ITBP, were too busy attending to their fields, as the sowing season was fast approaching. As things stood the chance of hiring porters appeared bleak.
Stranded, but only for a few hours. It was decided to go up without porters. Half the team was to stay up and the other half to keep ferrying loads to them at Base Camp. We were fifteen of us and a ferry of seven could easily sustain the other half for a reasonable time. In any case we were sure that Sharma who had some previous knowledge of the area, and an acquaintance in the forest department, would soon muster a few porters. Amrit with NCOs acted as ferry to mid-way camp, and it was heartening to see how cheerfully they all carried out an otherwise unpleasant job. Gill with the Sherpas left early for they were to reach the Base Camp the following day. The leader, Joe (Joshi), Gullu (Sandhu) Chow (Chaudhry) Doc (Gupta) and Darshan Singh decided to leave at leisure. They would be ferrying loads between midway camp and the Base Camp. All members left in high morale. The route passed through Tangling village, thence along the left of the nala for about 800 yards, till one reached a nala junction. After that, one had to cross to the other side along the main nala, but unfortunately the last group went wrong at the nala junction, followed a steep but well-defined path to the left. It was hot and sultry, we all realised our mistake yet decided not to turn back, in the hope that all roads lead to Rome. But we were wrong.
It got dark by seven in the evening. Gill and the Sherpas reached the midway camp in reasonably good time. The ferry party was back in Shongtong Rest House by dinner time. The third party which had blundered on to a wrong track decided to pitch camp on a pine ridge at an approximate height of 10,000 feet. It was a wind-sheltered area and the nearest water point was atleast a thousand yards away. It was therefore a highly uncomfortable night, unduly sultry even at that height and the ground we slept on was full of vermins a reminder no doubt of the presence of sheep. To add to it, Joe attired in silken kerchiefs (looking a perfect bandit without his believing so) went and frightened a couple of children coming down with their sheep, who despite the sober looks of the rest of us, refused to be convinced of our harmless intentions. The just went howling down in absolute terror. We were quite expecting a retaliatory raid that night from their village and kept our ice axes ready at hand, just in case!
After a day's wanderings, the third party also reached the midway camp on 11 June. Sharma, the resourceful fellow that he was, had managed to enlist five porters, and sent them up to the Base Camp with the all very essential rations and a medium arctic tent that could accommodate upto twelve people. Gill and party had meanwhile established the Base Camp at 13,500 feet on the same day.
Our mid-way camp was located at the mouth of a beautiful valley, a subsidiary of the main Tangling valley. Its meadowy expanse strewn with rock boulders made it an ideal camp site, for running along its centre was a brook with clean cold water. They were an enjoyable two days we spent in this camp. The route to the midway camp and there on to the Base Camp followed along the Tangling nala. Beyond the midway camp, the route became considerably easier; most of the time it was hopping from boulder to boulder, the last thousand yards being over the frozen nala, till we crossed over to the left and reached a greenish high ground that was our Base Camp.
13 June, all members except Sharma had reached the Base Camp. He was doing a magnificent job down below and it was entirely because of his efforts that the number of porters had risen to seven and our loads had now begun to dribble in a little more frequently. Infact we were in a fairly happy position with regards to our administration.
Our Base Camp was a beautiful piece of land. There were a couple of large rocks in the area which was other-wise all green with grass, and a leafish plant that grows more frequently in marshes. To add to its beauty there was along the fringes a thick growth of rhododrendrons blooming with white flowers. There was running water near at hand.
Our route to Camp I meant a steep climb of four thousand feet up the slopes to our left till one came to the beginning of a vast valley now full of debris, with masses of ice underneath, reminding one of the long past ice age. Along the centre flowed the main nala roaring down the vertical slopes with the waters of the Kailas. We went along the right side of it, though the route along the left was also possible but slippery.
14 June, saw all members and Sherpas making their way to Camp I. Its lateral distance was negligible, it was the gradient that stood out. We could see most of the way up to our camp, it looked temptingly near, only the prospects of negotiating the stiff climb asked for grim determination. The ground was soft being still a little wet after the melting of the spring snows, which presently lay confined in a few of the re-entrants and the nalas. Within two hours we had reached the ITBP Camp 1 at 15,500 feet. Leaving this camp behind us the texture of the ground suddenly changed and one had to now stick more closely to the nala. The route became rougher and for the first time the difficulty in breathing was seriously experienced. Three hours of some very systematic climbing and all of us had reached Camp I, sited at the base of the terminal moraine of the Kailas glacier. This site had been selected by Gill and Ang Temba, on 12 June while on a preliminary recce. One could see the peak quite clearly from there, also the rock face of its right ridge. The big valley referred to earlier lay just above us. At the other end of it was the left ridge. One had to climb some two hundred feet to the mouth of the valley and look at this awe-some mountain massif.
Its main face was covered with three distinct hanging glaciers, separated by inaccessible rock faces. The last five hundred feet formed a snow and ice dome and looked rather easy. The right ridge was knife-edged and there were patches that would have defied even the best of rock climbers. The left ridge seemed to hold the key for though narrow, its gradient ranged between 40 to 60 degrees only. We could see patches of solid ice sticking out on the other side at places, probably the top of another hanging glacier over looking the Rispa valley. The only difficulty lay in reaching it, and from where we were, it didn't look all that an impossible proposition. Under the ridge on our side was a fairly big glacier, the near side of it being a seven hundred yards long ice fall, perched as it were on a granite wall all along. The left edge of this ice fall looked negotiable and the only part to be safe from the avalanches that kept sweeping down the slopes.
Two hours stay at Camp I and we started back on our journey to Base Camp. The journey back was quick and easy. The whole area was blooming with alipine flowers of varied colours. Joe who appreciates beauty in any form, collected quite a handful of each variety and very soon had a bouquet of probably the world's rarest flowers.
It was an excellent bit of work done that day and we all felt we had achieved something. But the hard work had also left us dehydrated and a few complained of headache. The following day was a day of rest in order to recoup lost energies and decide the course of events for the crucial stage of our expedition.
The monsoons were expected to break in early this year. Also of late we had been experiencing cloudy weather and it was now seldom clear after eleven in the morning. With this in mind, it was decided to make a quick clash to the summit. For, as we saw it then, there was nothing that could stop us from reaching the top. To us, the only difficult part was a few hundred feet of climb to the ridge and given clear weather, the rest would be easy. Accordingly a plan of action was formed and the summit party alongwith the rest of the team for administrative support prepared to leave Base Camp on 16 June 73.
In the summit party we had Gill, Amrit, Purshotam and Darshan. We had the Sherpa instructor Ang Temba and Sherpas Thegpa and Ningma also to assist the summit party in their attempt. The leader had intended to see off the party upto the ridge, and thereafter, in case the going was good, to let the team proceed to the last phase of their assault. The rest, comprising of Joe, Choudhry, Gullu and Subramaniam were to remain in Camp I and in case an opportunity offered itself, would try and also make an attempt at the summit. Sharma and Joe were to man the rear, the former only recently having reached the Base Camp. There was a little tension in the air when the day drew to a close. After an early dinner we hit our sacks, all eager for a nightful of rest prior to the journey that were to decide the success or failure of our mission.
After an early breakfast all of us save Sharma and Doc left along what was now a beaten track to Camp I. Gullu and Chou were the first to leave alongwith the porters, their task being to cart as much stores as possible to beyond Camp I, which would assist us considerably for the subsequent ferry to Camp II. By twelve noon, all of us who had to be at Camp I had arrived. Gullu and Chou proceeded to lead the porters along with Dar- shan, Subramaniam and Ang Temba in the general direction of our proposed Camp II, the final selection being left for the following day. Towards the evening the weather worsened, though it never became too bad. The ferry party arrived fairly late. They had managed to dump our loads, at approximately 19,000 feet. Next day the summit party alongwith the support group made brisk progress up the high valley and reached the dump site, located over a narrow rib on the lateral moraine, a little beneath the left ice fall. We had planned to shift our camp to the top of the ice fall on the glacier, but seeing the work involved, it was decided to camp there itself. 19,000 feet was no mean height, high enough in any case to allow a straight attempt on the mountain, provided part of the route could be previously prepared. The Sherpas left straight away to work on the ice fall an obstacle of some three hundred feet. Joe, Subramaniam and Purshotam tried their hands on reaching the ridge by following the rocks to our left and bye-passing the glacier. They could hardly make any headway and luckily so, for had they done so, they would definitely have been burried under large chunks of ice and stones that swept the gulley, half way up the route to the ridge.
Half an hour later the leader left along with Darshan and Gill to help out the Sherpas, the others couldn't come for lack of crampons and experience in ice craft. The ice fall proved no piece of cake. To make things worse, loose stones were whistling down at fantastic speeds and at one point Ningma was extremely lucky not to have been hit by one. Half an hour climb up the ice fall, what took the Sherpas two hours to prepare, and the second group had joined them. One look at Ang Temba and we knew that we had come up against something still worse ahead. Sure enough, right in front of us was a ten feet wide crevasse that crossed the glacier diagnally and must have been atleast a hundred feet deep. Ang Temba pronounced it un- crossable, which it well appeared to be. There were snow bridges at a few places, but the snow was too soft and it was decided not to cross right then. We were carrying no ladders or logs for bridging crevasses, as according to the ITBP account they had come across no crevasse at the place we did. It was late in the afternoon and the weather once again had deteriorated. It was cloudy and sleet had begun to fall. Up at the glacier I managed to see the left ridge at close range when the clouds parted for a brief moment and indeed it wasn't a happy sight at all. The ridge wasn't very high, infact at places nothing more than a couple of hundred feet, yet it called for rock climbing of an order that none amongst us were capable of. It was then with disheartened hearts that we returned to Camp II and for the first time seriously doubted our chances of success. All the same it was decided to have another look the following day with instructions to cross the crevasse if possible and try and work a way to the ridge.
18 June, Joe volunteered to cross the crevasse. After finding a likely place managed to do so and was soon followed by Ningma. Thereafter the two of them plodded across the slushy surface of the glacier, at times going chest deep into the soft snow. Nearly an hour of this and they reached the end of the glacier. Here, they were faced with a snow slope (now hardened ice) leading to the foot of the left ridge, which was now clearly unnegotiable. Slightly to the right and above was another ice fall and then a thousand feet of a hanging glacier right till the dome shaped top of Kailas. Separating this ice fall and the lower glacier on which they stood was an avalanche-prone gulley, in- fact it was littered with chunks of ice, all the way to the valley down below. ITBP had claimed to have taken this route; they must have had phenomenal luck to have escaped unscathed. Granted even if one were to take the risk of crossing the gulley, the route up the second ice fall and the hanging glacier thereafter would alone have been a Herculian task in terms of step cutting, and requiring a minimum of a thousand to thousand five hundred feet of fixed rope, besides bridging the numerous crevasses that now lay here all along the way. We were hardly equipped for this. It was, therefore, a little above twenty thousand feet that our expedition had been able to reach, a thousand feet or so below the summit.
19 June, we were all at Camp I and ready to move down to Base Camp. Before we could do that we decided to reconnoitre the right ridge and sent two parties consisting of Gill, Subramaniam, Joe and Ningma for this purpose. Both parties drew a blank, Gill having reached a height of 20,000 ft. was forced back by a rock pinnacle which one could not traverse. Joe Ningma in the bargain managed to climb a nineteen thousand feet rock peak.
Our success if measured purely from the angle of human endeavour and comradeship was complete. It was a different matter that we did not succeed in our bid to reach the summit. Behind us were memories of a fortnight of companionship, toil, work, success, achievement and defeat and for many their modest entry into the world of mountaineering. It was an exhilerating experience which will be remembered even after we have dispersed to our respective regiments. Kinnaur Kailas remains unconquered and who knows for how long!