Himalayan Journal vol.33
The Himalayan Journal

Publication year:

Soli S. Mehta
  4. MT. EVEREST, 1972
  5. LHOTSE, 1973
  7. TUKCHE, 1974
  8. MANASLU, 1974
  9. LAMJUNG HIMAL, 1974
  10. GANGAPURNA, 1974
  12. HIMAL CHULI, 1974
    (K. OLECH)
  26. SOUTH PARBATI, 1973
  27. RAKAPOSHI (7788 m.) 1973
  28. WAKHAN, 1971
  30. TIRICH MIR, 1973
    (A. D. MODDIE)



‘SASER Kangri' literally means the 'Yellow Mountain', pre- Osumably because it consists of yellowish brown rocks. Saser Kangri reigns supreme in the whole of Ladakh soaring to 25,170 ft. The three surrounding satellites Saser II (24,650 ft), Saser III (24,560 ft) and Saser IV (24,330 ft!) jealously guard against all intruders. Sheer precipitous drops of 7,000 feet both from the Numbra valley side as well as on the north face constitute its main armour. Dr. Neve and his party came as early as 1899 but could go no farther than 20,580 ft. The legendary Dr. Longstaff paid his homage in 1909 and reached upto 18,000 ft. In 1929, the Vissers came all the way to Panamik, situated on the old Central Asian trade route. From here they had to leave the beaten track and find their way on untrodden path along Phuck- poche Glacier.

Col Jim Roberts also led an expedition to Saser Kangri in 1946. He examined it closely from the head of both the glaciers - north and south Phuckpoche. His Sherpa reconnoitred its north east side from the Chamshen Jilga of the Upper Shyok which he reached after crossing Saser La (17,480 ft). Major Nandu Jayal took an expedition to this formidable peak in 1956. Despite the determined efforts they could not succeed in finding a route to this giant.

The Indian Mountaineering Foundation then sponsored a strong team in 1970 led by the late Major Harsh Bahuguna. Attempts were made both from south and north Phuckpoche glaciers. They could reach upto 23,000 feet height.

Photo Plates 22-26

It was decided that an I.T.B.P. expedition should have a try, and the leadership fell on my shoulders. A final ground recce from the hitherto untried Shyok river side was sent. We were also lucky to be able to carry out aerial reconnaissance of the mountain for the final assessment of route. Accounts of all the previous expeditions and explorations in this region were thoroughly studied. All the previous expeditions had made attempts from the south-west. The north-west face is a sheer precipice. The East face is a steep snow couloir - a sheer drop of 5,000 feet to the snow-field below. There is a rock band along the ridge, which divides this face from the south-west face. Though difficult to negotiate, this alone appeared to provide the chance for climbing this summit. I had sought Col Robert's advice and he also recommended that we should make the attempt by this route (from the Shyok river side almost 180° from the opposite direction).

Having decided the route, we had to select the period since this route involved following a trail along the Shyok river, notorious for its floods. Though from the mountaineering angle, July and August are the best months for any expedition in Ladakh, we had to choose a time for the attempt which could be made as early as possible and the team return, before the floods in the river Shyok could cut off our withdrawal route.

The team, therefore, finally left New Delhi for Leh on 30 March by air. A four weeks period was allowed for acclimatisation and imparting of advanced training in snow-craft and rock climbing including artificial climbing. Daily marches, which progressively increased day by day, with packed rucksacks were undertaken to prepare the members for the long and arduous task ahead. Our training took us up to 19,000 feet height where simulated climbing was effected. This acclimatisation and toughening up of our team in and around Leh were to pay rich dividends later. Twenty of our personnel, mostly comprising local Ladakhis were taken along as support party which helped us in carrying the load ferries right upto Camp III, situated at an altitude of 18,600 feet. We eventually left Leh on 26 April.

It took us three days to cross the snow-bound Chang La (17,352 ft.) and we reached the roadhead at Durbuk on 29 April. The next day was utilized for remaking of loads in the light of our experience and we moved on our approach march on the first of May. On the same day, we reached village Shyok and from there we had the first glimpse of the great river Shyok which was to keep us company for the coming week.

On 2 May, we left Shyok village around 09.30 hrs. It is a very wide valley, nearly two miles broad, wedged in between high mountain ranges on either side. Shyok river meanders along, cutting channels at various places. In summer it is in its full fury but now we found it comparatively less hostile. Yet when after crossing one small subsidiary channel we reached the main stream, we found its span to be quite wide and it was flowing with considerable speed. To our relief we found that the villagers had very ingeniusly utilized the empty jerricanes, which are found in abundance there, to great advantage by making an improvised raft. A wire was tied to its both ends so that it could be be pulled across from either bank. Our caravan moved along in that barren valley which appeared more like a desert. We were walking on sand and stones. After about three hours, we reached the great bend where the Shyok flowing south-southwest, takes a big sweep to the north-west. A little later we found ourselves gearing to ford across the river. Soon we had to get accustomed to this ordeal as these crossings became frequent and everybody we had to ford across the icy cold turbulent waters of this river, notorious for its floods, five to seven times in the course of a day's march. This is one of the old trade routes between Leh and Yarkand which the British tried to popularise. They even built a track on the steep mountain side along the valley. This, however, never became popular because of lack of any sizable grazing grounds enroute for the beasts of burden and the total absence of any habitation. The whole track is now badly damaged lying in a state of disrepair and disuse. Large portions have been obliterated by landslides, avalanches and river floods.

It was late in the evening by 8 p.m. when the last batch of us staggered into the camp at Chang Chenmo at the confluence of the Shyok with the river of the same name coming from the east. Near this place the river flows in four channels all of which had to be waded through.

On 3 May, we camped at Deusor, near the marble rock on the left bank, and on 4 May at Charbagh amidst some bushes - rare sight indeed. On 5 May, we reached Yargulak, near which there is an old fort in ruins and traces of terraced fields long since abandoned. Our move on 6 May was delayed due to heavy snowfall. We were getting ready to start when a shocking message was received on W/T: the brother of T. S. Bhangu had been almost murdered. I had no option but to send him back with a heavy heart since I was losing one of my ace mountain climbers. On reaching his village Bhangu could hardly believe that miraculously his brother had survived when almost given up as dead. He subsequently rejoined our expedition three weeks later when we were pitched in our final efforts on the mountain. But due to his long absence, he needed re-acclimatisation and though he contributed magnificently to the administrative control, his climbing expertise was lost to the expedition.

After a short march of about two hours, we reached Mandal- tung where Shukpa Nala joins Shyok. The camp was set up in the Shukpa Nala bed. On 7 May, we took leave of the Shyok which had kept us company for nearly a week and entered the Shukpa valley. We were moving along the higher slopes on the right bank of the river which we attained after crossing its waters thrice. Nearly halfway at the confluence of south and north Shukpa Kunchang Nala for the first time we came across some dry bushes and twigs, A fire was soon lighted and we warmed our pack lunch. The last lap turned out to be a back breaking march of near hours. We followed the north Shukpa Kunchang valley. There were steep gravel and shingle crumbling stone ridges on either side presenting weird shapes; a fantasy rampart of gravel and dust carved out by nature! Suddenly the valley opened up and crossing over a snow bridge which was formed by the snow drift coming down from a slope, we reached the site of our Base Camp near the snout of north Shukpa Kunchang Glacier, situated at an altitude of 15,000 feet.

Our arrival there was greeted by snowfall during the night. It was a cold morning of 8 May which dawned; clouds hung low over the valley with intermittant snowfall. The support party which had arrived there earlier had already opened a route to Camp I situated at an altitude of 16,800 ft., five hours march and about 12 km. ahead. They ferried the loads while the main party rested.

I divided all climbers into three groups. The strategy was that one group would open the route while the other two would ferry the loads and take rest by turns. Then the second group would take over the lead and the first group would fall back to the rear for rest and recuperation.

A full strength load ferry was carried to Camp I on 9 May. For half the distance, the route avoided the glacier and moved up the left slopes. Climbing up and keeping in the middle of the glacier, Camp I site was reached at the confluence of another glacier joining from the south. The following day Khanna's group opened route to Camp II. It was the first time since our arrival at Base Camp that the weather had cleared. I walked over to the other side of the valley and was rewarded by the first breath-taking view of Saser in the far distance, flanked on one side by the conspicuous tent-shaped pyramid of Saser III which seemed to be blocking the valley at its head. Saser was still far distant - at the head of the 32 km. long glacier!

On 11 May, Bhangu's group moved up to Camp I and Khanna - established Camp II. By 12 May, the site for Camp III had been selected by Khanna and another Camp IV was established at the foot of the ice-fall. I had planned for only two camps upto that point or at the most three but we had already nearly set up the fourth camp. This certainly made me feel uneasy and I stressed the necessity of cutting down the number of camps, if necessary, by converting one or two into dump points, where ferries would converge from either side and return to their respective camps, one with the loads and other after dumping the loads.

The following day, while Khanna was busy in opening the route further up, Bhangu took the ferry party to Camp II and since it was only about two hours march, shifted it further up by another hours march. As a consequence, Camp III was subsequently shifted further up bringing it to the foot of the ice-fall.

Camp III was sited at an altitude of about 17,600 feet near the left side of the glacier - opposite the vertical face of the rocky pt. 22,550 ft. A fascinating panorama of towering peaks of the Saser range with Saser II on the left, ten-shaped Saser III in the centre and Saser I far distant on the right greeted the beholder. The col joining Saser II to Saser III was straight ahead. Col. Roberts had climbed it from the other side, via Phukpoche glacier and had made an unsuccessful attempt to descend to the North Shukpa Kunchang Glacier. Maj Nandu Jayal's party in 1956, tried the same route.

It took a week's concerted efforts and 1,000 foot of fixed rope to open a route through the labyrinth of the ice-fall to Camp IV which was established on 21 May at 20,700 ft. This brought the climbers to a vast nerve resembling the Western Cwm of Everest. Two sides were enclosed by Saser's ridge and on the left side towered Saser III nearly four thousand feet above. The Camp was sited on a crumbling rock field about 200 by 300 feet. This was a very windy place. Radio communication was established between Camp II and Camp IV. Camp III, however, could not establish contact with Camp II because of an intervening ridge. In view of this I abadoned the idea of my shifting to Camp III and made Camp II an Advance Base since from here all higher and lower Camps could be controlled and supplies and movements could be regulated.

Moving up the neve, Bhangu's group dumped a tent and some provisions at the Camp V site to the south-west of Saser III, before they moved down to Camp III after being relieved by Mohinder's group. Mohinder's group had a tough job ahead of them: they were faced with a maze of ice walls and huge crevasses, They battled with them for the next five days and fixed as much as 4,000 ft. of rope. A mammoth ice wall blocked their way. The ferry parties were, however, able to dump sufficient stores and rations at this place appropriately named "the Dump Point". The intention was to clear the filial hurdle of the ice wall before establishing Camp VI. But before this could be achieved, the weather took a turn for the worse; it started snowing heavily on the 29th and as it continued even on the following day, all climbers from the higher camps were withdrawn to Camp III and Camp II. We were beaten back in our first encounter. It was a blessing in disguise. It provided an opportunity for a well- earned rest and recuperation after three weeks' efforts at high altitude. Taking advantage of this forced break, I took stock of our position and after consultation announced the summit parties. The final assault was to be spear headed by Dawa Norbu, Da Tenzing, Nima Tenzing and Thondup. Bhangu with Pemba Tharkay, Rinzing and Roshan were to be in their support.

On 1 June, the weather cleared and parties moved up the following day - the first summit party reaching Camp V that evening. On 3 June, they set up a temporary camp at the Dump Point and the following day after negotiating the last hurdle of the gigantic ice-walls, they pushed the Camp up and sited it at an altitude of 23,590 ft. on the col which fell steeply to Pukh- poche Glacier to the south-west. The Camp was located at the foot of the rock band on the summit ridge. Their support party moved up to Camp V. The third and fourth parties were at lower camps to maintain the supply line. On 5 June, it was again a bright day. The summit team started off at 6 a.m.

After about 45 minutes, they hit the base of the steep rock and ice slopes and gained the top of the rocky portion after three hours' struggle and zig-zagging over a thin layer of hard snow on rocks. The bad weather had been a blessing in disguise as it had provided a cushioning of snow one to three feet thick over the hard rock, affording a firm grip to the crampons. The movement of the rope nearing the summit was visible from the camps below where eyes were keenly glued to the binoculars. The rope was inching its way towards the summit. Having crossed the steep ridge they had now reached the top of the ice wall of the hanging glacier below the summit. From there onwards the gradient increased to near vertical. They traversed one snow hump and took rest at the foot of the summit. Fierce winds nearly swept them off their feet and they threw themselves on to the ground. They had to crouch low and literally crawl on all fours. By the grace of God, the weather improved a bit and they made the summit in another twenty minutes. A small bowl-shaped snow- field was ahead of them. Photographs were taken all round, but their thoughts were now centred round the problem of safe return.

Khanna along with Budhiman and Rabgais had in the meanwhile moved over to Camp VI and joined the support party of Bhangu. Danu's party came down straight to Camp V.

On 6 June, Mohinder Singh along with Pulzor and Mutup moved up from Camp IV and reached Camp VI in the evening. On the way, they met Danu's party coming down and Danu briefed them about the route to be followed and the time factor. Meanwhile, the two ropes consisting of Bhangu, Pemba Thar- kay, Dawa Ringee and Roshan Lai in one, Khanna, Rabgais and Budhiman in the second stood on the summit from 1-45 to 2-10 p.m. Khanna left his wrist watch strung around the alminium flag stake.

On their return to Camp VI, they were received warmly by Mohinder's support party who served them hot juices.

The last summit party finally left Camp VI at 7 a.m. and made the summit by 1-20 p.m. This rope was lucky to have good weather at the summit with gentle wind. Far distant in the west, they could see the K2 massif. They stayed on top for nearly 45 minutes taking photographs, hoisting various flags and then they retraced their steps down to the Camp.

Meanwhile, almost all the climbers were itching to go up to the summit. But with such a large numbers (14 persons had already climbed the summit) out, it was difficult to mount anymore summit attempts with adequate support. With a heavy heart, I had, therefore, to order withdrawal.

Now we were faced with the problem as to how to take our party back to Leh. The River Shyok was in spate. The limpid and shrunken stream near our Bsae Camp had assumed the proportions of the Shyok River itself. Even crossing this stream had become a problem. We decided to leave all heavy equip- ment at the Base itself in one tent. The route to Mandaltung was opened by recce parties mostly by avoiding Kunchang Lungpa Nala and doing some patient rock climbing and resorting to improvised river crossing by stringing ropes across its span. We had to turn acrobats to do this feet. While going up, we had made from Mandaltung to Base Camp in one day; on the return march it took us eight days! On reaching Mandaltung, we found our withdrawal route cut off by the River Shyok which was in full spate. Murgo, situated at a distance of two days march and nine crossings upstream seemed to be beyond our reach!!

Good weather continued; days became warmer and warmer; the melting snow of the glaciers adding to the flood and fury of the river. We were running low on rations and appetites had increased phenomenally as usually happens on return from high altitudes. Very reluctantly, rationing had to be introduced. The weather turned bad; it was good for us. After nearly a week of bad weather, the party was able to forge a route across the river, since the water level had gone down. The following day, the entire party followed in their foot steps. The route involved real, tough rock climbing to restrict river fording to one as against the normal crossing of nine times and we reached Murgo on 24 June.

The party heaved a sigh of relief, believing all their troubles were behind them; but it was not to be. Shyok River confronted us again in all its fury. At Saser Bragansa, it had 500 metre span, which had to be crossed through turbulent and swirling waters.

Now we were on the old Central Asian trade route through which travellers used to come to India centuries ago. But this route was still closed. The party then crossed the snow bound Saser La (17,480 ft.) and deecended on the other side to Bakarwal in the Nubra Valley (the latest S.O.I, sheets mark Bakarwal as Tutyalak. Tulum Patti La (12,612 ft.) now lay ahead involving a steep climb of about 2,500 and a descent of 6,000 feet to Sosoma. (Tulum Patti is marked with a spot height of 3845 m. along the route to Sosoma - the local people call it Tulum Patti La).

A cheer went up on sighting a vehicle at Sosoma, the only vehicle which was available on that side of our friend, the River Shyok. The caravan moved on - partly on foot and partly on vehicle they reached Tirhit. Here again we met the great River Shyok which had a vast expanse of water giving it the appear- ance of a mini-sea. There was a suspension bridge over upstream where we crossed over and got into the vehicle provided by the Army. Had a hearty meal at Partappur; then arrived at Thoise late at night. We thought that all our travails were behind us and that an aeroplane would pick us up and reach us to Leh in just thirty minutes. But again it was not destined to happen. The very bad weather, hailed by us, which had helped us to cross the river was preventing the planes from coming to our rescue.

On 2 July, we decided to leave on foot - the only sure and certain means of moving towards destination! We got a lift in vehicles upto Dekshit, about seven kilometres away and then again trudging along on our own and reached Khalsar at 10 p.m. We got up early in the morning at 03-30 hrs. and by 04-30 hrs. after a cup of hot tea we were on the march again; arrived at Kherdung Sarai about 10 a.m. and after lunch and a little rest onward march started again at 2 p.m. To our good luck, we managed to get ten ponies and donkeys which to some extent lightened our burden. We reached Khardung Polu (15,500 ft.) in the evening dog-tired. We were not carrying any tents and had, therefore, to brave the cold, sleeping out in the open. We made an early start on the following morning and by 4 a.m. we were on our way. Weather turned bad; it started raining which gradually turned into snow as we gained height; but we inched our way up the last hurdle. At 9 a.m. we were on top of Khar- dung La at 18,380 ft. We reached the Power House by 11 a.m. where the C.O. and the officers had come all the way to receive us. A hot cup of tea and plenty of sweets changed for drudgery of the last three months. A warm and colourful welcome greeted us on our arrival at Unit Headquarters.

We looked back with satisfaction - satisfaction of a task completed - a mission fulfilled - a feeling of gratitude to the Lord above - a life's dream realised.

  1. A record has been established for the highest virgin peak climbed by any Indian expedition;
  2. A long trek of 600 Kms from Leh to Base Camp and back involved ascent and descent of four snow-bound passes viz., Chang La (17,352 ft.), Saser La (17,480 ft.), Trumputti La (16,635 ft.) and Khardung La (18,380 ft.);
  3. Supply line from Base Gamp to Summit was exceptionally long; probably the longest glacier traversed by any mountaineering expedition - 32 Kms on the Map and 50 Kms of actual climbing from Base Camp to Summit;
  4. It had to criss-cross through icy-waters of a river as as many as 33 times at altitudes ranging from 13,500 ft. to 15,000 ft. to reach its Base Camp and the pros pects of ten such crossings upstream on its return;
  5. The nearest habitation was 120 Kms away - a trekking distance of one week; no local support was, therefore, available;
  6. The expedition party had to negotiate one icefail and one maze of ice walls, each 2,000 feet in height and as much as nearly 5,000 feet of fixed rope had to be used for opening a route through them;
  7. Presence of powdery snow and sudden attacks of high velocity winds, sometimes over 100 Kms per hour in speed, bringing freezing cold in their wake, were some of the hazards throughout the 32 Kms long glacier. The screaming winds whipping up snow lashed the climbers mercilessly and would not let them stand up much less to move forward;
  8. Usually, on return from the summit, the members of an expedition party get a lot of mental and physical rest by way of relaxation, food, etc., in order to recharge their batteries so to say. But the Saser Kangri team were not only denied this privilege but had to face the tough problem of getting back to civilization. River Shyok swelled up like a foaming wall of waters and would not let them go; and
Unlike others, this expedition was forced to follow7 a return march route different from the approach march route.

Aeriel view of the Saser Kangri group.

Aeriel view of the Saser Kangri group.

Saser III (centre) and Saser Kangri (right) from camp II.

Saser III (centre) and Saser Kangri (right) from camp II.

Saser IIfrom Camp II.

Saser IIfrom Camp II.

Saser Kangri from Camp IV. Camp VI was sited just below the rock band on the sky line ridge.

Saser Kangri from Camp IV. Camp VI was sited just below the rock band on the sky line ridge.

Saser III from above the rock band.

Saser III from above the rock band.