(Reprinted by kind permission of the Editor, Himalayan Mountaineering Journal)
THE main objective of our expedition was to attempt Talung entirely from the Sikkim side. The face via the Talung glacier has been deemed unclimbable. Since no previous attempt has been made to reach Talung saddle from this side (henceforth referred to as North saddle) or the saddle between Talung and Kabru (henceforth referred to as South saddle), we decided to recce the entire face to find out a safe route up to the Singalila ridge from this side and make a bid on Talung. This peak has of course been climbed by a German Himalayan Expedition in 1964 from the South-west from the Yalung glacier (in Nepal).
This was a joint Expedition of the Indian Air Force and the Indian Mountaineering Foundation. The members were L. K. Verma (doctor), P.C.S. Rautela, U.K. Palat, A.L. Sidhwani all from IAF and J. K. Bajaj, A. K. Bhattacharjee, Instructor Nima Tashi and Instructor Lopsang Bhutia all representing IMF. I was selected to lead the expedition. Seven high-altitude Sherpas from Darjeeling accompanied the team. The hectic activities and preparations of the last six months came to an end as we got ready to move on 3 April. We crossed over the Great Rangit river, to reach Jorthang in Sikkim. From Jort.hang there is a motor able road up to Peling (7000 ft.) noted for the famous Pemayangtse Monastery. Here we arranged 95 porters to shift loads to Yoksum and further to the Base Camp. It is becoming increasingly difficult to get porters in this area. So at Yoksum we were obliged to arrange eight yaks-each yak capable of carrying load of two porters. There are some Tibetan refugees who have settled down in this area at heights between S000-10,000 feet. They are essentially agriculturists and keep cows and yaks and sell cheese and butter. From Yoksum the track passes through Bakhim before reaching Dzongri, which is grazing ground for yaks at a height of 12,500 feet. At Dzongri one gets a most beautiful view of the Kangchenjunga massif. Immediately opposite rises Pandim (21,593 ft.) cloaked in a thick icy hood. To the left appears a deep gap of the Guicha La. To the west over the gentle slopes of Dzongri rises the long outline of Kang La ridge. Watching a sunset from Dzongri is an un-forgettable experience. In comparison even the flamboyant sunrise viewed from Tiger Hill, Darjeeling, pales into insignificance. Dzongri is at an ideal hieght for a high-altitude holiday. From Dzongri we moved upto Onglakthong. Here the valley becomes bare and narrow. It had snowed heavily the previous night. Strong winds along with hail storm followed after lunch and continued till late evening. Another addition of six inches of snow around the camp made the surroundings look beautiful but proved rather an unpleasant experience for the porters who were ill equipped for the snow conditions. The next day we started off a bit late and within two hours reached a beautiful lake at a height of about 13,000 feet and saw some beautiful birds and migratory ducks floating on the icy cold water. All the porters left us short of the B.C. as the weather was deteriorating fast. We kept 10 permanent porters for higher camp ferries, collection of fire wood and for emergency evacuation and dis¬posed of the rest. 10 April, the loads were shifted upto Jamethang (14,600 ft.) which was to be our B.C. Our party now consisted Of eight members, one doctor, seven Sherpas, 10 porters and one mail runner. To the north just above the Camp stood Guicha Peak a twenty-thousander and to our South East, the majestic Pandim (21,598 ft.)
On 12 April, Tashi, Bajaj, Rautela and Sidhwani accompanied by all the Sherpas left for the Guicha La to undertake a recce for Camp 1 across the pass. It is an easy climb of an hour and a half to Guicha La (16,210 ft) which is a low gap lying between Pandim and the spurs of Guicha Peak and also gives access to the head of the Talung valley and the South-eastern glacier of Kangchenjunga. Here a wide panorama affording a magnificent view of Talung glacier surrounded by many high mountains opens. A portion of Kangchenjunga S. E. was very clearly visible. The old snow on the other side of the pass was in perfect condition for glissading. The members and porters alike had a good go at it and reached a level snow field near the group of four frozen lakes just above the Talung glacier. 500 feet above Camp 1 site and below the South-western face of Guicha Peak there is a big lake which swallows all the avalanches and falling stones coming down from the steep Guicha slope. Right opposite the Guicha Peak stands the mighty Kangchenjunga with its never ending avalanches. The Camp 1 site was safe from the danger on both sides. The next day the load ferrying to Camp 1 continued. In the evening we had a meeting at B.C. in which all the members who had been upto Camp 1 expressed their doubts about the feasibility of reaching Talung via the North saddle. It was decided to recce the South saddle and also a likely loca¬tion for Camp 2. Tashi, Bajaj, Rautela and Sherpa Mingma moved to Camp 1 on 15 April to carry out the recce the next day. At night the weather deteriorated and strong winds tore off two of the tents at B.C. The morning was equally bad and winds continued to pick up more speed. Finally having exhausted their patience the party left around 8 a.m. and reached Camp 1 by lunch time. The 14th night was very windy and the mess tent could just manage to withstand its ferocity. In the morning Kangchenjunga South and Talung were fully covered with cloud. Pandim to the South-east had low clouds at the foot of it. After a hurried breakfast, Tashi and Bajaj accompanied by Sherpa Mingma left for the exploration of the Talung glacier, the South saddle of Talung and a recce for Camp 2 site. They crossed the four frozen lakes at Yongiotak and keeping close to Guicha Peak to their left, traversed to the opposite side of the South saddle in two hours time. To give a topographical view of Talung from this point, one would view it as a complete vertical and mixed rock and ice wall with overhanging glaciers. In fact there is not one saddle but a number of them with sharp cornices all through. Just short of the peak from the North side, there are three overhanging glaciers, standing like sentries guarding a fortress. Any attempt to approach the mountain from this side would be totally unsafe. After climbing a little higher up it was realised that they were reaching nearer the North ridge of Guicha Peak and that there was no other alternative except to descend the slope to reach the Talung glacier below. After a hard 45 minutes on this tedious slope, they reached the moraine of the Talung glacier. After crossing a big overhanging glacier of Guicha they were right opposite the South saddle between Talung and Kabru IV by 11 a.m. The height of this saddle is about 23,000 feet and is a very clear dip between the Kabrus and Talung. Below the saddle is a bowl-like glacier. The right side of the bowl directly below Talung is approachable with determined effort and use of a 1000 feet of fixed rope upto a height of about 19,500 feet. But it must be mentioned that the area is prone to avalanches. The left side of this bowl is a vertical rock face of 2000 feet. Between these two shoulders is a huge overhanging glacier. While the party was viewing all this, they witnessed two big avalanches in the same area. They then decided to follow the moraine of Talung and take a turn to the left towards Kabru Dome. Here they saw a steady ridge coming from Kabru South. This gave some hope of a likely route to Kabru South. Talung glacier towards its head in the south was very clean. Here is a horse-shoe formation : Talung and Kabru to the right and Guicha-Kabru ridge to the left. Joining these two is a rock and ice wall about 2000 feet. The central portion of this has a huge rock face which has an overhanging glacier on top. The altitude here was about 17,400 feet. The party had recceed the approaches to the north and south saddles as well as the Talung glacier right to its head and the likely location for Camp 2. It may be mentioned here that the entire area from Camp 1 to the southern head of Talung glacier was trodden for the first time by human beings. Even e ibex and musk deer almost scarce in that area, were not shy. They were perhaps inquisitive of seeing a man for the first time A wonderful feeling indeed that the animals were not afraid of the most destructive of the animal kingdom, Man.
Weather continued to be bad with heavy afternoon snowfalls for the next two days. However, another party consisting of Rautela, Palat, Sidhwani, Bhatta and Lopsang were sent to view the mountain more closely from the southern end of Talung glacier. This party left on 17 April in dull weather and on return in the evening confirmed the assessment of the first party. Simultaneously on the same day, Tashi and Bajaj went in the opposite direction towards Pandim for exploration of the glacier and to locate the shrines marked on the map. They covered about 3 kms of the glacier in two hours and reached a point from where the Zemu Gap and Simvo Peak could be seen. The glacier coming down from Pandim was badly crevassed and hence they decided to go down the moraine of the Talung glacier almost at a point where it takes a turn to the left i.e. N.E. They could not find any trace Of the shrines and started pulling up to Camp 1 which they reached by lunch.
In a meeting the same day it was decided to establish Camp 2 at the head of the Talung glacier below the S.E. ridge of Kabru IV. Tashi, Bajaj, Sidhwani and Mingma Sherpa were to occupy the Camp next day. The rest of the members and Sherpas were to ferry three days ration and equipment for this party. The distance between Camp 1 and Camp 2 is about 8 kms and is exposed to falling stones from the Guicha face. Ashok and Bajaj had a very narrow escape from two big rolling stones which missed them by inches. It was then decided to stick to the ridge as far as possible which meant that progress become slow. Camp 2 was established by 2 p.m. and the support group returned to Camp 1.
On 19 April, Tashi, Bajaj and Mingma left for the big hanging glacier to fix rope and force a way through to Kabru South ridge. They crossed the Talung glacier terminal point and came across a steep ice face with debris of ice avalanches on the top. This was envisaged to be the only possible route to reach the middle of the overhanging glacier where there was a big rock face capable of giving some protection against avalanches. As the party reached the crampon point, suddenly a powerful avalanche was heard from the direction of Kabru South heading towards them. They forgot all the drill for action to be taken when caught in an avalanche and ran for their lives. A very narrow escape indeed. They then decided to observe the trend of avalanches. In the next three hours they noticed seven big avalanches at various points on the face. These covered almost each and every route leading to the S.E. ridge. After a detailed discussion and study of the area to find some weakness in the defences of the mountain, I decided that exploration in the various directions should continue for the next three days after which the party at Camp 2 be replaced by another party fromCamp 1. The others in the meantime would stock food and climbing gear at Camp 2.
Attempt on the Summit Ridge
Tashi, Ashok and Bajaj once again approached the spot of hanging glacier towards the extreme left. As this area too had had the remains of recent avalanches, they took shelter under an overhanging rock below the Guicha Peak and watched the obstacles for a few hours. On scrutiny through binoculars one could see that the approach would be amidst avalanches on two vertical ice walls of more than 300 feet each. With the frequencies of avalanches in this area, this route too was ruled out. In the evening, as expected, an avalanche thundered at the site where the party had rested. The next day Tashi and Bajaj went towards the S.E. ridge of Talung in bleak and depressing weather in order to get a clearer and closer look at the bowl below Kabru IV and Talung Peak, a reference to which has already been made earlier. They crossed the Talung glacier and by 10 a.m. were at an altitude of approx. 19,000 feet. The weather started packing up but they just had sufficient time to observe that there was a big ice-fall between Kabru IV and the Dome. The Guicha Peak in the opposite direction across the glacier looked like an icy triangle. The party returned to Camp 2 after ascertaining that it was not possible to go beyond 21,000 feet on this face, which would mean another 2,000 feet to reach the ridge. With a view to making a determined bid to negotiate the obstacle, I decided to strengthen Camp 2 party by positioning Lopsang, Rautela and Migma with them. Adequate equipment and foodstuff had been ferried to the camp in the meantime. 23 April was rather dull day and it snowed throughout. The next day Lopsang and Rautela left for the black rock face towards the south. They wanted to see it from the point where the first party had tried and failed a few days earlier. They were lucky to cross the first avalanche area safely, but by the time they reached the black rock, an avalanche followed, to remind them that it was unsafe for any climbing on this formidable barrier.
The Expedition in a period of two weeks had carried out a thorough exploration of the South-east side of Kangchenjunga to find a safe route upto the North saddle or the South saddle. We also had made a determined bid to get over to the South¬east ridge joining Kabru to Guicha. All the approaches being badly infested with avalanches, we were left with no choice out to abandon the attempt on Talung. We were obviously on the wrong side of the mountain. But even to know that it was the wrong side, someone had to be the first to explore. On 25 April I decided to pull the entire team back to Camp 1 and Prepare for an exploration of the Zemu Gap from the Tongshiong glacier to its south. There is no known approach from this side. We also decided to go near the Guicha Peak both from the North ridge and the South ridge. The mountain being sacred to the Sikkimese, no serious attempt was to be made on the peak.