Himalayan Journal vol.37
The Himalayan Journal
Vol.37

Publication year:
1981

Editor:
Harish Kapadia
Index
  1. EDITORIAL
  2. YUGOSLAV EVEREST EXPEDITION
    (TONE SKARJA)
  3. AUSTRIAN LHOTSE EXPEDITION AULEX, 1979
    (ERICH VANIS)
  4. POLISH LHOTSE EXPEDITION, 1979
    (ADAM BILCZEWSKI)
  5. THE BRITISH-NEPALESE GAURI SHANKAR EXPEDITION, 1979
    (PETER BOARDMAN)
  6. AUSTRALIAN GAURI SHANKAR (TSERINGMA) EXPEDITION
    (P. A. CULLINAN and G. BRAMMER)
  7. MAKALU WEST PILLAR
    (JOHN ROSKELLEY)
  8. TUKUCHE WEST PEAK (6780 m) EXPEDITION
    (RENE COLLET)
  9. ANNAPURNA III, SOUTH FACE
    (RON and LINDA RUTLAND)
  10. SWISS SISNE HIMAL EXPEDITION, 1980
    (RUEDI MEIER)
  11. DHAULAGIRI EAST FACE EXPEDITION
    (ALEX MACINTYRE)
  12. SIKKIM HIMALAYAN EXPEDITION, 1979
    (SAMARENDRA NATH DHAR)
  13. SINIOLCHU*
    (SONAM WANGYAL)
  14. ASCENT OF RATABAN AND CANOEING/ RAFTING THE MANDAKINI AND ALAKNANDA RIVERS
    (COL BALWANT S. SANDHU)
  15. SATOPANTH GLACIER EXPEDITION, 1980
    (SHASHANK KULKARNI and SOUMITRA WADALKAR)
  16. GUERILLAS IN THE GARHWAL
    (JOHN THACKRAY)
  17. CZECHOSLOVAKS OVER THE SOURCES OF THE GANGA
    (ZDENEK LUKES)
  18. VASUKI PARBAT
    (N. G. CLEAVER)
  19. RAKTVARN GLACIER AND ASCENT OF UNNAMED VIRGIN PEAKS
    (RANVIR SINGH)
  20. KINNAUR, 1980
    (SUDHIR SAHI)
  21. EXPEDITION TO THE DHARLANG VALLEY, PANGI AND ZANSKAR
    (N. A. PITTS-TUCKER)
  22. AIRMEN IN LAHUL
    (WING COMMANDER N. M. RIDLEY)
  23. A TREK IN LADAKH AND ZANSKAR
    (HARISH KAPADIA)
  24. TERAM KANGRI II EXPEDITION
    (COL N. KUMAR)
  25. LADAKH, 1979
    (AAMIR ALI)
  26. THE FIRST ASCENT OF CHORICHO1
    (GEOFFREY CHILDS)
  27. THE 'OBVIOUS LINE': ULI BIAHO
    (JOHN ROSKELLEY)
  28. THE CHILEAN KARAKORAM EXPEDITION, 1979
    (GASTON OYARZUN)
  29. RISK *
    (MIKE THOMPSON)
  30. EXPEDITIONS AND NOTES
  31. EXPEDITIONS 1978- 1980
  32. IN MEMORIAM
  33. BOOK REVIEWS
  34. CORRESPONDENCE
  35. CLUB PROCEEDINGS, 1980

SINIOLCHU*

SONAM WANGYAL

WRITES KENNETH MASON in his celebrated book The Abode of Snow: 'The Great Himalayan Sikkim is less than fifty miles in a direct line from Darjeeling, which stands on the eastern extension of the Mahabharat range of the Lesser Himalaya, directly facing the plains, because of the absence of the Siwaliks'.

Exploring the axis of the Great Himalaya, west to east of Kangchenjunga, Mason mentions: 'On the ridge running from west to east are lannu, Kangbachen, both in Nepal, whence the ridge descends gradually to the Zemu Gap. East of this there are two fine mountains, the Simvu massif, the highest point of which is 22,360 ft, and the peerless Siniolchu 22,597 ft (6687 m), to many who have seen it the most beautiful in the world.'

Siniolchu has been climbed twice. According to Mason again, Paul Bauer's party started from base camp on the Zemu glacier on 19 September 1936, set up an advance camp at the foot of little Siniolchu at about 18,700 ft on the 21st, and leaving the porters here, they reached the ridge between Siniolchu and little Siniolchu at 21,340 ft the next day. They spent the night on the ridge sitting in their rucksacks and with everything available wrapped round their bodies. On the 23rd, at about 21,230 ft Bauer decided to halt with Hepp and remain in support while the other two unladen men made for the ummit. Karl Wien and Adolf Gottner reached it soon after 2 p.m. and then returned to their companions1. The following year, a (icrman-Swiss expedition of three climbers Schmaderer, Paidar and Grob spent about six weeks on the Zemu glacier investigating the .ipproaches to Kangchenjunga, during the course of which they .ittempted the Tent Peak and the Twins, but like Bauer's party, were driven off by soft and wind slab snow. On 25 September they made the second ascent of Siniolchu.

From our own experience on the mountain, we, however, found it rather surprising that these two quick climbs could be made alpine style. Because Siniolchu was no easy Peak. Karl Wien, the first sum- miteer himself described the mountain, 'Its ridges are as sharp as a knife-edge, its flanks, though incredibly steep, are mostly covered with ice and snow, furrowed with the ice-flutings so typical of the Himalaya. The crest of the cornice-crowned summit stands up like a thorn.'

Prior to these ascents, D. W. Freshfield is known to have explored the area in 1899 and, later, the famous botanist Joseph Dalton Hooker

had a closer look at Siniolchu which he referred to as 'Liklo', a name he probably heard from the native Lepchas. After the two ascents, for forty-two years Siniolchu kept on changing its robes of ice and snow, regaining her virginal beauty and drawing the bees of glances of the mountaineers to its attractive anatomy. Distance and artificial barriers kept man and mountain apart. Then, the portals opened and in the recent past several trekking parties had gone on pilgrimage to the romantic realms, cast coveting glances at Siniolchu but returned overawed by the beauty and majesty of the mountain.

Watching the horizon from Gangtok my eyes would involuntarily search for Siniolchu. It had both beauty and danger, the ingredients that make adventure. As luck would have it, I met a party of The Mountaineers, Bombay who visited Gangtok in 1976 for trekking in the Zemu Valley.[1] They gave me some photographs of the area on their return from the mountains. These stirred my dreams. It was Siniolchu alone, I told myself, to which our expedition would go. The idea grew into an ideal to be attained.

In preparation, we conducted two ground recces through both the routes - one via Jakthang and the other via Muguthang. As luck would have it, I also got an opportunity to see and survey Siniolchu from the air. We benefitted immensely from these surveys which added to our knowledge of the topography, the terrain, the snow conditions in summer, the probable routes and camp sites, transport arrangements etc. One thing we were certain about was that Siniolchu was feasible only from the Southeast face; all the other faces promised no possible ascent.

Leaving Gangtok on 27 April we reached Phensang. A light refreshment and we moved on for Rang Rang, the bridge which is supposed to be the second highest in the world, and then sped fast towards Chungthang. At Tung post, where inner-line permits are checked, the policemen on duty were thrilled to learn about our venture. We crossed Chungthang sub-district headquarter at 4 in the afternoon and hurried for Lachen, our destination of the day, 131 km away from Gangtok. The road to Lachen is very narrow making it difficult to drive heavy vehicles. Lachen is indeed a beautiful little place nestling on a shelf of the Teesta valley, 8000 ft above sea level, set amidst charming woodlands, dells and glades where very many varieties of fruits and vegetables, including the homely apple trees, flourished in abundance. The name Lachen is derived from the word chen, a fruit which grows plentifully in this area. The residents are very handsome people with finely chiselled features and smooth, clear skin. Like most people who dwell in the upper valleys of Sikkim and Nepal, they had migrated from the bleak plateaux of Tibet to the more fertile valleys south of the main Himalayan watershed. In winter they moved further down to Munshithang area and during summer they went up towards Thangu and beyond up to Yongdi where most of the agricultural land lay for grazing. The main produce of .the area is potato, apple, barley and radish. There is a rest house at Lachen constructed by the British in 1918. April 28 we spent on acclimatization exercises - trekking and climbing. Some members rearranged loads and prepared man-packs. An advance party was sent ahead to Thangu.

The legwork started on 29 April when we left Lachen for Thangu, each member carried a 30-lb pack on his back. The 18 km track to Thangu was enjoyable as it lay through luxurious vegetation; rhododendron dominating with flowers of exotic colours. We reached Gompa (10,032 ft), a small place, and had our lunch a little ahead of it. The next stage of our journey was Samdong (11,154 meaning literally 'a place across the bridge' which it really was. A tiny village with cluster of few huts was Samdong. Then we moved on to Thangu (12,573 ft) where we camped by the riverside. Here we came to know Lugnak la, 16,520 ft pass, we had to cross, was not negotiable due to heavy accumulation of snow. In fact the pass becomes intractable every year during winter months right up to May. We decided to clear a track over the pass so that the yak column could cross it. The yaks and yakteers had to come to Thangu from beyond the pass and after the animals were loaded, they had to recross it. We formed two parties the next day; one was sent, before the day dawned, to open Lugnak la and the other to cross it and bring the yaks from Muguthang. The weather remained bad that day; light snowfall continued unabated. Despite knee-deep snow, which made it a sinking wade, coupled with steepness of the climb, the track-opening party successfully accomplished their job by late afternoon; they returned to the camp completely exhausted; gulped their dinner and snuggled into their sleeping bags.

We resumed our trek on 2 May. Moving at a steady pace, we crossed the tri-junction (12,580 ft) northwest of a wooden bridge over river Teesta. Then we followed a track leading to the base of Lugnak la. The track went over a hill slope. Down below we noticed marshy land. This led us to believe that there must have been a lake once which had receded or dried up. After some rest, we moved on and entered a vast snow-field with knee-deep snow. The loaded yaks posed a problem, some of them ran pell mell leaving the track and sometimes throwing off the loads damaging rations and equipment. Around 12.00 hours, we reached Shami Thakung (15,510 ft) meaning 'cave shelter'. From there we made to the top of the pass. While descending on the other side, we saw a lovely lake at an altitude of 15,213 ft. We reached Muguthang at 4 in the afternoon. Another 18 km trek done, we halted there.

Muguthang is a small border village with a population of roughly 100, all Tibetan refugees. They had migrated from Tibet after the Chinese take-over. They were now permanently settled there and their main occupation is transportation and production of wool, butter and cheese from yaks and sheep they rear. They acquire transport contracts mostly from the Government agencies. It's an open pasture land, Muguthang, stretching up to Naku la in the northeast and Gora la and Chorten Nyima la in the northwest. The panoramic view o£ Chomoyummo, Jongsong and Fluted Peaks from here was a delight.

5 May saw us on the way to Puckchang (14,817 ft). Here we were treated to another heart-throbbing panoramic view of Lhonak Peaks. The valley below Puckchang presented an enchanting scene to feed our eyes on. Unlike the valleys in the hilly areas, it was about 2 km broad and 4 km long. Besides the water ponds Langbo chu flowed through it. The valley extended towards Chorten Nyima and Hidden Glacier area, close to Marco Polo camp. The river meets Zemu chu and finally merges with Teesta at Chungthang. We saw plenty of rabbits hopping around in the valley. The vegetation which thrived consisted of thuza, rhododendron shrub and medicinal herbs.

As there was no bridge over Langbo chu we had to wade through its cold waters to reach Thieu la (17,100 ft). The weather had gradually deteriorated making visibility extremely poor by the time we reached Thieulacha after descending the pass, at 17.00 hrs. Thieulacha is a valley below Tangchung la and the Hidden Glacier area. Thombak chu meanders through it and meets Zemu chu at Sakthang. The vegetation is juniper, thuza and rhododendron shrub. Tangchung la was the last hurdle we had to cross before reaching base camp area. We crossed the pass and had our first glimpse of Siniolchu, our dream mountain. It looked as if some master sculptor had chiselled it out of rock and ice to make a gift to the wild gods of the Himalayan wilderness.

We descended to the base of Tangchung la in an hour and took some rest on the bank of Zemu chu. Here we discovered that one yak was missing. We promptly despatched a yakteer and a member of the team in search of the absconder. Other yakteers, except two, also went back to fetch the remaining animals. Meanwhile, we moved on to base camp area along the Zemu chu left bank. There was a ridge separating the moraine of the Zemu glacier and the Zemu chu. The vast moraine area extended towards the Green Lake. One can imagine how gigantic the Zemu glacier must have been once. The glacier is receding at a very fast pace of almost 100 ft a year. The vegetation survives all along the two banks of the Zemu chu. Thuza, juniper and rhododendron shrub are in abundance.

After a walk of 4 km, we reached a vast sandy and flat ground through which Zemu Chu snaked its way. The sun was exactly over our heads. We passed the area where the Army Kangchenjunga expedition had kid a transit camp in 1977. A little ahead we selected the site for our base camp and unloaded the yaks. We had trekked 72 km from Lachen to base camp.

While rest of the members were engaged in making a helipad 100 m downstream from base camp, an 18 member party left on 9 May to open route for Camp 1. We crossed the moraine of Zemu glacier and marked the route up to the base of Siniolchu glacier. To the left of the glacier, was a rock feature and we climbed alongside it. The surface was torn up into countless crevasses. We traversed them without any untoward incident. Then we turned to the right towards the ice- fall, wading through 3 to 4 ft of soft snow. We stopped on a ground about 600 ft below the second rock feature. It looked tempting enough for Camp 1. Although we had marked the entire zigzag route while coming up, the return was a bit slow because of the snowfall and poor visibility. The following day, a smaller group of 8 went up for ferrying loads to Camp 1 site. On reaching there, the first thing they did was to shift the camp to a safer site. Having done so, two members roped up and left for a recce of the route further up. The weather was not good but visibility was not that bad. Initially, they had to wend through crevasses and some snow bridges on the icefall. They kept to the right all the time just close to the precipice. Above the icefall they entered a snowfield. Here the weather broke up. Party called it a day and returned to Camp 1, descended along with those at Camp 1 to the base, reaching there around 5 p.m.

The rope fixing over, other members of the party got up the steep ice-wall with ease. As they entered the snowfield, they were rewarded with a vision of the most incredible beauty. Smiling Siniolchu rose to its full height from its couch of snow in a sublime sweep to greet them.

In contrast to what they saw in the sky, an ugly sight met their eyes as they looked down on the ground in the shape of a huge crevasse which cleaved one-fourth of the snowfield. The climbers moved alongside it cautiously and crossed it where they found it tractable. Surveying the snowfield, they located a site to the right side which appeared free from avalanche or boulder fall and pitched the tents. The altitude was 17,358 ft.

On the 13th two parties left for higher camps: one led by Gurme Thinley and the other by Phurbu Tshering. Gurme's party was assigned the task of route opening and setting up Camps 3 and 4. Phurbu's was to relay loads. Gonden and some others followed the next day in support and to strengthen the higher camps. Their combined effort resulted in establishing Camp 3 below the col true to our plan, at an altitude of 19,305 ft.

Six members of the first summit party, Gurme Thinley, Nima Wangchu, G. T. Bhutia, Phu Dorjee, Phendo Bhutia and Tsewang Thandup, took up the task of pushing the route to Camp 4 and beyond on 16 May. Above Camp 3 they had to negotiate through an ice-couloir and an unbelievably steep slope about 1200 ft high. They took a route from the right side from where they could see the Passan- ram valley down below appearing far steeper than others towards the Siniolchu glacier in the north. The party laid rope over wilder pitches which posed danger and forged ahead. Climbing a steep fluted neve wall which put their skill to severe test, they descended to the ridge which was not only steep but also was overhung with cornices. It rose vertically with 75 degree gradient. A slight miscalculation could result in a straight fall of thousands of feet either side. Here the climbers ran short of fixed rope and pitons, so they returned to Camp 3.

Resuming their work the following day from the point they had reached the previous day, the first summit party battled with a tough rock feature. It took them considerable time to fix rope over it. This was the last hurdle before they struck Camp 4 at a height of 20,625 ft. It was to be the last camp for attempts on the summit.

The route beyond Camp 4 was the most dangerous. The summit party left Camp 4 at 05.00 a.m. on 18 May. At the very first stage, they had to negotiate two big crevasses. They approached the summit from the lower side of the cornice below the peak but had to retrace their steps and climb over the cornice from the right side. It was a calculated risk as a slip could take one straight down to the Passanram glacier. This was followed by a stiff climb on the narrow south ridge which took them to a rock feature after they jumped a crevasse. Ahead they confronted another rock feature. Having run short of fixed rope, they removed the rope from the previous rock feature and refixed it. The rock feature led them to a gully and then on to the ridge. Finally, after a very steep climb over ice-slope with a thin layer of soft snow, the six climbers made to the top of Siniolchu at 1.00 p.m. The peak had a cornice crown with 2 by 3 ft dimension.

On the way down, the summiteers had to brave a snowstorm which reduced visibility to such a low pitch that a rope-mate could not place his partner in front or behind. A four-hour struggle saw them back in Camp 4 wherefrom they relayed news of their success to the base much to our joy and relief. Next day, weather improved a little and taking advantage of it, they dashed down straight to base camp into welcoming arms.

The second summit party also comprised six members. Headed by Phurbu Tsering, the deputy leader. The others were Nawang Kalden, Pasang Lakpa, Tsering Wangyal, Tsering Angdus and Tseten Namgyal.

Unfortunately, we lost contact with Camp 4 on the 19th. We however learnt from those at Camp 3 on the 20th that the second party had left for the objective that morning. Around 11.30 a.m. on the 21st, Camp 3 came to life and to my joy I heard the voice of the deputy leader on the line. He broke the happy news we had been waiting for that his party had also scaled the summit direct from Camp 3. The fresh snow had added to their problems. They had to fix rope on the corniced ridge above Camp 4. The cornice on the lower summit was puffed up to about 20 ft or so rendering the climb very risky. It looked as if it would detach itself from the mountain and plunge down to the glacier bed below. Beyond the ridge, on the steep pyramid wall leading to the summit, they laid another 250 ft of rope. After rejoicing in the grandeur of a panoramic view of Kangchenjunga which dominated the scene, dwarfing the Twins, Tent and Sugar Loaf peaks, they descended.

Now it was the turn of the third summit party which consisted of only 3 members - Gonden Sherpa, Tsering Dorjee and N. T. Sherpa. They left Camp 3 at 0515 hours on May 21. They reached the summit at 11.45 hrs.

On 23rd I led the fourth summit party which included Gurme Thinley and Nima Wangchu, both of whom had been on the summit in the first party. At 1230 hours we stood capering on the main summit, all the six of us, Gurme Thinley, Nima Wangchu, Y. S. Negi, R. K. Rana, Rinzin Namgyal and myself. We dismantled Camp 3 on the 24th morning and moved down for the base.

Perhaps Siniolchu was still angry with us for defiling its sanctuary after forty two years of undisturbed peace. A few minutes later, an avalanche slid from the upper reaches. It overtook us by complete surprise. When the dust and din settled, I opened my eyes to find in utter disbelief, my rope mates sitting dazed, down below. It was a hard knock for all of us. We were badly shaken. We reached the base where a warm reception compensated us completely for our pains.

We decided to follow the route via Jakthang which was shorter for reaching Lachen. However, the yak column had to return via Mugu- thang. On 26 May we bade goodbye to Siniolchu, our dream mountain. We reached Yabuk (13,050 ft) and crossed a small log bridge over Thombak chu. The hut at Yabuk, constructed many years ago for trekkers, had been completely demolished but some remnants of the rock wall told the tale. Jakthang was reached at 1500 hrs. The camp was located on the bank of Zemu chu, exactly opposite the valley leading to Keshong la. There was, a heavy shower in the night. Some of our tents leaked but all members had a sound sleep.

On the morning of 27th, we climbed about 500 ft near Shobuk and crossed an improvised bridge on way to Jadong. Between Jakthang and Jadong there is a thick forest with trees of varying sizes. The vegetation changed frequently where the ground was drier and steeper. We came across leafy bushes, tall shrubs and clumps of delicate finger- thick bamboo canes. The blooming rhododendrons and tall pine trees formed a roof through which we could only occasionally catch a glimpse of the sky. It was a walk on the grand scale with magnificent views of an unspoiled and unfrequented country. By afternoon we reached Tallem. There, Lhonak chu from the north and Zemuchu met and merged. After Tallem the route was difficult and lay over the debris of landslides. This terrain continued till we reached Zema. At 1530 hrs we landed in Lachen. From there we returned to Gangtok in wheeled transport and the pilgrimage was over.


[1] See H.J. Vol. XXXV, p. 181-Ed.

1. See H.J. Vol. IX, p. 66-Ed