THIS WAS not only an Alpine style expedition but the duration of the trip was short even by Alpine holiday standards. Chris Bonington and Jim Fotheringham had only four weeks for their Himalayan holiday and this meant only sixteen days actually in the mountains.
They chose the Gangotri region of the Garhwal Himalaya both because of its easy access from Delhi and because it has a wide range of interesting objectives on both rock and ice. Their initial objective was the east face of Kedarnath Dome, a two-thousand metre rock wall, but as an alternative objective they had the southeast ridge of Shivling.
The bus journey to Gangotri took four days and the team arrived at Tapovan (4280 m), a pleasant pasture below Shivling, on 4 September. The following day, Chris established base camp on the lateral moraine valley beside the Gangotri glacier between the Kirti Bamak and the Ghanohim Bamak. The next week was spent establishing an advance camp at the foot of the east face of Kedarnath Dome and making a series of forays to find the best route up this huge rock wall. It became increasingly obvious to Jim and Chris that the climb would take longer than the very limited period they had in the area. In addition they were becoming increasingly attracted to the superb southeast ridge of the west summit (6038 m)1 of Shivling, which led not only to an unclimbed summit but was also one of the most spectacularly beautiful peaks in the Himalaya.
They returned to base camp on 12 September and set out for Shivling at 5 a.m. on the morning of the 13th. At this stage they were not certain if there was a route through the mountain's formidable lower defences of sheer, crumbling rock walls. From the Kirti Bamak they picked out a line up a wide gully, capped by a huge icefall guarding the snow basin which gave access to the southeast ridge. The gully was undoubtedly dangerous but gave the only possible route to the ridge.
They started up the gully at eight in the morning. It would have been preferable to have climbed it in the hours of darkness but they could not afford to use up another day in waiting. It was rather like walking up a long bowling alley and a huge rock, ricocheting between the walls, gave them a frightening reminder of this simile.
Photos 16-17 and cover photo
They were in the danger area for about a thousand feet, cramponing up easy-angled hard snow. A fork in the gully took them onto safer ground, away from the threat of the seracs and rock fall, but this gully was capped by a head wall of overhanging rock. As they gained height, the gully steepened into overlapped slabs with a thin covering of snow. Even though it was only two in the afternoon they decided to stop at a perfect bivy site beneath a roof overhang, hoping for a frost that night to harden the snow cover.
It didn't freeze, but the snow had hardened sufficiently to enable them to cross the slabs to the crest of the ridge, where broken ground led to the top of a pinnacle and down a snow arete on the other side to a traverse line of soft snow and loose rock that led into the basin. That night they camped on the edge of the bergschrund that guarded the slopes leading up to the ridge.
On the morning of the 15th, they were able to crampon up a series of frozen snow runnels to within four pitches of the crest of the ridge. Broken rocks led to the crest. They then followed the crest for a further six pitches to the top of a small spikey gendarme at 6100 m where they bivouacked for the night.
The ridge now steepened and the climbing became more technically difficult. The leader climbed without a sack, abseiling from his high point and then jumaring back up with his sack. Only 200 m progress was made that day, to the foot of a smooth bulge in the ridge that was obviously going to present the crux. The two ropes were run out that night, with a long diagonal traverse towards the centre of the south face to avoid the featureless section of the ridge. That night the ledge was so small that they had to build it up with flat rocks to accommodate the bivy tent. It snowed quite heavily during the night.
On the 17th, they were faced with the most difficult climbing so far. Jim got the key pitch up a steep corner which gave climbing of around HVS (Va) standard. Above, the angle relented but every ledge was covered in debris and great care had to be taken. The pair reached the summit ridge at 5 p.m. and decided to bivouac on the crest and go for the top the next day when the snow on the steep knife edged ridge would be in better condition.
They reached the summit after two pitches on very steep snow at 8 a.m. on 18 September. After spending half an hour on the summit, admiring the superb view, they started down, first heading for the col between the two summits. This involved traversing a very steep and suspect snow-slope on the north side of the summit ridge. Once on the col they had to find their way down the west ridge,but having changed their plans at the last minute, they had only the vaguest idea of where the original route lay.
They picked their way down carefully, but missed the original route and descended the westerly retaining ridge of the north face, thus gaining a first descent as well as a first ascent.
They got back to Tapovan at eight o'clock that night, to find that Vijay Singh (liaison officer) had successfully cleared the base and advanced camp and as a result the team were able to walk out to Gangotri the following day.
It had been a superb climb to a truly magnificent summit, with fourteen days of perfect weather out of the sixteen spent in the mountains. The Gangotri is an area of huge potential being the perfect height and scale for Alpine-style expeditions with limited time at their disposal. There are still plenty of unclimbed peaks and countless unclimbed routes of every type and standard.