THE TERRITORIAL ARMY began its preparation for its ascent of Kokthang in the beginning of July 1982. Volunteers from all over India assembled in Darjeeling and went for long hikes upto the Rangit river and back. The best of this lot did a special basic course in north Sikkim under the auspices of H.M.I. Of the 25 members who qualified in this course 10 members were chosen to undergo the special advanced course. During the course, the team climbed Bidhan Chandra peak and Chogyal peak. From Chogyal we got an unobstructed view of our target, Kokthang.
Kokthang is situated on the Singalila ridge which divides Nepal and India. Kokthang is the first peak to rise above 20,000 ft with a height of 20,166 ft on this divide. The range further continues through Rathong (21,911 ft), Kabru (24,124 ft), Talung (24,112 ft) and Kangchenjunga (28,208 ft). In the beautiful panorama of Kang-chenjunga range seen from Darjeeling, Kokthang is seen as a low snow-ridge at the left in front of Jannu (25,294 ft). Kokthang appears like a huge inverted saw with a number of pinnacles on the ridge. The whole length of the ridge is about 20,000 ft with height varying from 19,800 ft, starting from the southwest to 20,166 ft towards the north. The northern and southern sides of Kokthang have very steep rocks and ice-flutings and the ridge is razor thin. The main difficulty in this mountain is to find the way through the snow-gullies, steep rock ribs and a long traverse over a dozen points which mislead at every step and in which each appears to be the highest.
Kokthang has a long and chequered history. In 1953 Kempe and Lewis had approached the peak from the Yalung valley in Nepal and later from the southern slopes but could not climb it due to dangerous snow conditions coupled with difficulty in locating the route to the summit. In May 1962, an Army expedition led by Major Rana, having approached from the Indian side, attained a height of 19,800 ft and reached the southernmost point on the ridge. Amongst the summiters were Maj Rana, H. P. S. Ahluwalia and Nawang Gombu. In October 1963, an H.M.I, advanced course led by Ang Temba, reached a point just above the one attained in 1962. In 1966, a Women's expedition led by Miss Pushpa Athavle reached 20,000 ft, another of the pinnacles on the ridge. This is referred to by some as the 'C top. In between the attempts there were claims and counter claims but that is neither here nor there. The peak was still virgin and was beckoning us for an attempt.1
The team consisted of Capt K. V. Cherian (leader), Nima Tashi (deputy leader), myself (medical officer), 5 high-altitude Sherpas, 15 men from various T.A. units all over India and 2 radio operators.
After feverish activity, we were finally all packed on 2 October. We had a small puja in the camp and the yaks moved off towards our base camp. They would take a day more than us as they were going via Dzongri where we would be traversing and going by the lower route via Jamlingang.
On 3 October, we left leisurely and ambled along the track to Bakhim. The track was familiar to us all and we took our time, stopping to chat with members of the successful Kabru Dome expedition who were returning. We reached Bakhim and stayed there overnight.
The next day we reached Jamlingang, and the next day we crossed the Rathong chu and climbed up to reach Tikipla (14,580 ft). Here we established base camp. We all helped to clear a small area for a helipad by the side of the Tikipchu. Having established communication with Yoksum and reported progress we all slept — our first night under canvas.
The next day we carried out a recce for Camp 1. We followed the chu and leaving Khang la Khang on our left, crossed over a rocky ridge running southwest of the Kempewala Danda. We walked along the side of a small lake, about 400 ft by 200 ft and reached another large lake which was nearly 1.5 km across. This lake was fed by the icefall leading down from the snow plateau of Kokthang. The icefall was ahead of us and to our right was the Kempewala Danda. The southwest face of Kokthang dominated the entire field of vision.
The next day having been spent in a ferry to Camp 1, we all returned to the base camp leaving Cherian, Nima Tashi and the Sherpas to Camp 1 who, the next day, 8 October left early to recce the route to Camp 2. It had snowed in the night and the moraine en route to Camp 2 was covered with snow, which did not make their job easy. Fortunately the weather was good and they made good progress.
After skirting the southern edge of the lake, they followed the southwest glacier of Kokthang until they reached the rock wall between the glacier and the icefall. Then an ascent of nearly 500 ft brought them to a small open area where there were juice tins indicating an old camp site. After resting and having some juice a cairn was made using both the old rusted tins and the new ones and the team moved up till it reached the snow. The snow-slope was a gradual incline which smoothed out into a plateau after a 1000 ft climb. There were huge crevasses on both sides of the track they made to Camp 2 which was sited at the foot of the face. After pitching the assault tents the party returned to Camp 1 at 4 p.m. to find us all impatiently waiting, having moved up to Camp 1.
The next day, every one with the exception of Cherian, who was very tired and Tashi, to give him company, made a ferry to a dump just short of Camp 2 and returned to Camp 1. In the evening we had the usual get-together and the plans for assault were discussed.
It was decided that we should attempt the climb in 3 ropes. Rope 1 would be the strongest with 3 professionals, — Ki Kami, Nima Tashi and Ang Norbu, accompanied by Cherian. Ropes 2 and 3 would have not more than six members and would each be accompanied by a Sherpa. Camp 2 would be occupied the next day by Cherian and Tashi who would remain there till all assaults had been completed.
As per plan, the next day 10 October, we all left for Camp 2. We reached there by midday and left the first summit party with one Sherpa (cook) at Camp 1. Then after dumping our rations we returned weary to Camp 1.
Capt K. V. Cherian writes:
On 11 October, morning Tashi woke up the camp. Myself, Tashi, Ki Kami Sherpa and Hav Ang Norbu left Camp 2 for assault at 6.30 a.m. We climbed the first snow-gully with Tashi in the lead. After half an hour when we crossed over this snow-gully we started fixing ropes and moving further. Now Ki Kami took the lead. The weather remained clear from the morning. After fixing the ropes through the ice-gully we crossed over two steep gullys and reached a prominent rock about 1000 ft below the *C* Top. The ice-face became steeper as we inched our way to the 'C Top. We reached five feet below 'C Top at about 1.30 p.m. Here we saw the condition of the ridge. It was razor sharp with a sheer fall towards Nepal. Our move till now had been through rocks and snow-gully and we were tired. Here we stopped and took rest. I asked Tashi, Norbu and Kami as to whether they can move further or not. They replied that they are fit and we decided to move further. In fact we were lucky that the weather played up with us and the day was bright. From here we could see that summit clearly with about 900 ft traverse on snow and 100 ft climb to reach the virgin Kok-thang. We took rest for 10 minutes and we started moving towards the summit.
Now I took the lead, traversing five feet below the razor sharp ridge. The snow condition was very bad. After covering about 250 ft I slipped to fall about 20 ft. Tashi who was belaying me arrested my fall. I was lucky that alertness and swiftness of Tashi saved me. Here we stopped for a while since I had to climb up to the level of the climbers. I was really exhausted due to the fall and then the climb on front points to rejoin my colleagues. From here we moved further with Ang Norbu in the lead and Ki Kami myself and Tashi following. We finally reached the summit at 2.45 p.m. The summit was too sharp so we went up in teams of two. First Ki Kami and Norbu then myself and Tashi.
The feeling atop the summit was so thrilling that we forgot the marathon effort of eight hours we had put in. We offered prayers to the Goddess of the mountain and hoisted flags. Then we took photographs of the summit as well as the surrounding area. From the summit we could see Yalung glacier down below in Nepal. Jannu dominated the view on northwest. We saw Everest, Makalu, Lhotse and other ranges of eastern Nepal. Rathong, Kabru South, Kabru North, Kabru Dome presented a glorious sight. Our Camp 2 down below could be seen. Frey peak appeared tiny. After having the thrilling and enchanting feeling atop the summit we started moving down at 3.10 p.m.
By now the second rope had already occupied Camp 2. They saw us on the summit through binoculars. The happy message was passed on the radio set to all stations. By now the weather had taken Its turn and started snowing very heavily. Today we had the coldest night at Camp 2. Wind kept blowing as if the assault tents in which we were sleeping would fly off lifting us. We kept putting our ice-axe fixed on to the pin holes of the tents and managed to survive the night. In fact this was the worst night I have seen in our expedition. Next morning also the snowing continued. We were tent-bound because of the snow and could not move around much. In the evening I briefed the second rope and prepared them for the assault. By evening the weather started turning all right again. Since Dawa and Gyalzen had fallen sick I decided to send Ki Kami again on 13 October with second rope. Ki Kami seemed to be a very obedient Sherpa who never complained any time of anything. When I told him that he has to go for assault again he accepted it without any complaints.
On 13 October they left Camp 2 at 6.30 a.m. with Ki Kami in the lead. They kept moving on the fixed rope and reached the summit at 11 a.m. When they reached to the last rope they found that the ice-piton had come off and the rope had fallen. Ki Kami fixed this again with two more pitons and went up to the summit. There they saw the flags put by us intact. They also took photographs and returned to Camp 2 at 2.30 p.m. Thus the second assault rope also made it to the top to increase the number of summiters to nine with Ki Kami twice. Once the team returned to Camp 2, third assault rope which comprised of Fit Lt Navathe, Nb Sub Sharma, Lnk Kishor Rajak, Nk Kooki, J. B. Thapa and G. P. Dey occupied Camp 2. Since the camp was overcrowded, I had to send down second rope which had just returned from summit.
8. Kokthang, as viewed from advanced base camp. (Photo : P. D. Navathe)
9. Jannu, the route of ascent on the south west ridge by the French expedition 1983. (Photo : H. Sigayret)
10. The Polish-Brazilian roule of ascent on the west face of Makalu 1982. (Photo : J. Skorek)
It was fairly windy and certainly very very cold. At 3.30 a.m. I awoke and woke everybody up. We started cooking and having eaten were ready to leave at 5.30 a.m. Kooky and Dey not having left their tents at all, we were left with Sharma, Kishor Rajak, Thapa and I, and of course, Tashi, our insurance policy.
We reached the fixed rope point and climbed slowly and steadily to the ridge. As we began the traverse, the pitons holding the horizontal rope gave way and we had to stop and refix the rope for ourselves. While I was making a step for myself to stand on, the whole ridge cracked and fell away! The ridge was all cornice. I have never been so scared in my life! Anyway after a few seconds my breathing returned to normal (as normal as possible at that height) and we continued our ascent to the top.
Here we were the luckiest. We had the clearest day of all three assaults and we had an unobstructed view in all directions. After a short halt for the traditional pooja and tika, we started on our way down.
Now we had a fresh problem. Whereas the prior ropes had come down rapelling, we had to inch ourselves down because we had to remove the fixed rope wherever possible. Suddenly the cold, the lack of sleep and the tiredness began to tell and we began to wish we were down at the camp. It was a tired lot who reached Camp 2 at 3 p.m. carrying ropes and karabiners we had salvaged. We found that Cherian had left with Kooky and Dey.
Next morning we left Camp 2 along with the rest of the team which had come up to ferry. We all reached Camp 1 at 3 p.m. and after folding up the tents at Camp 1 left immediately for base camp.
By 15 October afternoon at 5 p.m. the whole team was safely at base camp and all that remained was a few loads to be ferried back from Camp 1.
We returned via Yoksum to finally reach Darjeeling on 21 October after a most memorable month in the mountains. The Territorial Army had added a feather in their cap and one more of the majestic mountains of the Himalaya had admitted entry to mortals.