FIRST ASCENT OF MAMOSTONG (7516 m)
COL BALWANT S. SANDHU
OVER A BREAKFAST of beer and omelette we watched the luminous vale of Leh. The local drivers rode their jeeps not unlike their ponies. These darted from stop to stop like shooting stars in the making. In the distance the low hills appeared like ships, riding the low sun beams. We were content to listen to our host, Col Rinchen, yarn of his youth, encounters with the raiders and were glad this was all past, Or we would not have climbed Mamostong, a mountain so tucked away that neither an eminent authority like, Ad Carter, editor of the American Alpine Journal,
nor John Cleare whose books and camera have brought mountains home beautifully to so many of us, nor the archives of the Himalayan Club had a photograph of the mountain. Ad did put me to the meaning behind the name: 'a mountain of Thousand Devils'. We would be only 13.
Yoshio Ogata (of the Himalayan Association of Japan) held his team of 5 friends in Japan until the permission did come in July. By end July we were gathered in Delhi. A road party with Nandu and Rajiv took the expedition gear to Srinagar and thence to Leh. We flew inj two days ahead on 3 August to sample that great charm of high places. We now loaded our baggage into two hill lorries and in a third went on 14 Gorkhas we had found in Leh. They would porter for us on the mountain.
The road shot in long swathes up the bare hills, rather irreverently past bleached chortens. The cold and the dust rose with us to South Polu, to Khardung la with its hoarding of the 'Highest road in the world'. The road unaware of its eminence lay quiet in its peace of uneven aggregate and nascent frost.
Flying into Leh, the crew forbade us to photograph the fantastic mountain panorama the plane overflew. Now on our feet we beheld just such a panorama. Karakoram, tier upon snow mountain tier melted into what seemed like the ends of the raw earth. We went down to North Polu unbelieving that the road had not at all been half as evil as some of us had imagined.
We stopped for lunch by a scenic stream, rather lost amidst a vast meadow. Later we descended steeply into the Shyok valley. The Saltoro and the southerly Ladakh ranges converge to form a huge bowl of sand through which the Shyok river has carved its passage. Sands brought by two great rivers-Shyok draining the Depsang plains and the Rimo basin and the Nubra draining the large Siachen glacier fill the valley. The Nubra valley starts at the confluence of Shy ok and the Nubra rivers. The contrasting greenery of the Nubra (Mombra is the local name for green, our liaison officer informed us) against the desert-like aspect of Leh and Khardung la is indeed remarkable. Some ancient twin-humped bactrian camels are still found near the confluence of the two rivers.
Across the Shyok its waters boiling and muddy with the spring thaw, we drove along a river bed up the Nubra and reached Sumur; a neat forested village with a modern rest house that had even contrived to be waterless though inundated all round. In the morning we walked over a mile for dry land to receive mortal offerings.
In Sumur, amidst groves of fruit trees (mainly apricot and some apple) and old guardian trees of the village spirits were spread the white-washed houses. Built to last, built for comfort they looked prosperous. And mysterious. The evening before a huge can of chhang sent from Col Rinchen's house had mysteriously vanished after I had had only a whiff!
After breakfast we were guided to the local gompa. My wife, a keener observer and a better diarist wrote about our visit to the gogna. 'Next morning we went to the local monastery. Compared to the famous Hemis monastery this was a jewel. The monks were friendly and gave us a butter and bread, which is delicious, a sort of very thick roti made from barley and wheat. Because there are no tourists this place is unspoilt and very clean. It is so beautiful in fact that I would like to spend the rest of my life there. After the visit to the monastery we took to the jeep again and went up the Nubra valley. We came through one big village Panamik which looked also very nice and inviting. They even have hot springs there.'
We were now on the old Silk Route to Yarkand. Affluent Panamik and other villages, with their great green oasis-like tree canopies, well-built square, squat houses, freshly painted, rather indecorous prayer wheels, and birds. Yes, birds are at home in this Buddhist land. In between the villages our trucks stopped often to let the dust settle. I walked away to surprise a couple of young boys cleaning the haunch of a freshly slaughtered animal by a stream. Had they shot a wild animal ? I wondered, 'The animal died in a fair, they assured me.
By late afternoon we crossed Sasoma to camp in a vast stony wasteland where Tulum Puti Tokpo joins the Nubra. We unloaded the trucks and made our first camp amidst sand, boulders and tiny rivulets which went looking for our tents as the waters rose in the Topko towards the evening. As if we had not been knocked on the head with the scale of things, a storm picked up in the evening blowing sand and grit into the tents, our faces and our dinner. And then it rained!
The clear blue skies of the morning did not belong to the squall of yesterday. The sun bored down to the earth, burning the rocks and us alike. We counted 37 switchbacks as we walked up the cascading Tulum Puti Topko; out of the N libra and into the Topko. Our caravan of six ponies and 14 porters walked along the river to Umlung, down and across a natural rock bridge, across more wasteland to reach Jhinpoche. Another downpour came during the night. For the second night we were soaked.
Soon after the walk began we came to a stream. The glacier melt and the rain water went thundering past. We crossed this with circumspection and some difficulty. The next stream needed a rope. A pony floundered and floated down. It came to rest, his belly atop a boulder. We watched. We found his hind legs and pushed him to firmer ground. Very wet, chastened. We crossed two more streams. By night fall we reached Skyangpoche. Last of the porters reached camp late, a few without load.
Next morning we camped across the Saser nala. Fresh water, green grass, sunshine and windless great views down the Saltoro range. In the next 3 days the entire team and its loads reached the camp.
This was my first climb with climbers from Japan. We all smiled exceedingly. In between we were devastatingly polite. I was ashamed of myself when I saw their lists-geargraphs and movement hieroglyphics. We were late in the season-it was 17 August-to have now crossed Saser la and followed up the Shyok and then the Chong Kumdan glacier, the plan conceived in Tokyo and Delhi. Instead we went up the Mamostong glacier on the premise that a shorter blind alley would be preferable to a longer blind alley whether one thought Japanese or Indian. An easy trudge along the terminal north moraine of the Mamostong glacier, across a small glacier and we made an ABC on a grassy ablation valley, by a blue tarn. The porters ferried to the ABC and four of us took a day off to go to Saser la, an interminable moraine walk. I counted 35 pony skeletons along the track and gave up the head count. The pass was tiresomely distant and the views commonplace. The north ice-wall of Saser Kangri looked terrific as also the unnamed 7000 m peak north of Saser la. It had taken us 8 hours.
On the return there was a sea of water spread upto the foot of the pass. Vaulting boulder to boulder and with tiresome detours, hopping across streams, we reached base camp by 8 p.m. A few days later the expedition mailman would drown here. Last of our party had arrived too.
Next day was an easy day; lovelier because the entire team and its baggage had got to the base camp. We paid the ponymen off. I talked to the team: We might be from two countries but were one team, to climb one mountain. There would be, I hoped, hazards enough for all of us on the mountain without us adding more personal ones. On the third day I came up to a new site of ABC, the same delightful grassy place by a tarn. A number of easy angled glaciers joined the Mamostong glacier, all appeared as still as Mamostong glacier.
We walked along the medial moraine for about 2 km. The glacier now bent north. Mamostong, a big mountain without a satellite peak nearby, looked even bigger than its huge chunk of tiered ice arid broken rock.
Camp 1 tents went up on a flat moraine near the base of Mamostong, A col of 8000 m to the west was one obvious line to the summit. It rises steeply to about 7000 m and hump along the crest for about 2 km to the summit. An exposed ridge walk would be windy. Immediately above Camp 1 is the east col at 5885 m. The east ridge, itself broken, avalanche prone. We shall have to look beyond the col for a possible summit line. The map shows a number of snow- and ice-runs off the east side of the mountain. One of these ought not to be desperately difficult. We went to this col, anchoring two ropes to the top and descended steeply down with another two ropes to the Thangman glacier. 'The glacier of healing' sprawling without hurry. Its head is a wide cirque with numerous icefields hugging the base of the mountain. Gathering its tributaries, then it makes a sharp turn on itself. Once down in the snowfield of the glacier it was easy to be lost amidst the low welts of ice and snow. Yamada, Kenji, Mahavir and Rajiv, the first party, now left the lead to the next group and returned to ABC. They had worked for 3 days.
Ages back in history Yarkandi traders sought an alternative route to crossing the tortuous and long Saser la as they went from the Nubra to the Depsang plains and thence to the Kara-koram Pass. They came to Skyangpoche and went up the Mamostong glacier. Crossing over the east col they descended to the Thangman glacier. Now one of the things that make legends happened. The traders crossed a couple of snowflelds; perhaps another one. In the fog they missed the main glacier exit that leads out to join the Shy ok and thus circumvented the Saser la. The traders perished. The legend gave the mountain its name of a 'thousand devils’ and the convoluted glacier became the 'glacier of healing'.
The east face of the mountain is wrinkled and as broken as the south face. There are no safe uncomplicated summit lines. We crossed the wide basin of the glacier and went up the northernmost sub-glaciers descending from the NE. The NE ridge as it drops off the summit was visible from Camp 2 at 6100 m. Rattan Singh, Ogata, Shingo, Chouhan fixed ropes, secured the route past C2 to C3 on the NE ridge. Nandu, PM, Niroshi and I stocked the camps and worked on the route. The route wound through seracs and loose snow. From Japan had come our high altitude food, tents-easy to carry, easy to use. All the ferrying was done in two days and there was no work on the mountain for the two support groups. Were we too many on the mountain ?
Yamada, Kenji, Rajiv joined with Nandu's lot to finish fixing the rope in a day. I and PM went down. The route was protected upto about 7200 m-we had used over 2000 m of rope, most of it above C3,
We now made a mistake. We went down to rest; we were to come up again to attempt the summit on 3 September.
There was news at the ABC. A corpse had been found floating below the base camp. It was the good Synchen. He had helped us with ponies, brought fresh food, and had been our contact man in the Nubra in the place of his busier brother, Col Rinchen, our local liaison man, 1 had met Synchen on 25-28 August going down loaded like a Santa Claus in reverse with expedition needs, repairables and what-nots.
The autumnal colours of the grasses, the clear rills of water, the lone hopping thrush, the sharp steep line of a ridge, the drama of a wispy cloud adrift along the horizon were yet part of this world. Undoubtedly the mountains occasionally break our bones, sometimes kill our friends and companions. They also give an edge to living; sustain our courage, test our skill and nerve. Help us feel a significant part of the universe.
There is a mini glacier before the ABC. One needed all one's wits crossing it. At the ABC all was astir. The first summit party was to have left today. Snow covered the ground. A murky sky rather lowered over the mountain tops. We stayed at the ABC.
Next morning the sky was still ominous yet we must be gone for the summit. Everyone was conscious of vegetating, losing condition-an indirect benefit of mixed climbing; the climbers hate to be taken for base camp sitters!
We waited for the snow to stop; the depression to go away. The radio predicted in its weather bulletin to Karakoram expeditions, continuing high winds, falling temperatures. Had the climbing season come to an end ?
We were restless fattening at the ABC. The summit parties went off to occupy Camp 1 and 2 on 5 September. It took 30 minutes shovelling an entrance into the tents at Camp 2. The snow was blown back. The wind whipped eddies of snow around the tents. Snow and wind during the night did not let up. On the third day the climbers were back at ABC. Had we lost our chance to get to the summi? It was now colder; there was daily frost. And we were beginning to be short on some foodstuff and news. We didn't have a mailman.
The sky cleared on the 9th. On 11th we occupied the camps- Yamada, Kenji, Rajiv, P. M. Das and Chau reported reasonable winds at C3 on the 12th. At C2 the rest of us occupied ourselves variously.
At 4.30 a.m. the summit party left. Singly they walked across and up the col to the base of the first rope. This one was buried; uncovering the 18 ropes, securing the route above was arduous, desperate work. They were in the sun after two hours. We saw them move fast up the fixed ropes. On the summit ridge the wind blew clouds and obscured the views. The angle of the mountain became easier, the summit more certain-the first man was on the summit at 10.20 a.m. and the last at 11.45 a.m. We met them at Camp 3 and helped them on their way down to Camp 2. We ate the evening meal of noodles and readied for an early summit start. Four to the tent, we slept fitfully. Cramped stiff, reluctant to move because of the showers of rime from our breathing. I wondered late whether the alarm would go off in time.
The wind buffeted the tent mercilessly until the falling snow made the tent heavy, unmoveable. Rattan was out scraping the snow before we suffocated. The snow went on and off during the night and next day. Ogata and Hiroshi cooked like seasoned hosts. The snow stopped by the evening: 'We go to the summit at 4.30 a.m. If it is not clear we wait for another day'. It was windy and overcast at 4.30 a.m. At 6 a.m. I heard Ogata shout he was off to the summit. So be it. The last of us left the tent 30 minutes later.
The wind blew fresh snow about into our faces as we climbed in the fog. Moving on to a rope, soon it stopped whipping; the climber ahead had gone on to the next rope. Through the occasional gaps in the fog I saw the first man had reached the last of the ropes and below me, three ropes down was Nandu. His slight frame struggled up manfully. Soon the ropes ended. I settled myself in a deep pit, in the snow, took off my climbing gloves. The fog was everywhere. Like climbing through soup. Blind and unfeeling. But for the gravity one would not know if one moved at all.
I saw climbers ahead of me had vanished in the fog. The wind had already blown their snow prints away. Was I all alone on this big mountain ? Where was the mountain amidst this sightless landscape ?
No views, no photography; what the hell was I doing here sitting in a soup ? I clipped myself back to the rope and descended. Out of the mist appeared frosted figures: well done! All of them were on the summit about noon. Nandu peeked out at 2.30 a.m. A star filled silent, windless night. The butane sparked and we settled to drinking endless mugs of soup and black tea. Rattan and Mahavir were content, after their summit, to let us be utter Philistines. I looked at the thermometer:-22°C outside the tent. We were gone by 4.30 a.m. across the unlit snow, tramping alone with the cocoon of our thoughts, the 'forever' thoughts of a summit ahead. Trouble began soon. It was too cold to switch from one rope to the next with my gloves on and worse with them off. Nandu's struggle below, too, was cold comfort, I sat and warmed my hands,
The sky in the east had mysteriously gone dark. A spectacle of colour was being played. Dark blue, deep purple, tinged with orange reflected off the asleep glaciers in a cataclysmic beginning of the earth. Mortal behold! This mortal was numbed with cold. There was feeling only behind the tip of my nose, my hands hurt deep in the pockets of my duvet after a foolish attempt at taking a picture without gloves. In two hours we had climbed three ropes. Sun-warmed we moved faster. Yesterday's plugging up in thick soup appeared a travesty of climbing. I was eternal like the hills, reborn and feeling.
Above the last rope we got to the summit ridge at about 7200 m. A westerly wind gunned us down. It whipped snow off the ridge and for sometime we kept below the crest. The views to the east towards the Kuen Lun mountains and the south were great.
The wind blew furry icicles on the down-suit. Nandu sheltering in a depression after the false summit wanted to wait out the wind. We drank from the thermos and waited. 50 m below the summit could not be a long wait. It was 11.15 a.m. The climbing had been gruelling in the wind rather than difficult. A wind blown plume of snow now hid the peak.
Refreshed, we started. Our backs angled windward, a grotesque twosome. The wind had gouged the snow away from the summit where our friends had tramped elephantine foot-marks. Gone were the flags they had left: A Sakura film wrapper, partly iced, lay stuck. I had not loaded a fresh film and now must carry an imprint of al windy summit in my head. It was 12.30 p.m. The snow plume hid all views.
The wind behind us, we tumbled off the mountain slowly, surely down the ice-slope. Awfully alone and numbed. The blue-hazed, distant mauve lands getting dimmer bleached as the sun rose higher. Out of the wind, we unclammed to a scene of raw wilderness. How unchanging, timeless the scene! Year ago, that romanticist mountain climber, Fosco Mariani wrote of the scene; 'Rows of complicated rock peaks hold walls and ridges of uncompromising steepness and promise to be prime targets for big wall style climbing in the near future'. We found Mahavir and Rattan waiting for us at the camp, we packed our tent and walked down to Camp 2. Next morning, two of the three HAPs came up to help move the camps. By the evening we were down at the camp.
As on most trips, at the end, there was much to be thought through, assimilated. In between the meals one watched the landscape: its massivenes. Nowy
it grew with the coming of the dark. The colours of the autumn were everywhere. Above the autumnal finery of the sparse land were the everlasting .mauves, angry browns, the russets of the rock. During the day the deep browns accentuated the softer mauves and in the gloaming these shone like huge wet flanks.
The landscape was arctic but alive. You did not just walk through. You became a part, you belonged like the gorse. The thinking became unhinged, the rationalization, obtuse.
We were in Sasoma on 23 September, in Leh on 24th and were in Delhi on the 29th.
Col Balwant Sandhu (leader), Y. Ogata (deputy leader), Rattan Singh, N. Yamada, P. M. Das, K. Yoshida, Mahavir Thakur, Rajiv Sharma, N. Shingo, N. Iwazaki, N. Purohit, Capt H. Chauhan and Dr Sq Ldr R. Kumar.
30. The south face of Mamostong Kangri. The route of first ascent was up the NE ridge on extreme right. (Photo : Col Balwant Sandhu)
Chong Kumdan glacier from C3 on Mamostong. (Photos: Col Balwant Sandhu)
Looking south from east col (5885 m) on way to Mamostong.
Thangman glacier SE of Mamostong. (Photos: Col Balwant Sandhu)
The final section of NE summit ridge of Mamostong at about 7200 m.
Unnamed peaks south of Mamostong. Peak 6500 m from BC (above) and Peak 6600 m (below). (Photos: Col Balwant Sandhu)
An unnamed 7000 m peak south of Thangman glacier. (Photo: Col Balwant Sandhu)
Another unnamed peak south of Mamostong.