LION PEAK -A TWO-MAN ASCENT
OUR LITTLE EXPEDITION got off to a very inauspicious start when, on 19 August 1985, Ravi Kamath, Arvind Thakker and myself were stranded-on a little Island in the middle of the Karcha nala surrounded by 5 heavy kitbags, 3 large rucksacks and two smaller ones. This two porters we had engaged in Manali very coolly abandoned us at the sight'of the fast-flowing nala. To add to our joys, both Ravi and Arvind had taken an involuntary bath in the cold water as they crossed. So there we were, three jolly adventurers, drying diji our clothes and thinking gloomy thoughts when a fierce gust of wind swept ray foam mat into the nala.
To begin at the beginning, we had left Bombay on 15 August and reached Manali on the afternooH of the 17th, via Delhi. Next day, when we reached the bus stand at 6.15 a.m. the Kulu to Kaza bus was already packed. I had to share my seat with a Spiti lady and her 6 months old daughter and was literally left holding the baby when she, with a lot of other passengers, had to get off and walk so that the lightened bus could negotiate a steep section of the gravel road. We got off the bus at Batal at 2.30 p.m. and after a quick cup of tea, crossed the Chandra river on the suspension bridge to the south bank and walked for half an hour to reach the banks of the Karcha nala. We pitched our tents on a sandy bank and breathed in the heady euphoria that the first day in the mountains generates. But putting up the dome tent in the fierce wind that was blowing down the Karcha nala was an exercise in expletives. Whoever had designed it had definitely at least three bodybuilders in mind to erect it.
Next morning we walked a little upstream to look for a suitable place to cross, we reached a point where it was possible to cross halfway to an island belayed by a rope. So, belayed by Ravi and using my ice-axe as a third leg, I crossed over to the island and then Ravi and Arvind came over. Now it was the turn of the porters with their loads. They recused, so I went back across the water and we rigged up a Tyrolean traverse to bring the kitbags across to the island. That accomplished; we again urged the porters. But their faith in modern nylon ropes was obviously less than total for they refused to budge. By this time, the stream on the other side of the island had also swollen and so we decided to camp right there for the night while we held a council of war to decide what to do. During the nigt Arvind did a lot of soul searching and had decided to go back to Manali.
Panoramas A to D
For the next two days we progressed slowly up the Bara Shigri; the lower section of the glacier is a tangled mass of crumbling moraine and we had to pick a careful way among the unstable boulders, some of which had red rings as signposts'- someone had obviously been very busy with a spray gun. Progress was extremely slow as we edged our way past the debris covered crevasses and the icy pools. On our left, rocky cliffs rose menacingly. For long stretches they were a combination of unstable scree to which were incredibly glued boulders just waittog for excuse to come tumbling down on our heads. There were constanly signs of recent stonefall, and ten days later when we returned the path had changed to avoid the recent convulsions. It took us four hours from the snout to what the porters called Centre Camp we suspect it is the same as 'Lynam's camp' in 1958, and another 4 hours the next day from there to the junction of the Bara Shigri and the Lion nala. Josephine Scarr and Barbara Spark called this their advance base camp ('Women's Kulu Expedition, 1961', Himalayan Journal Vol. XXIII p. 62) and gave it an altitude of 15,000 ft.
The big peaks of the Bara Shigri were now all visible: Kulu Pumori, Papsura, Dharamsura and Shigrila. In addition, we also had the company of climbers from Bengal. The route ahead went up a steep grassy slope which then flattened out along the true right bank of the nascent Lion nala and gradually worked its way to the foot of the snout of the Lion glacier. We dumped our climbing gear and hurried down to the lower camp, completing in an hour what had taken us 2 hours and 15 mins on the way up. We had seen Central Peak - it looks very untidy and haphazard from there - but had only glimpsed Lion. It was 22 August.
On 23 August, we shifted our camp to the snout of the Lion glacier. In 1961, Scarr and Spark had christened this camp as 'Thanda Camp’. At 3.30 p.m. we went up the Lion glacier for a recce to see the lie of the land here Next day we shouldered some loads to dump at the higher camp (c. 17,800 ft). The Lion glacier began in earnest; it was pure ice right from the snout and up above it was a wide river of ice. A perfect textbook glacier, jvith many a boulder to mar its purity. Only on the true left bank was there a lateral moraine comprised of boulders, but which thinned out the higher we went. Wev wandered up the glacier, being forced off to the true right bank by the innumerable nalas running down the ice. As these things normally happen, we were on the wrong side! We managed to weave our way to the left bank where the glacier rose in a gentle flope, swinging in a wide curve to the southeast. We roped up for a zone of crevasses, changed our minds after a couple of rope lengths and went back to investigaate the Fight bank, but we were getting nowhere and feeling tired with the effort and the altitude. Suddenly we saw a porter descending from above where the crevasses had discouraged us; he was on his way down after ferrying some load for tb^ Bengal team, and we hurried across the glacier to meet him. He Wd us that we were still about 45 minutes below the campsite. So vv* dumped our loads right there and went down, absolutely pooped by the day's misadventures.
The next day, picking up monster loads, we crossed over to tb© true left bank of the glacier on an ice-bridge about a hundred feet above the snout and this time found our way to the campsite around 4 p.m. in driving snow. We had barely finished pitching our tent when we saw three figures came loping into the campsite from the ice-slope above, and in a few minutes we were congratulating them on their successful climb of Lion from a summit camp at about 19,000 ft. On 26th, we went down to pick up the stuff we had dumped 2 days ago and I n the afternoon went up to the upper snowfield to have a look. We did not like what we saw. The whole snowfield was very heavily crevassed and we had to move very cautiously. Ravi would stop and sniff the air, his head oscillating slowly by degrees, he would stare at the crevasses as if willing them to close up; all this while Fd think that he'd gone to sleep and I'd indulge in a little reverie myself. No wonder then it took us so long the next day to reach the summit camp. But then, when you're only two of you, you can think of a lot of more comfortable places to spend the rest of your life than in a cold, bottomless slot!
And so, on the afternoon of 28 August, we were ensconced at the summit camp after a day of ferrying loads upto it. The campsite was the best on the whole trip. Someone had gone to a lot of trouble to create a little platform of stones in that sea of ice and snow, just big enough to put up a two-man tent and in our hearts we blessed those good people. The corniced summit of Lion, its east and northeast faces, the col between Lion and Central, all this was clearly visible from here, and behind us reared the rocky buttresses of Central Peak, though the actual summit could not be seen. We were ecstatic, because there had been times in the last couple of days of humping loads from camp to camp when we had doubted our ability to reach this camp, let alone the summit, relying only on ourselves from advance base at 15,000 ft onwards. Now we were camped at 19,000 ft, the load carrying was over and the scenery was good from here. In addition to the Lion summit, we could see Pt 20,100 to its south and then the enclosing ridge curved around to the east to an elegant ice and rock peak, and then as the ridge curved more to the north, the thin rocky spire of Pt 19,850 ft. Best of all, the sun hit the tent at 6.25 a.m. the earliest of all the campsites! And that evening, our fatigue was banished by a lovely sunset and the almost full moon rising from behind Pt 19,850, bathing the mountainscape in a gentle benediction.
29 August dawned clear and then it became a little overcast and we kept our fingers crossed for the weather to hold, it did. Leaving at 9.40 a.m., it was a long agonizing plod up the snow-slopes towards the col between Lion's north ridge and Central peak's south ridge. Immediately above summit camp the slope was crisscrossed with crevasses and we only managed to cross them after many false starts. As we neared the col the crevasses thinned out and it was a relief to crampon up the firm, guileless snow; incidentally, it was the only day on the whole trip when we used our crampons. It took us about two and a half hours to gain the col. About three pitches of rock climbing cum scrambling ensued on the north ridge and then there were the final snow-slopes to the summit (6187 m). We kept to the west side of the ridge, the other side being corniced. The west and southwest face, in contrast to the totally white slopes of the east and northeast faces, was a mixture of snow-slopes perched on rock. The summit consisted of a rather flattish dome covered by snow ending in a cornice on the left of the north-south axis and by small boulders on the NW. The mountain fell away steeply to the SW in a mixed snow/rock face.
Though the weather was deteriorating, visibility was still quite good and far away to the south Ravi could identify the flat top of Parbati South (20,101 ft) which he had attempted some years earlier. Immediately to the west and southwest the watershed peaks dividing the Sara Umga, East Tos, Tichu and the Dibibokri from the Bara Shigri, thrust up in a wild jumble of rock and ice-sculpture. We could identify Papsura, Dharamsura and Kulu Pumori. Even as we admired their icy splendour we could see a cauldron of boiling, seething black clouds heralding a storm, massing up on the farther side of these peaks and spilling over into the Bara Shigri over the cols in between the peaks. The weather was Obviously turning bad, so we hurried down. Mocking us far to the east were the sunlit summits of Spiti on their fabulous plinth of ochre, orange, red and purple hills and valleys. And even the happy peaks of the CB group to the north seemed far from the madding clouds. Central Peak still loomed 500 ft above us and we wondered if we would get a chance to climb that too.
As it turned out, we didn't. The buttresses facing SE, one of which Scarr and company had climbed in 1961, certainly looked possible, but the bergschrund at the bottom of the face, which would have to be crossed to reach them, looked horrendous and there was constant diversion in the form of rockfalls. Perhaps it would be more stable in the colder weather of late September or early October when the good ladies had climbed it. From a little above the col we could study the south ridge of Central peak and we feel it can be climbed via this route, it is a succession of rocky steps, interspersed with some snow; in the intermittent sunlight, the rock glowed yellow and black. The other possibility is to climb the fine looking peaks at the head of the cirque to the southeast of our summit camp, though a camp will probably be required further ahead, right at the bottom of headwall.
We were back in camp at 5.30 p.m. It had taken us 5 hours to go up and half that time to come down. The next day we were incarcerated in our tent by snowfall and consequent whiteout and on 31 August we went down. We reached Batal on the morning of 2 September and decided to trek to Chandra tal. As we neared Batal, on our return the bus nearly^ran us down, it was early and we were glad to find it reasonable empty. In the evening we were back in Manali and as we got off the bus the hotel touts surrounded us, saying, 'Come from Darcha? Want room? I got nice room, nice view, nice price, very cheap'* lion peak had become as distant as a dream!