14. INDO-JAPANESE EXPEDITION TO SASER KANGRI II

HUKAM SINGH

THE EXPEDITION WAS organised under the auspices of Indian Mountaineering Foundation. The Himalayan Association of Japan and Indo-Tibetan Border Police represented their respective countries. The team comprised of 19 members - five Japanese and 14 Indian. The expedition was led by Commandant Hukam Singh of I.T.B.P. with Masato Oki leading the Japanese team.

Brief History
No attempt had ever been made to scale Saser Kangri II except a reconnaissance carried out by Lt Col J. O. M. Roberts in June-July 1946.x Roberts climbed a peak (6252 m) and named it 'Lookout' peak from where he could have close and clear view of Saser Kangri group. After his maiden visit to Sakang Lungpa glacier, from Nubra valley, Roberts remarked that Saser Kangri peaks are inaccessible from this approach. There had been two Indian attempts, first led by Maj N. D. Jayal in 19562 and the second led by Maj Harsh Bahuguna in 19703 for ascent of Saser Kangri 1 (7672 m) before it was finally climbed by I.T.B.P. in 1973.4 It was quite surprising that the Saser Kangri II (7518 m) had remained not only unattempted but also unexplored. This was what prompted the selection of {Saser Kangri II for this Indo-Japanese mountaineering venture.

Selection of Route
The selection of route for the expedition involved a major decision, primarily because of total lack of past information. Considering the topography of Saser Kangri II, the peak can be approached mainly through three different approaches (i) North Shukpa Kunchang glacier, (ii) South Shukpa Kunchang glacier and (iii) Sakang Lungpa glacier.

Note: All heights in the article revised as per the latest Survey of India maps.
  1. 1. See H.J. Vol. XIV, p. 7.
  2. See H.J. Vol. XXV, p. 136.
  3. See H.J. Vol. XXX, p. 248.
  4. See H.J. Vol. XXXIII, p. 119.-Ed.
Photos 22 to 25 and 64
Frontispiece
I.T.B.P. expedition which succeeded in first ascent of Saser Kangri I in 1973 had followed North Shukpa Kunchang glacier. Though the expedition succeeded, it had a bitter experience of undertaking exceedingly long approach march, fording Shyok many times and so much so that on its return journey, the team had to take long detour via Saser Brangsa to Nubra valley. The second route via South Shukpa Kunchang glacier is considered comparatively a better route for Saser Kangri II as it provides a frontal approach but this also involves equally long approach march through Shyok valley. In this case also fording of Shyok at a number of points cannot be avoided. The third possible approach was along Sakang Lungpa glacier from Nubra valley. This approach provides a direct route and shortest possible approach from the road head, though the route could be regarded extremely difficult and hazardous. Considering the fact that Shyok remains in spate during August and September, fording it time and again was not feasible. We thus had no option but to rule out the first two approaches through North and South Shukpa Kunchang glaciers and follow Sakang Lungpa glacier approach. The map showed that the route to Sakang Lungpa glacier would be very tricky, tiring and dangerous as Chameshan Lungpa, a major tributary of Nubra did not even provide a goat track along its narrow course. The information gathered from the local inhabitants indicated that there is a goat track from village Pinchimik which climbs up vertically about 2000 m to the left shoulder of Tegar (5909 m) and then goes across about 6 km at same altitude before descending 1000 m into a seasonal nala (having water only during thawing season). The track is very dangerous upto Standok. However, beyond Standok right upto snout of Sakang Lungpa glacier the track is muleable.

Since reaching the mountain through other routes about this time of the year was impossible the expedition decided to follow the western approach through Sakang Lungpa glacier from Nubra valley.

Departure from Leh
Final sorting out of stores, packing and preparing of loads were done at Leh during short stay of the team there. The team had no problem about obtaining clearance from various Government agencies at Leh. In fact the LO 2/Lieutenant E. Ansari had already been nominated by the army and was readily available to join the expedition.

On 3 August the expedition left Leh by road. The vehicles were provided by I.T.B.P. The team was accorded a cheerful send off by I.T.B.P. with Pipe Band playing hilarious tunes. Members were garlanded and the departure was marked by the slogans of good wishes

The happiness of ceremonial send off received a little set-back when the vehicles developed some defects delaying the move and the team members realised that the pack lunch supposed to be with them had not been collected. The team when arrived at Khalsar, down in Shyok valley at 8 p.m. was welcomed by Army Transit Camp. Rafiq our porter contractor was waiting for us at Khalsar. He had already visited Nubra valley twice. Taking him along we resumed journey from Khalsar at 9 p.m. and reached Pinchimik, the road head for our expedition at 11 p.m.

We reached Pinchimik in the Nubra valley on 4 August 1985. We hoped to leave Pinchimik within next two days for the base camp. Ten of the Nepali porters did arrive. As a result the expedition was able to collect in all 25 ponies and 40 porters within a week. The ferry of loads from the road head had to be undertaken in bits and parts starting from 5 August.

Move to Base Camp
Subject to availability of porters and ponies, advance party comprising of Phu Dorji, Wangdus and Sherup with five ponies carrying loads proceeded for base camp on 5 August. Simultaneously loads were ferried by available porters as well as members upto Chapozia (4350 m), first stage of our approach march to base camp. On 7 August Nim Dorji went up with six porters, followed by Prahlad and Tsering Angchuk with 11 ponies in the evening. Now our efforts seemed to produce some positive result. Major bulk of load was now on way to the base camp dumped at different stages. Our band of porters included 20 Nepali porters who proved to be better load carriers and more helpful.

We should thank our stars that we were ultimately able to proceed further on 8 August evening from the road head. The problem posed by acute shortage of porters and ponies had stretched our team from road head to the base camp. While advance party reached base camp on 8 August with 5 pony loads, the remaining loads were lying at 7 different places on the entire route starting from road head to base camp with members guarding them. The ferry of loads from Stage 1 to Stage 2 negotiating most difficult track involving steep ascent and descent over couple of thousand feet posed great challenge. The members and available porters had to make number of ferries between Stage 1 and Stage 2 and an intermediary camp had to be set up at Chhumchar to facilitate transhipment of loads left by the ponies. The leader along with other 5 members had to camp at Kotsang nala from 9 to 13 August in order to plan and push loads to the base camp and he could reach base camp only on 14 August.


Base Camp
The location of base camp at Yangbar close to the snout of Sakang Lungpa glacier at 4800 m was ideal. It had a little greenery around with a small running spring in the heart of base camp. Hundreds of yaks and herds of sheep and goats belonging to inhabitants of Pinchimik, Chameshan and other nearby villages freely grazed in the Chameshan pasture. Owing to problems posed by acute shortage of porters and ponies and also difficult and dangerous approach march it had taken the expedition over 12 days to reach base camp from Pinchimik with stores. We were rather eager to get on to actual climb without further loss of time. Analysing the problems that we would have to face during the course of actual climb and also on our return journey to the road head, we engaged 10 Ladakhi porters and 10 Nepali porters for ferry of loads beyond base camp and also to cater for emergency supply of provision from road head onward.

The Climb
On 16 August all members and available porters went for ferry of loads direct to Camp 1 which was set up on the upper Sakang Lungpa glacier at 5700 m. Phu Dorji, Minemoto, Ando, Wangdus and two high altitude porters manned the camp. Leader and Pyar Singh also stayed at Camp 1 for the night. The route beyond Camp 1 was surveyed and discussed by leader with Minemoto and Phu Dorji. Studying the topography, it was decided to follow the route via Saser Kangri III and Sakang col and then follow the rocky ridge leading to Sakang (6750 m).

On 17 August Phu Dorji and Ando started for the col to recce and open route. Minemoto and Wangdus with two porters went to the eastern branch of Sakang Lungpa glacier at the base of Saser Kangri II to collect tents and ropes which had been dumped by the members of advance party on 12 and 14 August when they came up for reconnaissance.

The site of Camp 1 was enchanting overlooked by the dominating presence of Saser Kangri III (Photo 23) and Sakang. The lure of these peaks, all of them challenging was irresistible. Now that Eastern Karakoram mountains have been opened to the international expeditions, soon there will be expeditions to find their way to these peaks. Unstable masses of snow lurking down from these surrounding mountains caused avalanches frequently which did not pose any danger to Camp 1, being sited at a safe distance.

Pyar Singh and the leader left base camp for Camp 1. As the distance involved between base camp and Camp 1 was about 15 km with 900 m rise, it was felt desirable to set up ABC about 5 km short of Camp 1. This was also essential in order to have proper walkie-talkie communication with base camp, which was not possible right now. (Photo 22)
Phu Dorji and Ando reached the col in the afternoon and to their surprise they found that the precipitous bulging rocks on the ridge leading to Sakang offered no route. Both of them decided to get back to Camp 1 surveying the possibilities to find an alternative route.

Prahlad and Smanla moved to Camp 1 and all six members continued their struggle to open route to Sakang ridge through the couloir and also ferried load. Since the climb to the Sakang ridge through the couloir was almost vertical along the rock face and hard ice, it became desirable to set up Camp 2 at the head of Sakang Lungpa glacier at 5900 m just at the base of the couloir where equipment, tents and ration meant for higher camps were being dumped. This was also necessary as an emergency camp.

Saser Kangri

Saser Kangri



On 18 August while Phu Dorji, Minemoto, Ando and Wangdus surveyed and followed new route following a steep rocky couloir leading to the northwest ridge of Sakang, other members and porters ferried load from base camp direct to Camp 1. At the same time leader along with Tyagi and Sherup with 3 porters established ABC at 5400 m at the foot of ‘Look-Out’ peak, where Sakang Lungpa glacier took a right turn.

The progress of route opening through couloir was proving very time consuming even when the strength of the party to spearhead had been increased. The loose boulders falling like bullets posed imminent danger. In three days time lead climbers were able to lay only about 800 m of fixed rope covering an altitude from 5900 m to about 6300 m.

We were able to break new ground on 22 August when Phu Dorji, and Wangdus supported by Chait Singh and Prahlad were able to reach atop the couloir on the north ridge of Sakang late in the afternoon and pitched up a tent just over a rocky ledge at 6450 m. With this Camp 3 was set up and manned by Phu Dorji and Wangdus. It had taken us four days struggle to negotiate the vertical couloir by laying 1100 m fixed rope, running double line over dangerous pitches. To negotiate this couloir, jumars were a must.

Camp 3 offered a wide view: (Photo 24) the summit of Saser Kangri II (west) which was not visible from other camps except ABC was also clearly visible and looked all the more challenging. (Frontispiece). One could also have clear view of Chushku group of mountains in the far northeast, glancing over vast span of North Shukpa Kunchang glacier.

It was very windy and also cloudy beyond Camp 3. In spite of unfavourable weather Phu Dorji and Wangdus were able to open route, laying fixed rope upto 6600 m over the steep snow covered north face of Sakang. Phu Dorji later in the evening informed the leader on walkie-talkie about the possibilities of reaching the summit in next three days if weather remained favourable. At this juncture, on 24 August evening Masato Oki and Tadao Ando left for Leh.

The climbing progress beyond Camp 3 received set back due to continuing spell of bad weather. Nevertheless the support and supply from the rear continued to be built up. Prahlad, Smanla and Minemoto moved from Camp 1 direct to Camp 3 to assist Phu Dorji and Wangdus to open route along the northern crest of Sakang. The weather turned from bad to worse and made it extremely difficult for the members to stay at Camp 3 and compelled them to retreat. All these members went down to base camp on 26 August except Smanla who stayed at ABC.

On 27th the sun was up and the cloud was disappearing fast. In order not to allow a fine sunny day to go waste, it was desirable to resume upward movement. The contact was made from ABC to Camp 1 and plan was discussed. Smanla, who was at ABC immediately proceeded to Camp 1 and there he along with Nim Dorji and Sherup started for Camp 3. The trio reached Camp 3 at 2 p.m. and then informed the leader on walkie-talkie that they were moving on to set up Camp 4. They climbed till about 5.30 p.m. carrying a tent and food and set up Camp 4 at 6650 m just below the saddle of Sakang and Saser Kangri II (west) on the north face. 28 August offered us a brilliant sunny day which was usefully spent by leading three members for reconnoitring and opening route beyond Camp 4 by laying fixed rope over steep icy slope. These three members in the afternoon climbed down to Camp 3 and carried up fixed rope, ice-pitons and snow-bars as much as they could so that they could continue opening route to the summit the following day. Meanwhile Tokushima carrying a full load of video camera and its batteries along with his kit proceeded direct to Camp 3 from Camp 1 and spent night alone at Camp 3. The hard work put in by the leading trio was very encouraging and all three of them were in high spirits and perfect health. Smanla informed the leader on walkie-talkie that they would need huge quantum of fixed rope, snow-bars and ice-pitons to tackle the steep icy slope intercepted by rocky out-crops along the summit ridge. About 700 m of fixed rope had already been laid beyond Camp 3.

On 29 August, Smanla, Sherup and Nim Dorji continued their struggle to open route running fixed rope along the saddle of Sakang and Saser Kangri II (west). The snow was fresh and powdery. Wading through knee-deep fresh snow especially when slope is quite steep made going up very tough and tiring. Also there was a danger of fresh snow avalanche. In view of sudden improvement in weather, members who had gone to the base camp on 26 August for recuperation were asked to get back to the mountain and on 28 August evening Minemoto, Phu Dorji, Wangdus, Prahlad and Chait Singh went upto Camp 1.

The short spell of good weather soon appeared to be ending when it started getting packed on night of 29/30 August. Around 8 a.m. it stopped snowing and the scattered patches of clouds began giving way to bright sun. Considering the urgency of equipment for opening the route to the summit, Chait Singh and Tsering Angchuk with two high altitude porters proceeded on load ferry from Camp 1 to Camp 3. Starting around 9 a.m. Chait Singh, Angchuk and porter Tashi Norbu reached Camp 3 around 3 pjn. At 3.30 p.m all three of them started climbing down. Camp 1 could see them through binocular climbing down the couloir with Chait Singh on the lead. There was least suspicion that this evening would bring a tragedy to the expedition, taking the valuable life of one of its members. Precisely at 5.15 p.m. when mid-way to the couloir, Tsering Angchuk freed himself from the fixed rope so as to retrieve a snow-goggle lying over a small ledge of rqck which he had dropped on 27 August, about 15 ft away from the fixed rope. Chait Singh at this point was about 25 m ahead of the two. Porter Tashi Norbu tried to persuade Tsering Angchuk not to bother about retrieving the snow-goggle in view of the danger involved. No one can change what is predestined. As Tsering Angchuk had barely moved a few paces away from the fixed rope he slipped to his death over vertical rock face within seconds. A quiet type but very tough, sincere and cheerful climber had fallen down 200 m and was lying on the glacier lifeless, his body completely smashed. When Chait Singh and party took unduly long time to come down to Camp 1, it was apprehended that something had gone wrong. At 7 p.m. Chait Singh and Tashi Norbu arrived at Camp 1. Both were dazed. With tearful eyes they said that Tsering Angchuk is no more.

The following morning the weather had improved. All members from Camp 3 and Camp 4 withdrew. Members and porters at Camp 1 went up to Camp 2 and under supervision of Okamoto and Chait Singh brought the dead body down to Camp 1. The climbing activities were suspended for three days.

The weather turned exceptionally clear and favourable on 3 September. With renewed zeal and determination Chait Singh, Phu Dorji, Smanla, Prahlad, Sherup, Wangdus, Minemoto and Tokushima left Camp 1 at 5.30 a.m. and proceeded direct to Camp 4, carrying with them some food and one tent from Camp 3 so that all of them could stay in two tents at Camp 4 where only one tent had been pitched up earlier. In order to maintain effective supply and support line for the summit camp, Okamoto and Tyagi moved to Camp 1. Communication on walkie-talkie between all the camps was perfect. Leader could speak to Phu Dorji and Minemoto at Camp 4 and they apprised him about their plan to make a summit attempt on 4 September.

The weather on 4 September was clear and pleasant. Having had reasonably restful night, all the 8 climbers started their day at 5.30 a.m. wading through knee-deep fresh powdery snow and running fixed rope over steep northern face of Saser Kangri II (west). The climbers continued their gruelling struggle to open route till 1 p.m. when they were still about 400 m short of the summit. There was hourly contact with them. Appreciating that reaching the summit today would be neither feasible nor safe, they returned to Camp 4 at 3.30 p.m. Meanwhile Okamoto joined the summit party at Camp 4.


The weather which was so calm and pleasant on 3 and 4 September suddenly became furious on 5th morning. Violent wind kept on sweeping up the mountain right from the dawn. In spite of such hostile weather, Chait Singh, Phu Dorji, Okamoto, Smanla, Prahlad, Wangdus and Sherup made a brave bid for the summit from 7 a.m. but beaten by bad weather, they had to miss the summit by 250 m. The weather forecast bulletin on 5th evening was not at all encouraging. The weather being cloudy on 6 September, climbers did not want to make a futile attempt for the summit since they had already burnt much of their energy during their previous two attempts. However, Wangdus, Okamoto and Sherup climbed down to Camp 3 and collected food for Camp 4. Along with them Minemoto also left Camp 4 and came down to Camp 1 in the evening. Before that in the morning Chait Singh left Camp 4 and came down to Camp 1 as he was feeling tired.

Contact with the summit camp revealed that weather permitting they would try their best to reach the summit on 7th or otherwise they would have no more energy left to continue. It was now quite evident that if summit was not reached on 7 September then it could never be reached. The anxiety and excitement made us come out of our tent to see the sky every now and then on 6th night. At last the day broke with odd patches of clouds here and there and at 6 a.m. Phu Dorji informed on walkie-talkie that they were on their way to the summit. Okamoto and Prahlad were also on the summit party, but after climbing some distance both of them returned as they were not feeling well and they thought it was not wise to take undue risk which might also put the whole team into difficulty.

The remaining 4 members - Phu Dorji, Smanla, Wangdus and Sherup continued carrying fixed rope, ice-pitons and also snow-bars. Phu Dorji came on the air at noon and informed the progress. In fact all four of them were seen negotiating the lower portion of the rocky summit ridge at 1 p.m. At 2 p.m. Phu Dorji spoke that they were very close to the summit. The cloud patches over the summit were playing a kind of hide and seek game and in the process, the boulders on the summit gave impression as if the 4 climbers had reached the summit.

Long last at 3.30 p.m. Chait Singh saw 4 climbers through the binocular moving up along the vertical rocky ridge very close ta the summit. We were quite aghast and also now worried about their safety. Right then, at 4 p.m. Phu Dorji contacted the leader on walkie-talkie and said that rock face of the summit ridge was quite dangerous and they were running short of fixed rope. Nevertheless all four of them appeared in high spirits. At 4.30 p.m. Phu Dorji again came on the air and said now they were using one of the two climbing ropes as fixed rope. Now their climb to the summit was clearly visible from ABC. Precisely at 5.30 p.m. all four of them stepped on the ;hitherto virgin summit of Saser Kangri II (west) and Phu Dorji shouted 'Ki -- Ki So - So Lhar Gyalo' which in Ladakhi means 'destination has been reached due to God's grace*. Every member of the team was thrilled and overjoyed.

Phu Dorji, Smanla, Wangdus and Sherup spent 40 minutes on the summit taking photographs, unfurling flags. The summit of Saser Kangri II (west) is quite spacious. The summiters walked over it to the highest point before they started climbing down at 6.10 p.m. The weather had held but now it was getting dark. Phu Dorji was on the lead followed by other three summiters who were roped up together in one rope. Phu Dorji climbed down ahead of other 3 summiters at good pace and reached Camp 4 at 9.20 p.m. The remaining 3 summiters could get back to Camp 4 at 11.10 p.m. after putting a gruelling struggle for over 17 hours.

The team returned to base camp on 8 September and road head on 11 September. The team returned to Leh on 13 September to enjoy the grand reception and hospitalities of the I.T.B.P.

Members:
Japanese: Masato Oki (leader), Masato Okamoto (climbing leader), K. Tokushima, Kaname Minemoto, Tadao Ando.

Indian: Hukam Singh (leader), Dr C. R. Pattanayak, Chait Singh (deputy leader), Phu Dorji (climbing leader), C. K. Tyagi, Sonam Wangdus, Prahlad Singh, Nim Dorji, Tsering Angchuk, Tsewang Smanla, Sherup Chholdan, Daulat Ram, Pyar Singh, Jagat Singh, 2nd Lt. E. Ansari (LO).

Editor's Note:
On the recent maps height of Saser Kangri II is revised to 7518 m. The peak is marked by a point on the eastern end of an almost 1 km long summit plateau, with a possible depression in centre separating the two ends. The western end of the plateau is also reported by this expedition to be of the similar height. It is felt, after study of available photographs and maps, that perhaps Saser Kangri II has two peaks, west and east. The present expedition climbed the west peak, at the western end of the summit plateau. See photo 64.

In the sketch-maps published in the past, in most cases various heights and locations of 'Look-Out*, 'Sakang* and Saser Kangri IV ('Cloud Peak') are wrongly shown. In the sketch published on p. 106 their locations and heights are corrected as per the report of this expedition and study of the past literature. This is also confirmed by Col J. O. M. Roberts who had explored the area and named these peaks.-Ed.

View from ABC on Sakang glacier.   (M. Oki)

View from ABC on Sakang glacier. (M. Oki)



Close-up Saser Kangri III from Sakang glacier.  (M. Oki)

Close-up Saser Kangri III from Sakang glacier. (M. Oki)



Saser Langri I (right) from C3

Saser Langri I (right) from C3



Saser Kangri II: close-up from Khardunga la. Summit climbed on the left.  (S. Venables)

Saser Kangri II: close-up from Khardunga la. Summit climbed on the left. (S. Venables)



View WNW from Sentinel N Summit

View WNW from Sentinel N Summit