THALAY SAGAR NORTHEAST PILLAR
CLIMBING in the Himalaya has changed dramatically since my first journey there. When we went to Latok I in 1978, we had little experience of altitude, and our attempt on the north ridge was complicated by long delays in reaching the mountain, crude ideas of what we actually needed to survive and climb in such a harsh environment, and finally, illness and bad weather on the route itself. We felt we had made a giant step into the unknown, and were humbled by it.
Since then, Himalayan climbing has become considerably easier logistically, and therefore more popular. Improved communications, a far greater common fund of knowledge and experience, and superior transport both to and within the Himalayan countries have all contributed to an explosion of interest and a jump in climbing standards. Alpine style climbing has become the norm, although each year sees many large fixed-rope extravaganzas still fielded. As more and more people climb in the Himalaya, these dinosaurs of the climbing world will gradually die out, to be replaced by teams of 2 to 4 climbers tackling the greatest routes in the world. It will be an exciting time, but not just for the international superstars, as many average climbers will discover that they too can enjoy Himalayan climbing by choosing easier routes and lower peaks.
I have had a long-standing commitment to alpine climbing, and the 1984 Thalay Sagar/Shivling North Face Expedition was no exception. The expedition (a grandiose title for our small, loosely organized group) consisted of four members, Randy Trover, Mugs Stump, Michael Kennedy and Laura O'Brien, who joined us unofficially at the last minute. We hoped to climb new routes on the north faces of Thalay Sagar and Shivling, in alpine style and as two teams of two.
We all arrived in New Delhi on 13 August, where we were joined by our liaison officer, Capt Anil Goth. After two days of shopping and taking care of formalities there, we travelled to Uttarkashi in two taxis, arriving there late on the evening of the 15th. Another day was spent there picking up forgotten items, hiring porters and a cook, and arranging transport to the roadhead at Gangotri.
After three days of moderate walking, we arrived at base camp on Kedar Tal (4746 m) on 20 August, just one week after arriving in India. Our 17 porters were excellent, and the walk as beautiful and as spectacular as we had hoped it would be. However, we were appalled at the amount of garbage left by previous expedi-tions at this base camp site. After spending several hours collecting a half dozen gunny sacks of cans, paper, empty fuel cartridges and other debris, a fraction of that present, we were finally able to establish our camp. We paid the porters extra wages and helped them carry these garbage bags to the glacier, where they were dumped in a deep crevasse and covered with rocks. Upon leaving a month later, we disposed of our garbage in a similar manner. It is a poor commentary on climbers in general that such a beautiful area, which has been visited by so few expeditions, should be despoiled in such a way.
From 21-31 August, we established a small advance base camp and equipment dump at 5300 m on the glacier below the north face of Thalay Sagar. During this time, we visited the 5900 m col between Thalay Sagar and Bhrigupanth twice, spending the night there once to acclimatize. Trover had fallen ill upon arriving at base camp, and hadn't managed to even get to advance base; indeed, he returned to Gangotri for a few days to recover. The weather pattern was unfavourable throughout this period; the mornings were mostly clear, but by noon clouds usually obscured the peaks. There was much precipitation - rain at base camp, snow at the higher elevations - and we had just one clear afternoon, our first at base camp on 20 August.
A severe storm set in 1-3 September, during which we were all confined to base camp. Trover returned from Gangotri, some* what weakened but still keen; nevertheless, our original objective - a route on the north face - was rapidly receding from our grasp. The unstable weather had plastered the face in snow, and constant spindrift avalanches would have made the inevitable hammock bivouacs unbearable. Especially considering Trover's recent illness and lack of acclimatization, it seemed unlikely that we could complete a new route before 15 September. We were to vacate base camp then, as another expedition had booked the peak starting on that date.
With all this in mind, we turned our attentions to the Northeast Pillar, first climbed in 1983 by a strong Polish/Norwegian team. Although it had already been climbed, it looked like a superb and difficult route, and we felt that getting up anything would be good considering the weather. On 4 September, Randy, Anil, Sital (our cook) and I went to advance base. The following day, Randy and I climbed to the col; I carried a small tent, stove and food for the night, and continued to about 6100 m below Bhrigupanth, where I spent the night. Early the next morning, I left my bivouac with just ice-axes, crampons, and a candy bar in my anorak pocket; 2 hours later, I stopped a few meters from the summit of Bhrigupanth (6772 m), I down climbed rapidly to avoid sun-softened snow, collected my equipment, and returned to base camp that day. Along the way, I passed Mugs and Laura, who were headed up to attempt the Northeast Pillar.
After a final rest day, Randy and I left base camp on the afternoon of 8 September. A little before reaching advance base, we saw Mugs and Laura; they had retreated from the bottom of the Pillar, defeated by high winds and snow. Disappointed, they returned to base camp to rest and arrange for our departure on the 15th. After a night at advance base, we climbed to the col and crossed the glacier to bivouac in the bergschrund at the base of the pillar around 6000 m. We carried five days of food, a tiny bivouac tent, two 9 mm ropes and a small rack of climbing hardware. Although Randy was feeling the altitude, the weather seemed to have taken a turn for the better. We slept well, anxious to get to grips with the real climbing the next morning.
10 September was a perfect day. After climbing several rope lengths of snow and ice we reached the base of the rock proper. Four long pitches of continuously difficult mixed climbing - free and aid on rock, and ice-filled cracks and corners - led to a bivouac at the bottom of a huge overhanging corner at 6250 m.
11September again dawned clear, and we made rapid progress up two pitches of difficult rock - the only pitches climbed without crampons. By the end of the second, at 10 a.m., the weather had again deteriorated, and snow fell intermittently throughout the rest of the day. More ice and mixed climbing and an awkward ice-filled crack pitch deposited us on a snowy ramp at the base of a blank-looking headwall. We could see old fixed line 30 m above, but there were no obvious cracks, so we traversed right and slightly down into an ice-gully, which we followed back left to the crest of the headwall. As the weather worsened and darkness fell, we chopped a tiny platform out of the ice for our tent, near the junction of the granite and the black upper rock band.
This bivouac at 6550 m was incredibly uncomfortable; the tent was only half pitched, and we were forced to curl up together so as not to fall off the ledge. The storm continued all night and the next day, so we got what rest we could in hopes of a break in the weather.
Fortunately, we awoke to clear skies on 13 September, and after a hurried breakfast set off for the summit. Two pitches of moderate mixed ground brought us to a perfect bivouac site right below the black rock. The weather turned bad once again, snow and cloud obscuring all but our immediate surroundings. What followed was the hardest single pitch of the climb, and one of the most frightening leads of my life, a steep, loose chimney capped by a huge chock-stone. An icy chimney and a final steep headwall, climbed on aid, put us on the summit snowfields some 150 m from the top. The day had flown by - it was after 5 p.m. when we wearily kicked the final steps onto the summit. As we sat eating our first food in ten hours, the clouds broke for a short spell. The setting sun was a blessing, but also a warning of impending darkness.
After down climbing the snow, we made our first rappel; the ^rape jammed, and I had to jumar back up to free it. The sun was gone by the time we finished the second rappel, and we made the rest of the descent to our bivouac in the cold darkness, cramming into the tent frozen and exhausted at 9.30 p.m. after 14 hours of continuous effort.
The night was clear and cold, but morning brought more snow. We rappelled the route, inundated by spindrift, and plodded over the glacier to the col. The only sun we saw that day roasted us in the couloir below. A few hundred meters from advance base, the clouds descended again, and we sat in a whiteout for 45 minutes before a slight clearing allowed us to reach camp.
Carrying all our extra equipment, we descended to base camp on 15 September* The porters and the rest of the team had left earlier that day, as previously arranged, so we wearily trudged down to Gangotri to rejoin them. Two short days* march brought us to Tapovan and our second objective, the North Face of Shivling.
The poor weather of the past month had left the face plastered in snow, and we didn't fancy another climb hampered by such conditions. After resting several days and toying briefly with the idea of going up Shivling's regular route as an alternative, the unstable and increasingly cold weather convinced us to be happy with one summit. We decided to go home.