Himalayan Journal vol.43
The Himalayan Journal

Publication year:

Soli S. Mehta
    (MAL DUFF)
  6. DHAULAGIRI 1984-85
    (P. M. DAS)
  13. BASPA AND ROPA, 1986
  16. SIA KANGRI, 1986
    (S. P. CHAMOLI)



IT'S A VERY REWARDING experience when everything you've planned goes just right. There may be times when it seems as if the plans are all going awry, and then again there are other times when it requires just one snag to crop up to destroy all your plans. But the right choice of action or word at the right time to the right person usually puts things right. Having a very positive attitude also helps. A mountaineering expedition can be affected adversely in many ways, and it requires a strong team, preferably all friends who can work together positively, solve problems adeptly, think as individuals and as a team, and accept each others' faults without acrimony, to stand a real chance of success. That was the sort of team that went to the Garhwal to tackle a modest mountain called Srikanta, 6133 m.

An expedition is like a jig saw puzzle. Just make the pieces, shake them up in a bag, and hope that, with a bit of help, they'll all fit together when you empty them out. One of the exciting problems about planning is that you have to give the responsibility for making many of the pieces of the jig saw to other people, and hope that they get them right. Often there's no way that you can test the pieces before you get to the point where they either fit together or the expedition fails.

So the Srikanta expedition was planned. Equipment, rations* money, transport, permits, liaison officer, the mountain itself. All the various parts of the plan were supposedly ready and waiting to be fitted together. We had selected the mountain on the advice of the Indian Mountaineering Foundation and various correspondents in India. One of them, Col Balwant Sandhu, said that the southwest approach to Srikanta would be tough but certainly feasible. He sent me a photo which was very useful. The only snag was that it did not show the top third of the mountain. He described the approach, 'Cross the river at Dabrani in the Bhagirathi valley on a wire rope, and then follow a disused track up the Lod gad for 2 or 3 days.'

We had sent all the heavy equipment and rations to India in May, and arranged for it to be stored at the British High Commis-sion. The equipment was in triwall boxes. These are tough cardboard, and are meant to resist almost any conditions. But not the voracious appetites of Indian termites. The boxes fell apart.1 The termites had loved the 3 months feast of cardboard. Fortunately they had ignored the contents, and our rations were safe.
  1. Best not to store cardboard boxes anywhere in India. If you must, then a liberal dusting of the boxes and ground area with either Boric Acid or Borax (both non-poisonous and safe for pets) keeps the ravages from cockroaches (who are the real culprits, not termites) to a minimum.-Ed.
The Kashmiri Gate bus station in Delhi is one of the most interesting departure points in the world. Hundreds of buses going to almost everywhere in northern India, and thousands of people catching them, or waiting for them. At night long lines of bodies almost fill the entrance hall. How can they sleep with such noise and bustle going on? When we arrived with our pile of luggage we were besieged by porters, and had to persuade them that we did not want their eager services just then. Yousef Zaheer, our LO, arrived. We transported our gear to the bus bay. Yousef asked the driver if we could put our gear on the roof, and the conductor joined in the discussion. Whenever a discussion or argument starts in India a crowd gathers. This was only a small argument, and only justified a gathering of about 10 people, all contributing snippets to encourage the deliberations. Eventually Yousef persuaded the conductor that we were not actually smuggling contraband across the border into Uttar Pradesh, the neighbouring state, and we loaded the gear and ourselves onto and into the bus. By now, of course, all the best seats were taken, and we had to take the last six, right at the back of the bus.

In a burst of enthusiasm for his role as Rations Member Andy Watkins bought six bottles of orangeade from a stall. We settled into our seats to await departure. All except Terry, who was checking the security of the gear on the roof. Another argument seemed to be developing. It seemed to be something to do with us again. The same small crowd was gathering for the second half of the entertainment. This time it was the pop bottles. The stallholder wanted them back, we had not yet drunk the contents, and really wanted to take them with us. The bus was leaving, without Terry. The audience was crowding in the doorway and he was outside. A few coins tossed out of the door, a well placed foot, a determined thrust, and Terry was on board. The bus stopped a hundred yards further on to discharge the remains of the audience, and we wrere on our way to Rishikesh.

Rishikesh is a great religious centre where millions of pilgrims flock every year. At 3 o'clock in the morning it is really dismal The bus to Uttarkashi was even more uncomfortable than the one from Delhi to Rishikesh. The seats were harder, the springs less efficient, it was more crowded, and later it became much hotter. Otherwise the 6 hour journey was quite pleasant. But I do recall the bus climbing away from the plains in the dawn with the river shining below. It was good to be back in the hills.

In the early morning villagers were going out to their fields to work. Everywhere there were brightly dressed women and girls, cheerful in the morning light before the heat of the day made their work unpleasant. Here each person depended on their crops, on their skill at growing them, and on the weather. In contrast to the fields of East Anglia, rural Indian agriculture is completely manual; there are no tractors or any other mechanical aids. It always fascinates me to travel backwards in time in this way. There is such a difference between the West and India, though that difference is getting less noticeable, and between metropolitan and rural India. That fascination, the tremendously interesting countryside, and the variety of people to be seen makes a journey through the hills of India enjoyable despite the discomfort of the bus. The 6 hours passed quickly, and we reached Uttarkashi in the heat of noon.

As Ted Rogers and Nev Taylor organised the process of unloading our gear from the roof of the bus we persuaded various coolies that we did not need them just yet because we did not know where we wanted to go.

After a breakfast consisting of omelettes, chappatis, and chai we loaded up yet another bus, and, accompanied by 20 porters, we set off for a 3 hour journey up the Bhagirathi valley. We expected to go to Dabrani where a wire rope crossed the river, but our porters insisted that we should get off at a bridge about 2 miles before the wire. We could see the sense of that because we could avoid the delay that would occur at the wire by staying on the east bank of the river. We set up a rope to get the porters down some steep rock pitches, and then walked on for only an hour before they wanted to camp. 'Ah ha', we thought, 'this is where the trouble starts.' They explained that this was the last possible camp site before we entered the Lod gad, and they promised us that the side valley was too steep most of the way for camping. There was also jungle, and they did not want to camp in the jungle because of bears and other animals. We agreed. Especially about the bears.

The next day's walk was an experience in itself. We began through wet bamboo which dripped its reservoir of last night's rain at every step so that within a few minutes we were soaking. The morning was warm, and the need to wear waterproofs was evident. So we were faced with the choice between getting soaked from without or from within.

The Lod gad is more of a gorge than a river valley. The sides are extremely steep, and the river itself roars down in great cataracts to join the Bhagirathi, that very important religious river of the Hindu faith, at Dabrani.

I set off before the rest of the team because I did not want to wait whilst the porters sorted themselves out again. At first the track was easy to follow, but it was steep, slippery, and wet. Soon I came out onto a level spot near the river. Unfortunately the track was not so evident here, and I naturally followed the faint marks that climbed steeply uphill through the forest and away from the river. After an hour or so the bamboo gave way to sweet chestnut trees. A sharp movement in the trees drew my eye, and there was a grey figure swinging among the branches. A troop of monkeys was feeding on the chestnuts. They scattered when I arrived. I sat quietly and waited, and they gradually came back. They were as curious about me as I was about them. They dropped chestnut cases on me, and every time I pointed my camera at them they scampered away. But I have got one or two dim photos of one or two dim monkeys.

By now I realised that the rest of the party should have caught up with me. There was not the slightest sign of them. Not even the smell of woodsmoke or tobacco smoke that always accompanies porters. What had become of them? Naturally I refused to think that I was on the wrong track. So I thought that there had been some trouble with the porters. I retraced my steps for an hour, and came across the footprints of the party just where my faint track had left the level place near the river. How embarrassing for a leader to lose the whole of his expedition! Three hours later I caught up with them in a steep gully, having learnt a salutary lesson.

We camped that night on the only level platform we had seen in a 7 hour day. It was full of boulders, but we chopped down the surrounding undergrowth of balsam to give us comfortable and fragrant beds.

The second day took us above the tree line. After some 5 hours the steep sided valley opened out, and we had a view, at last, of the surrounding peaks. But not yet of Srikanta. That modest mountain was hiding away from us still.

Looking down the Lod Gad and across the Bhagirathi we could see two fine mountains in the western part of Garhwal. Bandar-punch and Kalanag raised their heads proudly there. They would both make fine objectives for future expeditions. Ahead of us was a fine range of mountains; Jaonli, and the Gangotri peaks. Jaonli is a complex and difficult looking mountain. It is best approached by the same route as we went to Srikanta.

Where the valley opened and levelled out we came across a shepherds' camp. As we did not fancy sharing our base camp with two or three hundred sheep we moved further up the valley to another level spot with fresh water. We were now on the true right bank of the Lod gad, and it may be worth noting that although the map shows that the track crosses the river 3 times before it reaches Jalala ki Jaonli it actually does not cross the river at all before the shepherd's camp, and even from there one can get to the Jaonli base camp by staying on the true left bank all the way.

There is a bridge at Jalala ki Jaonli that takes one on to the right bank, and that is worth the excursion because of the beautiful flower-strewn meadows that can be found up that side of the Valley.

The eldest shepherd told Yousef that he knew of a way to the col to the west of grikanta, and that he had taken sheep over it. He pointed out roughly where it should go, and when the weather cleared a little we were able to see a rocky peak above the very steep side of the valley. This was in the right direction for Sri-kanta. So we decided that must be the mountain. We paid off the porters, and set up our base camp. Not a very big one; it consisted of a cook tent, and three small Vango tents. In addition we gathered together some rocks, and built a store and mess tent against a big boulder which had obviously been used before by shepherds for the same purpose. Our base camp was at 13,000 ft. It had been a splendid approach for a short expedition with only a limited time available.

Because we feared that we would run out of some items of rations, and wanted to get some fresh anyway, we persuaded 2 of the departing porters to buy some rations for us and bring them to us some days later. They readily agreed to do so. We had been ruthless in our selection of rations because most of us had had previous experience of the surpluses that can occur at the end of an expedition, and we were reluctant to carry in food only to dump it when base camp was finally deserted. We were so ruthless that we gradually became sugarless, flourless, saltless, and breakfastless. At the end of the expedition we had nothing left in the way of surplus food. In fact, we even had to try and persuade some migrant spice gatherers to sell us some salt and flour. But on the whole we ate well for the trip. The flour shortages only occurred because we all ate too many chappattis whenever we could persuade Birou, our cookboy, to make them.

Our base camp was on a grassy area right at the foot of a ridge directly, as it turned out, below the glaciated col where we eventually placed our advanced base camp (ABC). We spent the afternoon organising ourselves and building the mess tent. The next day we began looking for a way to tackle the mountain.

Srikanta had been climbed once before. That was from the northeast. No one had ever tried it from the south, and although the mountain was easily visible from Harsil to the north it was almost completely hidden from this south side. Yousef and I went up towards the Jaonli glacier which would give us a better view of the mountain's south side, and should have taken us near to where Balwant Sandhu's photo had been taken from. Ted and Andy tackled the ridge immediately above base camp to see whether they could find an easy way to the 'shepherd's col', and Terry and Nev went up an alternative, and very tedious, ridge further east. Ted and Andy found their way to the col alright. It was steep and long and would prove to be a hard carrying route* They were slightly incredulous of the old shepherd's claim that he had taken sheep over to Harsil that way. But they reported that from the col the west face of Srikanta was accessible. Steep and hard it also was, but they both thought that a couloir splitting the face was a posible route, and one worth tackling. The west face couloir actually divides the summit into two, and there is a deep brecht, or col, between the two peaks. Terry and Nev were convinced that the ridge they had looked at would not be a feasible approach to the mountain and would be unrelenting as a route. Yousef and I could confirm that the best approach would be up to the west col by Ted and Andy's route. A long serrated ridge runs up to the south west summit. There are so many gendarmes along this ridge that it would be a very serious route indeed, and, although it could be an attractive proposition it would take more time than we had available.

The weather seemed reasonably settled into the pattern that Yousef described to us as typical for the Garhwal; sunny mornings, with cloud and snow in the afternoons. The carry to ABC was hard, with steep grass for the first 2000 ft followed by steep loose rubbishy rock that threatened to fall off at every step for the next 2000. At first, with heavy loads, it was taking us between 4 and 7 hours to get up. I was the one who took 7. But then I was the oldest by several years, if not decades. There was no let up in the gradient all the way. On the way down I realised that we had actually gone up from 7000 ft to 17,000 ft in four days, and from sea level to 17,000 ft in a week. We had left UK on 2 September and it was now 9 September.

Another couple of days lifting heavy loads up the steep grass and steeper scree, followed by an enforced rest for bad weather, and on the twelfth of September Ted and Terry were able to move up to ABC and start work on the serious route finding on the face. The first problem was to find a way from the glacier to the col and on to the vertical face itself. It was protected by an icefall, and also by a truncated ridge bearing a series of pinnacles and gendarmes. They fixed ropes on some of the more difficult gullys and rock pitches, and found the safest way into the couloir. Then Nev and Andy took over the route finding. Andy was so absorbed in the fantastic ice-climbing in the couloir that it was not until Nev's voice had risen a couple of octaves and his language had deteriorated to yells of obscene discouragement that he became convinced of the necessity for a rope. Once he had, the grade 4 to 5 ice became somehow less serious. At least to Nev. Especially as not all the lumps of ice Andy was sending down were actually missing him.

After several beautiful pitches on excellent ice and consolidated snow they reached the col between the two peaks. From there the route could either go over the col to the eastern side of the mountain, on to loose rock, across an avalanche-swept slope, and up a very steep wall, or they could tackle the very intimidating chimney which formed the natural continuation of the couloir from the col to the summit, After some discussion it was decided to try the chimney. As Andy was the youngest, fastest, strongest, and daftest, and he had not done a very good job as Rations Member (by now we were becoming very conscious of his disinterest in that aspect of the expedition) he was persuaded not to relinquish his lead and to get into the chimney. The ice was like glass, the chimney is about El/A3, and at 20,000 ft extremely hard work. Andy was climbing in fine style on the minimum of placements for aid and protection. He was tensioning across to reach a good hold. There was a sharp crack, and the flake holding the small chock on which he was tensioning snapped. Andy fell 30 ft, he was bruised and shocked, but not seriously injured, much to everyone's relief. His worse injury was to his pride. The retreat to ABC was long and tiring. Everyone was a bit shocked. A rest day at ABC followed. It would have been forced on us by the weather on the next day anyway. It snowed heavily all day. The new snow piled up over the tents, the glacier stream which had given us the luxury of running water froze, and we all just lay all day in our tents eating and sleeping. All three tents were sheltered behind a huge boulder on the glacier. The other two were slightly better protected than ours, and Yousef and I seemed to be getting the worst of the weather. There was never any time when the wind did not blow on the col. But the site was well chosen thanKS to Ted. He has such a tremendous knack for choosing the best protected and safest site on the mountain. I recalled that on Masherbrum his site at Camp 3 had been so well placed that a huge avalanche had swept down the mountain directly behind the camp and had disappeared into a huge crevasse two yards from the tent. On Sri-kanta Ted's experience was worth its weight in gold to the success of the expedition.

We awoke on 18 September to Christmas card conditions; bright new snow, shining mountains, and fleecy white clouds. But the weather did not last long, and soon it was snowing heavily again. We would obviously be unable to make any progress on the route in that sort of weather, and went down to base camp for a rest. We found that the shepherds who had camped below us had packed up and gone home. They are often very conscious of deteriorating weather. An Indian expedition to Jaonli had been through base camp during our absence. They were supposedly camped higher up the valley, and the next day Andy and Yousef set out to find them to sec if they could sell us some rice and salt. They searched unsuccessfully for their base camp for 6 hours in the mist and rain, and returned wet and dejected.

After a lot of discussion we decided that the best chance for climbing Srikanla would be for 4 climbers to go back up, and either have another try at the west face or to try to traverse around from ABC to the east ridge. Ted, Terry, Nev, and Andy were certainly the fittest and technically best suited to such an undertaking, and they would go back up with that intention. I was very disappointed that I would be unlikely to climb the mountain now, but my disappointment was nothing as bad as Yousef's. II was really just the luck of the draw that left him out of the summit bid.

The weather pattern had now changed for the worse. Instead of the sunny mornings and cloudy afternoons we now had snow, even at base camp, from about 11 a.m. onwards.

Whilst Ted and Terry retrieved ropes from the approaches to the western couloir Nev and Andy explored a traversing route from ABC over the southwest ridge and on to the south face of the mountain. This seemed to be possible, and the next day all four set off early to push the route this way. They crossed the steep south face on fairly solid ice covered in a thin layer of soft new snow, and eventually reached an access couloir, broad, shallow, and black with old ice, which took them a long way towards the summit. By now the weather was bad again. It was snowing and the mist was thick. They were committed to the route, and pressed on for the summit. As if by magic, as they reached their objective the clouds cleared, and they were rewarded with fine views of all the surrounding peaks. Shivling stood out starkly in the Gangotri glacier area. The sun was going down, and they had little daylight left. Down below them, almost as if they could touch it, was the col and ABC. But to get there they could either descend the western couloir, or return the way they had ascended. The ascent had taken 14 hours, and a descent by the same route would be almost as long. In any case they would be forced to bivouac. So they decided to bivouac high on the west face and descend the western couloir the next day. They dug out a suitable shelf in a sheltered spot below the summit, brewed luke warm orange drinks, and settled down for a cold uncomfortable night at 20,000 ft. The next morning they were surprised to find a super bivouac site a few feet away which caught the early morning sun. So they moved there for a breakfast of warm sunshine before the long series of abseils which brought them back to ABC. They arrived there in a blizzard, and we all decided that the best thing would be to carry on down to base camp as soon as we could. Loading up as much as we could, we descended slowly but happily, a very successful team.

Srikanta was somehow a female mountain, and had displayed the best qualities of that sex. She had been modest, attractive, reluctant, but finally had succumbed to dedication and resolution. And all the pieces of the jig saw had finally fitted into a beautiful rewarding picture.