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)



Kabru to Kamet, The West Ridge
Kabru Dome by a new Route : March-April 1985
JEAN CLAUDE MARMIER and I wanted to climb Kangchenjungs from the unclimbed east ridge with a team of soldiers from the Indian and the French Armies. Three Indian climbers went to the 'Ecole Militaire de Haute Montague', Chamonix for a month, and three French climbers joined 15 Indians for a work-out on Kabru Dome in March-April, 1985.

West Sikkim is not anymore the remote wilderness one remembered from the 60's. One drives in a day from Darjeeling via Singla, Gezing and Pemiangtse to Yoksum to camp in well-appointed tourist huts and walks next morning up a bridle path to Bakhim, the place of bamboos, to another spacious tourist hut, Above the old forest bungalow the weary traveller finds full bodied delectable chang at the tiny Tibetan settlement, called - Chhokha (White Lake). The following day's walk skirts below the highlands of Dzongri and we make camp an hour short of the Himalayan Mountaineering Institute's training camp at Chaunrikhiang.

Eighteen of us were a large team: in two days an advance camp was up on the East Rathong glacier at c. 4900 m. Chauhan and Marmier climbed the narrow NE Rathong glacier up initially a canted snowfield and then across some interesting mixed rock and ice pitches for about 400 m. By midday, they found a camp site on a protected, level rock promontory at c. 5500 m. The warm spacious rock, running water from the snow melt and great - views across the mystery-filled blue hazed forests of Western Sikkim were a treasure for what had been a blistering hard day. Slowly across the hills of mist came a star filled windless night off the Kabru Dome.

Next day, they were up early and cramponed up the narrow snow-gully between the steep east wall of Rathong and an icefall a tiered mass of menacing seracs.

An occasional rock rolled down, its ice anchor loosened as the sun gently crept into the gully. The climbers imagined themselves to be at the edge of the vast icefield that the three Kabru peaks and Kabru Dome make. Actually they now looked at a tiered mass of menacing seracs.

A serac broke and crashed upon the recumbent glacier below. The two climbers were spattered with powder snow when they coughed up out of the crevasse they had jumped into. Shaken and no longer in doubt about the safety of their line they looked in vain for a new line across the tell-tale rock chutes from Rathong and the ice debris from the Kabru plateau. Two fairly windblown climbers met me at the end of my ferry to Camp 1 in the afternoon.

The route beyond Camp 1 to the Kabru plateau could be pushed but was dangerous for a largo group like ours. Mist hung low all about us confusing us further about a possible line out of the cirque that Rajiv and LeRay would explore the next day. We abandoned the push beyond Camp 1 and started down. We reached the ABC late, our full sacks a reminder of not taking the mountain for granted.

Rajiv and LeRay spent the night on the rock pillar. Next morning they walked out of the ice-gully above their camp and came out to the east on the shoulder of Kabru Dome, that separates Rathong and Kabru glaciers. Fresh snow gave the shoulder a deceptive look of easy going. After a day of plugging across snow slopes, they came up on the Dudh Pokhri ridge overlooking the Kabru glacier. A narrow rock rib zig-zagged up broken and bouldery to the summit of Kabru Dome. An easier way led down to and across the Kabru Dome glacier and then to the often climbed route to the Kabru Dome, 6600 m. We had had enough of glacier wandering the last week and preferred a ridge line howsoever hard.

It was my turn to get up front with Tashi, Mailly, Sura (Surender), Norbu and Ramphal. We got to the high point Rajiv and LeRay had gained, prussicked up a 10 m ice-bulge and got to the Dudh Pokhri ridge at about 5600 m.

We erected three tents in a sharp wind that stung our eyes and numbed our gloved hands. In the late evening the storm passed. A jagged line of sharp, shaky rock rose to the iced summit ridge. It would be hard pushing a route up the uncertain rock until we reached the summit ridge. We hoped to avoid the rockfalL

The base camp, from this height, regained its enchantment. A hutch of white tents sat amidst scrubland where a pair of yaks browsed. Below the yaks camped a party of tourists adding colour to the grey land with their Scandinavian tents. The route of many successful ascents of Kabru Dome was visible below and to the east. I was glad for the darkness when it came and hazed out the awareness of a known successful route for one unknown that we had chosen.

Norbu and Ramphal led off before the sun reached the camp. Up the steep firm snow we cramponed to the rock. A huge boulder sat stuck to hard black ice; it was worn smooth and without a crack. Norbu led off up one of the overhung ribs of ice. He came 'off three times. Amazing how the clenching of a climber's teeth, apparently helps him gather purchase without getting his teeth actually into the mountain. Fourth time he took his time getting past the point his nose would be at if he stood on his feet. He hung tensed and very slowly moved hand over hand and was past the ice and on to the rock. He hammered a peg and breathed again. A little over 5 m had taken 30 minutes. The number two now prussicked and led through. By evening 10 ropes were fixed to reach an awfully canted rock platform. A tent was stood and anchored firmly to the mountain with a climbing rope. By sunset the climbers were down at Camp 1.

Next day eight more ropes were fixed. The 18 ropes now protected the route from Camp 1 to the Kabru Dome summit ridge until about 150 m short of the summit. The rock ridge was sheltered from the wind, but once the climbers got to the summit ridge, sharp winds gusted them. Without stopping at the 'crazy' camp (credit Colonel Marmier) we spent the night at Camp 1 with Chauhan, Rajiv, Marmier, Umed Singh, gom Datt and Tashi, and leaving them to the mountain descended to base.

On a quiet morning the climbers prussicked the rock ridge dropped ropes, peg and food at the 'Crazy' camp and went on to rope the summit ridge. The wind blew hard and it appeared that the summit ridge would also need protection.

A night at the 'Crazy5 camp - Marmier's tent slid half over into space during the night - was the last anyone wanted to try sleeping at. All six left early, reached the summit in gale winds by 9 a.m. on 3 April. Marmier, Chauhan and Mailly went on to cross the plateau towards Kabru North, 7338 m, the most unclimbed peak of the Kabru trio. The cold and chilling winds slowed them. They bivouacked on the plateau for the night. In alternating cloud and gusty winds they pushed on for a couple of hours. Wind, cold and uncertain visibility next morning defeated this plucky attempt. They were back at the 'Crazy' camp after sunset and sat the night holding their tent down. Next morning they descended to base.

Another six climbers left the Camp 1 between 5 and 6 a.m. and reached the summit by 3 p.m. They spent the night at Camp 1 with the last lot of the climbers who had come up. It was a repeat of the previous day. We brought the ropes down to Camp 1. Almost half the ropes were lost when the soldier carrying them was jolted off the mountain in a gust of wind. We packed the camp and while the others went off to evacuate the ABC, I plumetted to the Kabru Dome glacier. The glacier, though broken and convoluted allowed easy movement along its west terminal moraine. Past Dudh Pokhri I was lost for an hour in a dense cloud bank and tumbled late In the evening to base. All of us, 15 Indian and 3 French climbers, had pushed a route: 'hard as the "Brenva Spur", in our native Chamonix', said the Frenchman. Through someone's opacity the three gourmet Frenchmen had lived through unbroken three weeks of eating dal - without fad or fuss. 'We shall make a happy crowd on Kangchenjunga', said Jean Claude Marmier and offered to bring French food for the main expedition!

Kangchenjunga - Never !
Six of us - Chauhan, Marmier, LeRay, Mailly, my wife and our 7 years old son left to look at the east ridge of Kangchenjunga. In four days through Sukhe Pokhari (Dzongri), Thangsing and Jemathang we reached Gocha la, 5960 m. Beyond the pass we descended to the Talung glacier and found a suitable site for a base camp around Yongjotak.

Kangchenjunga from the unclimbed east ridge has two problems. The gaining of the east ridge, west of the Zemu Gap at about 7000 m, up one of the avalanche prone ice-spurs from the Talung glacier. On the ridge the climbers would be exposed along the nearly 6 km long ridge to high winds. Difficulty and exposure of the route to the summit ridge would require committed climbers. Ours was to be an attempt without use of oxygen. Once on the ridge the movement of the climbers would be fast, alpine style. Eventually, these plans were not tested.

We learnt in June that we could not climb Kangchenjunga. We could climb a mountain in the Karakoram or elsewhere in the Himalaya. We chose Kamet, 7756 m, the highest climbed mountain in 1931 (until 1936 when Nanda Devi was climbed. Nanda Devi, 7816 m remained the highest climbed mountain until the French ascent of Annapurna in 1950). Kamet had been climbed frequently along the original route from the east. The western approach was unexplored, unclimbed.

Kamet: the West Ridge : September-October 1985
Among the rust brown boulders so typical of the Zanskar range were scattered our tents at the junction of the NW and SW horns of Pachhami Kamet glacier at 5300 m. To the north the polished spire of Mukut Parbat looked over the base and made the northern end of the huge cirque of the Mana-Kamet-Abi Gamin wall that protected the camp from the sharp Tibetan winds. It was 15 September. It had taken us two weeks and endless tricks to get the expedition baggage from the road head at Mana, last village in the Badrinath valley and up a 25 km long morraine of the Pachhami Kamet glacier that neither men nor mules liked.

A steep-sided rock ridge rose above the camp to about 6500 m and led over five broken kilometers to the summit of Kamet. The north flank of the ridge, under a sheath of ice, looked 'dodgy'. Mass of the packed snow and the steep angle it lay at looked like a widow's route up the ridge. On the opposite side, the south flank was largely broken. Chutes, gullies wove down between overhung rock buttresses and shale. Powder snow avalanches ran down most of the chutes.

After a walk up the marbled glacier flat towards the Kamet south col we turned north through a minor icefall to a schloss-like rock citadel at 5600 m. The warm and windless rock became the advance base for the toil of the route above. From our tents one reached the foot of the hill and the start of the climb in 15 minutes across the rock and snow debris that poured continuously down. We would try a line, a near vertical line avoiding the numerous rock and ice-chutes that festooned the snow spattered wall. This line would reach the ridge at c. 7000 m. An easier line then followed the ridge cornice for a km to reach the summit at 7758 m.

The continuous daily snowfall on top of the winter snows endangered the entire south face. A near vertical line would lessen the length of the route swrept by falling seracs and powder snow-avalanches. And of course, it would be that much harder. Eventually it took 3500 m of rope to gain the 1400 m to the ridge.

We worked in three parties. Two to three days of lead climbing followed by two to three days of recuperation at the base camp. A ferry to the high point and back to a couple of days of lead climbing. In practice the weather proved lousy. The entire climbing of the south wall of the west ridge, 16-22 September was during ceaseless precipitation as if one was climbing a spout not unlike the childhood story of Jack's Beanstalk.

Professional photo and journalistic coverage from Le Figaro, the Paris news magazine, had been long vanquished during the rough walk. The amateur climbers, Pierre Rouyer and his assistant, Gramond with Jai Singh, a competent mountain guide from Uttar-kashi climbed a parallel and southerly ridge (named the Mana ridge) for the cine cameras to photograph the climbing of the south face of the west ridge. Most climbers averaged 10 to 14 hours from ABC to Camp 1 on the west ridge and 1 to IJr hours to abseil down. Two out of the three expedition Sherpas ferried ten kg loads from ABC to Camp 1, once every three days. Once on the ridge, the summit was a matter of patience. So we thought.

In between and around breaks in the weather we worked like a super swarm of dedicated bees on pot. Getting upto Camp 1 in 2 days, being snow-bound for two days at Camp 1, beetling off down to base camp in a day and repeating this all the time without getting hit or losing good weather. Endless hours of toil up the timeless rock: perpendicular, 3500 m of rope upon rope, frozen, fouled and twisted by home-bound climbers. Fast, orchestrated up-down, on-off movement of climbers and stores came about through the solar powered fail-safe radios speaking French, Hindi or English,

On 26 September we moved, all of us to the ABC. Marmier, Sharma, Awasthi, Nima, Tashi, Umed Singh, Flemati, Rouyer and Gramond occupied Camp 1. Next day they moved to a bivouac site at 7300 m. Half of them made platforms, put the two tents up and the rest went on to rope up to 7500 m. Fixing these ropes was harder because of huge quantities of piled, windblown snow. Sachtat, Uamphal, Somnath, Mailly, Hellin and Surendra followed them and occupied Camp 1 on 27 September as a backup for the first, group. Chauhan, Jain Singh, LeRay and I remained at ABC as backup ! JSachtat's party. During the night the winds rose* The Sturdy box tents at Camp 1 were only buried but the light ridge tents at the bivouac were highly shaken. One tore by midnight. The occupants slipped on boots and took turns wedging their backsides into the rent. By four the tent was split through and blown away alongwith the gas cartridges. The other tent too was buried by 2 a.m. The occupants sat the night out taking turns holding the tent poles and anchoring themselves with ropes. The extent of the disaster was known at 7 a.m. during the first radio call to us at the ABC and to Sachtat's party at Camp 1 as they readied to occupy the bivouac later in the day. We tossed the idea; up or down? Peered into the mysterious cloud filled space, listened to the wind for signs of a let-up, looked for tell-tale rings around the sun and our own internal doubts, hopes, Voila! It wrould be up.

Sachtat's party moved fast out of their leisured high altitude rhythm to the bivouac and helped thaw and hydrate the climbers. Suru's frozen feet did not warm. He came down to the ABC and went on to the base. The remaining fourteen went on to the summit, not without incident.

A slab-avalanche broke off under two of the climbers. The rope held them, but the avalanche added its own caution to the travail of a high climb. Winds from the north now returned. The fourteen climbers, each festooned to the hill, cocooned in their private privations, bent down, their backs to the wind and stilled minds made little progress. The wind tore long plumes of snow off the ridge and shrieked like rejoicing Valkyries.

Down at the ABC, I put off my move to Camp 1 and got together food and gas and tents to replace those destroyed at the bivouac. The summit parties were to reach ABC by evening and the party at Camp 1, now also going for the summit, would perhaps stop at Camp l after the summit. And should someone need help? The harshness of the wind and cold during the night had rocked our facile routine. What would the mountain do next to the climbers?

I shook the uncertainties about the climbers ahead and the climber in me out of my mind. After many years I shall be missing a summit: would I reconcile in recall the need of my own summit with that of managing a summit for the others? Even if the 'others' were my team, and I their leader? Cauterise myself against those who might die or will be hurt during the attempt? Insulate myself to the anguish of those, the lost climbers, left behind to die?

A few minutes past midday the radio came on: the summit had been reached. It was very windy. It was very cold. The voice shut off before acknowledging congratulations.

The radio came on again at 5.30 p.m. Through dense mist, the voice brought hope. The first climbers were on the summit at noon, the last by 1.30 p.m. 8 climbers were on their way down to the ABC. Four climbers were tired to come down and will stay at Camp 1 Two climbers had not yet reached Camp 1. They were in the mist up on the slopes. The wind had let up a bit. The bivouac above Camp 1 was destroyed, the food, gas cans and stoves were lost. I awoke: Colonel Marmier was repeating himself s 'Are you coming up tomorrow? I shall carry a tent for you to the bivouac site. You can carry your own food and gas'. What were the Indian and French soldiers doing on the mountain? Improving co-operation between their Armies? Improving brotherhood of man? 'Thank you, Jean Claude'. I repeated to make sure the radio had not miscarried. T shall not be coming up, Bonne NuiV.
By 30 September all of us were gathered at the base. On 9 October we had reached Delhi.

I have not mentioned the climbing possibilities in the area. There is the jewel, Mukut Parbat, 7242 m, first climbed in 1951, a phoenix of polished granite that should make nearly as worthy a challenge as that other great legend mountain, Changabang, in the Garhwal mountains.

Kamet itself from the south is exciting. The walk to the base camp is through a wasteland of boulder, sand-scree and blue skies, and the porterage from the roadhead is damnable. If that is not enough: the mountain is beyond the inner line.