GANGKAR PUNSUM, at 7550 m (24,770 ft), is the highest mountain in eastern Bhutan. It lies in a virtually unmapped and unexplored region on the northern border with Tibet, and is one of the high unclimbed peaks in the world.
At the end of an expedition to Nepal in 1984 I had decided that I would make a real effort to try and obtain permission to climb it. Isn't it true that often when one has chosen a path, you meet the right people at the right time as if by magic to help you along it? This is what happened with Bhutan. I chanced to meet a Bhutanese colonel in Kathmandu who offered to submit our application personally in the capital, Thimphu.
The first mountain in Bhutan to be climbed was Chomolhari, 7313 m, by F. Spencer Chapman in 1937, at the time thought to be the highest peak in Bhutan. His ascent is one of those classic tales of two men and three Sherpas, tweed jackets, canvas tents, nailed boots and hemp rope succeeding against all odds, in a pure alpine-style ascent. They only just got back alive. They had climbed it from the Tibetan side, the actual permission reaching them at the very last village in the form of a telegram. Similarly they had the nod of approval from the King of Bhutan, as they technically had to cross the border to begin the climb. Funnily enough my father once owned the axe that Spencer Chapman took to the summit of Chomolhari. He donated it to the Himalayan Club in New Delhi, but unfortunately, although recently I tried to find it, it has sunk without trace. Since 1937 the only other climbs to be done were three 5490 m peaks by Drs M. Ward and Jackson, British heart specialists to the late King of Bhutan, who managed to wangle a trek into remote northern district of Lunana. It was not until 1983 that fcfee Bhutanese finally allowed entry to the first proper climbing expeditions, and released five of their mountains to foreign teams.1
Gangkar Punsum, meaning 'White Peak of the Three Spiritual Brothers' had two and a half attempts prior to our arrival. First by the Japanese in post-monsoon 1985 who got to 6850 m, but who failed due to high altitude sickness of one of their lead climbers. At the same time there was an American team of international stars, sponsored by Rolex, who couldn't even find the mountain, and spent most of their time trout fishing. The last attempt was Austrian just about a month before us, but they failed because of bad weather.
The Kingdom of Bhutan itself is an absolutely fascinating place. Its local name is Druk Yul, meaning Kingdom of the Thunder Dragon, and it is situated to the east of Nepal, sandwiched between India and Tibet. It is ruled by its own king, Jigme Singye Wang-chuck, who at the age of 31 yrs is the youngest ruling monarch in the world today. The kingdom has remained completely isolated from the outside world for centuries, and has fought off a number of attempts at invasion by Tibetan armies, the forces of the British Empire, and in its pre-history by various Indian princes. Right up until the 1950*8 its mysterious culture had remained shrouded from view behind its mountain defences. Early British diplomatic missions had painted a romantic picture of reincarnate rulers, misty mountains and high fertile valleys dominated by monastery/ fortresses.1 They told of a harsh feudal system, and how there was almost continual conflict and power struggles amongst the various semi-autonomous chieftains, or Penlops. Nominally there was a system of central government with two heads of state. There was a spiritual ruler, the Shabdrung, chosen by re-incarnar tion, and an administrative ruler, the Druk Desi. The latter's job was to look after the kingdom until the Shabdrung had reached majority, but invariably he tried to hang onto his power. Four hundred years of intrigue, plot and counter plot, assassinations and internal strife preceded the present monarchy. However at the end of the last century a strong man emerged who defeated his opponents and, with the encouragement of the British, became the first king in 1907.
Up until the late 1950's there were no roads, and no electricity; travel to the capital was by horseback from the Indian border, taking six days. However in 1950 the Chinese invaded eastern Tibet, and finally in 1959 the Dalai Lama was forced to flee to India. Tibetan refugees poured across the Himalaya, some finding their way into Bhutan. The Chinese in the name of the cultural revolution then started a conflict on the Indian border next to Bhutan, and the late king became worried that Bhutan would go the way of Tibet. He decided to make the world aware of Bhutan's existence, and to bring his country carefully into the twentieth century. Bhutan joined the United Nations and started on a programme of limited development. A road has been built right through the country, a dam now actually exports electricity to India, and schools and hospitals have been built. Its ancient Buddhist culture with its colourful ceremonies, festivals and the large ttumber of red robed monks, its belief in spirits and legendary deities, is virtually the same now as it ever was, and the king's highest priority is in preserving the country's way of life and traditions. It is still a difficult and expensive place to get into; last year less than 2500 people were granted tourist visas.
It is a stunningly beautiful country. The southern foothills, touching the Indian plains, are tropical jungle, and the central valleys at a height of 2400 m, are highly cultivated and separated from each other by a series of lofty ridges. To the north is the main Himalayan chain, with hundreds of unnamed, unmapped, and unclimbed peaks. The houses closely resemble Swiss chalets with their clinker wood roofs and overhung caves. The quality of workmanship far exceeds anything else I have seen in the Himalaya, and all the buildings are elaborately painted with Buddhist designs to ward off evil spirits. The most powerful imagery though is presented by the Dzongs, or monastery/fortresses. Some of them date back to the seventh century and are still in use today, fantastic, impressive structures similar in style to the Potala in Lhasa, and in fact Bhutan is very like how Tibet must have been before the Chinese moved in and destroyed so many of its monasteries, and repressed its Buddhism.
We were really lucky to arrive in Thimphu at the start of the yearly religious festival in the main fortress, the Tashichodzong, and were invited to attend the first day's ceremonies. What an amazing spectacle! The legendary 'Black Hat dancers' performed the dance of the Judgement of the Dead, to the sound of Tibetan horns, drums and cymbals. Clowns in wooden masks joked with the large crowd who packed into the main square. The capital itself was dead and empty, as everyone attends the festival to gain 'merit'; the belief being that goodness can be accumulated during a lifetime and weighs against the bad deeds of one's life in deciding how a person will be reincarnated, perhaps in human form or perhaps into one of the lower animal kingdom.
The mystical nature of Bhutan's history and beliefs, that I had been soaking up out of books, was just as fascinating as I imagined, and the kingdom has remained un-spoilt by the advance of the twentieth century. Unlike Nepal and other areas in the Himalaya, the people do not regard you as a walking cash dispenser, there is none of the awful bureaucratic hassle of India, and none of the poverty. The people were originally of Tibetan stock, arriving in Bhutan from around the end of the sixth century, and like Tibetans, have that open friendliness and honesty that one instinctively knows one can trust. Leave a wallet in a shop by mistake and it will be there the next day for you to collect. Western dress is appearing in the capital but in the main Bhu-tanese still wear their national costume; men and women can still be seen walking down the street spinning their prayer wheels.
Our expedition comprised seven climbers, nine 'support trek-kers', a Sunday Times reporter, and a five man film crew. We were slightly worried by the idea of having such a large group of disparate people who could have turned out to have been incompatible, but the reverse was the case. Our trekkers fuelled our excitement, they were great fun, and I believe we have friends for life with all of them. It certainly seems a good way to help fund expeditions, which are becoming more and more expensive, if you can stomach the trouble there is involved in organising their trek.
From the capital we travelled by road to Bumthang in the eastern part of the country, I don't believe there is a single straight piece of road in Bhutan, and we had been warned that it would be a twelve hour journey. In actual fact we were held up by a massive landslide which had to be blasted out of the way and it was eighteen hours before we wearily rolled into Bumthang.
The nine day walk-in followed the route of the 1985 Japanese expedition, through jungle and remote valleys, and over high passes and sacred lakes. The only habitation we saw were the occasional yak herder huts, and some rest huts at the sulphurous hot springs about half way. The weather was pretty awful, every day it rained at some point, and a couple of days we ended in sleet, but that's not to say we didn't enjoy it; the raw excitement of going further and further into country that no other Britisher had seen before created a rare and special relationship for the group. We also had some experiences that belonged more in the pages of a Shipton book; the kind of adventure our modern world has all but eradicated, like the day two of our Bhutanese yak men nearly had a knife fight, in which a dozen men fought to keep the two antagonists apart, and the meeting with nomadic tribesmen who offered us yak curd and butter/salt tea. We heard stories of mi go, or snow men, who are said to inhabit the northern valleys, and we were given stern warnings not to throw stones in the lakes as the gods would become angry and bad luck would befall us. Unfortunately the latter was ignored. For those nine days cloud had obscured our view of Gangkar Punsum and it was not until half an hour after arriving at base camp that she started flirting with us, the cloud completely disappearing giving us our first view of the razor sharp south ridge, an unbroken straight line from the foot of the mountain to its pointed summit.
She could have been just another big beautiful snowy peak with a snow plod to the top, but in fact there is no easy, straightforward way to claim her virginity. The south ridge is the obvious, compelling line, with the hardest sections near the top, two near vertical rock steps, each several hundred feet in height. I think it is particularly fitting that in a country as special as Bhutan that their highest mountain should be no less special. Not only is it hard, but it also has that perfect mountain shape with a pyramidical summit, dwarfing all the other peaks around.
14. R to L: The unclimbed south face of Nanda Kot, Nandabhanar, and in the distance, Nanda Devi. Article 11 (Geoff Hornby)
15. Changuch and Pindari glacier on left. Article 11 (Geoff Hornby)
Because of the technical difficulties of the route we planned to put in two, possibly three camps, and once we'd fixed the rock steps, to then go for the summit in a three or four day push. We hoped that we would be able to make some use of the Japanese or Austrian fixed rope, and wanted to fix as little as possible. In the event the route was harder and steeper than we had expected and we ended up fixing rope on a large proportion of the hard climbing.
We established an advance base camp at 5480 m, on 25 September, and chose a new route from there to gain the ridge proper. The Japanese had gone up a gully threatened by seracs, and it was a good job we avoided this as two large avalanches swept the lower half at exactly the time we would have been climbing up the gully! Steve Findlay pulled out two very bold leads with Lydia Bradey to reach CI, a narrow platform dug into the 45 degree snow-slope on the lee side of the ridge. Our new route took a fairly steep snow ramp ending in a 50 m section of near vertical rock and ice, which then lead into the top of the Japanese gully. The gully petered out 100 m further on, and swinging round a corner on the old Austrian ropes we encountered more vertical rock and ice. When Steve got there it was late in the day and he could see bits of old rope disappearing into the ice above. He just jumared up it praying it was still firmly attached to something. From his diary:
'I clipped into the old ropes and from the rock alcove teetered off left, my crampons scraping on the verglassed rocks. Ahead of me there was a vertical step with the faded ropes disappearing into the ice above. From where I was I could not see the rope re-emerge from the ice and had no way of knowing to what, if anything, it was attached. After pulling on it as hard as I could I decided to trust it and transferred all my weight onto the jumar, it held. The rope had to be smashed out of the ice on many of the sections above; the terrain was a mixture of steep rock and ice, with gullies filled with soft sugary snow. Lydia joined me halfway through the rocks and belayed on some Japanese pegs, festooned in old slings. Sometimes there were the sun bleached Japanese ropes as well as the purple Austrian lines, but only the Austrians' looked trustworthy. I thought they looked incongruous on this mountain where we were supposed to be out on a limb away from everyone. The mountain was no longer clean.
Above us was a nasty little overhang, the rope frayed a little where it had been rubbing on the lip. With a heavy sack and only one jumar the effort to surmount it was crucifying. Fifty more feet and we topped out on the ridge. It looked sharp, and curved up into the cloud, huge drops on either side. We took turns plugging steps just below the crest of the ridge for another 150-200 m. Occasionally on the steep sections the crest would break, sliding away for ever to the glacier 760 m below. The weather was becoming rather unpleasant with high winds and cloud, and time was pressing us to hurry. Instead of obeying my body to stop and rest regularly, in my worry to find a level place for the tent, J forced myself to override the impulse, and as a result threw up several times from over-exertion.
For half an hour we searched in the lee of the ridge for a level spot with no success, and eventually chopped out a 2 m by 1 m platform on the slope itself, for our single skin two-man tent. It was good to collapse into our pits and we slept for an hour before getting the brewing process under way. We had done what we had set out to do and felt a heady euphoria that night in our tiny shelter'.
Bad weather moved in and forced all of us back to base camp for a while, but by 12 October we were back at CI trying to climb on to C2. At a height of 6700 m, a section of ridge a third of a mile in length joined the 'snow dome' to the main peak; the Japanese had called it the 'dinosaur* and it was terrifying. It is heavily corniced and extremely steep on both sides. Steve Monks had a huge section of cornice break off right next to him, the fracture line passing within a foot of where he was standing. By this time we had clear sunny days, but every day the high winds were increasing. The wind was often so strong you had to shout in your partner's ear to be heard. Facing into it made breathing impossible, and the thing was that it didn't gust, it was constant, and it was very cold. The rope along the ridge was purely psychological, it was anchored only every 30 m or so, blowing out in great arcs. A slip or a fall I'm sure would have been fatal, especially on the wrong side of the cornice. There were a couple of sections where we were forced to climb with our hands on the very top of the cornice; the result was such an intense fear in me that it produced a natural tendency to pray out loud.
We did pitch C2, 6700 m, on 19 October and within five days we had all the food, fuel, and gear there ready for a summit bid. Our five best climbers sat hoping the weather would break. It was pretty obvious that the winds had now come to stay, and so aid-climbing up the steep rock sections was out of the question. What we hoped was that we would be able to traverse onto the face, across a steep icefield and then go alpine style for the summit, via a series of tenuously connected snowfields. We thought that if we could fix the traverse it might be only two days to the top, and may be a day down again.
Steve Monks and Jeff Jackson tried the traverse on 23 October but got only about 120 m, before frostbite began to set in. The wind was a little less on the face, but they concluded that a summit push was just out of the question. On 24 October the team headed for ABC. It was over.
Unbeknown to us on the mountain until the last couple of days, there was another crisis at base camp. The yaks due to pick us up could not get through because the passes were all snowed up. Food supplies had run very low and the Bhutanese were left with no option but to lift us out by helicopter. That sounded fine except the helicopter had to be requested from the Indian Army. The Tourism Corporation had to make a request to the Home Ministry, who contacted the Bhutanese army, who talked to the Indian embassy, who telephoned someone, somewhere in India who made it all happen, eventually. The problem though was that the Indian pilots had no maps and had a little trouble finding us. To make matters worse when one lot of pilots had found us they then changed the pilots who had no maps, etc. What with them not flying on certain days because there was an important festival on in India, the helicopter requiring a service, and bad weather, it took nearly a month to fly us and the expedition gear out. Even then a large amount of film gear had to be abandoned at the base camp.
C’est la vie, its all part of the fun. Such philosophy though could not be applied to our failure on Gangkar Punsum. After such magical beginnings and the kind hand of fate taking a direct interest in our affairs over the two and a half years of planning, and giving us a gentle shove from behind all the way to C2, to say that we were disappointed would be like saying Napoleon was disappointed not to have reached Moscow. We had to put in only the last couple of pieces of the jigsaw for a perfect picture, but the whole lot had been blown away by the early winter winds; so much work and effort down the pan, but then that's Himalayan climbing for you, you can't have everything right all the time, at least we all came back in one piece and still friends.