The Solitary Fortress

J. K. PAUL and S. N. DHAR

OUR EXPEDITION NAMED 'Purbi Dunagiri Expedition 1987' had the objective of climbing the virgin Purbi Dunagiri (6489 m) and to make a detailed study of the region from all aspects including future climbing prospects. Purbi Dunagiri is situated in the heart of the Bagini glacier. The peak through lesser in height than the peaks of the glacier boundary wall, its three major faces are exposed to the Bagini glacier complex and acts as a pivotal peak dominating the glacier.

A seven member team, led by J. K. Paul, started from Calcutta on 14 August, 1987. The first few days of the expedition passed off according to schedule and we reached Joshimath. We proceeded towards Dunagiri village. After trekking 5 km we reached a place called Chacha. Up to Chacha the mountain on either side of Dunagiri gad had cliffs and the gorge was narrow. The trail passed through the left bank of river and far above the river bed. In some places the trail was secured with wooden sleepers, like cornices on the walls of cliffs. Traces of vegetation could be seen up to Chacha and then it thins out exposing the grey mountain side. The texture of the soil appeared to be of glacial origin. This particular site wore a horrible look and over that terrain lies the beaten track of the villagers. We, too followed that difficult path and had to make a steep ascent until we reached the outskirts of Dunagiri village.

Surprisingly the peak Dunagiri was not visible from any part of the village but its existence was well known in the heart of the villagers through a fable connecting the peak, the deity and the land they live in.

Leaving the village behind we proceeded towards Dunagiri gad. We descended down to the river bed. We crossed a wooden bridge over the gad and went on ascending the other side, the right bank. About 2 km from the wooden bridge a stream from Dunagiri Bamak joined the Dunagiri gad main flow to its left. The name Dunagiri gad should be restricted to the stream from Dunagiri Bamak and the portion beyond the confluence point towards Bagini glacier should be called the Bagini stream. We went on ascending along the Bagini stream till we found another stream from its left joining it. At that place the river widened and some vegetation on either side was seen. The picture changed rapidly as we looked further up-stream. The Bagini stream flows in numerous streamlets crisscrossing through the huge boulders of moraine and glacial debris then combines into a stream cascading down the beautiful alpine slopes. We set up our transit camp in front of it. The place where we pitched our tent was replete with green shrubs and ornamented beautifully with flowers.

Photos 20 to 25

Next day we set out at 9 a.m. to establish our base camp on the Bagini Kharak, by following the right bank of the Bagini stream. As we moved, gaining height slowly, the entire surroundings started changing rapidly. By the time we reached easier ground, the vegetation on the way was restricted to grass with colourful alpine flowers. We kept on advancing towards the south following the lateral moraine for about 1.5 km and we got down to the glacier side to select our base camp site. Fortunately we got a good place on the moraine with a nearby stream flowing down to the glacier. It was 23 September and the mule owners unloaded our luggage. We pitched our tents and built up a kitchen. The altitude of our base camp was 4640 m.

To proceed further from base camp to the head of the Bagini glacier we had to cross it first to reach our westward turning point. We decided to proceed through the left bank of the glacier. After hopping through the right lateral moraine, our eyes fastened to the exquisite sight of a glacial tarn formed at the side of the moraine. There were several of these observed on the glacier. From there we started crossing the glacier diagonally by carefully selecting the route, avoiding crevasses and after a tiring journey we reached beneath the moraine at the turning point. Then a straight 60 m climb over loose rocks we landed on the moraine. From the turning point we climbed further following the left bank and reached a small icefall alongside Pt 5560 m. A small stream originated from the icefall was draining down to the glacier and at the side of the stream, after keeping a safe distance from the icefall we set up our Cl (5000 m) on 26 August, on the left bank of Bagini glacier on a moraine and below Pt 5560 m. Kalanka to the south and Changabang on the right of it stole the limelight of the southern panorama. Bagini Pass and the top of Bagini Peak were identified by the side of Changabang. The view around Cl was no doubt marvellous but was quite dwarfed by the view of Purbi Dunagiri, towering 1500 m high above our camp site with its overhanging icy top and frosted ice streaks in its greenish black east wall, it stood like a solitary sentinel over the icefall situated almost north of our Cl. The icefall was small and was located in a depression on the ridge between Purbi Dunagiri and Pt 5507 m.

Next morning the weather remained good and we were ferrying loads to our next higher camp further to the west to check the southern and western prospect of the peak. Accordingly one group proceeded through the glacier and other took the upward route partly through the moraine, scree and the slope along the base of Purbi Dunagiri. The upper route was steep but we got past and after crossing a nala, we found a spacious green patch which had a small stream flowing on one side of it. We made up our mind to establish C2 here on left of the Bagini glacier, at 5250 m.

Six of us were to recce for C3. We set out and moved through the left side of the Bagini glacier. We proceeded towards west over boulder strewn scree slopes. Bagini peak started revealing its full feature. We had a steep ascent at the very start. The sky remained heavy with dark clouds, and the weather went on deteriorating for the next couple of days. Before we could find the C3 site, the total area became foggy and we were forced to wait midway. Some of us rested over the rocks on the slope, while others moved up and returned after choosing the site for C3 (5740 m). Our camp was set up on the edge of a cup like depression formed by the south ridge dropping sharply from the summit and which ended east of our camp.

We planned for another camp. It took us almost two days of reconnoitring for the probable place for the next camp, we decided that our next higher camp would be on the top of a rock pillar above the C3, to our west at 6100 m and also it was decided that C4 would be our summit camp. The route to C4 was really tough. About half an hour's walk from C3 towards the north through an icefield full of rock debris and then turning towards west we reached the bottom of the ridge. From there we climbed through a narrow gully composed of unstable rocks grouted into wet earth to reach the top of a hump at the lowest part of the sub-ridge. Then we proceeded along the ridge towards the north. The rock structure was composed of down sloping frost-eroded rocks and had vertical long cracks in it in some places. Both sides of the ridge had a vertical drop to the glacier. As we approached the next higher hump the gradient became steeper and we encountered some overhangs.

We could locate our C3 below — a few small dots. Purbi Dunagiri in front was yet to receive the sunshine but its snow on the summit hallowed with a silver plumage of wind-driven snow — a sign of a windy summit.

A day's recce provided some vital information about the route but none was encouraging. The traverse below the icefield through the fish scaled rock seemed to be too difficult as the entire surface was covered with verglas and wherever small snow patches existed they too got chipped off with a mild blow. But the greatest danger observed was a constant showering of accumulated rocks and falling icicles apart from the dislodged ice-blocks falling intermittently. Another peculiar phenomenon was observed. The point on the rock spur at the end of the traverse had some cracks through which water was gushing out with great force occasionally carrying lumps of snow and ice. It was really a perplexing scene at 6220 m. That phenomenon usually appeared around 8.30 a.m. and it continued till 7 p.m. Under the circumstances tracing the route through the south sub-ridge to gain the west shoulder was discarded. When probing the direct southwest face route we became suspicious about the glazed appearance and smooth surface of the mixed pitches, though the narrow space descending from the summit does not look like a typical chute but towards the right of it rock-fall marks and scattered rocks lying far below the mark line on the glacier were noted. A few hundred feet up of the route from C4 the ice layer thinned out and became exposed to rock beneath the summit. Considering all those points we decided to follow first 200 m through the direct southwest face and then moving towards left (north) to reach the icefield over the ledge and subsequently to gain the west shoulder culminating in the summit.

Danghal (6050 m): North face. View from upper Shalang valley.

Danghal (6050 m): North face. View from upper Shalang valley. Article 8 (Harish Kapadia)

‘Danu Dhura’ (5560 m) — an alternate to Traill’s Pass from the upper Shalang valley, looking SW from last camp. The pass lies on the snow-col off right centre.

‘Danu Dhura’ (5560 m) — an alternate to Traill’s Pass from the upper Shalang valley, looking SW from last camp. The pass lies on the snow-col off right centre.

Southeast face of Purbi Dunagiri (6489 m).

Southeast face of Purbi Dunagiri (6489 m). Article 9 (Sanjib Paul)

Bagini Peak from C3.

Bagini Peak from C3.

Dhar, Nandan and Indar set out from C4 at 6.30 a.m. through the previous day's planned route. After front pointing for about 120 m they fixed a 7 mm rope on the face with an ice-screw and then went up by another 30 m to fix another rope to secure the route totally. In the meanwhile rocks of small sizes started dropping towards them every now and then. At first they did not give much importance to it, but Nandan got panicky so they stopped going further and retreated to their camp at 10 a.m. Actually there were good enough reasons to return.

At about 12'0 clock the sky became overcast and Purbi Dunagiri became engulfed in fog. The cloud formation cover from north enveloped the whole area. The situation got worse with the onset of snowfall. The intensity and frequency of rock fall from the summit portion of Purbi Dunagiri increased and the debris shot past close to our camp. Frightened but slightly relieved by the cease fire in rock fall we went into our sleeping bags at night. The day dawned but the sky remain cloudy and the .weather around us was misty. For a while Purbi Dunagiri unveiled her face from the cloud cover and greeted us with scornful gesture — as if to uphold her virgin dignity. We tried in vain to look for the rope which had been fixed only the other day. It was 9 a.m. We finished our breakfast and started to think about our next strategy. Nature acts in its own mood. Gradually the cloud began to accumulate even then we decided to wait for another hour or so considering that the heavy snow if settled would stop the rock fall for the time being. At about 11 a.m. we reached an ultimate decision of abandoning the attempt. We tried to remove the rope but as soon as we stepped on the icefield the rocks began to fall. We actually fled away from that place like frightened rabbits. Suspecting another thrust from Purbi Dunagiri we decided to leave the place as fast as possible. We dismantled the tents and after packing all the gear at our disposal we said adieu to C4. With a heavy heart we started for C3. It began snowing again around 1 p.m. the route on our way to C3 over rock become too slippery and dangerous so we had to creep down with great caution. It was around 3 p.m. when we hit C3 in a totally drenched and battered condition.

The sky cleared next day and we headed for C2. Next day we reached the base camp. We were forced to stay for the next 2 days because the mules were supposed to reach the camp on the 8th for our return journey. For this delay we got a great opportunity of surveying the area as a whole.

On the morning of 8th, after packing all our gear on the mules, we proceeded towards Dunagiri village. We got into the bus for Joshimath from Juma, the day after.

Members: J. K. Paul (leader), Sankar Makhal (deputy leader), S. N. Dhar, Sanjib Paul, Ranatosh Mazumdar, Charan Mandal, Hiran Salvi, Uday Singh, Nandan Singh, Inder Singh, Simpol Singh and Siv Singh.

Organised by 'Diganta' (Calcutta).


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