THE FIRST ASCENT OF SWARGAROHINI I
SQN. LDR. A.K. SINGH
SWARGAROHINI I (6252 m) has attracted climbers through the ages. In fact the peak finds a mention in the epic Mahabharat and is supposed to have been climbed by the great Pandav king Yudhistir enroute to his heavenly abode. The peak must have posed a strong enough challenge to defy the might of Pandavas who with the exception of Yudhistir all had perished in the attempt.
There had not been any recorded ascent of the peak in modern times till the Nehru Institute of Mountaineering climbed the peak on 13 May 1990 during the training of 74th Advance course. Earlier the peak had defied teams from Sweden, Japan, Canada and India amongst others. Very justifiably, this peak though only moderately high at 6252 m was considered one of the difficult summits of Garhwal Himalaya. The peak does not have a direct line of approach and is surrounded by other peaks, hanging glaciers and rock walls from all the sides. It is also the least visible of all the peaks of Swargarohini group despite being the highest. No wonder the locals consider the peak sacred and inviolate by humans.
Despite the happy ending, we had not even chosen the Swargarohini area for the training of the Advance course. Right through the year 1989-90 there had been strong pressure by environmentalists to close down Gangotri and Har-ki-Doon areas for the purposes of mountaineering. In case that were to happen, we would be left with very little choice in selection of our training areas. It was therefore, decided to use east and west Kamet glaciers for the training of pre-monsoon courses. We had even informed the Indian Mountaineering Foundation about this change and were in correspondence for issue of necessary permits. Due to administrative reasons the permits were not issued in time and perforce we shifted the training area to Kalanag-Bandarpunch glacier which in retrospect turned out to be a blessing in disguise.
The Basic and Advance mountaineering courses moved together from Uttarkashi on 19 April 1990 and after enroute halts at Netwar and Taluka reached Osla on 21 April. After doing a load ferry the next day till an intermediate point, both the courses shifted to Ruinsara tal on 23rd. The route till Ruinsara tal was obstructed at regular intervals by packed snow and debris left by avalanches which occurred due to heavy snowfall quite late in the year.
It had been in the policy of the institute to expose trainees of advance courses to climbs of difficult nature and to mesh the techniques of alpine climbing with traditional styles. The peak Swargarohini I blended perfectly with this philosophy and was, therefore, chosen as the exercise for the Advance course. It was also decided to approach the peak from the southeast where a rock slope 600 m high offered a formidable challenge but also seemed to be a shorter approach, in terms of time, which we knew was at a premium as we were bound by the course schedule and had to start our return journey on 4 May.
The Advance course separated from the Basic course on 25 April and started ferrying loads to base camp, set at Kiarkoti (4300 m). Trainees shifted to the base camp the next day and immediately the weather turned cloudy followed by light snowfall. Was it the sign of things to come, as till that day we had bright sunny weather all through ?
On 27 April a load ferry cum reconnaissance of advance base camp was organised. ABC (5000 m) finally was settled on a small patch which was barely safe from falling seracs from the hanging glaciers situated on top of the rock wall. In fact the nearest seracs were lying at a distance of only 25 m from the camp site. It was now planned to shift an advance party of trainees and instructors to ABC the next day for the purpose of opening route and fixing ropes while others acted in support and ferried loads.
This was not to be as the weather turned foul 28 April onwards with snow falling consistently. The night temperatures dropped to -18°C and trainees were trained on improvising snow shelters by themselves. Two igloos and two snow-caves were constructed at base camp on 28 April evening.
With the weather being uncooperative the plan was modified and only 4 instructors, Sonam Sangbu, Rattan Singh, C. Norbu and D. Norbu were earmarked for opening of the ' route. The trainees started their training of advance techniques in ice-craft in Bandarpunch glacier, as by now it had become doubtful whether they would be able to be trained on the glaciers situated higher up. Nima Chewang along with Sub K.S. Negi, Kushal Singh Negi and Surat Singh Chauhan were entrusted with this responsibility.
Due to continuing bad weather even the 4 instructors could shift to ABC only in the afternoon of 30 April along with porter Lanka Sahi who was to act as cook cum helper at ABC. 600 m of rope, 4 tents, 50 rock pitons, 10 ice-pitons, 4 snow-stakes and two Deadman were available at ABC.
Four instructors set out for opening the route in the morning of 1 June. H.M. Nautiyal ferried rations to ABC early in the morning and was back at base camp by 0930 hrs. I also left base camp for ABC after seeing off the trainees at 0800 hrs to have a look at the route and ascertain the progress of route opening. The ropes were fixed on the rock slope after some excellent free climbing but the exercise had to be abandoned at 1500 hrs due to snowfall. An estimated two rope lengths were yet to be fixed and we all returned to ABC to a welcome hot drink and some food.
Route opening was done by climbing in pairs of two, Sangbu and Rattan Singh forming one pair and Chewang Norbu with Dawa Norbu forming the other. Initial route opening on a small glacial slope and on the snowfield was done by the pair of Norbus. The technically more difficult pitches on the rock slopes were led by free climbing which was possible only because of confidence reposed by the climbers in each other.
It has been initially our plan to set up Cl at the east col of the peak above the rock wall. The plan was now abandoned as we realized the paucity of time and problems of logistics which it would entail. After discussing these aspects I left for base camp and reached at 1900 hrs.
I spoke to the trainees the next morning and briefed them about the route. The necessity of climbing the peak from ABC only was impressed upon them and weather permitting they were to shift to ABC the same afternoon. In the meanwhile the clouds over ABC were looking ominous and surely the message arrived a short while later that no further progress had been possible due to bad weather.
By noon snow started falling at base camp too and it become abundantly clear that it would not be possible for the trainees to shift to ABC. Doubts started creeping in our minds; would it be a case of being so near and yet so far and would we have to leave our ropes on the wall for some other expedition to use after the technical difficulties had been solved ? We nevertheless decided not to give up and I along with Maj Sandhu (our doctor), Surat Singh, Ranveer Singh Negi and a porter, shifted to ABC at 1800 hrs amidst snowfall. The team members at ABC saw us coming and pitched our tents before we arrived.
3 May was the day scheduled for ' height gain' for the courses. The training syllabus had been completed and in effect 3 May was the only day available for the climb. We estimated 7 hours of climbing from ABC. The estimates were all based on the Survey of India map as the peak was not visible from either base camp or the ABC.1 In fact till then our only sighting had been from the Kalanag glacier. We planned to start off at 0400 hrs and hoped fervently for a clear sky in the morning.
On 3 May we all awoke to a cloudy morning having light snowfall. Luckily the clouds were low and cleared by 0600 hrs and we started.
1. Many photographs and sketches of Swargarohini group are published in the Himalayan Journal upto now. A study of these would have been helpful. Such academic study beforehand is most essential for instructors and students to avoid any mistakes. -Ed.
We all moved briskly to the ice slope, where ropes had been fixed, and negotiated it quite easily. The ropes" fixed on the snowfield had been in the meantime buried under the fresh snow. The same were located and a narrow bergschrund was negotiated. The sun shone brightly and brought 3 small avalanches in quick succession. We estimated that the real big ones would be generated later in the day when we all hopefully would be at a relatively safer area.
All eight of us arrived at the base of rock slope at 0730 hrs and negotiated the fixed ropes with the help of jumars. No great difficulty was encountered except that the feet tended to slip on the mixed slopes especially for people coming behind. The average gradient of the slope was 50° (approx) and it ranged between 40° and 65° approximately. The east col at the top of slope was reached at 1000 hrs after the last three pitches had been fixed by Rattan Singh and Sangbu. Photographs of various pitches were taken enroute.
By this time the valley left behind was fully covered by clouds but the cloud movement suggested that the weather would remain clear till the afternoon and we decided to continue. We decided not to waste any more time lest the peak itself came under clouds before we reached the summit.
The east col offered an excellent view of the surroundings. The closest feature was a rocky ridge (bearing 100° approx) and two peaks with steep ice-walls and snowy tops (bearing 095° and 097" respectively). On the southern side we could see a very steep fall at a distance of 20-25 m and prudently we decided not to venture any closer that side. Jamdar bamak was visible to our north. A bifurcation from the glacier going and joining the northern slopes of Swargarohini group was visible in direction 340°. Kalanag and Bandarpunch were visible in directions 140° and 160° approximately.
We roped up in two ropes of four each and took a westward direction along the snowy ridge. The underfoot snow conditions were deep and soft which made the progress tiring. The lead was regularly changed for breaking the trail. There was still no glimpse of the summit and after about 7 2 hour we reached top of a hump where our view was still blocked by another slope. Photographs of surrounding area were taken and a group of peaks was visible in the general direction 60°. No individual peak could be identified in the group by any of us.
The process of climbing and reaching a small plateau continued for another 3 hours. Every time we hoped for a view of the summit, we were thwarted by another plateau obstructing our view. We were following the line along the northern edge of the ridge throughout to avoid the steep fall on the southern side. When we reached the third plateau which was almost a continuation of the second plateau, even this line became precarious being heavily corniced. We therefore shifted about 10 m south of the northern edge and followed on parallel lines. We were fortunate that due to a curve in the third plateau the cornice was easily discernible and we could take precautionary measures.
While climbing the fourth plateau we at last had our first sighting of the summit. By this time it was breezy and lot of clouds were swirling violently near the summit. We decided to take a fast break despite the fact that none of us had taken a single break for rest or even for drinking water and were quite tired. The mountain still would not let us get to the summit so easily. We found a bergschrund about 25 m below the summit which had to be negotiated before one could cross it through a narrow gap. A route marking flag was planted here to facilitate our return journey. A ten minute walk brought us to the summit and we decided not to take any risk with the cornice and stopped about 5 m below the summit. The summit could have been very easily reached in another five minutes of climbing under normal conditions. Due to hazy and cloudy conditions the visibility had become poor. One thing was clear though, we did not have to climb any further as we had reached the highest point of that area. Swargarohini I had been finally climbed and the credit for the first ever ascent of the peak was finally ours. The time was 1410 hrs on 3 May 1990.
The climb from col to the summit was of a very easy gradient and did not offer any technical difficulties. The only real problem faced here was the difficult conditions. The deep and soft snow retarded our progress and we took about 4 hrs 15 min to cover a distance of 1.3 km with a gradient of approximately 20°. The peak itself also looked rather inconspicuous and was disappointing in that sense. The grand view of the peak from Kalanag glacier was no longer seen as that portion of the peak and its slope were now to our south.
We still had a long way to go before our safe return to ABC. We ran the risk of avalanches enroute and we still had to safely descend down the rock slope. We carefully retraced our steps one by one and reached the col safely. The rappeling down the wafl was done amidst snowfall, one at a time, ensuring that there was no extra load on the top, and carabiners were retrieved. 22 rock pitons and a snow stake anchored at the col were left behind. On reaching the snowfield we found that our estimates about the avalances had turned out to be correct, while we had been negotiating the higher slopes avalanches had buried our fixed ropes and had even uprooted one of them. All the equipment here too was retrieved and we all reached ABC by 1830 hours where our porters Lanka Sahi and Kancha Lama welcomed us with hot mugs of tea and soup. The dinner we had carried with us from base camp on 2 May was still in out rucksacks. We had not found the time to eat any food throughout the climb.
We slept the night at ABC and left for base camp on the morning of 4 May. By evening we had caught up with the trainees at Osla where we were welcomed very warmly by them.
Thus ended our successful first ascent of Swargarohini I. The climb was remarkable in terms of speed shown as it had been finished in 3 days of actual climbing time. It also did not involve any HAPs and was possible only because of the technical expertise coupled with physical fitness of all the climbers. Confidence in each others abilities was also a crucial factor.
Sqn. Ldr. A.K. Singh, vice-principal (leader), Major A.S. Sandhu, medical officer, Sonam Sangbu, Rattan Singh Chauhan, Ranveer Singh Negi, Chewang Norbu, Dawa Norbu, Surat Singh Chauhan, (all instructors at the institute).
The first ascent of Swargarohini I (6252 m) by instructors of the Nehru Institute of Mountaineering. Uttarkashi, India.
Editor s Note:
Swargarohini is a group of six peaks. It was first attempted by Doon School parties under J.T.M. Gibson in 1950s. (See H.J. Vol. 39, p. 192 and his book As I saw it.
The history of climbs in this group are as under :
(6252 m) 1st ascent 1990; H.J. Vol. 47
Nehru Institute of
Mountaineering, India HCNL 44, p. 19
(6247 m) 1st ascent 1974; H.J. Vol. 42,
Canadian - British team p.45 led by D.S. Virk and HCNL 30,
Charles Clark. p.45
2nd ascent 1985; H.J. Vol. 42,
Indian team led by p.45
Anil Kumar HCNL39, p. 18
3rd Ascent 1987;
Indian team led by HCNL 41,
S. Wadalkar. p.37
4th Ascent 1990; H.J. 47, I/N 6
I.M.F. (Indian) team
led by S.P. Chamoli.
1st ascent 1984;
(6209 m) Indian team led by H.J. Vol.42
Anil Kumar. P.45
2nd ascent 1990; H.J. 47. I/N 6
IMF (Indian) team led
By S.P. Chamoli
1st ascent 1977; H.J. Vol.42
(5966 m) Indian team led by P.45
Pradipto Chakravarty of
Himalaya Lovers Association.
(5984 m) Attempted by Indian team H.J. Vol.42
led by Anil Kumar in P.45
1984. HCNL 38. p. 12.
HCNL = The Himalayan Club Newsletter.
Swargarohini group. Route of first ascent of Peak I. Article 7 (Harish Kapadia)