BHRIGU IS AN ANCIENT mountain sage, a creation of Hindu myth and spiritual imagination. He sits astride the peaks of the western Gangotri district in the Garhwal Himalaya. From his pedestal, known as Bhrigupanth or 'Bhrigu's Sect' he guards a rare and precious phenomenon in these worldly days of conquest and fire, an unexplored high glacier.
Our discovery of such a challenge so close to the main climbing playground of the Gangotri was spiced hj sight of a gigantic rock obelisk at the foot of the glacier. Not only does this bar a visual inspection of the glacier's upper reaches, but it squeezes the flow of ice down through a gorge of smooth granite to create a 250 m serac barrier. This had repulsed J.B. Auden on his surveying reconnaissance in 1935 and it seemed that nobody since had penetrated to the sanctuary beyond.
If the lure of this 'lost valley' was one stimulus to the 1991 British Bhrigupanth expedition, then the obelisk itself was undoubtedly the other. This is Bhrigu Pathar (6038 m) or 'Bhrigu's Stone', a bald thrust of purest granite cooled by the eternal snows, and then carved by glacier ice to stark angularity. From the main Gangotri valley it looks as though Bhrigu has rolled down a 1200 m boulder to block access to his inner domain.
With two clear objectives in view our four-man team prepared to split two ways. Kevin O'Neale and Martin Welch were to tackle the icefall, explore the valley beyond and attempt the magnificent 1000 m sweep of snow and ice that is Bhrigupanth's northeast face.
I an Dring and I were left with Bhrigu Pathar, thankful to be spared the dangers of the icefall but no little awed by the hostility of the Stone's north face. This rose indomitably above our base camp which nestled down in the moraines of the lower glacier. Central in the face is a 600 m wall of white unweathered rock which looks quite blank from a distance. Closer inspection usally dispels such impressions of impregnability, but not in this case:
'A6 or impossible', was Ian's pronouncement as we stood near it's base with necks craned back over the vertical. Considering that A6 hasn't yet been invented even in his beloved Yosemite valley I was saved the terror of even attempting the wall, which was indeed utterly crackless.
To It's right the sweep of peeling slabs and ice smears offered only lldguless nightmares, so we looked to the left. Here a clean-cut pillar divides the blank wall from a repulsive sheer couloir. It looked a superb I'll of rock, well weathered and pointing towards the morning sun, n goal worthy of a 9000 km journey from Britain.
The Bhrigupanth Glacier
The Lower Prow
First however we had to endure the lingering monsoon. Since leaving Delhi seven days earlier we had not had a full day of sunshine. Now In the first of September the monsoon should have slipped back southwards, but still great piles of cumulus cloud massed over the mountains ready to close ranks at the slightest hint of a southerly breeze.
Our camp remained warm, damp and fogbound for three days. The delay gave time for acclimatization and some serious eating. Omelettes, chapattis, paranthas, dahl-bhats, and even chips were served up with voluminous relish by our cook Prem Singh Rana. At 4300 m an insatiable appetite is the surest sign of burgeoning health. We besieged the mess tent at meal times like four starved gannets.
So when the morning sun returned on 8 September we were well stoked, rested and raring to go. Not an hour of good weather was to be wasted. Our two earlier sorties had established 200 m of fixed rope on the lower pillar plus a cache of equipment at it's foot.
To a veritable goldmine of hardware we added 6 days of food, a week's supply of gas, sleeping bags, bivouac sacs, rock slippers, plastic boots, axes and crampons plus four 5 litre water containers. We had found access to a streamlet in the couloir 150 m up the route, but above this the pillar looked devoid of snow so we would have to haul our liquid.
In the fierce heat of the mid-morning sun, and with the prow bulging mightily overhead we set to work. Capsule-style climbers progress rather like a pair of foraging squirrels. They push out the route in a quick lightweight burst one day, return to their nest, then shift the cache of food up their fixed ropes to a new ledge the next. Everything works fine until you come to the shifting. Ian assured me that he had done this sort of thing before, but hauling two sacs up the smooth verticalities of El Capitan is quite a different matter from the ragged cracks, traverses, and slabs which made up these initial pitches. At first he regarded my failure to hoist the bags merely a matter of bad technique.
'You need to jump off onto the pulley to get them moving', he advised.
This means tying four feet of slack to your belay, and leaping off the stance. The sudden impact of falling bodyweight on your jumar jerks the haul bags into life. You clamber back to the ledge sliding the jumar up to the pulley, and repeat the process some 30 times until the sacs arrive.
This sounds sufficiently trying even if the bags cooperate, but on this terrain they jammed as often as they moved. The friction was enormous, and I quickly reached exhaustion and exasperation. Ian decided to tie the bags together, one under the other, and jumared alongside on our fixed rope freeing them at each constriction.
We alternately jumared and hauled for five hours, pulling up our fixed ropes behind us for use on the next stage of the route. Chilling mists rolled in through the afternoon, but we sensed they would clear later. A sloping scree terrace close to the couloir provided an obvious bivouac spot, but it took nearly an hour of hacking and levering with the adzes of our ice axes to fashion a roomy level ledge. We slumped down more than ready for a cup of tea. My diary that night summed up our progress:
Bhrigu Pathar 6038m
'A day of purgatorial effort, yet I feel glad to be here in this marvellously I bImh ure spot.'
Overnight the sky cleared, the temperature dropped close to freezing hoi I we abandoned any thought of retreat. Sunrise on the pillar above blinding in it's brilliance. We waited until the rays touched our ledge 1 7.30, then stripped off and lashed on the suncream before getting Urlps with the rock above.
However the thrill of pushing out the route had to be delayed for two hours white we removed our last fixed ropes from a false line on the next tower. This especially annoyed Ian who had led a superb off-width chimney which split the arete of the tower to the high point of our first reconnoitre. In place of these airy excitements we sneaked up the side on scruffy grade III slabs in the couloir.
So far this grim canyon of ice-smoothed granite, had remained silent, but as we entered it's bed a small stone screamed down and splintered on the slabs. A fragment ricocheted straight at my face. With a reflex action I pulled my head to the side and the stone flew over my shoulder. The warning was clear, and we were glad that from here onwards the only feasible line lay on the prow itself. A 200 m buttress reared up with slight concavity to some ledges below the prow's headwall. A series of flake cracks offered a tenuous line.
There was something irritating in having to clean soil and moss out of the cracks in order to progress. Gardening seemed out of place at 5100 m in the Himalaya, but this was the penalty of our sunny aspect. Just round the arete on that blank north wall there was not a single vestige of vegetation. Our metal nut key worked overtime to rake out finger jams and runner placements. We could now look 500 m down into the jaws of the icefall barring the Bhrigupanth glacier. Every few hours it groaned and rumbled as a fin of ice toppled. Then with relief we spotted the tiny figures of Kevin and Martin moving safely along the upper glacier to begin their assault on Bhrigupanth. Thick cloud and gentle snowfall swirled in during the afternoon. By 4.30 p.m. we had only completed three pitches. An imposing crack and peapod cleft had breached the main defences of the butteress, but a series of slithery grooves still barred access to terraces. While Ian grappled with these I shivered in shirtsleeves on the stance below, and vowed to bring more spare clothing on future days. Finally Ian established a belay, and fixed a rope. Our retreat down the ropes resembled a miniature stampede. Within half an hour I was back at the bivouac site stuffing on plastic boots and every ounce of clothing. Warmth soon returned, but my mood remained tense:
'It is not so clear tonight. There are some electrical disturbances out in the emptiness of space, so the monsoon still threatens. Being here fighting a way up unchartered ground really is a test of the spirit.'
Twenty-four hours later we were perched on the terraces headwall: 'Another day of monumental efforts', I wrote, "and only hauled and jumared 200 m. The haul bag was a once 13 litres of water were added to it's load. This sort — 30 kg to haul and 13 kg each on our backs — really for the human frame at five and a half thousand metres, quiet, strained and fatigued I guess; but there again I don't saying much either.'
Yet through the trials of the moment I was beginning to enjoy the light. For three days we had devoted all our drive to a single purpose, liad established a satisfying routine and discipline. We weren't letting anything break our self-control, and in truth the climbing had been superb.
We made no firm route-finding commitment on the headwall, but the Initial pitches led us inevitably into a depression 100 m left of the crest of the prow. Here we found a continuous series of cracks and grooves cutting through some very smooth walls, and to our delight the climbing was nearly all free. Yet each pitch was taking an age to complete. At cich stance we rigged secure abseil pitons and slings ready for the descent. We needed to haul our day sac on some sections, and on changeovers a most appalling rope sphagetti had to be unravelled. Two climbing lines, n hauling line and a fixing line would eventually emerge ready for the next pitch. In 10 hours we managed five ropelengths but still the angle overhead was vertical. We returned to our bivouac ledge thrilled by the limbing but exasperated that we could see no end to the prow.
There was also the growing fear that either food, energy or the weather were going to run out on us if we didn't get to the upper slabs soon, It was time to cut loose from the hauling game and go for the top.
The sun struck us dumb next morning. We were jumaring back up H- headwall with overnight loads for the final assault, and at 8 a.m. began a slow bake. The 9 mm lines stretched and grated as we swung Up. Though we had been meticulous in fixing the ropes there remained (hi1 nagging fear of a hidden sharp edge or loose flake. On reaching our high point we were already debilitated by the heat and tension.
Looking at the rock above I was faced with a host of lines, all of them possible, none of them obvious. This was not the time for dallying about nor a misjudgement. I aided a crack that I would have cleaned and freed only yesterday, but now my arms ached as though they had put through a bacon slicer. From the crack I danced alternately led and right of a groove. The ropes mirrored my wanderings in a I Complex web on the rock below. After 30 m I gained an accommodating crm k, and made a belay beneath a fierce capping roof. As Ian led through, I not swinging on my sac and sank into a deep lethargy, almost apathetic as to the outcome of this crucial pitch. The sun's rays beat directly llown above the roof. Ian was silhouetted by the glare. Suddenly I woke up and took note, for instead of going direct Ian swung wildly out left Kl an undercut crack, his feet frictioning on the wall below. After pausing Itnlv lo place a Friend he found a bucket hold over the lip and mantleshelved furiously onto easier ground. In that one dynamic move the headwall was finished.
The change in rock angle as we emerged onto the upper slabs was klering, no less so our change in mood. We had escaped the trap vrrtlcality and our thoughts suddenly became as expansive as our enlarged vision. We even dared to talk of Rana's omelettes back at base. Maybe they were just two days away. After romping up 100 m of easy slabs, we bivouaced by a tiny snowpatch which would supplement the two litres of water we were carrying. The fixed lines were now far behind, and all spare hardware was dumped at the top of the prow. After the usual luxurious brews and a good meal we settled down to contemplate a 10-hour-night without our sleeping bags, which had been sacrificed to lighten our loads. Neither of us really expected to get any sleep, and we weren't proved wrong, for at close on 5800 m there was a sharp frost.
Around midnight the sky became overcast and electric storms flickered about the lower valleys, but the skies then cleared and the dawn glow gave a crimson fringe to every visible summit from the distant Sri Kailas to the butterfly wings of nearby Shivling. Mist layers formed in the lower valley and on the middle mountain, lending scale and wonder to the scene.
When I preferred Ian the morning brew, he emerged dishevelled from his bivouac bag accompanied by about 20 shreds of Karrimat. He had systematically torn off and stuffed these down his clothing to insulate crucial parts of the anatomy, rather akin to the tramp with yesterday's newspapers. Despite this ingenious idea he admitted that he had enjoyed no more sleep than myself.
Our sixth day in rock slippers began in frigid silence. After an hour of wandering the slabs steepened to make one last gesture of defiance. We took to a fault which slanted through a myriad of tiny overlaps, but this was verglassed and forced us left onto improbable terrain. As I stretched out for a flake crack a foothold broke, and I fell. Down below Ian was thinking the obvious:
'God, we can't fail so close to the top'.
This last 20 m suddenly seemed as intimidating as the whole of the headwall. I tried a different way, grabbed the flake and with a quick layback was back in friction and balance. Five metres higher white granite ended and the summit shales commenced.
From smooth slabs to shattered screes, the transition was immediate. Donning our boots and taking only axe, crampons and one rope we set off for the top. The dirty mudstones were entirely decomposable, and so soft that the imprints of our soles were left in the rock in places. It was hard to believe that these sediments had survived the massive Himalayan mountain uplift and were now left marooned close on 6100 m above their point of deposition. A vein of harder quartzite provided a perfect false top. We reached it gasping our last only to see a snow ridge stretching still further above.
After another ten minutes of drunken meanderings, we reached the true top. I collapsed less through genuine exhaustion than in humble gratitude that our steps now lay only downwards.,The air was charged and humid, and the surrounding peaks obscured by thickening cloudbanks. With bad weather imminent and only five hours of light in which to descend the slabs and headwall, any celebrations were wisely postponed.
19. Reo Purgyil South peak (6816 m). The route followed the ridge on the left. Article 11 (E. Theophilus)
20. Two Reo Purgyil peaks. North (6791m) on left and south (6816m). Article 11 (Paramjit Singh)
In the gloom of a misted twilight we reached the terrace below the headwall just as a steady wet snowfall commenced. With us were an mormous pile of damp ropes, a tangled bunch of hardware and the remnants of last night's bivouac. The abseils had all gone well, and we could hardly credit our luck in snatching the route in the nick of time. Bhrigu had been kind indeed. Ensconced in our sleeping bags even low-calorie cup-a-soups and complan tasted like nectar. Then we were too tired to do more than tie in, zip in and drop into a well of warm sleep.
A morning of shifting mist and gentle drizzle brought us back to the reality of still being half way up the route. There were at least ten abseils and two traverses between us and safety. Before we could start, we had lo do something about the appalling mass of saturated gear with which we were surrounded. The solution was dramatic. Ian packed all spare ropes and non-esential items into our larger haul bag, abseiled to the brink of the big white wall, and cast it gleefully into the void. At long last we had taken our revenge on those damnable loads. After five silent seconds, a dull crash rebounded from the screes 400 m below.
This pleasure was soon replaced by the trials of abseiling on wet rock. , Twice we had to climb back up the ropes to free a snag. On the llilrd pitch there was a five metre pendule to reach the stance. I missed my landing and swung back into space clutching desperately at the ropes only five metres from their free ends. Water oozed out of the abseil pl.ilps, our gloves were soaked and our hands scabbed and swollen. The ohs still weighed close on 20 kilos, and our backs and shoulders ached constantly in the fight to stay upright. Finally 1 could stand the effort nn more and made the last three abseils with the sac dangling from iiiv harness between my legs.
At 1.30 we touched the grass at the bottom, cast off all ropes and I hardware for collection another day and fled the scene. The jettisoned haul bag was visible across the slope, so that too could be salvaged. There was quiet satisfaction in leaving the route completely clean save for llie abseil anchors. Now there remained only a two-hour trudge home in the drizzle. We breasted the final moraine and at long last saw the tents within hailing distance.
Our friends emerged. Two mugs of steaming sweet tea were thrust Ilih i out hands, and we almost collapsed in a mixture of relief and happiness. Nwn.irkably Kevin and Martin had only returned a few hours earlier from Uliil'iupanth. They had climbed the face but turned back on the final fclqi- 150 m below the top. Nonetheless they were well pleased with I'ffort, so our reunion was complete and joyous. A safe return itself is worthy of celebration in the Himalaya, never mind two successful climbs. The moment was one to savour and never forget.
A difficult rock climb on the previously untouched 'Bhrigu Pathar (6038 m) by two British climbers. The summit in the Gangotri area was reached on 14 September 1991.
‘Bhrigu Pathar’ (6038 m) as seen from lower Bhrigupanth glacier. The route takes the pillar on the left side of the blank white wall. Article 9 (lan Dring)
High on northeast face of Bhrigupanth with Meru and Kedardome behind. Article 9