MANY MOUNTAINEERS THINK OF traditional style climbing in the Himalaya to mean lines of fixed rope and fixed camps, yet the idea of alpine style climbing in the Himalaya is as old as mountaineering itself. In 1905 Longstaff and the Brocherel brothers crossed the pinnacles on the south ridge of Nanda Devi East and almost climbed Nanda Kot with what they called 'rush tactics'. They achieved great feats of mountain exploration in a lightweight style with the minimum of support. Longstaff was an acknowledged inspiration to a generation of climbers. Following Longstaff's example and writing about the first successful expedition to reach the inner sanctuary of Nanda Devi, Eric Shipton wrote of his mighty longing to '... wander with a small, self-contained party through the labyrinth of unexplored valleys, forming plans to suit circumstances, climbing peaks when the opportunity occurred, following up topographical clues and crossing passes into unknown territory.'

Having learnt of a relaxation of the 'inner line' allowing the possibility of an approach to Nanda Devi East from the Milam valley it seemed quite natural to plan an expedition as a team of two climbing alpine style in the 1994 post monsoon season. Apart from Longstaff's party crossing from the Pachu to the Lawan valley over the Pachu pass we could find no record of mountaineering activity on the northeast flank of Nanda Devi East. Hence, the unclimbed northeast ridge seemed an obvious challenge for my wife Julie-Ann and me.

Unfortunately our attempts to climb from the Pachu valley were frustrated by a lack of snow. We were stopped at around 5200 m by steep mud, unstable scree, loose rock, and rainfall. With the assistance of our liaison officer Shiv Singh Negi and cook Juswant Ram we obtained some local porters and moved our base camp to the Lawan valley in search of better conditions.

Photos 6 to 9

Having spent nine days in the Pachu valley and moving base camp it was not until 21 September that everything was around the base camp site in the Lawan valley. Until this point we had slept no higher than base camp level at 4200 m and we now had only 17 days to acclimatise and climb the mountain before having to start the walk out. We looked at another possible route to the northeast ridge but the dry conditions and the added threat of serac fall made us turn our attention to the south ridge. Already on the south ridge was an Indian-American expedition of eight members that was ending having reached a high point of around 6200 m, and a Spanish expedition that was load carrying to the Longstaff col. As the Indian-American expedition was withdrawing they were making a first class job of clearing the mountain not only of their own rubbish and equipment but also that left by previous expeditions.

The summit of Nanda Devi East was first reached in 1939 by a Polish expedition that followed Longstaff's route to the south ridge. Other ascents of the south ridge were made by parties based within the Sanctuary: 1951 (French), 1975 (Indian-French), and 1976 (Indian-Japanese). In the post-monsoon season of 1991 an Indian-Russian expedition with 32 climbers repeated the Polish approach from the Lawan valley (they reported fixing 2800 m rope and fourteen members reaching the summit). A year later a large Indian Border Security Force also repeated the climb as did a Spanish expedition in the pre-monsoon season of 1994.

The two other teams were using the rope left by previous expeditions but we preferred to avoid the fixed lines as much as possible. Just as on the Pachu side there was very little snow low down making it necessary to climb a rib of mostly loose rock and rubble to reach Longstaff col. Having moved up to advance base at c 4700m for a night we made a pre-dawn start and taking all our equipment with us, climbed a ridge and wall to the left of the fixed rope. Although the rock was very loose in places our route gave some very enjoyable pitches before returning to the crest of the rib at an easy section. A snow patch at c. 5500m provided a tent site and our first proper night on the mountain.

Next day we moved up to Longstaff col where we met two members of the Indian-American expedition clearing the last of their equipment and rubbish from the mountain. The first two pinnacles were bare of snow exposing loose rock and rubble but a snow patch on top of the third pinnacle provided an excellent site for one tent and our second night on the mountain.

The next section of rock climbing on the ridge was steeper and led at last to some reasonable quality snow. The ridge continued with interesting rock steps and sections of snow ridge all above some impressive drops with inspiring views into the Inner Sanctuary. The next good tent platform for our third night on the mountain was a rock shelf sheltered from the prevailing wind by a solid rock wall and looking straight down to base camp and the very first rays of the morning sun.

The next day (26th) dawned bright and cold. The next section of climbing involved absorbing rock and snow steps that gave way at c 6200 m to an elegant corniced arete. At this point the fixed ropes that littered the lower section of the climb ended, while above, the snow arete merged into a wide and windswept shelf with obvious potential for a further campsite. We climbed beyond the shelf up a mixed face to about 6700 m by which time the strong winds and low temperatures made further progress very difficult so a return to the 'shelf camp' was made.

We had only four days food and fuel for our acclimatisation trip which ran out the next morning (27th). We descended leaving our tent at the 'shelf camp', and stove and pans at Longstaff col (meanwhile the Spanish team were ferrying loads and fixing rope above the col). Below the col we followed the route being used by the Spanish and American teams and downclimbed the rock couloir with fixed rope (very unpleasant with loose rock). Eventually we reached the site of advanced base camp by 2 p.m. where our LO and cook had arrived with chapatis and a great pot of potato curry.

With time extremely limited before the porters were due to return on the 8th, it was only possible to take two rest days at base camp (much of which was spent burning and burying rubbish left by earlier expeditions). We set off for Longstaff col on 1 October and after a very long day reached the 'shelf camp' at 6100 m by 5 p.m. Having travelled such a long distance and made such a height gain (1400 m) in one push carrying heavy sacs we decided to take a rest day on the 2nd.

Reo Purgyil (6816m), rising above the Satluj river.

3. Reo Purgyil (6816m), rising above the Satluj river. Article 10 (Harish Kapadia)

The ancient Charang gompa, Kinnaur.

4. The ancient Charang gompa, Kinnaur. Article 10 (Harish Kapadia)

It became clear at this stage that the period of fine weather was ending. Each day strong overnight winds were lasting longer into the following morning and afternoon storms with snowfall were starting earlier and becoming more intense.

We moved up the ridge on the 3rd and camped on the snow plateau at 6500 m. The next day was stormy and very windy. We did not move and the Spanish decided to withdraw and clear the mountain. We had been led to believe that the main difficulties on the south ridge were over once the pinnacles had been crossed which Julie-Ann and I found not to be the case. Our ascent continued with one more camp in a very exposed position at 6900 m.

Our summit day, 6 October, was very windy and cold and involved some difficult mixed ground on the two main steps in the ridge with sections of unstable snow between. The final section to the summit involved some very precarious and rotten slabs on the Sanctuary side of the ridge. With little more than an hour of daylight left we reached the summit at 5 p.m. On the one hand we were elated: the effort was over and we had completed the ridge Longstaff had set off on almost 90 years earlier in a similar style to that which he had used, but on the other hand we were exposed: we had got ourselves to the top of Nanda Devi East in cold and windy conditions with the minimum of equipment and supplies and it was late, if anything at all went wrong we would have to solve it ourselves — there was no possibility of rescue or help from anyone else.

The descent demanded great care in the evening light and the darkness that soon followed. In addition to some awkward down climbing three abseils were necessary (an old piton almost pulled out during one of these). Our tent was reached some time after 9 p.m. The next day the wind howled again and it was difficult to dig the tent out. We descended all day and into the night, the lower pail of the ridge more difficult under a fresh blanket of light powder snow. Like a haven in treacherous ground our LO and cook used their torches as beacons to indicate the position of advance base camp that we reached some time after midnight. It was truly marvellous to be welcomed by their warm embraces. After a rest we carried on down throughout the night to finally arrive at base camp at 3.30 a.m. on the morning of the 8th. Our porters arrived at base only 4 hours later. Soon everything was packed away (including all our rubbish from the mountain) and we were on our way out by 11 a.m.

Although very tired as we walked out of the Lawan valley we could at last relax and enjoy our ascent. We had reduced our margin for success and safety to the minimum but in so doing had added to the satisfaction of our achievement. We had climbed in the best style that we could and left the mountain cleaner than we found it, and most importantly we had found friendship in the hills and valleys of Kumaon.

Our mighty longing is to explore and climb in these marvellous mountains as Shipton and so many others have done before. Our wish is that it will be possible to do so without unreasonable restrictions, and our hope is that all visitors to the high mountains will help preserve their wild and unspoilt character for future generations to enjoy.


The ascent of Nanda Devi East (7434 m) from the Milam valley and via the Longstaff col. The two-member British team of Roger Payne and Julie-Ann Clyma reached the summit on 6 October 1994.

Nanda Devi Peaks from near Longstaff col.

Nanda Devi Peaks from near Longstaff col. (J-A. Clyma)

East face of Nanda Devi East from Pachu gad.

East face of Nanda Devi East from Pachu gad. (R.Payne)

Approching Nanda Devi East.

Approching Nanda Devi East. (J-A. Clyma)

Nanda Devi main peak.

Nanda Devi main peak. (R. Payne)


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