Rodney Franklin descends steeply to the Gangotri glacier near Tapovan meadows.

Rodney Franklin descends steeply to the Gangotri glacier near Tapovan meadows. (John Cleare)

THE OBJECTIVE OF OUR small, low-key expedition was to make a ski ascent of Kedar Dome, a 6830 m peak above the Gangotri glacier in Garhwal. I'd already seen the mountain during two previous trips up the Gangotri and I'd noted its easy-angled northern flank as an obvious ski route in an area where such lines are hardly common. Later research indicated that the mountain had been climbed on foot many times since its first ascent by the Swiss climber Andre Roch in 1947 and although an Indian Air Force team had descended on ski from the summit, their skis had been carried to the top for them. We were nevertheless agreeably surprised when the Principal of the Nehru Institute told us that ours would be a first ski ascent. We knew that our attempt should be during the 'spring snow' period before the optimum climbing season and that we would have to do all our own carrying on the mountain because high-altitude porters don't ski. It sounded a worthy goal but hard work.

We were a four-man team, all of us members of both the Alpine Club and the Alpine Ski Club (the small, but elite ski-mountaineering fraternity) and entirely self-financed. All of us busy with demanding careers, we were elderly if experienced with an average age of 50. The youngest was the doctor Rodney Franklin, a pediatric cardiologist, John Fairley a computer consultant, Hywel Lloyd an engineering business consultant and myself, the leader, a freelance photographer and writer with over twenty Himalayan expeditions behind me.

Our liaison officer proved to be a delightful and most helpfulyoung lady medical Doctor, Miss Abhijeet Sowani. She was not a skier herself, indeed, we did not expect her to be, and we understood her to be the first female LO to be posted to a foreign all-male expedition as an experiment.

For a variety of business and domestic reasons our schedule was just 25 days, London to London, a minimal slot for non-full-time mountaineers to bag an almost 7000 m peak. Although the northern flank of Kedar Dome offers a very straightforward route, we would need good luck with the weather, besides careful and proper acclimatisation if we were to be safe, fit and successful. This meant keeping to a very strict pre-determined programme of exercise and height-gain. Above an advanced base camp — possibly accessible to one or two of our hardiest porters — my plan called for two camps on the mountain itself. The 'Capsule technique' seemed the best way to progress — i.e. moving a single camp up with us, rather than carrying two camps and associated gear. In the event of problems, descent or escape should be very swift on ski. All things being equal there should be just time to reach the summit safely with 48 hours in hand.

Seven days of continuous and gruelling travel took us from London to Tapovan meadow, our base camp at 4400 m on 28 April 1994. Three years earlier, in early May, I had spent several days here with four photographic models and their attendant team, shooting an outdoor clothing catalogue on a green meadow amid a few patches of spring snow. This year three metres of new snow blanketed the ground. Such are the mountains!

On the Mountain

Next day we skied onwards to site our advanced base camp at 4740 m among lateral moraines beneath the huge rock walls of Shivling's south face and looking across the Kirti Bamak to Kedar Dome. Little height is gained on the 9 km journey although there is considerable up and down, first along the Gangotri moraines and then on the glacier itself. It was heavy going and the corner where the two glaciers meet was swept by continuous stone-fall which became daily more dangerous once the sun was up, causing us serious concern on each return journey. By mid-morning the glare was horrendous, the snow was awfuland we recorded a temperature of 40.5°C with a wrist thermometer on the glacier, but despite all this the return to the base did provide several good stretches of downhill skiing. These conditions proved typical when snow was not actually falling and even on skis we found them absolutely exhausting.

We occupied ABC on 1 May after three porters had made carries in the pre-dawn cold. Kedar's NW ridge appeared to be the obvious line of ascent and on 2 May in still perfect weather, we skied across

We occupied ABC on 1 May after three porters had made carries in the predawn cold. Kedar's NW ridge appeared to be the obvious line of ascent and on 2 May in still perfect weather, we skied across the undulating glacier and set foot on our mountain. A long tiring climb through a sequence of bowk led us to a shallow crest beneath the butt end of our ridge. Here at 5240 m and safe from avalanche, we established Cl before enjoying an excellent ski descent back to ABC. The following day we again climbed to Cl with heavy loads, this time to occupy it. The four of us were fairly comfortable in the single three-man tent. We were one day ahead of schedule and although this broke our careful acclimatisation programme, the fine weather seemed too good to waste.

On 4 May we zig-zagged slowly up steep slopes to gain the ridge itself. Its crest wide and rounded, the ridge dropped off abruptly on either side as steep cliffs, while ahead, it abutted into the 'roof of Kedar — the broad final slope liberally scattered with seracs and rising some 600 m to the summit. We planned to place C2 at this strategic point, today we would dump gear there, tomorrow we would occupy, hopefully going for the top the following morning.

The Storm

We were strung out along the ridge, skinning slowly upwards, young Rodney out ahead breaking trail and Johnny in the rear placing bamboo wands to mark our route. Everything was dropping into place, the sun was shining and I recall thinking that we had it in the bag. Ten minutes later it was snowing hard. Rodney had stopped and in a few moments, at almost exactly 6000 m, I reached him. Visibility was now less than three metres and retreat was imperative. But first we had to cache our loads and Hywel arrived as we were filling yellow polythene sacks with ration packs, a stove, petrol bottles, a rope and crampons. We started to ski back down the ridge. Our tracks had already disappeared. Then our skis started humming and our beards and hair tingling. The first bolt of lightning crashed into the ridge close by.

Johnny loomed through the white-out. As planned he'd marked each of the marker wands with the compass bearing to the previous one and now we slowly and methodically compassed our way back down the ridge, wand to wand, through the fiercest electrical storm I've ever encountered. Several times we were knocked down. The lightning was impossible to avoid, we could not abandon our skis and there was nowhere to escape to. Often we lay flat in the snow to avoid continuous salvos of lighting. Soon over a metre of snow had fallen and it became all too easy to lose any sense of movement and direction. Zigzagging back and forth across the ridge in the driving snow, several times I pulled up short, my skis' tips over the cliff edge.

But somehow we just managed to keep the situation under control and after nearly four hours we stumbled on our all but invisible tent and tunnelled our way in. It had been very frightening, a close shave. We were acutely aware that had it not been for the marked wands and our compasses, we would still be on the ridge. We brewed and ate while snow fell non-stop for twelve hours.

In the morning, 5 May, we dug our way out of the tent to emerge in a completely white world under a clear sky. Nowhere, not even on Shivling's steep walls, was rock visible. It was truly a virgin mountainscape. But the sun was haloed, pressure was really low and it was obvious that evil weather still threatened. The bulk of our food and fuel was now cached up on the ridge but the steep slopes leading to it threatened avalanche. Although we had five days in hand, return became imperative, there were now two metres of fresh snow to consolidate before we could safely ascend again — if the weather allowed. There was no sensible alternative but to abandon the cache and retreat. We struck the tent and skied carefully down to the glacier by a long circuitous route to avoid the avalanche-prone bowls. Snow started to fall again as we reached ABC. On the 6th we completed the retreat to base camp, arriving just before the next snow storm.


For the next four days it snowed most of the time. The mess tent blew down and had to be continually re-engineered with the help of skis and ski poles, while the deep snow limited much movement beyond camp. We were unable to escape because porters had been arranged for 11 May and we had no means of communicating with our contacts in Uttarkashi. It says much for the LO and for our hard-working Kashmiri cook, Bham Bahadur, that everyone remained cheerful and relaxed in such difficult circumstances.

But finally the porters arrived and the snow let up long enough for us to strike camp and we reached Gangotri roadhead that night. The pilgrim season was just opening and below Bhujbas we passed the bodies of a European trekker and a sadhu who had been killed by rockfall on the trail the previous day. Three days later we were in London, in the full green exuberance of an English spring.


Lessons can be learnt from every expedition. Some are obvious at the time, others only in retrospect. In this case perhaps the project was too rushed considering the height of our objective? There is a lot of difference between climbing a small 6000 metre peak in Nepal in summer conditions, from a single high camp, aided by a couple of Sherpas, and skiing a thousand metres higher in winter conditions, placing two camps and doing all one's own carrying.

I'd always realised that we were cutting the safe acclimatisation period to its limit, but more time would have enabled us — busy but reasonably fit men of our age — to have been more relaxed in our acclimatisation and then to have sat out the storm at base camp before returning for a second attempt. Nevertheless there is every reason to suppose we would have been successful given good weather over the crucial period.

The technique of route-marking with bamboo marker wands is well tried, but less obvious is that of writing with a felt-tip on each one the compass bearing of the previous wand. In this case it prevented a major tragedy and possibly saved our lives. I'd used the technique before in 1982 when skiing Muztagh Ata, a considerably higher peak in China, when it enabled us to continue operations in continuously misty-spumey conditions in which the wind swiftly obliterated our ski tracks. But this time the chips were down and it worked well in a real blizzard. It's a technique I strongly recommend! Incidentally, the best wands seem to be split bamboos, rather wider and flatter than 'garden' bamboos — and they are easier to write on!

We used alpine skis. On steep, rugged, unknown ground, especially if it's glacier terrain with a major descent envisaged, alpine gear is the obvious choice for anyone but an extremely good nordic skier able to telemark with a heavy sac. Much of our approach however, right until we were actually on the mountain itself, was on flat or undulating terrain on which heavier alpine skis, with skins, are not at their best — indeed where lightweight nordics would have made life much less tiring. But ski gear is always a compromise...!

Liaison officer

A comment is appropriate. The IMF assigned to us a female liaison officer on an experimental basis: we understood her to be the very first assigned to any male expedition in India, or to my knowledge anywhere else. The experiment proved to be an unqualified success. The lady in question, Abhijeet Sowani, applied herself most conscientiously to her task, in contrast to certain male LOs of my acquaintance — in all three Himalayan countries — who have stressed the officer rather than the liaison aspect of the appointment. Experienced expeditioners will appreciate the distinction! Liaison officers represent a not inconsiderable part of the financial outlay — in clothing, equipment, food and porterage — of a small, self-financed, holiday expedition. All too often that cost is begrudged with good reason, but in this case our LO was worth her weight in gold!

Abhijeet was excellent company and a most useful member of the team, she dealt authoritatively with both porters and petty officials and she was keen to do more than her fair share of the chores. She had limited ambitions above advanced base camp, which was fine, she was not keen to amass imported clothing and equipment and she tried hard to return all the clothing with which we'd issued her. Never did she cause us the slightest embarrassment. In short she raised the tenor of the entire venture, fitting perfectly into a close-knit party of four elderly (!) fellows. Hopefully we shall see more female LOs of similar calibre in the future.


An attempt on Kedar Dome (6830 m) by a British Ski expedition in April/May 1994. The four-member team was led by John Cleare.

The view of Shivling, Gangotri glacier. From snowbound Tapovan meadow (above) and viewed northwards from Camp 1 on Kedar Dome across the Kirti Bamak.

The view of Shivling, Gangotri glacier. From snowbound Tapovan meadow (above) and viewed northwards from Camp 1 on Kedar Dome across the Kirti Bamak. (John Cleare)

Kedar Dome seen across the Kirti Bamak from ABC (4740m). The line of ascent was the abvious right-hand ridge, via the cwm to the right of the prominent rocky spur.

Kedar Dome seen across the Kirti Bamak from ABC (4740m). The line of ascent was the abvious right-hand ridge, via the cwm to the right of the prominent rocky spur. (John Cleare)

Climbing to the northeast col of Rangrik Rang.

12. Climbing to the northeast col of Rangrik Rang. Article 10 (Divyesh Muni)

Camp 2 on the northeast ridge of Rangrik Rang.

13. Camp 2 on the northeast ridge of Rangrik Rang. Article 10 (Divyesh Muni)


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