NANDA KOT SOUTH FACE
An Unclaimed Prize
THE SOUTH FACE of Nanda Kot is one of the most obvious and appealing lines in the Kumaon Himalaya, for it presents its wares in full-frontal splendour to the inner hill stations of the area, most notably Chakodi. Seen from here, its trapezoidal final snow face rises imperiously above the lower massifs of Dangthal and Lamchir. Nanda Kot is also well detached from the main Nanda Devi range so that it possesses the geographic importance and isolation of a great mountain.
That the south face should have remained unclimbed until 1995 is not readily explicable. All previous ascents of the mountain had been made from the Lwan valley to the north using the Gori valley as the approach. Only in 1987 did an Indo-British party explore the south side, and while doing so they climbed the subsidiary peaks of Nanda Bhanar (6236 m) and Nanda Khani (6029 m).
The main deterrent to attempt from the south is the long circuitous approach to the face. The 1987 expedition was unable to approach the south side direct from the Kafni valley because the icefall of the lower Kafni glacier is quite impassable. Instead, they were forced to establish base camp at the head of the Pindari glacier and cross a 5350 m col to gain the Kafni glacier where it forms a plateau sandwiched between its lower and upper icefalls.
To outwit the upper icefall they made a long traverse to its right hand edge where a feasible line was found. This gave access to an upper plateau at 5900 m from which both Nanda Bhanar and Nanda Khani are easily accessible. The 6861 m summit of Nanda Kot lies a further 900 m above, and the final 500 m form a regular but steep face of 50 to 55 degrees in angle. So, for all the south face is readily viewed from a far, the approach is remote and committing.
But this is still not enough to explain its neglect. While climbing on the west side of the Pindari valley in 1993, I had seen the upper south face in profile and was encouraged that its angle nowhere exceeded 60 degrees, in fact so encouraged that I booked the peak for 1995 and assembled a team of 3 guides and 7 experienced clients for the attempt. I reckoned on the face being in good condition just after the monsoon, when the crevasses should be well-filled and the final slope thickly covered with snow. Given a couple of weeks of fine weather in mid-September to stabilise the snowpack, the face should be in ideal condition at the end of that month. With only 28 days in India, our time schedule was tight, but given smooth acclimatisation the maj ority of the team should be in condition to make an attempt.
On the Kafni Col
But, despite our best intentions and ambitions, it transpired that on the afternoon of October 1st I found myself alone on the Kafni Col at 5350 m in the most magnificent of weather. That morning I had seen five of our clients safely down the Pindari side of the col on to the Changuch glacier. By now they were nearly back at base camp. Having acclimatised on Lamchir, they had pushed the route up to 6200 m on Nanda Kot in poor snow conditions and were now too exhausted to make that crucial summit bid. Their disappointment, whilst not expressed, was palpable.
However, there was one chance left for the top, and one chance only, for we were due to fly home on the 8th. Up at 5950 m on the upper Kafni Plateau, two guides, Andy Nisbet and Jonathan Preston and our two strongest clients, Richard Baskerville and Brian Shackleton, were resting in readiness for a summit attempt timed to start at midnight. During my descent with the other five my disappointment to miss that chance was unbearable. Although effort would be considerable, I had resolved to go back up the Kafni glacier that evening, ostensibly to support the summit team, but with the real purpose of joining them on that final face.
Arriving at our tent on the col, baked by the midday sun, I'd felt nauseous and weak. Knowing the energy demands which lay ahead, I forced myself to eat around 2000 calories in the form of soup, oatcakes, noodles, cheese, biscuits and chocolate, and then lay down to await the outcome. If I was sick I'd go down, I thought, but if my stomach coped, I'd rest till 8 p.m. and go up.
Happily, I survived the ordeal and began to feel better by 3 p.m. By this time the sun was swinging to the west behind the cumulus clouds that boiled up from the Pindari valley, and was thus losing some of its heat. I looked out. The scene had acquired a magical quality from the play of the ephemeral cloudmasses as they rose and twisted across the white-hot snowfields and the hazy silhouettes of Nanda Khat, Panwali Dwar and Bauljuri.
Already, a line of shade was marching across the Kafni glacier in promise of a cold night to come. This was a marvellously remote spot, and in such an atmosphere I felt the richest man on earth to be sat there alone. Such moments of serene contentment may be few and far between during an expedition, but, when they come, they are never forgotten and inexorably draw one back to the high mountain. My happiness could not have been nearly so complete, had my mind not been focused on the adventure of the coming night, for the heady mix of fear, anticipation and excitement immeasurably heightens the emotions.
NANDA KOT AND THE UPPER PINDARI VALLEY
By 8 p.m. a full moon had risen to bathe the Kafni glacier in white light. Our trail of the last few days was drawn as a thin pencil line across the plateau until it was lost in the shadows cast by Laspa Dhura. With moonlight and a beaten trail to follow, I could proceed with surety. The main thing was to go slowly, almost at a saunter, so as to minimise my energy output. The air temperature must have dipped to minus 15°C, but I was well- wrapped against such cold, and there was hardly a whisper of breeze to penetrate the layers.
Four days previously we had all climbed this way with loads of 25 kilograms, ploughing laboriously through an ankle-deep layer of fresh powder snow that had deepened with each afternoon's precipitation to the point where it was presenting an avalanche risk. We had all but given up on Nanda Kot after three days of unsettled weather, but, then, the air had cleared and the thermometer had plunged to give us this last opportunity for success.
Now, I was wholly unburdened save for my clothing, a drinks flask and an ice-hammer. Moreover, the trail was frozen and firm. The very stillness of the night was propitious of success.
The middle Kafni plateau forms a giant shelf. Beyond its lower edge I saw nothing save for the heavy haze that hung over the foothills. Above hung a line of seracs, something over a kilometre wide. Our trail started clear of their threat by making an outward arc, then descended slightly under the northwest face of Laspa Dhura. From this shaded bowl, it climbed through a series of crevasses to a broad ramp on the right hand edge of the seracs.
We had made a temporary camp on this ramp and conjectured that the Danu Dhura pass must cross the eastern watershed of the Kafni somewhere near there. However, when we had examined the most likely crossing point we found only steep stoneswept snowslopes plunging to the Shalang valley, and concluded that the pass would be best explored from the Shalang side, where the best route could be deciphered from below.
Our line now climbed off this ramp and weaved through a final section of crevasses and small seracs. Thanks to the torrential monsoon of early September, these were all well banked with snow and our passage had been relatively simple. Seven days of continuous monsoon rains had wrought havoc in the Pindari valley, washing away the bridges above Khati village and decimating the century- old mule trail which serves the upper valley. Local trade, sheep herding and the trekking business had all been severely hit, yet a month later we were making good use of the snow it had brought to the mountains. In a dry season the Kafni glacier could be so icy and broken as to be impracticable.
Our arrival on the upper glacier plateau had been as sudden as it was welcome. After wandering blindly through the maze of alleys and ramps, we had emerged on a level expanse of snow that stretched two kilometres ahead of us to the base of Nanda Kot. On the left of this plateau rises the gentle dome of Nanda Bhanar and on its right the short but bristling rock summit of Nanda Khani. As we had plodded over the gently rising snowfields, the surface layers had audibly hissed and boomed at the weight of our passage, an unnerving experience even on level ground. Our final camp lay below the eastern shoulder of Nanda Bhanar.
My midnight return to the plateau was signalled by a gentle waft of icier air. I drew my hood tighter to my cheeks. The benevolent moon was due to set within an hour. My euphoria had worn a little and the chill was rising through my boot soles. Camp beckoned. I knew that the others would already have left, but this was my plan. I could rest in (one or two!) of their sleeping bags for a couple of hours and then restart at 4 a.m.
Sure enough, I found camp deserted. After a quick brew of tea I put my head down to sleep for a couple of hours. The strategy was working!
On the Big Screen
That final face of Nanda Kot is a geometrist's delight, a perfect level-topped trapezium. Whilst we more usually take pleasure in the infinitely tangled and curvaceous forms of Nature.the sight of a symmetrical straight-edged mountain top is sure to stop us dead in our tracks. So stunning is its simplicity, that the south face at once holds you in its awe. There are no feminine touches to the chiselled outline, no dimples, rocks or levellings in the smooth face. To climb it you have to attack it head-on. The movement needed is perfectly simple, a repetitive kick and dagger with crampons and axes, but that says nought of the mental demands of being a fly on the screen. Nanda Kot's south face is, by European standards, a typical nordwand. Why it should face the other way is of no real concern.
NANDA KOT SOUTH FACE
I got my first sight of Andy, Jonathan, Brian and Richard in the twilight before dawn. They were moving in pitches up the right hand edge of the face, four ant-sized figures 400 m above my position on the curving access shelf. At soon after 6 a.m. the sun touched the face in a gleam of pink light. I could see that my friends had gone to the far right side of the shelf and tackled the face where it is longest and straightest. Their route had been chosen in darkness when surety of line is essential. However, in daylight I spied a clear possibility of cutting diagonally up from the shelf through a band of ice-cliffs to join the face at a higher level. This offered my only chance to catch them up.
My short-cut encountered only one brief passage of objective danger where it passed below a hanging tower of ice which resembled a head of a dinosaur. The steeper the terrain the firmer was the snow, and I began to believe we would all make it. By 7 a.m. I was above the ice cliffs at around 6300 m. The others were still 200 m above, seemingly spread-eagled on the broad convex bulge that forms the right edge of the final face.
I left a ski-stick to mark our descent, then cut across another shelf and climbed to the final bergschrund at 6450 m. The face now seemed wholly detached from the lower peaks to our south, which merged into a sea of morning cumulus. Our tent was merely a speck on the plateau below. From here to the top there would be no easement. It was like stepping on to a giant cinema screen, but, fortunately, one which was titled to the accommodating angle of 55 degrees.
And the snow conditions were superb, firm enough for the axe picks to bite, soft enough to kick steps. I started well with bursts of 20 steps separated by 30 seconds of rest. The teams up to my right were slowing. It seemed only minutes before I would reach them. But then the heavy hand of altitude took control. Twenty steps dwindled to ten and then to five. The rests became longer, the discipline wavered. Each resting gasp became a bodily convulsion. I had reached my ceiling, and the rest would depend on willpower.
On meeting the others it was clear that they were feeling little different, for little was said above what was absolutely necessary. They had expended the extra effort of climbing for 450 m in pitches, digging out ledges and burying snow-stakes at every stance. Our altimeters indicated that there were 150 m to go. There seemed no end to the face stretching above. Two further pitches took two further hours and then the slope steepened. We regrouped and looked for a leader. It was Andy who volunteered.
Summit Won, Dream Lost
With 100 m of rope at his disposal Andy ploughed up softening snow, step by step, until he disappeared above the steepening. After another half an hour a tug on the rope told us to move. We mounted the swell of the face and saw Andy sitting in the snow just a metre below the summit crest, which formed a large cornice overhanging the mountain's north face.
"Well, this is the top as far as I'm concerned," croaked Andy.
In fact, the ridge rose very slightly towards its right hand end, but it was not a time to be splitting hairs. After 15 minutes rest I wandered along, but could only stand abreast of the highest point which was itself the lip of a cornice.
The summit was clear of cloud and offered us a hazy panorama west to Longstaff s Col and Nanda Devi, and northeast across the
Gori valley to the peaks of the Milam Glacier. These were scenes that I had longed to witness, but I wasn't in the mood to enjoy them. Up to a certain point fatigue enhances perception and responsiveness, but when the body has passed its altitude limit one's mood becomes bleak, even black.
And there was also a sense of having violated a dream which had kept me going for the better part of two years, a sense of loss that many climbers feel on reaching a long-sought goal. Had the view been sharper my response might have been more positive, but the midday pastiche of hazy colours and milky sunlight was nought to compare with the moonlit arena of last night or the morning's dawn as it rose over the Panch Chuli massif.
The sole priority was to get down. We left the top at 1pm, and descended the upper face in seven rope lengths of 100 m each. We down climbed all the way because our snow-stakes could not have given reliable anchors for abseils in sun- softened snow. At 4.30 p.m. we collected my ski-pole marker and reversed my diagonal line through the ice-cliffs. Sundown saw us back on the approach shelf. A spectrum of evening colours drifted across the surrounding snows and clouds, played out against a sky of deepest blue. We were moved enough to pause and enjoy the spectacle, a sure proof that we were back in the land of the living! Yet it took over an hour of toil to cross a windcrusted snow bowl below Nanda Bhanar and the hour was close on 8 p.m. when we regained our tent.
We squeezed into the tent and, after a lukewarm brew of tea, sunk into a deep slumber. Whatever horrors the next four days held in store-a 2000 m descent to base, the 45 kilometre walk out and a 20 hour bus ride to Delhi-none of them disturbed our sleep that night, for the job was done and we could rest in peace.
The first ascent of the south face of Nanda Kot (6861 m) by a British team on 2 October 1995. The summit was reached by Richard Baskerville, Martin Moran, Andrew Nisbet, Jonathan Preston and Brian Shackleton.
Nanda kot south face with Nandabhanar to its right. (Martin Moran)
Final 900 m of Nanda Kot south face. Ascent was made by the right edge of the face. Descent was through the centre of the upper face. (Martin Moran)