TANGO IN CHANGO
I CAN IMAGINE nothing better than a season's climbing with a base camp well up on the Chango glacier. There is an abundance of suitable sites and every variety of climb within easy reach.
Marco Pallis, writing in the Himalayan Journal Vol. VI (p. 124) made a very shrewd assessment of the Chango in 1933, when he was making the first ascent of Leo Pargial (6791 m).
I agree wholeheartedly. Unfortunately, we chose the wrong season! In the twenty days we spent camped at the head of the glacier, we were reluctantly blessed with 5 days of good, rock-climbing weather, which is what we needed to tackle peak 6585 metres which we called Granite Peak (GP). And this in a supposedly rain shadow area. This peak, to the left (east) of its more famous cousin Leo Pargial absolutely dominates the glacier from the moment one crests the moraine at 4900 m.
In August/September 1993 we (i.e. Ajay Tambe, H. Subbarao and I) had spend a month on the glacier and not even managed to touch the foot of Granite Peak, thanks to 2 spells of very bad weather, which accounted for 15 days. In the remaining time Ajay and Harsha had made an attempt on Ningmari (Flat Top) and been stormed out at only 5640 m; the three of us then attempted Ninjeri via its west face and had to retreat, again in a storm. Ajay and I had made a last ditch attempt to get established at the foot of Granite Peak, where we had earlier dumped loads of gear and food when a full scale blizzard made us turn back. Twice during the storm, we had to return to base camp for rest. By the third week of September, we were tired, mentally and physically. On our final pullback to BC we made an attempt on peak 6370 m. The lower slopes were covered in deep, soft powder snow and as we climbed higher, it lay at amazingly steep angles without avalanching! We reached a bergschrund and beyond that the mountain rose in a series of glittering ice-walls. In our naive belief that the mountain would only be a steep snow plod only one of us had worn his crampons. The other two pairs had been used 2 days ago to anchor our tent on a snow shelf and in the morning of the climb, they were frozen (it was about -20°C), fully into the ground and it never even occurred to any of us that we may need them higher up. The slopes below had totally misled us. Ajay's old leather boots had started a process of osmosis, and he hurried down into the sunshine to avoid frostbite. Harsha and I pottered around looking for an ice-bridge to cross the 'shrund'. By now with the rising sun, even the iron in our souls had melted. We called it a day. It only remained for us to lick our wounds in Chango village. Little did we realise that the weather in the village at 3050 m and at the head of the glacier above 5490 m and not more than 10 km as the crow flies could be as drastically different as in, say, Bombay and Brastislava. The village consensus pronounced July as the perfect month to climb on the glacier.
And so the seventh of July 1995 found Franklyn and I back in Chango. On the tenth, we caught up with Jishnu Das and Pyar Singh at Lake Camp (the second approach camp). They were 2 weeks ahead of us having taken up some students from St. Stephen's College, Delhi for a training camp. In a couple of days the last of the students departed and on 16 July JD, PS and I were ensconced comfortably at our well stocked advance base camp at the foot of GP, passing the rubbish dump of a previous expedition on our way; rusted cans, plastic bags, wooden packing cases which could have been burnt. We were horrified at the ugliness of the site and the thoughtlessness of the party.
Over the next few days the three of us and Chokdup, our cook who joined us a day later, had climbed and fixed rope on the only safe route we could observe; this was the left hand edge of the west face. We gained about 500 m vertical height, the last 50 m on what we chose to call 'The Tower' which is probably the crux of the climb. The climbing was not very hard and huge ledges littered with boulders and loose rock broke up the route into about 50 m pitch lengths. The hardest move was about 50° halfway up the 40 m tower.
We planned a rest day before moving up to the ledge below the tower from where we hoped to push for the summit. The strategy was to pull up the fixed ropes as we moved to the ledge, spend a day fixing about 300 m on the grey slabs above the tower and on the 3rd day jumar up this and reach one of the two icefields which seemed to give access to the summit ridge. The fixed ropes would ensure that we could retreat to the ledge below the tower even late into the evening or in case of bad weather.
However, man proposes and the GP disposes. We were not even halfway to the Tower when a snow-storm hit us.
On our next foray, I was on the fourth jumar when it started snowing again. The four of us huddled in the cold and the wind at the top of the second fixed rope and conferred. This was going to be critical. PS was keen to go down. JD was keen to go up and wait out the night in the hope that it might clear by morning as this was his last chance, he was running out of time, he had to be home by a certain date. Harsha was ambivalent saying he would be in support (he was behind us in acclimatisation by a few days), if JD decided to go up.
I said I would go up if JD was willing to leave PS, his climbing partner of four years. It was a hard decision for JD, we went down depressed and frustrated.
The weather went from bad to worse and our decision seemed to be vindicated. GP under these circumstances was out of the question. We turned to 'Ninja Turtle' and dumped some rope and hardware at its base, hoping for one clear day to attempt it. We were denied this too and on the 25th all of us went down to BC with JD and PS who were going home. Franklyn Silveira, Chokdup, Harsha and I moved back to ABC on 28 July. On a particularly snowy afternoon Harsha and I climbed three pitches, up an ice/ snow gully and traversed another 50 m across some rock to find a route which would give us reasonable access to the hanging icefield on Ninja Turtle. The route existed but the weather did not relent.
In the meantime, we discovered to our horror that by some mistake all the expedition ice screws had gone down to Chango probably with PS and JD on their return. Both Ninja Turtle and GP's two summit ridge icefields would need these. So down went Chokdup to his house where they might be. He said he would be back the next day which we thought was highly unlikely. In the event he came back on the 3rd day covering the 2600 m height gain from Chango to advance base camp in a single day (6 a.m. to 5 p.m.) which must surely be some kind of a record. This was his fifth movement between the glacier and the village. We had despatched him a week earlier because of an eye infection and during the training camp he had been up and down 3 times, escorting various people down and bringing up extra supplies.
While he was away, I took a walk (2 1/2 hours) to the Kuru Tokpo gap and was surprised to see that valley very lightly glaciated. It was bare of snow except at the top where the base of a snowy peak gave it a shade of white. Harsha spent his time cooking up a gourmet meal.
On the morning after Chokdup's return, he was hit by a bout of vomiting (earlier he had a severe cold). Perhaps it was due to his rapid ascent. We cooked enough khichdi for 3 people for meals and set off for the ledge below the tower. Ten minutes away from the tents, Chokdup threw up again. He decided to turn back. We (Harsha and I) took out the tea and sugar which he had been carrying, added it to our loads and set off once again. We stopped again after about 300 m (c.6000 m) and bivouacked for the night on a ledge. It snowed heavily in the evening for hours, but mercifully it stopped at 9 p.m. and we had a comfortable night. In the morning it was still overcast and the outlook seemed bleak. I went down 2 rope lengths to bring up some more food and fuel which we had cached on our second attempt to go up to the ledge. Franklyn and Chokdup who had been concerned in the night about our condition, saw me abseil down and took this as a sign for our retreat. A couple of hours later, Chokdup turned up and we let out whoops of joy, the khichdi and more food was here, our team was fortified! We could spend a couple of days up here and wait for a window in the weather. He grinned sheepishly and showed us his empty rucksack; Franklyn had sent him up to help take down all the gear he presumed we'd be taking off the mountain! It was black comedy enacted on a bleak day on GP. By this time the day was half over. Chokdup helped us to move up another 100 m up the icefield below the tower where we cleared two ledges for the night. Chokdup descended in driving snow, while we climbed up to the base of the tower, dumped all our gear and descended to our bivvy for the night. My ledge was small and I did not sleep well. A few stars were visible in the night and we kept our fingers crossed. Early in the morning it started to snow, soft flurries which melted on my bivvy sack. I huddled further inside, wondering if Goretex technology really worked on a long term basis. We had our first brew by 9 a.m. and it was still snowing. Above us the mountain was totally shrouded in cloud. We waited for a sign from heaven and we hardly spoke. By midday there was no change, so we decided to pull out. We went up to the tower to bring down the gear. In a last moment flash of desperation, I jumared up to the first stance on the tower, hoping to push the high point by just one rope length. The tower is on the corner formed by the west and northeast faces and the wind and snow flurries tore at us like bats out of Patagonia. Half climbing, half jumaring up the wet and slippery rock in my plastic boots, panting with the effort of carrying 180 m of 6 mm rope and a bunch of hardware, I was beaten into submission by the time I reached the haven of the piton at the sloping, wet stance. My optimism vanished as surely as the good weather. This called for rock shoes on my feet, and the sun on my back - the way it had been led by JD and PS more than 10 days ago.
We went down stripping all the rope away except for the one on the Tower, stuffed it into the empty rucksack which Chokdup had brought up the day before and lowered it to the first night's bivouac ledge. Then, in the gathering gloom of evening, we rappelled down, staggering into camp, exhausted, at 6 p.m.
After one more day of snowfall, we could finally go up again to bring everything down, leaving only about a dozen pitons and slings on the mountain. That same afternoon, we pelted down to base camp, soundly beaten. Two days later when we left the glacier for the last time, a chilly rain squall hit us lower down the valley, the rain drops mingling with my tears. These were tears of sadness and frustration at having failed to reach the summit and also tears of joy that at least this time we had reached halfway up a worthy adversary.
Note: As all the peaks in the Chango are unnamed (except Leo Pargial), I have referred to them in the convenient form which we actually used on the expedition.
Pt. 6585 m Referred to as Granite Peak (GP in short), a term first used by R. Bhattacharjee in 1981 (See H.J. Vol. 38, p. 95).
Pt. 6646 m Christened Ninjeri by Yousuf Zaheer who climbed it in June 1982, connoting 'untouched/innocent mountain' in Ladakhi. It remains to be asked why use a Ladakhi name in Kinnaur!
Pt. 6180 m Referred to as Ninja Turtle, the higher of its twin summits appears from base camp like one of the hooded cartoon characters of the popular children TV serial Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle
Pt. 6393 Christened Ningmari (Flat Top) by Yousuf Zaheer who climbed it in July 1990. The latter name describes its appearance from base camp.
Climbing in Chango - A Brief History
1933 First mention in climbing literature by Marco Pallis who glimpsed it from the west col of Leo Pargial (6791m), which he had come to climb. H.J. Vol. VI, p. 106.
1981 Bhattacharjee led an expedition which attempted to climb Leo Pargial from the Chango glacier. They camped on the west col and failed to reach the summit by the standard west ridge route. Two members also attempted Pt. 6370 m. but failed 150 m short of the summit. H.J. Vol. 38, p.95.
1982 A team from St. Stephen's College, Delhi led by Yousuf Zaheer made the first ascent of Pt. 6646 m via its south ridge and upper part of the west face in June. They christen this second highest peak (after Leo Pargial) of Chango, calling it Ninjeri (Ladakhi for untouched innocent mountain according to their own interpretation) H.J. Vol. 39, p. 195.
1990 Yousuf Zaheer returned to make the first ascent of Pt. 6393 m and named it Ningmari (or Flat Top) in July.
1993 A 3-man team from Bombay-Pune (Aloke Surin) visited the glacier in August-September. Bad weather dogged their attempts on Ningmari, the west face of Ninjeri and Pt. 6370 m. Illustrated Note in H.J. Vol. 50, p. 247.
1995 In July-August, a Bombay-Delhi (Aloke Surin) team made a small impression on Pt. 6585 m. They reached approx. 6200 m on the Tower, a feature on the corner of the northeast and west faces of the mountain. This is the subject of the present article!
Location North East Kinnaur in Himachal Pradesh. Approx. 320 km from Shimla on National Highway 22. The Chango nala drains into the Spiti river. There are no records of any climbs in the Kuru Tokpo valley (south of Chango) and the Cholo Tokpo (north of Chango). To the east lies Tibet, while Spiti borders the north and west.
Account of an attempt on unnamed peak 6585 m in the Chango Glacier, northeast Kinnaur, Himachal Pradesh, in July/August 1995 - High point approx 6200 m reached on 19th July, 1995.
Members: Aloke Surin (AS), Harshvardhan Subbarao (HS), Franklyn Silveira (FS), Jishnu Das (JD), Pyar Singh (PS) and Chokdup Negi (CN).
Leo Pargial (6791 m. West ridge, hormal route (skyline). Rocky col (below right) is the Kuru Topko Gap. Col little above to its left is the west col which leads to Nako. (Aloke Surin)
Granite Peak (6585 m) as seen from the Kuru Topko gap. (Aloke Surin)
Up Panorama A: Tso Moriri lale, seen from Lungser Kangri (6666 m.) Down Panorama B: Approaching Tso Moriri from Kamdar La (Nakpogoding ). (Harish Kapadia)
Up Panorama C: View from Lungser Kangri (6666 m.) Peaks of Ladakh-Spiti -Tibet divide. (Harish Kapadia) Down Panorama D: Thugje Chenmo plains of north Rupshu; from Horlem la. (Harish Kapadia)