EXPLORATION IN THE EASTERN GARHWAL - THE BAGINI GLACIER
WHILE CLIMBING ON Nanda Devi East in 1994 with my husband Roger, we were struck by the imposing presence of a large massif at the head of the Milam glacier. Our map showed three summits over 7000 m high, linked by a large central plateau, with a complex barrier of ridges, walls and glaciers guarding access to the tops. This was the Tirsuli group, the Trident of Lord Shiva with Tirsuli S (more commonly known as Hardeol) the highest (7151 m) Tirsuli (East or Main summit) (7074 m) and Tirsuli West (7035 m).
A review of the history of these peaks showed that there had been few visitors, and very limited success in attempting these summits. In 1939, after climbing Nanda Devi East, a Polish team made their way to this group to make an exploration. The foray ended in tragedy, with 2 climbers killed by avalanche while approaching under the slopes of Chalab and Kholi. It was not until 1964 that the next attempt on Hardeol from the Milam side was made by an Indian expedition led by M.S. Kohli. This was also defeated by bad weather conditions and acute avalanche danger, as was another Indian expedition the following year. Finally in 1966 a strong Indian-Sherpa team under the leadership of C.K. Mitra reached the summit of Tirsuli (7074 m) on 8 October. Eight years passed before Hardeol was attempted again in 1974, when a joint Indian-New Zealand women's team set off via the Milam valley. This expedition was also to end in tragedy with 4 lives lost in an avalanche. Taking a new approach, in 1975 an Indian expedition under the leadership of S.P. Mulasi attempted Hardeol from the west via the Bagini glacier. This was unsuccessful due to heavy falls of snow, avalanche danger and difficult terrain. However, returning to the Milam side in 1978, Mulasi and his team reached the summit of Hardeol on 31 May.
It appeared that two summits of the trident had been climbed, but that the third, Tirsuli West, remained a virgin summit. Attempting this mountain with a two-person, alpine-style approach seemed a challenging objective, having learned of the avalanche prone slopes on the Milam side, and finding some intriguing pictures of the SW face of Tirsuli West from the Bagini side, we decide to make our approach from the west.
We were extremely grateful to the IMF for their efforts in helping us to obtain the necessary permissions for Tirsuli West, which until recently had been affected by the 'inner- line'. There was however a degree of local uncertainly about the required permits, and as to where the inner line is currently drawn, which resulted in the loss of precious time. Also, although the approach via Joshimath and walk-in from Jumma is both straightforward and quick (one and a half days walking to base camp via the village of Dunagiri) we experienced difficulties with porters. However, with patience, persistence, and the efforts of our liaison officer Joginder Singh Gulia (and even though we spend a memorable day load carrying to base camp ourselves with the help of our cook 'Bist') all difficulties were finally overcome and we established a beautiful base camp site on the true right bank of the Bagini glacier, on meadows at around 4510 m on 27 May 1995.
Our first foray was to travel further into the Bagini glacier to try and find a good route to our mountain and spy out possible lines on it. We spent a full day reaching 5200 m and were rewarded with views of the three summits of Tirsuli and the surrounding peaks. At first impression it seemed that the line we had anticipated attempting from our pictures - a spur jutting from the SW face - was out of the question. A huge serac straddled the route, and any attempt would have required spending at least one day directly beneath it. Roger immediately named it the 'Bachelor route' - it being no place for a married man! The SW face presented a large corrugated sweep of rock; unfortunately sedimentary and extremely loose in nature and not an attractive proposition either. Instead we were struck by the possibility of the very attractive NW ridge bounding the top of the SW face, which started from a subsidiary summit which was difficult to identify from the map. We decided that our next foray would be to look into one of the valleys rising above base camp to try and identify this peak and how to find a way onto it. None of these valleys were named on the map or had local names, therefore during our explorations we allocated names based on the main features we encountered. The map, as we were to discover on these explorations, was far from accurate.
The first valley to be explored was the 'Silent valley' (devoid of any of the bird song so prevalent at base camp) and at its head was marked Peak 6635 m. It was very difficult to equate what we could see from the ground on this base camp side with what we had seen from the Bagini glacier, therefore we decided to climb a nearby peak to get a better view of the terrain.
Over the next two days we ascended 'Snow Dome' (5820 m). From this summit ran a snowy ridge with two further unmarked summits which eventually terminated at Pk 6635 m. This proved to be the mystery peak which marked the lower end of the NW ridge of Tirsuli W. Looking for the shortest route which would get us to the top of Pk 6635 m, we identified a ramp line tucked under the SW face. In order to examine the detail of this approach, the next day we continued to the head of the Bagini glacier at 5450 m. While the initial part of the ramp looked promising, there was a final section of ridge to the summit which was broken by a deep spectacular notch, with steep rock gendarmes on each side. Having seen all the possible options for an ascent of Tirsuli W from this side, and with reservations as to whether the ramp line would go, we decided to return to base camp and do one last reconnaissance to find any alternative approaches to Pk 6635 m before committing ourselves to this line.
An exploration of the 'Icicle valley' showed that there was a col which would give access to the NW ridge of Pk 6635 m, but the slopes beneath this were a jumble of icicle fringed seracs and stone strafed buttresses. Moving further round again we went up into 'Pikka valley' to see if we could find a way onto Pk 6267 m and then traverse over to Pk 6635 m. This seemed to have some potential, but again we could not see the detail of the descent from Pk 6267 m to the next col. Looking at the long distance involved and not having seen all of the terrain, we decided then that our first attempt on Tirsuli W must be from the Bagini glacier via the ramp line despite our concerns about being stopped by the notch in the ridge.
After a few days lost through illness and a knee injury we then spend 5 days on our first summit attempt. On 9 June we moved from base camp up to our advance base camp site at 5150 m beside a small lake.
On the 10 June we woke early and by 5 a.m. we had set off for the head of the Bagini glacier. By 8 a.m. we were beneath the start of the ramp. The first section was a very loose rock ridge and we picked our way carefully up the flank of this and then followed the crest, moving from side to side to avoid major obstacles. With some relief we reached a flat platform around mid-day at the point where the rock gave way to snow slopes above. We stopped for an hour to melt water and have plenty to drink as the heat was intense, and then set off again to try and reach a campsite. Steepening ground led to a couple of icy pitches which existed onto a snow shelf at 5860 m. This provided an excellent camp site and we soon had the tent up and a brew on. For the first time since arriving at base camp, we then had a brief snow flurry, but this cleared to leave a glorious evening.
The following morning tired from the previous days efforts, we were not packed up and ready to go until 9 a.m. Gentle slopes gradually steepened until we had to pitch two rope lengths on hard ice. This then bought us to a traverse above a set of ice- cliffs and a small, level platform beneath the next step in the ramp at 6000 m. It was mid-day and extremely hot by this point, so we stopped for lunch and then decided to dump our gear and continue up the ridge unladen in order to check out the route ahead for the following day. We now followed an elegant snow crest to the top of one of the subsidiary summits (c 6150 m) we had seen from Snow Dome. Unfortunately as we reached the top of this the cloud rolled in and we could not see any further ahead. It being mid-afternoon we headed back to the tent.
Whilst it snowed overnight, the morning of 12 June dawned with clear skies, and we set off at 8 a.m. knowing that we should reach the notch and confirm whether we had any hope of crossing this and trying for the summit of Pk. 6635 m and then Tirsuli W. Following at first in our tracks of the previous day we made fast progress and could enjoy the panorama around us. From Pt 6150 m we had to traverse around the back of another set of ice- cliffs and then we were finally on the ridge leading up to Pk 6635 m. In order to speed our progress we dumped our sacs and climbed the next section of ridge unladen. The climbing was spectacular due to the steepness and exposure, but was very good, on firm neve and ice. However, once we reached the notch at c 6300 m, as feared, our progress came to a standstill. From the gendarme on our side we had hoped it would be possible to abseil into the notch and climb out onto the gendarmes on the other side. What we could see however, were great piles of tottering blocks, gravel and sand. The initial descent was so precarious that without fixed rope to leave in place we could not hope to descend and then get back out after a summit attempt. There was no other feasible route around this obstacle and our summit attempt via this route was over. Looking around from our vantage point it was easy to see why Tirsuli W had remained a virgin summit. Apart from our line, the only other reasonably safe approach from the Bagini glacier seemed to be to do a major traverse taking in Pk 6267 m, Pk 6635 m and then the NW ridge of Tirusli W. This ridge looked even more appealing from our high vantage point, with a narrow snow aerate broken by technical gendarmes, but with the difficulties easing toward the summit.
Very disappointed, we turned back to collect our loads, and over the next two days returned to base camp, descending via the ridge and summits which led back to Snow Dome having lost a week of climbing time due to the permit difficulties and porter problems, our 3 weeks time was rapidly drawing to a close. We decided on one last, very optimistic summit bid, going into the 'Pikka valley', and attempting the traverse of the three summits After just one day at base camp to dry our gear and repack, we headed off On 15 June we climbed up into the 'Pikka valley' and placed a camp at 5325 m, according to the map, beneath a col which would give us access to a ridge leading up to Pk 6267 m. Arriving in thick cloud we could not see any detail, but on waking at midnight under a full moon, our position became clear. Once again the map proved to be inaccurate, and the col we had anticipated being beneath, was in fact further to the W at the head of an adjacent valley and barred to us by seracs and a rock wall.We slept on until morning and then debated what to do. Both of us were tired from our previous summit attempt and trying to find the route ahead was going to be a major undertaking. Reluctant to finish the expedition, but really knowing that we were done, we started heading back to base camp and thoughts of home.
It is very encouraging to see the opening of new mountain areas in India, to foreign visitors. This offers exciting potential for exploration and attempts at new routes or first ascents. Unfortunately, there is currently a degree of local uncertainty about the required permits and as to where the 'inner line' is now drawn.
The area we visited has great potential for further exploration and the climbing of a number of summits, from snowy peak to granite towers at all grades of difficulty. In terms of natural beauty this is an outstanding place with forests, 'alpine' pastures, and a multitude of birds and other wildlife. It was a great pleasure to arrive at a base camp which was unspoilt by the rubbish of previous expeditions. Of great priority to any mountaineer who is granted permission into these newly opened areas, must be to endeavour to maintain them in their pristine state.
An exploratory expedition to the Bagini glacier and an attempt by two climbers (Roger Payne, UK, Julie-Ann Clyma, NZ) on the unclimbed NW ridge of Tirsuli West (7035 m).During the attempt ascents of virgin summits up to 6300 m were achieved and a large amount of reconnaissance in this little explored area was undertaken.
Tirsuli West. The attempt stopped at the rotten rock gendarme seen. (Julie Ann Clyma)
Looking across the southwest face of Tirsuli West from the 'notch'. The northwes ridge is plumed in cloud on the skyline.
Tirsuli West (7035 m.) The northaest ridge on the skyline with peak 6635 m at the left end and the 'Bachelor Route' dropping from the summit to the front right of the photo. (Julie-Ann Clyma)
A view from high point of Tirsuli West: unclimbed peaks 6267 m and 6504 m. (Julie-Ann Clyma)
Exploring the Bagini glacier: Rishi Pahar (6992 m). Saf Minal (6547 m,) Changbang (6864 m,) from left to right. (Julie Ann Clyma)
Descending from high point on Tirsuli West: Rishi Pahar and Saf Minal in background. (Julie-Ann Clyma)
Kalanka (6931 m)at sunset, seen from base camp. (Julie-Ann Clyma)