Himalayan Journal vol.54
The Himalayan Journal

Publication year:

Harish Kapadia
  6. BARUNTSE, 1996
    (ANUP SAH and Lt. Col. J. C. JOSHI)
  11. GYA KATHA, 1997
  14. HIMALAYAN JOURNAL : XXX-38 (1970-1980/81)
    (A. D. MODDIE)



I had been looking for a mountain such as Gimmigela for some time. Remote, isolated and at the end of a cracking two week trek, it was a virgin 7000 m peak in 1993. I couldn’t believe my luck, therefore, when the Nepalese authorities made it available for mountaineering in December 1994. My dreams of a first ascent were soon dashed however, when I heard that the Japanese had climbed it just a few months earlier from the Sikkim side. Imagine my dismay when I heard of their second ascent in 1995, this time from the Nepalese side! Nevertheless, it was still a remote and relatively unknown peak and therefore a worthy objective. Despite being in the shadow of Kangchenjunga’s north face, Gimmigela stands alone and has its own character. It is a beautiful mountain to look at but proved deceptively difficult to climb. Perhaps the greatest surprise was the quality of the climbing. Although loose in places, the climbing was continually steep and exciting and followed the most compelling line.

For my part, the idea of leading an expedition had been at the back of my mind for some time. Over the years, I have gained much from the Club Royal Navy and Royal Marines Mountaineering Club and the time seemed right to put something back in. I half-seriously asked my appointer for the time off to do the trip and, to my astonishment, he said yes! My bluff was called and the game was on! The aim of the expedition was to make the first British ascent of Gimmigela, hopefully by a new route. My unstated objectives, in order of priority, were to get everybody back in one piece, to summit and to still be talking to each other afterwards. Thankfully, these were all achieved in full. The team is everything and we were blessed with a good one. We were 14 British Servicemen, the majority coming from the Royal Navy and Royal Marines Mountaineering Club with two Army members and one from the RAF. We were a happy and harmonious group and worked well together. As one might expect from such a gathering, humour was in abundance and I recall few dull moments.

Frontispiece Photos 5-6-7
The approach march to Gimmigela (and to Kangchenjunga) is now a recognised trekking route, recently opened to commercial groups. However, due to its length and altitude it is infrequently done. It was once described by Pete Boardman as one of the most beautiful treks in the Himalaya; some praise from a man with a broken foot who completed most of it in a basket on a porter’s back! After a high level start at Basantapur, the middle section drops down to the Tamur and Ghunsa kholas through steep, spectacular valleys. In places, the track passes through some unlikely, near vertical terrain, described in a trekking guide as ‘the most exposed track in Nepal’. Watching the porters carrying ‘Ted’s Shed’ (10 loads the size of doors comprising our prefabricated hut) negotiating this stretch was a spectacle more alarming than any climbing to follow!

The character of the route changes markedly above Ghunsa, as do the porterage charges. Ghunsa, at 3430 m, is the last permanent habitation before base camp and the route above is steep and difficult

- a fact not lost on the inhabitants who charge exorbitant porterage prices to negotiate it. Sadly many expeditions simply throw money at the problem to avoid confrontation and delay, further inflating prices (up to Rs 400 per day). We calculated that it would have cost us no more to fly all of our kit into BC in a single helicopter lift which is readily available from Kathmandu. Unless they are careful, the inhabitants of Ghunsa will price themselves out of the market. Pointing this fact out to them, together with the fact that it was ‘us’ (well, the British Army!) who installed the Ghunsa water-stand pipes in 1985 during the Kirat Chuli expedition, had a miraculous effect on negotiating porter prices! From Ghunsa to Pangpema, the route was taken particularly slowly to aid acclimatisation. The going is often difficult and a yak fell to its death crossing a dangerous scree slope between Ghunsa and Kambachen. Despite taking 4 days to cover this last section, there were many thick heads as we staggered into Pangpema on 3 April.

Pangpema, a summer time yak pasture at 5139 m, is an ideal BC location. At the confluence of the Kangchenjunga glacier it is set in magnificent surroundings with stunning mountain views. Particularly impressive are Wedge Peak and, of course, Kangchenjunga. Normally a remote and isolated spot, this season we shared Pangpema with 4 other expeditions: Spanish, Slovakian, American and Korean, all attempting the big prize: Kangchenjunga’s north face.

Our plan, drawn from photos back in the UK, was to climb the south- west ridge. It appeared to offer the most natural and safest line to the summit, a fact confirmed when we first saw it. The route followed the true line of the ridge from its foot to the summit and was especially attractive as it had never been attempted before. (The Japanese climbed the NW face from the col between Cross Peak and Gimmigela).

As a Services team, I wanted to get as many people as high as possible for all to benefit in equal measure. We therefore elected to climb in traditional style using tented camps and fixed ropes. In any case, the nature of the route mitigates against an alpine style ascent, the ridge being over three km long from glacier to summit. In the event, about 1500 m of rope was fixed (and stripped after the climb). No high altitude porters were used and oxygen was taken as a precaution, for medicinal purposes only. We divided the team into two climbing groups led by Tug Wilson and Ted Atkins respectively. Initially, the two groups alternated between lead climbing and supporting and this evenhanded approach was partly responsible for the slow rate of progress early on. Later, less democratic measures were employed.

From Pangpema to Advanced Base Camp (ABC)
The route from BC to ABC is some 6 km in length and, for the most part, follows the Kangchenjunga glacier. It was the most frequently travelled part of the entire route with most members traversing it at least a dozen times. It was also mind-numbingly tedious; the only relief being the staggering mountain views in every direction. From BC, a 400 foot descent was made down onto the main glacier, - this was a real gut buster on the return trip. Once on the glacier, the first section resembled a trek through a ‘Dr Who’ set with enormous, scree covered ice penitents frequently covered with fresh snow.

The next section was on snow and ice and followed the main glacier towards Kangchenjunga. Flatter than the first section, the going was easier, especially after a hard freeze. However, during the heat of the day, the glare and heat were intolerable so early starts were the order of the day. Latterly, as winter receded, some small crevasses opened up and rivers appeared from nowhere, right across the main track. To cross them we were frequently wading up to our knees (or chest, in Larry’s case!)

Initially, ferrying a load from BC to ABC in a single push was too much. We therefore established a temporary camp site where loads could be dumped before the final push up to ABC the following day. It was a long, steep flog up a glacial moraine from the dump to ABC. ABC itself was in a magnificent position overlooking the main glacier with stunning views of Pangpema, Drohmo, Wedge Peak, Ramtang and of course, Kangchenjunga’s north face just a stone’s throw away - or so it appeared. The fastest and slowest time records from BC to ABC were 2 hours 30 minutes and 8 hours 15 minutes respectively !

ABC - Camp 2 (C2)
ABC (C1) was sited as high and as close as possible to the foot of the route. From my tent door to clipping onto the ropes was a 5 minute walk. The route followed a steep snow gully, a loose and exposed rock ridge and a short snow field. The ridge comprised towers of shattered blocks perched amongst razor sharp slates. The climbing was precarious with moves of HS and Scottish II / III. The fixed rope was in constant danger of being cut and the entire line was eventually moved into the adjacent gully (where it was merely avalanched instead!). A variety of protection devices were used to secure the rope to the shattered rock. Camming devices were particularly effective, but pegs less so, as Callum Weeks will testify!

A characteristic problem with this part of the route was one of perspective. From BC it looked like an easy 45 degree plod. In reality, it was steep and sustained mixed climbing all the way to C2, some 800 m above. This was the hardest part of the climb and took 17 days to complete. From below, the route was grossly foreshortened and the cry `Camp Two tomorrow' every day for 10 days became slightly wearing. Half way up, the lead climbers frequently became ‘lost’ in the vastness of the mountain and found it difficult to judge their relative position and indeed, the way ahead. Only by standing back (on the other side of the Kangchenjunga glacier) was the full picture seen and the key gully leading to C2 identified.

As the route progressed it took more and more time to reach the previous day’s high point. Progress, already hindered by daily afternoon snow storms, slowed right down. A half way camp known as ‘Intermediate’ was therefore established precariously on the ridge above the first snow field. The line up to this point was climbed and descended a great deal and much time was spent improving, replacing and doubling the fixed ropes where necessary. From ABC to Intermediate took, on average, about 4 hours to climb

Above Intermediate, the climbing changed in character. Far from easing off, as we fervently hoped it would, it became steeper. The exposed and very steep mixed ridge above Intermediate was climbed for about 150 m before we realised it was a dead end. It was therefore stripped and the focus shifted to a very steep ice gully (spotted from the other side of the glacier). For over 300 m the gully steepened until it reached the near vertical ‘ice monster’, so named after its gleaming eyes and gaping crevasse for a mouth. The run out from the gully was even longer, some 1000 m straight down on to the Kangchenjunga glacier. From Intermediate, it took a further 6 days to reach the ice monster which proved to be the key to the route as it led up to C2 and the main Gimmigela ridge. Rob Magowan led the ice monster which was a very good effort, especially on 6 mm static rope !

The load carriers, towards the end, were able to complete a carry from ABC to C2 in a single day, indeed, they had to, to keep the supply route open. This was an especially hard day and took between 6 - 8 hours.

C2 was not established until 26 April, over three weeks after our arrival at Pangpema. It was increasingly clear that at this rate, we would not summit in the next two weeks which we needed to if we were to strip the mountain before our departure. We were barely half way up! A reorganisation was needed and the existing teams disbanded. From now on, three pairs of the strongest lead climbers were selected to push hard until they reached the summit. Each pair would rotate the lead for three days and then be replaced without losing momentum. The rest of the team were dedicated to supporting the leaders and a plan drawn up detailing individual duties over the next two weeks. Of course, it all depended upon the weather.

Camp 2 at 6350 m, was perched on an excellent site with views of Makalu and into Tibet. The climbing above was more open snow and ice on the main SW ridge of Gimmigela. Up to this point the whole route had been fixed; above, it would only be fixed on the steepest sections. The conditions improved with height as the winds blew away any fresh snow before it could settle. We now used only our lightest equipment, fixing 6mm ropes to reduce weight, swapping the comfort of Quasar tents for the tiny Gemini assault tents and eating only freeze-dried rations. As the route progressed along the ridge, and the lines of communication extended, so it became harder to support the lead climbers.

The wind and cold intensified. We had to keep moving on this magnificent knife edge ridge with few breaks for chocolate or drinks. Twice, teams failed to reach C3 because of the severity of the winds and were forced to turn back. It was here that Paul Hart was blown off. He fell a full rope length and was held by his partner, Marty Hallett - a sterling effort. Camp 3 was established at 6700 m on 4 May by Tug and Larry Foden. It was the same site as the Japanese used some 18 months earlier and marked the end of the new ground. The route above followed their general line to the summit.

C3-C4 and the First Summit Bid
Camp 3 had atmosphere; it clung on to a steep slope with an alarming degree of exposure. It was not as comfortable as C2 and the Gemini tents were coffin-like compared to the Quasars below. Time now presented a new pressure. We had completed the difficult climbing and yet defeat was staring us in the face. Our time left was measured in days and each day brought worsening conditions as we climbed higher.

The first summit bid was, perhaps, a little ambitious starting from C3. There were other problems; a huge tower on the ridge above, christened ‘The Cioch’, blocked the way to the summit. The team set off full of characteristic, if unfounded, optimism - into the wind. After 8 hours the Cioch had still not been reached and visibility became limited by the driven snow. They pressed on and climbed the Cioch, however the day was nearly done and with no summit in sight, Ted and Rob turned to face the long retreat back to C3.

The Summit
A higher camp was required for the next team to have any chance of summiting. Despite deteriorating conditions and against all expectations, Pea Peacock and Bert Lane establish C4 at 7050 m the following day. They were now above any fixed ropes and on their own. After a delayed start on 10 May, they set off into a gale for the summit. They elected to drop down from the main ridge onto the south side of the mountain, effectively bypassing the Cioch.

The climbing was initially across a highly unstable, avalanche-prone slope some 900 m above the upper Kangchenjunga glacier. The wind continued to increase and was gusting up to 90 mph, adding to the sense of commitment. Time was running out and exhaustion setting in as they reached the first false summit. Pressing on, the wind forced them to drop down from the ridge until finally they climbed a final steep ice gully leading to the summit ridge. The pair eventually summited at 1600 hrs after a supreme effort and an epic climb.

The View From Base Camp
The entry from my diary on 10 May captured the general air of despondency at that stage of the expedition.
‘On my way down from ABC I kept looking back up at the mountain. There was a jet-stream plume coming off the summit and my heart sank. No chance of a summit today and time is running out like sand through my fingers. I knew that Pea and Bert had made a late start this morning because of the wind and, no doubt, they would soon be turning back. I hope they make it down to their tent OK in this wind. When I got to BC Huan Davies told me they were 250 m from the summit on their last radio call. Better news than I had ever dared hope for.

At 1240, Pea calls up to say he is just 5 m from the summit and is bringing Bert up to join him. He’ll call again when they’re both up. UNBELIEVABLE! Jubilation and congratulations all round. I grab the satcom and call up CinCFleet (the Royal Navy Headquarters in Northwood). Create a bit of a stir by asking to speak to the First Sea Lord, (the expedition Patron), I had forgotten it’s Saturday! Eventually persuade the Duty Fleet Controller that I’m serious and I am given Admiral Slater’s home number. He is expecting my call in a couple of minutes.

A tense and silent hour later, Pea comes up to say he is still an hour from the summit and the wind is horrendous. DEJECTION! It must have been a false summit - I thought it was too good to be true! The tension in Ted’s Shed is palpable for the next hour. Pea’s next call does nothing to reassure us. He is now just two pitches from the summit but on a pitch of ‘grade V’.

I leave the shed for some relief. Looking through the telescope the summit is clagged in. Then, all of a sudden it clears, and yes, there they are! Two tiny figures crawling up to the summit! We really have done it this time! In two minutes Admiral Sir Jock Slater is personally congratulating Pea and Bert who, naturally enough, think it is a wind-up ! The commitment shown by Pea and Bert on their successful summit bid was inspirational and in the best traditions of the Royal Marines Mountain Leader Branch. This was their one shot at the summit and nothing was going to stop them. Despite all odds, they eventually made it to the summit and staggered back down to their tent just as darkness fell. The second bid was made two days later by the remaining four lead climbers. Ted Atkins, Rob Magawan, Larry Foden and Tug Wilson. The conditions were still cold but less windy and it did not snow. They took a slightly different line but the climbing was excellent and they enjoyed the stunning views denied to the first team.

We climbed Gimmigela with one day to spare and were extremely lucky to get the weather windows during a prolonged period of poor weather. The same weather caused three out of the four international expeditions on Kangchenjunga to fail. The trick now was to get everybody down in one piece. Always the most dangerous part. This was not rushed as it was our intention to recover everything from the hill back down to BC. In the event everything went well and we left only a short section of fixed line on the ice monster. Everything else was recovered down to BC and carried out.

We left Pangpema on 18 May which is when the first serious accident occurred. Thankfully, it was not on our team and, incredibly, it was not fatal. We were some four hours out of BC when a breathless Tom Herries from Jonathan Pratt’s Kangchenjunga expedition caught us up. He explained that Roddy McArthur had fallen over an ice-cliff and actually landed in their Camp 3. Roddy had been ill for a couple of days and was descending alone from Camp 4 when he fell. Tom actually witnessed the fall through the telescope and was not optimistic about Roddy’s chances. Nevertheless, we used our satcom to call for a helicopter in the hope that Roddy was still alive. Luckily, he was. We saw him the following day in Ghunsa when his helicopter briefly touched down on its way to Kathmandu. Thankfully, he made a full recovery.

We returned just a few months ago and already, with the immediate demands and deadlines of work, a unique adventure is fading into a memory. But what a memory; one to be treasured for the rest of our days. Gimmigela provided the adventure of a lifetime for 14 British Servicemen. It kept us guessing right to the end and even the day before the summit, after five gut-busting weeks, I felt sure we were staring defeat in the face. The weather was deteriorating and time running out. However, by the skin of our teeth we achieved our goal and, thankfully, without mishap. My one regret is that Gimmigela kept us so busy we were unable to explore the hidden delights that the area so obviously holds. I would love to return to Pangpema and possibly climb Pathibara (Pyramid Peak) which we actually had a permit for, but time ran out. At 7123 m this fine peak still awaits an ascent from the Nepalese side. I believe the British Services may go to Kangchenjunga for a ‘millennium’ expedition but, for me at least, exploring the lesser peaks provides the greater sport and adventure, and from what I saw, there is sport and adventure in abundance in the Pangpema area of north east Nepal.

SUMMARY An ascent of Gimmigela (The Twins) (7350 m) by the British Services expedition in 1997. The peak was climbed on 10 and 12 May.