Article 12 (Yousuf Zaheer)
Panaroma C. Northwest ridge of Gya seen from summit of Gya North.
Article 12 (Yousuf Zaheer)
Panaroma D. Gya North (left) and Gya main peak.
Article 12 (Yousuf Zaheer)
Panaroma E. Gya North peak seen from Gyasumpa.
Article 12 (Yousuf Zaheer)
Panaroma F. Looking to Gyasumpa peak (foreground) while climbing Gya North.
Note 1 (Doug Scott)
Panaroma G. Drohmo, route of first ascent by South Pillar
Expeditions to Gya, 1997-1998
(Sqd. Ldr. A. K. Singh)
GYA (6794 m) IS AN UNCLIMBED peak located on the Spiti tri-junction. It offers a formidable challenge, is the highest peak on the axis between Satopanth and Nun-Kun, and has been attempted by a large number of expeditions without any success.
An all India expedition to Gya peak was organised by the Indian Mountaineering Foundation as its main objective in the year 1998. A 7 member team proceeded in the month of Aug -Sep 98 to achieve that objective.
Technically, Gya is one of the most demanding peaks in the Indian Himalaya. At 6794 m it is the highest peak in Spiti and the second highest in Himachal Pradesh. It hides behind the fortress-like ridges of many surrounding peaks and is not easily visible from far. This has resulted in frequent mis-identification leading to many erroneous claims of its ascent.
Gya is located on the tri-junction joining Tibet, Spiti and Ladakh and is considered to be located in the Spiti district of Himachal Pradesh. A major portion of the peak including the prominent NW ridge and south face, however, lie in Ladakh.
The credit for discovering Gya for the climbing community goes to Harish Kapadia. He noticed this high and majestic peak in 1983 while pouring over Survey of India maps. Never one to shy away from a new discovery, he promptly took an expedition to its vicinity and approached the peak from Spiti that same same year. A complicated approach took them beyond Chaksachan la where they were forced back by the sheer rock walls of Tangmor gorge.
Colour plates 13-14-15
Panoramas C to F
Harish Kapadia led another Bombay team in 1987 and followed the Lingti river beyond Chaksachan la and went up to its confluence with Chaksachan Lungpa. They then went upstream along Chaksachan Lungpa to the base of Gya and were thwarted by the deep gorges flooded with water. The peak was again attempted in 1995 by a large Army team by following the same route. They mistook peak 6400 m to be Gya and claimed to have climbed it. Teams led by Arun Samant again attempted the peak from the same approach in 1996 and 1997 without any success, though they climbed a subsidiary peak (6680 m) on the east ridge in 1997.
Yousuf Zaheer and Paramjit Singh from Delhi shifted the focus from the Spiti approach and attempted Gya in 1994 and in 1996 from Ladakh via Chumar. These light weight expeditions also did not succeed in climbing Gya. They, however, found an alternative route to the peak which did not have a complicated, long approach march.
A huge SAARC team led by Col HS Chauhan attempted the peak in 1997 following the approach from Chumar after crossing Parang la. This high budget expedition comprised a large member of instructor grade climbers from Manali, Darjeeling and the Indian Army and carried aids like satellite phones, Geo Positional System etc. Unfortunately, it mistook one of the subsidiary peaks on the NN ridge as Gya and climbed it. This they subsequently christened Gyasumpa (6480 m).
Going by the previous history it was clear that an expedition to Gya involved a complicated approach with potential for mis-identification. The majestic rock monolith which rises 1000 m from the valley floor was obviously a great climbing challenge. Its location on an international border meant that an approach from the north was not possible. It must, however, be noted that an approach from the north in no way reduces the degree of difficulty. A detailed study of all available material was therefore carried out by the leader to prevent any possible mistakes in identification.
Gya - The Name
At the time of discovery of Gya by Harish Kapadia, attempts were made to decipher the meaning of word 'Gya'. Tibetan scholars were contacted at Darjeeling and their interpretation of 'Gya' or 'Gyah' meaning 'vast, great or wide spread' was accepted. The peak is, however, neither vast nor widespread and is generally not visible from Spiti. On the contrary, an unnamed peak (6400 m) seems to fit the description. Probably due to their reliance on this meaning, Harish Kapadia and his team mistook peak 6400 m (Gyagar) to be the totrue Gya in one of their expeditions.
While staying at Chumar, we were fortunate to meet a very impressive Wangdi, a minister in the cabinet of his holiness the Dalai Lama who was visiting the area. According to him, Gya meant many things including 'Hundred', 'White', 'Long pointed Chinese beard' etc. The peak is easily visible on the northern side from places like Chumar and Lungzum la and appears very steep and pointed. It seems likely that the peak was named by Tibetan travellers in the area who actually meant it to be 'long pointed Chinese Beard'. It is noteworthy that steep slopes on the peak do not let much snow be accumulated and the peak never appears dazzlingly white.
An interesting twist was given to the name during our visit to Chumar monastery. The peak is sacred to local Buddhists and is known as 'Khangchan Gyemo' or perhaps,'Khangchan Gyalmo'. As per local legend, the peak is a local resident queen residing with her companions. Her husband (6170 m) has moved away to a lower altitude in anger. One of the student Lamas then showed me the symmetry of the Gya massif by aligning his outstretched palm with peaks on the massif. The middle finger coincided with Gya. The symmetry was striking. Due to the problem of language, the significance of the symmetry in the nomenclature could not be ascertained.
A recce was planned in the month of July 1998 by the leader and some administrative arrangements were made at Manali, Chandigarh, Uttarkashi and Delhi for porters, transportation etc. Due to heavy expenses involved, plans to visit Chumar and base camps were abandoned. Harish Kapadia, however, provided valuable information with excellent photographs. This was extremely useful in subsequent planning of the expedition.
The full team could assemble at IMF only by 23 August 1998 and was ready to move by 28 August. We heard that a team sponsored by the army, led by Lt. Col. Goth had successfully climbed Gya in the same month.
Along with few members, I visited Karu. We were briefed by Lt. Col. Goth on the progress of their expedition. He was helpful and we were given to understand by one of the summiters, Sub Ram Phal, that the peak was easy. As per his version, they had reached the summit from BC/ABC in about 4 hours and had not felt the necessity of fixing any ropes en route. They also displayed two ropes, snow stakes and the summit flag planted by the previous years SAARC expedition. The expedition had obviously made serious map reading errors and had spent a lot of time in the wrong valley/glacier. No clear photographic evidence in support of the summit claim existed and lack of photographs was attributed to bad weather.1
The route from Leh to Chumar, which we had reached on 4 August, initially follows upstream along the river Indus till Loma. A metalled road exists till Loma and no road is available anywhere beyond. Loma onwards, the route goes along Hanle river till Hanle village where a monastery of recent vintage has been established. Hanle also has a very large (10 km x 6 km) green meadow and attracts large number of nomads with their livestock. Hanle to Chumar is a bumpy track on which vehicles can ply with difficulty. Chumar post of the ITBP is established on the banks of river Parang (Pare Chu) and is five kilometres away from Chumar village. This village has a slightly older monastery which is now maintained by the Rimpoche living in the USA.
We had hoped to hire local horses for carrying loads. By now the locals were used to dealing with expeditions and had learnt a trick or two. They acted difficult and were in no hurry to arrange horses despite a hike in rates. A complicated hierarchy of village Pradhans made the process even slower. Fortunately, I had anticipated this problem and had brought 7 porters along. We decided to ferry loads ourselves with the help of members and porters. Then disaster, struck as our truck got stuck in Parang (Pare Chu) river whilst trying to cross it and we had to spend the next 3 days in trying to take the vehicle out. Attempts to take the vehicle out with the help of tractor/truck proved even more disastrous. The locals finally obliged on 10 August and gave us more horses than required. They also promised to come back for our return journey. Base camp was finally established on 10 September 1998 (5000 m).
A recce cum load ferry was carried out on 11th. An intensive briefing with the help of a map and photographs had been carried out to preclude any mis-identification. Camp I was thus correctly identified below the south face (5800 m) and was established on 13 September amidst heavy snowfall and strong winds. The camp loads had been ferried to the site on the previous day by all members and porters. The weather remained poor on 14th and no progress could be made.
A study of the map and the previous accounts had made me inclined towards the approach from the east col. We intended to go over a high col cross over into Spiti and find a route to the east col. We awoke to a clear day on 15 September and straight away succumbed to the temptation of a seemingly easy approach to Gya by the NW ridge. This was was also due to the description of an easy climb provided by Sub Ram Phal at Karu which had swayed the members.
Gyasumpa was climbed at 1430 hrs by 4 members with 2 members in support. An excellent view of Tibet and Tso Moriri lake were obtained and I took photographs from the NW saddle. The overhanging sharp ridge between Gya North and Gya was a major abstacle. It was obvious to us that Gya could not be climbed by this route. No evidence regarding the claim of the Army team could be seen and their description did not match the actual terrain.
We now had no choice but to revert to our plan of attempting Gya via the east ridge. On our return to Camp 1, we were pleasantly surprised to see Lopsang Sherpa from the 1TBP who joined us after a long journey from Srinagar via Delhi and Manali.
On 16 September we set off for the col in bright sunshine and crossed the lower col (6040 m) to descend into Spiti to follow the route of Samant's expedition of 1997. I was convinced that the higher col adjacent to this one was likely to offer a shorter and more direct route. Unfortunately, attempts made by Lopsang and Jagmohan to find a route to the higher col (6200 m) were unsuccessful. Lopsang, Jagmohan, Loveraj and Sangat Ram with porter Sonam, therefore descended to Spiti to establish a camp there while the rest of us returned to Camp 1. On 17th the weather again turned bad and no progress could be made. The lead group was fed by a supply of cooked food from Camp I.
On 18th, the lead group found a way up to little below the east col with considerable difficulty in partially clear weather. They fixed 3 rope lengths by climbing on rock, made difficult by the presence of verglas and a very thin layer of snow. Ropes fixed by an earlier expedition were also seen by them.
In the meantime, we had decided to explore the higher col. Bhumi Dev and Joginder Pal climbed up the straight slope to the higher col and made contact on radio with the lead group. They were able to see the lead group climbing on the other side and could establish that this col (6200 m) offered a better and shorter approach to the east col. The lead group was therefore recalled to Camp 1 and the camp in Spiti was wound up. Camp 2 was established on the higher col (6200 m) on 19 September and the original members of the lead group occupied it for opening the route beyond east col. Due to non-availability of camping sites en route it was essential that the route be fixed for a quick and safe summit attempt. We reckoned that we may need two more days for a successful summit attempt as one day was still required to secure the ridge beyond east col.
It started snowing from the morning of 19th with strong winds constantly lashing all of us with dry powder snow. There being no let up in the snowfall and high winds, the summit team was withdrawn to Camp 1 on 21st where we decided to wait out the bad weather. Camp 2 was left at the col to return to whenever the weather cleared. This phase of bad weather, continued for one week without any break. The winds were so strong that the snow lying on the scree slopes above our camp was totally blown away and the scree was visible. Our kitchen fires were kept burning thanks to the sheer grit and determination of our porter Tikam Bahadur. He simply refused to give up and cleared the accumulated dry powder snow to dig out utensils at least 4-5 times every day.
The continuing unseasonal snowfall started worrying us because our withdrawal plans were also affected. Closure of Leh-Manali highway would have left us with little option than to depend upon Army convoys going via Srinagar- Jammu. This would have meant additional difficulties, expenses and the added responsibility and safety of both members and porters. We finally decided to withdraw to base camp on 25 September and called off the attempt. Bhoomi Dev, along with the porters, retrieved all the gear from Camp 2 in a raging blizzard. We still nursed the hope of going back in case weather cleared up. Lashing winds had torn off the tent pitched at Camp 2.
26 September was a clear day at base camp after 1000 hrs. Camp I and Gya were however still under clouds with indications of strong winds. An unnamed peak (6170 m) was clearly visible from base camp and did not seem to be technically difficult. As a consolation, we decided to attempt it next morning. Perhaps fate was against us because a bright starlit night was followed by heavy snowfall in the morning. We decided to wind up and packed all equipment.
The locals again did not turn up. The loads were carried to Chumar by members and porters. The Army truck had reached Chumar on 19 September and had waiting for us for more than one week. We finally arrived at Chumar on 28th evening and left for Leh in the morning on 29th.
First Ascent of Gya North, 1997
Chaman Singh and I first climbed Gyasumpa, in an electric storm, on 23 July 1997 having set up two camps along the northwest ridge. Looking to the route ahead we weighed the odds on continuing along the exposed and over hanging descent on the other side along the north ridge or descending back down to our C2 and traversing across under the north side. We chose the former.
We returned on the 25th and dug a platform for a tent just 10 m below the summit of Gyasumpa, overlooking the east face into Tibet. That night was the coldest with -26 celsius recorded inside the tent.
Next morning we set off at about 9 a.m. in perfect weather and rappelled the two overhanging rock steps below Gyasumpa leaving two single lines in place for the return. The rappel got us down to the col between the Gyasumpa and North summit (surprisingly we found one little platform here which could accommodate a single team for future climbs). The ridge was corniced and overhanging the fluted east face of the massif.
Other than one exposed traverse across a rock face and a short rock climb up the summit block itself, the traverse to the North peak was scrambling through steep and loose scree on the west face of the mountain. We reached the summit at 7 a.m. where Chaman lit an incense stick and cracked open a coconut.
Leaning over the summit block the fascinating sweep of the vertical cast face down to the Chepzi glacier in Tibet, one of the tributaries of the Pare Chu. To the west - in bright sunlight, the peaks of Spiti and Kullu. To the south the view was blocked off by the main peak but to the southwest the Lingti peaks and southeast the edge of the Chango peaks and Tibet. To the north the emerald waters of Tso Moriri shimmering in the distance.
The route ahead along the north ridge to the col between the North and Main summits was not feasible because of time constraints and terrain. We figured the best way was to set up a camp on the col between Gyasumpa and the North summit (mentioned earlier), traverse under the Gyasumpa summit and up the west face above, the west wall to the summit, which in our estimate would be at least an 8 hr. round trip. By this stage of this expedition we did not have the energy, resources or team support to achieve this and hence called off the climb. We left the summit and a Rupee coin at 1.30 p.m. and reached our C3 below Gyasumpa by 5 p.m. after retrieving our ropes.
All routes to Gya are challenging. On the western aspect of the mountain one has been on the face (in 1994), the wall (in 1996), and the north ridge (in 1997). I hope that future climbs on Gya are done in good style and that all the expedition garbage is taken out.