Himalayan Journal vol.58
The Himalayan Journal

Publication year:

Harish Kapadia
    (A. D. MODDIE)
    (Lt. Col. A. ABBEY)



23 APRIL 2001, JOSHIMATH: From our bedroom in the hotel Dronagiri, the valley fell away steeply below us, the streets terraced in zigzag fashion. The others had been busy. Titch and Chris D had meticulously repacked the high-altitude food, and sent Chris S and Ange out into the market with the energetic Kundan Singh, our porter contractor, whence they returned triumphantly carrying plastic sheeting and a large blue barrel. Roly tended the large scald on Andy's ankle; this injury had been sustained at Heathrow airport, and we had feared the worst. However new pink skin could be seen under the burnt area, and the recovery would be complete in time.

Momoraj Irom, our liaison officer, and I had been engaged in extracting the consent from officialdom that would allow us to set off up the dirt road to the hill town of Malari, only miles from India's border with Tibet. The police had been obliging and friendly; the army brisk and appeared to be barely interested in our presence. The stumbling block was the sub- district magistrate, who refused to take responsibility to allow us on into the inner line. In vain we had shown him all our official documents - our mistake was to be the first expedition of the season to arrive in Joshimath, and the first to arrive since the formation of the new mountain state of Uttaranchal.

Four days of intensive activity followed this rebuff, with a hair-raising jeep ride to Gopeshwar to talk to the District Magistrate (out of his office), lengthy telephone calls to the IMF Director in Delhi, much walking in the hot sun and much arguing by the indefatigable Momo led to the result we needed. We rewarded ourselves by taking the cable car to Auli, then walking up through calming groves of trees to relax and acclimatise for a few hours at 3300 m. Up above the tree line, the hillside still brown and patched with old winter snows, we gazed at the mountain panorama. Kamet dominated the northwestern skyline and in the northeastern quarter the stately Nanda Devi and the more distant Dunagiri caught the eye. Beyond Dunagiri we fancied we could see the tops of Changabang and Kalanka. Our target, Tirsuli West, lay beyond them, hidden by the huge bulk of Dunagiri.

Two days later, ensconced at the campsite at Malari, Chris S and I looked down on this ancient village, still deserted after the winter thaw. Its wooden houses, their roofs shingled with chunky wood or stone blocks, was poised above tiers of carefully engineered terraces leading down to the walnut tree and the temple. The inhabitants of Malari have not always drawn favourable comments from the scribes of mountaineering. W.H. Murray, writing after his expedition in 1950[1], noted caustically after negotiating porter rates 'The men of Malari had not, it seemed, heard of Scotsmen, and were slow to learn. At last we beat them down from Rs. 7 to Rs. 4 but he countered this later when writing of his approach to Malari thus 'I have rarely seen any work of man more appealing.'[2]
We aimed to attempt Tirsuli West by its northern approach from the Siruanch glacier basin. There were only two known attempts on Tirsuli West, one a poorly documented record by C. D. Arora from the Bagini Bamak in 1968. The other attempt was carried out by the formidable partnership of Roger Payne and Julie-Ann Clyma[3] who attempted a lightweight ascent, also from the Bagini Bamak, in 1995. Their account revealed the complexity of the side valley systems in the southern area, and the looseness and unpredictability of the rock.

Our choice had been inspired by W. H. Murray, who had camped underneath South Lampak on a charming alp, and promised us this experience. The alp was ablaze with wild flowers, flat and fed with water from old snow beds: a perfect campsite. It commanded an extraordinary, close-up view of the north wall of Tirsuli; seven thousand feet high, three miles long, laden with hanging glaciers and immense sheets of ice, topped with fluted snows. There was also a colour picture, which we had gazed at intensely for many hours, surmising routes up the 2000 m high face.

However, all that was to come. We were the first expedition to try and gain access to the Siruanch glacier since a failed attempt on Uja Tirche (6202 m) in 1992[4]. Murray's route in, and that used by several other expeditions since, led over the col known as Surans ka Dhura to the north of the shapely (and unclimbed) peak of Kunti Bhannar (5895 m). This was also the route used by the local shepherds and their flocks. So we moved up to Choping, an area of terraces underneath the col, then the following day, took loads to the col itself.

From here, we were inspired by a grand view of Uja Tirche, first climbed in 1937 by R. C. A. Edge, who was working for the Government of India Survey. He climbed the mountain with Gyalgen, Ingung and two others by the west-southwest ridge. Details of this ascent were not recorded until 1987[5]. However, our inspection of the snow-slopes leading down into the Siruanch valley was not encouraging. The winter snows had fallen late and lay in a thick unconsolidated layer on an easy angled east-facing slope, dominated by a leering fringe of cornices several hundred metres long. Our fifty porters and our BC staff deserved a safer passage. We abandoned all thoughts of crossing here.

One of the maps we were using showed a traversing path, working its way round at about 3600 m from east of Choping. The only other information we had was a hint from Harish Kapadia's article[6], where, in 1984, he noted, 'On June 23rd we left the windy and bleak "8 km point". Following Girthi on its left bank, the route climbed up steeply and across traversed a bad scree patch. We despatched teams to investigate both options. I went in search of the traversing path with Pratap, the complete hillman, whose movement across the hillside, even on the most desperate ground, was a delight to watch. We wallowed and slid across stony hillsides, choked with Himalayan Birch, and loaded with soft snow.' We soon realised that this route no longer existed. In 1993, a substantial earthquake had destroyed mountain paths across Kumaun, a fact not known to us when we set off from England.

Fortunately our other team forced a route through from Point 8 - the 8 kilometre stone beyond Malari. On 1 May, by this stage four days behind schedule, we climbed Harish's route. It was indeed steep, but at this time of year it was a cascade of old snow and stones and did not prove a delight to ascend. Our porters did a remarkable job. However, the weather was good, and by lunchtime we were rewarded by distant views of Tirsuli and Tirsuli West. However, fate still had cards to deal; an hour or so later I was astonished to come across the porters relaxing on a steep hillside. One of their numbers had decided that this unlikely location was to be our BC.

Determined that this was not to be, we explored the hillside to our south. To my chagrin, we found an excellent BC site not an hour further forward on old terraces overlooking a river, fed by melt water streams. Raju, our porter manager, was at the receiving end of some harsh criticism on our return to 'Camp Precarious'. To make matters worse, the weather overnight was atrocious, and made life unpleasant for all concerned.

Although the new BC was in an idyllic spot, it was still some miles north of Murray's 'charming alp' and nowhere near the Siruanch glacier. On 3 May we set off in darkness to force a way through to the glacier and establish ABC. We were to be disappointed; our initial route up the Siruanch gad proved unviable. To escape from that trap we forged a route steeply up through rhododendrons and Himalayan birch on the west bank until we reached 4000 m where a traverse line on grass offered itself. This led in turn to an agreeable path down to the nose of the glacier. We explored the glacier, at first sight flat and easy-angled, flowing gently between serried ranks of impressive cliffs. However it rapidly proved to consist largely of hummocks of broken rock, so designed that from the top of one hummock it was impossible to determine a good route forward without descending and climbing the next one.

Our return to BC convinced us that there was no obvious way of linking the traverse with BC. We offered the problem to our HAPs, a motley octet, who sprinted up the hillside without any apparent effort. They returned after a couple of hours, having way-marked a route. The next day they moved about 140 kilos of gear up to ABC, then set off for the road. They were due to join the other expedition to Tirsuli West, a young German party organised by Ralf Messbacher, who were approaching from Bagini Bamak.

From ABC, positioned between some hummocks close to the true right bank of the glacier, we had excellent views of South Lampak and by climbing a nearby hummock, Tirsuli West was visible. The fact remained that both BC and ABC were far too low. This problem was to hamper our efforts from then on, as it extended our supply line. We located a good place for BC on the snout of the glacier, just by a waterfall. The Siruanch gad makes a sharp dogleg underneath Tirsuli West; the first day that we turned the dogleg, we cached our equipment by a glacial lake at about 4500 m, which would have been ideal for ABC.

On 9 May, the weather continuing excellent, and our fitness and acclimatisation proven, we moved up to the lakeside cache and then on under the north wall of Tirsuli West itself. It was clear that there was no immediately obvious route up that wall. It was true to Murray's photograph; indeed, since his time the tiered layers of hanging glaciers seemed to have become more complex. A very substantial avalanche from above us confirmed our view that it was not yet time to set foot on the face; we need to be acclimatised to climb fast above 6000 m to have any opportunity of ascending this formidable face.

Accordingly we surveyed the top end of the glacier. It was a little awe- inspiring to consider that we were the first known humans in this area, and that from now on we would be extending the range of human exploration. To the west a narrow glacier, hitherto unrecorded, and named by us the Gorur glacier, divided Gorur Dome, climbed in 1998 by Arnab Banerjee's party from Bagini Bamak[7], from the unclimbed Gorur Parvat (6504 m). To the east was a col that led, possibly, to Chalab. To the north was a snow slope leading to a high-level cwm. It looked as if we could camp here, and accordingly, and with much effort in the intense sun, we moved up to a snowy eyrie at 5000 m (Camp 1). Here we sat for many hours studying the face of Tirsuli West with great concentration.

Every expedition has its pivotal moment. For us it was at about 15:00 hours that day. We reviewed the visual evidence. Even the most optimistic of us could not determine a route on that north wall that held any significant chance of personal survival for the participants. We decided that we would climb Chalab instead. There was some dispute about where Chalab was exactly, but there was a very attractive mountain to our north that might be Chalab. We decided to climb it. Chris D, Roly and Andy set off the following day to find a route to it and a camp site below its south face, whilst Ange, Titch and I set off back to BC for some rest and recreation.

Whilst at BC we obtained permission from Momo to climb 'Chalab'. In fact when we studied the maps and expedition reports that we had at hand, we were surprised to discover that Chalab was marked as being in at least two quite different locations. One location was roughly to the east of Tirsuli, the other to the north. From our inspection of the area, we had two likely candidates - an attractive fin that struck out NW from Tirsuli itself, dubbed 'Tirsuli Fin', and one mystery mountain - 'Citadel Peak' as we dubbed it at this stage, to the north of Tirsuli.

On 12 May we reconvened at ABC. The daytime weather was stiflingly hot, so we rested up in various states of undress. At midnight we moved off to Camp 1, and again rested. After dark we packed up our tents and ground our way slowly up the uncomplicated left bank of the Citadel Peak glacier, eventually emerging onto a huge snow sheet in the bowl under Citadel Peak.

In daylight from a distance four routes seemed feasible. After closer inspection the recce party nominated a central route that threaded together a series of couloirs that led to the base of the citadel. The southern end of the citadel, probably about 100m high, looked sheer and uninviting, but the northern end seemed more broken and there was hope that it could be climbed.

At 9 p.m. we set off in two ropes of three from a snow fan. From there on, it was a matter of climbing in darkness from one's memory of the topology of the face. Apart from one minor deviation, this was accomplished without difficulty. I can only recall setting one belay in the first 500 m of climbing, but as daylight revealed our position under the northeastern end of the citadel it was clear that things would soon become more challenging.

A bitter wind had blown up; the shelter of the citadel was welcome. The views to the south and east were excellent - a quick glance towards the fin of Tirsuli showed that it was lower than us, and thus could not be Chalab. Matters further east, along the headwall of the upper Milam valley and the Girthi valley, were not so clear-cut. Nanda Devi was glimpsed.

Sizing up the broken end of the citadel, the face here consisted of three near-vertical broken snowy rock grooves running in parallel. The middle of the three seemed most promising, so from a rock belay at its base I pushed on. The rock proved to be wretchedly weak and unreliable; the snow had no substance to it and the smears of ice were completely lacking in moral fibre. The exercise rapidly took on a very serious feel, as reliable running belays were not to be had. Fortunately after 40 m I was able to find a belay on the right side, and while I reflected on this hard session, Andy was able to climb up and lead on through to the top.

The team gradually made their way to the top. The weather was excellent, but as the time was approaching mid-day, normal Himalayan clouds had developed. As a result we lost the opportunity to thoroughly survey the area to our east. To the south the Tirsuli north wall and beyond it Dunagiri were clearly seen. Our top consisted of two snow cones of equal high, about 50 m apart - we were on the southern-most. To their north a high level ridge wound sinuously northwards, with a peak that appeared higher than ours about 1 km away; presumably Uja Tirche was hidden behind it. Our altimeter showed 6160 m, precisely the height attributed to Chalab.

Time went on. It appeared that Ange might have a frost nipped finger. A sense of urgency to descend developed. It took an age to devise a secure anchor for the first abseil and descend to the base of the groove. A short diagonal abseil took us to the bottom of the citadel. Then anchors became hard to find - a putative snow bollard collapsed when under a test load. After the fifth abseil we started down climbing a long snow couloir, unroped. It was late in the afternoon; yet concentration was needed at every step as a thin weak snow lay over hard ice. We soon were widely separated. There was a cry from above - looking up I saw Ange sliding out of control down the slope. There was no prospect of safely stopping her. She slid past me, apparently completely calm. Moments later she hit some rocks at the base of the couloir, flew into the air with a shower of sparks and disappeared from sight.

Apprehensively, we raced down the slope as fast as we dared. I was the last to reach her; by that time it was becoming dark. Astonishingly, she

was sitting up and talking coherently. It seemed that the damage was limited to a whiplash neck injury and serious bruising of one arm. We rigged rope systems to lower her down, but she insisted in doing as much as she could. Here the couloir was narrow and icy; luckily there was no unconsolidated snow and good belays could be found. The impromptu mountain rescue continued into the night. I was last man back to Camp 2 at 11 p.m., relieved that things had not been worse. However, Ange still had to get back to BC.

What our oxygen-deprived brains had failed to observe 12 hours earlier was a great fan-shaped cloud working its way northwards towards us. That night it started snowing and blowing a gale and continued for 12 hours. By morning the avalanches were cracking off the slopes of our basin at frequent intervals - our position was relatively safe, but the concern was that the slopes below Camp 1 might be avalanche-prone. By mid-afternoon the storm had abated - the temperature was above freezing and there was zero visibility.

At 3 p.m. Andy, loaded, set off with Ange, unloaded, to try to get to ABC. The rest of us packed up Camp 2and then descended under monstrous loads to a cache left at the site of Camp 1. The monstrous loads became grotesquely monstrous. We stumbled downwards following the others' tracks, frequently falling into holes hidden by the drifted snow and struggling to get up again. Darkness fell before we were under Tirsuli. An hour later and we were clearly heading too far west, when the tracks suddenly turned sharply rightwards. Shortly after, they disappeared. By 9 p.m. we were well above ABC and exhausted. We threw up the Bibler tents and collapsed. The question in our minds was - had Andy and Ange made ABC?

We renewed the unequal struggle the following morning - the conditions remaining much the same. Within three hours we reached ABC, our physical resources at a very low ebb. A note from the others reassured us as to their safety. Several rounds of drinks later and the warming rays of the sun revived us. Realising that we would have to come back to ABC again to dismantle it, we repacked our rucksacks again to take yet more. By now the glacier was free of the recent snow, so navigation was easier. On the way down we met Andy strolling back up insouciantly carrying a plastic carrier bag. They had met Ranjit, our BC manager, who was escorting Ange back to BC.

And so it goes; arriving BC with the joy of Chris S, Momo and our staff at our safe return; the preparations for the celebration party; the broaching of the cask of beer lovingly brewed by Chris S and christened 'Chalab 2001'; the drying of equipment and the retrieval of the gear at ABC; the reconsultation of the maps and the realisation that we had not climbed 'Chalab' but 'Citadel Peak'; the naming, at Momo's suggestion, of the peak as 'Shambhu ka Killa' (Citadel of Shiva); the making safe of the stream crossing for the porters, and our departure on 21 May on a day when the sun could not stop the air being cold, and our mountains hid themselves in cloud so that we could not wave them goodbye. But the question remains - where is Chalab?


A British expedition to attempt Tirsuli West. They made the First ascent of 'Shambhu ka Killa' (6160 m) on 14 May 2001.

[1] Murray, W.H. 'Scottish Kumaon Expedition'. Himalayan Journal, Vol.16, 1950/1. p. 38-58.

[2] Murray, W. H. The Scottish Himalayan Expedition. London: Dent, 1951. See also Weir, Thomas. The Ultimate Mountains. London: Cassell, 1953.

[3] Clyma, Julie-Ann. 'Exploration in the eastern Garhwal - the Bagini Glacier'. Himalayan Journal, Vol. 52, 1996. p. 58-64 and 'Tirsuli West 7035m.' : expedition report: an exploration of the Bagini glacier area and attempt on Tirsuli West during May and June 1995.

[4] 'Uja Tirche (6202 m)' Alpine Journal, Vol. 98, 1993. p. 250 and 'Uja Tirche attempt'. American Alpine Journal, Vol. 35, 1993. p. 239.

[5] Edge, R. C. A. 'An initiation to the Survey of India'. Himalayan Journal, vol.45,

1987/8. p. 1-16 and Letter. Edge, Major-General R. C. A. to M.H. Westmacott.

17th August 1989. Includes extract from diary of R.C.A.E., 1937, 'The ascent of

Uja Tirche'.

[6] Kapadia, Harish. 'In famous footsteps'. Himalayan Journal, vol.45, 1987/8.


[7] Banerjee, Arnab, 'The Bird from Heaven', Himalayan Journal, Vol. 55, 1999, p. 85-92.